Brilliant Beijing

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Mar 16, 2009

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Beijing Golden Palace Silver Street

Flag of China  ,
Saturday, May 31, 2008

As our train rolls out of Beijing and past the Great Wall on your way to Mongolia both Inge-Marie and I agree that we'd fallen in love with China. The history, culture, food and people were intriguing and amazing and Beijing epitomized this.
From the minute we arrived at Beijing's new T3 (Terminal 3) we were impressed, this massive modern structure must be one of the biggest arrival and departure halls I'd ever seen. Clearly Beijing was gearing up for the 2008 Olympics and was planning on getting a lot of visitors into the country. As part of our China package we were met by our Chinese tour guide, Newman, who escorted us to our transport, a sleek black Chinese model sedan driven by Mr Lee, which would be using over the next few days.
Since we arrived around lunch time there was enough time to visit one attraction before being dropped at the hotel. Our first stop was at the enormous Summer Palace one of Beijing's most visited sites. Mainly used as a playground by the Imperial Court to cool off during heat of summer, the Summer Palace consist of palace temples, gardens, pavilions, corridors all situated around a lake that takes up of the park. To fully explore the park would take the better half of a day and some sturdy walking shoes, needless to say we only took in the highlights to get an idea of the grandeur of the ancient buildings and gardens. We were astounded that in its day it was only used by a small hand full of people whereas today hundreds of thousands of visitors pass though its gates.
Our hotel was ideally situated in the centre of Beijing, in Wangfujing Street also known as the shopping street in walking distance from the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, so after being dropped off I didn't hesitate to take a walk to see these famous sites even if it was just form the outside. I was lucky to arrive at the gates of the Forbidden City just as the flag changing platoon were going through their drills before the daily flag lowering ceremony that happens at sunset. I was great to be able to see them meticulously march up and down in perfect synchronisation and then to break out into song as they marched towards the flagpole in Tiananmen Square.
Together with a few other people who were watching the precession we followed the platoon till they got to the final gate before crossing the road to Tiananmen Square. As we walked through the last gate I was amazed to see thousands of people waiting to see the flag lowering precession, it was apparently a highlight in Tiananmen Square and I was chuffed that I'd stumbled upon it. I stood behind a huge crowed of mostly Chinese onlookers and still had a fairly unobstructed view. To get a better camera angle I tilted my view finder so I could hold the camera above my head and see all the action. Before long a group of short spectators who obviously could squeeze through to the front gather behind to watch the precession in my little view finder. I found this very amusing.
The next day we had a full day of sightseeing organised which included a tour of the Ming Tombs where 13 of the last 16 emperors were buried, the Spirit Way which is a 7km long road leading to the tombs lined with large mythical stone animals and officials, and then on to the Badaling Great Wall which is the most visited section of the great wall.
The Badaling section Great Wall was filled with people but still gave us a very good idea of the amazing engineering feat that was accomplished. This small section of the wall was heavily restored in the 1980's and due its close proximity to Beijing make it a very popular tourist destination. To get a more authentic and less crowded experience we'd planned to hike a 10km section of the wall situated 140km for Beijing later during the week.
Some interesting facts about the wall, without giving a history lesson, are that construction on the wall started more than 2000 years ago in small sections but during the Qin dynasty it was joined to form a 6000km long line of defence to keep out invading armies and marauding nomads. Ultimately the wall failed when Mongols invaded in 1215 and took over Beijing. Genghis Khan, a Mongolian Hero, apparently said "the strength of the wall depends on those who defend it" and sentries could be bribed. We did get the impression from some Chinese people that the wall was not really a symbol for them to be proud over especially since it didn't quite serve its purpose and came at a major cost and much human sacrifice.
After a long day of sightseeing and brisk walk on the wall we strolled down to an area in the centre of the city known as Snack Street for dinner. This stretch of road was lined with food stalls serving just about everything edible and many things I previously thought inedible. The food ranged from toffee coated fruits to grilled meats and seafood, pancakes stuffed with all kinds of meat and vegetables to pork burgers and fresh coconuts. After some closer inspection I was horrified to see some of the stalls selling grilled seahorses and an assortment of scorpions. Who in their right mind would eat a seahorse, there's not enough meat on it to feed a flea. I heard a saying that some Chinese people would eat anything except the table. Also on offer was snake, grubs, sea urchin, star fish and many other unidentified things.
