The fast track through the Forbidden City.
Beijing Travel Blog› entry 37 of 251 › view all entries
April 22nd, 2008 – by: cmgervais
First stop was the Forbidden City. This is essentially a walled city within a city, the former home to a long line of Chinese Emperors. It is huge and intimidating, and we thought it might take the day. However, Phil (TB Deats) went yesterday and said in a message that 30 minutes should about do it. (Good to know we aren't the only ones to power through some of the main tourist sights!)
We arrived to find a long winding line at the ticket booth that looked like it might take the whole day in itself. Through some sort of dumb luck we ended up in the line next to that (which wasn't a line at all, but rather a cluster of perplexed French people).
Our plan of attack was to go right down the center of the place and hit the highlights (turns out every tour group had the same route in mind). We walked through the first gate into a large open courtyard, surrounded by temples and gates, and various other buildings. It was impressively expansive. The main building, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, was massive and resplendent in scaffolding and tarps ... under repair. The place was lousy with tour groups clad in matching hats, scurrying to keep up with the lady with the flag. We tried to steer clear of them, but were completely outnumbered. We tried to peek in some of the buildings, but there was too much pushing and shoving and the viewing areas were just too small to accommodate everyone.
So we cruised quickly through to the Hall of Preserving Harmony, which has an enormous 200-ton marble carving of dragons. It ran at an angle along a stairway or ramp that we couldn't access, and consequently it was very hard to view in detail. We were suitably impressed by its length, however, and I was able to sneak through the group at its base to steal a photo. Then it was time to hit Starbucks. In the Forbidden City?! Yes, I had read about the Starbucks there, but we just couldn't find it -- in its place there was a generic-style coffee shop .
From there, we had a lunch we would both rather forget -- bad cafeteria food (tip: you might do well to just steer clear of anything called "soybean paste"). Eating near us was a family of three. The son, about 16, kept blurting out a staccato "BA!" every 45 second or so -- I think maybe he had Tourette's Syndrome. It was startling each time, no matter how many times you heard it. Everyone at the cafe was staring at them, but they went about their meal, unconcerned with their surroundings. I felt sympathetic and annoyed all at the same time.
At this point we felt we had probably had enough of the Forbidden City. So we exited through the garden in the back -- beautiful, but you guessed it: crowded as hell.
Our next destination, Beihai Park, was nearby.
We descended the stairs and decided to walk completely around the lake, stopping at what ever struck our fancy along the way. There were some side gardens and ponds that were quiet and pleasant... even some areas we felt we had (almost) to ourselves! It was a beautiful day and we were really enjoying Beihai Park.
Our last stop in Beihai was the Nine-Dragon Wall, a very large two-sided screen depicting nine colorful and highly detailed dragons in glazed tile.
From there it was time to go home -- we were having TB guests! The plan was that Phil (TB Deats) and Julia (TB mybu84) would stop by the apartment for drinks, and then we would head out for fish and chips. I have been following Deats' blog off and on since I discovered it, and was happy that I would finally meet the wanderer in person!
Lisa and I stopped for a few provisions, got home to clean up, then off we went to meet Phil and Julia near the station. They were precisely on time, quick introductions to all, then we grabbed a cab back to our apartment. Of course the driver got a bit lost taking us home, so Phil and Julia got to see a bit more of our lovely neighborhood than planned -- so lucky.
The five of us chilled at the apartment for some time, exchanging travel stories and tips (Phil has been traveling for nearly two years and hopes to go another year!) until the hunger pains could no longer be ignored. Upon a bit of discussion, the fish and chips plan went out the window in favor of some place that would serve something I would actually eat (seems I am always the limiting agent in all food discussions!). I found a place in Fodor's that described large bowls of hand-pulled noodles --- mmm, sounds pretty good.
Taking a cab to a restaurant can be fraught with drama at its best, because of the inevitable communication issues. The cabbies don't speak English, and even if you have the Chinese characters for the restaurant it doesn't mean you will get there, since he more than likely won't know where the restaurant is.
The restaurant, Haiwanju, was very brightly lit with fluorescents, and decorated in a most garish manner with lanterns, fake flowers, and busy wall paper. The staff yelled a lot when we came in -- the book told us to expect a loud greeting. We were quickly seated and then treated to the usual Chinese custom: given one completely unfamiliar, all-Chinese menu between five of us, we were expected to decide our entire meal in 15 seconds. The waiter stood right next to the table staring at us intently, notepad at the ready! Obviously none of us are familiar with each other's tastes, plus we had no idea what was going on with the food and how it's served.
Somehow we were eventually served food, and a lot of it. I had pointed to several vegetarian looking items on the menu, and we shared some tempura-style leafy bean things and something that seemed like deep fried lumps of mashed potatoes -- pretty tasty.
The dinner was fair, the company was excellent, the night was young-ish... so we decided to try to find some scorpions for dessert. There is a street in Beijing known for its weird food, and we set off to find it. Unfortunately I only had one piece of the information, "Wangfujing," which is also a major shopping district.
So, no scorpions for us. But although Wangfujing was a bust, the evening was very well spent and I enjoyed the company tremendously. I went to bed (which took a while to get to as the cabs were also "closed up" for the evening) looking forward to our date at the Great Wall tomorrow. Phil is introducing us to Chinese bus travel to get to a lesser-developed section of the wall -- oh boy!
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