If You Want to Name a Building, Check First With Beijing

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Nighttime at the Gates of the Forbidden City

China is known for a lot of great things. The Great Wall. Great take-out. And great deals on cheaply manufactured goods. But it is a little-known and rarely heralded fact that is my favorite of all Chinese contributions to our world heritage.

Their buildings have the coolest names.

While most Western buildings are named after architects, politicians – or even worse – corporations, ancient edifices in China retain majestic sounding monikers like Earth Tranquility Palace or Hall of Supreme Harmony. Even the Flatiron Building would have to admit that their names are way cooler than ours.

Granted, most people aren’t going to visit someplace just because it has a cool name. It would also have to have sites worthy of making a voyage halfway around the world. So of all the places that there are to see in China, the spot that gives you both some from Column A and some from Column B (you had to expect there was going to be a Chinese menu crack in here somewhere) is the capital Beijing.

In China’s great rush to modernize, many if not most of the crumbling traditional homes built around courtyards in narrow lanes have been replaced by modern high-rises. The armada of bicycles – once a staple and stereotype – is steadily being replaced by personal vehicles once reserved for only the well-to-do. All around, this monolithic grid of development centered on the Forbidden City is advancing into the modern world, impelling the present day visitor to see the old before it’s completely swallowed by the new.

The good news is that while not as cheap or simple to navigate as it used to be (i.e. when I last visited a dozen years ago) it still is a decent value, and the major sights – the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and nearby Great Wall – have withstood the onslaught of change, providing a safe haven for those wishing to witness the crowning works of Chinese heritage from an age before globalization. And fortunately a lot of the cool names have remained as well.

Within the walls of the Forbidden City
Within the walls of the Forbidden City

Located near the absolute center of the city, the Forbidden City was once the center of Chinese culture, housing the emperor and his court in an enclave off-limits to commoners for some 500 years. In this sprawling compound of ornately designed pavilions and sculptured stone, you can catch a glimpse of the same recurring theme that plays out in all former seats of empire, namely, that it truly is good to be the king. At least here the buildings all have grandiose sounding names like The Hall of Preserving Harmony or the Palace of Heavenly Purity. In my house we just call it the living room, but whatever.

Allow for at least half a day to explore, preferably with a knowledgeable guide to take it all in. You might not care which emperor did what, where and with whom, but the buildings certainly impress with their architecture and artistry. It’s not for nothing that 35% of all Chinese take-out restaurants in the US are named after the Forbidden City* (* this figure is just approximate and not based on any actual facts other than that’s how it seems to me. For more accurate information, please consult your phone book).

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Literally just outside the door from the Forbidden City is massive Tiananmen Square – site of the infamous uprising and many important buildings to the Chinese people, such as The Great Hall of the People (where the “legislature” meets), the Monument to the People’s Heroes (a granite obelisk commemorating key revolutionary events), and the morbidly fascinating Mao Zedong Mausoleum, or ‘Maosoleum‘ housing the embalmed remains of the man himself. While foreigners may view him with disdain, he is still a much-beloved character to the Chinese nation, so keep your wisecracks to yourself. You can also snag souvenirs imprinted with the image of his chubby cheeks (just like the one above the Gate of Heavenly Peace leading into the Forbidden City) on just about everything from key-rings to towels to any other trinket you can imagine. Where you’d actually get to display it is another story.

Tiantan Park, Beijing, China
Tiantan Park, Beijing, China

On the southern end of the square you’ll find the Qianmen section, which affords some great shopping opportunities as you make your way toward Tiantan Park, or Temple of Heaven. It is here that you’ll find the complex’s masterpiece The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests sitting on a terraced marble platform. Once an essential part of various rites performed on temple grounds, today it stands more as a tribute to architectural ingenuity, as the wooden pillars support a 100+ foot high ceiling without nails or cement. I don’t know how many take-out joints are named after it, but it still ranks as a must-see for visitors to Beijing.

Both islands and bridges have the coolest names at the Summer Palace, Beijing
Both islands and bridges have the coolest names at the Summer Palace, Beijing

The remaining two must-see attractions are located outside the city center. The Summer Palace, sitting only an inexpensive taxi ride away to the northwest, abounds in ambiance, water features, and buildings with really cool-sounding names. Situated around Kunming Lake, with plenty of gardens, visitors can take in the lovely setting by walking the shoreline and crossing ornate bridges with inspirational names like the Jade Belt Bridge or 17 Arch Bridge (OK, maybe that last one is a little less imaginative) to small islets housing structures with even-more inspirational names, like the Knowing in the Spring Pavilion, whose name, in my opinion, raises more questions than it answers (Know what? Know what???!!!!).

From the ferry dock on obviously-named South Lake Island, you can cross to the northern section of the palace grounds which houses the bulk of the fanciest structures as well as the bulk of the coolest names such as the Cloud Dispelling Hall, Wisdom Sea Temple, and the reassuringly-named Hall of Benevolence and Longevity. Brimming with color and artwork, a stroll around here will make your uphill climb well worth the effort – especially when you look back at your photo album.

Of course, visiting Beijing without seeing the Great Wall would be like visiting Paris without a stop at the Eiffel Tower, though the Badaling section of the wall is located an inconvenient fifty miles or so out of town. For the least amount of hassle, I recommend visiting on a guided tour, and if you’re already on one, you can be certain that you’ll be making a stop here and likely the nearby Ming Tombs as well.