IMH: We decided to spend a full day exploring the 'old Beijing' by foot and it turned out to be one of our most memorable experiences of Beijing. We started in Tianamen Square, which is really only a big square and nothing too impressive, then onto the courtyard of the Forbidden City, across the road, which we entered though the Gate of Heavenly Peace, and to walk around along the moat which surrounds the City. Along the way we passed a few Siheyuan (old walled courtyards) with bright red doors and bronze knockers and remains of several temples, incl. the Wanshouxinglong Temple which once housed the surviving imperial eunuchs (castrated male servants in the Forbidden City) after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. We strolled in the Beihai Park with a 36m high White Dagoba and passed the lively Qianhai Lake. All around the lakes and parks many people are playing Chinese chess or cards or flying their kites. We deliberately tried to walk along some of the narrow traditional alleyways, Hutongs .
The restored and remaining Hutongs and Siheyuans have now been recognised as historical sites in Beijing City and is protected, safe from being demolished and replaced by new, modern towers. The Mao'er Hutong is lined with restaurants and bars, one of the splendid spots for a night out. The Chinese owner of Pass By Bar has for the last 8 years, ridden his bicycle form many origins in China to Lhasa in Tibet, which not only is a o long distance, but also a strenuous ride over mountains and desert - a very interesting traveller person to meet.
On our last day of the organised 3-day Beijing tour we visited Tianamen Square, the Forbidden City and the Tempe of heaven.
Tianamen Square is the world's largest square and the symbolic centre of the Chinese universe - as I understand it's mainly linked to the Communist Party and Chairman Mao and in my mind nothing interesting. Despite being a public place, the square remains more in the government's hands than the people with police and TV surveillance everywhere. The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall is on the Southern side of the square and contains the mummified corpse of Chairman Mao in a crystal cabinet, draped in an anachronistic red flag emblazoned with hammer and sickle. As we, to be quite honest, have no respect for the former Chairman, considering what he has put the Chinese people through in the 1970's, the visit was quite disturbing and a little bit sickening.
The Forbidden City was off limits for 500 years and is the largest and best-preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China. It is very impressive and a lot of restoration work has been conducted in preparation for the Olympic Games in August. This goes for the most of Beijing it seems, such as tourist sites, railway pathways, trains, public facilities, etc. The Forbidden City was home to two dynasties of emperors, the Ming and the Qing, who didn't stray from the pleasure dome unless they absolutely had to.
The City consisted of several areas, which included ceremonial halls, entertainment areas, concubine quarters (most liked concubines were accommodated closer to the emperors quarters), royal family quarters and many others. The emperor was the only male allowed in the Forbidden City after sunset. We often debated the oddity of such a set-up of pure indulgence for the Chinese royalty. I am looking forward to see the 1989 movie again - The Last Emperor, which I expect to understand lot better after our visit to Beijing.
A model of Ming design, the main hall of the Temple of Heaven has come to symbolise Beijing. Sitting in an impressive 267-hectare park (some trees are 600+ years old) with a gate at each compass point, the temple originally served at a vast stage for the emperor praying to the God of heaven for good harvests.
We ended the busy day off with a disappointing local Kung Fu Show, especially having seen the impressive show in Shanghai.
As Beijing is renowned for their duck, we decided to celebrate our wedding anniversary early one evening as it falls on a 3-day train trip in Siberia and had a wonderful roast duck meal and the best service we had in China at a restaurant called Duck de Chine in a new development called 1949 - the Hidden City. This restaurant treasures their reputation on the way they cook their duck - for exactly 1 hour and 5 minutes in a clay oven (like a pizza oven) over an apple wood fire and is not the least fatty. Together with the steamed pancakes, homemade hoison, peanut and sesame sauces, cucumber, spring onions and a bottle of wine on the house - it was a meal fit for an emperor!
As Ryan mentioned above, the true splendour of the Great Wall can be better appreciated 140 kilometres outside Beijing where only a few tourists venture. We bravely attempted the 10km hike passing 28 towers - with scary and very steep climbs and crumbled down hills, from the Jinshanling Great Wall to the Simatai Great Wall (which has been noted by UNESCO as one of the World Cultural Heritages).
The scenery on the walk was breathtaking, we could see the wall snake-up over steep mountains and peaks as far as they eye can see and confirmed the great engineering achievement in constructing this wall so many years ago. As this part of the wall has not been reconstructed, the climb was not easy, at least not for me. I got extremely anxious after the second (and steepest I later found out) climb we were to encounter. It felt as though I was going to fall backwards and as the ancient bricks have started to crumble under your feet, you could easily slip on the loose gravel and fall down the sheet hill. My only motivation to continue (I was seriously considering fighting my way down the wall and downhill trough the lush vegetation) was that I didn't actually see someone fall and there were people doing the hike who were much older than I was. Ryan was amazing and calmed me down with loving words (I don't know if this is because he knew there was no other way down and wasn't keen on the alternative, i.e. carrying me?). And it was true, there is no other way down, once you started walking, you have to either finish it or turn back. To be fair, the hike was a lot easier after the steep climb, although the condition of the wall worsened. Looking back, it was a great experience and I'm glad that I stuck it out. 

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