Monday, May 16, 2011

We visited China - Beijing

I have always wanted to visit China, for the longest time. China has been an enigma to many of us, shrouded in mystery and intrigue, having as long a history as we do.

The cultural relations between India and China can be traced back to very early times. There are numerous references to China in Sanskrit texts, but their chronology is sketchy. The Mahabharata refers to China several times, including a reference to presents brought by the Chinese at the Rajasuya Yajna of the Pandavas; also, the Arthasastra and the Manusmriti mention China.(

To many Indians, the first introduction to China is in the history text books at school, mentioning the visit of great scholar “Hiuen Tsang (Xuanzang) (600 – 640 AD)” to India during the reign of King Harsha Vardhana. Some of us also remember the travels of Marco Polo and Fa Hien (399 – 412 AD) a Chinese pilgrim and scholar who visited India during Chandragupta’s reign.

In the late fifties, Nehru brought China closer to home as a part of his ‘Panchsheel’ programme. ’Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai’ became a popular slogan during our school days.

All of a sudden, one morning on 31 March 1959, the Dalai Lama decided to quit Lhasa and take refuge in India, causing a great deal of resentment in China. Then, came the unexpected war with China in October 1962, when all of us raised our voices in unison to decry the blatant aggression. I vividly remember setting up a shoe shine stand outside our school with a sign, ‘Get your shoe polished and contribute to the National Defence Fund’, it was a big hit and I was able to collect quite a lot of money for the cause.

The eighties and nineties witnessed Chinese restaurants mushrooming in all our metros, popularising both China and its cuisine. Not to be left behind, various Shanthi Sagars and Shiv Sagars of Bangalore started serving ‘Pakodas’ in the guise of ‘Gobi Manchurian’, much to the annoyance of many Chinese. The China town locality of Tangra, Kolkata, has remained a window to authentic Chinese food and leather goods for many generations.

China has traditionally sided with Pakistan, upsetting all Indian strategic calculations. Occasionally, we hear about China, when they lay claims to land areas in Arunachal Pradesh.

So much for our relationship with China.

I have been planning a trip to China for the last four years, writing to various travel agents in India and China, collecting information on where to go, what to see, how long and so on. Early on in my research, I realised that the trip had to be organised and conducted to overcome the language problem and more importantly, to manage a group of plus sixty travellers. My research took me to Ms. Gowri in ‘’ in Bangalore who organised our 14 day trip to Beijing, Xian, Chongqing, a cruise on the Yangtze River, Yichang, Shanghai, Hongkong and Macau. The trip was organised extremely well and we owe Gowri big time for that.

Coffee Decoction friends – Sunder and Saroja, Prasu and Preet, Dore and Lalitamma joined the trip. Kats and Navin travelled all the way from Gurgaon to join us. Geeta came from Mumbai and Sudhi joined us without KM, who had already visited China. The twelve of us left Bangalore on 12 April and returned on 26 April.

There are a number of similarities between India and China. The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, about the same time as our independence. China is a huge country with an extraordinarily large population of 1.3 billion. It started primarily as an agricultural economy with a very large percentage of rural population. Illiteracy and poverty was rampant. China is home to hundreds of ethnic groups, speaking various languages and dialects. Various religions coexist in present day China. All these factors make China a truly diverse nation.

One travels for many reasons. I primarily went to China to see what they had achieved in the last 20 years. Both China and India started their economic reforms around the same time in the mid eighties, with an almost similar legacy and problems. Visiting Europe and USA was great fun but very much along expected lines – they represented progress and development in every sector. There were no surprises. With this back drop, the China visit was a special one and I was full of anticipation.

My impression about China is based on what we saw during our travel – simple things like people, their behaviour, roads, pavements, buildings, parks, transport, cleanliness, public toilets, civic sense and such other aspects which make a city. In this blog I have purposely left out other areas of their excellence – such as sports, aviation, space, atomic energy, medicine, industry, defence etc.

Their highways are excellent and more importantly very well maintained. The roads are spotlessly clean and free of plastic and paper. I can imagine the effort put in by their conservancy staff to keep such big cities so clean. Even if you take for a fact that the Country tries to show its best face to tourists. This level of cleanliness is certainly not possible without total support from each and every individual – this itself is an indicator of the degree of self discipline and social responsibility shown by all strata of society. The roads are constantly cleared by motorised cleaners. Another aspect which stands out is their excellent pavements made of interlocking tiles. The pavements are flawless, clean, well preserved and totally free of hawkers. A very high level of city management indeed.

