The only hiccup at the Beijing end was that Lilly’s address for our destination in Beijing was not precise enough so we had to ask two or three times as we got close. A very pleasant little flat has been made available by friends and so we are having a relaxing day today to recover and re-charge the batteries.
Our friend’s grandparents also have a flat on the same floor and we meet up with them. Flat is very central in this massive city which is a bit cooler than Shanghai. Smog worse here but this is apparently a hazy day.
By the time we have an early dinner with the Gramps, had a walk around the area and looked after some of the more pressing business at an internet café, we are done for the day. The Gramps are very considerate and have apparently gone to a lot of trouble to clean and tidy the flat we are in. In this gated complex are several apartment blocks. Very pleasant well-maintained gardens with floodlit tennis court in the grounds and you would think this was an up-market Western-style apartment complex.
Up bright and early for breakfast at a hotel about a kilometre from home. Substantial breakfast of yellow rice soup, won tons, egg, pastry and flavouring cost us the massive sum of 3 yuan 80 about 70 cents.
Met up with Linda’s Dad briefly and rode his bicycle. Went to China Travel Service and booked a tour to Sichuan for next week. Lilly nearly lost 5000 yuan. Needs to be more careful!! Opened a bank account.
Then off by bus to the Temple of Heaven. A long journey cost 1 yuan (18 cents) – the cost for one stop or multiple stops. All hustle and bustle is first impression. People everywhere, horns going, bikes, people, cars, buses compete for space on the roads that are often exceptionally wide and dead flat. Organised chaos prevails. Somehow the system works. Watch your back, front and sides, remember when crossing the road to first look left as the traffic keeps to the right as in America. No trucks on the road – they are allowed only late during the night. Although horns are used liberally, drivers are considerate and I see very few accidents.
Temple of Heaven is to the South East of the city but still within the city. Everything about it is massive. This is where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties worshipped and prayed for bumper crops. For a start it is set in 273 hectares of trees, grass and gardens, criss-crossed by walking paths and surrounded by a wall, semi-circular at one end and part square at the other, in accordance with ancient beliefs that heaven was round and earth square.
The two main structures within the grounds are the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Circular Mound Alter. The latter was for worshipping the heaven on the winter solstice. The two structures are connected by a 360 metre long raised walk on a North-South Axis. It was built first in 1420 (by the Ming) and expanded and reconstructed in a later dynasty (by the Qing). It is an absolute masterpiece of ancient architecture and grandeur. The Emporers attended annually for ceremonies to pray for bumper crops and appease the gods with animal sacrifices.
Other buildings include Imperial Vault of Heaven, Fasting Palace, Beamless Hall, Long Corridor, Longevity Pavilion, Belfry (yes, we rang the huge bell) and others too numerous to mention. By the end of the day I was footsore and even my indefatigable beloved was feeling it a bit in the legs.
Caught a bus, then underground, then another bus home. Transportation in Beijing is fantastic. You never wait long and if one bus is too full, the next will be along in a blink. Underground trains likewise.
Sample some Beijing cuisine at a local hotel. Dinner is so cheap, cooking seems pointless.
We have covered a lot of territory over the last 4 days. Decided today would not be so mileage intensive. After breakfast, organising photos, booking YanTai ticket we take off by bus to do the Hutong Tour and visit Behai Park.
The Hutong tour is to give us a bit of feeling for how the middle-level Chinese live. We are taken by rickshaw through narrow streets (hutongs) to visit the old quadrangles which are essentially a square of rooms (one deep) surrounding a courtyard. The home we visited was occupied by a retired archaeologist who was obviously a professional and a dignified man of about 75. He lived there with several sons and daughters (one at least of whom was married) and a granddaughter of 10. There were three kitchens and one bathroom. All pleasantly laid out and clean and tidy. Kitchens and bathroom fairly basic, otherwise all the mod cons including some antique furniture which he said was valued at about Yuan250,000 or $45,000.
His home valued at about Y2.5 million or $400,000. These are no ordinary Chinese. Relatively well off and probably status-wise regarded as upper middle class.
During the rickshaw tour we also visited the palace of Prince Gong, who was the uncle of the last Qing emperor. We weren’t able to get in to the palace but toured the imperial gardens, notable for the 9999 (very lucky number) figures of bats in all different places around the gardens. The Chinese word for bats sounds the same as the word “lucky” so the idea was to double the luck. 9999 luckies. Unfortunately for old Uncle Gong his luck ran out, the Qing dynasty was about to be overthrown by the people. That occurred in 1911. The lavish scale of Uncle’s palace and grounds was characteristic of the corruption and vast accumulation of wealth of the emperors of both Ming and Qing dynasties. It eventually led to their downfall.
