The Temple of Heaven, Beijing
Slept quite well on last night's journey and the train got in 45 minutes early, so we were in at 7.15am. Even then it was very hot, but not humid, so much more bearable. Our rooms were not quite ready at the hotel, so had to wait about an hour for them to be cleaned. We were kept amused by a rabid Chinese woman going berserk because the girl on the currency desk had apparently said a rude word to her. The woman demanded that the girl apologise but when she came out, the girl refused and the woman tried to jump the desk to get at her, still screaming in an apoplectic fit! Never seen anything like it, but at least it filled in time! Unfortunately, we suspect the girl will have lost her job because there would be 100 people lined up to take it.
Entrance to the Forbidden City, Beijing
After a shower and rest we visited the Temple of Heaven, dating from the 15th century. The temple is a fine example of Ming architecture and is set amongst a 267 hectar park with four gates, one at each of the four points of the compass. Wandered past lots of local people singing, dancing, playing chess and making small crocheted versions of the Temple to sell - we couldn't resist and it will hang on our Christmas tree! The afternoon was very hot but enjoyed the visit and definitely need to get The Last Emperor out on DVD again. On the way out we were accosted by local peddlars selling "genuine" Gucci handbags for 25 yuen (about A$4) so many of the ladies in our group couldn't resist such a bargain!
Next day was hot and extremely hazy, although we found out later that this was probably a legacy of stubble burning in the rural areas outsite the city.
Crowds of people in the Forbidden City, Beijing
First stop was Tiananmen Square, built under Mao's orders and said to hold 1 million people. Mao's mausoleum was closed to visitors, so we walked around the square itself. Interesting to see little unmarked vans driving across the square with blacked out windows. Occasionally, they saw someone of interest and men would suddenly jump out of the van and chase some fellow until either they caught him or he got away. We think it was probably police looking for either unlicensed sellers or perhaps keeping an eye on possible troublemakers. One guy ran across 4 lanes of traffic to get away, so obviously not keen to be detained. We then entered the Forbidden City through the outer gates, overlooked by a huge portrait of Mao.
The number of dragons on a building's eaves signifies it's importance within the royal complex - the more the better. Forbidden Palace, Beijing
This was the sacred centre of the empire for over 500 years and home to the Ming and Qing dynasties. We walked through the royal complex from the south Gate of Heavenly Peace to leave through the North gate at Shenwumen (Gate of Divine Might). The Hall of Supreme Harmony was closed for pre-Olympics renovations but saw the other two, quite ornate decoration inside with a few thrones thrown in. We visited the Concubines Courtyard and saw an interesting exhibition about the role and life of an imperial concubine, probably not a life you'd like to be a part of. Had a lovely dinner tonight and sampled lotus root - very nice, quite like water chestnut in flavour and texture.
Next day was quite eventful. We finally visited the Great Wall at Baoding
, part of the bigger wall that stretched from the Shanhaiguan Pass on the east coast to the Gobi desert in the west, more than 5000kms.
A very apt quotation which more vandals need to take note of.
It's estimated that a million people were used at various times during the construction of the WAll and that thousands died building it. Wewalked the steep section up to the 4th tower, although Melissa wimped out and waited for Noel at the 3rd tower. We took Melissa's brother's childhood toy, Yabby, to China specifically so he could climb the wall, and we celebrated by buying him a "hero card" to prove he did it. He even met another rabbit, the glamorous Prudence, whilst on the wall so very worthwhile trip for him! Luckily most Chinese are not aware of the Australian TV advertisement featuring rabbits and the Great Wall, although when we explained it to our city guide in Xi'An he thought it was hilarious (ie: a small boy asks his father why the Great WAll of China was built, the answer being that it was constructed during the time of Emperor Nasi Goreng and was to keep the rabbits out - too many rabbits, in China - that is, the dad definitely needs to get broadband so his son can get the real answers and not embarass himself at school!).
Noel, Melissa and Yabby at the Great Wall of China.
