and sad news from home
09.19.2007 21 °C
Travel days, wow! We got on a over night train to Beijing from Xi'an. We fell asleep quickly. Wow we were there. We got a taxi to the Hoilday Inn quickly. Great, they let us check in early, a really nice room, we went swimming to
Our train pulled in to Beijing today at 7:30 AM, and despite immediately gathering up our things, we were practically the last ones to get off. The "soft sleeper" class was everything we were hoping for, and the eleven hours seemed like nothing because we slept for eight of it (well, I did. Anica woke Jenn up to go the bathroom, and that was it for Jenn's sleep). The hardest part was negotiating the wild: no signs in English train station in Xi'an.
We had a bit of a splurge lined up in Beijing with a Holiday Inn, and they let us check in at eight in the morning! This is, I'm guessing, one of the nicest and best-run Holiday Inns in the world, and seemed more like a 5-star hotel to us. Before our official check-in time, we'd already had the huge buffet breakfast, had a swim, put our laundry in, booked a tour and gone on-line. We even had the seafood buffet dinner to complete our day of luxury!
Chairman Mao once said you haven't visited China until you've walked on the Great Wall. Well, as of today, we've visited China! We opted for a bus tour to take us out to the Mutianyu part of the wall, about 100 km from Beijing. After the obligatory stops at other people's hotels, and a factory (this time it was cloisanne, the enamel on pottery process) where we once again bought nothing, we arrived at the Wall. Actually, at the bottom of the hill where we rode a cable car up to the wall (Anica never gets tired of cable cars!). All of the Great Wall runs along the ridges of moutain and hilltops. This stretch is much quieter than the Badaling section that's closest to central Beijing. It's steep, too! Although restored, you still have to watch your footing. We loved the Ming dynasty-added stations every few hundred feet, with their steep staircases to great look-out points. I learned you don't just "see" the Wall, and look out from it. You really get a physical experience. It goes up and down, and twists so much that the best place to look at the Wall is...from the Wall! Even though it was cloudy/foggy, we could see as far as the highest peak in either direction, over which the wall disappeared, continuing on.
Today we went to the Forbidun City. Great. Went to imperail wedding and birthday palaces. And Tiannanmen squre saw picture of chairman Mao and saw army guys too. After Forbiden City headed over to a park Bei Hai park and couldn't ride boats because it's closed. Walked to the other side. Just as we got close to these covered places with bences we pulled out our rain poncho and umbreallas. It started pouring. ran to the covered palce and met a man doing calligraphy and spelled me and mommy and Daddy's names in Chinse. The girls started smelling my hand! And they said 13, no 7. what! everybody gasped. We disided to go home and get room serve. Took 3 hours to get taxi. finally we got taxi and watched shark Boy and Lava girl. good night.
Having seen the Great Wall yesterday, today we tackled the other can't-miss sites of China: Tiannanmen Square and the Forbidden City. Both seemed every bit as huge in person as they do on TV. It was a day of walking. Lots. It was also a day of all-out smog. Everything we've heard about Beijing's air quality problems was true today. My eyes itched, my throat burned, and I coughed when I tried to read outloud from a tourist description. All of us smelled the smog with every breath, and could barely see the length of the Square. I don't think they'll be many Olympic track records set if the weather's like this!
Tiannanmen Square was packed, even though we got there by nine in the morning. Anica once again today drew lots of attention; several times she agreed to have her picture taken with people. One time, a young lady picked her up and held her like a baby. This doesn't bother Anica, but people who sneak up on her, or take pictures with huge cameras and then run off, really get to her. We try to shield her from getting poked and pinched, but occasionally someone just reaches out and strokes her hair. Anica continues to complain at times, but mostly thrives. She seems to like posing with the young tourists for their pictures. Almost everyone shows her how the picture turned out on the back of their digital camera. Those are shared moments.
metaphoto: We took a picture ofAnica agreeing to have her picture taken with Chinese tourists in Beijing
Yes, then, the Square. Well, Mao is not on display currently, so we missed that macabre moment. We admired the huge Qian Men and Arrow Gates at the south end, the sculptures of revoultionary heroes, paused to seem some marches, and were stunned to see (this is new) floral re-creations of Chinese landmarks (think Rose Ball parade, but not moving). Then, we crossed the road (underpass) and emerged right in front of Mao's picture, ready to pass through Tiannanmen Gate. We'd been all over the Square, and seen nothing about 1989. We quietly told Anica the story of how we best know the Square.
