Ghanaians have a saying that goes: Ohoho aniwa soso nanso enhu hwee Ohoho. Loosely translated, it means that even though the eyes of a stranger are big, they cannot see anything.
I came to realise the wisdom of this saying during my first few days in Beijing.
Beijing can be an intimidating place. With a history of over 3,000 years as a city and over 850 years as the capital, its history and culture is mind-blowing. The streets are paved with history and “Beijingers” are always eager to share their city’s illustrious story.
Through this history, splendid oriental culture has been nurtured and rich cultural resources have been accumulated. There is a museum for anything; railway, telecommunication, agriculture, aviation, military and a men’s museum! There are about 3,500 museums in China, 167 of these are in Beijing.
As a non Chinese speaker, the first challenge I faced during my first few days was finding my way in Beijing. I could not ask for directions. I had two eyes, actually four if you factor in my spectacles but getting lost in this city of over 20 million was the easiest thing that I have ever done!
Laden with the experience of having lived in some European capitals, I knew well that it would just be a matter of time before I conquer this touristic city. It has been a revelation.
From the Hutongs in Nongluxia and Wangfujing, the Old Beijing in Qiamen serving the famous Peking Duck to the major tourists, spots of the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall and the Lama Temple, every day comes with a new experience in this great city.
Beijing is teeming with tourists. The large mass of people is overwhelming. Beijing is the city that seems to be on holiday everyday of the year. I was surprised to know that the biggest percentage of tourists in China is domestic tourists.
Tourism alone contributed over $400billion to the national coffers in 2013, according to figures from the State Statics bureau. No matter what day of the week, major tourist spots are jammed with endless stream of people wanting to witness history.
Line 1 on the Beijing subway is usually the busiest. There is no reward for guessing why; it leads to the busy Tiananmen Square area from where you are also able to visit the National Museum, the Chairman Mao mausoleum and the Forbidden City.
The Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City is forbidden no more! This was the home of over 24 Emperors from the Ming and Qing empires from 1420 to 1911. It was forbidden to common people, hence its name.
The Forbidden City is beautiful and well preserve. The magnificent structures built in ancient China are testament to the luxurious life the royals lived. Structures are made out of wood. The city has over 8,000 rooms on over 700km2.
Over 200 tourists visit the museum on a single day, these are mainly domestic tourists.
The scarcity of black people in Beijing and in China as a whole is glaring. At the Forbidden City I was literally dragged into people’s photos, they couldn’t let an opportunity of taking a photo with a black man just pass. It was exciting, it was tiring. I had gone to see the attractions in the Forbidden City but here I was an attraction! I thought of charging a fee, well it was a thought, a wild thought and it remained just that.
The Great Wall
A visit to the Badaling section of the Great Wall showed me one of mankind’s astonishing accomplishments; a some 7,000km stone and brick wall built in 221 BC, as an accompanying explained.
Built by Emperor Qin Shihuang as a defence against the Huns and other warrior tribes from the North, today, it is China’s emblem to the rest of the world.
Climbing the great wall was coming face–to- face with history. In China, it is said that climbing the Great Wall is one of the biggest accomplishments any Chinese can make during their life time.
I was curious to know from my Chinese friend why this was considered an important milestone.
The answer was in the famous words of the founder of modern China, Chairman Mao Zedong.
He is quoted to have said: “If you have never been to the Great Wall, you are not a true man.” It was then clear to me that this was inspiration behind the zeal for numerous Chinese to climb the wall so as to be regarded as “true man”. I saw senior citizens in their 70s or 80s climbing a step at a time just to fulfill one last requirement to be a true Chinese before they are on ‘the other side.’
This is an experience that you can never get through reading, you have to be there and live it!
The over 5,500 miles long and 25 metres high wall is a gigantic accomplishment by men who used the basic of tools during the construction. But there was a heavy price to pay to realise this construction. Over 1,000 men died during the construction, it is believed that their bodies were interred within the wall.
People who visit this historic place always want to live a mark. Some stones on the wall have been vandalised as visitors use the crudest of tools including knives to leave a mark. Authorities have established a graffiti zone where visitors can conformably leave a message that they ever climbed the Great Wall.
Despite the wave of globalisation that has negatively affected indigenous cultures of many countries, “the centre still holds” in China. At the nearby Ritan Park, the elderly still gather at dawn and later in the evening for Tai Chi, a traditional shadow boxing for fitness. Older women dance away to their health on the old disco music in parks and other public areas.
MacDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, are some of the top Western fast food outlets that have established shop here but they come nowhere near local Chinese restaurants. Just like in the past, the restaurants are still draped with lanterns and crimson, serving Zhongguo Cai (Chinese food). And it is strictly chop sticks, no forks, no spoons.
I still remember the blank look on the face of a waiter when a colleague asked for a fork.
Bruce Lees Paradise
Outside Beijing, in the South China district of Jun’an Shunde lies a small waterside village of Shangcun. It produced a great national scholar Li Wentian who mastered history and geography, he was skilful in calligraphy and engraving, he cared for the local people.
But this is also home to great Kung-fu star Bruce Lee, China’s best export to movie world. Bruce Lee founded the mysterious and invincible Jeet Kune Do Kungu-fu style that endeared him to many. He presented an image of Chinese that is strong and loyal and never surrender. He deepened peoples understanding about China through his art.
His father Li Haiquan, left a great legacy in Shunde which Bruce Lee built on.
Bruce Lee may have been in Shunde only once for he grew up in Hong Kong and later moved to the USA but thousands of people come to pay homage in his ancestral home. Every spot he stepped on, the place he slept has remained sacred.
It is his skill mastery of the frightening martial arts that led to a popular belief that all Chinese know Kungu-fu. My interaction with the Chinese has dispelled this false belief.
Travelling outside Beijing to some poorer regions of China has further broadened my understanding of this great country. The ethnic diversity has conspired to bring out a rich cocktail of cultural experience for any visitor to China. There are 56 ethnic groups in China. The difference in dress and food is further testament to China’s rich cultural heritage.
The rapid expansion of infrastructure is epic. The poor are being evacuated from high risk areas and settled in modern houses. The insistence on environmental protection to ensure a safe future for posterity is admirable. The sun wind power plant in the northwest Hui Autonomous Region with 231 wind turbines is an example of efforts to produce clean energy in an environmentally friendly manner. It is expected to produce 500MW once completed.
My interaction with urban and rural folks led to one conclusion that no matter where people live, Ningxia, Guizhou or Yunnan, they are not any different from those in Beijing or Rwanda. Like anyone else, they have hopes, fears and dreams and of course want to lead a decent life.
Urban folks are largely aloof and engrossed in the battle to meet demands of modern living but the rural folks can afford a minute to share their experiences about life.
On a visit to Ningxia, I visited Yaoshan Primary School located in Tongxin County, Yaoshan Township. The school has about 130 pupils from grade 1-6. It is a typical village school; many pupils walk about three kms to get to school. They are provided with a hot lunch to keep them in school.
The pupils were friendly; I asked one of them what he wanted to be when he grows up. He took his time before answering despite being urged on by his colleagues to give a quick answer.
“Jin Cha (Policeman),” he said and sped off.
And as I walked around the school, I came across a notice on a classroom wall, it was bold and clear “DON’T SPIT ANYWHERE”. I hope this is a lesson these pupils will learn and keep with them as they grow and in future carry it along as they move into cities like Beijing! And that boy, who will probably be a “Jin Cha”, I hope he will be there to enforce this.
His name is Ma Bin.
The writer is a resident foreign correspondent in China