Beijing Backpacking, Day 23: Drawing the Line Between Tourism and Lifestyle

Sometimes things are best put in context by the scenery and life outside.
Sometimes things are best put in context by the scenery and life outside.

FIRSTLY, I WISH to send my apologies to all of you who have supported me so far. As you know Internet in China is patchy and keeping the posts regular has been a challenge. But I will continue with the posts and now that I am somewhere with better internet, I will soon be able to complete my diary here (and of course, keep posting about Beijing well after I finish).

Anyway. Things have been alternating between the overtly touristy and overtly grassroots during my time, and today I’m going somewhere in between. One thing about Beijing and its historical sites and attractions is that despite its thousands of years of history, most landmarks are less than 1000 years old.

Yonghegong, or the Lama Temple, is among the younger of those places. Given that it is a tourist attraction after all, its history could be explored in a tour or a book; but it raises an interesting conversation topic about Chinese culture and money habits. Compared to my previous visits to tourist attractions, it may be a little disappointing: people don’t go here to relax or treat it like a public park – there are no grounds to do so. Once upon a time this was a prince’s house, but he converted it into a lamasery, a place for monks to receive a Tibetan Buddhist education.

Today it primarily serves as a tourist attraction, charging for entry … but it still upholds its role as a place of worship, with people praying and making offerings. Makes me wonder if they actually pay the entry fee every week just to do their devotion, something that would be unthinkable in the West. It’s fair enough that they’d charge tourists for the maintenance. Not to mention that there are several souvenir stores inside the temple complex that sell for in excess of thousands of dollars. But there must be some system for enabling the faithful to practice without paying every time.

And the other thing about Yonghegong is it blends in. Sure, many of the shops outside sell merchandise or artefacts related to Yonghegong (and its neighbour, the Confucius Temple), but they don’t necessarily charge tourist prices. The architecture is the same – mostly hutong. Just down the road is the street of Andingmen, bustling with hole-in-the-wall chicken, dumpling and noodle joints. In the vicinity there is a KFC, but that’s where the Western joints end.

Looking for wifi that evening I stumbled across one of these hole-in-the-wall joints and found my daily dose of conversation from a young woman and her mother running it. She had studied a medical degree … but resigned from her job to make desserts. Stunned at her decision, and with her mere interest in a foreigner coming in, she engaged me in conversation about careers back home and in China. She herself was stunned when I told her the cost, in both time and money, of a medical degree abroad, that would make a life decision as hers very bold, to say the least. But she’s chasing her dream, and having fun.

And so am I. Yonghegong may not itself have been as ‘interesting’ as other sites, but if there’s anything that makes a place seem less manufactured for tourism, it’s a real story in the immediate vicinity. And if there’s anything that makes it worthwhile, it’s a meaningful conversation.

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