Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Hidden Gem in the Heart of the City

Don’t you just hate those web sites that try to attract visitors to their pathetic pages by mentioning must-see attractions in the hope that someone is directed to them from Google, only to find there is nothing at all once you get there? I’m talking of the likes of Expedia and Travelocity.
 
Samples:
If you are looking for Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall travel information, Expedia has you covered. When visiting Beijing, Expedia can provide you with extensive Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall information. You wouldn't want to miss out on top attractions like Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall! And before you go, make sure to read Expedia's Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall sightseeing Guide, filled with all you need to know for the best Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall experience possible. And that’s all you get! A guide? Huh! Don’t make me laugh!
 
Likewise: If you are looking to visit Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall in Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, Travelocity has all the information you need to have a great time once you’re there. From nearby hotels, flights, and other local attractions in Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, Travelocity can ensure you see Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, and so much more.
 
Don’t those morons putting this stuff together know the very first rule of marketing which is that if you piss off your visitors, they will not come back to your website again for a very long time, if at all…
 
And then there are the web sites that obviously haven’t even visited the places they write about… such as triphobo.com which has an entry that somewhat intrigued me. “Walking past the city of Beijing, you will come across Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall. Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall is not a top-rated place in Beijing. Abounding of places like Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, Ming Tombs and China Wall, city name has great things to do that are totally worth your time.”
 
I must admit that I had never taken the time to visit the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall (北京市规划展览馆), which is located at 20 Qianmen East St, about 300 metres due east of Qianmen station on Line 2, slap bang next to the old railway station which is now a museum.
 
Blink and you’d miss it. From the outside it is anything but grand. It’s not the kind of place you’d wander into by mistake; and I haven’t met anyone among my circle of friends who has ever actually been there.
 
 
The Exhibition Hall is more of a museum, dedicated to the history, urban planning and future image of the Chinese capital. The four-storey building covers an area of 16,000 square metres in total. When it first opened its gates in 2004, it carried an exhibition about how Beijing would look after the reconstruction due to the Olympic Games in 2008. Anyone with even a basic interest of how Beijing ended up the city it is today will find plenty to interest them here.
 
Chinahighlights.com tells you that entry is 30RMB. Chinatravel.com goes one better, and tells you it costs 30 Yan (sic!). But I’m happy to relate that entry is actually free, though you are meant to show ID. However, when I said I didn’t have any ID on me they tut-tutted and handed me a ticket in any case!
 
As you enter, you cannot fail to notice the bronze sculpture that shows off the geographic features of the small gulf-like plain of Beijing, surrounded by mountain ranges on three sides, together with its six ring roads.
 

And a mystery is solved. My last visit to the Olympic Constructional Exhibition Hall left me wondering where many of the original exhibits had disappeared off to, after they had cleared out a lot of the original exhibition to make room for a what-to-do-in-the-event-of-an-earthquake display. I had noted that they had even renamed the hall Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall.
 
Now hold on a moment, aren’t I in the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall? And aren’t those flags the ones that used to hang in the Olympic Park building?
 

They sure are. There’s the flag that Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan took over from the President of the Olympic Committee at the close of the Athens 2004 Olympics; not to mention the flag of the Paralympics that vice mayor Liu Jingmin was given by the President of the Paralympic Committee.
 
Except… despite what we read in the explanations underneath them, it turns out that these two flags are actually just replicas, and not the real deal. Ah well, it was a nice idea while it lasted.
 
On a higher floor some of the models that were removed from the Olympic Park have found a new home also, thank goodness. It would have been a shame to have lost them, I think.
 

Throughout the Exhibition Hall there is a plethora of pink-jacketed ladies whose job it is to stand there and smile at the visitors. Sometimes I think they outnumber the visitors – certainly they all perk up at the sight of your favourite blogger, force a smile and then go back to what passes for sleep once I pass. I wonder how much training they have had for that onerous task.
 
 
Now, the eagle eyed among you will have noticed on the wall overlooking the first escalator a bronze relief of the old city of Beijing back in 1949 when the PRC was founded and Beijing was chosen as its capital. It’s been made at a scale of 1:1,000 apparently. If you look carefully, you can even count some 100,000 buildings and 60,000 trees along with roads, lakes and rivers in this 9 x 10 metre wide wall plan.
 
 
I can’t find anything more about the bronze relief, which is a pity, given that someone obviously put a lot of effort into it.
 
But no worry. We are next given the opportunity to view models of the Forbidden City, lying on the north-south axis of Beijing.
 

Why stop at just one model when someone else has also gone to a lot of trouble to do the same thing?
 
