Beijing Beijing

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Well after a very long trip on a hard seat (12 hours!!!) we arrived in Beijing exhausted. We thought being in Beijing would make things nice and easy, but no, it took us two hours to find a taxi driver that could read the hotel address as it wasn't in Mandarin!

Our hotel in Beijing had received some bad reviews due to its location so were a bit apprehensive but found it to be in a really good location: an easy 15 minute walk from a subway station that made getting to all the tourist sites really easy and a lovely tree lined 40 min walk to Tiananmen.

As you can see from the photos we have been to an awful lot of places in the last week or so.

Our first day we wandered from the hotel into the "main" part of town past Tianamen Sqaure and then back up via a shopping street which gave us a good feel for where we were and also allowed us to discover an amazing steamed pork bun place!!! For just under 20 Yuan (NZD $4) we could get 18 steamed buns - we also found out that price doesn't necessarily correspond to size as we couldn't finish them all! This may be the one and only time I have ever seen food left on Chris' plate.

As the days have all begun to blur together the following bits are done by location not date. We've spend almost two weeks in Beijing trying to sort out Tibet travel permits but a retrospective rule change seems to have made this impossible so we're contemplating the train to Vietnam and then see what we feel like doing from there. We actually had been issued permits for Tibet but they were revoked when the change came in.

Forbidden City

One day we visited the Forbidden City, paying extra for a very good audio guide which, it turned out, only one of us could listen to and was on a GPS so only played each place's commentary once.

The Forbidden City was the old imperial palace dating back to the early 1400's (part of the Ming Dynasty) and was also the centre of Government. It was used by 24 Emperors until 1911 when the Emperor abdicated/polietly got ousted. However he and his family were able to remain living in the inner palace until 1924. Some of the living quarters still contain furniture which is nice as it gave a bit more historical context.

The palace is surrounded by both a wall and a moat. The roofs are mainly orange glazed which is unusual, apparently orange was the colour of the emperor. We also learnt that the more little things that stick up on the roof the more important a buillding is. Must remember that when building our first house!

Olympic Park

We caught the train out to the Olympic Park, our first real trip on the subway. It was a relatively straight forward trip although there were two interchanges. At a Chinese subway interchange it appears that you have to walk between subway stations underground not like the nice and easy interchanges in Singapore where minimal walking is required!

The main sights at the Olympic Park are The Birds Nest and the Water Cube. We first went about lunch time and had a wander around the area and lunch at the large food court that is on the concourse. It is obviously still a big hit for Chinese tourists 4 years after the Olympics because it was packed!

Then we went another couple of underground stops to the technology part of town which was chaos. Lots of little stores with everyone trying to sell you the same cameras and laptops. We managed to avoid buying anything much to Chris's disappointment! Remarkably prices do not compare favorably with, for example, Malaysia or Singapore even though almost all the goods are made in China.

As it was then getting dark we popped back on the subway to the Olympic Park which was much busier than it had been during the day. The Birds Nest and Water Cube looked amazing lit up and there was a party sort of atmosphere with lots of kites and glowing things down the concourse.

Definitely worth a daytime and nighttime visit!

Hutongs

Around our hotel there were lots of old hutongs which are the old narrow streets between courtyard houses. From the street there isn't a lot to see of the old houses but you get glimpses through open doors.

Right next to our hotel was one of the more famous hutongs which is now full of boutique type shops selling clothes, Mao memorabilia, artwork, household bits and pieces and flash cafes. A bit like the Ponsonby or Parnell of Beijing.

There was a wonderful store full of perfect gifts which were easily under NZD$10 (our family Christmas present limit) but unfortunately we don't have any space to carry them! Lindsay, Alison and Chloe you would have especially loved it!

We also discovered that this Hutong contained the centre measurment marker for old Beijing. Everything was set out from this marker and it was the highest point in the city. I think the subway also relates back to the marker.


The Great Wall

We went on a tour to the Great Wall which involved a mandatory stop at a jade "factory" (aka tourist shop) and a silk "factory". The silk factory was pretty painless but the jade factory stop was over an hour long while the Australian ladies on the trip decided what to buy. Needless to say we bought nothing.

We went to the Great wall at Mutianyu which is about 90km from town. We were lazy and caught a chairlift up as we only had limited time and it takes forty minutes to walk to the wall from the end of the road.

The Wall was amazing, it's hard to see how they managed to get the material up to build the wall as it follows the ridge line. We walked from the top of the chairlift to the end of the restored section of the wall which was a hard steep walk in the sun but it had amazing views of both the restored section and the unrestored wall and then back in the other direction for a couple of watch towers.

Instead of catching the chairlift down we used the luge which was heaps of fun and not too busy so we were able to get some speed up - much to our minders' annoyance.

The Ming Tombs

As part of the trip to the Great Wall we also visited the Ming Tombs where 13 of the Ming Emperors are buried. We only visited one of the tombs and only 3 have been opened - the rest are being preserved. It was 23 metres underground to the tomb were the Emperor, his Emperoress and the concubine that gave birth to his only son (scandalous we know!) were buried.

When it was opened the contents were still intact but due to exposure to the air and poor storage it has since deteriorated. It was a lovely walk and we had an English guide which was very useful.


The Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven was used in the Ming and Qing Dynasties for the annual prayer for good harvests. Unusually it is circular rather than rectangular.

The complex is semi circle at one end, representing Heaven, and square at the other representing Earth. There is a special gate called the 70 year gate which was built as a short cut for one Emperor who made it to age 70. As he didn't want future Emperors to become lazy, he decreed that only those that reached 70 could use it. No subsequent Emperors have done so so the gate has only been used by one Emperor.


Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square is just across the road from the Forbidden City. On one side is the Museum and on the other is the Geat Hall of the People AKA parliament. The far end of the Square contains Mao's Mausoleum.

The Square is full of tour groups and police and requires a security check before entering.

We visited Mao one morning, as you do when in Beijing. The line was long but moved at a steady pace and included the usual Chinese queue pushing, they actually get grumpy if you don't let them push in front of you! We were surprised as we thought this would be the one place where people were respectful.

We also had three separate trips to the Musuem, needless to say China has a phenomenally long history. It had a whole range of amazing artefacts from early man through to the end of the Qing Dynasty. Strangly a lot of the artefacts were beautiful wine containers. I can see Chris drooling!

We also went to the section on The Road to Rejuvenation which essentially was Mao to now. It was interesting but lacked English for large parts and was, dare I say it, full of propaganda. We have yet to fully comprehend how the repeated references to "communism," "socialism," "market economy" and "democracy" relate to one and other within the Chinese context.


Ming Dynasty Wall Relic Park

This was just marked on the map we had, no one else seems to know of it. It's a lovely park down by one of Beijing's many railway stations which has the original city wall from the Ming Dynasty. The wall was initially constructed in 1406 and is in remarkably good condition. Up until 1906 when the Eight Allied Forces invaded Beijing (i.e. Britain, France, Germany, America, Japan, Russia etc) it appears to have been almost wholly intact with 8 gates. There were wonderful old photos of the wall and surrounding area from the late 1800s until the 1950s. It's remarkable how things have changed so quickly!

The wall had a wonderful little museum with pictures, models and relics, including the executioner's sword (and accompanying photo of someone who had been executed) and wooden beam full of the holes left by the eight allied force's guns.

It was one of the better historical sites that we have been to in China and would definitely recommend it along with the museum as two places where context is provided to illustrate the historical significance and where artefacts are original rather than poor replicas. It is very sad to say but it appears that much of China's remarkable history has been destroyed or poorly preserved.
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