Why Go around the World in 80 Days, When It Can Take Less Than 8 Hours at the 北京世界公园?
In October, I was treated with a visit from a close friend from my Berlin days. She comes to China relatively frequently for personal travel, as well as with her husband’s work; so she had already done all of the traditional touristic things. She wanted to experience something different – and I had heard of just the place. We got into a car and traveled all the way to the Fengtai District in the southwestern part of Beijing for a day of cavorting around the globe at the Beijing World Park.
The Beijing World Park is a little old for China standards; it opened in 1993 – but there is truly nothing else like it. The purpose was to give Chinese the opportunity to experience the wonders of the world, even if they could not afford international travel. The park is filled with small-scaled replicas of most the world’s wonders. What is amazing is that in 2016, The South China Morning Post estimated that over 133 million Chinese would travel outside of China that year alone. The park is truly a symbol of its time – a time in which China was starting to promote globalization, but still had some serious challenges doing so. (Side note: I remember one of my professors mentioning that in 1979, when Deng started to open up China to the world, the School of International Studies at Peking University would take trips to the port at Tianjin just to try to get a glimpse of the foreigners working on the cargo ships. At that time, encountering a foreigner was extremely rare.)
The ticket is 100 RMB and expect to have more cash on hand so that you can enjoy many of the fun activities throughout the park. You can get dressed up in dirndl and get photos taken in front of a bunch of tulips and a replica of a windmill from the Netherlands. You can buy handfuls of bird seed and get attacked by a bunch of pigeons in a replica of Venice’s St. Marks Square. You can also hop on a white Lipizzaner stallion and pose for photos as it rears up in front of Big Ben. You can get dressed up in belly dancer clothes and ride a camel in front of the Sphinx and the Pyramids. Or you can go into the basement of the pyramids and wander through a bizarrely decorated “haunted house” that is supposed to highlight mummies, but does a very poor job of being scary.
For the entire day, my friend and I ran from one corner of the world to another. We climbed the Acropolis in Athens and held up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We visited Moscow’s Red Square and frolicked through the streets of Paris, taking a perfunctory selfie at the Eiffel Tower. We made our way to the United States and made the long trek across the Golden Gate bridge and basked in the glory of the Grand Canyon. While we were there, we stopped by Washington DC and took photos at the Capitol, White House, and the Washington Monument. We also stopped by Manhattan, where the Twin Towers were still standing. We saw Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Taj Mahal in India. Heck, we even stopped by the moai statues on Chile’s Easter Island and the Mesoamerican pyramids in Mexico. Each replica included a sign, which shared background information of the site and of the country.
The park also hosts shows throughout the day in an amphitheater, which has been redesigned to fit with China’s new international strategy of “One Belt One Road.” The background of the stage features a mural of camels walking through the desert and above the stage, there is a red banner which proclaims “We All the World, Silk Road Style.” African dancers are paid to come each day to beat on drums and dance around (the men are shirtless and the few women are somewhat scantily clad.) There was also a white saxophone player who liked to swoon the Chinese audience Kenny-G style. Finally, they had a group of about 10 white women dancing, who they claimed were trained flamenco dancers from Spain, but danced with the synchronization and hip swaying of a merengue music video. (I should probably note that we were actually the only non-Chinese audience members.)
Even though the Beijing World Park is funny to experience firsthand, we have to put it into an historical perspective, as I noted earlier. For a time, this was the Chinese people’s opportunity to experience the world. However, even today, the park is widely used – mostly by people taking their wedding and engagement photos. (While we were there, we saw at least 40 couples taking photos.) The wedding photo industry is an interesting one in China. The average bride is estimated to wear 5 dresses on her wedding day – and wants to be photographed in each and every one of them beforehand; as well as photoshopped extensively in order to look her absolute best. According to an article by The Globe and Mail, wedding photos cost anywhere between $1,000 and $100,000 in China.
I can attest that wedding and engagement photos are an integral part of a couple’s future life together. If you enter into the vast majority of Chinese couples’ homes, you will encounter many of their wedding photographs enlarged on their walls and literally everywhere. Equally popular – especially now with the rising middle class – is the trend of destination engagement photographs; essentially going on a trip just to get the most beautiful photographs in the most beautiful environment. This trend is so popular that many of my Chinese friends and classmates have picked the foreign cities they want their engagement photos to be taken – long before they have even found their partner. For those who can’t afford to leave the country on luxurious overseas travels for their engagement photos, however, the Beijing World Park does the trick. Going through the World Park, you see a plethora of lower middle class and working class women dressed in ball gowns and smiling with their future husbands with a replica of the Eiffel Tower in the background. It is perhaps the closest opportunity that some of these couples will ever have to traveling to Paris for themselves.