Our train ride was uneventful. We rested, watched TV on our computers, read, ate one last “very” Chinese meal and then woke up in Beijing. We booked a traditional hutong style hotel called The Beijing Soluxe Courtyard Hotel. For an inexpensive 3 star hotel, it was lovely. Very close to the subway station with a beautiful garden, complete with fish pond and lovely little birds, plus it was back off the road so very quite in spite of construction in the area. I highly recommend it.
Beijing has much to offer and many sights to see. We only had five days so we picked what we felt were the most important attractions, but first we ate! We went to Element Fresh and had fresh pressed juice, salad (with lettuce!!!) and a sandwich (with real bread)…..It was food nirvana. We had a firsthand experience of food as a drug. It was like when you have been camping for a couple of weeks without a proper shower. Then you come home and have your first hot shower with real water pressure…Glorious! I am certain we of the “western style world” are spoiled for choice and addicted not only to the obvious things but to food, TV, A/C, central heating, and choice its self. I love my cushy life, but make no mistake we are in invisible cages of our own making. This said, it is fantastic to eat western food again. It is also interesting to see what we crave. Not sweets….we crave food: juice, salad, soup, steamed veges, fish etc.
After our first day of rest and eating we got to the adventure of see Beijing. The first day we went to the Forbidden City, now called the Palace Museum, and traditionally called Gugong. Building was started in 1406 and after its completion 24 emperors ruled over 500 years. In 1987 it was declared a Unesco heritage site. One could spend a week here and not see everything. We did the quick version and spent 5 hours walking until we could walk no more. Words really don’t do this place or any of the other places we saw justice. I will post pictures which may help, but really these places are kinesthetic in nature and require firsthand experience. I will say this; unless you were emperor life was most likely short, as the Chinese rulers had a nasty habit of requiring death of all those who were associated with them once their required duties were done. For example the empress, all concubines (3000+) and guardian eunuchs (1500+) were required to kill themselves when the emperor died…..this may have been a blessing, as the women’s feet were all bound into painful deformity so as to be appropriately small and of course the eunuchs were already missing parts, which they carried around in a jar on their belts. They did this so when they died they would be buried whole and by allowed into the afterlife. If you built the emperor’s tomb you were killed when you finished and the list goes on like this. However, the likely hood of death did not dampen Chinese ingenuity. The Forbidden City is a marvel, 10,000 rooms built without modern equipment, even simple things like nails. It has endured as the center of Chinese culture for hundreds of years and been perfectly rebuilt and maintained even in the face of many invasions and wars.
The Royal entourage rarely left the Forbidden City, except to visit two other places. We went to both. First, once a year the emperor, a small group of wives and a few important minister would travel a short way south through what is now Tainanmen square (site of much recent history, but basically a very large cement square….I feel for the flag guards, standing for hours in awful heat) to the Temple of Heaven. Here the emperor (considered the son of heaven) would fast for 3 days then pray for the year’s harvest and offer sacrifices to the gods. The Chinese believed China to be the center of the world and this temple was considered the center of China, so it was the center of the center….The most sacred place. Today it continues to be a beautiful garden surrounding a beautiful temple. The other yearly adventure was to the Summer Palace, about a half hour outside of Beijing. The whole palace company moved to this lake side palace in the heat of summer. Today it is the best, most beautiful park to get away from the city. For me the highlight here was empress Dowager Cixi’s marble boat, complete with the obvious issue a marble boat would have. She was the one concubine that managed to get around all the rules and got herself into a place of power, ruling in her young son’s place till he came of age, which he never did. He died and she managed to put in a nephew as a puppet emperor. She appropriated funds tagged for war to rebuild and improve the Summer Place and build her marble boat….It was her way of fighting against the powers that were trying to undermine her rule. Some say her rule was the beginning of the downfall of China, but her poor governing and military choices also lead to the beginning of China opening to the rest of the world. Forty years after her rule, the eunuchs and concubines were dismissed, women’s feet were unbound and the communist party took over. The Forbidden City and all the royal locations were opened to the public. There were/are many problems with the communist regime but it is better than feudal China.
Of course the other place we went was the Great Wall. It was started by Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who also built the Terra Cotta Warrior tomb near Xian for himself. It continued to be built by many throughout the 5th and 6th century. We went to the less visited Mutianyu section of wall. Once again it is not only a barrier against invading forces but also the tomb of those who labored to build it. Still it was fantastic. We did Tai Chi 28 on it just for good measure. The best part was getting down the mountain. This section of the wall sets on top of it. They have created a giant slide down. It is like a bobsled ride in slow motion. Good fun!
We did a traditional tour for the Great Wall part of our trip and it included seeing the Ming Tombs. This is where the Ming Emperors were buried. Only one tomb is open to the public and it is basically several large underground stone rooms. Most of the treasures have been moved to museums, stolen or burned. It was still interesting. The Chinese leave money so the spirits of the dead will not follow them home and bring bad luck. The tour also included a jade and silk factory. The silk factory wasn’t as interesting as what we visited in Cambodia, but end products were beautiful. The jade sculptors however, were really impressive. The size and detail from a single piece of jade, plus the variety of colors was a marvel.
By the end of four hardcore days of sightseeing were done. It was a real blessing to get to Rhett and Aurora’s place in Shanghai. Here we have been taking it easy, playing with their kids and just being….oh, yes…we have continued to eat!!!! We are looking forward to returning home to England. We do have mixed feelings: there are many things we have learned and loved on this trip, we really hope we will be able to incorporate some of them into our daily lives in the western world.