The public toilets in all the cities are really clean in spite of thousands of tourists using the facility 24/7.The conservancy staff must be putting in tremendous effort to keep the toilets in good condition – a great feat by any standards.

While commenting on all aspects of China – one should not forget the famous ‘One Child ‘policy which was introduced 30 years back and strictly implemented. It worked all these years and the population explosion was held in check. However things have changed today and there is a serious reconsideration to start ‘Two Children’ policy. This is to overcome the imbalance between the working young and the relaxing old. This adverse ratio is extremely unsuitable in a rapidly growing economy. I am sure this drawback is engaging the attention of the Chinese planners.

Many of the roads are lined with flower beds, adding beauty and grace to sprawling cement structures. It must be a gigantic task to decorate the city with flowers and maintain them. Once again the responsible role of the citizen stands out. The people of China are a determined lot with tremendous pride in their cities and country.

The massive development of their cities has been achieved in the last 20 years - huge high rise buildings accommodate the influx of people from the hinterland. A network of highways, flyovers and an integrated transport system of buses, vans, taxis, metro and trams keeps the city on the move. In Beijing there are a number of restrictions on the usage of cars to reduce their numbers on the road. The number of vehicles on the road is mind boggling and the redeeming feature is undoubtedly their ‘Driving Discipline’ – yet another feature of citizen’s participation and responsibility. You hardly get to hear any horn blowing – a remarkable feature, considering the volume of traffic. Another good feature is the absence of strays on the road. Jay walking is not to be seen anywhere.

Looking at all this, one gets an impression of a city developed after careful planning and meticulous execution. As you stand at the city centre, watching this engineering and management marvel, one is filled with admiration and respect. This feeling gets heightened when you realise this has been achieved only in the last 20 years. The development has been very orderly and one gets to see systematic progress – no sign of slums, huts, shanties, illegal buildings and other forms of incongruity. The cities have many parks, providing the required breathing space. Surprisingly, one does not get to see large collection of people, in spite of their overwhelming population. Their walkways, market places and city centres reflect orderliness.

Endless high rise buildings paint the sky line, some reaching up to 100 floors. Except for Hong Kong, I did not see any ugly display of clothes hanging out in the balcony. Once again a display of concerted effort by the citizens

If my observation is any pointer – the women of China are very impressive. Very smartly dressed in western attire, they go about their business briskly and efficiently. They are all very petite and it is very hard to find anyone obese.

Surprisingly, one does not see too many policemen or for that matter any road blocks on the road. This may be indicative of a disciplined and law abiding society.

All the cities are lit up every night. Important buildings and landmarks are beautifully lit to add colour to the city sky line. Hundred of hoardings and sign boards, attract the tourists and locals alike – making night travel very attractive.

I presume, electric power is in abundance in China. All the cities are very well lit at night. Hong Kong and Shanghai especially are cities not to be missed at any cost.

As tourists, we did not find ourselves out of place in any city. We were very comfortable with the local population and at ease. They are not overbearing and mind their own business, leaving you to enjoy their hospitality and warmth.

In the overall analysis, the China visit has left me with more questions than answers. Comparison is inevitable, especially when we realise that both India and China started running the race for development, modernisation and economic reforms at about the same time with almost similar handicaps. Today they stand tall, proud of their achievements and totally committed to scale higher peaks. Their mission is clear and explicit –‘Dethrone USA’ from its position of pre eminence. They are determined and disciplined to achieve their dream, however long it takes. As one of our guides said,” We were once a glorious empire. We know that if we work very hard we will once again be a really great country.” We, in India, on the other hand, are still resting on past glory and doing little to make our future equally glorious. India does not appear to be on their radar, if we think they are unduly worried about us, we are mistaken- it is America that they plan to outdo.

Now for a little retrospection. Where are we? I am more than convinced that we are fast losing the race. Till now, whenever I was drawn into a debate with regard to progress (or lack of it) made by India, I used to be defensive and say – look we are a very big nation, too many people, agrarian economy, lot of uneducated people, multi lingual, young nation and so on till the argument ended.

After my China visit, I stand small, holding my speech in impotence and seeing all my carefully orchestrated arguments failing miserably. My generation had 60 years to move the country forward but we have failed.

