Beijing, the beauty

By Annapoorna Ravichander

I was surprised and happy that I was invited to Beijing to present a paper at Tsinghua University. This was my first trip to China. I had several apprehensions — people had warned me that the English language could be a challenge and it might be difficult to find “pure vegetarian food”.
Of course the only solace is that I eat eggs but did not want to project this as a preference. I went through all the formalities in office and received all the required documents. While I was planning the professional aspects of the trip, I also started planning the personal itinerary.
I had decided to stay in Beijing for two days post the conference. So I started talking to friends who had visited Beijing earlier. I took a lot of tips from them and planned accordingly.
Then I conducted some research on the internet.
Before I embarked on this sightseeing trip, I had a fantastic time with a journalist friend Feng whom I had established contact with prior to my visit. She took me out to dinner to a vegetarian restaurant. The ambience was lovely, the menu card (I should rather say book) was even lovelier with graphics and a huge menu. With Feng’s help I believed I chose “pure vegetarian” dishes. However, I think I ate fish which was supposed to be rice crispies!
I then launched on to the solo touristic trip. With the help of one of the organisers of the conference, I booked myself on a coach to visit the Great Wall of China. This would be the second wonder of the world I would be visiting (the first being the Taj Mahal). I had to go to a point to meet Victor, the guide, who came to pick me up.
The journey was for about 1.5 hours. This is where I met some Indians, Pakistani and tourists from other countries. Victor explained the tour and set the expectations for the trip, for the next few hours. On our way, we stopped at a small village (Huairou County) to pick up snacks, coffee etc. According to Victor, it was inexpensive to buy from the small shop than to buy at the Great Wall of China which would be far more expensive.
Then we passed a village Mu Tian Yu where the government has encouraged local artisans to set up their wares and artefacts for selling. It is said that it is mandatory that all tourists need to walk through the village street and pay a toll, which goes towards the upkeeping of these artisans. We continued our journey to the Great Wall. Apparently the wall measures up to 629 km in Beijing alone and the official length is 21,196.18 km across the whole of China. History claims that small fortifications were built as early as the 7th century. The wall also served as a defensive shield apart from being a corridor to transport goods for trading purposes. Cable car ticket cost us 100 yuan (to and fro).
Along the wall are several arch gates which are built of brick and stone. They are cemented by a mixture made from rice starch which holds it fast.
The wall has several watch towers which served in identifying enemies and also in protecting the city. The steps are narrow and steep in some places.
The walk on the wall is quite easy in most places, but it is a very long walk. I could cover three towers and then returned to wait for Victor at the base.
All Chinese people have 2 names-Chinese and English counterparts. So Victor’s name in Chinese is actually Wu (meaning victory). We then had lunch at Mr Yang, a small restaurant. The vegetarian meal we got consisted of boiled cauliflower with red chillies, tomato with scrambled egg, lettuce salad, aubergine and fish and chicken (which is considered vegetarian and of course I did not eat it).
We returned to the city and I visited the Lama temple with some friends (from India and Pakistan) I had met on the tour. The temple was beautiful and the building and artwork were a combination of Han Chinese and Tibetan styles.
We then visited the Silk market where we shopped and went for dinner to Ganges (an Indian restaurant run by a Gujarati from Mumbai).
The next day I decided to take it a bit easy and visited the Tiananmen Square. It was initially built in 1417 during the Ming Dynasty (1368 AD-1644 AD). History claims that this was the front door of the Forbidden City. It was used for celebrating ceremonial events and was meant for only the royalty. It is a well-guarded place with several security men placed all over the square.
Unfortunately I could not enter the Forbidden City (also known as Palace Museum) since it is closed on Tuesdays. However, whatever exterior I saw, was lovely and huge. It is said that the palace was the home for over 24 Chinese emperors from 1420 to 1911. The palace is surrounded by a moat which is 3,800 metres long and52 meters wide.
One of the unique things I discovered in Beijing was the number and different types of electric vehicles. The 2-wheelers would appear silently and if you are not careful bump into you and receive some swear words from the rider.

(The author is Editor at Large, South Asia @ On Think Tanks)

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