Tiananmen Square, Beijing

Posing for a Photo with Our Guide Sheila (far right)

Shanghai    Suzhou    Guilin    Wuhan    Yangtze    Chongqing    Xian

Enjoying the Sights of Beijing

The flight from Xian to Beijing turned out to be the most horrific of the four internal flights. As we approached Beijing, the turbulence increased dramatically. Most of us had never experienced such a rough ride. Some people reached for the vomit bags. I’d experienced turbulence before, so that didn’t bother me much. However, I did get concerned on our final approach as the plane started rocking from side to side. I was afraid we’d roll over. Luckily, we made our landing safely. As it turned out the wind that cause the disturbance also cleared out the pollution. So, for our final days in Beijing, we could see clearly, even blue skies.


Temple of Heaven

Before checking into our five-star hotel, we stopped to visit the Temple of Heaven. The temple consists of a round dome built in three tiers stacked one above the other, ending in a rounded top that points to the heavens. Only the emperor could enter and communicate directly with the gods. Although we couldn’t go inside the temple, we could see a model of it and its interior in one of the annex buildings.

Walking along a corridor to the opposite end of the site, we found a smaller version of the main temple, called the Vault of Heaven.

After visiting the Temple of Heaven, our bus drove us to our five-star hotel in the Chao Yang district, the Plaza Hotel. After checking in and getting settling our luggage in our rooms, we met in the lobby to begin the rest of the day’s tours. Sheila decided to change the schedule a bit and visit Tiananment Square in the afternoon, rather than visit it the next day, along with the Forbidden Palace. She thought it would be too much for some of our group. We all agreed on the change and off we rode to the square.

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Tiananmen Square

Evidently, lots of tourists want to know where the boy stood when he faced down the tanks during the protests in 1989. And we were no exception. Once our guide answered that question, we asked whatever happened to the boy. Who was he? The answer: nobody knows.

We hopped off the bus and threaded our way across the street to the square. I marveled at seeing the guards in their bright green uniforms. We’d seen pictures of them before, but in person they were so much more impressive. Young and handsome by anyone’s standards, they made an impressive and imposing presence.

Encompassing several city blocks, Tiananmen Square is huge. The square is named after the gate on the north side, separating the square from the Forbidden City, the Gate of Heavenly Peace. It’s easy to see how a demonstration could flare up on that large site and why the government has so many troops patrolling it, to squelch any hint of a protest. Add to that space the fact that the protests happened 25 years ago and you can imagine why the government had beefed up its military presence. The government took no chances that any remembrance of the protests of 1989 occurred.

In addition to the troops, many Chinese dogged us as we wandered around. They took videos and pictures of us constantly. I’m sure some of them were secret police listening in on what our guide was telling us. Regular Chinese citizens couldn’t take their eyes off us and followed us around the square. Some of the braver ones even asked to have their pictures taken with certain members of our group. It seemed as though they’d never seen real live Caucasians before.

Off to the side of the square sat Mao’s mausoleum. At one end of the square (to the left of Mao’s tomb) rises an ornate tower. I never found out what it was for. After our free time was up, we crossed the main street to a restaurant that specialized in Peking duck.

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Peking Duck Dinner

After touring Tinananmen Square, our hunger for dinner caught up to us. Sheila helped us to safely cross the busy wide street on the east side of the square to our restaurant. At our tables with the ubiquitous turn table in the middle, the duck came out accompanied by some pancakes, plum sauce, and vegetables. We got our usual shot of beer and hot tea. Many of us had never eaten Peking duck before, so we didn’t realize that you fix it like moo shu pork, by rolling up shreds of meat in a pancake with plum sauce and vegetables. The duck was rather slim pickings around a carcass of bones, fat, and skin. For all the fancy preparation, it lacked flavor, except for the sauce. But it was dinner and satisfied us as we headed out to see an opera, Chinese style.

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Chinese Opera

We ended the evening in the Chinese opera. Most of you have seen bits and pieces of these operas, so you know they consist of melodramas with faces elaborately made up to show the feelings of each character. The opera doesn’t allow pictures, however, we could take pictures of one of the actors making up before the opera began.

Mercifully shortened for a Western audience (the theater was full of tourists), the music seemed repetitive and ultimately bored us as well as grated on our ears after a while. Had we known the story, we might have been more into the show. Once it finished, we eagerly loaded back onto our bus and headed off to warm inviting beds at our hotel.

