After three hours on a flight from Atlanta to Toronto, and fourteen hours aboard an Air Canada flight to China, landing in Beijing was such a pleasure! Before hitting immigration, all travelers were finger printed, video taped, and photographed. There were literally cameras everywhere. Even when we left the airport, I saw cameras on the streets every three to four feet.
The time was 4:30pm, and I had not truly realized just how discombobulated my body would be with a twelve hour time change! We loaded the bus and went to our first stop: dinner! when we got off the bus I realized that what appears to be a sidewalk is actually a bike and motorbike lane- and those with wheels do not stop for pedestrians !
“Ni Hao” is the first phrase that I learned in Chinese. Molly told us that it literally means “You Good”. The phrase is used to greet people and just say hello. It is used at all times of day or night.
The restaurant was also my first realization that the bathrooms in China were nothing like our standardized toilets in America. They were mostly “squatty-potty” style holes in the ground, where it took some practice to avoid back-splash on shoes. The Chinese also practice a BYOTP system- Bring Your Own Toilet Paper. The prepared traveler should also keep hand sanitizer within reach because soap is not stocked in these lavatories. They are, after all, called TOILETS, and decidedly NOT washrooms! On a side note- tour guide Molly calls the toilet “the happy room, because after you release you are happy!”
Dinner was served family style on the largest “lazy Susan” I’ve ever seen. Plate after plate of different dishes were placed around the circular dial. Prior to the trip, I slowly introduced some meat back into my pescatarian diet, fearing that I would have nothing to eat if I didn’t eat meat. As a diabetic, rice isn’t a great option for my pesky blood sugars! At this first Chinese dinner-I tried everything: pork, chicken, duck, fish, eggplant, and tofu! The food was good, but could have used a bit more seasoning.
The availability of drinkable water is limited to bottles in China- the tap water is not fit for human consumption, according to tour guide Molly. Unfortunately, water bottles are not always accessible in restaurants, and when they are available, they are usually served warm or room temperature at best. There are rarely beverages served cool and never cold. I don’t think I had a single ice sighting in all of my time in China! Even in the airports, the “drinkable” water fountains to refill bottles with came with two options: warm and hot. I found myself, as the trip went on, hording my water bottles for fear of running out!
After dinner we headed for the hotel: Juandong Jian Hui. On the way there, tour guide Molly warned us about Chinese beds. “They are not soft like American beds! Our beds are hard! My mom always said, ‘hard beds are good for your back!'”
Our hotel was very nice, and the rooms were clean. The beds were indeed some of the hardest beds I’ve ever slept on, but I actually like a hard bed, so I was fine. One of the ladies on the trip was not happy with the showers- they were very slippery- but I thought the accommodations were really good!
I will say that traveling with insulin is always sort of a pain because, as I mentioned earlier, ice is a rare commodity in countries outside the USA. There are no ice machines in the hotels, and even the convenient stores don’t sell it! There are no mini fridges and ice buckets are nowhere to be found. I did, with the help of some charades and my translation app (google is blocked in China), manage to befriend a front desk employee who finally understood that I needed a bag of ice.
I fell asleep quickly on the brick bed, and slept soundly until about 4:00am. I awakened after being freaked out by a disturbing Orwellian dream. A rat, with a clear tag on its head, was biting my big toe. I tried to scream, to warn my roommate Nancy, but I had no voice. Not a sound came out. I kicked at the rat and it fell off my bed and ran up the side of Nancy’s bed right towards her head. I tried to warn her, but my silent screams could not! I woke up at that point and there was no getting back to sleep.
I read for a couple hours and headed to the breakfast buffet, which had an unbelievable variety of foods! I had a fried egg, a piece of whole wheat toast, some egg soup, some watermelon, A scoop of noodles, a helping of spinach, and a very watery yogurt. I told my roommate, “I always eat when I can- you never know when your next meal will be!” Tour guide Molly told me that in the Chinese zodiac, I am the Boar. This apparently means that I will never worry about food. Ha!
Our first stop of the day was to visit the Beijing Opera school. This is a boarding school where kids come from all over China to study the arts. If they choose to study opera it is free. If they study dance or music it is expensive. The Chinese government has offered opera as a free option to ensure that it doesn’t die out of the culture.
School in China is mandatory and free until kids are 15. At that point, they decide if they want to pay to go on to technical school, to further academic study, or go into the workforce, avoiding the costs of further education. The government used to push all kids to white collar jobs, but they realized that they NEEDED skilled workers, so they reconfigured the schooling tracks to meet societal needs.
We walked through the halls, where classical piano music was blaring from speakers. Looking in the classroom windows, I could see students involved with music and drama. The girls in one class dressed in blue t-shirts and black pants and the other class wore black t-shirts with black pants. The boys didn’t seem to have any required uniform. We visited three different classrooms where students were getting dance instruction. The students were eager to perform for us, and many of their routines included lots of acrobatic moves. Much of what they did was repetitive movement… and the teachers were providing “orders” from the side. No clue what they said of course!
