The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.
August 5, 2008 4:09 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Once Yao Ming lights Beijing's Olympic cauldron and the 2008 Games begin, you'll hear a lot of talk about 'China' and 'the Chinese.'
Rightly so, because these are China's Olympic Games - Tibetan dissent notwithstanding, a truly unifying, national moment.
But it's worth remembering how enormous and diverse the Middle Kingdom is.
Several hundred miles northeast of Beijing there's a sliver of rugged, green land where most every morning reveals a 'blue sky day' and peddlers peddle leisurely, sniping at passersby in accented Korean.
"What're you doing up here?" a leathery man selling pears in Yanji city asked Monday. "The Olympics are in Beijing. Want to buy a pear?"
Yanji is the capital of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin province, home to two million people - 850,000 members of China's Korean ethnic minority. Yanji and Yanbian are wedged between China, North Korea and Russia.
The 2008 Games have proved more contentious than even Zhongnanhai's critics expected. Spurned by princes and marathoners, championed by movie stars and dictators, China's first-ever Olympics have elicited ethnic unrest and intense media scrutiny.
Chief among the questions fueling pre-Games debate here and abroad: whose Olympics are these? Are they China's? Are they the world's? Do they belong to big business? Or to the Chinese people? To the rich? To the poor? To Beijing? Or to the entire country?
Years ago, Beijing's Olympic organizers bestowed on the 2008 Games a trio of didactic 'concepts' : 'Hi-tech Olympics,' 'Humanistic Olympics,' and 'People's Olympics.'
According to their official website:
"People's Olympics means that we will take the hosting of the Olympic Games as an opportunity to popularize the Olympic spirit...We will always give first consideration to the need of people...We will also encourage the widest participation of the people in the preparation for the Games, as it will greatly push forward the sports and cultural development nationwide and increase the cohesion and pride of the Chinese nation."
Chinese Olympic volunteers number over two million, from crossing guards to Internet nannies. Contrary to popular belief on the streets of Beijing, millions of tickets to the Games were sold at affordable rates.
Yet for the residents of isolated Yanji, less than 100km west of North Korea and culturally distinct from Beijing, what Olympic ownership is there to claim?
A statue representing longevity presides over China's border with North Korea.
Crossing into North Korea from China without a visa is strictly forbidden.
Tourists snap photos from China's half of a bridge; a faded poster of Kim Il-Sung.
China's partnership with North Korea has suffered in recent years.
Many ethnic Koreans here will cheer for China during Beijing's Olympics.
"I've got nothing to do with the Olympics personally," explained a newspaper seller in Yanji who belongs to China's Han Chinese majority. "I don't have the means to attend the Games in Beijing.
"Even when the torch relay came through Yanji, I stayed to man my newspaper stand. I support the Olympics all the same, though. I'm proud of China."
This summer's domestic torch relay represents organizers' bid to include all of China in the Olympics. The sacred flame passed through more than 100 Chinese cities on its way to Beijing. It will reach the capital tomorrow; on July 16 the torch relay visited Yanji.
"Yeah, I went to see the torch relay here," said an energetic, ethnic Korean man spitting seeds outside his Yanji cornerstone. "It was really great, although it rained."
An old ethnic Korean man exploded when asked about Beijing's Games.
"Jiayou! Jiayou! Aoyun jiaoyou! Aoyun wansui!" he shouted. "Go! Go! Go Olympics! Long live the Olympics!
"We're Korean - we are a minority in China. We welcome outsiders. We're just like you," he continued, then launched into another cheer. "Friendship! Harmony! WorldpeaceOlympicGamestenthousandyears!"
South Korean fashions dominate the small Chinese city of Yanji.
In Jilin province's Yanbian Prefecture, dog is a popular dish. Here, pet dogs for sale.
Yanji is buslting thanks to Chinese and South Korean investment.
Locals - Korean and Chinese - favor hikes on Mao'er mountain, near Yanji.
Green vistas, blue skies, fresh air...a world away from Beijing.
Traditional Korean culture, including dance, is alive and well in Yanbian.
There are rumors of ethnic competition, and possibly resentment, in Yanji. Decades ago the city was overwhelmingly Korean - a sleepy metropolis in North Korea's shadow. During the China's Cultural Revolution, it's said that some Yanji Koreans fled over the border.
Refugees cross from North Korea to China now, and Yanji's economy has taken off thanks to a booming Chinese markets and South Korean investment. South Koreans manage a top-notch university: the Yanbian College of Science and Technology.
"My older brother works for Samsung - a South Korean firm - in Guangzhou," said one recent graduate, a third-generation ethnic Korean.
