Ni hao! We had a wonderful time on our trip to Beijing last week. Even the 13 hour flight wasn't as bad as we thought it would be.
We left on Sunday morning, Feb. 24th and flew up the western coast, across the Aleutian Islands, and down over Siberia through north eastern China to Beijing. We landed on Monday in the late afternoon. After immigration, we were met by our tour company. We were put into the group with the JFK people along with my sister Kami and her husband Russell. Turns out it was the best group, so we were happy. But since we landed with the earlier LAX group, we got to go to the hotel sooner. Which was a blessing because we were tired. We got to the Traders Hotel in downtown Beijing and were pleasantly surprised with how nice it was. All of our literature said: "this is not a vacation; it is an adventure" which led us to believe it would be slightly primitive. It was not. It was a 4 star hotel. And the whole trip was an adventure AND a vacation.
We promptly went right to sleep even though it was only about 7:30 in the evening.
Each morning we enjoyed a fabulous breakfast buffet in the hotel dining room. They served everything under the sun. Besides the Western breakfasts, they had duck, sushi, noodles, soups, and even green salad every day. I had wonton soup every single morning because it was so delicious. And I made it a point to try something new each day also. Most things I liked. David would have a custom-made omelet, cold cereal, and waffles. (boring!) :-)
The first day, our tour bus took us to Tiananmen Square. It's the largest public square in the world, capable of holding a million people. Our tour guide, Peng (pronounced "pong") told us that there would be plain-clothed policemen or FBI-type of men listening to our group. He was right. As he explained what the buildings around the square were and what they were used for, there were always men lingering on the fringes.
Across the street from the square is the Forbidden City. Practically all places -- even restaurants - have two statues of lions in front of them. One male, one female. (to scare off evil spirits) The one behind us is the female. And we know that because she has a baby under her left paw. The male always has a globe of the world under his paw.
Anyway, the Forbidden City is a 9,999 room compound where the 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties ruled for nearly 500 years (1420-1911). We experienced the architectural splendor of the palaces, ceremonial courtyards and private quarters. The place just went on and on and on. We would go through a building and there would be another courtyard and another building right after that.
A four-star rated toilet in the Forbidden City. Not.
This was a rock garden that was amazing. Even the ground was laid with individual itty-bitty rocks to form patterns. I was thinking that a couple of my grandkids would have way too much fun climbing all over the rock formations.
It took a couple of hours to walk the length of the Forbidden City.
Next stop: the site of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. The "Bird Nest" is behind us. The "Water Cube" is to the left of that. (not in the picture) We are standing on the axis road which runs in a perfect straight line for three miles through Beijing, centered on the Forbidden City. Each building that we toured for the rest of the week had a paved or carved meridian line in it. Cool.
Olympic Square. Behind the vase in the background is where the torch is.
And yes, it was cold the whole week. But we were prepared and it wasn't a problem.
Do you recognize the "dragon building" behind us? It was shown in a lot of shots from the Olympics. Heads of state stayed there. Now it is a hotel and also the IBM offices.
The next day we went to the Sacred Way of Ming Tombs. It's about 45 minutes outside of the city. It is regarded as China's finest example of imperial tomb architecture. It begins with a grand marble gateway that is more than 400 years old and is lined with 36 massive stone sculptures. The people believe that you should touch this turtle where you want to be healed. "If I only had a brain."
Kami and David want their feet to be healed. Or to run and not be weary. I'm not sure.
There are sculptures of officials, lions, elephants, camels and mythical beasts.
These places must be gorgeous in the spring and summer. But traveling in the winter, we didn't have to put up with crowds or heat. Toss up.
We stopped at a Jade Factory after the Ming Tombs. Finding out how jade becomes what we see here was fascinating. The ship in the picture was made from one stone. We liked the lecture about it, but didn't like the big sales pitch at the end. Felt like a time share hard sell.
Lunch above the jade factory. Our lunches were great every day. Always served family style. We ate with these same people for most of our meals. We clicked with everyone in our group, but it turns out that we hung out with these guys all the time anyway.
At least 10 different dishes - not counting rice - were put in front of us. Loved it. After lunch, it was on to:
THE GREAT WALL!!
We could walk one of two ways. One way was hard. The other: harder. We chose the "hard" way because, although it was longer, it would offer better views.
It was nice to be out of the city the whole day. Beijing was experiencing some major pollution that one day, and we missed the whole thing. Nice.
This is the very highest point of the wall, and we are there baby!
Russell, Kami, me, David
This day was pretty cold and luckily got very windy and blew the smog right on outta there! We wore the masks because it kept our noses warm.
