Beijing is unreal!!!

Trip Start Jan 12, 2008
Trip End Oct 01, 2008

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Thursday, May 8, 2008

My first full day in Beijing and we woke up all sorts of late.  Nicky, Josh and I make a pit stop to rent bikes and wind up buying new ones for the same price I would have paid to rent a crappy one for four days!  Before we know it, we are biking towards Tian'an Men Square trying to agree on a name for our newly formed bike gang (no name was ever unanimously approved). 

On our way we stopped at the Drum and Bell Towers where we tried to trade our new bikes for a sweet rickshaw but decided to just steal one for a little while when the drivers graciously declined.  After a bike around Hou Hai and Qian Hai (cute little lake area with shops, bars and restaurants around the waterfront) we enter Bei Hai park where the 9 dragon screen turns out to have a bonus 9 extra dragons on the back side. 

Finally we make it down to Tian'an Men Square and our first stop was the Forbidden City. 

Besides the obvious beauty (amazing imperial architecture) and historical importance (24 emperors ruled from its confines for almost 500 years), the names of the various halls and palaces were the best part. 

Clearly the name 'Forbidden City' in itself invokes a lot to think about, but once inside this garden of Eden you can find yourself walking through the Halls of Supreme Harmony, Mental Cultivation, Imperial Peace, and Union or entering the Palaces of Heavenly Purity, Earthly Tranquility, Eternal Harmony, Abstinence (an odd one I thought...), or Peaceful Longevity.  Regardless of where in the Forbidden City you find or lose yourself, the one constant is the awe the place leaves you in.

Next we headed across the street and past the national flag and into the massive square to see the Monument to the People's Heroes which is inscribed with calligraphy from Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.  Looking back at the Forbidden City you see a huge portrait of sweet sweet Mao looking down at the people in the square.  Moving on we reached Mao's Mausoleum where we could have seen his casket which is raised from its refrigerated chamber every morning and afternoon.  Unfortunately, we were unable to pay our due respect and so we decided to move on.  After taking in the sheer imperial grandness of the Great Hall of People (seat of the Chinese legislature) and the China National Museum, which flank the square, we were back on our bikes and headed home.

The ride back brought us winding through some sweet hutongs, which are small traditional neighborhoods that wind around tiny streets that cars can barely fit through if at all.  When you turn off a main road and head into a hutong for about 10 yards you are all of a sudden transported to China of a hundred years ago, or more.  From the outside they are basically all identical grey structures that are in various states of disrepair with the already narrow streets further cramped with all sorts of impediments including food stalls, chairs, bikes, markets and people with a general happiness about them.  We take a left turn at one point and find ourselves upon a little park where approximately 100 people are hanging out, playing chess, ping pong and seemingly playing on crazy playground toys.  Josh, Nicky and I (being a curious bike gang) decided to step in and claim our turf... I wind up playing a bit of ping pong with an elderly lady (she was at least 70, and good, but not good enough!) before some similarly older man realized that a new crew was in town and decided to challenge us to some games.  Next thing I know we are being shown how all the playground "toys" are actually work out machines and how these old guys are absolutely ripped! 

A few situps, pushups, curls, weird acrobatic things, some jumping games and a few aerobic machines later and we were biking away with our tails between our legs but glad we met a really cool Beijing park gang.

By the time we reached Henry's place, we were all starving and made a quick turnaround to a restaurant named Da Dong... for duck, despite all your wildest thoughts based on the name!  The duck was good, but the venison was better.  Apparently this was one of the best restaurants in the city and I loved that they didn't flinch when we came in as a very rag-tag group.  The informality here is quite refreshing!

The day wasn't over just yet though... I know, it's already been quite a full day!  After I was done picking the duck literally clean, we headed to a college bar where we saw some of the craziest dance floor antics I've ever witnessed.  Literally, everyone was dancing in unison to various American songs and they all knew the dances from the music videos.  I felt like I was in some horrible teen movie where all the actors hired for the clearly staged high-school dance were actually bad dancers!  After that most spectacular spectacle we were ready to call it a night, finally... not a bad day for waking up just before noon!
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