Beijing 

October 20 (Canada)

The day started early. Angela was anxious to get to Vancouver Airport and wanted us to participate in their family tradition of airport goodbyes including the sharing of a meal. Angelaís parents, Rod and June, picked us up and drove us to the airport where we met Stephen and Angela at Bill Reidís stunning sculpture.

The scheduled 11:20am flight was delayed due to a mechanical difficulty, but we eventually began the eleven hour and 20 minute flight to Beijing.

We crossed the international date line ... it was now October 21, 2007.

First impression of northern China from the air was "brown".  Water resources in this part of China are rapidly depleting and desert sands are marching relentlessly across the land.

Our first thrill and fitting welcome to China came about fifteen minutes before landing as we peered down from our lofty 12,000 -15,000 foot vantage point and saw the Great Wall of China snaking along the brown mountain ridges.

The Air Canada crew had passed out declaration forms during the flight and the process of moving through Beijing's Terminal 2 was very smooth and hassle free.

 

After collecting our backpacks we left the secured area and faced a long row of onlookers pressed up against a waist high barrier. Some held name cards in their hands. We searched until we found one which read "Mr. Thorne Terry / Mr. McKellar Stephen". Through introductions we learned that the lovely lady with the welcoming smile was named "Betty" ... or her Chinese name Li Ping (Li being her last name and Ping being her first). Her services had been arranged by GoAway Travel and she would be our guide for the four days we are to be in Beijing (including this our arrival day and our departure day).

 
 

Ping escorted us out of the Arrivals building to a mini van and introduced us to Mr. Huang who will be our driver (with twenty years experience) while Ping guides our tours.

As we drove into the city from the airport, Ping took the opportunity to give us a verbal itinerary and introduce us to some information about the city she calls home.

The road we were travelling was unlike the chaotic one we had experience coming in from the airport in Hanoi. This road was modern, straight and the traffic was orderly and smooth flowing. We slowed down as we passed through a toll booth which had been built to reflect the symbolism of ancient city gates.

Ping told us of some of the innovative plans being developed in time for the 2008 Olympics which will go well beyond 2008 in serving the needs of future tourists and the millions who make up this capitalís population. One such undertaking is the high speed light rail train from the city centre to the airport. To make air travel more efficient a system is being put in place where the traveller may check their luggage at a terminal within the city, then luggage free, take the high speed train to the airport for security and boarding.  You see your luggage next at your destination.  Genius! Construction is in progress to have Terminal 3 completed for the Summer Olympics and it will be Chinaís largest airport terminal ... befitting this large capital.

Like a stone dropped into a pond, Beijingís centre is Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (which we will see tomorrow); a ring road encircles the inner city, then another larger circle rings around farther out, then Number 3 yet a little further and so forth (we believe Ping mentioned seven). Ping lives with her parents (who both work for the government) in a government lease house between the second and third circle.

Mr Huang drove us safely to the Qianmen Jianguo Hotel in the theatre district of Beijing ... and a mere eight minute drive to Tiananmen Square.  Ping came in with us and help with our check-in, arranged a 6:30 am wake up call, found directions to the nearest ATM machine, got information on internet services and a clarification as to the hotel`s breakfast options. Once all those were settled, she walked us over to the hotel`s elevators and bid us a good night`s sleep.

The plan for us was to do a quick unpacking for our three night stay, freshen up and hit the road in an attempt to stay awake until a suitable China-bedtime. Our rooms were next to each other. We checked them out and were pleased.  Angela laid down on the bed ... just to test it out ... and was instantly asleep. After our settling-in chores were done, Stephen woke her enough to ask if she would like to join us for a bowl of soup in one of the hotel`s restaurants or if she would like to continue to sleep. To her credit, she rallied.

We passed a restaurant which held a smattering of what appeared to be Western tourists and made our way to the noisy, energetic and very busy restaurant which was mostly occupied by Chinese. This must be the place.

 
 

We were not looking to have a large meal, but instead a soothing bowl of soup. We tried to ask what size the bowls were. With some spoken words, hand gestures and smiles, we came to the conclusion the bowls were rather small, so we ordered one noodle soup each and one wonton soup each. While we waited the staff was most attentive and it seemed we had one young lady assigned to make sure we stayed happy as she would refill our jasmine tea when the small handless cup was half emptied. Two other ladies returned to the table with a small shallow bowl of what appeared to be nuts. One said, with great hesitation and encouragement from the second lady, "these are on the house", followed immediately with a hand covering her mouth to suppress the giggle which emitted despite her efforts.

