Datong, The Hanging Monastery and the Yungang Grottoes

On our 5th day in China, we woke at 4am and took a cab to the Beijing airport in order to catch a one hour flight to Datong, a city that was once China’s imperial capital but which is now a gritty metropolis of 3 million people struggling to redefine itself as a tourist destination. Datong’s main industry is coal mining (its nickname is “City of Coal”), but it is also in close proximity to the Hanging Temple and the Yungang Grottoes.

For a city of 3 million people, the Datong airport is unusually small, with only one terminal, which made it very easy to spot our guide, Judy, and our driver for this leg of our sightseeing trip. Our driver was friendly but spoke no English, so he was mostly silent over the course of the day. Judy, on the other hand, spoke fluent English. She had been an English teacher many years ago, but for the past thirteen years she has worked as a tour guide in the Datong area. We could not have had a better guide. She was friendly, informed, and enthusiastic.

Our first stop was to be the Hanging Monastery; a ninety minute drive from the airport. As I mentioned earlier, Datong is a mining town, so the roads are busy with huge coal-filled trucks that frequently slow to a crawl. When this occurs, cars attempt to pass them, driving on the wrong side of the two-lane blacktop into on-coming traffic, squeezing by one another by mere inches. Additionally, there are scores of scooters, mopeds and motorcycles heading the wrong way carrying un-helmeted passengers (sometimes more than one!) who perch precariously on the bikes’ frames and fenders. I expected to see at least one accident at some point during our drive, but luckily that didn’t happen.

The scenery along this first part of the route consisted of decrepit and decaying shops of one sort or another. I presume many were garages or machine shops, as outside, among the piles of dirt and bricks, there were lots of old cars and chunks of metal. Periodically pickup trucks sat stopped by the side of the road, loaded with watermelons for sale.

Eventually the scenery became more attractive with the appearance of thatches of trees and mountain ranges breaking up the horizon. Judy told us that there was a campaign in place to rejuvenate the countryside with lots of trees; and sure enough we saw multiple crews of men and women planting rows and rows of pines. The government had been disappointed by a previous planting campaign in which a large number of trees died because of poor care and so this time around companies were only being paid 30% of their fee up front, with the remainder to be paid over the following five years based on how many of the newly plated pines actually survive.

The Hanging Monastery is located near Mt. Heng, one of five Chinese mountains considered sacred to Taoists. As we pulled off of the winding road into the dirt parking lot, we joined hundreds of other tourists, purchasing tickets and then standing in an hour-long line before climbing up into the monastery itself.

The Hanging Monastery is unique in being dedicated to three different religions: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. In fact, one of the main attractions within are three side-by-side statues dedicated to Lao Tzu, the Buddha and Confucius. The temple itself sits about 250 feet above the valley floor, suspended across a cliff face. Construction was started 1,400 years ago by one man: a monk named Liaoran. The last improvements and repairs were made in 1901. The far left structure sits atop a foundation of brick, but the right side of the monastery looks as if it has been glued to the rock wall. The only visible supports are long, wooden poles that appear to hold up the walkways; although Judy told us that they actually serve no real architectural function. They were just put in place to calm the fears of visitors who might think that the walkways were in danger of collapse! The real supports are hidden wooden beams embedded in the cliff face.  Judy claimed that no one is really certain about how these hidden beams were originally attached to the cliff. This all made me recall that Time Magazine identified the Hanging Monastery as one of the ten most precarious tourist attractions in the world. I was beginning to question the wisdom of actually climbing up onto this structure.

But climb we did. Only 80 people are supposed to be allowed up at at time, and though I didn’t count how many tourists there actually were on the walkways, I do estimate that it was much more than officially allowed. The wooden walkways are very narrow, giving you ample opportunity to peek over the edge to see how far you would fall in case you slipped or were pushed over the edge by the crush of people behind you or were knocked out of the way by those trying get in front of you.

My heart was beating with anxiety the entire time we were up there, and as a result I didn’t really get a chance to look at many of the artifacts or relics housed in the rooms carved into the cliff walls. I was primarily concerned with circling my way along the wooden path back to the exit and planting my feet safely back on the ground below.

After leaving the Hanging Monastery we backtracked to Datong and had noodles in a restaurant before setting off to the Yungang Grottoes; a 30 minute drive from downtown.

