Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ancient History

I hope you have some time on your hands as you settle in to read this post as this is going to be a long one (over 3 full pages in word and that doesn’t include the pictures). So go get a cup of coffee or some other beverage and get ready to settle in – no really go get something to drink this is going to take a while. To start with you need to load 13 pictures below (I did resize them to make them smaller for those of you on slow links). While some pictures are below more pictures will be posted to my photography site next week when I get back.

The Forbidden City
Thursday started off with a trip to Tian’anmen Square and The Forbidden City. Maps here are rather deceiving, first off there is no legend on them so you have no idea how far apart things are (that may be intentional), second the distances between items vary there is no standard. I however was aware that Tian’anmen Square is the starting point for a trip to the city. The square is absolutely massive and loaded with tourists. Queues line up around the block to get into Mao’s Masoleum, a couple of statues but otherwise the square is just a large concrete area, reminded me a bit of the queues to see the Sistine Chapel at Vatican City.

All entrances to the square are guarded where your purse is searched. I was surprised that they didn’t want to search my backcpack as well. If I could smuggle something in a purse I could smuggle much more in a backpack, but I was not about to point this fact out to anybody. I was a little surprised by the number of Chinese tourists at the square as well, I later found out that many tour groups that cater to the locals are forbidden from coming into Beijing during the Olympics. They do not want the attractions overly crowded and they will be crowded enough with out-of-towners. As a result many people are taking trips now that they would normally take in the summer. You can easily pick out the people on a tour they’re all wearing matching hats or jackets and following a person waving a flag. I quickly learned to spot them and walk the opposite direction of wherever they were going or wait for them to walk by in order to get a closer look in the FC (I've decided I need to start abbreviating – this stands for Forbidden City not Football Club).

You walk under the road from the square to FC and basically just follow the swarms of people. There’s a pre-cursor to the entrance to the FC where there are art exhibits, vendors trying to push junk on you and oddly enough a basketball court.

Speaking of vendors I find it odd that they think that by pushing things in your face or following you around a store that you’ll buy something from them. I walked away from 1 vendor because they wouldn’t leave me alone after I asked them multiple times to just let me browse, bought the same item somewhere else cheaper, oh well.

I bought my tickets to enter the city – I guess nothing is really forbidden as long as you’re willing to pay the price. I erroneously bought the audio guide – I’ve always found these worthless not sure why I thought this would be worthwhile. I remember very little about what was said on the audio tour and I don’t even know for sure that it was telling me the right things. It was all wireless that would detect where you were standing and start talking to you. At many times it way say to look at this item and I couldn’t see what it meant. One of the things I do remember this is the largest stone sculpture in the palace:

Even without knowing what I was looking at the palace was quite impressive. Front to back it covers about 1 KM, with hundreds of buildings. Most of the buildings are identical in structure, colour, etc. This building stands out as it was the only white building I saw in the entire complex. For me the most memorable part of the palace was the Imperial Gardens. Now when I think of a garden I think of flowers and trees, but this garden was a rock garden. Absolutely stunning! I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Finally after a long day walking around I was ready for dinner. I finally had the famous “Beijing” duck. This is prepared tableside and is served in 2 courses. The first is with pancakes, sauce, cucumbers, onions, and the skin rolled up. The skin is carved from the duck tableside where the roll-ups are assembled. The duck is then taken back into the kitchen, carved and prepared with bean sprouts. All I can say is delicious. I didn’t leave a bite of anything on the plate. I figured I needed my energy if I was to hike The Great Wall in the morning.

The Great Wall
Not being a fan of organized tours, especially after seeing them at the FC, I booked myself a private tour guide for Friday to visit the wall. This way I could take my time and do my own thing. There are 2 main sections that can be visited from Beijing.

Badaling: This is the closest and has been opened the longest.
Mutianyu: This was only restored about 20 years ago and is a little further away. I opted for this.

One of the great things about going on your own you can ask to make stops along the way. Of course my guide was a little surprised when about 5 minutes away from the Wall I asked them to pull over so I could get out and take a picture. I guess most people only go where they’re told. There was no traffic so I didn’t see any danger in getting out for a minutes. If we hadn’t stopped I wouldn’t have been able to take this.

