Day 9: Beijing

If you are wondering what we did today, a better question might be what did we NOT do today! It was a full day of sightseeing in China’s capital, Beijing. Translated as “North Capital". Beijing is the political and transportation center of China and once had several wall and moat systems to defend the emperor and inhabitants. Most of the walls were torn down and replaced by roads when the emerging communist leaders saw them as prohibitive to establishing a collective society. Today’s Beijing is easily navigated thanks to the grid system radiating outward from the central Forbidden City.

We are staying at a neighborhood hotel near the second ring and the south moat, which is lined by willows and, in the evening, strands of soft blue lights. On my evening walks the area reminds me of San Antonio or any predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood – locals are eating, playing games, visiting, dancing and exercising in front of their businesses or residences and in public squares. Runners are out in numbers, despite the smog; others take their exercise by walking, dancing, stretching and doing Tai Chi or calisthenics, often while rhythmically clapping or patting the muscles for toning (incidentally, I have felt very comfortable running and exploring on my own and with smaller groups during this tour).

After breakfast, we departed for a full day of sightseeing, beginning with the Forbidden City. The City was built during the Ming Dynasty. It is difficult to believe it was completed in 14 years (in 1420) given the scale of the walls and buildings. Many of the buildings have been restored recently. The approximately 800kg of gold leaf used to refinish the exteriors glowed in the hazy light that is Beijing on a typical ‘bad ozone’ day. Many of the students opted to wear masks: no one is exhibiting any serious effects from the pollution thus far, but it is obviously worse in this city. The tour guides led the GDYO group from the south to north gates, pointing out more details than I care to repeat at this hour. Suffice to say we saw a good portion of the beautiful area that was home to 24 emperors (and the Empress Dowager) during the Ming and Qing dynasties. My favorite details were the musical beasts on the rooflines, the numerous dragons (including the Dragon Road we walked, initially reserved only for the emperor) and the garden (featuring rocks and trees which were often transported from far away and aged 300+ years). Our tour ended with a walk in Jinshan park across from the North Gate. Many opted to hike up to the Wanchun pavilion, which offers a good view of the Forbidden City and, on a clearer day, the entire layout of Beijing and the mountains surrounding it on the west, north and east sides.

Following a very satisfactory lunch (we are getting more adventurous and enjoyed today’s selections very well), we relaxed with a tea ceremony. The storekeepers did a lovely job of introducing the teas and their benefits, and we enjoyed sampling five distinct types. Most amazing were the flowering tea balls that unfolded when watered…and the clay tea boys that “wee” when the water was hot enough. You can just imagine how that demonstration was received. I expect many of you will get a chance to sample the jasmine, oolong, black, flower and fruit teas we enjoyed, and to see the tea boys in action!

Tiananmen Square was a memorable afternoon stop. Security checks to enter the square were welcome; however, the presence of multiple security cameras on every light post and adjacent building was a bit disconcerting. Along with the Hangzhou Youth Orchestra exchange, this activity was a meaningful opportunity to be ambassadors for friendship and dialogue. Many students were asked by local visitors to pose for pictures with them, and in return reached out to say hello or visit with their babies and children. The tour T-Shirts (designed by head chaperone Margot Yang’s daughter) have been a fabulous way to communicate. Bright red, they certainly call attention to the fact a large group of waiguoren (foreigners) is present. Many passers-by read aloud or take photos of the shirts, which announce we are a touring youth orchestra and our venues in both English and in Chinese. Our large group photo in Tiananmen Square drew a sizeable crowd of onlookers and photographers, which was somewhat disconcerting! Tour guides were careful not to openly discuss events westerners might associate with the Square, but have been great about answering student and chaperone questions in more private quarters. They have also been great about encouraging use of basic Chinese phrases!

After dinner, we took an hour to unwind from the long day and enjoy the Wangfujing street market and nearby shopping. The market offers local fare and more exotic treats for shock value. Fried dough, birds, seafood and dumplings seemed to be selling well; fried spiders, insects, reptiles, and seahorses received the expected squeals and grimaces. Our meeting point for the evening was a 2-story Apple store. On the strip students could enjoy Haagen Dazs and Starbuck’s, Forever 21 and Prada stores, Chinese boutiques and curio shops.

Our next two days are likewise full, with trips to the Empress Dowager’s summer palace and the Great Wall planned in addition to our Beijing and Tianjin performances. On the bus, we are taking advantage of relative quiet time to thank the donors who helped make this tour possible. Thanks to ALL of you who have helped to make this tour and this orchestra great. The kids are playing and behaving well and interesting to be around! “Fun” summer reading observed includes Mein kampf, This side of paradise, and War and peace; music playlists include the final GDYO concert and a piano concerto one of the students is writing). They are bonding wonderfully and it’s a pleasure and privilege to share this time with them. My group has announced we will have regular pre-rehearsal brunches upon our return…

– Robin Korevaar, GDYO Chaperone

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