La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Great Wall of China at Badaling

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

The Badaling portion of the Great Wall of China - completely restored - is the section most frequently visited by tourists. In other areas, parts of the wall have crumbled and all but disappeared. To restore the entire length of the wall to its former condition would be a monumental task - and to what end? Even when it was built, apparently, it did not serve its purpose as a defense against invaders – and it certainly does not today, in this age of airplanes.

Our tour guide Mike told us that the entrance facilities had been recently upgraded and the hordes of hawkers and beggars who formerly frequented the place have been kept away. The general impression is of a very clean and modern site.

As was the case at the Forbidden City, there were thousands of Chinese visitors at the Great Wall, often in groups. Mike explained that at the height of the season, traffic is very congested. It was busy today, he thought, but not unpleasantly so. We walked for about a mile along the top of the wall, most of it uphill - stopping far short of the highest point - then back down the same way. There are very few ‘steps’ on top of the wall so on the way down it is not easy to keep one’s balance or control one’s forward motion. Not a place for visitors unable to cope with a challenging walk.

On to the Silk Market for Some Extra Luggage
In the afternoon we went to the famous – some might call it ‘infamous’ - Silk Market. We had been travelling with two large suitcases and two small carry-ons. With acquisitions along the way, the suitcases had become far too heavy to be acceptable by the airlines. No problem if the weight is divided into two checked bags. We got some cheap ($10 each) duffel bags on wheels and divided the stuff accordingly.

The Silk Market is very popular with western tourists, but it is a pretty odious place. Each stall is tended by one or two young girls (usually) who solicit the approaching customers like prostitutes. Some even grab the customers by the arm and refuse to release them until they buy. Bargaining is part of the process. Marked prices mean nothing and the haggling is endless. Rumor has it that this place is run by a criminal organization and that the girls are under tremendous pressure to meet quotas.

This market is not, in fact, a ‘silk’ market at all; nearly everything in the hundreds of stalls of this claustrophobic building are knockoffs of famous brand name manufacturers of shirts, clothes and bags of all kinds. The government raids this market from time to time to try to keep the phony stuff from being sold. One possible solution under discussion is to have these vendors clearly label the knock-offs as imitations and pay licensing fees to the brand name manufacturers whose products are being copied.

Although we found ourselves caught up in the bargain-hunting, it is probably unworthy of foreign tourists to be doing business in such places just to buy cheap stuff that has nothing whatever to do with China’s own traditions. At other locations in shops run by the government one can find excellent products such as silk rugs, shirts and bedding. The products are guaranteed and the prices are very reasonable and fair. In fact, we did purchase a beautiful Han Dynasty design silk carpet at one of these stores.

If You Haven't Been Already - You Must Go Soon!
Planning a visit to China? Don't hesitate! You will step into a modern and largely tourist-friendly "new" Zhongguo (Middle Kingdom). Based on our experiences in Beijing several of the publications we had consulted before travelling were very useful. The Eyewitness Travel books published by Dorling Kindersley Publishing are superb, not only for Beijing but for many other destinations as well. For current information about Beijing and what is happening there from an expat point of view seek out the English-language magazine City Weekend. It is full of useful and detailed information about restaurants, clubs, concerts and exhibitions.

Next in China Diary: Talking about Stokowski at two of Beijing's leading music schools.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

Photos by Marita

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Chinese Flock to Beijing's Once Forbidden City!

by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

At 9 am on our third day in Beijing, we set out on a private tour (photo above: Paul with our guide Mike) of the Forbidden City, a vast complex of buildings, completed in 1420, as the home of the Chinese Emperors and their court.

Even in early spring and cool temperatures, there were thousands of visitors at this famous tourist destination - most of them Chinese from rural areas, travelling in groups. Foreign tourists were conspicuous by their absence in the face of the global recession.

Our guide told us that one of biggest problems for tour guides is the fact that Chinese tourists wander away from their group and get lost in the labyrinthine complexity of the Forbidden City. At the height of the season, he claimed, there can be as many as 15,000 lost persons ‘turned in’ at the ‘Lost Persons’ office.

One may wonder why a Chinese communist government would glorify this gigantic symbol of arbitrary rule by all-powerful Emperors in thousands of years of dynastic history, and encourage its citizens to make a pilgrimage to see it. This is a good question with no simple answer. But if the Forbidden City represents some of the worst elements in Chinese history, it also stands as proof that China is a powerful and distinctive culture and has been for a very long time.

We duly tramped through the Forbidden City marveling at the scale of it all, but amazed that almost none of the buildings were open for viewing. Tourists come great distances to see one of the wonders of the world, but are exposed to very little that resembles life as it was lived here.

There are some changes in the works, however; later this year, the government will open Juanqinzhai (Lodge of Retirement) in the northeast corner of the Forbidden City. This is a theater room built by Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century, which was recently restored with painstaking care by Chinese artisans. Among the outstanding features of this room are the silk murals done by Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit missionary credited with introducing Western perspective painting techniques to China.

