Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Day 5 April 27 Beijing

Today was our final day in Beijing so an early rise and packing, trying to fit our acquisitions into our already-bulging cases. The day looked full of promise because it was bright sunny again.
Our final outing was to the imperial summer palace on the outskirts of the city. On our way there we passed by Tiananmen and the Forbidden City one last time, observing that the Aussie flags were still up. Traffic past them was moving at a snail’s pace however. Suddenly, after a traffic light, it moved smoothly again. Jeff explained that we had just passed the seat of government, which had imposed a rule that no traffic may move slower than 60 km/h in front of the entrance. They just bunch all the traffic up at the lights before the entrance and then sequence the following lights so that a large batch of cars can pass by swiftly. This is an interesting example of how the government controls the people. 

The summer palace was home to the court from April through November. Apparently it reached its present state under the dowager empress Cixi (“seesee”) – a formidable woman. She liked to be there more than in the city.
The site is remarkable for the large artificial lake which Cixi had made because she wanted to be near water. The excavated earth was used to created a hill crowned with impressive structures. At the edge of the lake there is a concrete boat, anchored to the lake bottom, signifying that the dynasty, or China, is unsinkable.
The palace buildings were generally not that notable, but there were several exceptions. One was the theatre where we were treated to a performance of traditional music and dance. The other was a unique structure – the Long Corridor – a 760m long covered passageway decorated with 14,000!! individual paintings, all different.

While waiting to get on a dragon boat to take us back to the entrance, we came across a group of small school children. They were a lively bunch and interacted freely with us onlookers, practicing their few words of English. It was such a heart-warming thing to see.

On the to lunch we did a lightning stop by the side of the motorway, ascended a pedestrian overpass and had a quick peek at the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube – two of the Olympic venues. I was pleased we could do this because I had wanted to see this remarkable structure in the flesh. Sadly, it is not used for sport now.

Unlike the previous two times, today Jeff asked us if we would like to see a tea ceremony. Naturally we indicated that we would and we are pleased that we did. A nice young woman (they are always nice young women!) explained and demonstrated aspects of the tea ceremony, encouraging us to sample four different types of tea. We were astounded to learn that there are more 2,000 types of tea in China. Puts the French and their 573 (my guess) types of cheese in the shade. At one point she place a ball thwo thirds the sizeof  golf ball into a glass and then continued with her demonstration and sampling. Several minutes later she drew our attention to the glass. The ball had transformed itself, expanding from a small ball into a (real) camellia flower, in brilliant yellow – amazing. Because we are such good sports (suckers) we bought a pack of one of the teas we had tasted – ginseng ulong.

Lunch was at our guide’s bride-to-be’s favourite restaurant – a traditional (non-tourist) establishment. Here we had the best meal of our stay, this time joined by Jeff and the driver, a fitting way to end our stay. Finally we were whisked to the airport, where Jeff ensured that we were properly checked in before waving us good-bye.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Day 4 April 26 Great Wall

Our day started with  a visit to a hutong (literally “well” in Manchurian), a traditional Beijing neighborhood consisting of mainly one or two storey family dwellings. We were handed over to our local guide Neil who rode behind our conveyance, a tricycle, on a bicycle, telling us about the area and people as we went. Toilet, bath and shower are at shared facilities every 50-75m. This is also the social centre of the neighborhood. This area was reasonably affluent, with cars everywhere. Neil pointed out square sheets of plywood affixed to some cars’ wheels. This serves to protect the rims and tires from dogs cocking their leg. 


The highlight of this mini-tour was a visit to a family’s home. Mr & Mrs Liu were very welcoming and served us jasmine tea. Mr Liu is a kung fu teacher with an imposing bearing. His eldest son is also a kung fu instructor - in Houston TX. The bottom floor consists of a kitchen and dining/living room. Bedrooms were upstairs, but we did not see these. The ceiling of the main room was white with red paper cut-outs of elaborate patterns and traditional themes – quite fascinating. They are made with knife and scissors.  We told them a little about ourselves and had a very friendly conversation with Neil translating. Photos were taken and we said our goodbyes, returning to the car.

Today’s main destination was The Great Wall. The section we visited is about 80 km from Beijing – a little over an hour and a half. Part of the distance was covered on very good motorway. I should mention here that the streets and roads in Beijing very very good. For the last half hour or so we trailed a convoy of Mercs with flashers blinking and preceded by a police car with lights flashing. Maybe our PM was going there too, but we never found out.
After disembarking we had to brave the usual barrage of souvenir sellers. I hade thought we would be required to climb up to the wall on foot, but no. This place caters for the physically challenged, so we ascended by gondola. The weather on this day was again overcast, but with the added frisson of the possibility of rain. The poor air quality was, according to Jeff, due to a sandstorm. On the plus side, the temperature was low, so this made walking the wall quite easy really. This is my kind of scenery and terrain – lots of hills and valleys in all directions, yet not too big and quite close. 

 It’s quite astonishing to see with one’s own eyes how the wall snakes along the ridge lines, with guard posts every few hundred metres. While we were stopped, photographing and enjoying the view, we were again approached to have a photo taken with me, This time it was two young women. The guide later reported that these two had been egging each other on to get up the nerve to ask, but he helped them out by suggesting it – in effect offering my modeling services! It was a lot of fun – smiles and giggles all around.

 About half way through it started to sprinkle and this continued on and off for the rest of our time on the wall. Apart from making us scramble for rain gear and cover, the rain veiled the surrounding hills in the kind of soft mist that masks successive lines of hills. In between rain spells the air cleared and the sun shone making for an interesting set of contrasts. At the end we had several descent options. One was a chairlift and the other was a sort of sled running in a flattened stainless steel half pipe. Joan was not too keen on this idea, but I wanted to have a go. It didn’t operate when there was rain so we waited a while. Unfortunately rain resumed so we went the other way.

 After lunch and soon after setting off for home, we detoured via another tourist trap – a closine factory. First we were shown the five or six stages of the production process – very labour-intensive. And then it was on to the showroom. Naturally you are shown the most exquisite items first – mainly jars, vases and plates. I’d love to have taken several of those along, but the budget only stretched to items lower on the price scale.

The journey back was uneventful.
After a few hours R&R and housekeeping we were whisked away to have dinner in a restaurant outside the tourist strip, where we were to have Peking Duck. Our guide popped in and out several times while we were eating. He is a fount of knowledge about Chinese culture and language. We learned, among other things, that ketchup is in fact a Chinese word meaning … wait for it … tomato sauce. Also, yum cha, a Cantonese term, means afternoon tea.