I visited Beijing during the national celebration of the 70th Anniversary since the end of the World War II. This is a big deal in China. So big that preparations for a military parade were done weeks in advance and both Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City were closed and used for military rehearsals. Traffic was regulated, industries were shut down and even public transportation routes were changed. As a result, Beijing had blue skies the entire time I was there and the smog that usually coats the sky was nowhere to be seen. I was told by expats that had lived in Beijing for a few years, they had never been able to see the sky until then.
Maybe that is why I had such a pleasant surprise when I arrived in Beijing. I expected crowds, dirt, pollution. Instead I found calm street, blue skies and breathable air. Some people said that the Chinese government limited the number of visas given out to reduce the crowds and made it rain so the smog would be cleared. Unbelievable? Well, not so much. The process is called cloud seeding and it uses chemicals dispersed in the atmosphere to manipulate the weather. It was used before the Olympics in Beijing and has been used by several other countries including the U.S. Apparently it’s a common practice at ski resorts to increase snow. Who would have thought?
I felt lucky and unlucky at the same time to be one of the foreigners able to watch as Beijing prepared for this big celebration. Lucky because I was experiencing something very few get to do – a military driven State getting ready to display all its might. The whole parade was televised in China, but barely even talked about in the U.S. The politics between China and Japan and its alliance with Russia were on prominent display during this time in Asia. In addition, since I visited Japan and South Korea before arriving in China, I was able to witness firsthand each country’s point of view about the war and how it had faired for the 70 years since its end. I am not a history buff, but it was fascinating to contrast the different attitudes and different development levels post war. For example, in Japan, the Hiroshima bombing ceremony was about the only thing about the war on display and only if you were in Hiroshima. Otherwise, it was like the war never happened. In South Korea, there were still a lot of resentment towards Japan and the issues of payments for damages came up a lot. I saw protests on the street for “Comfort Women Rights” and people that did not want U.S. forces stationed in South Korea any longer. In China, the climate was one of celebration like the war had just ended and Japan was still a militarized state ready to attack at any minute. In fact, the perception was that the war was only between Japan and China. I guess it is not much different in the West, where most of history focuses on Europe and the U.S. The Chinese also don’t call it World War II. They call it the “Victory Against Japanese Aggression” or at least that is how it was translated into English in banners across the city,
On the local level, I watched for days as the preparations for the parade were made. Brand new flag poles were installed in the Hutongs and shiny new flags were put up in every house like magic. The air force practiced their maneuvers with colored smoke. The neighborhood watch groups were out in full force, making sure everything was organized for the big day. My hostel even tried to institute a curfew so we wouldn’t be caught between transportation routes that would be shutting down. The whole thing started feeling surreal and I have to be honest that I started thinking of what I would do if I had to exit the country in a hurry. Being somewhere with no internet access and no way to communicate with the outside world, with tanks on the street is a little frightening.
But travel is about rolling with the punches, you know?
So instead of feeling afraid, I decided to make the most of it. Learn from others about the history of the celebration, about what it was like to live in China and about finding out if I could at least see the Forbidden City from the outside, or more specifically, from the top. Following the advice of a friend of a friend, my cousin and I headed to Jingshan Park, just North of the Forbidden City. Its vantage point, high above it, provides an incredible view of the Forbidden City. Seeing it sprawl out across many street blocks, you realize it is immense.
I felt sad about leaving Beijing the day it would re-open, but my flights couldn’t be easily changed specially with the city in shutdown mode and the lack of internet access. So instead, I watched the parade, saw the VERY Forbidden City from the only angles I could and made a mental note to return to Beijing and visit it.
Did you ever visit a place and was not able to see a major attraction? What did you do?