20 May 2016
Today I am going on a tour to see Gaobeidian Village with a thousand years of history and award-winning modern developments. This is a great tour to do if you are spending more time in Beijing and have already seen (or are going to see) the main sights.
My tour is not until the afternoon, so I make the most of a leisurely morning to sort out my luggage, do some washing, and explore the Dong Fang hotel and surrounds. I have a breakfast buffet included in the hotel restaurant and it has something to cater to every taste. I have congee – a kind of rice porridge – that Liverpool suggested for upset stomachs. I was going to stay a while in the restaurant but every time I got up to get something from the buffet (or just a drink) my plates were cleared away finished or not and someone else sat in my place. So I explored the hotel instead. It is a beautiful century old building now serving a bit like a museum with fascinating painting and artefacts everywhere. It was built in 1918 and was a major venue for many events during the various cultural revolutions. My room is very plain but apparently some of the rooms are done up as they would have been when different famous people stayed there.
My legs are starting to complain at yesterday’s exertions so I decide to get a massage. They are only available in the evenings at the hotel, so I get instructions to a local massage place nearby. It was mostly frequented by locals and not a word of English was spoken but they did have a price card in English and I was able to select a 60 min Body Massage for 138 yuan (NZ$31). The massage was conducted fully clothed with lots of kneading and pounding of my sore muscles – but I did feel considerably looser afterwards. As I walked the streets a little I discovered that we were next door to a teaching hospital and a block away from a full hospital. It is much less developed area than around my first hotel and just has a few local hole in the wall shops.
Keeping up the relaxed morning theme, I went back to the old coffee shop at the hotel and whiled away some time sitting in a shady courtyard with a book and an iced tea before it was time to prepare for the afternoon’s adventures.
I am picked up by a my tour guide Jerry and am to be chauffeured for the day by a very suave looking driver in a shiny new black Audi. It is a bit slow to get out of the area around the hotel and Jerry tells me that it is still a hutong area that hasn’t yet been fully modernised. In contrast to the hutongs we visited earlier in the week, these were for the poorer people and often only had room for a bicycle to fit between. Some of them are still inhabited and share a toilet between many houses. But these are slowly being replaced with apartment blocks, schools and other public buildings. I can see some pretty ramshackle ones from my bedroom window.
Getting out of town takes quite some time even at 2.00 in the afternoon. We are heading out past the Sixth Ring Road East. On the way we pass the original Beijing city wall. Only a 3km stretch has been retained as a park today but most has been demolished to open up the city as it expanded. Out to the 2nd ring road was in the original Beijing city. The Forbidden City wall could be considered to be the first ring. There is a magnificent city wall gate still preserved as well. This is close to the Beijing Railway Station. I am struck again by the greenness of the city and the beautiful roses that line the expressways.
There is a statue in front of Gaobeidian Village commemorating a famous scientist. Guo Shoujing (1231-1316) was a famous astronomer and mathematician, and a leading hydraulics expert of the time. He lived during the Yuan Dynasty and was ordered by Kublai Khan (the ruler of most of China at that time) to build the Tonghui River – the final section of the Grand Canal linking Tongzhou on the coast and the centre of Beijing. The river was small and meandering and needed a lot of engineering to turn it into a navigable canal. The ancient Ping Jin Floodgate at Goabeidian to control the water level. The eastern section of the river was much lower than the west section, so a series of three gates was required. Only a small part of this remains now but you can see the original wharf area complete with a temple to the river dragon where they could make offerings to help prevent flooding. This project was a huge success and Kublai Khan was very pleased and sent him off to manage similar projects in other parts of the empire.
Beside the wharf area is a large public square with a giant screen. This was built by the government so that the villagers could watch the Beijing Olympics. There is a park area with over 20 statues representing a range of values such as respecting and taking care of the elderly. And then a temple to the Dragon King that is much larger than the smaller temple on the wharf. My local guide explains (via Jerry) that at certain times of year there are festivals where people can come and touch the large carving of the dragon, tracing its length and then touching the image of their lucky animal. The Chinese character in the middle represents happiness. Large incense burners dominate the central courtyard area.