Today I am more than convinced, as Indians, we have a genetic flaw – an error in our DNA, which makes us accept mediocrity, inefficiency and non- performance. Power of compromise for individual gain has entrenched all facets of our lives – there are no values or institutions left, which have not been affected. There is no merit in attributing our deficiencies to our democratic form of government, politicians and bureaucracy. The fault line runs deep and cuts through every individual. We have unfortunately devised a method to blame all and sundry except ourselves. Our population is expected to be 1.7 billion in 2050, leaving China behind. Unless we bring in a great deal of discipline into our individual lives and change the way we live and work – the future is not very bright.

There is very little, my generation can do to rectify the horrendous mistakes we have made – other than say – ‘WE ARE SORRY’.

I appeal to ‘Generation Next’ to take on the challenge. Let us not be content with the success of Tendulkar and Sharukh Khan – there are other peaks to be scaled.

Having said all this, I will cover Beijing in this blog and continue with the other cities subsequently.

Beijing - 12th April

We flew Dragon air and reached Beijing after a lovely lunch, served by pretty and charming air hostesses. I relished stewed chicken with ginger and honey. The chicken itself was tender and the subtle aroma of ginger and the sweetness of honey, accentuated the overall taste.

Beijing in Mandarin means ‘Northern capital’, home to 20 million people. The city is surrounded by mountains on three sides and is the third biggest city in China after Chongqing and Shanghai. The city hosted the 2008 Olympics and was showcased to the entire world. We landed in ‘Feng Shui compliant’ Terminal 3 inaugurated during the games. The airport looks like a dragon when viewed from top.

Figure 1 - Aerial View of Terminal 3 (Net)

The airport is really huge and breathtaking. The airport makes a telling impact on any first time visitor. We were received by our guide Ms. Wu Shan, who briefed us regarding our stay in Beijing. We thereafter drove directly to watch an ‘Acrobatic Show’ in Chaoyang theatre established in 1984.We sat spellbound for an hour watching them perform contortions, hand balancing, ring dance and finally the famous mask dance. The masks are changed like quick silver by the person wearing it, depending on the type of emotion that is to be displayed by the dancer. No one would tell us the secret - thus keeping the magic intact.

Figure 2 - Acrobatic Show

Figure 3 - Ring Dance

Figure 4 - The Mask Dance

Prior to our departure there was a lot of debate about ‘Food in China’ – Though sometimes meaningful, the discussion would often take a turn for the ridiculous and almost acrimonious on account of the six of us who were vegetarian. A stage had reached when some of the members of the group threatened to pull out due to the non-availability of edible food [according to ‘reliable’ sources]. No amount of persuasion helped matters until Gowri, our travel agent, decided to organise dinners in Indian restaurants wherever we went. So on the first night in Beijing we went to ‘Ganges’

Figure 5 - Fairly good restaurant

Figure 6 - Ready with a smile to eat Indian food. Wu Shan on my right.

Mr Naval agreed to let us have our whisky without any corkage – may God bless him. We continued this arrangement throughout our trip and found it extremely exhilarating to sip scotch before dinner – the least we could do to rest our tired souls [ pun intended]. The food in the Ganges was good and satisfied the most stringent veggie among us.

After dinner we checked into the ‘Metro Park Lido Hotel’, a very comfortable and modern hotel. The breakfast was excellent, with an option of Western or Chinese cuisine.

Figure 7 - Lobby of the Lido

Beijing - 13th April

After BF we were taken to a jade factory, where we saw an amazing collection of jade artefacts and jewellery. Most Chinese women wear a jade bangle which is considered auspicious and lucky. One of the things made of jade interestingly is a Chinese cabbage. It is believed that if you keep a jade cabbage with its leaves facing the door, wealth will come in to your house and get accumulated.

Figure 8 - Intricate Jade on display

Figure 9 – The Bird’s Nest stadium on the way

Our next visit was to the ‘Great Wall of China’. For a moment I could not believe that I was finally standing face to face with one of the wonders of the world. The monumental effort put in by thousands of people over hundreds of years (from 5th Century BC to 16th Century) to build 8851 KM of wall, fortifying the Northern borders of China, speaks volumes about the capability of the Chinese to put in collective effort in spite of many odds. The details of the wall are well documented and needs no elaboration here. The approach is extremely steep and is physically tiring to climb. The body however seems to propel itself with unlimited energy to be part of a historic event – old, young, invalid, weak and strong climb the steps. Both the ascent and the descent are very steep. Coming down, especially is more difficult as the steps have been deliberately made uneven and irregular in height, depth and width to check the decent of the invading army. We saw the wall at Juyongguan (pass) built during the period 1368 to 1454.

