7 am arrived with a jolt of guilt, like I had overslept a nap. To me it was still 7 pm back home and there was a nagging feeling of needing to be somewhere. But after 10 hours of sleep jet lag was at bay and it was time to head downstairs for breakfast. The hotel not only provide an American breakfast with pancakes, sausage and bacon, but they also had pizza, hamburgers and other dinner food for those of us who were off our schedules. They had traditional Chinese food as well and I sampled as much as I could.
After breakfast I needed to get some Yuan and this proved problematic since the only reliable ATM from a trusted bank was several blocks up in a different hotel. You have to be careful what bank you are withdrawing from, and who owns the ATM. It’s much better to either exchange currency, or use travelers checks. Or get a list of banks that are safe from your bank before travelling.
Normally a quick walk is not a problem, but this was Beijing and we were well warned about the pollution. However, on stepping out of the hotel it was amazing how crystal clear both the sky and the air were. We learned later that day that it was a remarkably unusually clear weather pattern and it stayed with us for our entire time in Beijing.
The real issue with getting to the ATM is that while sidewalks run along the street, there is no direct route from the street to the business so you have to dodge through the car entrance and traffic in the parking lot to get to the hotel and the ATM.
We gathered in the lobby and then walked down to Tienanmen square . There are people everywhere working, sweeping the sidewalk, watching the crowd, guarding trees. There is no graffiti, no posting of notices, there isn’t even a walked in piece of gum. Everything is spotless. The police have “check points” set up, desks, in the middle of the sidewalk and they randomly check bags. It seemed that this was for Chinese nationals as I did not see one non-Chinese being searched.
Just before the square we turned a corner and headed into a garden that ran alongside the wall of the Forbidden city. It had a small stream running down one side and open air buildings. Frank pointed out several dozen people exercising by doing Tai Chi. Frank demonstrated his own personal version of Tai Chi explaining that while there is a specific pattern in general, people do “free form” Tai Chi which has no formal steps. This is interesting since one of the things commonly discussed about the Chinese is their inability to be “creative” or “think outside the box” with regard to business and education. If they could be liberal and creative with an ancient exercise, why not with other aspects of their culture?
We walked through the park and you couldn’t hear traffic even though there was a busy 12 lane road just the other side of the wall. NO honking, NO yelling, NO revving of engines. At the other side we entered a tunnel that cut under the road and came out the other side in Tienanmen Square.
The square is enormous. You have to stand in the middle of it to appreciate just the volume of concrete it took to create the center plaza. And then there are the buildings ringing it and the scale and scope becomes overwhelming.
There were vendors in the square and tourists and both groups were persistent in the attention they paid us when they found out we were Americans. The people wanted photos with us and the vendors mixed in and tried to sell us anything they had, down to the lint in their pockets. I purchased three caps from a vendor and negotiated them down to 50 Yuan ($8). I didn’t buy anything else, not for their lack of trying. What was so odd is that, even when everyone said no, they still hung out with us laughing and joking along with us. The entire time on the square they would be near us, half-heartedly offering to sell, but mainly just to be near us.
The Square was an excellent example of the Chinese ability and interest in building. It is the largest square in the world in the middle of one of the densest cities in the world, in front of an enormous palace that represents a very solid connection to their history. So much space and material demonstrates the grandness of thought and perspective not just towards architecture but towards what represents the people and the country. Grand, large, graceful creations that are instilled with the spirit of the country and only possible through the application of enormous labor toward a common goal. We would see this later represented by the Great Wall and the amount of construction on the East Bank in Shanghai.
In the Forbidden City, the buildings are huge but the (literally thousands) rooms were small and comfortable, It’s a weird contrast to Tienanmen square outside.
Past the palace is the housing and it is made up of small buildings and tiny alleys before we exit into the gardens. The gardens are mainly HUGE pieces of coral and underwater rock with cyprus trees growing. This is the only spot in the palace where trees are allowed to grow, as the emperor’s long ago decreed that no tree may grow anywhere else in the palace since a weapon could be hidden by one. Emperors were constantly being assassinated – it was the number one way to become an emperor. And as the emperor traditionally had thousands of concubines there were plenty of children to fight for control of the throne and assassination was a constant threat.
The gardens were the most stunning part of the tour and something that just cannot be replicated. Invaluable stone, trees and architecture to create a small city withing the walls of the palace just for the use of the Emperor and his family
Next stop was pedicabs and we went racing through “old Beijing” where the houses were build over 350 years ago. The streets are so narrow that you can reach out your arms and touch a door on either side. And they drive motorcycles and small three wheel cars down them so we were constantly swerving to avoid getting hit. Occasionally we were successful. The section is an historic district meant to be kept up in a traditional style again so that the local Chinese have a connection to their past.
We went to a private home to have a traditional lunch. They set tables and served us dish after dish that was prepared in a kitchen no larger than a closet. They fed 25 people a huge amount of food prepared on a stove with two burners and no larger than an open trapper keeper. The family was hospitable and the food very fresh, another quality we would experience as we traveled through the country.
The owner of the home was a gentleman whose family has owned the home since it was built. It was claimed in the cultural revolution by the Communist Government, but families who could demonstrate a proper claim were allowed to purchase them back. Home ownership and private business are growing in China and the people are embracing the concepts. The owner of the home is a professional artist who worked in water colors and rice paper. After the amazing lunch (7 different dishes and rice) we asked to see some of his work. While the country has a mandatory retirement age he was allowed to continue working due to the lack of experienced workers in many industries.
Next we walked through the streets for a quick stop at the Drum Tower for a demonstration of ceremonial drumming. A heads up if you ever decide to visit – the stairs are almost vertical and steep. Going up is like climbing a ladder. Going down is like trying to step down a sheer cliff. If it wasn’t for the handrail several of the group wouldn’t have been able to make it down.
On the way to the Drum Tower we passed a number of interesting signs:
Next stop was a traditional tea ceremony and and samples of whole leaf tea. There is such an amazing difference between “tea” and traditionally prepared tea that it is the difference between water and microbrewed beer. It wasn’t enough to move me to purchase anything more than a mug for my daughter, but several tea aficionados in the group said the prices were worth picking up large sample packages.
We were warned to bring an extra empty suitcase for purchases. I could see why since the trip was beginning to resemble a Disney theme park – there was a souvenir shop in every place we entered.
Finally, as night fell and we began to wonder about dinner, the bus dropped us off at a local mall with a maze of wholesalers and shops and everything is available for the price of whatever you can bargain. It is every knock off and knick knack produced in China and they just want to sell them. We were the only people in the mall and there were literally hundreds of stores selling thousands of items. So we had them at a disadvantage. Cash in our pockets, some of the group got very good deals. I purchased two silk fans for 10 Yuan ($6)
And no one could resist, so we went to McDonalds and then Dairy Queen for dessert before some broke off to get coffee and Starbucks while a smaller group of us went in search of beer. Be warned, while fast food prides itself on universal taste, the fast food in China does not taste like that in the United States. But it was at least a little familiar. Tsingtao comes in the giant 200 ml bottles for 5 yuan (85 cents) a bottle!
Finally at the end of the evening we stumbled back into the hotel, jet lag catching up with us, and a day of walking and sightseeing overwhelming us.