Beijing - Part I

June 22, 2011

It is now Wednesday afternoon on the 22nd. Our tour is officially over (except for the farewell dinner tonight). However, we are staying until Sunday, and we have many other special activities and eating events planned, so we will have lots more to report!

We flew from Xi'an to Beijing on Sunday and were immediately driven to the central square of the 2008 Olympics This is where the National Sports Arena (better known as "the Bird's Nest") is located. This was the site of the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as track and field events. This open-air stadium seats 90,000+. Surrounding it are a wide pedestrian walkway and several other Olympic buildings. Over 300,000 people were "relocated" to make room for these venues.

Beijing (population 19 million) is the government center of the country (Shaghai is the financial center, Xi'an is the historical center). The Forbidden City (more below) stands in the center. The streets around the Forbidden City are considered the first ring road. As the city has grown, the government has added more and more rings. Our guide, who is in her thirties, said that when she was little, she lived on the outer edge of the third ring road, and she could see rice fields out her window. Since then, a fourth ring road has been added and they are now beginning work on the fifth! Within the third ring road, it still looks like old Beijing, Other than in the Central Business District on the east side, there are not many buildings over 20 stories, and still the majority are much smaller. There is not the same ubiquitous frenzied building atmosphere nor number of condos that we saw in the other cities. And the smog! Our guide was not at all reluctant to say the words "smog" and "pollution", though she was quick to point out that it is much better than it used to be. If this is "better," we honestly don't want to know what "worse" was.  We didn't have any problems breathing, yet have never seen the likes of this.

After seeing the Olympic area and a short tour of the city, we were taken to our hotel. It is a nice place, but not exceptional other than the Rolls-Royce dealership at one end of the lobby and the Bentley dealership at the other end.

Monday we had an early start for a day of walking (and the temp was in the low 90's) where (with our nearest and dearest 1,000+ newest friends), we visited the Forbidden City, then Tiananmen Square. First we the Forbidden City (officially known here as the "Palace Museum").

This complex of 9,999 1/2 rooms and gardens was (mostly) finished in 1420 by an emperor of the Ming Dynasty. From that point on over 28 emperors (and their empresses, concubines, attendants, and immediate family members) resided here. It is much like imposing royal palaces we have seen in Tokyo and Delhi, but of course with the traditional Chinese curved roofs and many dragon-adorned lintels and eaves. There were many staircases and ramps which were reserved solely for use by the emperors; anyone else using them would be beheaded (ouch!). Of course, now we were able to use them with impunity.

Next, we left the Palace through the south gate, crossed a small street and went through Tiananmen Gate (which means "gate of heavenly peace"). This used to be the main gate of the city. Shortly after Mao took power in 1949, he visited Red Square in Moscow. Since the Russians were close friends of the Chinese, and he wanted his country to emulate the Russian communist/socialist model, he decided Beijing also needed a similar square. So he ordered that Tiananmen Square be built at this spot. It is the largest square in the world (what a surprise!), and can hold 500,000 people (in other words, a small Chinese suburb). It is surrounded by government buildings (one of which is now the National Museum). At one end Mao's picture overlooks the square.

At the other end is his Mao-soleum. It was absolutely awe-inspiring.

In the afternoon, we were driven to one of the many hutongs. These are small neighborhoods of one story homes, many of which are over 100 years old. "Hutong" is a Mongolian word meaning "water well". As Mongolians and other people settled here, on the southern edge of the Gobi Desert, the first thing they did was look for water. Since the hutong roads were created in the pre-auto age, we were taken in via bicycle rickshaws (i.e., the "tuk-tuks" we've been on elsewhere).

It was fun, but not as chaotic or harrowing as on some of our other trips. We went to the home of a man who is a calligraphy and painting teacher. He also showed us the 60+ racing pigeons that he raises. Though his home was built in the 1880's (and has been in his wife's family ever since), it has been modernized (indeed, at 2,300 sq-ft., it is bigger than our house!). As we sipped tea in his kitchen he told us about how the home was acquired and life in the hutongs. On the kitchen wall was a picture of his mother-in-law in front of the White House and his wife and our host in Las Vegas! So we guess they are doing all right.

