The Big City

A mad rush to the airport and I was on my way to Beijing, the capital of China…

Thanks to scheduling issues at school that had me finishing class at 5pm, I had to catch a taxi to the airport to catch my plane that left at 7pm. TDM conveniently rostered me to teach Jen’s class, who I was meeting in Beijing. I had specifically asked if Jen had classes on Sunday afternoon, but of course she had been given a new class last week and of course I was the only other teacher who was “free” at that time. Anyway, I must thank the wonderful taxi driver who, as we were approaching the freeway told me to buckle up. He then crossed his chest and flew off, horn blazing and lights flashing. I ended up being there 30 minutes early, which was just enough time to grab a cup of coffee.

I got into Beijing around 9pm and, after knocking the kind offer of a 400 yuan bus ride to the hotel, jumped into a 16 yuan airport bus and headed to our hotel. Everyone keeps on telling me that there are more people in Beijing than Wuhan that speak English and maybe there are. However, whether I was at the airport, at the hotel, in a taxi, at a restaurant or wandering around the streets, no-one could speak English. Hmm… Met Jen at the hotel and we settled in for some snacks and a couple of drinks. But it was early to bed as we were off the next day at 7:30 to visit the Great Wall.

After a two hour bus ride, we arrived at the Simatai section of the Great Wall, north-east of Beijing and almost on the border with Hubei. The Simatai section is one of the most original sections of the Great Wall, with a lot of the wall still intact in original form. Some of the wall even dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Unfortunately, the cable car (not built in the Ming Dynasty thank goodness) wasn’t working so I can vouch for the Lonely Planet guide that suggests that the Simatai section is one of the steepest and most difficult sections of the Great Wall. Seems that good views come at a price. But, good views they were, as the following photos can vouch. I managed to get to the 7th tower of 11 before having to turn back for the sake of both time and my legs.

The Wall

View from the top

Jen and friends climbing to the
4th tower

Climbing to the 7th tower

Jen taking a rest

After climbing for so long, we took the easy way down (flying fox) and had lunch in the restaurant before jumping back into the bus and heading back to Beijing city. On the way back, we visited a silk factory to learn how silk is made, something I never thought I’d have to see. But, it was actually pretty amazing, although the silk there was very expensive.

The next day, I started the city tour at 7:10… way too early! Now I know, I know, I’m not a tour person, but I did only have 2 days in Beijing and I wanted to get as much in as possible. Plus you can never really feel like a local if you’re always being a tourist. The city tour took in three of Beijing’s most famous sites; the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace. Now my favourite was definately the Summer Palace, but I’ll explain a little about all three (to go with the photos).

First up was the Forbidden City, home of Emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was built around 1406 and apparently is the “largest and best preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China”. Large was definately correct, but I’d like to add “the most stifling cluster of ancient buildings I have seen in China”. I actually felt uncomfortable there. Anyway, some of the building were fairly nice but I must admit the general architecture of the day didn’t really faze me.

The entrance gate to the
Forbidden City. You can
see what I mean by the
imposing architecture.
I kind of equate it to 1970’s
architecture in Australia.

Representing the Emperor.
Note that he is holding
a sphere… a sign of his
power.

Representing the Empress.
Note that she is holding
a cub… a sign of what she
was used for I guess.

Then it was onto the Temple of Heaven. The dominant temple (see below) is the “Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest”. In previous years, the Chinese prayed to the God of Heaven who was seen as the only thing higher than the Emperor. This is where the Emperor went to pray for “Good Harvest” from the God of Heaven. The temple was absolutely beautiful, especially the decoration on the inside. In fact, the whole complex was beautiful and so peaceful compared to the rest of Beijing. A couple of smaller things of interest can be found in the temple. The first being three squares in the middle of a walled temple where the first square gives one echo, the second two echoes and the third three echoes. It was pretty amazing as we all thought that it was just another one of China’s great stories. This one was true. The second was the centre of the Round Altar, where your voice was amplified if you stand on one particular stone. In fact, the Round Altar was pretty cool in itself. The ancient Chinese believed that odd numbers were heavenly and the number 9, being the largest natural odd number was the luckiest. So the Round Altar was built in such a way that the top tier has nine rings of stones, each composed of multiple of nine stones, so that the first ring has nine and the ninth has 81. There are three sets tiers and the stairs to each tier are all multiples of nine. You’d think that it was difficult enough just to build the Altar back then…

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest

The inside of the Hall
of Prayer for Good
Harvest

Me standing on the stone of resonance on the Round Altar

After the Temple of Heaven, we went for lunch at a restaurant run by one of the minority groups of China. It was a fairly typical tourist style lunch but the dancing and singing that was performed by the minority performers was really pretty. I even got a chance to get up and do a bamboo dance with them. It’s hard to describe but it’s kind of like elastics except that the elastic is bamboo and they move in and out so the aim is to move across them without getting your legs caught.

Then we headed to the Summer Palace, which was an amazing complex. Given that most of the complex consists of a man-made lake, and the lake itself was frozen, it was one of the most beautiful sites I have seen to date in China. I’ve attached photos of the lake but I’m not sure that they do it justice. Anyway, the Palace was first built in the 18th century and redesigned in both 1988 and 1900. The buildings here were largely non-descript but it was the gardens and the atmosphere of the Palace that made it feel like somewhere where you could actually live.

The Benevolence and Longevity Hall where newly crowned government officials would go to worship the Emperor.

I think that this is the Sea of Wisdom Temple. Anyway, it’s the other dominant Temple in the complex.

The lake… enough said.

The long corridor stretching
from one side of the complex
to the other.

After the Summer Palace we went to “Dr Tea”, one of the largest tea houses in Beijing. We tried some different styles of tea, which definately had some strange tastes. My favourite was “pure tea”, not for it’s taste, but for the fact that it actually looked like a cow pattie (see below). My favourite tasting tea was the Oolong Tea, which had an extremely bitter taste until you swallowed. As soon as you swallowed, the tea tasted sweet, almost like candy. It was strange. I bought some, partly because I liked it, and partly because when you bought tea you got a “Pee pee man” with it. And yes, a “pee pee man” is fairly much like what it sounds. Basically, you pour water on him and he will tell you if the water is hot enough by peeing into the air. We all thought it was hysterical, and definately one of my favourite souvenirs so far.

The tour group at Dr Tea

The “cow pattie”

So that was my second day in Beijing. The third day involved getting up, booking an airline ticket and rushing to the airport. All that rush, only to find out that all flights to Wuhan were delayed and wouldn’t be leaving until 2pm. So, I sat around another airport… I think that I could nearly write a book about Chinese airports now. I think that my next trip should be to Shanghai so that I can try out that airport as well…