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Forbidden City

The next morning after our usual buffet breakfast, we visited the Forbidden City. The city is about the size of a small town. We didn’t realize how large the complex is. To avoid tiring us out with Tienanmen Square followed directly by a tour of the Forbidden City, our guide Sheila wisely put off the City till the next day. As we entered the City through the north gate, crowds of tourists were jamming the large square in front of the main building, which you saw in the first link of this write-up. To avoid the crowds, Sheila took us off to the side so we could approach from the flank rather than make a frontal assault.

As we approached the main building on the square, Sheila pointed out the detailing on the roofline. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten the symbolism of the figures all lined up in a row. As we walked through the site, we saw some administrative buildings as well as building where the emperor could sleep. He changed sleeping quarters every night to avoid assassination. Not satisfied with changing his sleeping quarters, the emperor also had the floor extended to about fifteen feet deep to prevent any would-be assassin from tunneling under the imperial bedchamber.

As we passed through into the next set of complexes, we strode by more buildings where workers supported the imperial government. If you look closely on the right, you see a small figure dressed in imperial yellow. The poor thing suddenly got rather popular, posing for us tourists. But I managed to capture him before he fled.

Beyond that set of buildings, we approached the quarters of the dowager empress Ci-Xi.

Dowager Empress Ci-Xi

Dowager Empress Ci-Xi

Note the yellow in her robe. Only the emperor or in this case, empress, was allowed to wear yellow.

As we strolled through the Forbidden City, curious Chinese dogged us, taking pictures and some even practicing some English on us. Through most of the complex, three Chinese teenagers (two girls and one boy) shadowed us, hardly able to take their eyes off of us. At one point, a boy came out of the blue and asked if he could have his picture taken with me. I obliged and then asked to have mine taken with him.

By the time we finished walking through the Forbidden City, we were more than ready for lunch.

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Rickshaw Ride and Lunch in Old Hutong

Our bus dropped us off near the old village of Hutong, which will be torn down soon to make way for modernization. As we entered the village, our rickshaws lined up like taxis at a taxi stand. To work up an appetite, we tumbled in, two Mature Friends in each, and off we rode around through the narrow streets of town to get a glimpse of what traditional Chinese life is like. Off we flew, with the driver pedaling away.

After making the circuit of the village, we stopped in front of a small home, where we were welcomed in for a traditional home-cooked meal. The home had one large room on the main floor with a tiny kitchen off to one side. Along a side wall, a set of stairs led up to the sleeping quarters. Near the stairs, a calendar hung on the wall with one of the couple’s sons in his karate uniform, demonstrating a typical fighting pose.

A bare bulb hanging from the ceiling lit the room effectively. Once again we split up as usua in groups of nine to a round table with a lazy susan in the middle. First, beer appeared, and this time we got generous servings, in other words our small juice-size glasses got refilled when we’d finished our first serving.

Soon from the tiny kitchen the homeowners served us one of the best lunches of the trip. Astonished that anyone could put out such quantities and in such good quality from that tiny kitchen, we ate ravenously with much gratitude. As we left, I asked the hosts to pose for a quick picture to help us remember that special treat of a lunch.

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Dinner at the Hotel

Spoiled with friendly smiles and good service at all of our previous hotels, the final hotel in Beijing turned out to be a big shock of unfriendly staff, incompetent service (when service finally came), and mediocre food. The only exception was the coffee boy at the breakfast buffet. With a ready smile, he came around frequently.

When we returned to our hotel, we had free time to eat on our own. Sheila had warned us to avoid the hotel restaurant, if possible. However, the menu looked all right and a few of us ignored the warning at our own peril. Slow, glacially slow, inattentive service set the tone for the dinner disaster. When the staff finally brought out our drinks, they set them on a tray away from the table and then disappeared. We finally got up and served ourselves, opening our own beer and wine. When the food finally appeared, unremarkable describes it in glowing terms. None of us remembers what he ate.

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The Great Wall

The next morning after our usual buffet breakfast at the hotel, our bus drove us to the outskirts of Beijing to tour the Great Wall of China. As we pulled into the parking lot, the vastness of the small section of the wall we could see overwhelmed us. I got a similar feeling when I saw the Grand Canyon — I could not wrap my mind around the immensity and beauty.

Sheila gave us free time to climb the wall as far as we could or just sit, relax, and enjoy the breath-taking views. Some of us climbed up to the third guard tower while a few fit guys made it almost to the top of the rise. We quickly realized that we had to watch every step we took because of the uneven stairs. I thought they’d been worn down over the years, but found out later that the designers made the stairs uneven to deter any invaders from moving along the wall quickly. Going up wasn’t so bad, but coming down was downright dangerous. Those of us who climbed up did make it back down in fine shape, although sweating and panting from the exertion.