In 1952 ethnic Koreans accounted for 60 percent of Yanbian's population - today half that. Yanji is a relatively prosperous city, and Han Chinese are moving in.
"Most Chaozu (ethnic Koreans) support China and the 2008 Games," the newspaper seller said. "The ones who don't, it's a personality problem. It's got nothing to do with their ethnicity."
"There are no ethnic problems here," said a female migrant worker from Liaoning province. "We're all for the Olympics and China."
"I've lived here 30 years," said a Beijing native and artist. "I was assigned to Yanji by the government after college graduation. We Chinese are peace-loving people. We avoid conflict. For all of us, these Olympics are a dream come true."
Koreans came to Yanbian in two waves - first in the 19th century, and again between the World Wars. Many sought refuge in China during Japan's 20th century occupation of Korea.
"My parents fled the Japanese, immigrated to Yanji," a 47-year old ethnic Korean said. "I was born here. The Olympics haven't really changed our lives. If South Korea were to face China during the Games, I suppose I'd cheer for the country with more athletic ability."
"We'll support China against Korea during the Olympics, of course," said a 16-year old boy. "Our family immigrated from Korea 20 years ago, but there's no difference between us and our Han neighbors."
Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:
June 7, 2008 5:53 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
A Qianmen hutong district scene (photo credit: Everywhere Magazine)
This spring, I penned a travel story for Everywhere Magazine. My assignment: acquaint the magazine's globe-trotting readers with what's left of pre-1978 Beijing. I profiled six sites - White Cloud (Taoist) Temple, Jingshan Park, Guo Morou's Former Courtyard Residence, the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution, Qianmen hutong district and Beijing's Ancient Observatory.
A hundred years ago, Beijing was an imperial village - a jumble of narrow, stone alleys winding towards the East's most imposing palace. Gugong (the Forbidden City) remains China's symbolic center and the heart of 21st century Beijing. But Beijing is no longer an imperial village. It's an economic miracle, a cosmopolitan boomtown and the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world. In 2001, Beijing won the right to host this summer's Games. Seven years, 2.7 billion square feet of construction, 11 new sports venues and a US$2.8 billion airport later, Beijing is a global city and a city transformed. Still, this was China's capital for five centuries. There are sites yet where an informed visitor may experience Old Peking.
- from 'New Olympics, Old Peking' (May/June Everywhere Magazine)
Check out the full story - plus photos - here.
If you're planning a summer trip to China, check out the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee's new legal guidelines for visitors from abroad. On June 2, the committee listed six types of foreigners who will not be welcome during the Games. Here's the list (translated and posted on Danwei):
1. People who have been deported or prohibited from entering China by the Chinese government.
2. Those who are suspected might commit acts of terrorism, violence or subversion after entering China.
3. Those who are suspected might engage in smuggling, drug dealing or prostitution after entering China
4. Those suffering from mental disorders or insanity, sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis or other infectious diseases.
5. Those who cannot guarantee their ability to support themselves financially while in China.
6. Those who are suspected might engage in any acts that threaten the security or interests of China.
The United States embassy in China has compiled an 'Olympics 2008' fact sheet for American citizens. Beijing bound? Then check it out.
April 6, 2008 4:23 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
The Olympic Games, like other forms and functions of today's globalization, involve exchange. Ideas, investments, insults, accords - flow from host to guests and guests to host. In 2008, what will or should pass between the two? And to what end?
Most Chinese expect this year's Olympics to further mutual understanding, of a non-topical sort. Lessons in history, language and culture - these are the goods China has hoped to send and receive.
On August 8, any number of pressing realities could block such an exchange: ethnic unrest in Tibet, Saharan skirmishes, acidic skies. But assuming not...even then, will the world leave Beijing 16 days later with a useful perspective on China?
"The 2008 Games can't represent all of China," a Shenzhen migrant worker said. "Our customs and lives are different down here."
Shenzhen, a subtropical metropolis minutes by light-rail north of Hong Kong, won't host an Olympic event this summer (Beijing, Qingdao, Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenyang, Qinhuangdao and Hong Kong will).
"You Americans should know," a 16-year old high schooler said, "that Shenzhen is a beautiful city, a modern city and China's New York for the future."
Shenzhen is legendary - a bubbling monument to post-1978 reform. Thirty years ago, when Mao Zedong's successor Deng Xiaoping named Shenzhen a Special Economic Zone (1980), it was a fishing village. One of five such zones - experiments in free-market capitalism - Shenzhen exploded.