Through the Gate and into the outer court of the Forbidden City. At what point (just a century ago) would we have once been stopped, and, as foreigners, executed for entrying? There are a series of gates, really, and I guess where we paid our admisssion was the truly "forbidden" threshold.
The official name for the Forbidden City is now "The Palace Museum." As a museum, we chose to focus on the exhibitions concerning Imperial birthdays and Imperial weddings. These were interesting to all three of us. Anica seemed quite taken with artwork and treasures they contained.
As far as the grounds, they were monumental. It will be interesting to see how Versailles or Vienna compares, because the Forbidden City is vast. "City" is no misnomer. The five bridges over the golden waters are gracefully beautiful, and the marble carriageway impressive. Some of the grand halls are under renovation, but there was still so much to see, and even more that's never been open to the public. It's said there are 9,999 rooms, 9 being a lucky number.
Anica pointed out the huge iron cauldrons everywhere, and told us they once would have been filled with water in case of fire. She remembered reading that in a guidebook. Jenn pointed out the "roof guardians," those animal characters carved on the hip of the eaves, were also a form of fire prevention (of the spiritual sort). More good luck detail was found on the huge doors to every building and gate: each had exactly 81 studs on them (9 x 9).
One of the many doors/gates as described above
Eventually, heading north, you pass into the Imperial Gardens. Until this point, there's not a single tree. The garden area is very artfully manicured, and smaller in scale. Soon after, you exit through another double gate/courtyard complex. Across the busy street are two parks, both of which used to be for Imperial use only. In this regard, they're similar to London's Hyde Park. We walked through both. By the time we got to the second, Bei Hai Park, it was like night was falling at 4 PM. The smog was bad, but was it this bad? And why were they not renting boats to take out on the pond? Soon, a thunderstorm began. Even with our umbrellas, we took cover in the pavilions by the pond. We weren't alone, and everyone seemed content to bide their time. A couple of men did calligraphy by writing with rain-water on the concrete ground. One of them struck up a conversation with me by asking where we were from. "Canada?" he said. "Do you play hocking?" I assured him that many of us did, indeed, play hockey. By this time, Anica was bouncing around like a bunny rabbit, and he drew a bunny picture. It was turning into one of those magical encounters that you just can't plan. Quite a crowd was gathering, watching the show being put on by the calligrapher and the little white girl. "How old is she?" he asked. "Seven," I replied. He frowned. Then he wrote "13" in the ground. "No," I said. I dipped my hand in the rainwater and wrote "7." There was a gasp and a murmur from the crowd. I could see women pointing at Anica and then to themselves, as if to say "she's almost my height already." The calligrapher turned out to be a real gentleman, and charming character. He asked Anica all of our names and wrote them (on paper too) in Chinese. He wrote that Jennifer was "very nice," I was "very cool," and Anica was "very beautiful." If this had been London's Hyde Park, he would have been the singing chimney-sweep. Meanwhile, the less-charming women were taking turns petting and smelling (yes, good curious sniffs) Anica's hand. She was mostly too distracted to object, but we laughed about it afterwards!
This delightful interlude was followed by an absolute ordeal in getting back to the hotel. Apparently, rush-hour Beijing in the pouring rain is a very difficult time to hail a cab. As in impossible. I once made a joking list of "all I really need to know about travel I learned from the Amazing Race." Well, today we used one of those tactics. When we couldn't get a cab, Jenn suggested we head for the Crowne Plaza, which was nearby. Within a few minutes, their bellhop had us in a cab. Rule #3: if you're not sure what to do, ask for help at the nearest luxury hotel. Even then, it was an ordeal for the taxi driver to get us across town. We could clearly sense that traffic was far worse than usual. In the end, it took us three hours from the time we left Bei Hai Park to when we got back to our hotel. We were so wet and tired that, for the first time ever, we ordered room service for dinner. It turned out to be yummy, comfy, and not all that expensive. Anica loved this, yet another new experience.
Despite the rain later in the afternoon, and taxi/traffic woes, it was a great day.
Today we went to the musem of natrul history and saw Animal Freinds of human Being with Dead animals but real. Same with all other exhabithans. Most of them have glass over them but not the panda. Insect world with insects that our dead. Animals at night is just like it sounds. Babys Discovery fairyland, Gallery of ancaint mamlles, Gallery of the Origin of Life, and Gallery of Invertebrates, Dinosaur park, Gallery of preastoric life. The aqurium though had real fish. After the musem we went on a serch for a (closedown) peking Duck restrunt. Ended up eating at youth restaurant. Good Night.