The Yungang Grottoes is a Unesco World Heritage site and an obvious tourist attraction. The road was crowded with busses and taxies, and the entry desk was mobbed with people competing with one another in order to purchase tickets. Initially I stood in what I thought was a line, only to have throngs of people push in front of me. The girl behind the counter was obviously exasperated, and when she yelled something in Chinese, the unruly mob fell into order behind me and I was able to pay for our entrance.

As we walked into the attraction, there was a wide open area of newly constructed temples in the style of other, older complexes that we had seen in places like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and at the Llama Temple in Beijing. Here, the buildings were populated with chanting monks who burned incense and yelled at the tourists! A walkway leads along an artificial lakeshore decorated with Buddhist sculptures and then over a bridge that takes you to another walkway running next to a stretch of limestone cliffs less than a mile long. This is where the ancient sculptures are found.

Altogether there are about 53 caves that have been carved into these cliffs, with the oldest one dating back about 2,000 years. Because of the porousness of the stone, many of the carvings have been eroded by seeping water over the centuries. Currently there is a repair process going on to restore the most badly damaged specimens.

The first carvings that we encountered were modest and relatively small in size, but as we continued along the path the carvings became increasingly monumental, consisting of huge caves, some housing central pagodas or enormous Buddha figures chipped into the rock. The construction of the larger carvings began from the top, as the artisans would open apertures high up on the cliff and then work their way inward and downward. Once the carving was completed, they would create an opening at the bottom as an entryway.

Over time, modifications were made to many of the sculptures, with mud facades placed over the rock, which were then painted with bright colors. In some areas this remains, and so in the most well preserved specimens you can still see vivid blues and reds. In others, the paint and mud have fallen away, revealing the round holes that supported wooden dowels used to make mud adhere to the statues.

The walls surrounding the central figures in the caves are covered with carvings of thousands of smaller buddhas and other figures and decorations. Some of the figures look very much like the angels that you would see depicted in Catholic Churches.

Five of the largest buddhas represent Chinese kings. Other buddhas represent the past, present and future: always grouped in threes. The last of the large buddhas is the best preserved. Apparently the cave it originally was within collapsed, thus protecting it from the elements over hundreds of years.

The Yungang Grottoes reinforced my impression of China as a land of sublime wonders. Despite the tourist trappings, these buddha carvings filled me with a sense of awe; like I was in the presence of something holy. The oldest artifacts here were constructed before the birth of Christ, encouraging reflection on the vastness of time. Additionally, there is the awesome impression of vast size and of the immense effort required to carve these enormous figures. The largest carving took 60 years to complete, so there is also an awe inspiring sense of dedication on the part of the sculptors. The fact that when walking into these caves you become engulfed by the darkness also encourages an awareness of your own puniness, while the huge figures, shrouded in shadows, radiate an aura of mystery. In such confined spaces it is impossible to actually see all parts of the sculptures. Many details you can’t see at all, since they lie hidden and beyond any possible line of sight. All of this contributes to the mystery and sublime sense of overwhelming magnitude while in the presence of the largest figures.

By the time we were done at the Yungang Grottoes, it was starting to get dark and time for us to check into our hotel in the walled, central portion of Datong. The original city walls are largely gone, but currently there is a renovation project underway to restore them and to make the city more attractive to tourists. This project is not without controversy, as it involves the destruction of old, crumbling residences and the relocation of people to new apartments elsewhere. In fact, there is an entirely new side of the city that looks as if it has been artificially transported from another place. This sparkling clean and modern section of Datong stands in sharp contrast to the old, crumbling section that stands just across the Sanggan River. The controversy and the idealism associated with this project of urban renewal is documented in the film The Chinese Mayor (AKA Datong).

Our hotel was showing its age, and our window looked out onto a run down alleyway filled with rubble and garbage, but we were tired, ready for dinner and a good night’s sleep, so we weren’t too concerned about those things. Judy had told us that the streets of Datong were very safe, but that never-the-less we should not be out past 9pm. I’m not sure why that is, but we took her advise and ended up having dinner in the hotel restaurant after a short stroll around town. The restaurant seemed to be very popular with both young and old locals alike. It was crowded and loud, with a nice view of the main square below. The menu, like in most places that we went in China, consisted of photos of the food, making it easy to point and order what you want. This menu, however, was the size of a phone book, and as we started to leaf through the pages, I witnessed a progressively horrified look spread across my wife Juneko’s face. In addition to sea cucumber and shark fin soup, at this place you could order poached deer fetus, bull penis, whole roasted pigeon, boiled goat head and even monkey meat! Juneko said that she wished she was adventurous enough to try something exotic, but she could not overcome her disgust. I was the same. We definitely are no Anthony Bourdains! We ended up having a very meager dinner consisting of vegetable buns, a weird fried noodle dish sprinkled with sugar, some gross tasting pickled radishes and walnut cakes. Juneko liked the last item. I did not.

