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Beijing, Part 2

Author: Judith A. (More Trip Reviews by Judith A.)
Date of Trip: June 2005

The first official day of our Viking River Cruise Tour started with a bus ride to Tian an Men Square. As soon as we got off the bus we were MOBBED and I mean literally, mobbed by people trying to sell us souvenirs. Each person on our tour was surrounded by two or three of them, trying to sell either postcards, t-shirts or hats. They would block your way, shoving stuff at you to buy. It was a little insane, and it was a taste of the harassment to come (this happened to us every time we got off the bus at any tourist destination until we got to Hong Kong). We walked to Tian an Men Square, the world’s largest public square, with enough standing room for almost half a million people. Other than that, it is honestly not all that interesting. It is flanked by big, important looking buildings on every side. Chairman Mao’s tomb is also there, which is a big attraction for the Chinese tourists. There is a very long line to get to see his embalmed body from a distance. So naturally, we skipped doing that. We eagerly took photos of the entrance gate to the Forbidden City (with Chairman Mao’s gigantic painting over the doorway). Seen this on TV countless times, it was exciting to really be there. When you get up close, you can see that Chairman Mao has a big mole on his face. It was kind of amusing to me, how there are pictures of this chubby, balding, middle-aged Chinese guy everywhere. (I guess the Chinese are not as concerned about looks as Americans are)!

Our guide told us that there is more than one Mao painting, to replace it quickly in case of damage of any kind. He also said the famous scene that we saw play out on our televisions over and over again with the guy in the white shirt standing in front of the tank, blocking it from proceeding further during the 1989 demonstration actually did not happen in Tian an Men Square, but miles away on the outskirts of the city.

So after giving us some time to take photos, we continued on our way into the Forbidden City. It was really packed with tourists. But still it was really an experience to be there. It was gorgeous and very interesting in it’s mystery. It’s hard to imagine all the power for such a gigantic country as China emanating from one place: a walled complex of beautiful buildings, which no one was allowed to enter in to for hundreds of years. (It made me want to see the movie “The Last Emperor” again). The most interesting part of the city is not the ceremonial buildings, but the rooms of the living quarters and the gardens.

After our tour of the Forbidden City, we took the bus to the Summer Palace. This was the royal palace set on a man-made lake that the royal family used to go to in the summer to keep cool. It was really beautiful and had a nice breeze. We had a little boat ride on the lake, which was very nice.

That evening for dinner, the Viking tour took us to a restaurant for Peking Duck dinner. I was a little reluctant to eat a duck (since they are cute), but it’s a famous dish, so I did have a few bites. What made it taste good wasn’t how they cooked the duck (which is supposed to be a lengthy and complicated process) but the delicious poisson sauce. I don’t even know how to describe what it tasted like, but it looked like and had the consistency of chocolate (but didn’t taste like it). It was very good. We had a really nice time at this dinner, chatting with Robb’s parents and other members of our tour.

The next day Viking took us out to the Great Wall at Ba Da Ling. This is the section of wall you always see on TV and in pictures. It’s where all the visiting dignitaries go. It is well preserved (restored) and very scenic. But there are people just crawling all over it. It was really a mob scene. We were so glad we had hiked that remote section, when we only saw 4 other people the whole time! What a completely different experience our two visits to the wall were.

Regardless, it was still magnificent , and we took more photos and climbed more stairs and enjoyed ourselves, and learned how to bargain at some of the souvenir stalls on the way back down to the bus.

After visiting the wall (again) we were taken out to the Ming Tombs. Where all but 2 of the Ming emperors are buried. But we didn’t go into the tombs, we just walked along the sacred way leading up to them. It is a long, straight walk and as you go along, on either side every few feet there are big statues of animals (real and imaginary) and warriors and priests. I think they are there to guard the tombs.

That night our tour company was going to take our group to dinner and then to see the Peking Opera. Robb and I had heard some bad reviews (long, screeching, boring) of this, so we decided to skip out on the group. Robb actually wasn’t feeling well, so he decided to take a nap. So I went shopping on Wangfujing (our new hotel was located right at the base of it, so I didn’t have to walk to get there). I went into a children’s toy store, saw some interesting Chinese toys (they don’t seem too concerned about choking hazards), and then went over to the English language bookstore and bought a book. Then I went to the street night market for dinner. This is a series of little stalls, each selling some different kind of food. I got: cold rice noodles (which were good, but I would have liked better hot), pineapple rice (good) and a fried cream cake (surprisingly boring), fried pork dumplings (good, but not enough pork in the middle) and a fried beef sandwich. That was the best thing. It was SOOOOOO good. Up til then, I’d just been buying whatever I wanted to try and eating a few bites and then throwing it away (things were cheap and I didn’t want to fill up on just one item). But the beef sandwich was delicious, and I was standing there thinking: “This is so good, I am going to eat the whole thing” when I saw some poor, filthy man digging through one of the trash cans and eat a few grains of rice that were still in a bowl. God. I felt so sorry for him. How awful to have to scrounge through filthy garbage cans for your dinner. And he was literally the filthiest human being I’ve ever set eyes on. So I walked over to him and gave him my delicious beef sandwich. I think he was a little surprised that someone was handing him food, but he took it and ate it. (I also later gave him the rest of my pork dumplings).

After filling up on various bites of different foods (all that food I bought still cost me under $10) I stopped at McDonald’s on the way back to the hotel to get Robb a cheeseburger. (He had wanted some comfort food, since he wasn’t feeling well). He enjoyed his cheeseburger very much, and then we watched TV for a while and went to bed.

The next morning Viking took us on a pedi-cab ride through the hutongs. Which we were already pretty familiar with, from our previous hotel stay there. The hutongs are interesting neighborhoods and we had enjoyed walking around in them, seeing the stores and the daily life of the people. So this hutong tour Viking offered would not have been that interesting to us, except we did get entry into one of the hutong courtyards, so we got to see how the 3 houses inside are laid out. One of the women who lived there got paid to hostess these tour groups. She was about 50 but looked like she was in her late 30’s. I wanted to ask her what moisturizer she used, but didn’t. She and her husband were already retired. She said because people in China retire early, as there is such a large population -- so many young people joining the workforce. The old give way to the new.

Seeing her house was very interesting. There is no bathroom (hutongs have public toilets and showers for the residents to use). The house had been built around this ancient tree. She had gorgeous woodwork in her home, a microwave and a rice cooker. The homes in the hutongs are very difficult to heat, so they run the hot water pipes along the walls to help keep them warm. She said the two or three families that share one courtyard usually become quite close and care for each other.

After our visit to the hutong home was over, we swam our way upstream through the crowds of vendors to the bus, and headed towards the airport to leave for Xian, and the army of Terra Cotta Warriors!

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