In February of 2001, the International Olympic Committee made their final inspection visit to Beijing to see if the city would be up to hosting the 2008 Olympics. In preparation for that visit, the city got a major “spruce-up.” Office and apartment buildings that had been a dull gray since their construction decades before were painted bright colors. Well, three sides of the buildings were painted — only the ones that face the highways that the Committee members would travel on. Every surface of the city was scrubbed clean.
My personal favorite was the grass. During a stroll through Tiananmen Square I noticed that the newly installed grass was green. “Green grass in February?” I was puzzled. Upon closer inspection I discovered that the entire “lawn” had been spray-painted green.
I thought of that today when I read this post in the The Beijinger about the city’s current effort to “greenify” in the run-up to the Communist Party Congress that will be held next month. All the power boxes are being covered with fake vines:
Today is June 4, the 27th anniversary of the military assault on Tiananmen Square to clear it of student protesters. In China it is simply known as “Six Four” (the Chinese way of saying June 4), and it is such a sensitive anniversary that numbers 6 and 4 get censored on the internet. Never mind, though, if anyone really wants to reference it, they just call it Five Thirty-five (or May 35).
I was not in China that spring, but watched with the rest of the world as the events unfolded on live television. When I returned to China the following year, the aftermath of the event still hung heavy in the air as the people waited to see which direction the Party would take the nation — back to Maoism, or forward with economic reform and development. Between 1989 and 1992, it was not at all clear that China would pursue the course she did.
For those of you wanting to get up to speed on the June 4 movement and events, these books are a great place to start:
On June 4, 1989, People’s Liberation Army soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians in Beijing, killing untold hundreds of people. A quarter-century later, this defining event remains buried in China’s modern history, successfully expunged from collective memory. In The People’s Republic of Amnesia, Louisa Lim charts how the events of June 4th changed China, and how China changed the events of June 4th by rewriting its own history.
It’s one of the best books I’ve read, not just about the events of that day, but of the subsequent campaign to make sure it is forgotten. Having lived in China for most of the 26 years since then, I have to say the campaign has largely been successful.
A few weeks back travel expert Kendra Thornton contacted me about doing a joint post on our favorite places to visit. It sounded like a fun collaboration, and this post is the result. I write about a few fun things to see and do in Beijing, and Kendra writes about one of her favorite destinations, Las Vegas. Given the fact that I live in Minnesota, ground zero of the “polar vortex,” reading her suggestions makes me want to jump on a plane right now!
Joann: Getting Out and Enjoying Beijing
It’s kind of strange for me to think of Beijing as one of my favorite places “to visit,” given the fact that I lived there for 15 years! Prior to moving there in 1998 I lived in other (less developed) parts of China, so it definitely was my favorite destination in China, not because of the history or culture, but because it had western food! During my time living in Beijing I had the opportunity to host tons of friends (old and new) and I came to absolutely love showing folks around my adopted hometown. Here are my suggestions on a few things to see and do in Beijing.
1. “The Big Three” – Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven.
These are arguably Beijing’s most famous historical/cultural sites. Built in 1959 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Tiananmen Square is the closest thing that a secular state has to a ‘sacred’ space. Situated in the direct center of the city, Tiananmen Square is home to the Chairman Mao Mausoleum and the Monument to the Martyrs. It’s also a favorite spot for Chinese tourists who are not accustomed to seeing ‘foreigners’ so don’t be surprised if people ask you to pose in their photos with them. Just smile and agree; it will make their day.
The Forbidden City is on the north end of the Square, on the other side of the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), from which the Square derives its name. The Forbidden City, as its name implies, is a vast complex of ceremonial and residential buildings that used to be the home of the emperor and his courtesans. Rent the wireless audio tour and give yourself several hours; otherwise the red buildings with yellow roofs will start to run together in your mind.
The Temple of Heaven, in the southern part of the old city, is where the emperor went once a year to offer prayers for a good harvest. In addition to the gorgeous Ming buildings, you’ll see local senior citizens playing cards, singing, dancing, and just hanging out. Much less crowded than the Forbidden City, it is one of my favorite parks in Beijing.
2. The “Hutongs”
Another fun activity in Beijing is touring the old section of town, often referred to as the “hutongs” (lanes). Even though it is a bit touristy, it’s a nice break from the oversized buildings and highways that make up Beijing. The pace in the hutongs is much more relaxed and will give you a bit of a feel for what Beijing used to be like. Stroll around the two lakes or take a rickshaw tour. And be sure to visit the ancient drum and bell towers nearby.
