The Great Wall, National Museum of China, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, old-style narrow streets called hutongs, Peking Duck, the capital city of China, Pandas in Beijing Zoo, Ming Tombs, Lama Temple
13.09.2015 - 13.09.2015 26 °C
BEIJING municipality is bordered to the south by Shanxi province and to the north and west by Inner Mongolia.
We started out in Shanghai, went south to Zhangjiajie, west to Chengdu and then north east to Xi'an and the UNESCO listed ancient town, Pingyao and then to Beijing.
Everyone says not to go to China during national week, a very crowded country is on vacation. Sightseeing at all the tourist spots will be difficult, trains will be packed, you cannot move etc. Just so you know, we survived! We only experienced a few really long line ups, we booked our train tickets in advance, travel was quite comfortable.
We have seen a lot of countryside and will have travelled, within China, 4503 km, 3,145 km by train.
Our final journey in China is a high speed train from the ancient town of Pingyao to Beijing, a distance of 585 km and at 200 km plus per hour it does not take very long. Our seats are comfortable, we are served a little snack, everything is pretty good and we can charge our phones right here on board. Very modern. At this speed it is difficult to get a decent picture of the scenery whizzing by:
Beijing has a population of 26 million. 'Beijing' means 'northern capital'. For the last 2000 years it has been the capital city of China, off and on.
We have arranged to meet another Couchsurfing host, Carolyn, at the train station in Beijing. It was her suggestion that she would meet us right in the carriage and see us safely to our hotel by taxi. We did get off the train and then just stood on the platform waiting. I have no wifi service and so again this lack of a cell phone is a bit of a pain, after hanging around for fifteen minutes, I am wondering if we should go into the train station, but no, just before I decide to take off, there is a young woman hurrying towards us on the now mostly empty platform. Of course, she is coming from work, traffic was heavy, but she is here. Friendly, efficient, good English, a very experienced Couchsurfer, she takes charge.
It is rush hour, the cab ride is slow, Carolyn points out the Forbidden City and Tian'anmen Square. Soon we are in a traffic jam, I can see the lights of the Paragon - gee, when the traffic moves again our driver heads off past those lights and keeps going. Carolyn tells the driver to let us out, he cannot seem to find a way to turn around, we are super annoyed as we were so close during that traffic jam, now we hike back 8 blocks.
We all go up to the room, the lobby was quite elegant and the room isn't bad, it has some floor space, a desk and an easy chair and there is a closet with robes and slippers.
We decide to have supper and since we don't want to walk too far Carolyn takes us into the attached mall and we have Chinese fast food, a sort of a Chinese version of MacDonald's (there is a MacDonald's and a KFC in the mall also).
Before taking the subway home Carolyn suggests we see the Beijing Museum and Jingshan Park the next day.
October 14 - National Museum of China and Qianmen Street
I have arranged to meet another Couchsurfing host, Ilaria, at 4 pm at our hotel today. In the meantime we look into tours, and I message Ilaria with our problem of communicating with the tour companies. She gets right on it, we have not even met at this point, and we are getting somewhere as far as booking a three day tour of Beijing.
We head out to see the Museum and Park as Carolyn suggested. The hotel helps us get a taxi and explains where we want to go and we are let off about two blocks from the museum. Across the street is Tian'anmen Square, looking very benevolent, with the decorations left over from the National Holiday.
On Oct 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declared the founding of The People's Republic of China from a balcony in Tian'anmen Square and Beijing has been the capital ever since. Tian'anmen Square is the world's largest public square. 440,000 meters!
Museums are free most of the time in China and the gigantic National Museum of China is also but you have to show your passport and get a ticket. Go to the foreigner's ticket booth on your right as you face the museum. There is heavy security at the museum, anything we carry goes through the security check and we are patted down. Then we must open the pack and take a drink out of our water bottles. The guard says "Drink the water," I think she means all of it, so am relieved when she only means a few swallows.
The museum is enormous, two million square feet, it seems empty it is so vast, marble walls and floors, hard to describe, some kind of showcase, some kind of testament to the People's Republic of China. At first I was taken up with marveling at all the wasted space, the incredible size, but it turns out that the Beijing museum kind of spoke to me.
After I recovered from the abundance of armed guards and security and stopped taking pictures of how massive everything was we saw some amazing stuff. Do you recognize this guy? From 386 - 534 AD, the Buddha was unearthed at Longxing Temple, Shandong Province.
