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Random museums in Beijing

Started: 2016-03-12 16:44:43

Submitted: 2016-03-12 19:01:36

Visibility: World-readable

22 January 2016: In which the intrepid narrator spends his last day in Beijing trying huddling indoors

On my last day in Beijing, the weather forecast promised frigid temperatures, with a forecast high barely in the Fahrenheit teens. This seemed like a good day to avoid anything vaguely outside, so I pushed all of the museums I wanted to see to my last day. This meant I didn't get a chance to see the mostly-outdoor UNESCO World Heritage Site at the Summer Palace, which I suppose I'll have to visit on my next trip to Beijing (which will not be in the middle of winter).

The first museum on my agenda was the Beijing Railway Museum, across the street from Tiananmen Square in a building formerly occupied as one of the first rail stations in the capitol. The museum was too small to show any rolling stock (my guidebook vaguely referenced another museum on the outskirts of town with actual rolling stock, but I didn't try to hunt it down), but it did have a selection of artifacts from the rail history of Beijing, including a gallery showing artifacts from China's high-speed rail rolling stock, including the special engineering challenges that come from running a train at 300 km/hr. Most of the text was in Chinese, which I couldn't read, but it was clear from the context that they were very proud of their own engineering accomplishments.

Couplings for Chinese high-speed trains
Couplings for Chinese high-speed trains
Braking clamp for 350 km/hr CRH3 EMU
Braking clamp for 350 km/hr CRH3 EMU

The basement had a collection of architectural models of various rail stations around China, most or all of which had been built in the last ten years as part of China's massive infrastructure development projects. Most of the stations looked similar, since they were designed around the same time with the same physical constraints: All of the station buildings were designed to get people out of cars, through the main station concourse, and down escalators or elevators onto the platforms themselves. The new stations served high-speed lines so there were constraints on the grade and curvature of the track, but they were new construction so they didn't have to accommodate any existing buildings.

My next stop was the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, conveniently down the street (which I planned so I had to spend as little time as possible in the cold). I breezed through the galleries on the lower floors (not all of which were adequately explained in English) until I found the massive scale model of Beijing. The area covered by the model covered roughly the area inside the Third Ring Road, and the gallery used satellite pictures of the rest of Beijing, at the same scale, to fill in the gaps around the model.

Scale model of Beijing
Scale model of Beijing

From the model I could clearly see what I'd gathered on the ground: the area inside the Second Ring Road (roughly corresponding to the old walled city of Imperial Beijing, before Mao ordered the walls demolished and paved over for roads) was filled with lower-density brick buildings, on the order of three and four stories tall, in neighborhoods serviced by winding hutongs; while the area outside the Second Ring Road had an urban development pattern characterized by larger buildings. The largest skyscrapers in Beijing are pushed out to the vicinity of the Third Ring Road, especially in two specific development areas in the east and the west.

Scale model of the CCTV building and its environment
Scale model of the CCTV building and its environment
Central Beijing and the Temple of Heaven in a large scale model
Central Beijing and the Temple of Heaven in a large scale model

I also enjoyed the large scale model of Imperial Beijing, cast in bronze, mounted onto the wall of the central atrium. This model showed the historic city walls, and the original medium-density hutong neighborhoods that more or less survive to this day.

Large scale bronze model of Imperial Beijing
Large scale bronze model of Imperial Beijing

I left the museum to head to the National Museum of China, but when I reached for my phone to check the map it wasn't in my pocket. I checked my bag and my other pockets and thought that it must have fallen out of my pocket while I was sitting down on a bench inside the museum. (I tend to wear pants with a side pocket for my mobile phone, but my current phone is big enough that it sticks out the top, and slippery enough that it occasionally works its way out of my pocket while I'm sitting down. I've developed a nervous tic to check for the reassuring mass of my phone in my pocket so I know to find it when it tries to go missing.)

I returned to the planning museum and convinced the guard to let me in with my already-stamped ticket. (I am not quite sure how much of my "I lost my phone upstairs" in English he got.) I found my phone right where I expected to see it, on a bench on the top floor where I'd sat just before leaving the museum.

Chinese National Museum
Chinese National Museum

With my phone properly returned to its rightful place in my pocket, I headed back out onto the frigid sidewalk to walk along the outskirts of Tiananmen Square to the National Museum of China. To gain admission to the free museum, I had to get a ticket from one of the ticket offices on either end of the outer colonnade. This proved easier said than done; the first ticket office I went to had no one behind the desk; instead it had a bank of machines where Chinese nationals could tap their national ID card, which would read the RFID and print out a named ticket for that person. I tried to get the attention of the people lounging behind the ticket counter, tapping my passport on the glass, and they pointed me to the other ticket counter on the other side of the colonnade. That ticket office was staffed by actual humans, who glanced at my passport and gave me a ticket.

Main lobby of the Chinese National Museum
Main lobby of the Chinese National Museum

Inside the museum I found a giant atrium that seemed, more than anything else I'd seen in Beijing, to speak towards China's ambitions to be taken seriously on the world stage. Any world-class museum in any world capitol would be happy to occupy this building. The building demanded to be taken seriously, and that's what I intended to do.

Inside the Chinese National Museum
Inside the Chinese National Museum

I ate a snack for lunch at the tea shop in the lobby (I turned the wrong way and missed the actual cafe on the other side of the lobby), then wandered randomly into the nearest gallery, which showed off China's accomplishments, mostly technological, of the last several decades. I saw the spacecraft used by Shenzhou 5, and the spacesuit Yang Liwei wore when he became China's first astronaut -- making China only the third country to independently launch its own astronauts.

Shenzhou 5 spacecraft and Yang Liwei's spacesuit
Shenzhou 5 spacecraft and Yang Liwei's spacesuit

I did not spend much more time in that gallery, but I did enjoy the large traditional Chinese watercolor painting depicting Three Gorges Dam.

I found the interior of the museum difficult to navigate: there were signs showing me where to find galleries identified by opaque identifiers, but no maps telling me what I might find in these galleries. (This did not appear to be a language problem, either.) I wandered through several galleries with antique bronzes from various religions, past more glazed porcelain than I really wanted to see, and stumbled upon a gallery discussing the rebuilding of this very museum -- which I found delightfully meta. The gallery featured architectural models of the original building, and the current building, which preserved the original colonnade and the front three walls of the building, but built an entirely new building (with the intentionally-majestic lobby) in the back of the building. In posters on the walls the gallery discussed the various proposals and how they morphed through the selection process into the final design.

At last I found the Chinese history exhibit in the basement, but I approached the exhibit backwards in time, so I only made it back to the Ming dynasty before the museum closed (earlier than I expected) at 16:30. I joined the crowd of people milling about the lobby trying to figure out where we were supposed to go, since the main entrance to the west had closed, and eventually figured out that we were supposed to walk out the tiny northern entrance, from the relatively warm building into the frigid cold of the Beijing winter.

I took the metro back to my hotel, ate supper at the noodle bar in the hotel lobby, and worked on my plans for the rest of my trip in China, in Nanjing.

For more photos from my last day in Beijing, see Photos on 2016-01-22.

it's amazing how much nothing you can do on a sunday.
- bse, Tue Feb 29 16:50:45 GMT 2000