3. The Great Wall of China
No trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to The Great Wall of China, which runs through the mountains to the north of the city. The two most famous tourist spots for visiting the Wall are Badaling (northwest of town) and Mutianyu (northeast of town). I prefer Mutianyu because it tends to be MUCH less crowded. Don’t forget to take the alpine slide down off the Wall; it’s great fun! The best way to get to Mutianyu is hire a car and driver to take you from your hotel. Go early and give yourself plenty of time to hike to the top.
4. Wangfujing “Snack Street”
A fun evening activity is visiting the Wangfujing “Snack Street” where you can sample everything from starfish to scorpions on a stick! Even if you’re not brave enough to sample the food, it’s fun to see what’s available and watch OTHER people eat.
5. Chuandixia Ming Village
It’s always fun to get out of the city and see a bit of the countryside. I would recommend hiring a car and driver to take to the ancient Ming village of Chuandixia, in the mountains to the west of town. Built and settled in the Ming Dynasty (1300-1600’s), Chuandixia has somehow survived relatively intact. Very few people live there permanently now, but it has been preserved as an example of traditional life and culture. Be sure to take your hiking boots, because there are lots of trails in the mountains surrounding the village.
6. Beijing Duck
Finally, no one can visit Beijing without eating its most famous food, Beijing Duck (Peking Duck). The dish is served in most restaurants, but it’s good to go to a place that specializes in duck. The most famous (and oldest) Beijing Duck restaurant is Quanjude. However, its fame means it’s the most expensive. I would suggest Da Dong Beijing Duck.
A word about transportation: In the past ten years, Beijing has built a very extensive subway system, making it very easy to get around the city. And thanks to the Olympics, all of the signage is in English!
Kendra: Getting Out and Enjoying Las Vegas
If you think of casinos and nothing more when you hear the name “Las Vegas,” it’s time for you to learn more about Sin City. This is one of my all-time favorite travel destinations. The amazing desert oasis features things for grownups to enjoy as well as activities that the kids can enjoy too.
1. Eat, Drink and Be Merry
There’s no lack of food and drink in Las Vegas. I love trying new things to drink and fresh cuisine. My favorite pairing is a beautiful steak with a choice red wine. Selections at places like SW Steakhouse, Tom Colucchio’s Craftsteak and Fiamma Trattoria are difficult to rival. Wine lovers will find award-winning selections, and those who prefer hard liquor will find plenty quality beverages to savor as well.
2. Catch an Aerial View
You don’t have to be 21 to enjoy an aerial view of the Las Vegas Strip. Maverick Helicopters gives guests an unparalleled experience. Their professional pilots narrate each flight. Every guest gets the opportunity to participate in the interactive tour via headsets. This activity features a show where every seat has an amazing view.
3. Relax at a Spa
If you need some serious “R and R”, head to one of the city’s spas. My favorite is the spa at Aria Las Vegas. As an escape from the bitter cold of a Chicago winter, I enjoy relaxing on the warm Ganbanyoku beds. Massage options here include Thai Poultive massage and Ashiatsu massage. Regardless of the reason for your trip, time at a spa should make it onto your agenda.
4. Bum on the Beach
In Las Vegas, you can experience the desert heat while riding the waves. Personally, I enjoy just relaxing on the sandy beach at Mandalay Bay. They have plenty of activities for everyone to enjoy here. The kids love the wave pool. Cocktails and the lazy river are more my speed.
Don’t get locked into thinking that blackjack and poker are the only activities to enjoy in Las Vegas. Whether you spend your time on the strip or choose to experience other parts of the city and the surrounding area, you can take your pick of activities here. This city truly has something for everyone and certainly is not short on hotels. With so many useful sites including those like Gogobot allowing you to read user reviews, you will be a step a head of the game in knowing what to expect when you visit.
On Sunday afternoon, I and a friend did something we hadn’t done in a long time — took a stroll around Tiananmen Square, the closest thing that an atheist nation has to a sacred space. Because the Party Congress meetings had concluded a few days previous, security was still very much heightened.
There were policemen in blue uniforms, some cruising around on segways.
There were People’s Armed Militia members in green uniforms, marching around in groups of three.
There were plainclothes cops and militia members, easily identifiable by the fact that they all have the same haircut and leather jacket.
And strategically placed all around the square were bright red fire extinguishers, presumably to prevent any self-immolations, like those that have been taking place in the Tibetan regions.