The students interacted with our group and showed us some of their moves. Before leaving, our group gave the students souvenirs we brought from the US.
Our next stop was the Summer Palace. This Palace, about 9 minutes from downtown Beijing, was built in 1750 by the emperor Qianlong. At almost 3 million square meters, it is the largest royal park in China. It was at this park that I learned about THE DRAGON LADY- who essentially “ruled” from 1835 until her death in 1908. Her real name was Empress Dowager Cixi, but she called herself the Dragon Lady. She started out as a concubine. Yes, a concubine. She was delivered to the Forbidden City at the age of 16 to be a mistress of Emperor Xianfeng’s harem. (Rumors suggest he may have had up to 3,000 concubines in his harem!) The emperor allegedly heard her sing, and began calling for her every night. Even in ancient China a woman could begin life as a man’s mistress and sleep her way into power.
Luck was on her side because the Dragon Lady had the coveted boy baby of the then emperor. When the emperor died, the Dragon Lady made sure that her son, only 9 years old at the time, was declared the new Emperor. Through the “care” of her 9 year old son, she indirectly ruled the empire. When her son died as a teenager, she arranged for her 4 year old nephew to become the next emperor, and so her power continued. There are entire books written about this resourceful woman, with rumors of crazy sexual exploits, embezzlement, and draconian rule! I plan to check out a bio in the coming months.
The grounds of the Summer Palace are rich with Chinese culture. There are lions on guard and art and carvings galore. I actually heard the local tour guide say that there are 3,000 man-made structures, pavillions, bridges, and statues on the property.
Walking the grounds revealed a beautiful, tranquil pond area that ran along what is known as “The Long Corridor”, which is actually the longest long corridor in the world, according to our guide. It runs from the base of Longevity Hill all the way along Kunming Lake. The Emperor Qianlong had the covered walkway built for his mother, so she could go outside for walks even if it was raining. These covered corridors are extremely popular and are featured in many of the royal and historical places around China.
The boat in the photo below was parked on the lake. The boat is known as both The Marble Boat and the Boat of Purity and Ease.
After leaving the palace, we made our way to the famous Tian Anmen Square. This square, in the center of Beijing, is called Tiananmen, which means the gate of heavenly peace. The square is famous for it’s Tiananmen Tower, Monument to the People’s Heroes, Grade Hall of the People, and the Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall. The Monument, which is pictured below, is the largest in China’s history. Sadly, this square is not best known for it’s flag ceremonies and monuments- it is perhaps most notorious for the massacre of protesters that happened in 1989. In that year, protesters demonstrated for democracy and the Chinese government opened fire on them, killing thousands. Because of this massacre and the human rights that were violated, the United States imposed economic sanctions on China.
Today, the square is a public meeting area that serves as the entrance to the Forbidden City, which was constructed in the early 1400s by the Ming Dynasty and remains the largest ancient architectural complex in China, according to our tour guide.
The Forbidden City exhibits the lavish lifestyle of the Chinese Dynasties. It was called “forbidden”, according to our local guide, because “only the imperial families and important officials to the family were allowed inside. The public was forbidden.”
The giant red gates were adorned with nine rows of golden nails. This is because, according to our tour guide, “Nine was a number that only emperors used. It was a number that represented the top power.”
Our guide also explained that the lions who stand guard all over China actually come in both male and female varieties. The males, coincidentally, can be identified because their paw is always leaning on a ball, while the female is not.
Colors plays a significant role in the Chinese culture. Red is the national color of China, and it represents happiness, good luck, and good fortune. Yellow is the color of royalty and stands for power and money. These two colors are literally all over the royal places that we visited.
The rooftoop close up below sheds light on another interesting tidbit about the way that the architecture reflects the history. According to our guide, the more animals that are lined up on the roof, the more powerful the person is who is living there. In all my days in China, I never saw a roof with more animals than this roof inside the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City was a really interesting place. I found myself intrigued by the names that they gave to the buildings. The Palace of Heavenly Purity, The Palace of Union and Peace, and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility were a few that we visited.
Our next stop was dinner, where we would have our special Peking Duck meal. The restaurant had the chefs carving up the birds for all to see. The meat was put on a platter, and, once again, all the food was served family style on the humongous lazy Susan.
After dinner, we made our way back to the hotel with a pit stop at the local convenience store, where we explored the aisles. Some of the flavors were interesting and pretty unappetizing to me! I bought some Chinese cookies to bring home to my family, and headed back to the hotel.
The second day in Beijing was our highly anticipated visit to the GREAT WALL OF CHINA. The ride was under two hours from Beijing by bus, and the mountains provided a beautiful view along the way. Molly filled some of our ride with Chinese lessons. We learned that the Chinese people use only one hand to count up to nine, and she showed us how. She also taught us that “Ma ma Ho ho means just so-so, and Ding ding hao is the best.”
