Saturday, 13-12-2014. Day 115.
Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Zhangwang Hutong, Temple of Heaven
For China, unlike the rest of our adventures so far, we decided to book a tour. A number of factors went into this, but primarily we wee concerned with the language barrier and negotiating a means to get to some of the places we wanted to see. We'd be a little over our daily budget, but that was outweighed by the convenience of having a guide.
We would be visiting three cities: Beijing, Xi'an, and Shanghai, and in each city we'd be accompanied by a guide. Our itinerary called for two full days and part of a third in Beijing.
We were meeting Jack (our guide, the same fellow who'd picked us up form the airport the night before) at 9:00 a.m., so we had to get up a little early to enjoy the hotel's free breakfast buffet (one of Samantha's 7 key points for finding a perfect place to stay). As far as buffets go, it was pretty good, with a broad selection of items from both Western and Asian diets. Even the coffee was passable.
After breakfast, we headed down to the lobby where we met Jack who wasted no time in getting us into the van and off to Tiananmen Square.
The Square is huge, and because it was still early, wasn't all that crowded. The benefits of having a guide were quickly apparent—Jack did all the heavy lifting when it came to buying tickets and getting us through lines. It was refreshing to not worry about the logistics that go into visiting a tourist destinations for a change.
As we walked around, Jack gave us the lowdown on the history of the place, from ancient China through the Cultural Revolution and into the modern day. He pointed out the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall (which didn't photograph well because of interference from the sun) and the National Museum of China. Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to go to the National Museum. Our Sunday was already booked pretty solid, and the museum wasn't open on Monday.
Jack showed us the iconic Tiananmen Gate just to the north across Chang'an Avenue where the famous portrait of Chairman Mao hangs over the entryway. The portrait is repainted every year, and there's only one man who is allowed to undertake this task. One presumes he has an apprentice. The two inscriptions on either side of the portrait read: (left) Long live the People's Republic of China and (right) Long live the great unity of the people of the world.
As we took a few photos, we learned a bit about the two guards posted there. The pair of them always looks alike, and they don't move anything except their eyes (unless they have to). Then we walked under a long tunnel that ran beneath Chang'an Avenue and came out on the other side, where, under the watchful eyes of Chairman Mao, we strolled through through Tiananmen Gate and into the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City so named because back in the days of Imperial China, common people were not allowed inside. Not so anymore—it's now one of the most visited tourist sites in the world, and it was packed with people arriving around the same time we did. Again, Jack handled getting all the tickets and steering us to the right lines. It was quite a luxury.
As one would expect, the Forbidden City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but not for the most obvious of reasons. It made the list, apparently, because it's the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.
And it is huge. The Emperor initially commissioned 10,000 rooms, but, because the palace of the Celestial Emperor (the man upstairs) had 10,000 rooms, the Earth-bound Emperor (the self-declared son of the Celestial Emperor) couldn't have that many. So the architects only made 9,999 and a half. And that was believed for hundreds of years ... until people actually counted the rooms and found there were only just over 8,700. Someone had lied to the Emperor ...
There are many gates and halls that make up the city. They all have great names like the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Gate of Divine Power, and the Tower of Enhanced Righteousness.
We learned a lot about Chinese numerology, too. For instance, 9 was the number of the emperor, so all of the doors are held together by 81 giant nails (in a 9 x 9 grid) and the more important a building was, the more "roof animals" sat on the corners of its roof—9 being the most important. Yes, you can count ten in the image above, but the one in the back is a man, so it doesn't count toward the number of animals (so we were told). And of course we got the lowdown on the 6 and the 8 (good) and the 4 (bad). Or maybe I'm wrong about the 6 (there was a lot of information coming at us quickly).
The last place we stopped before we left the city was the Imperial Gardens, the only place in the whole site that has trees (the Emperor was afraid of tree-climbing assassins). Like any garden, there were many plants and trees, but there were also a good number of small buildings—pavilions, really—for relaxing, and quite a few interesting rock formations.
One of the more interesting rock formations was the Hill of Accumulated Elegance, which was a man-made hill, created by piling carefully selected rocks onto a former structure of some sort. I think Jack mentioned that rice and water was involved somehow, but I can't remember how that all came together. There's a path at the back that leads up to the Pavilion of Imperial Scenery, which sits on top of the hill and is supposedly the only place in the castle where you could see the outside world.
