One Belt, One Road, and the Hutongs of Beijing

HutongWe thought we would try something different on this trip to Beijing. Rather than a western-style hotel we chose a small hotel in a traditional hutong. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

A hutong is an ancient alley dating back to the dynastic period of Beijing’s history. The word hutong is apparently derived from Mongolian, coined first during the Yuan Dynasty when Mongolian leader Kublai Khan controlled all of what is much of China, Korea, and parts of eastern Russian today. And alleys they are; narrow lanes with walls on both sides. Periodically you encounter a door, which leads to a central courtyard surrounded by tiny rooms in which various families live. These siheyuans line the hutong. Most of these siheyuans serve the poorer classes and lack toilets, which in modern times have been installed at points along the hutong and shared by all.

Our hutong hotel was on the upscale side, having been renovated to provide a larger than usual central courtyard and modern rooms (each with its own bathroom). Still, the rooms were tiny and the bathrooms were tinier. Late at night the locals just in from the outlying farms (in town to sell goods, perhaps) would arrive, their loud voices and arguments easily heard through the thin walls. Early morning risers added to the din, making sleeping an adventure.

For some reason we decided it would be a good idea to seek out our hotel in the darkened night of 10 pm. Ru’s sister met us at the nearby Ping’Anli Subway station and guided us to the hutong with her GPS. Without her we never would have found it, and the hutong entrance looked exactly like the kind of dark alley I would never (ever) have wandered down at night. After checking out the room she figured we were good for one night before changing our minds. We stayed five days, which shocked everyone, including us.

Hutong Beijing

The One Belt, One Road Summit fell in the middle of our 10 days in Beijing. Proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the One Belt, One Road initiative (OBOR for short) is a development project (call it a trade agreement) seeking cooperation between Eurasian countries. In town for the big meeting was Russian President Vladimir Putin and another 30 or so world leaders (nope, not the USA). Whenever bigwigs are in town the Chinese government shuts down factories and limits car driving in order to cleanse the normally thickly polluted air. We had beautiful clear blue sky for the entirety of our visit, a rarity. A few days after the OBOR meetings were over, the air had already started to get hazy again. It didn’t help that we had high 90 degree F temperatures for every day except two – and those two surpassed 100 degrees F.

After five days we decided that we had experienced enough of hutong life and got a room in a western hotel not far from the Beijing Book Building, a huge structure that makes the local Barnes and Noble stores look tiny. Down the road was Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, which was closed while the OBOR spouses toured. But that is a story for another time.

For those who want to experience a hutong without actually having to live in one, there are plenty of tours for foreigners offered by people roaming the usual tourist traps. One of the wider ones near the Bell and Drum Towers is called Nanluoguxiang and has been turned into a shopping street, but don’t mistake it for a real hutong. Wander off one of the side alleys to get a better flavor. Plan your walk to end up at Houhai, a beautiful lakefront road lined with plentiful bars and restaurants, all with live music.

Much more on Beijing and other travels on this page, so feel free to click around.

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David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, scheduled for release July 31, 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Drum Tower of Beijing – Ancient Time Keeper

I recently visited the famous Drum Tower (鼓楼, Gulou) in Beijing, China. I was surprised to learn that it was also a clock, or at least a timekeeper. The tower, which faces its Bell Tower counterpart, was originally built when Kublai Khan was Emperor of China during the Yuan Dynasty (13th century). Originally used as a musical center, it later became a way for the reigning government to announce the time. The two towers maintained this official role up until 1924, when western style clockwork was adopted to keep time.

Beijing Drum Tower

Climbing the long, steep stairway to the top gets you into the main room, one side of which holds a line of humongous drums. The one remaining original drum (of 25) sits to one side, its calfskin head slashed during the Eight Power Allied Forces’ invasion in 1900. We’re here to see the demonstration of the drums. While we wait we take in the panoramic view of Beijing from the outside walkway high above the streets.

Beijing Drum Tower

We also check out the displays of ancient timekeeping equipment. With our modern astronomically-linked smart phones and digital watches, it is interesting to see that much of time was monitored through the burning of incense and candles. Others used water or metal balls.

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In one timepiece called a Bronze Kelou, time is measured by the flow of water through four copper clepsydras. A mechanical device would trigger the attached God of Cymbals to strike his cymbals together eight times for each quarter hour. Another timepiece called a Beilou contained several metal balls that would roll along copper pipe in a 2 meter tall cabinet. A ball would clang a cymbal every 24 seconds, thus it would take 14.4 minutes (an ancient quarter) for 36 metal balls to complete a cycle. It would take 24 hours for 3,600 metal balls to complete rolling, which gave relatively accurate time measurement.

It’s time. Four drummers march in and line up in front of the huge drums. They pound with such brute force it’s hard to imagine the drum heads lasting for very long. After only a few minutes you start to realize the power and strength of the drummers. Check out the video below.

After the demonstration we slowly descend the stairs, which somehow seem steeper going down than going up. This won’t be the last stairs – the even taller Bell Tower is next!