 

The noodle soup arrived. A soothing, lukewarm chicken broth with plain white noodles and a brilliant leaf of bok choy placed upon the top. The bowls were larger than we had imagined ... a normal soup bowl size. We were about half way through when the second, and large bowled, soup was placed with ceremony on the table along with a stack of four small bowls. We could see now that our questioning of what size of bowls the soups came in was translated into "these foreigners want small bowls for their soup". The lid was removed from the terrine to reveal a wonton soup with seaweed and very tiny whole baby shrimp, and some other ingredients we could not identify. It was delicious. Once they saw that we were finished with our meal, they removed the soup terrine and replaced it with eight delicate slices of watermelon. The meal was a wonderful way to celebrate our arrival and prepare us for a welcome sleep.

The two beds in the room were firm, very firm, with fresh crisp linens and grain filled pillows.  Actually quite comfortable. The front desk called up to confirm our 6:30am wake up calls for rooms 4025 and 4027.   Lights out China time - 8:30 pm.

 

October 22

Sherrie woke at midnight and peered out the window. The street below had been busy upon our arrival. It was quiet now and the only moving vehicle was a bicycle gliding by with its riderís white shirt reflecting the lights of the hotel. Quiet. Peaceful. Good morning, China.

Breakfast in the hotel was plentiful in both quantity and selection. We opted for more Chinese breakfast options like pot stickers, noodles, fruit, meat balls, steamed rolls and a delicious fruit we suspect might be persimmon.

We met Ping in the lobby and were soon on our way in the van with Mr. Huang.  She told us that our schedule had been changed. The government was using Tiananmen Square this morning and so we would instead put it at the end of our dayís tour. We would begin with the Temple of Heaven.

 
 
 
 
 

Ping led us through the east gate into the park which surrounds the Temple of Heaven. There are four entrance points; one at each compass point in the wall which surrounds the 267 hectare park.

In the cool Monday morning air, wide pathways were active with people moving in unison:  groups doing Tai Chi (meaning "the way of energy"), Tai Chi Sword, ballroom dancing, ball & paddle singles and doubles and a form of hacky-sack while above kites hung in air.

 

We were in awe, moving from group to group, admiring the slow smooth and purposeful motions.

Continuing towards the Templeís square, we walked along a wide covered walkway where activities changed from body to mind exercises. Groups of people used the low side railing for card games and a voice instructor gave corrections and encouragement to her standing semi-circle of adult students as they attempted to hold a note. Further along a five piece band sitting upon the wide railing, playing traditional instruments, accompanied an elder gentleman singing opera. We, the only Caucasians in sight, stood among other admirers of his talents.

With a few twists and turns and a ramp we came to arched doorways. The heavy doors were decorated with 81 golden knobs in rows (nine across and nine vertically) indicating this was an emperorís place. This information was also told in the decorations of the roof lines where the overhang turned at the corners. At the furthest point, covering up a joint pin, an emperor rode a phoenix, followed by nine (the emperorís number) mythical animals and bringing up the rear of this roof edge parade, and larger than the others, is a dragon.

Dragons could also be seen chomping at either end of the roofís top line. As with most things in China, there is a story. This story is of a emperor whose son was a braggart. The son took every opportunity to tell others how great he was at eating everything. The emperor felt his big mouthed son needed a lesson in humility, so he challenged him to eat a ridge pole (the centre beam which supports a roof). The son took up the challenge and, to his fatherís disgust, succeeded so no lesson learned. This angered his father who decided to humble his son by turning him into a dragon which would for eternity have a ridgepole stuck in his mouth.

 

Worshipping heaven in China dates back to ancient times - from the 26th century B.C. to the early 20th century AD when the feudal society began to  disintegrate. The Temple of Heaven was a place for the Ming and Qing Dynastiesí emperors to worship heaven and pray for good harvests - emperors would offer sacrifices to heaven on the day of the Winter Solstice each year. It was built in the 18th year of Emperor Yongleís reign during the Ming Dynasty (1420), and the imperial sacrificial alter was constructed according the Chinese tradition ritual system. Twenty-two emperors worshipped heaven here.

Just as The Great Wall is a symbol of China, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (the centre piece in Temple of Heaven) with its triple eaved umbrella roof, has become a symbol of Beijing.

