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Travels in China: Beijing

天壇 Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China. Built in 1406-1420 CE during the Ming Dynasty

I came back from China about a week ago after having spent 14 days absorbing Chinese culture and society. First I flew to Beijing where I spent a whole week, afterward I went to Shanghai where I spent another week in.

Visiting China was an unique life-changing experience. I've learned new information about Chinese history, culture, society and politics. While in China, I made a conscious goal of learning more about Chinese history. Growing up both in the UK and USA, I did not learn much about Chinese history in school, having only read about China in one or two chapters.

That being said, I purchased two books to read on my Kindle to learn about Chinese history and politics. One book crammed information spanning thousands of years in less than a hundred pages, which was quite an impressive feat. I read about many dynasties, Mongol invasions, Confucian philosophy, Taoism, the spread of Buddhism to China from India, European meddling, and warring with the British empire over opium and trading, the rise of Communism, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

北京孔庙 Temple of Confucius, Beijing, China. Built in 1302 CE

I feel that I have a better understanding of current Chinese politics, although I'm no expert. During my stay in China, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) held its 19th Congress. The CCP Congress only happens every five (5) years and when it happens, it's huge; the whole world watches on, waiting to see what's next on the agenda.

While my sister and I watched the CCP Congress on CNN Asia, there were black-outs on the screen a few times. CNN Asia was being censored by the Chinese authorities to ban any negative criticism of the government. It was jarring to see black-outs on TV, as I'm not used to witnessing government censorship in action. The Chinese government also took steps to limit WeChat (a social app allowed in China) to block Chinese netizens from discussing politics in order to prevent any spread of outrage or protests.

Two guards standing at attention, at Forbidden City, Beijing, China. 

I should mention that during my stay in China, I used VPN (Virtual Private Network) to use Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr. All those websites are blocked in China. I don't feel like going into detail about what happened during the 19th CCP Congress (you can google it). However, I will say that Xi Jinping gave a speech that lasted for about 3 hours. He warned that the Chinese government will not tolerate any separatism talk for Taiwan. The CCP will reaffirm and tighten their control over all facets of life and society in China. You can read a brief summary here.

One of the many beautiful gates at Forbidden City, Beijing, China.

During my travels, I was pleasantly surprised to see many Chinese Muslims both in Beijing and Shanghai. I always knew that there were Muslims in China but I did not realize how many there were! The biggest two Chinese Muslim ethnicity groups in China are the Uighur and the Hui. I do not know the cultural differences between Uighur or Hui.

Regardless, I saw many Chinese Muslims wearing traditional clothes from their cultures. They also wore the kufi, the traditional Islamic skull cap. The kufi was much bigger though. It reminded me of Indian Muslim men in India who wear large Islamic skull caps to identify themselves as Muslim in a Hindu dominated country. The nice thing about being Muslim is that we Muslims always feel an air of solidarity and friendliness with other Muslims, regardless of what country or culture they come from or what language they speak.

Whenever we saw Chinese Muslims, we'd greet them, saying Assalamu Alaykium.

On that note, I met a Chinese Muslim shop owner in an artsy shopping district in Beijing. The street is chock full of shops selling calligraphy painting supplies, fine Chinese artworks, and scroll paintings. I decided to buy some Chinese Buddhist art so I went into a shop to browse around.

Chinese Art shop that I went inside to look around

I met the shop owner, a short elderly lady, who came up to me, smiling. She didn't speak English. Being a profoundly deaf woman, I am used to finding ways to communicate with people if I cannot read their lips or if they don't understand my speech.

I motioned to her, making a gesture for painting, and then I closed my eyes and held my fingers meditating like Buddha. She said, "Buddha?"

I nodded.

She said something in Chinese, understanding my request. She went around the shop, rummaging for prints of Buddha. She couldn't find any of it and spoke in Chinese, telling me she didn't have it.

Oh well. My eyes fell down to the floor and suddenly I saw a red wooden board with the Islamic Shahadah drawn on it in white print. It was tucked in one of the drawers in a table, slightly open. I was startled but excited to see it.

(example of the Islamic Shahadah) 

I pointed to it and I asked, "Islamic?" I wanted to know if she had any Chinese Islamic art to sell.

She pointed her finger to herself on her chest and said, "Musilin" (穆斯林).

I don't know Chinese, but I do know the Chinese word for Muslim. I read her lips and I very much clearly understood.

I pointed to myself, cupped my hands like the Quran, and I repeated "Musilin."

Her eyes lit up and she broke into a huge grin. She became excited and said "Assalamu alaykium!" to me. I smiled and replied, "Walaykium asalam!" back to her. After a few minutes of excited chattering, I bought a small Chinese scroll painting from her. After my purchase, I suggested that we take photos. We posed for two photos, one for myself, and one for her.

The shop owner is a Chinese Muslim woman. Very nice old lady :) 

If you go to Beijing and if you're interested in buying Chinese scroll paintings, you should go visit her shop. Here's the card and address (below). I cannot read Chinese so I can't tell you what the text says in Pinyin.

