Caleb Kostreva is an official CAPA blogger for fall 2016, sharing his story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A public policy and civic leadership; social science (global studies emphasis) major at Howard Payne University, he is studying abroad in Shanghai this term.
In this week's post, Caleb visits Beijing and talks about the incredible beauty of the historical sites there.
Goodbye, Shanghai! Wait, I just got here three weeks ago – why am I leaving already? Oh, hello Beijing! And just like that, I arrived in the nation’s capital for a weekend with other CAPA students via China’s famous high speed train system.
Stepping out of the rail car, I breathed in a deep breath, and instead found myself coughing out polluted air. Even though Beijing is smaller than Shanghai by a few million people, the air quality is much worse as a result of less rain and fewer winds. When we left the train station, we could visibly see how much worse the air was – the smog was so thick that even though it was only late afternoon and the sun was still far above the horizon, it was a mere orange disk that one could look straight into and not damage their eyes.
One of the most famous sites in Beijing and a site of much political unrest and tension throughout the Communist regime is Tiananmen Square; it also hosts the mausoleum of Mao Zedong and the Forbidden City, along with other sites of national importance. Standing there, my mind’s eye tried to imagine what it must have looked like through the years – from an emperor’s palace to the site of violent unrest during and shortly after Mao’s failed Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s to the tourist attraction of current. I love history, so standing on top of a thousand years of it was an incredible experience.
One of the monuments to the Cultural Revolution that stands at Tiananmen Square
The Forbidden City, from across Tiananmen Square
From the outside of the Forbidden City, it neither looks terribly large nor impressive, but it is undoubtedly both of those things. We had a couple of hours to tour it, and it would have taken a full two days to walk through every stony courtyard and intricate garden behind those walls. Since it would probably take me four hours to describe those two short hours that we spent in the Forbidden City, I will take you to two of my favorite spots.
Since we did not know the layout of the city well, we decided to tour by not having a plan; this meant that we got lost. It turned out to not be an issue, and it also led us to an area of the Forbidden City where many of the bushes were specially trimmed to be animals or mini-pagodas. I have no idea how many hours the gardeners put into creating these masterpieces, but I sincerely hope they were paid well.
My favorite part of the Forbidden City was not any of the intricately painted buildings or magnificent courtyards. Rather, it was the stairs. I know it may sound a little strange, but seriously, the stairs were incredible! The intricacy of the animals and designs carved into the steps and ramps is beyond me.
Of course, a trip to Beijing is incomplete without a visit to the Great Wall. Previously in this post, I’ve used the words “incredible” and “magnificent,” but they pale in comparison to this seriously jaw-dropping feat of hands. Standing at any one point on the wall, I could see it continue into the horizon, flowing on top of the mountain ridge and winding up and down the slopes like a ribbon. As I climbed each extra tall step, I knew with greater and greater certainty that I was going to be sore. I have no idea how many steps I climbed (I should refer the Great Wall to my high school basketball coach as a workout idea), but the view from the summit I climbed to was well worth the soreness in my legs.
After a short bus ride and a couple of hours at the train station, we found ourselves once more boarding a high speed train to return to Shanghai. We will resume our “normal” lives, and the search for adventure will persist for us to find. Even in the most visited places in the world, new perspectives and observation of minute details can provide us with a more complete and accurate outlook on those walking by us every day. Like the misleading entrance to the Forbidden City, the dirt-covered stones paving Tiananmen Square, or the winding curves of the Great Wall, there is so much more behind them, if only we are diligent enough to search, and brave enough to confront whatever we find.
The view from the summit – if you look closely, you can see the Great Wall winding up the mountainside in the distance
Caleb's journey continues every Thursday so stay tuned.