People have replicas of this buddha's head in their homes!! Here is the real deal.
After looking through the sculptures, the bronze, the three legged pots, some artwork, we wandered through an astonishing display of African Art:
From the mezzanine I had spotted a tea area with wicker furniture on the main floor, about a block from where the entrance and guards were located. We haven't really eaten today so refreshments will be nice. Surrounding the tea room there is an extensive collection of Salvadore Dali copper sculptures from the 1970s, so close, so many, so accessible.
While we drank our tea, I had chrysanthemum, we could see the Dali sculptures all around. How often does this happen? I felt content, relaxed, like we had accomplished something today. It wasn't just one more museum, this one captured my interest.
Some people came along and wanted to have their pictures taken with us, so we said sure, they sat down, we all laughed, nodded, I jumped up and took a picture, this was fun. We went to the Beijing Museum and look what we saw - two old foreigners, collapsed in wicker chairs, drinking tea. Now we are part of their album.
And they are part of mine.
On the way to the exit there was a sculpture exhibition, very moving, about the Chinese during WW2. Very good, dynamic sculptures, they told a story of anguish, very obvious actually, I am glad I saw them:
I suppose there is nothing mentioned about the 1989 "troubles" in nearby Tian'anmen Square, but neither do they have google or Facebook so a candid look at the recent past is not expected. During the Cultural Revolution a lot of ancient artifacts and buildings were destroyed, but with a five thousand year old history China can likely keep one of the biggest museums in the world respectably stocked. The day we were there it seemed almost devoid of tourists, maybe that is why I enjoyed it. No crowds.
We spend the next hour trying to catch a taxi, seems nobody would stop, and after walking several blocks and trying several streets we saw a hotel with a taxi stand, Eureka moment, we were late getting to the hotel but Ilaria was still there.
She was a 22 year old University student who was actually dating a guy from Edmonton. So I felt comfortable with her right off the bat, plus she brought cake. She made a phone call to get our three day tour of Beijing straightened out. Now we had a plan for the next three days, Ilaria suggested we go for Peking Duck. So off we went out to the street, it is still rush hour (lasts two or three hours) and we cannot get a taxi. However the subway is right there and we are only two stops away. We can go to Quanjude, the oldest Peking Duck restaurant, it is so popular we will likely have to wait in line for 1.5 hours. In times gone by only the emperor got to eat this delicacy so the wait should not be too daunting but the stairs at the subway were, so Rhea decided she would stay at the hotel and we went on without her.
There is a window where you can watch the chefs cook ducks in the open fire ovens:
This was pretty interesting. The duck is sliced, served with bean paste, cucumbers, green onions and pancakes.
When Ilaria left to use the restaurant washroom I hung around in the lobby taking pictures of the staff, the diners, the people waiting. After a time I was approached by a group of middle aged men, well the one with the green cap and uniform seemed old, they talked to me in Chinese, first the old guy and then another guy, I said "Nehow, my friend went to the washroom and I'm waiting for her', totally baffled by what was up, they talked some more, very bold, I just nodded and sidled away to another side of the lobby. Wow. I missed an opportunity as Ilaria said when she came back a few minutes later they were likely asking me to join them for dinner. Worse luck, the men had already gone into dinner. I thought they were telling me to stop taking pictures.
Now we walked around Qianmen Street, stopping for green tea ice cream and then to a tea shop called Wuyutai which was founded in 1887. If you think tea is cheap in China think again. Maybe the stuff we drink here, but the Chinese take their tea seriously. I purchased small amounts of crysanthemum, green, and puer tea. My bill came to about 25 dollars. The puer tea lasts forever and improves with age so I'll hang on to that. Apparently you can reuse this tea up to five times so that kind of stretches it out.
Chrysanthemum tea is suppose to be helpful for respiratory problems, high blood pressure, and hyperthyroidism, reduce inflammation and help calm your nerves. To make - once the water has boiled allow it to sit for about a minute before pouring over about 6 flowers arranged in a glass cup.
Puer Tea is suppose to raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol. It is known to help with weight loss. Since it mellows and ages like fine wine the older it is the more expensive it is. When making this tea you first rinse with boiling water, strain, add more boiling water and let it steep as long as you want.
We are being picked up at 8 am - set the alarm, get to bed, tomorrow is an early start for a pretty exciting day.