 

It is a masterpiece of Chinese ancient wooden architecture (no nails), a perfect combination of Chinese architectural technology and art sitting atop three tiers of marble terraces. Holding up the roofs are 28 huge posts. The four in the inner circle represent the four seasons; twelve posts in the centre represent the twelve months of the year; and the outer twelve posts represent "12 Shichen" (Shichen was a way of counting time in ancient China Ė one shichen equals two hours). Three colours are dominant - blue representing heaven, yellow for the emperor and green for earth.

Other buildings frame the square and today act as museum and demonstration halls.

We walked back through the park where people were still moving and stretching. Stephen was offered a racket and ball and for his first time at trying did rather well and impressed the racketís owner.

On to the Forbidden City ... the centre of Beijing.

 

Rectangular in shape this palace complex, covering 74 hectares, is the worldís largest. A six meter deep moat and a ten meter high wall protect 9,999 Ĺ rooms. The half room is a library. Why not 10,000 rooms? Heaven is said to have 10,000 rooms and even an emperor would not be so presumptuous as to compare his earthly palace to heaven. Should a prince be born and stay in a different room each night, he would be twenty-seven years old before he stayed in them all.

We walked around part of the moat and entered the walled complex and stood in front of the Meridian Gate.

The walls form a "U" shape. Three gates are placed in the bottom of the "U". Ping told us that todayís scientific instruments have confirmed that the centre gate, the emperorís gate, spans the Meridian Line Ė a testament to the ancient Chinese scientists and designers. Gates on either side of the emperorís main gate were used by royal family and dignitaries. On each of the side walls of the "U" there is another door. The door on the right wall is called the Dragonís Gate. When high exams were written to be eligible to become an important government official (ie: administrator) the man who received the highest grade was given the honour of riding through this gate on a horse.


 

This ride was hailed by the populous which considered him a celebrity of distinction. The opposite gate called the Tigerís Gate was so the opposite in prestige. If someone lost favour with the Emperor this is the gate from which they left the palace ... not only losing their position but their life as well.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Behind the red walls, the main colour is yellow, the symbol of the royal family. All roofs support yellow glazed tiles, except one ... the libraryís roof is black representing water which could extinguish a fire.  Large cauldrons were placed throughout the complex ... for ancient fire brigades.  The broken cobblestones of the square covered fifteen feet of stonework which lay beneath ... a security measure for the protection of the emperor.

Ping guided us through archways, down narrow laneways and into small courtyards where we peeked in windows. She shared with us some stories of the palace and itís occupants. We walked through the lovely garden where 500+ year old cypress are still living. These trees of long life and beautiful shape not only complement the imperial architecture but form a unique scene themselves along with soft rock formation of interesting shapes.

We left by the north gate and stood on a corner watching locals go about their daily business as we waited for Mr. Huang to arrive with the van and whisk us off to lunch.

The location of the luncheon was by design for immediately after lunch we were escorted out the back door, up some wide steps and into a silk factory. They showed us the different stages of a silk worm over its two month growth cycle and showed us how they harvest the silk from the cocoons and the differences between single occupant cocoons and doubles. They then demonstrated the strength of silk and how it can be pulled out to form one of many layers in the making of a quilt.  The next step was to show us some uses for the double cocoon harvest.  A sales pitch followed; we left empty handed.

 

Next stop - the Summer Palace. It is not so much the buildings of the Summer Palace which draws both local and international visitors, but the surroundings in which these buildings are set.

Although there was a garden here in the 18th century, Emperor Qianlong saw room for improvement and ordered 100,000 labours to enlarge the lake and use the dirt removed to build Longevity Hill.

The Summer Palace landscape, dominated by Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, covers an area of 2.9 square kilometres, three quarters of which is water. Its 70,000 square meters of building space features a variety of palaces, gardens and other ancient-style architectural structures. Well known for its large and priceless collection of cultural artefacts, it was among the first group of historical and cultural heritage sites in China to be placed under special state protection.

The Summer Palace, originally named Qingyi Yuan or the Garden of Clear Ripples, was first constructed in 1750. The Anglo-French Allied Forces destroyed it in 1860. The Government of the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911) started to rebuild it in 1886 with funds misappropriated from the Imperial Navy and other sources. It served as a summer resort for Empress Dowager Cixi ... also known as the Dragon Lady. Ravaged by war it has undergone renovations.

At the large gateway where the imperial family would have disembarked from their cool afternoon cruises on the lake a lady in a white sweater approached Stephen and asked if she might have her picture taken.  Stephen and Angela have been receiving a lot of visual attention.

After the photo was taken, Stephen asked Ping, "Why?".   Ping explained that Stephen looked just like an Australian actor who stars on a very popular television show seen locally. 