The next morning out flight was delayed, so we waited for a couple of hours at the airport. After getting back to Beijing, we dropped our gear back at the hotel and then went to the local Pizza Hut Bistro for pizza and broccoli before resting up in preparation for more Chinese adventures.

The Sublimity of The Forbidden City and The Great Wall


As we disembarked the plane in Beijing, I got my first indication of how hot it was going to be during our three week stay in China. I was wearing a t-shirt and a zip-up hoodie on the flight, but as my wife, Juneko, and I stepped into the 100-plus degree heat, I immediately realized that no sweatshirts would be needed here. Going outside was like entering a misty sauna. On the cab ride to the hotel I asked our driver if the hazy dampness hanging in the air was indication of an impending storm. All he said was “Yeah,” which was not a real answer. He just didn’t understand what I was asking. In fact, the gray mist we were breathing was the infamous Beijing pollution, and the dampness was just normal summer humidity.

Prior to our trip, while still in San Francisco, we had waited 5 hours and 20 minutes at the Chinese consulate to file forms for our visas, so I was prepared for our arrival in Beijing to involve long waits mixed with doses of chaos. Happily, that was not so. Though the Beijing airport was crowded and bustling, things went very smoothly and we were out and into a cab within an hour. The ride took us on a busy, modern freeway, through a few traffic jams and past rows of high-rise buildings; some adorned with familiar names like IKEA, SONY and Mercedes Benz, while most others were marked with Chinese characters. Watching the signs buzz by, I started to understand what it is like to be illiterate. Even though I had a rough sense of the identities of the places passing by my window (office buildings, corporate headquarters, apartment buildings, gas stations and so forth) I was unable to understand the finer details of things. Street signs, billboards and the notices in shop windows were all in a language I could not understand. My first glimpses of Beijing, thus, were of a place at once familiar and mysteriously exotic. I was reminded of the cityscapes in the movie Blade Runner: bright signs written in Chinese characters, tall buildings and dark, oppressive, gray mist.

We stayed at the China National Convention Center Grand Hotel in the northern part of the city, right next to the Olympic Village where the summer games were held in 2008. Looming nearby is the 750 foot-tall Olympic Tower, which serves as a landmark and point of orientation when wandering the area. At The Grand Hotel – and the convention center to which is attached – the staff spoke English, and throughout our stay they were very helpful in arranging transportation, giving us directions, and exchanging cash. Our accommodations were clean and comfortable as well. The hotel has a serviceable gym and an indoor pool, as well as a couple of restaurants with food that is not as great as the folks who serve it. Our first night we ate at the hotel cafe, where I ordered spring rolls and a pot of good green tea while my wife ordered a BLT with fries. I ended up eating most of the BLT, which was weird, as it was made with pickles but no mayonaise. The “bacon” was something more like limp ham. Nevertheless, it was late by that time and we were hungry, so at least we didn’t starve.

The morning after our arrival, we took a stroll to an indoor shopping mall just down the street. Neither the haze nor the heat had dissipated, and so by the time we had walked three blocks, we were soaking wet with perspiration. Luckily the shopping mall was air conditioned and also served as a subway stop, so after a cold drink at Starbucks, we bought cards at the station and took a ride downtown to The Forbidden City, just the first of the four UNESCO World Heritage Sites that we would visit over the course of our stay.

The Forbidden City lies just across a busy roadway north of Tiananmen Square. Exiting the subway we (again drenched in sweat) entered through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which is adorned with an enormous portrait of Mao Zedong. We were crushed among the crowd of people surging forward as visitors were channeled between barricades and fences along the sidewalk. Entering the main grounds required that we go through a check-point and show our passports to guards who typed our information into a computer. Wherever you go in China, they know who you are, and they know where you’ve been!


The Forbidden City covers over 180 acres and contains 980 buildings with a total of 8,728 rooms. It was built in the 15th Century during the Ming Dynasty and served as home to the Emperor until 1912. Apparently, it was customary for the Emperor to sleep in a different room every night so that potential assassins would never know exactly where he was. That, of course, was in the days before high tech surveillance. In 1860, British and French forces controlled the Forbidden City during the second Opium War. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.