October 16, Ming Tombs and The Great Wall
First day of our three day tour booked through Beijing tours for 87 US dollars. It includes entrance fees to all the sites we will visit, transportation, an English speaking guide and three lunches. We are picked up at our hotel by a van and we make several other stops, the van is eventually full.
First stop is a jade factory, we get the sales pitch, there are some pretty high pressure sales people here so I don't want to seem too interested but to put on a jade bangle you use a plastic bag. Or soap. They squish your hand into it. Jade is a big deal in China.
They gave a demo on how to tell real from fake jade, banging two pieces together, listen for the sound, then looking at it through the light - real jade does not have air bubbles. Jade is associated with wealth and good health. Jade sometimes trades several times higher than gold in China. Jade has played a significant role in Chinese culture for more than five thousand years!! It is very difficult to tell real jade from fake jade by the way.
We drive past Olympic park, the distinctive Bird's Nest, and out of the city. We are heading to the Ming Tombs, about fifty km north east of Beijing to a World Cultural Heritage Site where thirteen emperors of the Ming Dynasty are buried.
We visit the Changling Tomb of Emperor Yongle. He was the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty but the first to be buried here. It was this emperor who moved the capital to Beijing and built the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven. Below is the Yongle Emperor in the Hall of Eminent Favour - people throw money at the statue to increase their good fortune. When I initially saw this statue I assumed it was a buddha.
It is a gorgeous summer day, 15 October, 2015. We have a good lunch at a restaurant near the Great Wall. Tea is included but any additional drinks are paid for by the diner. Outside in the parking lot a group of men play cards.
After lunch we drive to the Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall. We have two choices but we have to sign a release if we pick the second one. First choice is to take the cable car to the Great Wall which is an additional fee. Second choice is to take a ski lift up and a toboggan down, considered more dangerous and also costs an additional fee. Of course there is a third choice, hike up to the Great Wall but that would be time consuming. Rhea and I decide to take the cable car and wished later we had picked choice two. It was a long walk up hill to get to the cable car. It was hot, all the stairs were hard on the old knees, we were pretty worn out when we reached the cable car. The ski lift had been quite a bit closer to the parking lot.
Confucius says: It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop
Riding the cable car was fun, here we are at the Great Wall. Well we were on a square that led to some stairs which went up to the Great Wall. These stairs were tricky as they were not uniform and there was no hand rail.
Here was the Great Wall started by the emperor buried with the terra cotta soldiers, added to by the Yongle Emperor buried in the Ming tombs, being restored today by the People's Republic of China, a great tourist sight. The effort, the loss of life, the perseverance to build a wall to keep out northern invaders - stretching for something like 21,000 km (13,000 miles) over mountains, how perilous to build. Still both the Mongols and the Manchurians got through, it was not a continuous structure, they could likely have found an opening, guards could be "persuaded" - an interesting wall. It is one of the world's most famous landmarks.
No, it cannot be seen from space. But as a World Heritage Sight it is recognized as a great architectural feat. Over the centuries it was built it may have cost the lives of over one million people. Imagine how many people must have worked on it, peasants, convicts, who knows. Also the Chinese invented the wheelbarrow to help them build the Great Wall.
It has been the source of building materials in recent centuries and the touristy parts have been rebuilt. There are plenty of un-restored sections for the adventurous hiker. Not us though.
The original wall, constructed during the reign of Qin Shihuang, was built of rammed earth. 221 BC.
Reinforced with stone and brick by over 2 million workers during the Ming dynasty, it was home to one million soldiers in the fifteenth century. Thirteen dynasties contributed to the construction of the walls and the current powers are restoring sections for tourists.
Tick, I stood on the Great Wall of China.
As almost the first ones on the van we are almost the last ones off, a long day. Tomorrow they are picking us up at 730!!
An enormous palace, home to 24 consecutive emperors over two dynasties. It is closed on Mondays, open 830 am to 5 pm, admission 60 yuan, about 14 dollars Canadian. Being on a tour, our admission is covered, and we do not have to wait in a long line. We enter through the Meridian Gate, once used exclusively by the Emperor. The Forbidden City is the largest palace complex in the world, over 8700 rooms!
The wall enclosing the Forbidden City is composed of 12 million bricks and the whole shebang likely took a million workers to construct. CHINA'S best collection of ancient buildings and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Hosts an average 40,000 visitors per day, do the math, students get in for 20 yuan and small children are free, as in under 120 cm and its free. It is built according to feng shui principles to maximize energy flow.