After we finished with the Forbidden City, Jack handed us off to a different guide who put us onto two rickshaw bicycles and led us through a traditional Chinese neighborhood known as a hutong, which is made up of mazelike alleys and side streets packed with old-style single story courtyard homes. One interesting feature we noticed was the prevalence of public toilets around almost every corner.
At one point we stopped and she told us what about the symbolism of the doors in the hutong and how you could ascertain the owner's importance. Then we got back on the rickshaws and rode around for seeing the sights until we came to out stop—one of the traditional courtyard homes in the hutong.
We got a brief tour of the house. There were snacks being served, but we were told they weren't for us; they were for another group. We were there to learn how to make a Chinese paper cut, but the woman who was supposed to show us (the wife of the home) was running late.
So we sat for about 10 minutes, waiting. until the wife rushed in through the door, greeted us politely, threw her coat over a chair, and showed us how to fold a piece of paper and—with a series of careful cuts—make a cool design.
Then she showed us her prowess on the guzheng, a 21-string instrument, for a few moments before she shuffled us out the door (she had other guests coming after all), back onto our rickshaws, and back down the alley.
On the way out of the hutong, I noticed a brick wall that was decorated with all sorts of bottles embedded in its surface. I asked our guide what that was and she told us it was the Quinding Old Liquor Museum, which sounded really interesting. However, it wasn't on the agenda, and we didn't have the time.—well, our guide didn't.
And that, right there, is the downside that comes with a packaged tour. There's so much emphasis on getting through the agenda, that there's very little time to explore anything that's not on the itinerary. I totally could have done without the Chinese paper cut in exchange for the old liquor museum.
So we had to let it go by, and soon enough, we were out of the alley and said goodbye to our temporary guide, then got back into our van with Jack and headed off to lunch.
The tour had arranged for lunch at Courtyard 7, a Chinese restaurant with a slight French influence. Jack was there to help us order, so the whole affair went pretty smoothly and the food was pretty good. Shortly after we finished, we were on our way to the Temple of Heaven.
Temple of Heaven
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site (two in one day!), The Temple of Heaven is a Taoist complex where emperors would come to pray for good harvests. The most iconic image of the park, in fact, is called the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.
We were led to believe that no one alive knows how to build a tower like this anymore. I'm not sure how true that is, but it makes for a good story.
The park around the Temple of Heaven was filled with a lot of retired Chinese citizens. Retired people have two things to do in China: relax and take care of their grandchildren. People retire young in China (60 for men, 55 for women, though we were told that's changing or had recently changed), so there was a lot of activity in the park. People were singing, dancing, doing tai chi, and playing chess and cards. It was a very festive scene.
Quick Tea Stop
During conversation, Jack found out we appreciated a good cup of tea, so on the way out from the park we stopped at the Qing Shan Ju Tea House where we were introduced to seven different teas and how to serve and drink each one. I liked the Pu'er Tea, Samantha liked the Ginseng Oolong Tea, Frankie liked the Lychee Black Tea, and Jackie liked the Fruit Tea (made with real fruit). We bought a few different kinds to take with us on the road.
As bonus, we got two pee pee boys, a fun little gadget to help know when the water is the the right temperature. It's pretty much what you're thinking it is.
Longing Pearl Center
Our last stop of the day was the Longing Pearl Factory, another checkmark on the preset itinerary. As soon as we entered, a handler attached herself to us and showed us a shallow tank filled with some oysters. Frankie got to fish one out and then our handler cracked it open to show us just how many pearls were on the inside. There were a lot.
During a brief educational session, we learned the difference between freshwater and saltwater pearls and the difference between fake pearls and real pearls, then each girl got a small pearl from the demonstration oyster that was opened.
We were told that this store is operated by the government, so we could be assured of the quality of anything we would buy. That was good to know.
And with that, our day was over. At least the tour part. Jack dropped us back and the hotel and we were on our own for dinner. It had been a long day, and everyone was a little tired, so we headed down to check out the restaurant at the Dongfang Hotel. It was all right, if a little expensive.
We had another 9:00 tour call in the morning. We'd be heading to the Great Wall of China, which was a little more than an hour away fro central Beijing.
- UNESCO World Heritage Sites visited: 2 (12 cumulative)
- Pearls seen inside an oyster: 32
- Hours touring: 7
- Tour guides: 2
- Teas sampled: 7