Guidebooks say you should devote two to three hours to this site, but a full day is more realistic. The place is huge, and with the temperature soaring to 111 degrees (and a heat index of 136 degrees!) during our visit, we had to take frequent breaks to sit in the shade and drink water in order to avoid heat stroke. The City is laid out in a series of successive palaces. You pass through gates in the palaces, which open up onto enormous courtyards, one after another. It seems to go on and on, giving visitors the impression of infinitely expanding space. This was once considered to be the center of the world by the Chinese, and the Emperor lived and ruled within its heart. To control this much space, to corral it between walls, moats, gates and palaces was a dramatic symbol of power; something the British and French obviously understood during their occupation in 1860.

After wandering around the palaces, statues and stairways (and periodically seeking shade) for a few hours, we eventually made our way into the Museum of Clocks, which holds a collection of antique Chinese time pieces, some small, some the size of a small house. While the grounds of The Forbidden City demonstrate a mastery of space, the Museum of Clocks demonstrates that the control of time was also of great importance to Chinese rulers. Time and space comprise the backdrop against which all things in our world unfold, and by enclosing both of these dimensions within the walls of this royal location, Chinese Emperors conveyed the scope of their control and power; a power subsequently seized by the British and French, then by the nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and finally by the communist revolutionaries led by Mao Zedong.

It was mid-afternoon when we left the Forbidden City, exiting down a road lined with stores and street vendors. We boarded the subway – thankful to dry off in the air conditioning – and tried unsuccessfully to find a vegetarian restaurant that had good reviews in our guidebook. Instead, we ended up in another air conditioned shopping mall where we feasted on vegetarian Subway (brand) sandwiches before taking the other subway (public transportation) back to the hotel. At this point our first full day in China was coming to a close and I felt as if I had been beaten and tortured by a group of the Emperor’s guards. All I wanted to do was drink lots of cold water, take a shower and go to sleep.

I awoke the next morning, which was Friday, thinking it was Thursday. This was because in traveling from North America to Asia, we lost a day. I had a splitting headache – probably from dehydration – and generally felt like crap. I reflected on how glad I was that we were not scheduled to go anywhere until Friday. Then, the phone rang and the front desk clerk said: “Your driver has arrived to take you to The Great Wall.” I guess we were going somewhere after all!

Our driver spoke no English, so a smile and a handshake – and trust on our part that he knew where we wanted to go – had to suffice as an introduction. We boarded the van and set off on the hour and a half trip north to the Mutianyu section of The Great Wall. Our route took us on a superhighway and then onto a series of narow country roads. The tour busses and cars had to squeeze by one another while also endeavoring to avoid collision with unhelmeted riders on scooters and bicycles. The misses were mostly near misses. Our route took us through farmlands lined with orchards and fruit stands selling peaches, cherries and apricots.

We arrived at the gates of the park, and after purchasing tickets, walked down something resembling a main street; although it was not part of a real city, but an artificially constructed attraction. This is when it started to hit me how similar this place is to the US. Sure, there is not yet a Great Wall back home, but if Trump gets his way and there is one someday you can bet that it will be commercialized pretty much the same way as here. Just like in China, it will probably be accompanied by fast food restaurants and folks selling trinkets, souvenirs and t-shirts.

At the end of “main street” we boarded a bus, which thankfully was air-conditioned, and rode up a steep hill to the actual entrance to the attraction. This entrance, again, looked like an artificial village. From our vantage point below the ridges and the peaks we could see the turrets and the snaking lines of the wall above. Never mind the touristy nature of the place, this sight, I must admit, provoked a feeling of awe in me. It was a feeling similar to what I remember experiencing when I first saw Niagara Falls, Wat Arun in Thailand, or La Sagrada Familia in Spain. I had seen pictures of each of these wonders previous to encountering the real sights first-hand, so you might think that upon actually visiting them that they would be robbed of some of their visual novelty and power; that they might pale in comparison to their media representations. For me, that was never the case. Here, standing beneath The Great Wall, it was just the opposite. The images I had previously seen instead primed me to know what to look for. They gave me a frame of perspective that allowed my mind to start grasping the magnitude of what it was that we were now in the presence of.