The climb was actually much steeper than it appears on TV and in books, but we're glad we did it - another dream fulfilled. Unfortunately, one of our group became very unwell during the visit and had to be taken off to hospital in an ambulance - thankfully, all turned out well, but it certainly gave him and his wife a nasty shock. We visited a jade factory after the wall, lots of lovely sculptures but not really our taste, so no purchases here. In the afternoon we headed to the Summer Palace, used during the lsat two dynasties in China, the MIng and Qing. The last real patron on the Summer Palace was the Empress Dowager Cixi, also known as the "dragon lady". She was quite corrupt and prepared to do what was required to get her way, including using money for the construction of a modern navy to rebuild the Summer Palace after its destruction by the Anglo/French armies during the Opium Wars, which in turn led to the defeat by the Japanese navy.
View from tower 4 on the Great Wall
The Kunming Lake occupies three quarters of the area of the palace, and we took a dragon boat ride across this stretch of water. Once again, renovations were being done so couldn't see some of the famous buildings and walkways. We walked across the 17 Arches Bridge to the Dragon King Temple and visited a small exhibition abou Cuxi and Puyi, the last emperor. He spent many years in prison being re-educated from an emperor to a common man. Went to an acrobat show in the evening, quite impressive but not the best one you can see - a few plates were dropped and bicycles fallen off!
Last day in Beijing
was a little more relaxed, many people stayed in the hotel so the bus was very roomy! We drove past the new Olympic Village to see the construction going on there - the accommodation is a multi-storey building like a big hotel.
The 17 Arches Bridge, Summer Palace, Beijing
We then went to the Bell Tower Hutong for a hutong tour. We had jasmine tea in the home of a local family, very small space for 3 people. The government owns the huton and rents the homes to people for 800 yuen a year. They look after the outside and the tenants look after the inside. Most homes don't have a bathroom so there are toilet and shower facilities dotted all over the place. The huton area had lots of western style cafes and bars, and even a really nice looking backpackers - might try it on our next trip! We walked around the man-made lake and back through the 800 year old "pipe street" which is not expensive tourist shops. Tucked away off the street is a temple dating back to 1459, but this is now being rebuilt into bars and residences.
Rickshaw ride through the hutongs, Beijing
Afterwards, we visited the Lama Temple in the north of the city. It was declared a national monument in 1949 and luckily survived the Cultural Revolution to undergo extensive renovations in 1979. It is home to an 18m high sandalwood Buddha, quite impressive. The surrounding streets are shop upon shop selling incence sticks and religious ephemera, very colourful and an extremely heady scent. In the afternoon, we were given 3 1/2 hours at Silk Street markets, now a multi-storey shopping centre full of thousands of individual stores. We got our last couple of presents for people, but the bargaining is fierce and the competition to get you into a particular stall even worse - you are literally dragged and pulled into the stalls and it is extremely difficult to get out once you're in! Very funny (although probably not for the designers) to see the handbag stalls with every imaginable designer label for sale, down to presenting you with the catalogues if you can't see what you want - Louis Vuiton and Gucci must be losing a fortune here with rip-offs.
Our last toll gate in China - definitely genuine Ming dynasty, no doubt!
Our last group dinner was an imperial banquet, but found it quite bland and ordinary (although the fried lotus root was delicious). One of our group had written a song for our National Escort, Jason, so we all sang it for him - think he was pretty touched, actually, he was a terrific guy though so deserved it.
That's it for our China trip. The next day we headed out to the airport in the afternoon for our trip back to Australia via Singapore. We were lucky to be on not very full planes for both legs so had a spare seat between us to spread out onto. Unfortunately, heavy fog in Melbourne just before our arrival home meant we were diverted to Adelaide so after sitting on the tarmac for an hour or so, we eventually got back about 4 hours late. Had a fantastic time and would certainly recommend China to anyone else with an itch to see a completely different culture. We found the tour was definitely the way to go for the first trip, but think we'd be happy now to go back on our own. Hopefully the next trip won't be too far away.