Saturday, September 8, 2018

Five Nights in Beijing, China: September 3-8, 2018


We always thought that visiting China would be too much of a hassle because of language barriers, traffic, dirty air, and the great Chinese Firewall preventing communication with the outside world. We were mostly wrong--at least as far as Beijing was concerned. The one thing we were right about is Beijing's traffic--it is miserable.

The air quality appeared to be quite good. We detected no visible haze anywhere. We were told by some ex-pats that the pollution spewing factories had stopped work so the air would be clean during the China-Africa conference that was underway during our visit. Also, we saw very few "smog masks" on the locals. Smog masks are black in color unlike the surgical germ masks.

We managed to circumvent the Great Chinese Firewall through a VPN (virtual private network) application installed before we traveled. The VPN worked very well in our hotel room, but we were never able to connect at the airport. I've read that in February 2019 the use of all VPNs will be illegal in China.

With only five nights in Beijing, we had to get going to visit the top sites. At our hotel, we were given a quick subway tutorial and pointed in the right direction to reach the subway to Tiananmen Square. From that point on we relied on the excellent subway system to get around. Most trips cost about .44 to .50 cents one way. It is fast, efficient, well designed, and there is an "English" button on the ticket machine. Signs in the subway and elsewhere are bilingual.

Tiananmen Square
I was a little disappointed by Tiananmen Square. My only knowledge of Tiananmen Square was memories of the pro-democracy protests and subsequent massacre in June 1989. On the night of our visit, there were barricades along sidewalks and nothing much to see. The area around the square was very crowded and there were several security checkpoints where passports were required. Security may have been tighter because of the joint China-Africa conference.



The Gate of Heavenly Peace
Forbidden City
The entrance to the Forbidden City, visited the next day, is through the doorway under Mao's image. To enter the Forbidden City, if you don't have advance purchase tickets, you will need your passport. It took us a while to locate the ticket office, but once there, we presented our passports and paid the entrance fee. Instead of a paper ticket, our passport numbers were recorded into their computer system. At the entrance we showed our passports and were allowed to enter.




When we visited, the Forbidden City was extremely crowded, hot, and sunny. Entrance into most buildings was not allowed. People hoping to peek inside were stacked up like cord wood in front of small openings. When I finally had my chance in front of the opening, that glimpse was never worth all the jostling.

If you have a desire to get into character, there are a number of costume and photo studios where you can indulge your imperial fantasies.


A copper/brass vat once filled with water for fighting fires

Roof Guardians

After several hours in the baking sun, we decided to cut our Forbidden City visit short. The only problem is that you are expected to continue to the exit on the other side of this huge complex. We tried a u-turn back to the entrance to exit but were turned back. Eventually we paid another fee to exit on the east side of the complex and were finally released.

The Great Wall
We also booked a hike on the Great Wall with Beijing Hikers. Our hike was called "Walled Village to Huanghuacheng Great Wall." The weather was warm and comfortable and we saw very few people along the way. This 6 km wall walk begins at a restored section, passing along a more interesting unrestored section, and finishes with a walk through a chestnut orchard.






We survived!
Lama Temple
This magnificent Tibetan Buddhist temple (1744) was a delight to visit in the late afternoon. Unlike the Forbidden City, the space around the buildings are dotted with shade trees.





Maitreya Buddha in its Tibetan form
The exquisite statue of the Maitreya Buddha (the future Buddha) is housed in the Wanfu Pavilion. According to the Guinness Book of World Records certification, it is 26 meters high (over 85 feet) and carved out of a single white sandalwood tree.

Confucius Temple
The Confucius Temple is almost across the street from the Lama Temple. We found it by wandering through the hutong in search of a peaceful spot. Even better, a Confucius Ceremony was part of the free admission.

Statue of Confucius


Temple of Heaven
Our last morning we visited the Temple of Heaven Park with it's extraordinary round structures. Before going into the park, we listened to several groups of women singing with all their hearts.


After paying our admission fee, we walked through the Long Corridor where locals, mostly elders, chat, socialize, and play games. Several people had their caged birds with them.



Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (rebuilt in 1890 after fire destroyed the original built in 1420)
On the Red Stairway Bridge between the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Imperial Vault of Heaven, a woman elegantly dressed in a heaven appropriate outfit caught my eye. As I passed, I turned to take her photo. I found that she had also turned and when I raised my camera she "posed" for me. The center white marble strip on the Red Stairway Bridge is where the emperor would have walked.


Imperial Vault of Heaven (1752)
Beihai Park
In the afternoon we visited Beihai Park with its lake said to have been created by Kublai Khan after the Mongols breached the Great Wall. Kublai, grandson of Chinggis Khan (Genghis) and the first Mongol Emperor of China, had the dirt scooped out to create Jade Islet on which the White Dagoba was built. Because we came in an entrance that was 180° from the bridge to Jade Islet we ended up walking around the entire lake.



Before we climbed up to the White Dagoba, we grabbed lunch at a small, crowded place squeezing into two spaces at the counter. The guy next to Dan watched as Dan manipulated his chopsticks. Finally, figuring remedial chopstick lessons were called for, he tried to show Dan the correct way to use chopsticks. He was very patient but not successful.




We saw a bit of everyday Beijing on our walks between our hotel and the subway stops. The rat's nest of wiring was a typical neighborhood sight. For one-stop heath services, the sign over the Dr. Zhao's shop reads "Acupuncture Scraping Cupping Massage Various Incurable Diseases."


Pre-rush hour traffic is also chaotic. Traffic includes bicycles, Tuk Tuks, pedestrians, motorcycles, cars, busses, trucks all trying to use the same roads.


Inside the subway cars, most riders are fixated on their smart phones. The announcements for upcoming stops are bilingual and easy to understand.


At a friend's suggestion, we booked an evening Hutongs Food Tour by Tuk Tuk with Lost Plate. We enjoyed seeing some of the hutongs (old neighborhoods) and it was especially great to have a guide to order the food (hot dried noodles, door nail meat buns, Mongolian BBQ, Spring Pancakes) and tell you about it. We went to four small neighborhood restaurants and one craft beer brewery. Our guide said we'd be eating and drinking at places where we wouldn't see any other tourists--she was right.

Mongolian BBQ Beijing style-delicious
A great refreshing snack I found on my own was traditional Beijing yogurt (lao Beijing suannaai). It comes in either small clay or glass pots sealed with blue and white paper lids. The cost is about the same as subway fare. It is a refrigerated, slightly sweet refreshing drink on a hot day.


We now have 10-year, multiple entry visas so we're looking forward to more visits to greater China. Next stop: Taiwan

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