In 1998, UNESCO included the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List with the following comments: 1) The Summer Palace in Beijing is an outstanding expression of the creative art of Chinese landscape garden design, incorporating the works of humankind and nature in a harmonious whole; 2) The Summer Palace epitomizes the philosophy and practice of Chinese garden design, which played a key role in the development of this cultural form throughout the east; 3) The imperial Chinese garden, illustrated by the Summer Palace is a potent symbol of one of the major world civilizations.

 

The "Long Corridor" is a wooden covered promenade which runs along the lake for about 1 kilometre with beautiful vistas both lake side and up Longevity Hill to the Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion. The stroll was most enjoyable and completed when we reached the marble boat.

We were told the marble boat was commissioned by the Dragon Lady to sooth the Chinese navy and in some way act as compensation for the misappropriated funds. The marble boat, struggling to offset the difficulties the Chinese navy was facing at the time, could never burn or be overturned.

We boarded one of the dragon boats and sailed across the shallow lake as the sun began its decent.

 
 
 
 
 
   

Back with Mr Huang we drove into the city with plans to see Tiananmen Square, but gridlock caused us to change plans again and put it on the agenda for tomorrow morning.

We arrived back at the hotel to quickly freshen up, change and catch a taxi to Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant for Peking duck. Beijing has been known by many names through its history. The Cantonese called it Peking. The Cantonese populated the mouth of the Pearl River and were the major contact for Westerners coming to China. They adopted the Cantonese verbiage for their maps and written documents and as a description for the succulent crispy skinned duck which was carved in front of us. One of the servers showed us how they traditionally wrap it in a thin crepe with a thick soya sauce, scallions and lettuce. Delicious. Stephen was given the "honour" of eating the duck brain.  Bon appetite.

 
 
October 23


A combination of smog and morning fog blocked out the autumn sun as we made our way to Tiananmen Square.
 
 
 Memories of June 1989 newspaper photographs and reported protests rose to our conscious minds as we walked across this massive 440,000 sq metre (108.7 acre) space ... the largest urban square in the world. 
It is framed on each side by buildings.

We turned and had pictures take with the different backgrounds. 
 
Tiananmen means "Gateway of Heavenly Peace" and still serves as a gateway
into the Forbidden City 
 Museum of the Revolution and
Museum of Chinese History 
 Mao Mausoleum Great Hall of the People (home to
 National People's Congress) 

After leaving Tiananmen Square we stopped for the obligatory jade and enamel factory tours and sale pitches.

 
 

 We also made a stop at the Ming Tombs (50 km from Beijing) ... a nice break from the car ride, but a little underwhelming as a tour destination. The floor of the mausoleum was once paved with gold bricks.  Still today the ceiling is supported by sixteen solid camphor posts.  

Centuries ago camphor wood was reserved for temples and emperors.  Unsanctioned cutting of a camphor tree was punishable by death.  It was prized for it's scent which is a repellent for moths and gives relief to those with nasal congestion and camphor ointment gives relief from muscle cramps.

 
There was a surreal feeling when we stood on the Great Wall of China at Badaling, and just as in the MasterCard commercial we got to put a checkmark next to one more of our "Life-To-Do List" items. Getting there required money but the feeling ... well, it was priceless.   Our guide had suggested we turn right when we accessed the wall.  We looked right and saw hordes of tourists ... so we turned left and began the much steeper climb.   It was worth it.

With a history of more than 2,000 years China's Great Wall stretches approximately 6,700 km (4,163 miles).  Years and mankind have cause a great deal of destruction to the Wall and today only 30% is considered in good condition.
 
 
 
On the wall, we spotted one of the Chinese to English translated signs which put a smile on our face.  It was printed on the front of a metal garbage container "Don't Call in Thunder Storm Day". 

Angela had been looking forward to putting her bargaining skills to the test and took the opportunity with the hawkers on the wall.  She was pleasant, playful and courteous ... and very good.
 
It was sunset when we left the Great Wall and Beijing was bathed in lights. 

We had tickets to the Beijing Opera and were pleased that the venue for the opera was within our hotel.   We had just enough time to freshen before going downstairs early to watch the cast put on makeup ... a privilege for VIP section ticket holders.  These ticket also provided near stage seating, a tea pouring display and snacks.

Sherrie plunked herself down in front of the make-up table with the camera and then matched her photos with the costumed performance.
 
 
  A full day.    A great day.    Tomorrow we leave Beijing and head to Datong.  
Our month long travels in China have had a wonderful start.
 




click here to go to October 24 and to Datong ...

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