Day 2, May 13, 2015
Rise and shine! A majority of us woke up around 4 am to see the flag raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square at 5:01 am, just as the sun first peeked out from the sky. The jet lag certainly helped us wake up, for 4 am felt more like 4 pm back home. Leaving the lobby at 4:45 am, we ran against time to catch the sunrise, and we made it just in time to hear China's national anthem, signaling the start of the flag raising ceremony. I was shocked at how many people were at the square already, with selfie-sticks and cameras raised to the sky. I estimated that there had to be at least a couple thousand people, which definitely gave me a feel for China's large population of about 1.3 billion people. We talked to a woman with her child, and she mentioned that she had been waiting here since 2 am!
After the ceremony, we walked around Tiananmen Square as Dong Laoshi showed us the famous landmarks around the area. The first one was the Mao Mausoleum, and at 5 am, hundreds of visitors were already lined up, anxious to see the preserved Mao Ze Dong. As we walked away from Tiananmen Square, we also passed by the National Museum of China as well as the Great Hall of The People, two bold and powerful buildings. Further from the Square was the Zhangyangmen Gate, which used to have high walls that guarded off the area, but much of the wall was destroyed, highlighting signs of Beijing's struggle between development and preservation. After an eventful morning, we were very excited to have our first taste of a Chinese breakfast, which included buns, eggs, soups, yogurt, soymilk, breads, fruit, and a variety of Chinese style steamed vegetables. The wholesome breakfast was definitely a great start to our day, as we looked forward to the packed day ahead.
Our first mission after breakfast was to walk the Forbidden City, a city that is highly hierarchical, for the center axis contained the tallest buildings, which were flanked by very humble and low buildings. The tallest building in the center axis was the emperor's throne. As we walked down the center axis, I was yet again amazed by the amount of people flooding the Forbidden City. It also took us a whole two hours to walk from the front gate to the back gate, and it was after walking the length of the palace that I realized the Forbidden City was actually the size of a city. Shortly after, we climbed Coal Hill, which was made from the dirt that was dug from the moats that surrounded the Forbidden City. At the top of the hill, we saw the breathtaking view of the Forbidden City and the rest of Beijing that surrounded us.
After a long morning, it was great that we started lunch by making dumplings. While our dumplings could not compare to the masters' version, the taste was great and filled us up for Matthew Hu's presentation on Beijing preservation that came shortly after. The presentation truly gave me a feel of the difficulty of choosing between development and preservation. Both have its individual fallbacks and benefits, for development leads to a more convenient lifestyle but can also destroy precious culture. Matthew Hu then gave us a tour of the HuTongs, which were also facing adverse effects from urban development. Many were still enriched with symbols of China's long history, but they were slowly being taken down because of urbanization.
We ended the day with a talk from Liang Xiao Yan, who was a NGO activist and one of founders of "Friends of Nature", the first environmental NGO in China. She talked to us passionately on the topic of kitchen waste management. When we first landed in Beijing, all I saw was shiny architecture, especially in the international airport and along the streets that were lined with high-end stores. However, behind the glitz and glam, Beijing was facing a very troubling issue of food quality and safety. The heart of this issue was actually a social issue, according to Liang, for a lack of community and personal responsibility resulted in low ratio of trash sorting, which ultimately resulted in building more waste burning plants, which is Beijing's main solution to get rid of its waste. The large number of waste incineration plants will further incite more protests from the neighboring residents, which in turn prompts the government to take actions to suppress the protests, or in some cases, pitting one group of NIMBY against another, both not an ideal way to resolve social conflicts.
An early start to our day that was filled with almost 14 miles of walking was ended on a good note with a family style dinner of our choosing!