The Great Wall is over 13,000 miles long; over four times as length of the US. Viewing the mountainous ridges along which this structure rests, my heart raced and my breathing halted. At first I saw the closest structures – the restored watchtowers and battlements directly above – but as my eyes traced the lines of the fortification, I was overwhelmed by its seeming endlessness. The Wall goes on and on. One watchtower is connected to another, each one looking smaller than the last until the Wall disappears into the hazy distance. The terrain here is steep and rugged, making me wonder about both the mechanics and the logic of constructing such an enormous structure in this particular location. It was, of course, not built all at once. It was begun around 200 BC, with construction continuing over hundreds of years, as various segments went up piece by piece until they were at last connected together. But why here? Why in a place where the mountains stand as a natural barrier? Mongol invaders during their 13th Century conquest of Beijing just went around the Wall anyway, so the barrier was not even effective. These thoughts only added to the uncanniness of the whole experience of looking at The Wall. Hundreds of years of persistent effort, expense and labor have resulted in an architectural artifact both absurd in its conception and awesome in its execution.

A gondola took us up the side of the mountain to The Wall itself. The view from the gondola was of the surrounding forested mountains and the valley below. A woman in the car behind us had a panic attack, crying in terror as we ascended upwards. When we disembarked, she was still weeping, but being comforted by her family. Fear of heights, I guess.

It was a short walk from the gondola to the first of the watchtowers, where we rested in the shade, drinking water and seeking relief from the sun. The place was busy with tourists – we heard Spanish, German, English, French as well as Chinese being spoken – but it wasn’t as crowded as we had seen in some pictures. Perhaps the heat was keeping people away. In any case, everyone was soaking wet and commenting on how hot it was. It was probably well over 100 degrees. I overheard a woman say to her partner that she’d like to walk to the top of the ridge, but was sure that she would pass out if she tried. I felt exactly the same. There was no way that I was going to be able to go very far.

From our starting point we could travel in two directions. One direction would take us up the ridge to what looked like an amazing vantage point overlooking the valley. However, I would only be able to make that trip if I got a piggy-back ride and if we had an overnight stay at the top. The other direction was more level, so that is direction in which we walked for a couple of hours. During that time I alternated between feeling awful and feeling exhilarated: we were actually on The Great Wall! I turned to Juneko a few times to declare, “We’re in China!” Amazing.

Soaked through and through we made our way back down to the exit, which involved a toboggan ride to the bottom. The toboggan ride was kind of silly, but better than suffering through further sweatiness while hiking down the mountainside. After reuniting with out driver we hit the road, arriving back in Beijing in time to get caught in their terrible afternoon traffic. That evening we had an $8 dinner of seafood rice and pork buns before turning in for the night.

According to Kant, the sublime experience occurs in two variations: the mathematical and the dynamic. The mathematical sublime has to do with the awe inspiring sense of infinity arising from an encounter with seemingly endless repetition. The dynamic sublime involves the sense of awe we feel when in the presence of seemingly infinite power. The Forbidden City and The Great Wall each provoked both of these sorts of experiences in me. The wide open courtyards and the palaces of The Forbidden City drew my mind toward thoughts of numerical infinity while also encouraging me to contemplate the enormous political power required to marshall the forces required to construct and control the grounds. The breathtaking scale of The Great Wall, with its battlements that stretch into an unseeable distance, likewise left me awestruck in contemplation of the enormous, seemingly infinite, amount of will, labor and administrative power required to complete such a monumental project. These Chinese monuments are truly sublime in both of the Kantian senses.

And there were more sublime sights yet to see. The next ones would be The Summer Palace, The Hanging Monastery and the Yungang Grottoes near Datong. I’ll write about those in a future posting.

Welcome to Beijing, China.

The word “monumental” sums up my impression of China. From the Great Wall to The Forbidden City; from The Summer Palace to The Temple of Heaven; from The Hanging Monastery to the Yungang Grottoes; the sites we visited during our summer trip to China were without exception monumental both in their mammoth scale and historic importance. This massive country, home to the world’s largest population of human beings, is also home to the world’s largest number of UNESCO World Heritage sights. They say everything is big in Texas, but the state of Texas would fit about 15 times over into the People’s Republic of China.

I’ll save my descriptions and impressions of China’s awe-inspiring cultural sights for a future blog posting. In this posting, I’d like to set the scene, sketching out some of the everyday details of what it was like to be in China, how it was different from home and explain both what endeared and annoyed me about the place. In short, what I’ll describe here is my own experience of culture shock.