Now home to millions of Chinese - survivors, escapees, dreamers and self-made millionaires - the city may soon join its economic strength to Hong Kong's. Shenzhen boasts the world's ninth-tallest building and a stock exchange of 540 companies and 35 million registered investors.
Unlike nearby cities, where most people speak Guandonghua (Cantonese), Mandarin Chinese is the norm in Shenzhen. That's because the city has slurped up migrants from all over China. Reportedly, 70 percent of 'Shenzheners' lack hukou (permanent residence permits). Most are less than 30 years old.
"Shenzhen is better for migrants than other Chinese cities," said the worker, who keeps a bag and umbrella shop. "It's better because we're all new. There's less discrimination here."
"Our diversity is our economic strength," explained a high school English teacher, originally from Hubei province. "Shenzhen is an miracle - to add 12 million people in just three decades. And Shenzhen is a melting pot, like the United States."
For years, a fence sealed freewheeling Shenzhen away. Inside the fence: construction workers, hypermarkets and Internet cafes. Outside: slums, sweat-shops and crime - what acclaimed American author Peter Hessler dubbed the 'Overnight City.'
Shenzhen's economy grew 28 percent a year (average) between 1980 and 2004 - powered by assembly-line exports like mouse-pads, bra-straps and phony Christmas trees.
China's first SEZ has yet to discard the hukou system - migrant communities still ring Shenzhen. But the city has outgrown its former isolation. Commuters and shoppers cross daily in droves from Hong Kong. Cars and trucks speed freely between Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
The city's developers are gobbling up Guangdong farm land and moving mountains, literally. Shenzhen is expanding so fast suburban roads hadn't reached a newly built school of 1,000 students this winter.
"Many people are worried about the Olympics and Beijing's environment," one of those students, a high-school freshman said. Roughly half of her classmates were born in Shenzhen. "We have air and water pollution too. You notice it walking outside. Just open a window. Shenzhen has many cars and factories."
Known as a manufacturing hub, Shenzhen may be switching gears. A number of domestic hi-tech firms have emerged in the city. There's Tencent, for example. More than 500 million web-surfers here use Tencent's instant messaging platform, QQ. Despite its substantial migrant worker population - nearly 6 million in 2005 - Shenzhen has become one of China's wealthiest, best-educated cities.
"Shenzhen is a developed city," a tourist from Hunan province commented admiring. "Hunan is a farm."
In fact, Shenzhen proper resembles an enormous shopping center. Think pristine white storefronts. Think double-escalators. Think Gucci. Once on Shenzhen's subway - which stops below more than one mall - it's possible to forget the city's suffocating sun.
A self-styled 'City of Joy,', Shenzhen lacks cultural-historical cache. In other words, a Shenzhener's joy has plenty to do with his or her salary.
"Shenzhen is less civilized than Beijing," said a necklace seller from Jiangsu province. "Shenzhen is a city by the sea. Shenzhen is developing too fast."
Away from the SEZ's glitziest avenues, bargain seekers and over-worked youngsters squat beneath palm trees.
"We've been in Shenzhen for three years," said the umbrella seller. "Life here is okay. There were no opportunities at home, for sure.
"On the one hand, the Olympics should benefit our economy. On the other, most people won't see a profit. The Exchange rates are falling. Our salaries are low. There's too many of us, and no job security.
"You Americans complain about poor-quality Chinese goods. But the brand-name products we make earn your companies a lot and us very little."
Back in the classroom at one of Shenzhen's newest schools, Beijing's Games solicited less jaded reactions.
"We all love the Olympics," a smooth-talking freshman said. "After the Games, more foreigners will visit Shenzhen."
"China will win gold medals this year," a demure girl announced proudly, as her friends broke into song. "We are the champions, we are the champions...of the world."
"Why are the Olympic Games important?" the girl continued. "In 2008, China will communicate with other countries, improve its reputation and stand tall before the world."
Beijing is China's Olympic face, and will host 2008's most heralded global exchange. Why?
For the same reason Beijing's Games won't encapsulate all that is 'China.' There's no Chinese city quite like it.
"Beijing is an ancient city," a wedding planner explained. "Shenzhen's only three decades old. If we hosted the Olympic Games, you'd see a different China."
Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:
April 1, 2008 3:28 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
What are your thoughts on the Olympic Games?
Grimacing, a craggy South Asian tailor betrayed himself and his city - then resumed pacing Hong Hong's notorious Nathan Road.
"Olympics? China Travel Tours," he shot back, disappearing beneath heavy eyebrows. "My thoughts? Go away."
Hong Kong - a dense island metropolis of 7 million people, rising deep green from the surf off China's south coast - will host the 2008 Olympic equestrian events from August 9-21.
