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Thursday 10 March 2011

Back from Beijing

I spent Christmas and New Year in Beijing, China.

The city is changing so fast, the Chinese are building at a tremendous rate.  Staying in the Central Business District we were surrounded by shiny new skyscrapers and neon lights.  Incredibly clean streets but quite polluted by the thousands of cars, which are really starting to cause a problem with the traffic and emissions snarling up the city.

There are still masses of bicycles everywhere, though, sneaking their way down the sides of the car-packed streets, in this city that was once famous for its millions of bikes.  (Carole and I both love bikes!)
 Being in Beijing is a bit like Time Travel.  I get this feeling in many cities, one of the reasons that I love them, but in Beijing it is extreme.  China is an ancient civilisation and its history is millenia long, at the same time it is embracing the new at an astonishing rate.

Exploring the city you really feel this, the ancient and the new are built next to each other everywhere.

You can lose yourself in the huge complexes and tranquillity of the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace, and yet step out of the gate and you are instantly transported back into the futuristic reconstruction of the city.

When I was working on the Children's Trail in St George's, Leicester, in 2007, I wrote about cities:

There is a dreamlike quality in many cities, where buildings and street designs are worked out as they go along and have to fit in and around older structures.  In Beijing I fear that they are in danger of knocking down and replacing too much, thus losing the richness of the layers of architectural history that gives most cities their unique characters.  The Chinese are only just starting to realise the importance of their heritage and that it must be rescued.

Beijing is full of contradictions.  Despite Communism and the Cultural Revolution, ancient belief systems still persist.  The Chinese are famous for their superstitions.  Even the new buildings are still built on Feng Shui principles!  The famous "Birds Nest" Olympic Stadium represents to the Chinese the body of the dragon, therefore they had to balance this with another building which stands a little way away, respresenting the dragon's tail.

The body of the dragon...

...and the tail
(Apparently the head of the dragon is underground!)

Another wonderful thing we found was the Shard Shop.  Tucked away and quite hard to track down, this little family run business is using old culture in innovative ways.  During the Cultural Revolution people were not allowed to keep their traditional Ming and Qing pottery and so thousands of these important pieces were smashed up.  The Shard Shop is gathering these shards of pottery and making them into new things.  We bought several shard boxes as gifts, lacquered boxes with beautifully decorated blue and white pottery shards inlaid into their lids, curved pieces that hinted at their original life as a huge rounded vase.  Wonderful and unique.

 And how about this for mapping!  The Temple of Heaven, a circular building built to represent the celestial year, with four inner pillars for the seasons, twelve outer pillars for the months,  you look up into the ceiling of the Temple and it is like a plan for the heavens!

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