Across the road from Uncle’s place is another huge complex, Behai Park. A park yes, but much more than a park. This was the recreation spot for the emperors. It dates back 800 years and covers an area almost a kilometre square. About half of it is taken up by a lake with swimming fish and floating lotus. On an island in the middle of the lake is a white pagoda and there are a number of other ancient buildings and structures including the Tranquil Heart Studio, The Painted Boat Studio, The Five Dragon Pavilion and the White Jade Buddha. There are caves with 60 gods signifying the twelve years of the Chinese calendar with a break every 60 years. Have I got that right? Anyway we also saw the Nine Dragon Wall and a magnificent pine tree said to be 800 years old. Bit like our tree hut pine in NZ.
Up at 6 for our usual breakfast and picked up at 7 for our trip to the Great Wall. Toured around and eventually picked up 20 in a mini-bus with fold-down seats in the aisle. Today a more mature male tour guide, who not only told us where we were going and what it was all about but tried to get across some political messages, poked some fun at leaders and former leaders and highlighted the political implications of a change of balance of power for Beijing when Jiang Zemin acceded to the throne. Beijing of course is the political and cultural centre of the country, Shanghai the commercial centre. Bit like the east of Beijing city is rich, west of the city is noble. Naturally we reside in the west. This almost yin yang approach pervades Chinese attitudes and thinking.
Today we travelled for about 2 and half hours after leaving Beijing city. Countryside is mainly cultivated (being early Autumn) with some corn and a lot of orcards, apples pears and peaches. Some looked good, others a bit scruffy. Not too big a contrast with big Western cities.
We stopped firstly at 13 Ling Reservoir which was part of a Great Leap Forward project. Four hundred thousand “volunteers” worked day and night to build this reservoir. Hello, that’s 400,000 folk. The Chinese ignored a Russian warning that the reservoir would leak. After Mao died in 1976 the reservoir dried up. In the 1980s a Japanese businessman recognized the potential of a beautiful local environment, put some money in, fixed the leak and built an entertainment complex on the reservoir and underground. He called it the Dragon King Palace and created an underground sea fairy tale which we were taken through by a moving conveyor and seats along the length of it. Quite an impressive display.
Next a film – scary – we were strapped into seats and given the ride of our lives as the huge screen in front of us shoved logs going through giant saws and we went up and down fragile rail tracks. Very life-like. Also a real ride this time down some rapids.
Then a visit to a jade producer (so we could buy) and then on to the main purpose of the tour the Great Wall, supposedly the only man-made object visible from outer space. On the way in the bus I was looking out the window and felt this not unpleasant sensation of being stroked on the arm. As Lilly was sitting in the seat in front I wondered who could be responsible. It was quite amusing that a Chinese guy of about 40 had reached across the aisle and was stroking my arm out of interest for how the hair felt. We all had a good laugh about it as we realised he was just being curious and there were no romantic notions.
We reached the kick-off point for a climb up the Great Wall too late for comfort but still managed an energy draining walk up this huge wall from the 4th turret to the 8th turret. We were taken by cable car to the 4th) The round trip took about 2 and a half hours. The wall is absolutely massive and in some parts very, very steep. Started about 2200 years ago, an absolutely incredible feat of engineering, diligence and stamina. The wall is in many sections totaling about 6000 kms long apparently and built/strengthened, manned/maintained at various times by various dynasties. Back in the mini van we were treated to videos of Chinese comedy and shows as we travelled back to Beijing.
Today we are re-gathering our strength for the days ahead. We are off to Tianamen Square by bus. It is huge, flanked by the People’s Hall on one side, Mao’s mausoleum on another, a museum on another and the Forbidden City to the North. The square is big enough to hold a million people. Today it is being prepared for the October 1st National Day celebrations and we take photos of mountains of flowers and plants being placed by cranes.
After that Lilly and I head for the shopping centre for lunch with Mr & Mrs Ren at the Quan Ju De which has a proud history of being Beijing’s top restaurant. It has five floors of restaurants and we have a delicious meal of Peking duck wrapped in pastry skins with flavouring and duck liver and duck soup and salad. Very tasty, almost up to Lilly’s dumplings. Then shopping in centres up to the standard of Chatswood Chase, Westfield. Quality good and prices expensive because most of this stuff is imported. In a book shop (of more than five floors) I buy books on a history of China and a “Glimpse into China’s culture, plus a set of tapes for learning conversational Chinese. I get talking to a local guy who taught himself English and wanted to check his progress. Quite good. We watch a water display in the street outside and went off-street and down-market for some much cheaper wares from Paddy market-type stalls. Home by bus.
Off quite early towards the Summer Palace but first stop at dental hospital (teeth must look good before visit palace where emperors frolicked in the cool during hot Beijing summers) to see if they can fix my tooth that had dropped out. Dentist with quite good English explained it needed root canal treatment taking at least a month. She was professional and competent, as was reception, nothing third world here.