The world's nimblest horses and ablest riders should enjoy Hong Kong. They'll trot right around Beijing's crowds and pollution. What's less sure is this: will the citizens of Hong Kong enjoy Olympic equestrian?
Some Hong Kongers are frustrated. Some aren't. Most all of them recognize what co-hosting in 2008 means: the Mainland Chinese have arrived...and plan to stay. Hong Kong, formerly a British colony, passed to the People's Republic in 1997.
"We're excited for the Olympics," a middle-aged woman selling gag gifts - fake spiders and rubber hot dogs - at Stanley Market crowed. "The Games are good for us, because Hong Kong is part of China. China is the father and Hong Kong is the son."
An old man pouring over newspaper stock reports disagreed.
"I'm not so keen on the Olympic Games," he said, crossing one slender, bony leg over the other. "They've become a meddlesome political affair, not a sports competition.
"All these (Mainland) Chinese in Hong Kong are very hot about it. The city has completely changed. Hong Kongers have become a bunch of yes men - we've lost our morals. I prefer the old Hong Kong, yet China is a giant. What can we do?"
In 2005, Olympic organizers moved the equestrian contest 1250 miles from Beijing to ensure a disease-free zone for the horses. Substandard quarantine procedures and health concerns nessecitated the switch.
Hong Kong Olympic committee president Timothy Fok embraced the decision.
"Hong Kong is delighted to have this opportunity to contribute further to the Olympic Movement," Fok, a Hong Kong legislator aligned with the city's pro-Beijing wing told Xinhua. "Supporters of equestrian sport can rest assured that we will do everything we can to host them in the best possible way."
A colony for 135 years and a global financial center, Hong Kong boasts its own unqiue culture - fast-paced and cosmopolitan. Here, wedged between skyscrapers and tropical hills, British, Chinese and South Asian personalities dance.
Apprehension gripped Hong Kong a decade ago as the island prepared for its return to communist China. Declaring 'one country, two systems,' PRC leaders granted the government of Hong Kong responsibility for its own legal system, police force, monetary system, customs policy, immigration policy and delegates to international organizations (e.g. the International Olympic Committee) - at least until 2047.
Hong Kong had established strong economic ties with the Mainland already - serving as China's main source of foreign investment following that country's 1978 reforms. In 1979, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping designated Shenzhen, then a Mainland fishing village just north of Hong Kong, a Special Economic Zone. But the handover's political implications bothered Hong Kongers who valued the island's British heritage and those who advocated democracy.
Of the 25.25 million tourists who visited Hong Kong in 2007, 13.58 million were Mainland Chinese. Thousands commute from Shenzhen to Hong Kong every day. Despite expectations that Hong Kongers would gain universal suffrage by 2012, Beijing announced last December that a 400-member committee would select the city's Chief Executive Officer until 2017.
The 2008 Olympic Games - for many Mainland Chinese a source of national pride - have recieved patchy support from Hong Kongers who claim complicated identities.
"We don't know much about horse jumping," said a young Hong Kong hosteler, speaking English (most of the city's citizens speak Catonese rather than Mandarin Chinese. "We like football and horse racing. We Hong Kongers think local. The Olympics are coming and we don't really care. If you want to know more about horse jumping you can go to the Jockey Club."
Few Hong Kongers are familiar with equestrian, an extremely expensive sport. According to the Tapei Times, Hong Kong contains just 1,000 to 1,500 regular riders. Legislators, concerned about the 'lukewarm' reception the Games have recieved, earmarked US$20 million for Olympics promotion last year.
In fact, horse-racing is a wildly popular pursuit in Hong Kong - where the sport collects over 10 percent of the metropolis' annual tax revenue. Hong Kongers like horses, and like to bet. Still, a series of international horse shows at facilities in Hong Kong's New Territories were sparsely attended in 2007.
The city - working with Mainland organizers - has sponsored a number of stunts to build excitement around August's Games.
In February, Hollywood Kung Fu star Jackie Chan pulled on riding boots and a hard helmet to publicize Hong Kong's Olympic role. Last month, more than 3,000 participants, including 1,000 members of the People's Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison, planted trees for the Games.
Eighteen life-sized horse statues designed by local artists - one for each of Hong Kong's districts - rode forth on March 3 to engage a disinterested public. Also in March, 548,000 people attended Victoria Park's annual flower show. The theme this year: Beijing's Olympics.
"We're all proud of the Games," said an elderly woman tacking a 2008 Olympics poster up by Hong Kong's waterfront. Splintered fishing junks bobbed in the background. "Before we considered ourselves Hong Kongers first. That's starting to change."
