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Beijing Journey

Beijing and My Pseudo Sign Language Skills
Anna Loraine Balita

Who says you can’t survive in a country where you don’t speak, read and understand the language? I did, for one whole week! Being an Asian in Beijing was not like going to a slumber party at the neighbor’s.

Just as how it is for any other foreigner, the Chinese characters on street signs all looked like chopsticks glued together to me. I too entered through exits and had to learn the art of pseudo sign language, pin pointing (facial expressions included) my way through a McDonalds meal. It was here, in Beijing where I learned to order food without uttering a single word.
Much has been written and told about the dynasties, the imperial palaces, and the vast history of this culturally gifted city. But not even the longest running Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee Kung Fu movies will be enough to let one truly experience the richness of Beijing’s heritage.  
There is nothing like seeing the intricate details of historic structures that movie cameras fail to put on film. And nothing beats walking along the same bricks and fortresses that the emperors and empresses once walked on.
My cultural journey started in the country’s most famous landmark. A mammoth structure spanning thousands of meters.

What’s so Great About the Great Wall?
This must have been the reason why I shed so many pounds during my stay in Beijing. The long walk from the Badaling gate section of the Great Wall up to the roller coaster-looking cable cars along some steep brick-covered floors almost made me give up and just wait in the shuttle. I was so sure that I was the youngest in the tour group but I was always left behind catching my breath, running and calling on them to wait up.

 Metal creaks echoed around the dark cave-like structure that our seemingly theme-park-inspired cable car passed through, as it slowly inched its way up the steep wall. The excitement came to a halt upon reaching the top. We were all taken aback, silenced by the mammoth structure lining the mountain ranges like stacks of giant dominoes made of age-old bricks and stones. “Everything that the sun touches and your eyes can gaze upon here” I finally uttered while extending my hand to the right, “is not mine.” I continued in an effort to break the ice.
The Badaling section, we were told, was the earliest section to be opened to tourists among all the parts of the Great Wall. 130 Million tourists including 370 foreign leaders and famous people have come to climb this ancient military defense project used to protect the Juyongguan Pass.
The watch towers sitting proudly atop the mountains provided tourists their well deserved shade after a few meters or so of walking along the brick-lined walls. “This must be the worlds most pictured wall”, I told myself as I watched tourists snap and pose behind, beside and all around the brick structure.
Descending was much easier as gravity pulled what’s left of my weight and my backpack down the Great Wall. Going back to the shuttle we eagerly showed each other trinkets that we bough on our way back.
What ever happened to the legendary emperors who ruled this land hundreds of years ago? That question brought me to my next destination.
 Ming Tomb’s Quality Control
Just like the Egyptian Pharaohs, the Chinese emperors’ belief in the afterlife pushed them to build magnificent tombs that now house their corpses and treasures. During the reign of the Ming Dyanasty, 13 emperors built palatial buildings and complexes in the Northwestern Suburbs of Beijing. These complexes were later called Ming Tombs. It is the burial site of 13 out of 17 emperors of the Ming Dynasty.

The day started with raised eyebrows from the wives in my tour group who gave their husbands pierced looks, after we were told that not only the empresses were buried here. A separate site was also reserved for the emperors’ concubines.

 The intricately ornamented structures house treasures such as gowns, costumes, weapons and coins displayed inside glass casings. These stand witness to how China’s legendary people lived on Earth. Trailing behind the group I couldn’t help but notice the Chinese characters carved on the old bricks.

“What are those Chinese characters for?” I curiously asked the guide. What he told us silenced the noisy crowd.  These, we were told, are names and the locations of the people who made the bricks. This made it easier for the emperor to locate the makers who were called and punished, for every bricks that were poorly made. 

A form of quality control in the old times that proved effective considering how much these structures have withstood the tests of time. A maker would undoubtedly pour time and effort in every single brick if his life depended on it.

After shopping for silk cloths, plates and trinkets, the black and white stuffed toys displayed in stores reminded me of why I wanted to see Beijing so much in the first place.
Beijing Zoo: Happy Feet Has Got Nothing on Me

“Where can I see a panda?” I smilingly asked people around the hotel. I spent my last days in Beijing embarrassing myself, asking people where I can see those cute little black and white furry animals. I finally grab a hold of a map with the address of the nearest zoo and bugged the receptionist to write it down for me in Chinese characters.

I excitedly ran to the entrance, map in hand in search of my second most favourite animal. A clear glass separated tourists from the pandas. Stuffed toys lined the stores right beside the cage. I honestly couldn’t tell the difference because the panda’s looked like giant stuffed toys moving lazily around.

The Beijing zoo is home to 7,000 creatures of 600 different species including the giant panda, red-crowned crane and Pere David's deer-all unique to China. My Happy Feet hysteria then pulled me inside the part of the zoo where penguins are kept. Swimming around the waters, greeting and happily entertaining tourists behind the glass-covered aquarium, these famous little creatures were also a sight to see.
I spent grueling hours hailing a cab to get back to the hotel. My pseudo sign language skills finally got me a deal with a nice cab driver who smilingly drove me back. I was brought around the site where constructions for the 2008 Olympics are being made. One can just smell the excitement in the air as the locals anticipate the flocking of tourists from all parts of the globe.
Going around the busy streets of this city, covered from head to toe with only my eyes and frozen nose poking out the hood of my heavily stuffed jacket, I realized that Beijing at first glance is just like any Asian city catching up with the modern times. But not until I started observing details that it finally dawned to me. There’s more to Beijing than just the traffic jams, shopping frenzies, and sub-ways packed with chinky-eyed people. It is a city so willing to open up to the world and to modernity but is held humbly to the ground by its densely rich cultural heritage.
© A Balita May 10 2007 
 Anna Loraine Balita is a 23 year-old freelance writer taking up her masters in Applied Media Studies from De La Salle University in Manila.
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