Around the World in 1998-1999; Beijing China
Note; this post is recreated from the original wired2theworld website post with the dates below. The old posts were reformatted in 2018 and 2019 for the 20th anniversary of wired2theworld. As much as possible, the content is unchanged and unedited from the original, only some formatting, spelling, and link errors have been corrected.
January 9, 1999
Beijing, The People’s Republic of China
Well, once again, I am surprised by what I find when we arrive in a new place. I guess as an American, I had a preconceived notion of what I thought “Red China” would be, and, of course, it wasn’t. Although there are still 9 million bicycles in this city of 12 million, cars now seem to outnumber people-powered vehicles. China seems to have embraced a consumerist culture, complete with huge shopping malls, young girls in platform shoes, signs in English, and a cellular phone in almost every hand.
We were met at the airport by “Louie”, our local Beijing guide. His English was so good, that I asked him how long he had spent in the US. He had never been out of China and had learned most of his English at school, or by reading English and watching TV. He took us to our hotel, the Palace (now the Peninsula Beijing), truly five stars, and said he would pick us up the next day for sightseeing with the other tour group members who were staying at another hotel.
We went out for a walk to get some lunch and were confronted by bitter cold, under 20 degrees F. We went into a few Chinese government-run department stores in search of gloves for David and long underwear for me. Absolutely no one speaks any English at all, but after a few different stores, I find some wool long johns and David finds some knit gloves that will fit his big hands. Still sick, I am exhausted and we go back to the hotel and sleep the rest of the day away under warm down comforters.
January 10, 1999
The Forbidden City
I have always dreamt of coming here. When I was in High School, I made a poster-size scale map of the Forbidden City as a class project. I have seen countless photos of it and read many novels in which it is depicted. None of those representations even begin to do justice to the enormity of this palace. It is simply too huge for words. It is said to have 9999 rooms and housed tens of thousands of people at a time.
We entered through the first gate, a huge structure in itself, and walked into the first courtyard. This area would have been for receptions and military pomp and circumstance. The imperial guards were housed around the perimeter, and all officials entered through this gate. We walked the length of the courtyard and up the stairs of the next majestic building. We were told that it was merely another gate, into another courtyard. In the next courtyard, the Emperor dealt with the matters of state, held audiences, and met with the lesser ministers. He only did this for a single hour per day, so if an audience was missed, then one had to wait for the next day. Through the next gate and across the following courtyard was a smaller, but no less ornate, throne room. This was where the Emperor sat and prepared for the day’s business.
We were at least a quarter-mile into the complex, but our guide told us that we were still in the front section of the Forbidden City, which was the political section. For a commoner to enter these walls, it meant certain death if caught, and they were always caught. There are no trees in the front courtyards for security purposes. A tree could be used by an assassin to hide in, it was believed, and thus none were planted in the forbidden city with the exception of the innermost garden, where the emperor would walk for relaxation with his favorite concubines. He had thousands of concubines in the Royal Palace and would send for a different one each night.
The only major disappointment of the tour through the forbidden city was its lack of furnishing. All of the contents of the palace were looted and plundered by those who overthrew the Imperial regime in the early part of the century. There is virtually nothing left inside any of the buildings, and although a few rooms offer recreations of furniture and decorations, it is not quite the same. The architecture is, however, still mostly original, and remains intact.
The most intriguing points of interest on the structure are the roof corners and the walkways that lead from building to building. On the corners of each roof are a series of animal carvings, all in an ornate line. They start with the most powerful, the dragon and the phoenix, and are followed by a variety of creatures, ending with the monkey, who was not, incidentally, the least powerful. Each building carried a different number of animals on the roof, denoting its importance as a building. The more animals a building has, the more important it was. Eleven creatures in a line were the greatest number of animals on the roof of any building.
Numbers were extremely important to the design of the buildings. Nothing had four of anything, as four is considered a very unlucky number. In Chinese, the word for the number four sounds like the word for death. On the other hand, the number nine was extremely lucky and allowed only for imperial things. For example, only the imperial gates could have nine by nine, or eighty-one, iron studs on the front. Much of the math in the design of the structure was based on nines, and all of the numbers meant something.
After we left the Forbidden City, we drove around to the other side for our first meal on a guided tour. The restaurant was obviously waiting for us to arrive, as the table was set with several little dishes of cold pickled things. At first, we were afraid that this would be it, maybe with a little rice, but we soon to be proven wrong. The dishes started to come out of the kitchen and they just didn’t’ stop. One after another; eel, mushroom, fish, pork, shrimp, chicken, beef, tripe, noodles, and stuff that I just couldn’t identify but ate in spite of my fear. The meal was simply delicious. We were all quite surprised by the quality of the food, especially given the fact that we were on a package tour. On the other hand, if the quality of our hotel was to be an indication of the overall quality of the tour, then we were most definitely in for a good time.
We left the restaurant for a little walk around the fences that currently surround Tiananmen square, which is currently being re-paved for the greater good. This meant that we would not be able to see the square in all of its glory, nor would we be able to see Mao’s tomb, except from the outside. The Gate of Heavenly Peace, from which Mao declared the revolution a success, and China a republic of the people, was not under reconstruction, thank goodness. We walked under one of the widest streets I have ever seen, and as we approached this monument, with its memorial picture of Mao hanging under the place where he made his famous speech, I had an “Oh my God, I’m really here in China” moment. The image of this place is one that every television watching human being on the planet shares, I believe. At least those who watch western news will have seen countless shots from the stock footage files of the facade of the once imperial gate. The Emperor used this gate to lower his decrees to the people and was a central point of communication between the government and the people. It was not an arbitrary choice on the part of Mao to use this site for his declaration of the People’s Republic. Ironically, most of the tourists we saw taking their pictures in front of the building were Chinese, not foreign.
From Tiananmen, we boarded our little bus and went off to the next big structure: The Temple of Heaven. The grounds on which the Temple of Heaven stands are more than twice as big as the Forbidden City. This is where the Emperor’s godfather lived, and the Emperor came to worship twice a year. There is more open space and land, but only three buildings. Whereas all the roof tiles in the Forbidden city are green, the color of the dragon and the emperor, the temple of Heaven has blue tiles. Blue is the color of the sky, the heavens, and therefore, the color of the godfather of the emperor. Floor tiles were giant marble stones laid out in concentric circles. Nine circles of stones, starting with nine stones in the innermost and eighty-one in the ninth, of course. I love the mathematical simplicity and perfection of all this ancient architecture.
As the Forbidden City was square, all the structures at the Temple of Heaven are round. More interesting than the temple itself, however, was the second structure. A circular wall surrounds the Imperial Vault of Heaven, a much smaller version of the above temple. This wall is known as the echo wall or whispering wall. It is so perfectly circular in its construction, and so flawless in its surface, that even a whisper can be heard on the other side. It has no grout lines, as it was constructed by anal-retentive masons who obviously felt that they were too skilled to need the aid of mortar. And so they were. Kristina and I tested the echo properties of the wall, and were thoroughly impressed, from about 50 yards, in a normal to low voice, we held a clear conversation merely by leaning our faces in towards the wall’s surface. One ironic point that should be noted here: There is not likely any craftsman who could, or would, be able to do this kind of work anymore. It appears that sometimes with progress and advances in technology, that which humans create loses a touch of the magic it once had.
We made a brief stop here at the national gallery, ostensibly for the purpose of looking at art, of which there was little. I think that the gallery’s third floor has got to be one of the biggest gift shops I have ever seen. At first, it was presented as part of the art museum, but then they elaborated and explained how these works were regularly rotated out and sold to tourists. Everything had a price tag, so Kristina and I went down to the ground floor and perused the modern art, which had some merit, but was truly scarce. Two small rooms of politically complacent paintings, with nothing challenging the status quo, oh no. The people struggle, they unite, all is well, everyone works, happiness is secondary to security, yadda yadda. So we sat on a bench and waited for the group.
Our next stop was the enormous Summer Palace. Of course, it was the middle of a bitterly cold winter, and we were freezing! Nothing summer about it. The summer palace is another large and ornate palace, built for the Emperor’s mother Cixi, in the 1800s. It sits on a man-made lake, which was frozen sufficiently for ice skaters to be out in droves, and houses at least two significant sights. The longest corridor is a covered walkway with ornate paintings on each sequential roof eve. No two paintings are identical. One thing is for certain, the walkway is long- very long. With a -10 wind blowing off the lake and freezing any unlucky exposed flesh, the walkway seemed eternal. At the end, sitting on ice, was the marble boat. Call me a party pooper, but I was not impressed. It looked more like Disneyland’s concrete riverboat to me, but I oohed and aahhed like I was taught in manners class. Once again, I silently thanked the powers for convincing me to take a guided tour, as the minibus was waiting for our cryogenically preserved crew on the far side of the summer palace, and we did not have to drag ourselves back down the eternal corridor.
We must have looked worse than the cat they dragged in ahead of us. Just kidding, we saw no cats for consumption, or dogs for that matter, during the entirety of the trip, thank God. I don’t think I could have handled that- Kristina’s reaction, I mean, to little kitties in cages in a food market. She is relentless with the cats. It is worse in Bangkok, which is full of strays, making for at least one stop per outing. She has to pet them all. I digress. We were exhausted, but we still had dinner and the Opera, before bed. Dinner was in the same hotel that housed the theatre, which meant no more bus rides, but didn’t bode well for either the dinner or the entertainment. My instincts on these subjects are fairly well developed, given a wealth of experience eating out and going to theatre, opera, ballet, musicals etc. , and they did not let me down that night. I knew dinner was going to bomb when the fourth dish brought to the table was a plate of french fries and ketchup. I had to ask the waitress if this was an ancient Chinese delicacy, but, thankfully, she didn’t understand my question or its sarcastic nature. She just smiled and went off to fetch the Coca Colas that we were going to need to stay awake for the opera.
The opera was better than the meal, but not by much. In all fairness, it must be better if you can understand the singing in Chinese, and better still if you were raised to appreciate the kind of singing that is performed at the opera. To make matters worse, there was a computerized translation on a large digital screen which was incredibly difficult to follow. The words flashed on the screen for one or wo seconds at best, leaving it only half read, and what one could decipher, was usually unintelligible. The English was little better than the brochures that one gets at the tourist sites. At least it was occasionally amusing. The truth be told, I prefer Italian opera, even German opera, to the Beijing opera. The costumes were terrific, and the acrobatics were impressive during the second act, but apart from that, I could not wait for it to end. I was so happy at the end of the day, when finally we were returned to our hotels, and I tucked myself into bed under the lush down comforter, and fell into a deep deep sleep.
Note from 20 years in the future, from Kristina:
There are two things I remember quite clearly from this portion of the trip and oddly, we did not write about either.
The first is that our tour group was quite small. It consisted of only us and another family of four, two of whom were expats living in China and working for Kraft and the other 2 were their family members visiting from the US. This tiny group size made for a trip that felt special and customized just for us.
The second is an experience we had when standing in Tiananmen Square. We found ourselves with time to spare and asked our guide Louie if we could visit the People’s Revolutionary Cemetary. He looked perplexed, told us it would not be easy to reach on our own, and asked why we wanted to go there. David replied that his great-great aunt, Anna Louise Strong, is buried there and he might like to visit. Louie looked absolutely stunned and speechless for a moment. Then he stuck out his hand, and said “Can I shake your hand? She is a hero! I learned about her in school!”
It was a pretty surreal experience. In looking at a map now, the cemetery looks to be about 13 kilometers from where we were standing and a straight shot down one road. We probably could have taken a taxi or a bus there, but alas, we did not.