Mao’s Mausoleum and Tian’an Men Square
Finally, after trekking through miles of the Forbidden City we come to the gate where Chairman Mao Zedong famously addressed the adoring crowds in Tian’an Men Square on October 1, 1949 to proclaim the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Mao stood on a balcony of the gate facing away from the Forbidden City. He never entered the Forbidden City. He didn’t destroy it, but he saw it as a symbol of the worst of Chinese history.

Outside the gates of the Forbidden City, we crossed the street through a pedestrian tunnel with a security checkpoint to be admitted to Tian’an Men Guangchang (the Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace). The security is to prevent people from holding up banners for some protest or other.

Nothing much to see here except the vastness of it all, and to be reminded of all the wonderful and ugly things that have taken place here. The twentieth anniversary of the 1989 protests was upon us and authorities were making sure there would be no opportunity for a reprise.

The main building in the square is Mao’s Mausoleum, where the Chairman’s embalmed body is raised daily from its refrigerated chamber for morning and afternoon viewing. On either side of the square are two other massive buildings: the China National Museum and the Great Hall of the People where the National People’s Congress meets. It’s an impressive array of buildings and history and for the most part it is without any ideological oppressiveness. The heavy-handed propaganda and leader-worship of the past is pretty much gone.

Lunch at the Marvellous Maison Boulud

It was now lunch time and Marita had scouted out a new French restaurant much-praised in the expat press and located just off Tian’an Men Square. Standing there, in that square, one could not help but remember the images flashed across news screens around the world in '89. Lunch at the grand Maison Boulud seemed somehow disrespectful of all the history that had been lived just blocks away. But we had come a long way and were determined to experience all of Beijing - the old and the new!

Maison Boulud, located in an upscale enclave of restaurants and stores in what used to be the U.S. consular compound and now known as Legation Quarter, is owned by master chef Daniel Boulud, a restauranteur in New York. The setting is elegantly traditional, and the menu imaginative.

Our waiter urged us to try the DB (Daniel Boulud) Burger, which we found to be excellent – a sirloin burger filled with braised short ribs and foie gras. Dessert - the Tropical Fruit Coupe de Glace - was beautifully presented and delicately flavored. We were also pleasantly surprised by the quality of the Chinese wine served at Maison Boulud. It was a cabernet franc 2004Tasyas’ Reserve from Grace Vineyard in Shanxi province.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

Photos by Marita

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The Very Modern Face of Beijing

Classical Travels

After our all too brief encounter (12 hours!) with the fascinating city of Shanghai, we again boarded the Diamond Princess and settled in for several relaxing days at sea.

On the morning of the third day, our ship docked at Xingang, the closest port to Beijing. This was the final stop on our cruise, which had begun 16 days earlier in Bangkok. All 2,600 passengers disembarked here and headed for buses to travel the 100 km or so into Beijing.

The buses themselves were Chinese-made and looked like modern tour buses, but they were laid out for little people; there was barely enough room for me to sit with my legs sideways. After a 20 minute wait in the bus, off we went – about two blocks. We sat and sat in traffic, just inching along. At one point, our bus stalled. The driver had to get out and start it again with a crank. Then he got lost and had to turn the bus around. Next, much to our horror, when he missed an exit ramp on an expressway, he nonchalantly backed up in heavy traffic.

After about an hour of this unwelcome entertainment, we stopped at a restaurant for a toilet break. Three other buses had the same idea at the same time, making the line-ups for the toilets – two! – very long. These were traditional Chinese facilities; that is - holes in the floor! Duly relieved, off we went again, past endless rows of high-rise housing estates, and hundreds more under construction.

Three hours later, we arrived somewhere in Beijing. After a half hour of waiting and negotiation, we managed to arrange for local transportation and were on our way again across town to our hotel, the Intercontinental Beijing Beichen. As it happens, this Intercontinental was built for the Olympics in 2008 and sits right inside the new Olympic Park, overlooking the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium and the aqua blue swimming centre known as the Water Cube. A beautiful hotel and a stunning location on Beichen Road!

I had planned to attend a concert by the China National Symphony (conducted by Michel Plasson) on the evening of our arrival. I had seen it listed on the National Theatre website. I checked the website again after we had settled in, and also called in the very efficient concierge at our hotel for assistance, but the concert listing had disappeared!

From our vantage point near the Olympic Village, Beijing appears very modern, with impressive highway and rail infrastructure. The traditional, however, is much in evidence here too. The morning after we arrived, we visited the hutong area of central Beijing. This is the older part of the city, featuring walled houses with inner courtyards, separated by narrow alleyways. Many hutongs have been demolished to make way for new high-rise buildings, but there is a campaign underway to preserve at least some of them to honor the architecture and lifestyle of ancient times in Beijing.

I had hoped to see Red Cliff, the new Chinese Opera production directed by Zhang Yimou, one of China’s leading film directors (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern) and director of the spectacular show at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing; unfortunately, tonight’s performance of Red Cliff at National Centre for the Performing Arts was sold out months in advance!

Next in China Diary: The Forbidden City and Tian'an Men Square

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

Photos by Marita

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