Then back to our hotel to get ready for dinner. While there (remember it was about on Monday) we turned on ESPN and saw a tape delay of Sunday Night Baseball: Cubs vs Yankees at Wrigley.....announced completely in Chinese!!!!!!! Language notwithstanding, the Cubs still lost (actually, we had tickets to go to that game but had to sell them since we were on the trip!  As a side bar, we had asked several of our dear friends and family members to "look after" our beloved Cubbies in our absence.  Sad to say, they have failed miserably and, in keeping with our new respect for Chinese tradition, those individuals will lovingly be beheaded upon our return!).  We went for a walk before dinner to a local attraction...the outdoor food market. (In hindsight, it was good to go before we ate).

We know our readers have been itching for another food description. Here it comes.  This block-long set of stalls features fried foods of an exotic nature. Now it seems to us ok to eat creatures such as shrimp, crabs, external chicken parts (e.g., legs and wings), and lobsters, but this market featured skewers of: snakes, squids, silk worm larva, scorpions, sea mushrooms, starfish (seem to be a lot of weird "s" foods!), bees, crickets, grasshoppers, lamb hearts, whole pigeon (yes, head still attached), and lots of fried sweet treats like durian puffs, fried ice cream, and various fruits with a candy-apple-like coating. You can imagine the smell. No, cannot!!!!  (Speaking from the experience of encountering lions eating a several days-old rhinoceros carcass in Krueger Park, South Africa, this smell was a close second and extraordinarily distinctive.)  After all that (and the heat), we had to get some refreshment, so we went across the street to a huge 6-story mall and found the Dairy Queen! The flavor of the month was Mango Blizzard with Swiss cheese chunks. read that correctly.

So, we opted for a mango-passion fruit smoothie. So good!  Also in the food court was a restaurant touting their "squid lips and pork knuckles" special! Then we joined friends for a delicious dinner at the Peninsula Hotel. Afterwards, while walking back to our hotel we had more sorbet at the Hagen Dasz store (HD is very big in China).

Tuesday we had another early start for one of the high points of the trip: The Great Wall. It is about 60 km from the city, so it was a 1 1/2 hour bus ride (the traffic is incredible!). As you get closer you begin to see the Wall snaking across the mountain ridges (built on the ridges for obvious defensive purposes).  The wall was originally built as individual walls constructed by the various war lords and chiefs over the years (beginning about 5,000 years ago). But under the Ming emperors (1600s) it was finally completed as one 4,000 mile long structure. Indeed, the Chinese call it "The Long Wall". Of course, it is the longest wall in the world! We began our ascent at the Badaling section (there are many different places where tourists can climb). OK.  In past editions for past trips of our blog, we've indicated that we were running out of adjectives.  Well, just let us say there is a reason why The Great Wall is one of the Wonders of the World.  It is just stupefying and breath-taking to imagine something this massive (20 feet high, 4,000 miles long) all made out of stones.  To see it from the bus then actually climb it with another horde of tourists almost defies description.

We walked about 1 1/2 miles to the farthest point allowed. The walkway was at times stairs (of various random heights, some in not-so-good shape) and steep slopes (many over 60 degrees). And it was very crowded and people continually stop to take pictures. The total incline was several hundred feet. Luckily, it was cooler there and there was a nice breeze, but it was still a relatively difficult climb (certainly a lot more difficult than our daily walk of 1-1/2 miles to downtown Deerfield).

And the descent was no piece of cake either! At one point we came upon a class of blue-uniformed 3rd graders on a field trip (to the Great Wall!!!!) and they all crowded around us for a picture.  It is very funny: when we see the kids we shout "Nihau, nihau!" and they shout back "Hello! HI!"!!!  Needless to say, we succumbed to two "I have climbed the Great Wall" t-shirts--wouldn't you?