 
As we all know, Beijing's Central Axis first took shape in 1267 when Kublai Khan founded Dadu. All Beijing's important buildings stand on this axis: Yongdingmen Gate, Zhengyangmen Gate, Mao's Mausoleum, Tian'anmen Gate, Forbidden City, Wanchunting Pavilion in Jingshan Park, Drum & Bell Towers, and the Olympic Centre (with the axis clearly shown throughout the Olympic Park).
 
Of course, city axes are not unique to Beijing. They can also be found in other parts of the world – most notably in Paris, where the Louvre Palace was completed in the 16th century and stretches through the Place de la Concorde, the Avenue des Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe, ending at La Défense. (BTW if you ever wondered why Elysées looks feminine, where Champs is of course masculine, the answer is that Elysées is actually a shortened form of élyséen – as in champs élyséens!)
 
Likewise Washington DC has its axis starting at Capitol Hill and ending at the Potomac River, with the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial Hall also to be found on the 4.5km line.
But we’re jumping ahead. This Exhibition Hall also gives you some information on Beijing’s much older past… such as this map that shows paleolithic and neolithic sites and where they found loads of stone tools.
 
 
Beijing’s history can actually be traced back to 1046 BC when King Wuwang of the Western Zhou Dynasty conquered the Shang Dynasty and conferred the titles of nobility on Emperor Yao's descendants in Ji, which is what Beijing was called back then. With the establishment and unification of the Qin and Han dynasties, Ji evolved from the capital city of a small state to a military stronghold of the central government. It was centred just south of where Beijing West station now stands.
 
After the unification of the Sui Dynasty, Ji was renamed Zhuojun and then later Youzhou in the Tang Dynasty. In 938 the 16 states forming what is now northern China were unified and Yanjing became the capital. Ironically, the city was also known as Nanjing, as it was then the southernmost of their secondary capitals.
 
In 1153, King Hailing named his capital Zhongdu, which was the first time that Beijing became the capital city of a dynasty. In 1263, Emperor Kublai Khan of the Yuan Dynasty established his capital in what is now Inner Mongolia and named it Shangdu. But he obviously saw the error of his ways as just nine years later he moved his capital to Yanjing and renamed it Dadu. This was the first time that Beijing became the capital city of a unified country.
 
In 1368 the Ming seized Dadu and named it Beiping (Northern Peace); but when Emperor Zhu Di was enthroned he renamed it Beijing. In 1644 the Qing seized Beijing and made it their capital city. It was also called JingShi.
 
Fast forward three centuries and with the founding of the Republic of China in 1928 Beijing was renamed Beiping. The occupying Japanese in 1937 then imposed the name Beijing, then with their surrender in 1945, the Nationalist Government restored "Beiping". But you can't keep a good name down for long, so with the founding of the PRC in 1949, it once again became Beijing.
 
"Peking", in case you were wondering, is a spelling created by French missionaries of the 17th and 18th centuries, and was the English name for the city until the adoption of pinyin in 1958.
 
Phew! (I hope you followed that!)
 

You can also see how the contour of Beijing changed over the centuries, right from the time of Dadu in 1272.
 

As if that isn't exciting enough, there's a map of Beijing’s hutongs in 1917. If you ever wondered about the origin of the word Hutong (alleyway), one of the explanations is that it comes from the Mongolian meaning a well. You have to remember that wells served as the main water supply in the city, which made them synonymous with the residential areas and thus they became the name of the alleys.
 

The alleyways and courtyard houses always centred around the wells. Here's a map of the wells which have been discovered in the former Xuanwu district of BJ.
 

Talking of courtyard houses, the Siheyuan was a typical private residence which usually had an independent compound composed of the main building facing south, with east and west wings and a southern building. The entrance gate was usually found in the south east corner. If that floats your boat, you can find out loads more about a Siheyuan by visiting the Hutong Museum.
 

The corbel brackets were unique components in ancient architecture which were placed on columns to support the beams. These separate components were held together with tendon and mortise joinery. If you want to see many more models like this, you can't do better than visit the Museum of Ancient Architecture.
 

Without a doubt, the ‘pièce de resistance’ of the entire museum that everyone comes to see is a huge detailed model of Beijing taking up just over 300 sq metres. Currently at the time of writing it shows what the city is projected to look like in 2020.
 

Where the model makers finally ran out of balsa wood and plastic, they have a floor featuring aerial shots of the city in the same size ratio of 1:750. Altogether the model and photo-floor take up 1,000 sq metres.
 

What I find somewhat strange are these warning notices liberally placed around the model telling you not to stand so close together that more than four people squeeze into a one metre area. I mean… look at the girl above and multiply her by four. Why on earth would a fifth person want to crowd into such a small space?
 

