Saturday, September 29, 2012

2012 Asian Adventure - Beijing (Part One)

Day Thirteen

We started our busy day with a short bus ride to Tiananmen Square.  People of my generation remember this place as the location of trampled dreams of freedom.  While the cloud of 1989 hung over this square there wasn't the feeling of being watched as there had been in Lhasa ... or maybe I'd just grown used to it.  The square was crowded with people, many visiting the mausoleum of Chairman Mao.  Our guide said the mausoleum was not open to tour groups (or was it foreigners?) and, frankly, was not worth the waiting in line.  She said cameras weren't allowed in the mausoleum and that you were filed through and weren't given any time to stop and look at the preserved body of Mao ... which she described as looking like a wax figure.  It was hard to not hear her skepticism ... I don't think she believes the body in the mausoleum is real.

We walked around the square, the third largest in the world, as our guide pointed out the government buildings and the museums bordering the square.  There are a few monuments and large video screens that help break up the square (making it easier to break up crowds perhaps ...).  We had our picture taken with the famous Gate of the Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen in Chinese - the south gate of the Forbidden City) and its iconic portrait of Chairman Mao.

Tiananmen Gate - Gate of Heavenly Peace - South entrance to the Forbidden City.
Passing under the street in a tunnel we came out in front of the main gate of the Forbidden City.  The Forbidden City is huge.  To reach the inner sanctum of the emperor you have to pass through five gates.  Each layer has its own compliment of meeting halls, banquet rooms, soldier's barracks, etc.  The deeper a visitor would enter, the more important they were.   We entered the city with the throngs of mostly Chinese tourists.

China is the most populous country in the world.  Until now, though, it never really felt that crowded.  Beijing, and especially Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, felt full of people.  We reached the second gate and we waited around  while our guide picked up our passes.  When she returned everyone did a quick head count and we came up one head short.  This had never happen in the last twelve days.  Early on, I think it was before we cruised the Yangtze, our guide gave everyone a slip of paper written in Chinese and English with her cell number.  We were to use it if we got separated.  One of the teachers from San Diego had gotten separated ... she used the paper ... it worked.  This was the only time when something like this happened the entire trip.

A foo dog in front of an ornate building in the Forbidden City.
We spent two and a half hours exploring this magnificent place.  It just went on and on.  For those into movies, "The Last Emperor" was filmed in the Forbidden City.  The city includes meeting areas, banquet halls, barracks for soldiers, and lavish homes for the collection of the Emperor's women.  While harem is probably more appropriate description, some of the Emperors did seem to collect women just to posses them.  This theme, collections of wives, would follow our travels through Nepal, Bhutan, and India.

The moat surrounding three sides of the Forbidden City.
We exited the city through the gardens and the north entrance and headed for lunch.  Thinking we were missing western food (our talk about the burgers in Xi'an may have sparked that idea) our guide took us to an Irish pub.  The food was good but, strangely enough, didn't feel very western to me.  Not all of our group agreed with having western food.  It's one thing to chose it on your own and another to have the tour company do it.  Another Chinese meal might have been more appropriate.

After lunch we visited the summer palace located on Kunming Lake (Kunminghu).  We weren't there to tour the palace but to take a boat ride.  This was fine with me as the Forbidden city would have been tough to top.  On the grounds of the palace we got our first close up look at the lotus, a flower with significance in Buddhism.  We'd already seen representations of the lotus in stone.  It was nice to see it in person.

Lotus bloom at the Summer Palace.
We left the entrance to the palace grounds and headed down a long covered walkway.  The corridor is said to be one of the longest in the world.  The walkway takes you through the gardens of the summer palace and provides views of the lake and gardens.  The corridor itself is painted with historic scenes and art.

At the end we got on a boat that would take us out on the man-made lake.  The excavated dirt was used to build Longevity Hill where some of the palace structures are located.  The boat was a relaxing ride.  A couple of little girls got their picture taken with several people in our group.

Summer Palace of Longevity Hill.
The boat delivered us to Nanhu Island, location of more summer palace temples.  We walked back to the mainland over a bridge that offers a nice view of the lake, and all the pleasure boats criss-crossing the lake, before boarding our bus.

Our last stop on this already busy day was a visit with a family in a hutong.  A hutong is a neighborhood characterized by narrow alleys made by walled in residences.  The area we visited is some of the only privately owned property in China.  Our guide described this area of Beijing as some of the most expensive residences in all of China.  I found this remarkable as it looked like a slum to most of us, myself included.  It was dirty, crowded, and not well maintained.  I suspect that the houses behind the walls were another story.  Most of these houses were owned by government and military officials.  We walked through some narrow streets unpassable by our bus and visited a family.  We enjoyed tea and talked about how the house had been passed from generation to generation.

After the visit we took a rickshaw ride around the hutong.  This was the least enjoyable part of the tour for me so far.  The rickshaw basically took us around in a big circle.  If the rickshaw was taking us to a particular place that was unreachable by our bus I would have been fine with it but, since we returned to the starting point without stopping along the way, it felt more like a cheap amusement park ride for the tourists.  This was a disappointment.  I'd looked forward to the rickshaw ride and it fell flat.  We did pass the bell tower that was closed when we went passed.  We were not far from the drum tower where an American tourist (father to one of the Olympic coaches) was murdered during the Beijing Olympics.  Both towers seem to have been closed since the Olympics.

That night a group of us went back to the restaurant where we'd had Peking Duck the night before and successfully ordered an awesome meal (pictures in the menu helped immensely).  The sweet and sour pork was incredible - we ordered three plates of it to the confusion/consternation of the waiters ... and we finished everything we ordered.  Ironically the members of our group who had complained about the western food at lunch went to an Indian restaurant for dinner.

Tomorrow was the last day of our China tour and one of the biggest attractions, one of the biggest in the world as a matter of fact - The Great Wall.

Pictures from day thirteen (07/05/2012) can be found in my 2012-06 China Google Photos album.

Our 2012 Asian Adventure continues ...

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