My wife and I were in and around Beijing for three weeks this August, seeing the sights and attending the 24th World Congress of Philosophy. I was invited to participate in a session on the philosophy of humor at the Congress, giving us an opportunity not only to meet some interesting scholars but also to explore a city we had never been to before. Initially, I had some apprehension about the trip, as China is notoriously restrictive of free speech and expression; harsh in its treatment of those who the government deems subversive. How was this going to affect the free exchange of ideas that are a necessary part of a philosophy conference? I worried about what could happen to Westerners like ourselves who might say or do the wrong things in a totalitarian, communist country with unfamiliar rules and customs. Were we taking a chance with our freedom? Could we end up in a Chinese jail?

These worries started to get put to the side once we arrived in the country and we experienced the friendliness of the Chinese people. Beijing is a city of 22 million people – more than twice the size of New York City – yet the people we encountered had the good natured affability that you would expect to find in a small town. Often, when we were on the street, examining our maps and trying to figure out how to get to a location, strangers would approach us and offer directions. Despite the fact that few of the Chinese people we met had much English (and we had even less Chinese) through cell phone translation programs and hand gestures, we had little trouble communicating with the Beijingers who came to our assistance. My suspicious American nature initially made me wary of their intentions, but it turned out that they wanted nothing more than to be helpful and welcoming to us. If I had to single out one thing that I loved about China the most, the good-natured people would be at the top of the list.

We apparently were a novelty to the good people of Beijing. Strangers would often stop and ask to snap photos with us. Sometimes I would realize, while sitting on the subway or standing in a park, that I was being photographed by children who were watching me and giggling. Teenagers and adults alike would stare, laugh, and then approach us, snapping away with their cameras or cell phones before joining us to take a selfie. It was all very good-natured and prompted by the fact that they see so few non-Chinese faces, even in a city the size of Beijing. We felt like celebrities! I learned that by smiling and saying “Nee-how” (“Hello” in Mandarin) the ice was immediately broken with kids, adults and old-folks alike.

While the people of Beijing are friendly and curious, there are also always lots of them around, which often caused me to feel crowded and tense. On the street, the subway, the parks, in restaurants and at the stores, there were always hordes of bodies maneuvering around one another in a constant flow of movement and noise. One of the lessons I learned quite early on during our visit was that these hordes have an aggravating practice of ignoring the idea of queuing up for services. Whether it is waiting for the subway or waiting to pay for something at a store counter, I consistently found that I had to push my way insistently to the front in order to get anything done. And it’s not that there was any rudeness involved in this ritual. It just seems that standing in a line for anything is not a part of the Beijing custom. People seem to operate on the principle that if there is any open space somewhere ahead, one must move forward to fill it, even if someone else is standing ahead of you. In order to get anything done, you must take on the qualities of water, flowing ever forward and around the obstacles that appear in your vicinity. When you do so, there are no hard feelings, there is no anger, no accusations of impoliteness or impropriety from bystanders. It is as if the laws of physics have taken over.

This is also what happens with traffic on the streets. Despite the fact that Beijing has an excellent subway system, the roads are always congested with lots of cars, motorcycles and scooters. My understanding is that this is something that has been amplified in recent times with increasing economic prosperity, and as a result traffic jams have become a constant part of life. The cars, scooters and motorcycles on the roads – like the people in the shops – move ever forward to fill any spaces that appear in front of them, ignoring traffic rules, pedestrians, and safety concerns. I never saw any traffic police during our entire stay in Beijing. Drivers toot their horns regularly to warn those on foot to get out of the way as they blast through red lights, crosswalks and as they race down the shoulder of the street. Motorcycles and scooters zoom the wrong way down the road and weave around pedestrians on the sidewalk, abruptly stopping in front of you as riders park their vehicles wherever they can find space. Helmets appear to be optional. Aggravating things is the fact that most of the scooters are electric, so they don’t make any noise as they approach from behind. At night many of them don’t bother to switch on their headlights, zooming along like silent torpedoes seeking a human target. 700 people a day are killed in traffic accidents in China (260,000 a year), mostly pedestrians and motorcyclists, and I can see why. Being hit by a car was the most dangerous threat that we faced during our Chinese visit.