I get nearer for a closer look. (It’s OK dear blog fans, I can’t even see four other people to stand close to me!). Yes – there is the new CCTV building where I while away so much of my time. But the building in which I live just across the road is certainly not that shape, and they seem to have overlooked my favourite vegetable shop which I look down onto from my bedroom window every morning. Maybe someone should tell them that the planners are thinking of closing them down sometime in the next three years!
 

Throughout the building, there are cinema screens telling parts of Beijing’s history. Here, for instance, is what is called the ‘Yuan-Ming-Qing dynasty mirage cinema’ in which historical figures tell stories of the city’s evolution in each of those dynasties.
 

On the fourth floor there is an area devoted to the city’s transportation. Ever wondered what a tunnel boring machine looked like? Wonder no more! A tunnel boring machine, also known as a mole, is a machine with a circular (usually) cross section which has a rotating cutting wheel in the front and a conveyor belt at the back to remove the earth and rock.
 

There are a number of what are referred to as ‘hologram movies’ showcasing the evolution of transport in the city. During the period at the end of the Ming Dynasty to the beginning of the Qing dynasty, freight caravans entered Beijing through Fuchengmen.
 

From the end of the Qing dynasty to the founding of New China, Zhengyangmen East railway station (ie the station next door to this Planning Hall) was the largest station in Beijing.
 

In 1924 BJ officially opened its first streetcar line running from Qianmen to Xizhimen.
 

In 1956, the first trolley bus in Beijing was tested successfully. Its basic design has changed little over the past six decades.
 

You can even find models of some of the rolling stock used on Beijing’s Subway system. Here’s what the earliest carriages looked like on the original Pinguoyuan Line (renamed Line 1) – it being the earliest subway line in China. (If you want to see what a real carriage looked like, take a visit to Beijing’s Subway Culture Park!)
 

Prior to the 2008 Olympics, the SFM04 type of rolling stock was formally put into operation on Line 1.
 

And here’s a modern carriage as found on the Fangshan Line in the southwest of Beijing.
 

Up till now throughout the museum there have been ample signs in English; but for some strange reason, when we get to the section on Beijing being a ‘low carbon eco city’, showing China's commitment to new energy utilisation, waste processing, water recycling, and a low carbon architecture, everything is in Chinese only. It’s almost as if they think that foreign visitors (are there any apart from me?) won’t be interested. Or maybe it is just work in progress and new notices will magically appear one day.
 

We’re nearly finished. But on returning to the ground floor, I spy a notice in Chinese and German, and make my way to a hidden area I hadn’t even noticed when I first came in.
 

There are loads of explanations in Chinese and German (how many German visitors come here, I ask myself) about town planning in Beijing, Paris, London, Chicago, Nanjing and Berlin. It’s a collaborative effort put on by the Goethe Institut in China.
 

Once again I marvel at how my schoolboy German has come in useful yet again here in Beijing. It’s uncanny. When I was but a lad, my father used to drill into me that I would need German in the future to understand scientific texts. (I never read a single scientific text in German, as it turned out.) But again and again the Kaiser’s vernacular has proven itself to be really useful not just here in Beijing, but also when I used to work in Riyadh many moons ago. (Many Saudi Arabian archaeological teams were trained in Berlin, apparently, so there are many Germans there too.)
 
I read about London as it was back in 1907…
 

… together with an imaginary plan of London, also dating back to 1907, that never came to fruition.
 

Is there no end to the things I learn about my home country all these thousands of miles away?
 
My two seconds of home sickness rapidly fade away as I make my way to the exit door and head off into the sunshine outside.
 
Really, why everyone isn’t advised to come to this Exhibition Hall when they first arrive in Beijing I will never know. Another hidden gem to add to my collection.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Five years for refurbishment and this is the best they can do?

It was over five years ago that I first made my way to the Military Museum. Although I was able to get inside the building, all the galleries had been closed, and the only thing to see was a dust-covered statue of the Great Helmsman and a steady stream of visitors finding their way to the loos.

Ever since then, the building has remained firmly locked, though there have been clusters of exhibits littering up the car park… fighter planes, tanks, assorted weaponry… that kind of thing.
 
But if there’s one thing they like in China it is a good celebration, especially where it can be guaranteed to rouse the visitors’ patriotic sentiment! And so with the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army coming up, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to reopen one of the “10 Great Buildings” once again.
 


Unfortunately I was slow off the mark in replying to an eMail from the HR department offering staff a pre-opening preview, so instead I decided to join the ordinary plebs a few days later, queuing up to be let in. A notice on the railing informed me that with the queue this long, I’d be waiting for at last half an hour.
 
 
But your favourite blogger is made of stern stuff, and I shuffled forward with the rest of the flotsam and jetsam, elbowing out the inevitable people who thought they were far more important than everyone else and had a perfect right to push in front of everybody.
 