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David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, scheduled for release in summer 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Beijing Aquarium – Home of the Rare Chinese Sturgeon

After visiting Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, and Mao’s Mausoleum in Beijing, head on over to the Beijing Aquarium. Located within the Beijing Zoo, the aquarium is the largest inland aquarium in the world. One of its specialties is the Rare Chinese Sturgeon Hall.

Beijing Aquarium

The building itself is shaped like a huge conch shell. It relies on over 18,000 tons of artificial seawater to highlight seven main sections: Rainforests, Coral Reefs, Sharks, Whales, a Touch Pool, a Marine Theater, and the aforementioned Sturgeon Hall. Over 1000 marine and freshwater species are bred on site.

Beijing Aquarium sturgeon

Of the 41 aquariums around the world I’ve visited, this one is unique in that it has a large area devoted to sturgeon. These ancient fish in the family Acipenseridae are an oddity of nature. Their skeletons are almost entirely cartilaginous, like sharks, despite being classified as bony fishes since their ancestors actually had bony skeletons. Sturgeons also are at least partially covered with bony plates called scutes instead of scales. Like catfish, they have four barbels, sensory organs near their wide, toothless mouths, that they drag along the bottom substrate as an aid in navigation and food gathering. They are an odd fish indeed.

Most aquariums toss one or a few sturgeon into the big tanks with sharks and other common fish. In Beijing there are dozens of representatives of the 27 known species of the world. The highlight is the Chinese sturgeon (Acipenser sinensis), a critically endangered species considered, like the giant panda, a national treasure in China. Sadly, like many species of sturgeon, the Chinese sturgeon is nearly extinct in the wild due to overfishing and habitat loss.

The aquarium doesn’t stop there. There are also large tanks with beautiful white beluga whales…

Beijing Aquarium beluga

…many species of moray eels…

Beijing Aquarium moray eels

…and quite a few sea turtles.

Beijing Aquarium sea turtles

Given my previous work with jellyfish I’m always drawn to that section of aquariums and the Beijing Aquarium has one of the best displays I’ve seen. Quite a few tanks exhibit different species, with a variety of light effects to highlight their beauty.

Beijing Aquarium jellyfish

Overall I was greatly surprised – and impressed – by the size and quality of the aquarium. During my visit it seemed clear that the zoo and aquarium cater more to local Chinese rather than tourists, most of whom never get beyond the major tourist attractions mentioned in the first sentence above. This focus is emphasized by the signage, most of which is only in Chinese.

Beijing Aquarium sturgeon

So if you’re in Beijing, take a side trip to the Beijing Aquarium. It’s about 3 miles or so northwest of Tian’anmen Square in the Beijing Zoo, reachable by taxi, bus, or even easier, via subway line 4. You won’t be disappointed. More information here.

David J. Kent has been a scientist for thirty-five years, is an avid science traveler, and an independent Abraham Lincoln historian. He is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (now in its 5th printing) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His book on Thomas Edison is due in Barnes and Noble stores in July 2016.

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Slogging Through the Smog in Beijing

It’s no secret that Beijing has an air pollution problem. The city’s PM2.5 (a measure of particulates in the air) routinely exceed unsafe levels; and I don’t mean exceed by just a tad, exceed by 800% or more. About 4000 people per day die in China from air pollution. I saw – literally – this pollution on my most recent visit to Beijing.

The view from the apartment where I was staying, in the southern part of the city far from the touristy areas, gave me a good indication of what I was to experience.

Beijing smog

That isn’t fog; it’s smog, which smog permeated the air no matter where I went. Mid-afternoon on a “sunny” day, the huge portrait of Mao Zedong on the front wall of the Forbidden City was barely visible from Tian’anmen Square.

Beijing smog

I didn’t just happen to pick a bad day; this is routine. So routine that the government installed huge television screens, ostensibly as tourist marketing advertisements, but often filled with beautiful vistas of Chinese landscapes. They even show photos of the Forbidden City on those days where the entire facade is hidden.

Beijing smog

As I write this Beijing is preparing for its September 3rd remembrance of the end of World War II for China 70 years before. As with many big international events held in Beijing, including the 2008 Olympics and the 2014 APEC Summit, the Chinese government has ordered stopgap measures to make Beijing more palatable to foreign dignitaries. This means closing down much of the capital, shutting down factories, and banning odd/even tagged cars on alternate days. These result in temporary cleansing of the air – just long enough for the foreign press to get nice pictures. Once the grand show is over, the air clogs up again and residents don their dust masks in a feeble attempt at normalcy.

Science Traveler will cover more of the science of China in future posts. One area of interest is the impact of a growing middle class, and the consumption that goes with it, on energy demand. China has a coal and oil problem even worse than the United States, but it also has been building solar and wind capacity. Clearly they have to do something, not just for climate change considerations, but for the health of their own citizens.

David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His next book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is scheduled for release in summer 2017.

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