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Lunch at Cloisonné Factory

After working up quite an appetite climbing the wall, we headed off for lunch at a cloisonné factory. First, we toured the factory to see how cloisonné art is produced. Painted painstakingly by hand on light-weight enamel, cloisonné came in many forms, from plates to huge vases and even fountain pens.

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Olympic Site

We had some extra time, and so the bus stopped at the site of the Beijing Olympics so we could see in person the venues where athletes competed in the summer of 2008. Has it already been that many years in the past? The venue we all wanted to see was of course the famous Bird’s Nest stadium.

Most of our visit consisted of prancing up and down the promenade being called on by a gauntlet of vendors. Soon we made our escape, but to what? To a clinic that sold Chinese herbal medicine.

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Chinese Medicine

After listening to a far too long and enthusiastic presentation, the master of ceremonies introduced the "doctors," who paraded in dressed to fit the part. The MC then asked for volunteers to get an examination. Those who did volunteer would receive a "prescription" that he could get filled at the adjoining "pharmacy." The doctors looked as though they’d come from central casting — older, wizened in appearance, glasses, and speaking no English whatsoever. Everybody got a prescription, whether applicable or not. Some of us indulged in a free massage, which relaxed us.

I got talked into an examination, and the ... uh ... doctor ... prescribed Bu Shen Yi Zhi capsules. These pills supposedly contained Fructus Amomi Amari, Eucommia Bark, Desertliving Cistanche Epinedium Herb, Rehmannia Root, etc. This concoction supposedly would treat me for conditions that even my physician in Seattle hadn’t diagnosed. The capsules would tonify my kidneys, correct weakness of waist and knee, and cure any sexual debility.

As if that weren’t enough, found out I needed another pill that would promote blood flow, clear and detoxify my heat [sic], revitalize my energy, and improve liver function. Unfortunately, some of our group fell for this nonsense. Oh, well....

After making our escape from the clinic, we wandered around the evening fresh market, checking out all the delicacies. Yes, him ... and the food, too! The most fascinating to many of us were the bugs and especially the scorpions! Unfortunately, we didn’t try any of the food because the next event on the agenda involved food, our dinner.

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Summer Palace

The next day, we visited the Summer Palace of the emperors and Empress Ci-Xi. Situated nine-and-a-half miles northwest of Beijing, this site is the largest, most well-reserved royal park in all of China. But don’t take my word for it when you can read more about the park on this Web site:

Summer Palace

The grounds surround a large lake, bordered by watch towers as well as imperial offices and private quarters. In the lake, Empress Ci-Xi spend millions to construct a large boat in marble. After walking through the grounds, along the lake, we boarded a boat to take us back to the other side, where our bus had parked.

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Silk Alley

Next, the bus let us off at a local market place called Silk Alley. Located near the U.S. Embassy, the market took up the whole building, three floors of silks, fake silks, fake jade, and lots of other touristy trinkets. We were given an hour or so to wander through so we could bargain and buy any last-minute souvenirs. But before shopping, we ate some lunch on our own. Many went to a nearby McDonald’s, but a couple of us ventured into the basement Chinese fast-food restaurant and bought much healthier fare by pointing and enjoying eating surrounded only by locals.

Then up to the shops, where some guys bought silk items like pajamas, table runners, bathrobes, stuffed pandas, chopsticks, and other items to haul back home. Soon the bus pulled up and took us back to our hotel, where we could put up our feet and relax before taking one last dinner in China, this time, mercifully on our own.

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Dinner On Our Own

Near the hotel, we found a small strip mall with shops, the Chinese equivalent of a 7-11, and two restaurants — one Chinese and the other Mongolian Grill. Sheila offered to help those of us who chose the Mongolian Grill, which was the majority. Five of us opted for the Chinese restaurant without any help because we craved a little adventure with the locals and because we’d been subjected to a Mongolian grill for lunch earlier in the tour.

Fortunately, for the adventurous five, one of the waitresses in the Chinese restaurant spoke enough English to take our order. The food came out quickly and we each had a fine, cold large Chinese beer to wash down the food. The food was excellent, nicely spiced and plenty of vegetables. We thought we had it made ... until we tried to order a second round of beer. When words failed, we tried sign language. When that failed, we pointed to the beer cooler. We tried all the tricks we learned as kids when we played Charades, but nothing, not one trick worked. We finally gave up, paid out bill, and went back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep before leaving for home the next morning.

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