 
For the new refurbishment I couldn’t help admire the new railings that have mini-Military-Museum-motifs embedded every couple of metres. Such attention to detail!
 
 
Finally I am at the front of the queue and find myself in front of the “window to collect the tickets area”.
 
 
A bored looking girl behind the glass plate demands to see my passport. Sorry. I don’t have it. How about my Foreign Expert Certificate. Will that do?
 
She grabs it, looks at the cover and throws it back at me before throwing me a ticket and demanding someone else’s ID. Service with a smile. I mouth a grateful xie xie, but I’m pretty sure she misses the irony…
 
Where to go? Aha! A helpful sign lets me know. We audience members continue to head for the security area and just another ten minutes later I’m through!
 
 
Outside the main entrance is a row of tanks that have had a new paint job applied. They look very pretty and everyone wants to have a selfie taken with them. I resist the allure of a tank selfie and head further on towards the main steps.
 
 
Just the other side of the entrance is a camouflaged rocket launcher – though I am trying to fathom out where the camouflage would be appropriate. Maybe in a Lego factory?
 
 
I step through the entrance and everywhere is gleaming white. Even Mao has had a new paint job applied and none of the dust from my previous visit is in evidence any more.
 
 
Around the entrance hall are countless friezes, again all gleaming from a good dollop of white paint. Everyone takes out their cameras and starts snapping away…
 
 
And then we are made to take a left turn into a PLA Theme Park – at least that’s the first impression it gives. But there are no soldiers in teddy bear suits to greet us. Just loads and loads (and loads and loads and loads) of signs in Chinese with not a single word translated into English.
 
It is perfectly clear that no one is in the slightest bit interested in educating the laowais as to how wonderful the PLA is. This is purely propaganda laid on for the Chinese masses; it’s almost as if the organisers are afraid that us foreigners might not understand the subtle nuances and might give the game away by saying out loud something unforgiveable like who are you trying to kid!
 
 
Naturally there are endless photographs of the Long March and PLA soldiers being brave and heroic.
 
 
And there are plenty of oil paintings, too, to stir the patriotic heart.
 
 
And where would the place be without endless pictures of Mao…?
 
 
Lest we find this all overwhelming (or maybe underwhelming?) we are warned not to sit stay.
 
 
They’ve even taken an idea from the Auto Museum in Fengtai, which shows Batman and his Batmobile crashing through a wall; though all they have here is a very flimsy-looking model tank.
 
 
If you were wondering why all the PLA flags have the insignia of a roundel with a red star bearing the Chinese characters for Eight One, this refers to the Nanchang uprising which began on August 1, 1927. The flags shown here represent the PLA’s Ground Forces, the Navy and the Air Force.
 
 
There’s also a mock up of three PLA servicemen parading during the handover ceremonies of Hong Kong and Macao… just to remind everybody who’s in charge now.
 
 
And while there may not be room for the real thing, there are plenty of plastic models of tanks for kids to gawp at.
 
 
Around one of the halls, too, there are bits and pieces that relate to the servicemen who make up the PLA. But don’t ask me what these medals represent. I’m afraid this laowai felt well and truly out of it all.
 
 
I walk determinedly towards the stairs in order to reach some of the other galleries, but any thoughts I might have entertained are immediately thwarted. Where have they put all the old tanks, weapons and aircraft bits and pieces that used to be here?
 
A member of the museum staff points me to this explanatory notice and shakes his head with a loud tut-tut as if I to say how can anyone be so stupid as to think there might be anything upstairs of interest.
 
 
I move into a hall full of airplanes; though when I say full, I mean that with a touch of irony. I desperately want to tell everyone not to bother with this display, but to go to the Aviation Museum where they can get to see some 20 times as many planes. But I keep my counsel, for obvious reasons.
 
 
As well as the planes, there is what looks suspiciously like a film set boat; and next to it a stirring, patriotic painting appealing to the kind of people who like nothing better than to watch a Chinese action movie, such as this week’s release of Wolf Warrior 2 (which I doubt I will be going to see any time soon).
 
 
I walk around the hall, admiring the 1960s vintage H-6 Bomber, which is probably the most impressive in this small display.
 
 
But when I turn the next corner, I find that this is where it all ends. Where they have placed all their other exhibits I have no idea. But I have to admit I feel well and truly cheated. One propaganda hall and another hall with a few aircraft hanging from the ceiling? Is that really it? They have spent five years preparing for this?
 
I head for the exit and export myself henceforth into the crowded car park outside. What a total waste of an afternoon. Next time …. Well, there will not be a next time as far as I am concerned.