We stop at an establishment devoted to Traditional Chinese Medicine and sit through a presentation on the benefits and the differences between TCM and Western Medicine. Since a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine just won a Nobel Prize people are quite interested. Then we are each given a brief consultation, a doctor takes the pulse from both wrists, looks at your tongue and writes a prescription. We did not purchase but some people did.
We go to the Temple of Heaven, the emperor was considered a "Son of Heaven," and here he made sacrifices and prayed for a good harvest.
After another convivial lunch with our group we stop at a pearl factory. To tell if pearls are real, rub them together. A fine dust should come off. We sat around waiting for the rest of the group, we had to stay in the pearl factory for forty minutes. Can you tell we were on one of the infamous 'shopping tours' hence the cheap price for the tour.
Our final stop for the day is the Summer Palace, another World Heritage Site, an excellent example of Chinese landscaping aesthetics. The man made Lake Kunming dominates the landscape, dragon's head boats offer tours, the largest bridge is the Seventeen Arch Bridge.
We have felt safe in China, there is a visible police presence, lots of security, penalties are stiff for crimes, it is one of the safest countries in the world. There are scams and pickpockets so you have to be watchful and aware of your surroundings.
We have been warned by the tour guides not to buy souvenirs from street vendors as they have various scams such as giving fake currency as change. We decide the trick is to give them the exact amount so upon leaving the Summer Palace a fellow passenger helps me buy a selfie stick for ten yuan. Hey, good deal, I should have bought two!! I could have really used this earlier in the trip!!
October 17 - Beijing Zoo, Olympic Park, Lama Temple
There are only three of us on the tour today and our first stop is the panda section of the Beijing Zoo. Although I have seen them already in Chengdu I enjoy the visit immensely:
As we are leaving we notice a vendor selling panda teddies and so I purchase the panda hand puppet I had neglected to buy in Chengdu.
The smog is so heavy today we can barely see the Olympic Stadium or the seven star VIP Hotel, the dragon, at Pangu Plaza across the street. The Bird's Nest was designed by a Swiss Architect for the 2008 Summer Olympics and is the largest steel structure in the world:
The five Olympic Mascots are the colours of the Olympic rings, very friendly, childlike, the fuwa, good luck dolls say "Welcome to Beijing."
We are taken to Dr. Tea to sit in on a tea ceremony, sample teas, and then listen to the sales pitch. The tea hostess was charming, she made five different types of tea, we were appreciative samplers, then the sales pitch and we all ended up with tea which turned out to be a ripoff but we chalked it up to an added expense to our three day tour, maybe an extra twenty dollars.
A trademark of Beijing are the narrow alleys or hutongs. Hutong is a Mongolian word meaning water well. Almost every community was designed around a well to provide water for the locals.
The tour through these narrow alleys was interesting. I enjoyed the ride (pedicab or bicycle rickshaw) through the district and seeing the people go about their daily lives. There was a nice neighbourhood feel to it, but also a sense of cramped living conditions, this is kind of like subsidized housing for qualifying residents of Beijing. Our three day tour was said to include the hutongs and there had been no mention of an extra fee so we were surprised when the guide informed us it would be an additional 23 yuan each to pay the hutong guide and the pedicab drivers. Since this is less than five dollars Canadian we coughed up the money but it seemed a bit underhanded and we mentioned the extra cost in the satisfaction survey at the end.
The courtyard apartments are narrow, kind of laid out like side by side rooms, facing the street, maybe ten feet deep. There is no bathroom so they use a communal bathroom. Wouldn't that be something? I guess in times gone by this would have happened in other places like Ireland. Did you read Angela's Ashes? Perhaps they will not last much longer in China as they seem to be modernizing so rapidly.
We ate lunch in the hutong, what a joke, eat lunch with a local family. The table and chairs were in a maybe ten by ten foot bedroom, there was a bed and the table and chairs for four people, not much room for anything else, and the lady who lived there was cooking a few rooms down, it almost looked like some of it was being cooked outside, there was quite a lot of food and it was good but I was worried about the sanitary conditions. The only time we saw the lady was when we passed the "kitchen" and she looked exhausted. So much for having a pleasant chat and maybe helping stir a pot and getting a few cooking tips. Heated up peanuts taste pretty good.