Figure 10 - At the bottom of the Great Wall, an entertainment park nearing completion.

Figure 11 - View from the base level

Figure 12 - Start of the climb

Figure 13 - A lovely Cherry tree in full bloom

Figure 14 - Long way to go

Figure 15 - On completion

Figure 16 - Details of Juyong Pass

Figure 17 - Another view

Figure 18 - Surrounding hills

Totally exhausted, but with a feeling of having achieved something incredible in our lives, we proceeded on our next visit.

Figure 19 - Typical road!

We then visited the Ming Dynasty Tombs which is the resting place of 13 emperors since 1492 and excavated since 1956.The entire site has been restored to its pristine glory and maintained exceptionally well.

Figure 20 - Entrance to the Ming Tombs

Figure 21 - The Gang

Figure 22 - A pretty Magnolia tree

Figure 23 - Structure inside. Notice the walkway

Figure 24 -Yet another view

Figure 25 - One of the emperors

Figure 26 - The model of a ship used during the Ming period.

Figure 27 - Tomb gate tower

On completion of the visit we had to wait outside for almost an hour as a replacement bus had to come to take us to the next place. While waiting, the girls started playing antakshari, which attracted a lot of local interest- some even took photos!

Figure 28 - Antakshari in progress

Figure 29 - Girls resting

After a quick make shift lunch we visited the ‘Summer Palace’. As its name implies, the Summer Palace was used as a summer residence by China’s imperial rulers – as a retreat from the main Imperial Palace. The Summer Palace is virtually a museum of traditional Chinese garden arts that blends rocks, trees, pavilions, lakes, ponds and other features to create a beautifully balanced and scenic delight. The palace was developed through 1115 to 1911.The palace is over 250 hectares of land.

Figure 30 - At the entrance

Figure 31 - Bronze carving

Figure 32 - Kunming Lake

Figure 33 - Part of the garden

Figure 34 - Pavilion in the Summer Palace

We then went to a Pearl factory. Pearls have been extensively used by the Chinese in medicine and jewellery. As usual the ladies had a field day buying pearl necklaces, ear rings, rings, bracelets and bangles and so on for themselves, daughters, daughters-in-law and granddaughters. The men were kept busy converting Yuan to Dollars and then back Indian Rupees.

Figure 35 - Cutting open a 5 year old Oyster

With all the ladies happy and satisfied we went to witness a tea ceremony.

Figure 36 - Beijing by night - IBM Tower

Figure 37 - Tea Shop

Figure 38 - Tea ceremony in progress with the pee pee boy

The tea ceremony is very elaborate and interesting. Chinese love drinking tea at any time of the day. The tea is light and can be decanted a minimum of eight times. The tea itself comes in many flavours and is drunk neat without any pollutants like milk and sugar. The temperature of the water is extremely important in tea making, for which you are provided with a ‘Pee Pee’ boy. You might wonder, what a “Pee Pee Boy” is. Well, it is a small clay statue of a naked boy, designed to tell you when your morning coffee or tea water is hot enough. You soak this statue in water for a few hours (or overnight,) and when you wake in the morning to boil water for coffee or tea you pull him out. After drying him off, you pour your hot water directly onto his head and if he decides to “pee” you know your water is hot enough!

Figure 39 - Pee Pee boy in action

After buying a few tea packets we returned to the Ganges restaurant for a round of Scotch and an Indian dinner.

Beijing - 14th April

We proceeded straight to the fabled ‘Forbidden City’, that we’ve read about in history books and seen in movies.

The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. It is located in the middle of Beijing, China, and now houses the Palace Museum. For almost five hundred years, it served as the home of emperors and their households, as well as the ceremonial and political centre of the Chinese government.

