Friday, May 1, 2009

The Circle Grows

Within the circle-ring roads around Beijing, the past and the present swirl around each other. It is what makes this capital city such a remarkable place to visit. Grade seven was lucky to experience the new and old of Beijing in April. We saw the old men in Mao jackets smoking aromatic Chinese cigarettes on the street corners, and the modern college students climbing man-made rock walls. We saw the I.M. Pei designed office towers and the communist-style apartment blocks. We even slept on plush, duvet-covered beds at a modern hotel, and then we laid down for a night on a cold, stone slab covered with mattress pads at a village house.

In some ways, these might seem like contradictions in people, architecture and neighborhoods, but they are part of who Beijing was, is and will become.

During our trip, we were able to sample the different sides of Beijing today. We visited local produce markets where the students had to use their Chinese skills. We hiked The Great Wall and marveled at the scenery around us. We gaped at the feats of the acrobats who had us at the edge of our seats. We flew kites in Tiananmen Square.

Our trip was made comfortable by our two tour guides, but it is easy to feel out of your element in China. It was peculiar for us to see children who went without diapers, or bathrooms without walls and starfish and scorpions done up as snacks on kebab sticks.

Coming from Hong Kong, it was intriguing to see this city in transition. Hong Kong shed much of its past long ago as it segued into its current cosmopolitan state. It’s easy to forget that the mainland was decades behind our city here, and yet, it is catching up at a rapid pace as communism is replaced by capitalism. It begs the question: How much longer will you hear the woman hawking fresh tofu in the streets? How much longer will you see the green hills around The Great Wall unmarred by souvenir shops?

Its past was as the home of emperors and the seat of power for dynasties that stretched back centuries. Its future depends upon it becoming the new economic powerhouse of Asia. Caught between these two realities, Beijing just seems to expand, allowing its circle roads to encompass it all.

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