We stopped to visit the Badaling region section of the Great Wall, which is the most visited section of the wall. The actual length of the wall runs over 5,500 miles. The history of the wall is both interesting and shocking. Building started with the Qin Dynasty back in 221 BC. During those days, they used STICKY RICE to serve as the mortar for the bricks. Who knew that rice was so versatile?
The Great Wall, according to our guide, has also been called the longest cemetery, because of all the human bones found around it- close to one million people died building the wall.
The climb was steeper than I imagined it would be, and some of the rocks in the wall were worn down and slick- had it been raining, the hike might have been even a bit treacherous for climbers with slippery soles. The views of the mountains and the winding wall were nearly overwhelming. I was feeling breathless, but adrenaline propelled me up to nearly the third tier watchtower. Sadly, the steps did me in and I stopped just shy of that height. I stood there for a while and soaked in the land, the history, and the age of it all. I thought about all the people who had visited this wall in hopes of learning more about the people who lived so long ago, in the times of emperors and dynasties. The walk back down was easy, and I enjoyed some time to wander around the little town of Badaling.
When I came down from the wall, I had some time to wander the shops before getting back on the bus. The workers in the shops in China are very intense. They follow each shopper closely, continually suggestive selling all the exciting products- fans, tea cups, snowglobes, Great Wall replicas, and kimonos.
After the Great Wall experience, we headed back to Beijing for our TEA CEREMONY lesson. This was done at a local tea shop, and it was truly informative about the different types of tea in China. Our Guide showed us the different teas, and had us smell four different scents including a jasmine and rose tea, a green tea, a fruity tea, and a ginseng tea. She showed us how to use the little filters that come with most tea cups sold in the country. After reading the novel The Teagirl of Hummingbird Lane, I was really excited about this tea ceremony. Many of the descriptions of the teas from that novel were found right in that little tea shop.
After the tea ceromony, we headed to the Hutong district. Again, I recalled this area from the Teagirl novel, and was excited to visit. When we got to the neighborhood, there were some less than desirable smells in the streets- still not sure what I was smelling. This area was made up of tiny streets only wide enough for very compact cars and motorbikes. The homes in this area did not have their own bathrooms; families had to share local public toilets- we passed two on our way to our dinner location. For our dinner, we were dining at a local home in the Hutong neighborhood. Below is a photo of the cook and his wife. They cooked us platters of four different dishes, along with a giant bowl of rice. They also had fried Chinese donuts for us. My use of chopsticks, by the way, was nearly at the expert level at this point!
After our local dinner, we went to the park around the corner, where we met with a Tai Chi instructor and had a lesson. Our instructor, dressed in red, made the moves of this meditative activity look much easier than it was!
Our final experience in the Hutong area was to hop in a rickshaw for a ride around the streets. As I hopped up in the carriage, I felt like I was on an episode of the Amazing Race! We went all through those tiny Hutong streets- in places our bus tours and even walking tours had not visited.
The last evening in Beijing was spent at the Red Theater, where we watched the Legend of KungFU. A local school was lined up next to the entrance with us, and the boys were all so excited to see this show. This show was touted “the most exciting Kungfu show in the world!” According to the Deputy Irish Ambassador to China, “This show is more energetic than River Dance.”
The show was high energy and exciting. The acrobats and Kungfu fighting was thrilling, and even a bit stressful- like when the star of the show was pressed between beds of nails!
We woke up and checked out of the hotel. We were headed to the airport to fly to Xi’an, but not before making a pit stop at the famous Temple of Heaven. This place was a place where the emperors from both the Ming and Qing dynasties came twice a year to worship and pray for good harvests. The first visit, according to our tour guide, was twelve days after the Chinese New Year and the second visit was at the winter solstice. They worshiped by prepping their sacrifice- sheep, Buffalo, and other animals. The emperor fasted one week before- which meant he could have no meat and no women! He moved to the temple three days before to get away from temptation. (Had he not moved to the temple, there is no telling if he could have stayed away from all those concubines!?)
Three colors are represented in the buildings of the Temple of Heaven. Blue is for heavens, yellow stands for the emperor, and green stands for the common people.
The architecture and history in Beijing was amazing. Overwhelmed might explain the way that I felt as I tried to keep up with the sights and sounds around me. Although there were cameras all over the place, by the second day I no longer noticed them. I was surprised at how unoppressive the city felt, quite honestly. There was not really much police force visible anywhere, and I saw no militia at all. According to tour guide Molly, “China is the safest county. Guns are not allowed here, so it is very safe.” I also was impressed at how clean the streets were. There was never any trash anywhere, and there was not a single bit of graffiti on any walls anywhere in the city.
Our next stop was Xi’an- home of the Terra-cotta warriors. I’m working to finish up my blog about that amazing place. Stay tuned!