These apartments are for people who were born in Beijing. If you were born elsewhere and now live and work in Beijing you do not qualify. Of course anybody born outside of a marriage will have no ID and not qualify for anything. There is a strong incentive for Chinese to marry. If you have an illegitimate child and work for the government you are terminated. Your child will have no ID. Talk about stigma. Gee, the whole thing here in the 1950s was I thought religion, oh my god, sex out of wedlock, but in China it has nothing to do with religion. The child is to be born into a nuclear family, a traditional family, family is important, traditions are important. Also I suppose it helped with the one child policy. One child, two parents.
When we were in China they still had the one child policy, there are 113 boys for 100 girls, do the math, in a population of 1.4 billion, quite a few men will not find a Chinese girl for a wife. Girls, get over to China, it is crawling with single men. However, you must accept this family responsibility, this looking after the aged parents and all that. Although they had the one child policy still in place there is some flexibility in the rule in October 2015 - if you both were only children then you could have two kids. In Nov 2015 the Chinese government abolished the one child policy. Many couples who qualified for two children were choosing to not have the extra child, so they expected their population to max out in 2050 and then decline.
We are off to the Lama Temple , home to about 70 lamas, and visited by the faithful and the curious. Pictures inside buildings are not allowed as they are active places of worship. There was a lot of incense, many statues, the vast majority of Chinese are atheists, still there could be 245 million practicing Buddhists or 18 percent of the population. About three percent of the population is Christian and there are are anywhere from 20 to 150 million Muslims (look it up). Although we never met a religious Chinese it seems they have some superstitions such as wearing jade for luck. Feng shui principles influence urban planning and Taoist balance intertwines with Traditional Chinese Medicine. Four is widely considered an unlucky number even by the atheists and government officials have been slammed for gorging on the health and wealth building nutrients of the giant salamander.
But I digress. Here we are at the Lama Temple in Beijing:
This has been a good day, not too strenuous, lots of different things to see, we end our day at the gardens behind the Forbidden City, Jingshan Park.
Rhea is anxious to get her grandson's name done in Calligraphy so we are taken to a calligraphy master, a descendant of Manchurian emperors, who writes the name in characters and adheres his stamp.
We spend a bit of time watching old people play badminton, dance and sing.
Since the Howard Johnson Paragon is attached to a big mall geared for tourists we purchase a few more souvenirs. Our bargaining skills are terrible, the sellers can smell our anxiety and our need to get something quick - yes here even you can bargain in many shops.
The next morning, Oct 18, we make another round, find the things we bargained for last night and did not buy are more expensive today. Here is an example: A sales clerk had actually nicely, but physically, dragged me by the arm into her shop and when I offered forty yuan for an item, she had been offended but then chased after me and dragged me back yes, forty yuan. OK. I had no cash, just a credit card. They would not take the credit card. The next day I had cash - the same sales clerk priced the item at fifty yuan, no budging. This is where things get a bit ridiculous since I now did not purchase - two dollars and forty cents, nope, I am not budging either. Really it got a bit ugly as I think she called me a name, so then I was sick of bargaining. The thing is they think all westerners are rich. There are some very rich Chinese, supporting the jade market, buying property in Vancouver, shopping at the Gucci and Apple stores, eating giant salamander, driving Audis. There are very poor Chinese also.
Still we picked up a few things, packed our bags, our suitcases and backpacks are stuffed.
We arrive at the airport early, we go through security, another picture is taken, turn in our departure cards, get patted down, then we wait to board. The duty free store and airport shops are expensive, buy your souvenirs elsewhere. I bought a pop which they took away from me when we went through a second security check just before we boarded. Gee, this is different. Then our plane was held up on the runway for over half an hour. All of a sudden we are looking forward to going home.
We will be on this Hainon Airline flight for 12.5 hours, have a 3.5 hour wait in Seattle and then another two hour flight home. Since we arrived at the airport two and a half hours in advance we will basically be travelling for twenty hours and when we go to bed tonight it will be tomorrow morning in Beijing. I set my watch back fourteen hours, sleep a little, watch tv, lose an earring, eat a souvenir bag of candy, long flight but I am pretty tired so kind of veg out.
Home. We made it!! We actually travelled independently in China for 27 days. We did it!! All in I spent close to three thousand dollars and had an unforgettable journey.