On the one hand, Hong Kong is a jewel in China's crown - a brilliant, sophisticated jewel. But the city's co-hosting of the 2008 Olympics carries certain risks for an anxious government in Beijing.
Switzerland's equestiran team has announced it won't attend the Games and two bronze-medalist Canadian riders told a Toronto newspaper that Hong Kong's August heat would keep them away as well.
Protestors for an independent Tibet and/or Chinese intervention in Sudan's Darfur are planning to disrupt the 2008 Olympic Torch Relay - history's most ambitious. As the Torch winds its way to China, there's only so much Beijing's organizers can do. But here in the PRC...
A high-profile stop on the torch's domestic tour, Hong Kong is no stranger to political protest. The torch arrives on April 30.
For Hong Kong, the Olympics are becoming a balancing act. In early March, Chinese reporters and consumers blasted Adidas - the global sportswear brand - for a line of sports bags and polo shirts released in Hong Kong. The bags and shirts featured an Adidas logo...on China's national flag.
Chinese law forbids using the flag for commercial purposes - something Adidas claims it was aware of. The bags and shirts, according to the company, were marketed only in Hong Kong and not on the mainland. Hong Kongers are often stereotyped as trendy and materialistic.
"They're ready for the Olympics in Beijing - we're ready here too," a middle-aged woman said. "Head to a sports bar if you're a fan of the Games."
Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:
February 25, 2008 1:27 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Urumqi - the capital city of China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region - gets cold. Monster icicle cold. Chest-constricting cold. Double head scarf cold.
I left wind-lashed Urumqi four days ago and my nose - more accustomed to Seattle drizzle - still smarts.
I'd had fair warning - a number of friends in Beijing tried to dissuade me from visiting Xinjiang in February (I headed for Urumqi on February 8). "It's freezing there," one counseled. "You'd better reschedule."
"All the sites will be covered in snow," remarked another sage Beijinger, "You'll have nothing to do."
And of course, they were right. Xinjiang - an ancient, enormous desert ringed with mountains and rugged oases - is a summertime destination. Think scorching heat, camel caravans and juicy cold slices of melon.
East of Turpan, along Xinjiang's well-trod Silk Road (a sequence of overland trade routes that once connected West and East Asia), and a valley of vineyards rise the dramatic Flaming Mountains - what remains of charcoals knocked from Heaven by China's legendary Monkey King.
As a acquaintance of mine joked on a stroll through Urumqi - "Xinjiang's like a pretty girl. All bundled up, she's not much to look at."
"This was my only chance," I explained. "I'm expecting to sweat out the summer exclusively in smoggy, Olympic Beijing."
Fortunately, Xinjiang - hemmed in by Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, Kazakstan and the Yellow River Valley 2,000 miles to Beijing's northwest - is more than a moonscape. It's also a cultural confluence. In Xinjiang, where rain rarely falls, Eurasia's greatest civilizations have time and again coursed - crashing - together.
Genghis Khan once ruled the region. So did Atilla the Hun. Siddhartha's Bhuddism made its way through Xinjiang, as did Nestorian Christianity. Islam, too.
They first flocked to Xinjiang's Silk Road bazaars two thousand years ago, but more Chinese settlers are streaming into the region today than ever before. Xinjiang has passed in and out of Chinese hands since 60 B.C., when the Han Dynasty made it a protectorate.
In 1933 a rebellion in the area of Kashgar led to the independence of the Turkish Islamic Republic of Eastern Turkestan / Republic of Uyghurstan. A year later the region fell back into Chinese hands. Communist China's People's Liberation Army entered Xinjiang in 1949. In 1955, the province Xinjiang was relabeled an autonomous region.
Ethnically, Xinjiang's Chinese are still a minority - outnumbered by Turkic, mostly Muslim peoples: Kazaks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tartars and Uyghurs. The region's population is roughly 45% Uyghur and 40% Chinese.
Xinjiang's Uyghurs, in particular, are now engaged in an effort to preserve their own unique traditions and honor the area's rich history.
And so, Urumqi's cold - which preceded Kashgar's cold and southwest Xinjiang's cold - proved of little consequence. Far away from Beijing's 2008 Olympic Games, I found what I hoped to find and more: an unforgettable series of living snapshots, which I'll attempt to share with you now.
Xinjiang - living snapshots:
- Row upon row of broad, deep blue-veined mountains, peaks crumpled up against peaks, just beyond and below the shining wing of my airplane
- Quarter-sized dollops of bathwater condensing on a filthy showerhouse ceiling (a deal more threatening than the establishment's two Chinese proprietors - biting hard on cigarettes, posing like gangsters, watching a Uyghur sitcom out front)
- The concrete skeleton of a 25-story high-rise gutted by fire and scarred with soot, on the road into Urumqi
- Ten-foot tall, cork-board daggers posted down tundra roads; 'get'm here!'