On the other hand, we never felt the threat of violent crime during our visit. None of the neighborhoods we visited felt dangerous and we never worried about our safety, even when wandering the dark alleys of the city’s hutongs (the old neighborhoods at the center of Beijing) at night. While I’m sure that there is crime in Beijing, the presence of so many police, guards and cameras on the streets goes a long way to deter bad behavior. Additionally, there are metal detectors and checkpoints at subway entrances and at the entrances to certain buildings, museums and attractions. We had the definite feeling of being safe, but we also had the feeling of being in a police state. The eyes of the authorities are everywhere; even at the philosophy conference, where in addition to cameras, metal detectors and guards there were also riot police stationed near the downstairs entrances to the convention center, looking bored as they leaned on their shields. I imagine there must be an official government rule that when a certain number of people gather in one place, a certain number of riot police must also be on duty. Given that the conference was a very large one – with around 8,000 attendees – it would figure that there would be worries about things getting out of hand. After all, you know how rowdy philosopher professors can get.

Two scarce sights were litter and homeless people. We saw one man sleeping in a tunnel near the shopping mall, but we were not sure that he was actually homeless. There were no tent cities or encampments anywhere we went in the city. Likewise, litter in the streets was almost non-existent. This probably was due to the fact that just about everywhere we went, workers were picking up rubbish, painting fences and emptying garbage cans. Maybe this also accounts for the invisibility of homeless people. Perhaps the government puts them to work sprucing up the streets. Apparently, Beijing’s unemployment rate is below 4%, so assigning citizens to cleaning duty may be something that kills three birds with one stone. In any case, I don’t think I have ever been in a city this size that was so spotless. Chalk another one up for communism!

Upon our arrival in Beijing, the city was in the midst of a heatwave, with temperatures soaring to 111 degrees. When you combine this with high humidity and the haze of the city’s smog, the conditions were not so good for walking around. Within a block, I would be soaked with perspiration, dripping wet and uncomfortable for the rest of the day. It was on this trip I really did discover my physical limits when it comes to heat exposure. After a sweltering visit to the Forbidden City on our first day (where the temperature soared to 111 degrees, and the ambient temperature was a blistering 136 degrees) and then, on the second day, to The Great Wall, I felt as if I had been beaten with a bag of hammers. My body ached, I was fatigued, and all I wanted to do was sit in an air conditioned hotel room sipping chilled bottled water. Luckily, the heat wave passed after the third day, the temperatures dipped to a more reasonable level, and the rest of our excursions took place under more comfortable conditions. The hazy smog even cleared on some days, revealing the blue skies above.

The food we sampled in Beijing ranged from mediocre to gross. Much of what we ate was bland (various noodle dishes and rice dishes), while a few things were outright awful (a squid dish cooked in some sort of tomato sauce; some kind of deep fried pasta with sugar sprinkled on top). There were some things that we were just not going to try at all (poached deer fetus; bull penis). Some meals were pretty good (baked tilapia; an eggplant dish; a vegetarian version of kung pao chicken), but overall the food was forgettable. Both my wife and I developed persistent diarrhea that to one degree or another haunted us for our entire three week visit. Whether this was due to the food or the local water, I’m not sure, but over the course of our stay we increasingly found ourselves visiting a Pizza Hut Bistro in the mall near our hotel, hoping to avoid strange foods that did weird things to our insides. The Pizza Hut Bistro was unlike any Pizza Hut in the US, as it served roasted broccoli, sandwiches, beer, wine and even escargot! While part of me felt ashamed for eating in an American fast food joint while in China, another part of me didn’t care. Give me dough, cheese and Coca-Cola!

It is well known that the Chinese government blocks and censors the country’s media, but it was a bit startling to actually experience this on a day-to-day basis. Sites like Facebook, Worldcat, and Google were inaccessible on my computer, although my wife did find that she could get to some of them on her cell phone. This caused a bit of annoyance and inconvenience when trying to communicate with family and friends back home. Strangely, WordPress was not blocked, which made me wonder about the consistency and logic of Chinese internet censorship. In a country that is inviting large numbers of foreign scholars to gather and mix with Chinese scholars in order to discuss controversial philosophical, social and cultural issues, does it make much sense to block social media? Apparently the Chinese people know how to circumvent much of the media censorship anyway, so it all seems like an absurd, losing battle. The silliness of it all was dramatized during our visit when government censors forbade the posting of pictures of Winnie the Pooh because the cartoon character seems to resemble the Chinese president, Xi Jinping! Who knew that Winnie the Pooh was so dangerously subversive?