Notwithstanding missing tooth we press on to Summer Palace, like anything dynastic, huge and impressive. An area 2km long and 1 km wide, 75% of which is a huge man-made lake with an island in the middle and a huge hill at one end. That’s where all the excess material went because Beijing is as flat as a pancake. Unfortunately the water level of the lake has fallen dramatically and there is only limited boating on the lake. We walked and walked between monstrous hills and temples and pagodas, the most impressive of which was the “Hall of the Buddha in the Temple of Gratitude and Immense Longevity in the Gardens of the Clear Ripples”. Other buildings equally impressive with beautiful and descriptive names. We walked over a bridge to the “island” and roamed around. Along some streets in another part of the palace we picked our way along the water’s edge, sometimes precariously in the absence of hand rails.
In one of the stalls, an old wizened Chinese man was doing calligraphy. He had a long wispy grey beard and looked as if he belonged to an age of antiquity. As we came up to him he announced in clear and loud English “fortune teller”. I said no I’m merely a financial adviser. It was lost on him so I didn’t bother adding that it was pretty much the same line of business. He then asked me how my fortune was. I said it was good enough thanks. He had obviously learned a couple of key English phrases (both better than any of my Chinese) but he could not otherwise communicate. Pity we couldn’t talk about his professional fee for a consultation. He looked about 300 years old so I hope good fortune smiles upon him too.
The Summer Palace, also known as the Garden of Perfect Harmony, was and is the largest imperial palace and garden preserved to this day. It recognized by the UN as a National Heritage treasure and is particularly notable for its garden design and landscape. Back home by bus.
Up today at 6:15 for an early breakfast and off by bus to the Forbidden City. First we intended to visit Mao’s mausoleum at the southern end of Tiananmen Square but the queue, which was 6 abreast and inching forward snaked out of the huge building, stretched a kilometre down the square and disappeared around the corner. For all we knew it ended in Outer Mongolia; should we take a train to join it to see a tomb perhaps of some significance to Lilly but only of passing interest to me. Instead we headed right in to the Forbidden.
The first hall we encountered was not a hall but the Tiananmen Gate, a sizeable hall with a raised viewing area for politicians and dignitaries to review military parades on occasions such as the forthcoming October 1st National Day celebrations. We took some photos of us waving to crowds in the vastness of the Square. This is where Mao addressed up to a million people during the Great Leaps Forward and Cultural Revolution.
From there we made it through another large square to the Meridian Gate, the main entrance to the city which is the bang in the centre of Beijing. Well it would be of course. This after all was the imperial palace and home of the Ming and Qing dynasties and was constructed 600 years ago. It has not been occupied since 1911, when the last of the Qing emperors was overthrown. Unfortunately, it has not been all that well preserved and in many parts is obviously in need of repair and renovation. This massive task, the palace has 8700 rooms and occupies an area of about 70 hectares, has already begun. We spent most of the day there and estimated we saw about a fifth of it. There is a moat around it 52 metres wide and the outside wall is 10 mteres high and 3500 metres long. It is or was in essence a fortified castle. Inside are a number of palaces and halls where the emperor and empress and wives, concubines lived and played and if they had to, handled affairs of state. Corruption pervaded every level of society during the Ming and Qing dynasties and this is where it began and was at its most insidious. The people were enslaved by feudal lords, landed gentry and favoured lackeys, all overseen by the imperials. This was a collection point for the wealth of the nation – to subsidize every extravagance on a grand scale. No wonder it was so forbidding to average Chinese.
We covered a lot of ground, seeing exhibitions of warriors, jade, gold, bronze and countless precious relics. Many of the rooms had original beds, chairs, lights and furnishings and it was fascinating to see how the royals lived. Or died. In one place we saw a well where one of the concubines was thrown into and died. Her crime: supporting reforms that the Emperor wanted to introduce in the face of opposition from his Mother, the former Emperor CiXi. That will teach you son for crossing me, say good bye to your favourite concubine.
Thousands perhaps tens of thousands were visiting The Forbidden today and it was yet another day requiring leg and foot stamina. We made it home via two buses for dumplings with the Gramps.
Wake up to the usual sound of Tai Chi outside our window. We are only 2 floors up and have a good view of the Tai Chi exercises by young and old and can hear the music. About 15 regulars. This morning they are using swords and standing a bit further apart than usual. Not surprising. The movements are very controlled and deliberate and follow the music, mostly quite slow but occasionally quick. The older guys are better at it, while some are obviously learning.
We have been very lucky with this place Lilly’s ex has made available – the Gramps have made it comfortable and it is a real haven to come home to at the end of the day. Deliberately a quiet day today as we leave for Sichuan at 5am tomorrow. Lilly tells me in the old days nobody would have wanted her as their wife because she eats too much and has big feet. She could have been a dragon or a donkey as long as the feet were small and the appetite tiny.
We have called people about arrangements for tomorrow, cleared emails and are back home by midday for rest and reading. Lilly having eaten water melon and started on a mound of peanuts is planning lunch. Late afternoon off to get travel instructions and shopping for table tennis bats and balls in this vast complex. Dinner at night with the Rens, finally on us this time.