- A jutting jumble of storefronts, double-decked along a snowy boulevard, advertising canine furs and American hubcaps...in Mandarin, Russian and Uyghur
- A Kashgar porter washing his muddy, gnarled hands, bumpy and knotted like rhododendron roots
- Lock-boxes, furniture feet and Formica front doors piled high inside an Urumqi exporter's office...marked for Kazakstan
- A greater variety in boxy fur hats and chinstrap beards than I'd ever imagined might exist
- A silvery sliver of a crescent moon laid like a sword on its back high in the blackest black above Kashgar's old city (as beautiful as it was impossible to capture with my digital camera)
- Red raisins, green raisins, yellow, brown and maroon raisins, purple raisins, black raisins, goldish/organish/clearish raisins...
- Ornate brass kabob grills manned by Uyghur boys with wispy beards and elderly eyes
- Sky blue and green gilded doors...opening into Kashgar's mud-straw courtyards, opening onto Kashgar's high-walled alleys
- A gigantic, five-year old, much minaret-ed International Bazaar, home to Urumqi's most popular KFC, its largest French mega-market and 1,750 identical camel whips...a questionably tasteful reincarnation of Xinjiang's Silk Road culture
- Fifty one computer animators, aged 18-23, with questions concerning the United States: What do you know about Xinjiang? Do you like Uyghur noodles? Have you met George W. Bush?
- A glossy VCD joint blasting Uyghur-pop, plastered with Eminem, 50 Cent and Yanni album covers
- Urumqi cabs passing in the night; back-seat rides only after dusk
- A mustachioed midfielder romping across Kashgar's best dirt-pack soccer pitch, an enormous American flag stitched onto the front of his black turtleneck sweater and "PUERTO RICO" emblazoned across its back
- Pounding out tin water basins, street-side, in rhythm
- A weary line of muleteers scatter before my honking bus as it hurtles in the direction of Afghanistan; they've no doubt seen the Yugoslav World War II flick drawing cheers from my fellow passengers
- Girl meets boy, falls in love, becomes pregnant, falls out of love, has abortion, sheds tears of self-loathing, wades into 'Sea of Death' (Taklimakan Desert), disappears...a popular Uyghur movie
- A young woman veiled up to her eyes flirting with clerks at Kashgar's Xinhua bookstore
- AIDS...Xinjiang boasts the highest HIV infection rate anywhere in China
- Albert Einstein, Deng Xiaoping and an 11th-century Muslim Uyghur scholar, watching over an Urumqi bookstore (thanks, Photoshop)
- Boiled carrots, piled over boiled potatoes, piled over mutton, piled over rice
- Crusted purple snow stretching flat towards a muted sunset
- Bunches of crisp bowler hats conferring outside a large, dingy restaurant
Stay tuned for posts on Urumqi's techno wizards and Olympic sentiment in Kashgar. Will these 2008 Games benefit the Chinese whole, or Beijing alone?
Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:
February 7, 2008 3:14 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
On February 8, I will leave Beijing for the capital city of China's Xinjiang Autonomous Uyghur Autonomous Region. From there I will proceed on to Kashgar, a predominantly Muslim, ethnically non-Chinese city famous for its Silk Road bazaar.
Blogging Beijing will not be updated again until mid-to-late February. In the meantime, please check the archives for entries you may have missed (especially 'The People's Wall - February 5).
Entries planned for after my trip to Xinjiang include - a look at green automobiles and the 2008 Games, a catalogue of Beijing street foods, a glimpse of Beijingers' daily commutes and an examination into cursing at the Olympics. Thanks for reading - and for your patience!
Xinjiang is an enormous region and primarily desert, although it boasts alpine terrain in the north and Tibetan plateau in the south. Home to a number of non-Chinese ethnic groups, including Uyghurs, Kazaks, Uzbeks, Mongols and Kyrgyz, and known for its diverse and beautiful natural scenery as well as its unique customs, it is located in China's extreme northwest.
Urumqi is a large, quickly developing city that recently acquired a Chinese ethnic majority. Kashgar is a center of Uyghur history and culture. I also plan to travel to other parts of Xinjiang, including the region's north. Uyghurs are ethnically Turks, and speak a Turkic language.
