The Great Wall and Palaces of Beijing

Trip Start Aug 19, 2009
Trip End Sep 16, 2009

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sun 6th Sept. Tour Day 15: Great Wall of China

We arrived in Beijing in the morning and made our way to the hotel. We were supposed to visit the Forbidden City today but it was closed for rehearsals of the 60th anniversary celebrations, so instead we visited the Great Wall of China. Another change of plans as we were supposed to visit the Simatai section, but it was flooded following heavy rain so we went to the Mutianyu section instead.

The Great Wall of China snakes over hills, deserts and plains for several thousand miles, and comes complete with watchtowers, signal towers, living quarters and storerooms. First created around 220 BC, much was built during the 14th to 17th centuries. Despite impressive battlements, the Wall was breached twice, once in the 13th century by the Mongols and again in the 17th century by the Manchu. A lot of the Wall was now crumbling but some sections had been restored for tourist visits. The section we would walk along dated around 1368 AD. It was pretty windy and raining up there, which made a change from the hot and humid weather we’d had so far. I took the cable car up to Tower 14 and walked a few towers in each direction. It was a great experience to walk along this amazing feat of construction but after a while, one section was pretty much like another so I got the cable car down. The cable car stated that it was the same one that Bill Clinton travelled in when he visited the Wall in 1998.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped off to take a photo of the Olympic stadium, the Bird’s Nest. Then we visited the Temple of Heaven, although me, Dave and Jen were starving and headed straight through as we are told there was a McDonald’s at the other end on the way back to our hotel, unfortunately we couldn't find it! So much for the wonders of Beijing!

In the evening, we went to the Red Theatre to see the “Chun Yi - Legend of Kung Fu” show. This was absolutely brilliant - fantastic martial arts and stunts, including with weapons, spectacular sets including the night sky, snow and bubbles with a variety of landscapes, wire stunts, and delightful, moving songs. All in all, it was a fantastic show, like a Hollywood spectacular. So good that I bought the DVD.

Mon 7th Sept. Tour Day 16: Forbidden Palace

This morning we went on a tour of the city hutongs. These are the old city alleyways, created by the walls of courtyard houses. We travelled by pedicab, which was like a rickshaw, two seats with a bicycle up front. I felt sorry for some of the drivers, having to lug two fat Westerners around, especially ours with myself and Stephen in it! The hutongs were like a building site in parts, as drains and electricity cables were being laid underground. Unfortunately, we didn’t go inside a courtyard house, just looked at a door to one – this would have made the tour more interesting. As it was, we just cycled around. We stopped off at the Bell Tower, with good views over Beijing. This housed what was stated to be the largest bell in the world, although it didn't look that big to me. We also visited a more touristy part of the hutong area, near a river with a boating lake. We rounded off our tour with a meal with a local family where I tried my hand at making some dimsun. Unfortunately, someone had to eat it afterwards.

In the afternoon, we headed to the Forbidden Palace / City, the Chinese Emperor’s Palace for nearly 500 years, from 1420 when it was completed. It was the exclusive domain of the Imperial Court and dignitaries until the abdication in 1912. It was opened to the public in 1949. There were ~8,000 to 9,000 rooms in the place! Each building was impressive in its own right and many had fanciful, poetic names. The largest hall was the Hall of Supreme Harmony, containing the throne. We walked from the North Gate (Gate of Divine Prowess) to the South Gate. It was a photographer’s delight, although trying to identify the names of the halls from the diagram in my guidebook afterwards was rather challenging. Many buildings housed historical artefacts, beautiful carvings, vases, trinkets, jewellery. The whole site was adorned with animal statues which had symbolic meanings in China, eg. the tortoise for longevity.

Leaving the South Gate, we entered Tian’anMen Square. Here, we saw the Ming dynasty gate from where Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China on 1st October 1949, his portrait was changed daily we are told. Also, there was the Monument to the People’s Heroes, Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum flanked by statues (where I passed up the chance to view the supposed embalmed Chairman Mao), Great Hall of the People, the National Museum, and Zhengyang Men / the Arrow Tower (together known as the double gate Qian Men).

In the evening, we had Peking Duck, one of my favourite dishes back home, plus a few more courses. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough duck for this particular duck-lover!

Tues 8th Sept. Tour Day 17: Summer Palace and Yonghe Palace

A cheap, hour-long taxi ride from Beijing took us to the Summer Palace. This was an imperial retreat during the Qing dynasty, but it is most associated with Empress Cixi who had it rebuilt twice – 1860 following destruction by English and French troops, and 1902 after it was plundered during the Boxer Rebellion. With the diagram of the Palace from my guidebook, I led the group on a tour around the massive sprawling site, with its picturesque gardens, temples and halls.

Some of us then visited Yonghe Palace (Lama Temple), which was supposed to be Beijing’s most spectacular temple complex. It comprised a large number of temples housing large Buddhas and deities. However, as usual, you couldn’t take photos inside the temples which was a shame. However, I took a sneaky shot of the 17m tall Maitreya (Future Buddha) statue in the Wanfu Pavilion, supposedly carved from a single block of sandalwood (the statue that is, not the pavilion). There were beautiful collections of Buddhist objects including versions of various Buddhas and deities.

We then got a taxi to Jingshan Park, the top of which offered great views of the Forbidden City. I also had a hokey picture taken dressed in an Emperor’s costume although my concubine didn't look too happy posing with me! In the evening, we caught an overnight train to Suzhou.
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