Built from 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 buildings with 8,707 rooms and covers 720,000 m2 (7,800,000 sq ft). The palace complex exemplifies traditional Chinese palatial architecture and has influenced cultural and architectural developments in East Asia and elsewhere. The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world

Figure 40 - Majestic Southern entrance

Figure 41 - Another view

Figure 42 - Main entrance

Figure 43 - The gang

Figure 44 - One of the many rooms

Figure 45 – Taking a breather

Figure 46 - Way to one of the meditation halls

Figure 47 - The Palace of Heavenly Purity

Figure 48 - Later day Ming in the garden

Figure 49 - Stone, trees, water and sky - integral part of Chinese gardens

Figure 50 - A  view of the moat

Figure 51 - Prayer hall

On completion of our tour, we went to buy some more tea. Having witnessed enough tea ceremonies to last my entire life, I proceeded to capture some parts of the adjoining garden. Remarkably, no one plucks any flowers.

Figure 52 – Spring Tulips

Figure 53 - Navin joined the locals in singing

Figure 54 - Some more flowers

Figure 55 - Grand view of the garden

Later we went to ‘Tiananmen Square’ a place which all of us had heard and read so much about. A place which became synonymous with freedom and self expression. The incident of 15 April 1989 attracted worldwide attention and painted China in a bad light.

Tiananmen Square is a large city square in the centre of Beijing, named after the Tiananmen Gate (Gate of Heaven's Pacification) located to its North, separating it from the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square is the largest city square in the world (440,000 m² - 880m by 500m). It has great cultural significance as it was the site of several important events in Chinese history. The Tiananmen Gate to the Forbidden City was built in 1415 during the Ming Dynasty. Standing on this historic and unbelievably huge square – ups one’s adrenalin count by many notches. It is so huge, it is rumoured that it can accommodate 10,000,000 people at one time.(109 acres land area)

Figure 56 - Zhengyangmen Gate

Figure 57 - Monument in front of mausoleum

Figure 58 – Great hall of the People which houses Chairman Mao's Mausoleum

Figure 59 - Nothing will deter me from my aim

Figure 60 - Guard on duty

Figure 61 - Proof of visit

Figure 62 - Bowled over by their cleanliness

The last item on our agenda was the visit to the temple of heaven. The Temple was built in 1420 A.D. during the Ming Dynasty to offer sacrifices to Heaven and pray for a good harvest. The temple complex was constructed from 1406 to 1420 during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, who was also responsible for the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The complex was extended and renamed Temple of Heaven during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor in the 16th century. The main building is made completely of wood without any nails.

Figure 63 - The approach

Figure 64 - Hall of prayer for a good harvest

Figure 65 - One of the side buildings

Figure 66 - Bronze cup

Which used to be filled with water in order to extinguish fires in the olden days, as most of the buildings are made of wood

All of us went shopping to the silk market, where everything from Gucci to Channel to Versace is replicated and sold at throw away prices. Omega, Nike and the rest are all there. There are different prices for Americans, Russians and Indians etc. One has to bargain like hell to get stuff at a good price. Estimate the value and pitch your price regardless of what they quote. They may say 600 Yuan for a pair of Nike and give it to you for 100 Yuan. It’s an art which you have to learn double quick. The guide warns you to render the correct amount to prevent you receiving fake currency as change. In spite of all the warnings one of our team members received a defunct 50 rouble note.

The weather was excellent at 26 Deg by day and 16 Deg at night. As a result of a concerted effort by the city administration to clear up the air for the Olympics, the city air was absolutely clean – no soiled collars and dirty noses.

Another aspect in China, which stands out, is the homogeneity of the population – It is such a contrast to the Indian scene – they are all so similar, except for a few differences in height, girth, and features. As for colour, all share the same shade and texture.

Our dinner at the ‘Indian Kitchen’ was excellent.

We finally bid good bye to Beijing an ancient city, modernised beyond recognition – huge and populated to the brim. We enjoyed our stay thanks to Wu Shan, our pretty guide, who put up with all our idiosyncrasies patiently and took us around the whole of Beijing.


  1. I totally agree with you, uncle.

    Until we, as a population, learn self-discipline, true development will always elude us. Sometimes I wonder how different our nation would have been if we had followed Gandhi's model of development rather than Nehru's.
    In aping western notions of industrialisation, we lost out on an opportunity to find an Indian method of development.

    Arguably, Chinese industrialisation has come at a great cost to their environment and individual well-being. However, their development has remained true to their roots. As a member of this "next generation" I am sacrificing fortune in the private sector to find answers for our nation as part of the civil services. I hope I have your blessings.

  2. I am glad to know we think alike.Wish i knew who you are?