 Business card with address details for the Chinese Muslim woman's art shop in Beijing

I also visited the Great Wall in Mutianyu, the closest area to Beijing (about 1.5 hour away from the city).

One surprising fact about the Great Wall is that it is made up of a bunch of forts and towers that were built by various dynasties at many times through history. It was not a single long wall built by one dynasty in a continuous time period, like some people assume.

So anyway, the fort I went to, was built during the Ming Dynasty. It was physically exhausting walking along the corridor because the steps were steep and would go uphill and then downhill and then uphill again! It was a strenuous physical work-out for sure.

The mountain views were stunningly gorgeous; the views would make your mouth drop open, take away your breath and blow your mind. It's amazing to think how people were able to construct the Great Wall in these mountains from thousands and hundreds of years ago.

Yeah... this is the view I'm talking about... wow.

This is an example of a tower at the Great Wall. Towers were manned by military guards who would watch out for any invaders. 

I went into a tower to take a few photos of the panoramic view outside the window. I also took out my Canon HF HD camera to film the sights for my travel vlogs. After I was done taking photo and video, I put away my equipment and zipped up my bag. Afterward, I walked outside of the tower and to my surprise, I was greeted by a gladdening sight.

Beautiful view from the window... wouldn't you like to wake up everyday to see this?

A different view from another window

This was on the other side of the tower.

Two Buddhist monks with shaved heads sat on the wall, dressed in traditional orange robes. One looked young, maybe 16 and the other man seemed older, probably in his 30s. They both stared at me albeit rather kindly. I wanted to smile at them and greet them. However, I felt a huge wave of shyness wash over me and I became too timid to say hello to them. I looked down and walked a few steps, and they arched their backs to turn around to watch me!

I wish I had asked for a photo with them. I thought it was cool seeing two Buddhist monks just sitting there on the Great Wall, hanging out and talking. It felt like a movie scene or something.

I spent about two hours at the Great Wall, walking along the corridor and looking out at the green hills. It was very chilly on that day, but I became hot and sweaty being bundled up in my hooded sweater and bomber jacket, from having walked back and forth in the corridor up and down the wavy hills!

Just one of the many towers at the Great Wall.

My favourite Beijing landmarks are Niujie Mosque, which was first built in 996 CE, and the Lama Tibetan Buddhist Temple, which is a huge temple complex with various smaller temples built around the area. Each temple has an altar devoted to varying buddhas and boddhisattvas. Also, there are monks who live and study there and maintain the temple grounds. Many people who came to the Lama Temple lit incense sticks, prayed and knelt at the altars. I maintained silence while entering each temple to look at the altars.

As for Niujie Mosque, it was wonderful to see a mosque built in traditional Chinese architectural style. It blows my mind that it was built in 996 CE because most historic sites in Beijing are not thousands of years old but rather hundreds of years old (most historic sites in Beijing were built during the Ming Dynasty).

We were the only tourists visiting the mosque since we came there during the evening just in time for Maghrib prayers. An Uighur woman wearing hijab saw us and she gestured, making hand motions for wudu (washing one's self for Islamic prayers), asking us if we wanted to pray.

Niujie Mosque in Beijing China, built in 996 CE

A Chinese Muslim imam reciting the Adhaan, the Islamic call to prayer, as two Chinese Muslim men stood in silence

Beautiful interior of Niujie Mosque. This is the men's prayer room

Muslim men praying at Niujie Mosque

I should mention that Beijing has plenty of halaal restaurants, along with a Muslim dominated neighborhood (Niujie). I tried Northwestern Chinese cuisine from Xinjiang and the kabobs were delicious. The flavor was very different from anything I had tasted. I saw many non-Muslim Chinese people eating in those restaurants, so the Northwestern cuisine is pretty popular with everyone, not just Muslims.

Halaal restaurant in Niujie district, Beijing

Another halaal restaurant in Niujie district, Beijing

and yet a third halaal restaurant!

Inside one of the halaal restaurants

Fancy seeing Islamic calligraphy in China

The kabobs were killer! Also the rice and chicken were yummy.

My impressions of Beijing are that it's a historic city with a sophisticated social atmosphere. The city has an air of self-importance. It reminds me of the regal and formal pomposity of New Delhi and Washington D.C, being that Beijing is, after all, the capital of China and the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party.

Everything in Beijing felt very formal. It's my personal opinion that Shanghai is much more friendly and relaxed, but that's another story for another post (link coming soon).

If you are thinking of planning a trip to China, you should definitely go. I recommend learning a bit about Chinese history so that you would know names of dynasties, rulers, and time periods. I have to warn ya, many people in Beijing and Shanghai do NOT speak English (not even cab drivers). It would be a good idea to go with an English-speaking tour group or at least, go visit China with a Chinese-speaking friend or relative. Don't go by yourself if you don't know Chinese, otherwise it may be a very lonely, isolating  travelling experience.

Shanghai coming soon.