My portrait in front of the Great Wall of China--many years before the invention of selfies.
My portrait in front of the Great Wall of China–many years before the invention of selfies.

Seeing the wall zigzagging along the irregular contours of the hilly landscape, you can easily understand why it is considered an ancient wonder, despite ridiculous claims that it is visible from space. Walking the wall is an undertaking in and of itself, as there are a plethora of stairs to be scaled from one tower to another. Supposedly Chairman Mao said that “a real man walks the Great Wall.” That may be true, but I say a smart man takes the cable car to the top and then makes his way down. Write that in your little red book!

A few words of advice regarding getting around. First of all, like objects in the rear-view mirror, distances between streets on a map are much greater here than they appear. Beijing is a very broad city, so if you plan to walk (or bike) keep this in mind. The subway, when I was there, couldn’t have been any easier to navigate. It consisted mainly of a loop line following the path of the boring but informatively-named Second Ring Road, intersected by a straight line crossing right through Tiananmen Square. It was a cheap and convenient way to cover large distances, and my only disappointment was the unimaginative names of Line 1 and Line 2. Now, there are over 14 lines, allowing for greater coverage of the expanding city at what are still very reasonable prices. Most of the names aren’t any more interesting, but it’s still better than walking.

Beijing is a city with feet planted in two very different worlds and I recommend that you see it before one foot slides to meet the other. In the meantime you can count on seeing sterling examples of Chinese cultural heritage, honest-to-goodness wonders of the ancient world, and as you may have noticed, some of the coolest names around. You’ll never look at take-out quite the same.

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Introduction To Travel Philosophy

When it comes to travel, clichés abound. I’m not going to repeat them here, but suffice to say they all have one thing in common: they reflect their originator’s travel philosophy. What I mean by the term travel philosophy is the mindset, or attitude of the traveler—an abstract, ethereal concept that is far deeper than the act of simply moving from one place to another.  A business person may travel around the globe, visiting city after city, but that has very little to do with a mindset. They travel because they have to, and the act, while necessary, is no more remarkable than your average commuter that day in and day out travels to a city that they never get to enjoy. Yes, what I ‘m speaking of is the deliberate act of traveling to acquire an experience: seeing new things with one’s own eyes and gaining the subtle nuances of firsthand exposure that cannot be successfully transmitted by any form of description.

It is with this definition in mind that I introduce the subject here on my blog. I do so because without establishing the WHY, the WHERE and HOW are diminished, and essentially without context. So here is a few basic tenets of my own travel philosophy, and perhaps they just might coincide with some of yours.

1) Travel To Experience Something New

Driving on the left, from the right side of the car
Driving on the left, from the right side of the car

If I wanted everything to be just as it is at home, I would never have left. Travel exposes a person to different ways of doing things—some better, some not—but nine times out of ten it simply comes down to being different. Whether driving on the left side of the road in New Zealand & South Africa, taking a nap in the middle of the day in rural parts of the Mediterranean, or the traffic free-for-all of India, these variations on a theme (namely: what you’re used to) enrich a person’s life for the better—if only to help one appreciate what they have.

2) People Are People

Disembarking along the Yangtze
Disembarking along the Yangtze

On a Yangtze River cruise I was introduced to this important fact. Our tour group was taken to a school in Wanzhou, China where children were instructed in Chinese acrobatics. While being seated for the performance, my father and I were separated from our group and sat down among the local farmers. As these kids flipped, twirled and balanced enormous vases on their noses, what struck me the most was the reaction of the audience. We all gasped at the same parts. We all expressed sounds of admiration at impressive feats. We all laughed and applauded at the same things. That’s when it truly struck me on a level that I’ve always known but never clearly saw until that moment. We are all the same. We all want the same things. We all have the same hopes and fears. (Don’t worry, I won’t break out into “It’s A Small World”). There is no reason to hate people of other races or nationalities because people are people—even if they’re in China.

3) Sense of Place

The Loud & Traffic-filled streets of India
The Loud & Traffic-filled streets of India

To me, it’s not just being able to have another stamp in my passport and add another pin to my wall map that inspires me to travel (though I do enjoy those things). For me it is being able to comprehend what a given location is like—or sense of place—that brings me great satisfaction. As a kid I used to watch Met games in my parents’ bedroom and spin my dad’s globe to see where my finger would land. Not only did I learn a good deal about geography, but it also led me to wonder what these places with such exotic-sounding names were really like. Once I became of age to travel about the globe freely, I took great pleasure in transforming these names on a map to a real image in my head. I no longer see them as just labels with vague images to go along with them.

I no longer see: ‘Italy’, but I relive the musty smell that permeates the old buildings. I smell the fresh basil in the terraced gardens. I feel the pebbles under my feet as I stand knee-deep in clear water. Similarly, I can no longer see a map of India without hearing the incessant beeping of horns, smell the smoky smell that is everywhere and the resulting haze that makes all structures on the horizon appear as if seen through gauze. That’s a sense of place, and that’s what I am always looking for.

In summary, these are just a few of my basic philosophies as to why I travel. I will add more in the times to come. But for now I’d love to hear your own thoughts on what moves you to travel—not just move from one place to another. Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts.