Monday, June 4, 2012

Beijing and Beyond

After thirteen hours of travel (yes, even from Guam it took that long!), we arrived in Beijing travel weary but ready to start touring. Our guide and driver picked us up from a dreary, misty Beijing airport. My first thought as we descended through the clouds into more clouds was, "Wow, the pollution here really is as terrible as everyone says... worse even." We asked our guide about that and he said, "No, it's just really foggy today." Sure thing, China. We weren't buying it.

My first minutes on the ground in Beijing, I had an uneasy feeling. The darkness of the misty day and the weariness of our long travel morning (we woke up at 2am!) put me in a fog. There were only a few lines of foreigners going through immigration, which was very different from Hong Kong or Bangkok or Tokyo any of the other major Asian airports I have crossed through. And our guide seemed a little skiddish upon meeting us. I mean, I know we aren't the most traditional looking tour group, but there wasn't a lot of fanfare or welcome or even smiling associated with our arrival. There wasn't a lot of talking, for that matter either. Our guide tersely introduced himself and said we could call him his Chinese name Mr. Jin or David. We opted to keep it simple.

Have a bike!
During the 45-minute car ride through the mist to our first stop, David shared a number of facts with us about Beijing. The city has 20 million people and is only the third largest city in China (dang!). There are some five million cars and 10 million bikes roaming the city streets. He informed us about the city's design as a planned city whose main entrance gate faces the south (for good feng shui!) and whose major attractions---Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and even the new Olympic Stadium---all line up south to north, much like Washington, D.C.'s main attractions.

At this point David asked where we were from. I said Guam and April said San Diego. For the first time we got a little enthusiasm out of our guide. Turns out he had been to Southern California recently to visit his sister. He had actually been to San Diego for a day and went downtown to see the USS Midway. Learning this was a turning point for me. This foreign stranger had stood less than two miles from my home in Coronado and had gazed upon the aircraft carrier that my own grandfather had deployed on for 18 months. Amazing how much that little piece of common ground changed my perspective going forward and led me to feel comfortable in this foreign land.

Our first stop was in the old city of Beijing at the old bell and drum towers. We went on a rickshaw tour through the neighborhood and immediately felt like tourists having a blast in China. We learned about the insignia surrounding the doorposts of the homes, how they announced the inhabitants' social and government rank and determined who got to marry whom (you got to marry someone with the same number of posts as your house). We went into one of the homes and had jasmine tea with this lovely Chinese housewife and had a translated conversation about what it's like living in Beijing. Apparently their little three-room place would make it on the market for about half a million USD. As I looked around, I marveled about the irony that their small but tidy home was not stacked floor to ceiling with cheap junk made in China.

While we were in the neighborhood, we stopped in at a local market. You can imagine how excited I was to see so many fresh fruits and vegetables (and meat and fish!). The market was surprisingly immaculate. It didn't smell like, well, anything. Like in much of the rest of Asia (and the world), people go to the store each day for the fresh stuff they need, so they can consume it when it's at its freshest. Yummm... Fresh Factor heaven!
These baby ducks were not part of the tour... we just got lucky.

Our next stop was one of my favorites... a tea house! Considering I have a whole cabinet in my kitchen dedicated to teas from around the world, you can only imagine how giddy I was. We had a fantastic time trying all of the different teas and learning what medical ailments they're used to treat and how to brew them properly. Not only did the tea taste delicious... it also looked quite beautiful. We could have sat there forever drinking all the tea in China :)
Rose tea... beautiful and delish!
Everywhere we went there seemed to be groups of retired people playing recreational games. (Although by the intensity of their faces, this doesn't look like a game so much as that someone's head gets cut off with the placement of the next Chinese checker).

Our next stop was the central Beijing icon... the famous Temple of Heaven
Built 600 years ago, this wooden structure is not only gorgeous, it was constructed without a single nail! It was so interesting learning more about the temple (whose story had remarkable similarities to the temple of the Old Testament). The Emperor was the only one who could enter into this most sacred temple. He would come at the beginning of every new season to pray for good weather. Adjacent to the Temple of Heaven was the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (pretty sure you can guess what the Emperor prayed for there). Today it has been turned into a museum.

Yet another thing to get excited about in China... calligraphy! As an artform, it was everywhere. April told our guide that I did calligraphy too. He asked how many characters I could do. I was humbled when I had to reply only 54. I just do the Latin alphabet, uppercase and lowercase for wedding invitations. Pretty lame compared to the hundreds of non-repeating characters on this wall alone.

We finished off our first day of touring with a Peking duck dinner, acrobatics show, and some much needed SLEEP!
  The next day we were off and running with a huge attraction to see... the Forbidden City. Built 600 years ago, this complex of 980 buildings is so named because no commoners were allowed to enter its walls until about a hundred years ago. Of course, now it is the most popular touring spot in Beijing, so it's anything but forbidden, as you can see by the hoards of tourists present in the above photo. It was the home of the Ming and Qing dynasties and is situated smack in the middle of Beijing proper, facing south of course. Also note the second day of ugly gray misty sky. Bad weather or horrible pollution? Verdict was still out.

This picture to my left is a sample of the crowd of tourists (mostly Chinese) who were trying to get pictures of the inside of the temple. It was a mob scene. We saw large groups of tourists from China, Korea and Europe. Remarkably, none of note from Japan (though I was only surprised by this since hoards of Japanese tour groups seem to be everywhere else I've been out here). We saw only a smattering of Americans.
I love this picture April took of our guide and me gazing in at one of the many beautiful things to see.

Apparently one of the beautiful things to see and photograph was... me! Haha! This is not the first time I was singled out in Asia for a photo because of my height and blondness. Does it bother me, you ask, to have random Asian people stop me for pictures? Of course not! I love feeling like an American movie star :) Oh, and I learned something new in this exchange. Apparently the Chinese don't pose for pictures like the Japanese (not sure what dictator lady on my right is trying to do... wave hello maybe? Then again, she's probably wondering what's up with my bunny ears).

 The decor of all of these palaces reminded me of the one we saw in Korea, but way more ornate.

And the same rules applied - The more dragons that are built out on the side of the roof corners, the more important the building. This building has 10 dragons following a phoenix. That's the highest number of dragons allowed and, therefore, this is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest and most ornate of the three central palaces within the city walls.

After lunch (yes, April, I am skipping over a few things), we went to Tiananmen Square, which is a massive central courtyard located between a bunch of government buildings. Since we were there in springtime, it was decorated with this beautiful display of flowers. We learned about the history of the site a little bit and were amazed at all our guide had to share.
No shortage of government employees! We learned a lot about how China's government works, and even saw some of its employees in action scraping imperfections off the sidewalk in front of their congressional hall. I have to say, the place was spotless. Perhaps not coincidentally since they are both national capitals, but Beijing reminded me so much of Washington, DC. Oddly enough, the city reminded me so much of American cities in general. The cars, the traffic patterns, the orderliness... it was refreshing compared to the chaos of say, Manila or Bangkok. I was not expecting China to remind me so much of my homeland.
Summer Palace and took a dragon boat ride across the lake to the emperor's ornately decorated summer getaway. I love this picture of me and my tour buddy because it is so unmistakeably China!

The artwork on the walkway's overhead awnings stretched forever

 More protective dragons... a symbol of power and good fortune

In addition to Beijing's main attractions, we stopped at a few touristy shops all designed to get you to fork over more of your US dollars to China (as if they didn't have enough of ours!). We stopped at a jade factory, a copper factory, a silk factory, etc. In Korea and Thailand I rolled my eyes at these cheesy stores and tried to haul it out of there as quickly as possible while still enabling our guides to get their kickbacks or whatever they get out of taking tourists here. But I have to say the Chinese versions of these unavoidable stops were actually pretty interesting. My favorite was the silk factory...

Because the end of the tour was filled with beautiful 100% silk prints you could custom make into... anything! I had them cut off half a yard and make a scarf for me.

Sewing silk is sooo difficult... figured I'd leave it to the experts.

While I was into silk, April loved the jade factory. Where I grew up learning how to sew, April grew up with a father who would talk about a "pocket full of jade." After learning how valuable the stuff was to the emperors and dynasties past, we had a better appreciation for what a pocket full of jade could buy you (a house!) This ship is constructed completely out of jade. So impressive!
April being April, she managed to score free tickets to the opera (yes, even on the other side of the world, April schmoozed her way into free tickets). We had been warned that the Chinese opera bears no relation to anything we would call an opera, but it was our last night and the tickets were free and we were staying in the theater's attached hotel. So it was a no brainer. Literally. There was no thinking involved in these ridiculous storylines and horrible whiney "singing." But the costumes at least were phenomenal.
All in all, our first two days touring Beijing were a mix of history, education, fun, and new awareness. I say new awareness because we went in thinking very American thoughts about China. I thought the people weren't going to be very welcoming, that the city would be dirty and polluted, that the food would be gross, that it would seem so different from anywhere else I had ever been. By the end of the trip, I felt I was wrong on all accounts. I felt we had visited a beautiful and impressively presented city full of cleanliness and order. And by the fourth day, the sky was a beautiful blue and the sun was in full blaze mode (cue umbrellas). If there was any visible air pollution, we couldn't see or feel it (which is certainly more than you can say about Los Angeles). I know we were in some pretty secluded and obviously touristy parts of the city, but I just felt Beijing had a great vibe. The food was fantastic, the people were certainly more courteous than expected (based on our experience at the visa office in LA), and the city was exceptionally easy to navigate thanks to its 600 year-old plan.

It's taken me over a week to write all this up and yet I feel like I've barely gotten started. I will break for now and will leave the best for next time when April and I venture to the Great Wall!


  1. I love this post! I feel like I got to live vicariously through you, as always, on your adventures. A friend of mine lived in Beijing during the time of the Olympics and said the city really changed then...which wasn't long ago! Your thoughts probably weren't too far off and now that there is more tourism, the city is probably a lot like the Asian cities we have been to. I am cracking up about April getting free tickets all the way out there! I love your trip!

  2. Wow! I never expected China to be so orderly, I'm impressed!


  4. What a fabulous experience! Thank you for sharing.

  5. Weird. That comment was supposed to be on the actual Great Wall post.

    1. Not surprised - The comment feature in Blogger is so screwy! I constantly have friends email me the comment they tried to post here. I have no idea how to fix it to make it unscrewy

    2. constantly = every once in a while (let's be honest)

  6. Great trip! As you know we were there the week before you, I was surprised to see "David" he was our guide also! Fun trip, great article.


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