Thursday, July 12, 2012

...Beijing highlights...

We spent one week in Beijing, arriving on Saturday, April 28th and leaving Saturday, May 5th.  One of our initial impressions was that we had stepped from what seemed like a big city, Xi’an (population ~ 8 million = New York City), into what proved to be a really big city—Beijing (~ 22 million), which, being translated, means, “Northern Capital”.  The subway system is highly developed and proved to be our preferred method of transit instead of the buses we had favored in Xi’an.  The hotel/hostel accommodations we had reserved proved to be ideal starting points for our daily excursions.  
The crossing guards near Tiananmen Sq. were very helpful.
I was impressed that Braille on the railing to the subway
makes this service accessible for Blind citizens.

It should be noted that we were in Beijing over the "May 1st Holiday" which is Labor Day in China.  Depending on the year, the days surrounding that date may also be considered holiday.  Chinese people and foreigners alike had warned us that travel might be inconvenient during those days, but we didn't encounter many difficulties.  However, we were glad we had booked travel and lodging well in advance.

In no particular order, here is the list of places we visited:

National Museum:  Our hostel host as well as a Chinese friend highly recommended this museum which was established in 2003.  Admission is free, but remember, as a foreigner, to have your passport ready to show upon entry.  Per usual, all backpacks are subject to search.  The enormous building certainly has room to house 50% more than was currently displayed of ancient artifacts and other historical & culturally significant information.  The rotating exhibit on the upper floor featured silk embroidery that was outstanding.  I'd recommend starting from the top floor and then going down.  Allowing 2 hours will be enough if you're not a museum fan.  Some people could spend all day here.  It is adjacent to Tiananmen Square.

We really appreciated our local friend who offered to give us a tour! 
Here we are standing in front of a massive silk embroidery piece.
Tiananmen Square: translated, this means, "Gate of Heavenly Peace".  I was amazed at the amount of area this square occupies.  It is in front of the Forbidden City and surrounded by the building where the Congress meets, Mao Zedong's mausoleum, and the National Museum.  There are various memorials to honor war heroes.  There are two subway stations here: one at the east end, the other at the west end.

The flower displays are very intricate.   In the background is the National Museum.

At the entrance gate to the Forbidden City, Chairman Mao's portrait faces Tiananmen Square.
Museum of Natural History:  We spent an hour strolling through the exhibits of stuffed animals and a few educational displays regarding the environment.  The displays are more geared toward elementary children, and we decided it was not on our top 10 list of places we'd ever revisit.

Temple of Heaven Park & Bei Hai Park:  Both of these parks are beautiful, peaceful, and places where ordinary people gathered to play games, linger over peonies, dance, and play traditional  and modern instruments.  We saw wedding parties being photographed, children eating ice cream, and retirees catching afternoon naps.  Be aware that parks charge an admission fee that is noted as a "through" fee, meaning, you can walk through the park, but not visit any of the historical sites within the park.  Those buildings in the park may require an additional 20 yuan to enter.  By this point, we had seen so many historical buildings and artifacts that we preferred to spend time listening to the music and smelling the flowers.

In 1903 the Qing Dynasty declared the peony the national flower of China.

Houhai Lake Area:  There is no admission for walking alongside this lake, which is the water playground for boaters.  It was quite pleasant for a Sunday afternoon walk.

Forbidden City:  This was the home of the emperor until the revolution in 1911.  When going to Beijng, people simply assume this is one of the sites you will visit.  It is truly remarkable in terms of architecture and sheer size.  Some people say it has 9,999 rooms.  We spent half a day there and although we did not see everything, we were satisfied that we'd gotten a proper taste.  We were glad we paid the extra entrance fee to see the Clock collection.

The Emperor's throne.

Ben took this photo which highlights the intricate design of the roof tiles and
the diverse textures of the buildings in the Forbidden City.

Summer Palace:  Beginning in 1750, this park was built for the rest and entertainment of the royal family.  It was one of our favorite sites in Beijing.  We spent about 5-6 hours walking around the lake, over the many stone bridges, through the royal gardens and in the well preserved buildings.   Located about 9 miles from the center of the city, we took the subway, a 30 - 40 minute ride.

Decorative paintings adorn nearly every surface in the corridors and buildings.

School children enjoy field trips to the Summer Palace.   They are eating banana flavored
popsicles that cost 1 CNY.  We ate several, as it was very hot that day!

The photo below was taken from the base of the tower pictured above.
Paddleboats and pontoons are available for rent on the manmade lake.

There are several stone bridges, each with unique design, that cross the waterways around the lake.

One of the famous features of the Summer Palace is this Marble Boat.  No, it doesn't float. 
It was built with funds the empress embezzled from the navy, as was most of this park.
I will state again that the Lonely Planet guide was an excellent resource during our trip. Although packing a book about may seem antiquated in this digital age, one cannot always count on internet access even in a very modern city, so we were glad to have the book along for reference. Most of the information in the latest edition is accurate, although ticket prices at some sites have increased by about 10 CNY.

This food vendor offered seahorses and scorpions on sticks.  We did not have a craving for those items! 

...the reading list gets longer...

Sometimes we read to prepare for an experience.  Sometimes we read to understand an experience.  Earlier in this blog, I posted titles that were recommended to us, and those books truly proved beneficial in framing the context of the society and culture of modern China.  Here are the links to those blog posts if you don’t want to wade through the 3 dozen other entries J.
Since that time, the reading list keeps growing and I want to highly recommend 4 books whether you have been to, are planning to go to, or are simply interested in China. 
1. Several years ago, Ben knew the Simons family, who lived in Lexington while Carolyn, a psychologist, was finishing university.  We were delighted to meet up with her and her husband, Dave on our first weekend in Beijing!  They are both now retired, and were visiting their son, Craig, his wife, Jen Lin Liu and their beautiful baby daughter. Craig and Jen are both authors and we were glad to chat with them for a few minutes in their apartment.  Then, we meandered through the nearby hutong to a cooking school owned by Jen.  The school’s head chef cheerfully allowed us to step inside the restaurant/kitchen which is designed for small dinner parties and classes.  Jen’s book, Serve the People, provides unique insight into the cuisine of China, the culture of cooking throughout the regions, and the pages are seasoned with simple, authentic recipes. 
Jen Lin Liu's book, Serve the People, is a very interesting read about Chinese cuisine.
The chef at the cooking school Jen owns and operates in a trendy Beijing hutong.

Dave & Carolyn treated us to lunch
at a Vietnamese restaurant.
En rte to the cooking school.

2. & 3. We learned that Craig Simons was part of the team of Peace Corps volunteers who taught in southern Chinese schools with Peter Hessler, another well-known author.  One rather rainy afternoon, we took the subway to the embassy area of Beijing where we found a well-known ex-pat bookstore, The Book Worm.  We enjoyed coffee, wifi, and purchased Peter’s book, River Town, which we intended to read on the trains & planes during our trip back to KY.  We are currently reading a 2nd book written by Peter Hessler, Oracle Bones.
4. Upon our arrival at Kelly’s Courtyard Hotel in Beijing, we ate breakfast with a German couple who loaned us the book, China Road, by Rob Gifford.  This well written account chronicles the author’s experiences travelling across the China equivalent of Rte. 66.  Here, Ben is reading a few chapters in the courtyard while our room was being prepared. 

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.”
Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!