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From China with Love: Packaging History to attract more tourists

Most of our knowledge and perceptions about the East, where the sun rises, come from Western based reports.

East is now dominated by two nations, China and Japan. The latter, called the land of the rising sun was recently overtaken economically by China as the world’s second biggest economy. It was therefore refreshing to visit China, specifically Beijing and explore the East on the ground.

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My sojourn to China was intellectual to find out more about one Belt and One Road initiative (OBOR), an ambitions infrastructure project that follows the old Silk Road joining Europe, Asia and Africa. It was established in 2013 by China. “More than 60 countries, with a combined GDP of $21 trillion, have expressed interest in participating in the OBOR action plan,” says McKinsey Consulting.

The project is more than highways, power grids, railways and ports. It has a soft part based on history and culture. Remember Marco Polo’s visit to China? Do you recall China tracing descendants of Zheng He, the Chinese admiral believed to have visited Malindi in 1418 and left genetic imprints? Such historical inspirations are as important as roads and highways; they anchor the project into our heart and soul. We can’t forget teaching of Chinese (Mandarin) in Kenyan universities. History aside, what did I find on the ground?

Needless to say, this was my second visit to China. My first visit was Shanghai, more southern, more westernised and commercial.

We landed into Beijing Capital International Airport still undergoing expansion. The politeness of the immigration officers, with insignia showing they were policemen strikes you in addition to their youthfulness. I noted the same youthfulness in Shanghai. Is that a way to create the first impression? How youthful are our immigration officers? I have nothing against aging…

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Travelling from one terminal to another is by self driving trains, not long buses. You start to sense, this is not the China of the media, it’s the real China.

To the city centre, you can take a bus, a train or a taxi. My host Renmin University of China sent a taxi to pick me. We arrived in Beijing at 9.00 am.

Traffic was not the best, competed with Nairobi but with some order. The highway mimics Thika. One near Airport is called Jinping expressway. Sounds familiar? The signage is in English and Chinese, better Mandarin. I was told that was because of hosting 2008 Olympics.

One noticeable pattern as you move towards the city centre is the building of ring roads, equivalent to our bypasses. They are now up to 5th and more are coming. Peeping through the window of my taxi, I could see pine trees, evergreen and poplar which had shed leaves. It was spring and summer was almost there. One more month, and I would have witnessed the cherry or is it peach blossom.

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The car models in the jam ranged from local brands like BYD, JAC, Foton and Faw to imported brands like Hyundai, KIA, BMW, Jeep, VW, Mercedes, Jaguar, Range Rover, Toyota, and many others. Beijing appears like a car supermarket. The dominance of Toyota seems subdued in China. If cars are a measure of wealth, Beijing is a wealthy city.

Beijing is not just the political capital for 1.4 billion Chinese but also their cultural and great tourist site. We can borrow a leaf from this city. Very clean and no hawkers, though I was told they used to be there. Can our city governor find out how Chinese government tamed hawkers? My hotel was Friendship hotel, with a traditional Chinese roof. Surprisingly, traditional Chinese buildings are rare, except in the Forbidden City, more about that later.

Despite jet lag, Beijing is 5 hours ahead of Kenya and 13 hours flight from Nairobi; I could not rest, preferring to explore the city in the afternoon, on a hot bright day. One interesting observation is that unlike USA; there is no overwhelming presence of gun totting policemen.

The first place to visit was Tiananmen Square; famous by 1989 ill fated uprising against the government. The echoes of that event are reflected by presence of policemen in green uniform. From my estimation, the square, an open but paved ground is about a 1km by 1km.

It’s bordered by a two main streets. Across one street, is the Forbidden City, where the Chinese emperors used to live. It was forbidden for other people except the emperor, his families and officials. More later. Now it’s a museum and anyone can visit.

Across the other street is the great hall of the people, where important national and international meetings are held.  Each of China’s 34 provinces has an office there. The other side of the Square is a national museum. In front of the museum is the heroes’ monument, and just next to one corner is the mausoleum of the founder of modern china, Chairman Mao Zedong. I was told he is the only chairman to be buried, others are cremated?

The square is packed with tourists, both local and foreign. I became an instant star with lots of Chinese jostling for a photo with me. It had happened to me in Shanghai too. Photographers displayed photos and solicited visitors to be taken photos, for a pay. It seemed to me that Tiananmen Square is more famous than its size.

From Tiananmen Square we crossed with my Chinese friends into Forbidden City, built from 1406-1420. It is a site to behold. Above the gate is a painting of Mao Zedong, which I am told is replaced every year. Next to the gate are two dragons.

The male dragon is usually on your right as you face the palace or any other building. These dragons have five claws. Any other dragon should have less, I was told. Statues of dragons are common in Beijing, including outside my hotel.

The Forbidden City, 72 hectares is surrounded by about 5m wide moat with water. There are five bridges into the palace which has several courtyards. Entry to each courtyard has five gates. The roofs are made of wood and glaze with traditional Chinese roofing style. One end of the roof has carvings of animals, I was told the more the animals, the higher ranking one enjoys.

Entry into buildings is guarded by dragons made of bronze. Incense containers made into shapes of cranes and other tortoise but painted green are not far from dragons. I got an impression you need a PhD thesis to understand what happened in the Forbidden City and all the symbolisms.

At the end of the palace is a park with ancient trees with colour codes to show how old they are. There is also a temple and a monument with a small house at the top. The monument is made of funniest looking stones from Southern China. From this end of the palace, you can see the city of Beijing over the roofs of the emperors’ palace, with modern buildings, a reflection of the new China. To the other side are pagodas on the hills.

At the end of the visit to Forbidden City, one is amazed by efforts Chinese have put in preserving the old structures and creating stories around them to attract tourists both domestic and foreign. Next week, we bring you the story of the Great Wall and more.

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