China Chronicle – Day 2 (Beijing)

           Our second day  dawned early. We asked for a wake-up call at 5:45 AM so that Lee could go to the gym (she is certainly dedicated). A bit more about our hotel — there is actually a TV in the tub and a phone in the small cubicle where the toilet is located. Lee gives it SIX stars – rich with cherry wood, king-size bed, mechanical curtain drawer, etc.
          Some random thoughts:
               I certainly miscalculated when I planned my walking tour. When I indicated to the concierge that I planned to walk to Tiananmen Square, she laughed! She said it was a 20-minute taxi ride and that walking was not an option. I verified this later when I took a short walk. Tourist maps are misleading in that they are not drawn to scale. I will make some adjustments to my walking tour and incorporate some cab rides to get from area to area.
               Another observation that I made this morning is that I am very uncomfortable in these "pretentious" or "high-falutin" hotels. Don’t get me wrong, the staff here tries extremely hard to make everything wonderful. It’s just that "I don’t mind carrying my own bags," and I resent things like being charged $20.00 per day for internet access or $8.00 for a cup of coffee (it was only 3/4 full!) to carry up to my room when inexpensive hotels like the Hampton Inns don’t charge anything. Maybe I feel that these places are geared for and take advantage of business travelers on expense accounts who have unlimited funds and the traveler on a budget is caught in the squeeze. 
               Flexibility is the key to successful traveling. I suspended my walking tour today when Zhao offered everyone an optional excursion to the Summer Palace instead of the original plan for the afternoon. We truly enjoyed the entire day — an intense and thorough look at the entire history of Beijing and its emperors.
         Our first stop this morning was Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world – more than four football fields long. At the south end is Qianmen, the South Gate, then Mao’s Mausoleum (which always has a line of people waiting to get in). In the center of the square is the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a 125-foot obelisk commemorating those who have died for the revolution. At the northern end is the Gate of Heavenly Peace, sporting a large portrait of Chairman Mao, which is the entryway into the Forbidden City.
         The Forbidden City includes an incredible complex of royal and exquisite buildings as well as the Imperial Gardens. The architecture is loaded with symbolism, i.e., lions are present to ward off evil spirits, dragons are a symbol of the emperor, the colors red and yellow (gold) are symbolic of royalty and power, etc. The Halls are elegant and the gates are dramatic. The gardens are adorned with huge rocks with fanciful shapes, symbols of wealth, and also have numerous Cypress trees (some more than 500 years old) which symbolize longevity. It is utterly magnificent!
         From here we traveled into a hutong (a narrow alley jam-packed with homes all connected together) where we had lunch at the Sichuan Restaurant, a delightful place where we had a traditional Chinese meal. We were seated at a large table and the large number of food items (all delicious) were placed on a revolving tray in the center of the table and rotated around so that everyone had access to all dishes. There must have been over twenty different dishes in all — it was great fun.
         Next we proceeded to the Summer Palace, on the outskirts of Beijing, where the emperors would retreat during the hot summers. The palace complex is situated on a man-made lake (Kunming Lake) which provides cooling as well as beauty and tranquillity. Here we learned the story of Cixi, the dowager empeess, who preferred living here year round and who steadily improved the place. We walked down the longest corridor in the world, 728 meters (over 2000 feet) long, which is decorated with hundreds of paintings representing scenes in China on the cross beams over your head. It reminded us of Luzerne’s Kappelbrucke. We finished our tour of the summer palace with a Dragon boat ride across the lake.
        Then we made the obligatory and rather unpleasant stop at a Freshwater Pearl Factory where we learned about these pearls and then were stalked by sales people trying to make us buy these over-priced items.
        Our day ended back at the hotel (after a long, long ride back in horrible traffic) with a lovely Peking Duck dinner.
       Lee’s comments: We are on small, compact tour of ten people plus the guide. Donna and Robin are a young couple in their twenties. Donna is in a doctorate program in Physics at Drexel College (Philadelphia). Kamal is of Indian descent and traveling alone from Pittsburgh. Michael and Gita, both around fifty, are from Chicago. Mark and Jennifer are another young couple. Mark owns a Bait and Tackle Shop while Jen is a Pharmacist. They are traveling with his mother, Amelia. They are from New Jersey. The group is well-rounded and interesting. I find the food different. Peking Duck was served three different ways, only one of which I really enjoyed. Foods are served warm, not hot. Even their tea is warm, however, it was delightful, tasting like fragrant flowers, quite unusual. It is served with tea leaves in it, so negotiating sips without getting a mouthful of leaves is a challenge. So far, the people here seem very helpful and friendly. The hawkers on the street are overbearing and very aggressive and we were instructed to ignore them, as they are scam artists. I am very impressed with Chinese architecture.


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