Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Smog, Snow and Tiananmen Square

As the plane approached Beijing International Airport, Jules and I looked out of the window to view a colourless landscape, dormant from winter and greyed from years of city smog. For weeks beforehand we had been monitoring air quality readings, with Jules even purchasing a packet of Japanese style face-masks just in case! Stepping out of the airport we felt that our apprehension had been somewhat justified as a thick smoggy haze limited our vision to only several hundred metres. I had to smile when the lady who had picked us up from the airport referred to the air pollution as 'fog' rather than the 290+ 'smog' that is commonly believed to be 'extremely hazardous to your health' ... perhaps this was a way of disarming the fears of tourists to China.

During the 45 minute ride to the centre of the city, we began to appreciate the scale of this city of 20 million people, as well as the magnitude of its dramatic transition through socialist reforms to become the economic powerhouse that it is today. Construction was everywhere, with high-rise buildings and multi-lane freeways quickly changing the urban landscape. While the three wheeled pushbikes that deliver people and products throughout Beijing are still evident, you sense that their days are numbered and that they are destined to become relics of the past, overrun by the increasing pace of the city. The car was clearly now the most potent symbol of economic prosperity and damned the environmental consequences! With around 5,000 new cars hitting the streets every day, we could only begin to imagine what Beijing might look like in thirty years time.

That night we anticipated yet another smoggy day ahead; similar to the one that had welcomed us when we arrived. So we were particularly surprised when we opened our hotel curtains to view a most unexpected sight. Despite it being early spring, Beijing had been suddenly hit with an unseasonal blast of winter with around 20 centimetres of snow being dumped on the city overnight. Amazingly the sky was now blue, the air was clear and branches of the trees were laden with snow, giving the city the appearance of some kind of winter wonderland. Quite a transformation from 12 hours earlier! Outside it was a hive of activity with shovel carrying workers clearing paths and roads in preparation for the regular stream of daily commuters.

Our first stop for the day would be to Beijing’s most famous piece of vacant land, Tiananmen Square. This vast 40 hectare public square faces the gates of ‘The Forbidden City’, witnessing many of China’s most historical events and remaining the most significant focal point for the city. Not only overseas tourists visit here, but also millions of Chinese citizens from the outlying regions who at some stage in their lives will make their own pilgrimage. Each tour group is easily identified by their distinctively coloured peaked hats as they are led around the square by their flag carrying guides, whose job it is to remind them of their historical and cultural past. Groups of 50 or more stand in admiration of the ‘Great Hall of the People’ and the ‘Monument to the Peoples Heroes’, visit the National Museum of China and if they are prepared to queue for several hours, they can fleetingly glimpse the body of Chairman Mao in his impressive mausoleum. We were informed by our guide that Mao Zedong still holds a ‘God-like’ status for many older Chinese and certainly his portrait continues to loom large over the square itself, as it has done since the 1950’s.

In more recent years, Tiananmen Square has been the sight of numerous political protests, with both uniformed and undercover police vigilantly patrolling the area. Memories of the pro-democracy protests of 1989 and the ‘Falun Gong self-immolation incident’ still remain strong, with a significant military presence, road barriers and the scanning of bags for those entering the area. Yet once within the square there was clearly a tangible excitement amongst the crowd who were simply happy to be there. By now the snow was beginning to melt, creating large reflective pools of water that further enhanced the impact of the site. The sun, the snow and the blue sky had created a unique set of circumstances that was surely a postcard photographers delight. However, our feelings remained somewhat mixed; impressed by the scale and formality of this historical site, but mindful of the tragedies it had witnessed.

A visit to Tiananmen Square was certainly a fitting way to begin our visit to Beijing, with the fine weather playing its part in providing the best possible outlook to the city. Like most of the tourists visiting from near and far, we posed for the usual tourists shots and took the time to remember its more recent historical events, much of which we had watched on our TV sets in the comfort of our lounge rooms far far away. With the huge portrait of Chairman Mao mounted above ‘The Gates of Heavenly Peace’, it was difficult to forget the events of the Communist Revolution and how it had changed the world! While the quotations from Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ appear to be increasingly less relevant in todays consumer orientated society, the significance of his role in changing the face of China continues to be celebrated in this, one of the worlds most famous public squares.

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