I like the combination of the modern solar cell in front of the ancient wall.

Twenty gatehouses along a 4 KM stretch were renovated during the 80’s at Mutianyu (all facts from here are what I remember from my guide if they’re wrong don’t blame me). If you look closely at the bricks you can see the difference between the original and the newly renovated ones. What is interesting about this section of the wall is that there are battlements on both sides of the wall, other sections only have battlements on one side as the enemy only exists on one side of the wall.

There are a number of ways to get up to the wall, you can walk, take an enclosed sky ride or take an open-air sky ride (similar to a ski lift). The way down is a toboggan ride, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I opted for the open air ride I figured this was the best way to see everything and I would be doing enough walking once I got to the top. After the crowds at FC I was expecting massive amounts of people, however I was pleasantly surprised that it was not crowded at all. I was shocked that I was able to get a number of photographs with no people in them. I imagine on the weekends there are many more people there and picture taking would not be possible. The lack of crowds probably accounted for how peaceful it was, when nobody was around it was very quiet not even any birds chirping.

The views all around were spectacular; you could see watchtowers stretched along the mountain tops for miles.
To think about the amount of effort that goes into designing and constructing this is mind-boggling. It’s no wonder that not all sections are maintained and only certain portions are open to the public.

You don’t realize as you start walking how steep certain sections are and the number of stairs involved. Towards the end your legs really start to burn as you climb upstairs, of course then you have to turn around and go back. Some people think that they walked uphill one direction so the way back is all downhill – not so. Just as many stairs going up:

as down:

Near almost ever watchtower were entrepreneurs, the locals who try to sell you water, beer, crackers and other assorted items. These individuals are not licensed to sell on the wall which is why they position themselves at the Gate houses – there are stairs out near each gatehouse.

After a couple hours wandering around decided to head down, the toboggan ride. This was a totally cheesy tourist thing but I enjoyed it. The only problem was there was a woman about 5 people in front of me that was obviously very afraid and we kept having to stop so we didn’t bump into one another.

And just to prove I was actually there, a wonderful photo of me!

Did you ever wonder why there are some may vases in China? The word for vase in Chinese is ping which also means peace & harmony. Having a vase in your house or giving it as a gift indicates you are wishing for a peaceful and harmonious home. I learned all this at the Cloisonne factory that I visited as part of this tour. Cloissone are made from copper, wire and enamel each item is hand made. The intricate designs on these items are all assembled by hand and carefully applied. Once the design is complete the painting process begins, an item can go between painting and firing 25 times before it is completed and ready to be sanded.

Tea Service
On the way back to the city I asked my guide if she had any recommendations for where to go to buy tea She quickly offered to take me to a tea shop near her home on the way back to the hotel where we could have a traditional tea ceremony and I could purchase some tea. The tea service allowed me to sample 5 different types of tea ginseng, 2 types of jasmine, lychee and rose hips, and pure black all of which were delicious. It was hard to decide which ones to buy. When I purchased the tea I was given a free gift – a little clay man that you pour water into, if the water is the correct temperature for the tea it will pee.

If you thought that was were the excitement ends you’re wrong. On the way back to the hotel the car broke down. At first the driver thought it had overheated but further examination revealed that some wires had gotten disconnected and the fan wasn’t working. After about 30 minutes he was able to fix it and we were back in action. The guide and driver kept apologizing profusely I guess they thought I would be upset and this would reflect poorly on their service. This is where this tale ends until next time, in the next installment we will be covering life on the streets and the olympics.


Anonymous said...

WOW!!!It sounds fantastic and educational. I bet the vases were beautiful and I am actually speechless on the little man peeing so you know the correct temperature of tea. Love Mom

Anonymous said...

Just amazing that the Wall was made by human power and animal power.
Unique way of knowing when the water is ready for tea. Should cause a stir in some areas of the world where you will be visiting.
Very interesting to see you adapting to the language of the area you are living in. SOme people will thing you are a foreignor when you come back to the states.


Amy said...

So was that all the tea in China at the shop? Sounds delicious, and very impressive pictures of the wall.