While we did have access to international television programming in our hotel room, the TV screen would mysteriously go blank whenever stories that were unfavorable toward the Chinese government appeared. The first time it happened we were watching CNN, and I initially thought it was just a problem with the signal. But repeatedly, when any program that could be interpreted as critical of China appeared on TV, the screen would go black until the offending segment was over and some other segment had begun. Coincidence? Probably not.

Construction was constant while we were in China, continuing 24 hours a day, everywhere that we went. The night after we arrived at our hotel – which was attached to the China National Convention Center, right next to the Olympic Village – I noticed a strange sound emanating from the walls of our room. At sunrise, I realized that the sound was actually coming from a vacant lot across the street. It was the racket of three backhoes as they smashed up and excavated a full square city block of concrete foundation. This noise went on non-stop (for 3 weeks!) until shortly before we left Beijing. On the other side of the hotel, a new building was going up where workers swarmed like ants all day and all night long. When we visited Datong for an overnight stay, we were amazed to see an enormous portion of the old city being demolished on one side of the freeway while on the other side an entirely new section was being erected. Row after row of brand new apartment buildings and towers – bearing names like “London” and “Edinburgh” – rose, sparkling clean, new and uninhabited. Our guide told us that the city government was moving the entire population from one place to another in a drive toward modernization. Everywhere we went, things were being built up and torn down; an indication of the hectic nature of China’s current physical and cultural transformation.

In conjunction with all of this construction there were temporary barriers and fences that popped up overnight, making it hard to predict which walking routes would be accessible from day-to-day. One evening, when we were trying to get back to our hotel on foot, we got trapped in a newly erected fenced-off corridor that channeled us to a guard station where we were forbidden to pass. We had to turn around and back-track our way to where we had started in order to find a route out of the unfamiliar gauntlet. Sometimes these barriers had nothing to do with construction, but simply with crowd control, as we experienced when we tried to cross the street near Tiananmen Square by walking around an obstacle that was blocking a crosswalk. Immediately a chorus of shouts went up from the twenty or so police officers and guards loitering on the corner, directing us to fall back in line with the crowd being conducted along the sidewalk and through a check-point. It seems that in China, a lot of energy goes into channeling masses of people here and there, sometimes in unpredictable ways.

If one just highlighted the tall buildings, the chain stores, shopping malls, crowds, and luxury cars, Beijing would not seem much different from any modern, Western city in the US or Europe. It has bright lights, urban buzz, and lots of young people walking around with their faces buried in cell phones. There are Starbucks coffee shops, KFCs, Pizza Huts, Subways and McDonalds all over the place.  Underneath this surface, however, it is different. Everyday life is more monitored and controlled than it is in the West; for better and for worse. On the one hand, the Chinese censorship of free speech and the media seems silly and unnecessary to me. Couldn’t government personnel more effectively be put to use policing traffic in the streets rather than censoring internet traffic and appearances of Winnie the Pooh online? On the other hand, it may be the constant awareness of being monitored and watched that keeps the violent crime rate so low and the streets so clean in China. In fact, this is a trade-off that many people in my own country might be willing to make, although I’m not one of them.

China is currently in a state of transition, and my observations about the everyday rhythms of Beijing, I think, indicate something about the nature of the changes the country is undergoing. China is starting to open up to the outside world. It is inviting outside investment, encouraging private ownership of real estate, and it is attempting to become more involved in world-wide intellectual culture. But this process of opening up also drags behind it a long history of suspicion of the West (much of it well justified), and a fear of the potentially destructive consequences that go along with increasing individual freedom. I get the sense that China wants to engage more intimately with the rest of the world, but that it does not want at the same time to absorb all of the world’s evils. It is trying to open up, but it is trying to do so slowly so that it doesn’t sacrifice its own unique virtues.

And it certainly is the case that China has much to be proud of and much that it should preserve as it moves toward modernization. Even a Westerner like me – who dislikes the chaos of Chinese traffic, who detests their censorship, who is uncomfortable with their weather and who dislikes the food – can see that China is a culture that has much to teach the rest of the world even as it learns new lessons. It is a culture that draws upon thousands of years of accumulated wisdom, and we in the West should pay attention to what that wisdom has to offer.

In my next post I’ll reflect on some of the incredible, monumental cultural sites that we visited in and around Beijing.