Some, but not all, of Xinjiang's Uyghurs advocate Uyghur indepedence from China. They have been targeted in past Chinese government crackdowns. Despite much talk of separatism and terrorism in Xinjiang, particularly following 9/11, there have been no major violent incidents related to ethnic conflicts since the late 1990s.
On January 5, 2007, when Chinese security forces raided a terrorist training camp in southern Xinjiang 18 people were killed. The critically acclaimed American author Peter Hessler wrote about Uyghurs in his latest book on China - 'Oracle Bones.'
I will be exploring Uyghur culture, Xinjiang's history and the region's relationship with the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Happy Chinese New Year!
January 29, 2008 7:13 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Last week, Blogging Beijing checked out Tianjin. According to one discerning reader and Tianjin local, however, there's much more to see. "Huge changes have taken place in the past few years - partially due to the Olympics," Cao Likun commented. Tianjin is a big city and I visited on a gray, chilly day. Many thanks to Likun for these photos.
Tianjin's brand-new, teardrop-shaped Olympic soccer stadium.
The city's former British Concession.
Tianjin's Drum Tower by night.
January 23, 2008 9:47 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Olympics travel tip #1: if you think Beijing is gray, if you think Beijing is grimy, if you think Beijing is chaotic, sprawling or strange, spend a day in nearby Tianjin.
A municipality home to over 10 million people and China's most important seaport in the north, Tianjin will host a number of preliminary Olympics soccer matches this August. By then, the city will boast a brand new, teardrop 60,000-seat stadium and a bullet train to Beijing.
Tianjin is a potential economic powerhouse - its annual GDP now exceeds US$54.4 billion - but has, in recent years, lagged behind Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing. The municipality's urban center, which wraps around a broad river 45 kilometers in from the sea, is dotted with European colonial structures (following the Second Opium War in 1858, Britain, France, Japan, Germany, Russia, Italy, Belgium and Austria-Hungary all maintained concessions in Tianjin), and supposedly suffused with north China's tastiest deep-fried xiaochi ('little eats').
Last weekend, I woke up early and hopped a huoche ('fire-car') east to Tianjin. The train station was packed with Chunyun (Spring Festival) travelers headed home. My one-way ticket cost about US$5 - 42 yuan.
The trip took 70 minutes (bullet trains will soon cut that in half), the seats were comfortable and I had plenty of legroom. The countryside between Beijing and Tianjin appeared altogether dreary.
"Where to go in Tianjin?" my cabdriver, a pony-tailed, middle-aged woman, repeated the question. "Well, there is Food Street, and there's Ancient Culture Street. And, um...why are you here, anyway? Tianjin isn't really a fun city."
An hour earlier, my train had coasted into Tianjin - playing that soft, instrumental 'arrival' music ubiquitous to Chinese rail. The city's East Railway Station is kind of a dump - at least compared to Beijing's two biggest. Cold and sleepy, I hurried off the platform and across a muddy, wobbly 'skybridge.'
By the time I reached the station exit, other passengers from my train had already formed a ticket line by the gate. I joined them - anxious as they to secure my seat back to Beijing.
A handful of leather-coated cabbies swooped in on me as I lef the station, and I ducked into a mammoth convenience store. Because train rides in China can be so long, people often stock up on snacks before getting on.
Emerging from the store four yuan (50 US cents) poorer and one milk-tea richer, I hailed a battered, maroon taxi. We made for Tianjin's most celebrated tourist attraction - Ancient Culture Street. "I'm here researching the 2008 Olympics," I explained, then asked my driver about Tianjin and the Games.
"Yes, we're going to have soccer," she confirmed. "But, you know, I don't love soccer. I don't think I'll go."
Are there tickets on sale in Tianjin? She didn't know.
"We're supposed to learn some English - just like the cabbies in Beijing," she remarked. Her eyes wrinkled mischievously in the car's rear view mirror. "I just haven't started yet."
We turned onto one of Tianjin's main drags, which runs along the west bank of the Haihe River, and passed a construction site. A loud, concerned crowd of men had stopped working - one held a bloody rag to his hard-hatless skull.
Beijng's Olympic spin-doctors have christened Tianjin a 'Diamond on the Bohai Gulf.' Odd, modern bridges span the Haihe at regular intervals and seven new subway lines are currently under construction.
Tianjin hardly shines, though. Located downstream and downwind from Beijing, it's received more waste from the capital's factories than attention from Beijing's environmental stewards. Chinese cars are produced in Tianjin. Manufacturing accounts for half of the municipality's economy.
Tianjin has been compared to Baltimore - a once proud metropolis down-and-out in the shadow of China's capital. A Washington Post soccer blogger, in fact, recently nicknamed it 'Tiangrim.' Philadelphia is Tianjin's American sister-city. And for those of us familiar with the Pacific Northwest: Tacoma, anyone?
