Sightseeing and Mayhem in Beijing

Trip Start Jan 30, 2010
Trip End Sep 12, 2010

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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Smoggy, noisy, grimy and crowded Beijing is not for the faint-hearted, but the city will reveal it's treasures to the persistent and patient visitor. 
Our first stop, Tienanmen Square, was seething with humanity, and the 90 degree, 90% humidity only added to the sense of claustrophobia. The iconic, now faded portrait of Mau Tse Tung looked forlorn. and now faces huge multimedia screens celebrating the Beijing 2008 Olympics, a capitalist's dream come true. The square today is filled with well-dressed families and souvenir vendors. Under sunny skies it was possible to momentarily forget the 1989 massacre here in which some 3,000 student protesters were killed by the military.
The Forbidden City and the Great Wall are on everyone’s list of "must sees" in Beijing, and these did not disappoint. The Forbidden City was built in the early 15th century, during the Ming Dynasty and for almost five hundred years, until the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the birth of the Republic of China in 1912, was the residence of the Imperial family, servants, eunuch and concubines. All of these required a whopping 980 buildings covering an area of about two square miles. Our guide, Tom, was a funny guy with endless jokes about the Emperor’s many concubines, of which there were three thousand, reputedly. The many layers of open courtyards were stark, devoid of trees and plants in order to protect the Emperor from potential assassins. An elaborately carved marble walkway down the center of the complex was used only by the Emperor (interlopers were unceremoniously beheaded). The Emperor was carried about on a litter, as his royal feet were never allowed to touch ground. The military guard and administrative and ceremonial buildings finally give way to the inner sanctum containing the private chambers of the Emperor, and a separate one for the Empress (to avoid awkward run-ins with concubines, according to Tom). As we marveled at the massive wood carved roofs, ornate bronze doors, marble relief walkways, silk embroidered upholstery and the sheer scale of the palace itself, a clear picture emerged of the opulence and decadence of Imperial China.
We visited the Great Wall with some trepidation, having been overwhelmed by crowds the day before, but by some miracle, we walked a section of the wall  that was mostly deserted. The five mile loop we walked was steep and strenuous, and delivered picturesque views, though the sky was overcast and a light rain falling. 
Other Beijing highlights were a visit to the Olympic Park to see the Bird's Nest and Water Sport stadiums. Also, we enjoyed a tea tasting and ceremony as well as an acupressure foot massages (Oliver giggled the whole time due to ticklish feet). A foot rub felt wonderful, though, after our Great Wall trek.
Our by now jangled nerves were desperately in need of a break from Beijing, so we traveled by rail to Chengde, about four hours' train journey. Navigating the Beijing train station proved an adventure in itself, as I was pushed down, elbowed in the kidneys, lost my husband and son in a sea of people and nearly caught up in a fist fight. We found the most effective train station survival technique was to join the fray by pushing and shoving back - no apologies needed!
For hundreds of years Chengde was a summer getaway for the Imperial family and court. Today it is a peaceful and spiritually uplifting place.Sites here include no less than ten temples and palaces, including Putuozongcheng Temple, a fascinating facsimile of the Tibet's Potola Palace. At Puning Temple we got a flavor of Buddhism in China. Monks continue to inhabit the temple, and practice Buddhist rituals of incense burning and study. Our final stop was the Emperor's Summer Resort, a sprawling palace, still containing furnishings and household items from its last residents in the mid-1800s.The palace museum contains priceless objects of jade, porcelain, bronze and cloisonne. To wrap up a relaxing day of temple-hopping, we enjoyed a leisurely lakeside walk in a steadily falling summer rain. 
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