We're at the Temple of Heaven. It is the largest temple complex in China. During each winter solstice, the Ming and Qing emperors would perform rites and make sacrifices to heaven praying for a good harvest for their empire.
This is where the emperor would stand and talk to God.
This building is surrounded by the "echo wall." We could talk facing the wall, and the people on the other side could hear us.
Lots going on here. Bunches of people show up to exercise each morning in the park. Others were ballroom dancing. Some, line dancing. And then there were spontaneous choirs that were downright amazing.
According to the emperor's Fengshui masters, it is the exact point where heaven and Earth meet. It was built in 1420 without the use of a single nail.
Next stop: The Summer Palace. The Empress Dowager Cixi had it built for a summer retreat. It is over 700 acres with gorgeous views, temples, pavilions, palaces and halls. There is a large man-made lake (3 feet deep) that was frozen over in many places.
We're standing in front of the extravagant Marble Boat that Cixi had made. She used the funds meant for the modernization of the Imperial Navy to have it built. (They were later overthrown - most likely because the Navy couldn't defend them. Maybe practicing in 3 feet of water had something to do with it.) Naturally a marble boat can't float, so Cixi (pronounced "see she") had mirrors placed all over and around it. It gave the effect of rippling water. She would eat her meals there. It's called the most expensive dining room ever. The amount of greed and extravagance around this place is overwhelming.
The locals call this building the "pants" building. It houses state run television and communications. We remember seeing it during the Olympics. This picture was taken from our hotel room window.
In front of the theater where we saw an exciting acrobatics show. It was AMAZING! At one point while we were all clapping, Kami let out a big whistle. Apparently the Chinese haven't heard that before and a whole row of them turned around to look. It made me laugh hysterically; right then and later when we were trying to fall asleep. Not an unheard-of thing for me to do.
We did an all-day optional excursion and started out with a visit to the Beijing Zoo to see the giant pandas. There are less than 1,000 giant pandas remaining in the world and is considered a "National Treasure" by the Chinese Gov't. After checking out all the pandas, we had an hour to stroll around the zoo.
There's a panda in the background between us.
David and I with Peng, our guide.
Next stop: a rickshaw ride along Old Beijing's Hutongs (narrow ancient alleys). They are maze-like alleyways and the homes have courtyards. Cars don't fit down these alleys and that's why we had to get around on rickshaws. We had lunch with a local family in their home. It was yummy. They had prominent pictures displayed of Chairman Mao. I wonder if they do that because they have to, or because they really admired him. Either way, it's sad.
We took a side trip to this bell tower. Inside was a fancy tea house. We were instructed on all the different kinds of tea and their medicinal properties. I was fascinated. One of us wasn't.
Then we got to climb up to the top where the bell is. Super steep. Good workout. (Heaven knows we needed the workout each day with the wonderful food we got.)
Kami and I shopping at the Silk Market. I loved the haggling. Maybe too much. Sometimes I didn't even want what they were offering, but I would haggle just for the sake of arguing. Wait -- that's not a virtue worth bragging about . . .
Some of the signs we encountered were down-right hilarious. One even said:
"This is what I've always wanted to talk to you: protecting public property you are the best."
"urinating into the pool you are the best."
"Flushing timely you are the best"
After the tea house, we went to the Lama Temple. The world's largest Buddha is there and is carved from a single block of sandalwood. The monks live there and run the place and there is lots (and I mean lots) of incense being burned by people going from one area to another. They pray and have to burn so many sticks as they progress through each pavillion.
And then it was time for our special dinner: Peking Duck. It is carved at the table. The skin is the best part (we were told) and I have to agree. I cannot have duck anymore. Nothing here in the States can compare as favorably as that was.
Our last day was a free day and we spent it on Wangfujing street - one of China's most famous pedestrian-only shopping areas. We took the subway to get there and man, was it an experience. The food vendors and what they were selling were, uh, interesting. Our guide had told us that the Chinese eat everything in the sky except airplanes; and they eat everything in the water except boats. And I believe it. I didn't know people actually ate starfish, seahorses, all kinds of bugs (HUGE ones too), and baby bird fetus'. But everything was skewered and fried and ready to go. No thank you. We had McDonalds instead. Oh -- one night we had KFC. It is a huge franchise there! But not the chicken. We ordered a bucket and it was half full. And it came with three drinks, two rolls, and one small corn on the cob. That's right. One. And it was only half of the cob to begin with.
Our flight home went quickly. Well, as quickly as 12 hours can go. And now I have to prepare my own food, clean my own room, and take myself wherever I need to go. I could so easily be a princess. A benevolent one though, mind you. But I digress. This trip was so wonderful. Memories to last a lifetime. Thank you to my wonderful traveling companions. You are the best!