Ancient Culture Street sounded unpromising - another kitschy souvenir village. Beijing is full of quasi-historical sites where tourists and pushy tourist-hunters swarm.
Sure enough, the street was quite fake.
Fake, but great. Lined with knick-knacks, paved with flagstones and trimmed with red Chunjie lanterns, Ancient Culture Street was, unpredictably, beautiful. Lots cute Chinese kids around. Not many foreigners. Less crowded than Beijing.
A slim man selling miniature, handcrafted shoes as key chains was thrilled to show his wares off.
"Yes," he said, laughing. "I make them myself. Let's see...Yes, here's some soccer cleats. Do you like them? Nigh-keh! (Nike)."
I spoke with a woman hawking intricate red paper-cuts - the Chinese character for happiness, a flower, some Fuwa (cartoon mascots for Beijing 2008).
"We're very excited about the Games here in Tianjin," she told me. "Thanks in part to the Olympics, our salaries are rising - I used to make 700 yuan a month (US$90), now I make 1000 (US$115). Still, we're behind Beijing economically. I don't know why - that's for the leaders and the businessmen to decide."
It was freezing on Ancient Culture Street (Tianjin's weather is similar to Beijing's - cold and dry in the winter, hot and humid in the summer). Fortunately, a chatang team had set up shop right in the heart of the action.
Chatang ('tea soup') is made with a flour-based paste. Boiling water is poured onto the paste. Then sugars, spices and bits of dried fruit are added. It was fun to watch the chatang cook add water by tipping a huge, brass cauldron.
"In Chinese history, the three most important cities have been Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin," an antique-seller explained, inviting me into his store to keep warm. "In fact, Tianjin opened to 'the West' and began to develop first."
"Now Beijing is China's political and cultural capital," he said. "Tianjin is just an economic center."
What about the Olympics, I asked him. Could the Games help restore Tianjin's past glory?
"Of course, we're all happy about the Olympics," he answered. "They should be good for Tianjin. We've built the Shui Di soccer stadium, for instance. It's our Niao Chao ('Bird's Nest' - the new National Stadium in Beijing). I just heard on the news last night that 60 percent of China's international trade flows through Tianjin. But Beijing will have everyone watching it during the Games. Tianjin won't. Everyone here is studying English, but we have a problem. We aren't as well-mannered perhaps as those in Beijing."
"This year (meaning the current Chinese lunar year, which ends next month) our lives haven't changed," the 36-year old Tianjin native said. "But next year our business should be better. We'll bring up antiques from southern China - so that the foreign tourists will be able to buy them here."
An elderly woman shop-keeper also offered me a seat - a gesture rare in Beijing.
"I don't have anything against the Olympics," she explained. "But they won't change our lives. We've no time to go see the Games. I suppose we'll watch them on T.V."
Her middle-aged co-worker had something to say.
"It's too bad Tianjin got soccer," he complained. "China's team is horrible! And still the players make so much money!"
"We’ve lived here all our lives," the old woman added. "In the past there weren't all these tall buildings. I'm glad the transportation system is better. But the price of housing is now very high and Tianjin's poor are extremely poor.”
I left Ancient Culture Street in time to witness an open-fist slap fight between a bus driver and an auto-rickshaw driver - it ended abruptly when the latter's vehicle started to coast away - and headed for Wanghailou Church on foot. Perched over the Haihe near Ancient Culture Street, Wanghailou was built by French missionaries in 1869 and was the scene of a showdown between Christian and non-Christian Tianjiners one year later. The clash stemmed from reports that Christians were kidnapping and mutilated young Chinese children.
In a park near Wanghailou, I chatted with an older man.
"I think we're hosting some soccer matches," he said. "But I'm not really sure. What I know is that more foreigners are arriving. They're becoming more interested in Tianjin."
A quick trip to Food Street took up the rest of my day in Tianjin. Food Street was disappointing - just a bare, boring mall.
"I'm not really a soccer fan," my second cabbie, an affable fifty-year old man, admitted on the way back to the train station. "I guess I like our new stadium. Other than that…I haven't heard much about the Olympics. I keep busy driving."
Note: If you make it to Tianjin, check out the city's Boxer Rebellion Museum. The Boxer Rebellion was a Chinese social and military movement against foreign influence in trade, politics, religion and technology during the final years of the Qing Dynasty (1899-1901). Tianjin's Zhou Enlai Memorial Hall might be worth a visit too.
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"I'm not so keen on the Olympic Games"
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