Beijing 9/05

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The capital and metropolitan heart of China...

Forbidden City's Gate of Heavenly Peace

Beijing is a huge, relatively clean, safe city making its transition from third world to new world status on the backs of billions of dollars, Euros and Yen. Construction cranes dominate the skyline in every direction, driven by a red-hot economy and preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games. Taxis are cheap and easy to find, while traffic gridlock due to soaring car ownership and low cost gas is an accepted everyday fact.

Beijing is rich in historical sites while still very much the Communist totalitarian capital city of the most populous country in the world. Traveling with a friend, Judy O'Dea, I spent five days based in Beijing, including side trips to hike the Great Wall of China on my 50th birthday and to visit the Terra Cotta Warriors archeological excavation in Xian, 600 miles southwest.

A foggy Summer Palace on Kunming Lake

Tuesday, September 20th

 

After my 12 hour flight from San Francisco I arrived in Beijing around 5pm local time where I was met by a driver I had hired over the internet. The traffic into Beijing was awful. Just after 7pm I got to my hotel, the New World Courtyard, which was unremarkable in every way except for it's prime location near the center of the city. After taking over an hour to get my cell phone working on the China Mobile system, I took a long nighttime walk past the Gate of Heavenly Peace (first picture above) and Tiananmen Square to get oriented (no pun intended) and shake off the long travel day.

 

Wednesday, September 21st

 

Judy arrived from Kuala Lumpur mid-morning and we headed out by taxi to drop off a deposit at Xinhua Tour Company for our Xian day trip on Saturday. From there we taxied to Temple of Heaven Park, a 670 acre nicely laid out park with gates at each point of the compass. The famous and beautiful Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests was closed and covered by scaffolding but the Rose Garden (second picture above), Imperial Vault of Heaven (third picture above), Echo Wall (fourth picture above) and Circular Mound Altar were open and worthwhile. After a quick stop back at the hotel around lunchtime, we walked to the Forbidden City.

 

The 15th century Forbidden City, so called because it was off-limits to commoners for 500 years during the Ming and Qing dynasties, is the largest imperial palace in China. Located at the center of Beijing just north of Tiananmen Square, it contains 800 buildings spread over 180 acres and is completely surrounded by a moat. The ceremonial buildings proceed south to north beginning just inside the Gate of Heavenly Peace (large picture top of page left and first picture above). After passing through the Meridian Gate and crossing the Golden River on one of five marble bridges, we entered the first of three buildings which make up the Outer Court. A large stone courtyard stands in front of the Hall of Great Harmony atop its three-tiered marble terrace (first picture below). Behind it are the smaller Hall of Middle Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony (second picture below).

We continued north toward the Inner Court whose layout echoes the Outer Court but was reserved only for the emperor and high officials. The first structure is the Gate of Heavenly Purity (third picture above) with a carved marble ramp and a pair of bronze lions flanking its entrance. Inside the Inner Court is the Palace of Heavenly Purity (fourth picture above), the Hall of Union and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (first picture below). Exiting the Forbidden City to the north (second picture below) we headed east to the Third Ring Road in a taxi for a cold drink at the Beijing Hard Rock Cafe before having an excellent, inexpensive and authentic Peking Duck dinner at the Beijing Dadong Kaoya Dian restaurant.

 

Thursday, September 22nd

 

We spent most of Thursday hiking the Great Wall of China from Jinshanling to Simatai, returning to our hotel around 7pm. We cleaned up, changed and were on our way to an excellent dinner (five course chef's selection miniatures paired with a great 2003 Scotchman's Hill Shiraz) at Aria Restaurant on the second floor of the China World Hotel by 8pm.

Friday, September 23rd

 

We hired a driver for the day (US$100) to tour the Summer Palace, the Lama Temple and to visit the hutongs north and west of the Forbidden City in a rickshaw. The Summer Palace is an 18th century 290 acre imperial playground 7 miles northwest of Beijing. The day was foggy (large picture top of page right - Precious Clouds Pavilion on the hill) and the palace itself was packed shoulder to shoulder with tourists. The park was poorly marked, but when we got lost we found some of the best sights in the quiet hills off the beaten tourist track. The walk along the lake (third picture above) was worthwhile, but uninspiring. Our driver picked us up at the northwest gate and we headed back toward Beijing to the Lama Temple. The 17th century Lama Temple is a very large, authentic example of a Chinese Buddhist temple. It consists of multiple buildings (fourth picture above) in the same south to north arrangement as the Forbidden City. It has ornate incense burners in front of each structure and Buddha statues inside, the largest of which is over 60 ft. tall.

 

After the Lama Temple, we were dropped off just north of the Forbidden City for a rickshaw tour of some of the oldest remaining hutongs in Beijing. Hutongs are a collection of thin alleyways, courtyards and neighborhoods which used to make up most of Beijing's residential areas. To a western eye they look like terrible slums (first picture below), but there's more to them here. They are close-knit communities where people know all their neighbors and generations have come and gone in the same houses. There's a pattern to the doorways and inner courts indicating family status and relative wealth. The hutongs are rapidly disappearing as more modern construction takes over. Along our tour we went through a food marketplace and saw some local restaurants before crossing the 12th century Marco Polo Bridge (second picture below) to stroll along the Back Lakes region. We ended up at the Drum and Bell Towers northwest of the Forbidden City. We climbed to the top of the Drum Tower to get an overhead view of one of the hutongs we had ridden through (third picture below) and witness the drum ceremony that announces each half hour to the city below (fourth picture below). After a quick wine stop at the hotel we headed out for an extraordinary dinner at the Courtyard Restaurant, rated one of the best in the world, located along the eastern moat of the Forbidden City. Before returning to our hotel, we stopped downstairs to view the exhibition at the Courtyard Gallery.

Saturday, September 24th

 

We headed out from our hotel at 5am to Beijing airport for an all-day trip to China's ancient capital, Xian, 600 miles to the southwest in Shaanxi province. Xian is most famous for the 2300 year old Qin Shi Huang burial ground excavation, with its Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses army, one of the most significant archeological finds of modern times.

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