More rain. But since then the smog is practically gone. We were going to go see either the Temple of Heaven or the Summer Palace, both massive, sprawling, mostly outdoor sites, but decided to change plans for the rainy day. Jenn suggested the Museum of Natural History, and from the get-go Anica was keen on the idea. After four hours (!) there, she declared it "the best museum I've ever been to." Now this is not a world-class, state of the art museum, but it did have its kid-friendly aspects. There were a couple of little indoor playgrounds, for instance. There was a set of fun-house mirrors. We're not sure what point they made, because the English labels came at sporadic intervals throughout the museum.
Anica experiments with the funhouse mirrors at Beijing's Musuem of Natural History"
The majority of the place was taxidermy. That made for quite a few "Night at the Museum" comments. There was even a dinosaur hall. Then there was the basement aquarium. The colourful blue paint did little to lessen the creepiness of the below-ground maze, where pickled fish lay still in tanks next to living fish.
We knew from our Chinese guidebook that there was a collection of "human bodies." We found it in an annex, where the entry stated "no photos." No kidding! Here were formaldehyde-preserved jars of human parts, and even whole bodies. Anica was taking it all in, with a kid's delight in things gross, but fascinating. "Anica, look, there's the left half of a baby's head." "Neat!" she'd say. "Anica, look there's a woman's torso floating in a big jar." "Neat!" We paused to gently make sure she understood they were real people who had died. Yep. On we went, through the deformed fetus collection and the full-body Chinese man, with all the skin flailed off him, except the belly button, pubic area and fingertips. Another full cadaver had a bag over his head. That really makes you wonder. (Jenn: Did he come that way?) So, this part of the museum, too, was a big hit.
Having worked up an appetite (?), we headed up the street for the famous, nearby Peking Duck restaurant. We passed a hutong (alleyway neigborhood) that was crumbling, a hutong that was torn down, and a hutong that was being rebuilt in a "cleaned-up" way for tourists.
A hutong in the process of being razed
Unfortunately, the restaurant had been located in the latter, so it was gone (being restored).
A giant wall hides renovations being done on a hutong just south of Tiananmen Square
After a typical taxi struggle, we had dinner back in our own neighborhood, called the "Youth Restaurant," where the food was unlike most Chinese food we've had before, but pretty good. No idea if it caused Jenn's gold crown to fall off her tooth! We're seeking dental advice from afar, but so far it doesn't appear to be a total emergency for her. Not what she needed, though!
Bright sun, and great visibility greeted us today. Sadly, though, when Jenn checked our email we got the news that her grandmother had died. This was not unexpected, but it's always a shock. Anica had lost the last of her great-grandparents. She had been lucky enough, however, to really get know her great-grandmother.
So here we are in Beijing. We took things slowly this morning, but eventually decided to go out and see the Summer Palace on our last full day in China. It turned out to be a lovely excursion, and just the thing for Jenn to take her mind off being so helplessly far from home.
The Summer Palace is just what it sounds like: a specially-constructed retreat for Emperors, built in the 18th century, but greatly expanded by Empress Cixi in the late 19th. We climbed to the top of the Buddhist monument, and enjoyed a glorious view of the lake and Beijing in the distance. We walked the length of the Long Corridor. Well-named, it's a "breezeway" over 2,000 long. Each wooden crossbeam and each wooden panel has a painting hand-painted on it. That's over 14,000 paintings of scenes from Chinese classic literature and of the grounds of the palace.
The highlight of the visit for Anica was when we rented a battery-powered four-person boat. We hopped in, and the guy tapped on the dashboard twice, the full extent of our instructions. But it was easy to manuever, and we let Anica drive it for about 30 minutes. She did a great job!
We boated through the 17-arch bridge, and past the "Marble Boat" that Empress Cixi commissioned rather than modernizing the navy.
Our goal for dinner was to get to a Peking Duck restaurant. We got a taxi right away, which was indeed too good to be true. He had a phony meter, and I argued with him over the price when we got out, eventually paying about half what his crooked meter showed.
The Quanjude Peking Duck dinner was a true feast. As in: more than we could possibly eat and costing a lot. Still, it was a great experience. We all loved the duck itself, which you actually roll up in pancakes like you're eating Mexican food. The many side dishes were not all loved equally, but we had room for dessert, and staggered out quite full. One of the hostesses helped flag us a cab and we got back uneventfully.
We're going to squeeze all the luxury services out of this hotel, including a late check-in before we hop on a train for Hanoi. This is our craziest train-ride: 40 hours, overnight, for two nights. It comes at a really weird time, with the news of Jenn's grandmother's passing, but we already have the tickets, and there's really nothing we can do here, either. On we go.