Next stop is a ‘People’s Commune Museum’ that tells the story of the history of the village, from its times as a tiny farming and fishing village, the building of the canal, life under Chairman Mao and then through to today. The people’s communes used to be the highest of three administrative levels in rural areas from 1958 to 1978. These were divided into production brigades and production teams. The communes had governmental, political and economic functions. There are some great photos showing the rapid development in recent times: in 2000 it was a poor rundown hutong area; since 2005 there has been a massive redevelopment to turn it into an award-winning modern environment. About 8,000 people live in Goabeidian and are delighted with their new accommodation in planned 3 storey apartments that allow them to live on different floors with family members. There are often shops and restaurants on the bottom floors. This residential area was only built in 2009.
We visit a private kindergarten in the residential area. Children start kindergarten at the age of 2 and continue through until they are at least 6 years old; they are divided into lower, middle and upper classes. When we arrive the younger ones have just woken up from their afternoon nap and are sitting nicely at little tables having a drink. They all dutifully chant ‘Ni hao’ when I arrive but are mostly too shy (or perhaps they are still waking up) to do much else. The older children come downstairs from their lessons and present me with their English readers. I was asked if I wanted to read with them but this consisted of them chanting the lines by memory, very loudly. Then they sang me a song and did some dance routines – it was just delightful.
My next activity is at a little painting studio to learn how to paint a Beijing Opera Mask. These are works of art in their own right and came about from the days when plays and operas were the main type of entertainment. If there were big crowds most people couldn’t see the expressions on the actors faces, so the masks were developed as a way for people to better understand the characters and what was going on. A red face usually represents heroic bravery, uprightness and loyalty; a white face depicts a sinister and treacherous character and a green face symbolise stubbornness, impetuousness and lack of self-restraint. First I am shown a magnificent mask painted by the artist, and then a photo of a basic version for me to try. I mark out the lines in pencil on the plaster mask and then am shown how to paint the different colours using different brushes. It is all a bit of a rush and as the only ‘pupil’ I get far too much attention with constant instruction and pointing in Chinese with some translation from Jerry. Although I want to spend more time touching it up and some less than perfect brush strokes, I am pretty pleased with the result and they tell me I am in the top 5% of their visitors for painting ability. I’m given a box to take it home in.
Then we travel by car to the other side of the village, led by our local guide riding her scooter. We are headed to the Classic Furniture Street. This street first opened in the 1990s and has become larger and more well known over the years. Now there are over 400 furniture stores and is the prime place for people in Beijing to buy their home furnishings. I was a little disappointed because I had hope to see them actually making the furniture, but it turns out that these are massive home furnishing centres, particularly featuring furniture and ornaments from the Ming and Qing Dynasties but including items from around the world. Vendors and buyers come from all over China and even from many parts of the world. We visit a store that is more international and then a more Classical Chinese one. Jerry is looking for furniture for his house, so we have some fun sitting in different chairs and looking at ‘tea tables’.
Jerry comes from Hunan, further south in China, and has lived in Beijing for 10 years – first for college and then as a guide for the past 5 years. He rents in Beijing but has a house in Hunan. He tells me that he’d like to rent an apartment in Goabeidian because he could get a large modern space for about 2,000 yuan a month whereas in the centre of Beijing you will pay over 3,000 yuan for a much smaller and not so nice space. The large houses in the ‘high ranking officials’ hutong area would cost over $1M yuan. Although people are allowed to pass houses down from generation to generation, some of the very large mansions in that area had been owned by corrupt officials so these were taken off them and turned into schools and other public facilities.
We have a quick visit to the covered market area that sells just about everything you could want from food and homewares through to clothing, shoes and bags. This is the main shopping area for the village with primarily locally sourced produce. It is very different from the supermarket in the China World Mall. Then we are invited into a local family’s home for a quick lesson on making dumplings – which was in fact just the final assembly rather than learning what they do from scratch. Then Jerry, the driver and myself are treated to a lovely home-cooked meal with a range of different vegetable dishes and of course our dumplings. Jerry thought this was much better than a restaurant meal and I certainly appreciated having the lovely fresh vegetables.
Despite it being after 7.00 when we leave, we still hit rush hour traffic as we get back into the city and I don’t get back to my hotel until nearly 8.00pm.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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