We stayed at Beijing’s Great Wall Sheraton for 3 nights and had a lot of great Chinese meals. Beijing is amazingly polluted. You see the sun through a thick haze and our throats were scratchy all the while we were there. They are making some efforts to reduce pollution, but Beijing is growing so rapidly that it will be a challenge just to avoid it getting worse. Drivers, for instance, have to leave their cars home one day a week depending on what number their license plate ends in. They have a solid public transport infrastructure, but still traffic is heavy everywhere. The city is full of skyscrapers and high-rise apartment buildings and most of the old low-rise neighborhoods (Hutongs) have been torn down.
One night we went to Beijing’s most famous Beijing Duck restaurant. It is in an area that they renovated prior to the Olympics trying to preserve the style of a previous period – say 1930’s. It was very nice but had that unreal sanitized Disney quality about it. They had some sort of a promotion going on at the restaurant in conjunction with the local Chinese opera and a locally famous opera singer made the rounds of our tables while paparazzi and videographers captured it all. Clyde introduced himself and the singer held him for awhile. It would be interesting to see if he ended up on any of their news programs or in the newspaper. The food was outstanding with course after course. Most of the main courses were some kind of duck and the final course was Beijing Duck carved at table side – best we’ve ever had.
Our first day of touring there we went first to Tiananmen Square. It is HUGE (can accommodate 500,000 people)! Bordered by Mao’s Tomb, the Great Hall of the People (their congress meets there and it also has a banquet hall that will seat 10,000), and their national museum. Mao was not available for viewing that day – perhaps he was in for refurbishing. There is a large monument in the center honoring China’s war dead going all the way back to the Opium Wars. Free enterprise has taken hold here – there were lots of souvenir (Mao watches on which his arm waves, Olympic hats for $1, “Rolex” watches, “Gucci” bags, etc.) vendors in the square and some were quite persistent. Clyde had to have the Mao watch. Despite our being Yankee Imperialists Dogs we felt quite welcome and Clyde made the acquaintance of a very cute little girl there. Even the stern guards there smiled when Clyde waved to them. It was handy to know a few words of Chinese supplied by our guide “Bu” – No and “Ni Hao” Hello. Bu was especially handy with the vendors. Clyde used Ni Hao with a lot of kids and adults while waving one arm – always got a big smile.
Later we spent a couple of hours in the Forbidden City which is also in the heart of Beijing not far from Tiananmen. This is the former home of China’s emperors from the 1400s on. Forbidden City because anyone entering without permission was beheaded or worse. It covers many acres and has many buildings and all of it is surrounded by high walls and a moat. All of the buildings are wooden with tile roofs and are very ornate. Most have burned down and been rebuilt numerous times. The ends of each roof are decorated with upright ceramic animals and gods – the more of them there are, the more important the building (see photo). There are public areas of the city where the emperor received visitors, participated in ceremonies and met with his officials. Then there is the private area where the emperor lived with his empress, his thousands of concubines, his children and his many servants (eunuchs). Other than in a small formal garden, there are no trees in the Forbidden City since they might hide assassins. Food tasters were employed and the floors of the city had 15 layers of stone and dirt to foil anyone trying to tunnel in. If you see the movie “The Last Emperor”, it shows many shots of the Forbidden City. The main buildings have names such as “Hall of Supreme Harmony”.
Next came the “Temple of Heaven”. It also covers many acres and has many interesting features. Heaven was thought to be round back then and the earth square. The structures when you enter the temple grounds are rectangular and painted in red and yellow (colors of the earth and the emperor). The structures further in are round and blue (the celestial color).This is a Taoist temple that was only used twice a year when the Emperor came to pray for a good harvest in the spring and later in the year when he came to pray to the supreme being. He was accompanied only by his sons and top officials – no women allowed. Animal sacrifices were offered.
The following day we went north by bus about 90 minutes to a section of the Great Wall. This amazing structure was built by hand over steep terrain and stretches some 4000 miles. We climbed a section of it and it was quite steep – and pretty awe inspiring. Clyde met another cute little girl there – Jen Jen (see pic). After a great Chinese lunch, with many courses served family style at round tables with lazy susans in the middle, we went to one of the tombs of the Ming emperors. There are a number of above ground buildings similar to those at the Forbidden City and the emperor was actually buried in an underground palace made of marble which in under a hill which was originally surrounded by a moat and appeared to cover several acres. The actual tomb has not been excavated. The tombs of all the Ming emperors (13 if memory serves) are in the same general area but miles apart. At one time there was a special road from the Forbidden City that ran to this area and only used to transport the dead emperors. A 1 Km section of the road has been preserved and is lined with granite statues of animals and men. The statues date back to the 1400s. On our way to the Great Wall we stopped at the main Olympic venue and saw (the exterior) the Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest. Clyde posed with our great tour guide Liu Yi (louie).
That was a very full day and we got up the next morning at 0500 to fly to Hong Kong. None of us had any energy left when we got to Hong Kong that afternoon so we took it very easy. Hong Kong is also loaded with high-rise apartment buildings and skyscrapers and their skyline is very impressive. Our ship was docked in Kowloon near the Star Ferry terminal and our balcony had an amazing view of Hong Kong Island across the harbor. We sailed away at night right past the Hong Kong waterfront and most of the buildings had some kind of multi-colored lighting that changed in interesting patterns. This combined with laser lights and many searchlights beaming from the tops of the tallest buildings made this the most spectacular sail-away we have ever had.