Did you know that Beijing has a dozen or so elephants that kneel as the emperor passes by? Seriously.
At least that’s what my book says. It’s a Beijing travel guide from 1897, author unknown, that Charlie Custer found on archive.org. The copy originally belonged to Herbert Hoover, China expat and one-time US President.
The author explores the city on horseback, or sometimes a mountain tiger — a chair carried by four men — all paid for in Mexican dollars. But he advises you bring your own pony from Tianjin: “It is rarely possible to hire them at Peking, and even if there are any to be got they are generally in wretched condition.”
He jumps gates, bribes guards, and guides you to the best spots to sneaks glimpses into the Forbidden City. He’s a swarthy guide and it’s a fascinating book.
115 years later, though, Beijing’s a completely different city. It’s seen wars, rebellions, invasions, regime changes, and a cultural revolution. The hutongs have been razed. Ponies aren’t allowed within the second ring road. And Mexican dollars aren’t accepted anywhere.
Could the book still be used?
I wanted to find out.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting my experiences exploring Beijing with an 1897 guide. I’ll start by trying to find this elephants. They sound completely awesome…