Then we were taken to a beautiful secluded resort and treated to another multi-course Chinese lunch. This one featured: assorted marinated cold dishes (including that disgusting fungus again), assorted dim suns (including a cookie shaped like a carrot), stir-fried duck slices with Chinese broccoli, diced beef soup with bean curd, egg white and mushroom (another gelatinous dish for which we took a pass), stir fried pork with pineapple in sweet and sour sauce, stir-fried fillet of beef with peppers in black pepper sauce, boneless chicken in lemon sauce, stir fried eggplant with minced pork in sweet and spicy sauce, wok-fried cabbage, steamed rice, and fresh fruit. Our waiter (from Wilmette, Illinois!) was doing an internship there!  No wonder his English was impeccable.

Following lunch we took a long bus ride back to the city. Between the climb and the food, most of us were sleeping when we stopped at our next cultural site: The Summer Palace. As we exited the bus, we were hit again with the 90+ degree heat. Ugh!!! But, after a short walk we boarded a dragon boat for a ride around the lake. The Summer Palace (15 km from the Forbidden City) was built in the 1800s as a retreat from the heat of the city (obviously, they did not go far enough). For reference, it covers an area of 3.5 square kilometers (860 acres). This is almost 5 times the size of the Forbidden City. Most of this is taken up by a huge man-made lake. They dug out the dirt to make the lake and used the dirt to make a hill upon which they built the summer palace. It was almost destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (as was the Forbidden City), but saved at the last minute by Chou En Lai.

Today, Wednesday, we had our last official tour activity: we went to the Temple of Heaven. This is a huge pagoda-like structure where the emperors came to pray for good weather for the crops. It is not associated with any particular religion or god; it's just there to pray to whoever is in charge. It was a neat building, but the best part was the park around it. There, every day of the year, hundreds of Chinese (mostly retirees) come to exercise and socialize. They fly kites, work out on various pieces of playground equipment (including parallel bars!), sing songs accompanied by a harmonica band, play cards and dominoes and Chinese checkers (!!), play hacky-sack, and do many forms of Tai Chi.

We were invited to try one of those. Each of us in the group was paired with a local expert. We were given a "racquet" that was a little bigger than a ping-pong paddle, but it has an elastic fabric middle (instead of a mesh like a regular racket). Then they gave us a rubber coated ball (about baseball size) that is squishy but does not bounce. The idea is not to hit the ball, but to do graceful tai chi moves while swinging the racquet around and not dropping the ball!! There were some pretty interesting moves and after a few minutes (it was hot again and more humid today), many in the group were quite exhausted. Then we DID do another exercise where you kind of spin and flip the ball to your partner. Of course, he flips it back and you catch it on your racquet-thingie. Lots of fun! Then Wendy joined a group (about 20 or so) of women who were doing Chinese Zumba (or at least that was her interpretation)! It was wild!!!!!

We are fully booked over the next several days--we will visit Chairman Mao's Tomb and the museums tomorrow.  On Friday, we will have a cooking class and see a Peking Opera performance.  On Saturday, we will visit the Ming Tombs and may try to catch an opening weekend screening of "Snowflower and the Secret Fan" (worldwide premiere here on Friday).  In between, we have two "out of the ballpark" meals planned--as you would suspect--with some shopping sprinkled in between.  We expect to send an entry on (our) Sunday morning before we head to the airport and may send another entry when we get home with more philosophical perspectives not "appropriate" to send from here.

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In the meantime... More learnings: When you buy a new condo or rent a new apartment in a big city in China, you only get an empty shell. YOU are responsible for getting the wiring installed and connected to the main! Same for the plumbing pipes!  Nearly everyone in China is right-handed! We found this out when Wayne signed one of the restaurant bills and the waitress was fascinated that he used his left hand! We asked our guide about this and she said that, yes, children that show a preference for using their left hand are "corrected" (her word) when they enter school. But, she said that some are now questioning this policy.

wen-wen and way-way

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