January 11, 1999
The Great Wall and Ming Tombs
Today is a day we’ve been waiting for for a long time. We finally get to see the Great Wall of China. Our little bus arrives early to pick us up and drive the 75k northwest of Beijing. The section that we see is at the Wall’s highest point, 2,625 feet above sea level, and it is bitterly cold and windy when we arrive, probably about 10 degrees F.
The wall was built in the 1300’s and stretches almost 4000 miles. It has collapsed in many areas, but there are sections, like the one we saw in Badaling that have been reconstructed. The wall is on average, 25 feet high and 18 feet across and meanders in a zig-zag line across the countryside. At times, it appears to double back upon itself and sometimes looks like there are two walls running parallel. The Wall was constructed to keep out the “Mongol hordes” along what was then the Northern border of China.
We walked toward the entrance, through the dozens of souvenir shops and our fellow tour members stopped and bought Russian made rabbit fur hats with ear flaps for less than $5 each. As we climbed and walked along the top of the wall, we fought the cold and the wind and wondered how the soldiers stationed here could have survived the long winters. The stone guard towers, positioned in 1/2 mile intervals along the length of the wall provided little shelter, in fact, they seem to become wind tunnels instead. When standing on the wall, your view stretches all the way to the horizon in either direction and the wall along with it. It is hard to grasp though, the enormity of the structure and the time and manpower needed to create it.
Lunch was at a huge banquet hall/restaurant on the top floor of the Friendship Department Store. The food was ok but unmemorable. The Friendship Department Store used to be one of the only places a foreigner could shop in China. It is now basically an overpriced, oversized souvenir shop. Everything was at least double the cost of what we had looked at in other stores in Beijing. I did, however, buy some Chinese herbal medicine for my cough. It is something that I had used before in the States and it works quite well.
From there we headed toward the Ming Tombs. First, we stopped at the Pavilion of the Great Stele and Avenue of the Spirits which used to be the entrance to the Tombs. The Pavilion contains a huge statue of a tortoise that, it is said if you touch its head will bring wealth and if you touch its rear would bring good health. More concerned with my health, I touched the rear.
Through the Pavilion is a long walkway called the Avenue of the Spirits that is lined with giant stone figures from the Ming Dynasty. There are six different animals represented and six pairs of humans. Every second animal is in a reclining position, and the legend states that they switch places with the standing ones at midnight. At the end of the long walkway, we had to board the bus again to go to the only one of the tombs that has been excavated and is open to the public.
In this valley where the Ming Tombs are located, there are 13 of the 16 Ming Dynasty emperors buried, along with their wives, concubines, and many possessions. Dingling, the tomb of Emperor Wanli is the only one that is open to the public. We walked down seven flights of stairs to the first of five chambers deep underground. The first chamber was empty and found that way. All of the rooms underground were of massive proportions, built with huge stones and extremely high ceilings. The second chamber was called the “living room” and held the throne of the Emperor and Empress along with giant vases that were once filled with sesame oil. Before the Tomb was sealed, it is said that the oil was lit, so that there would be “eternal” light. More likely that the sealed tomb had no air, and the flame was extinguished before all the oil could burn away. The next chamber was where the coffins of the Emperor and his two wives were found. They were entombed in double coffins each along with many boxes of jewelry and possessions. The last two chambers were empty. All along the route in the tomb, behind the Plexiglas barriers, was Chinese money that visitors had thrown at the relics, hoping to bring good fortune. Our guide said that most of the “good fortune” goes to the workers in the Tomb who clean up at night.
After leaving the Tomb, we visited a jade workshop where we learned how to discern real jade from imitation. Real jade is extremely cold to the touch and does not warm easily. From there we drove back to Beijing where we had an early dinner at Hot Pot restaurant. This was a very interesting meal. Each person is given their own hot pot, like a fondue pot, filled with broth and a burner underneath. Then, in the middle of the table, many different dishes of raw food are placed. We had our choice of sliced raw beef, chicken, pork, mutton, shrimp, scallops, fish, mushrooms, leafy greens and noodles. With chopsticks, we cooked the food in our broth and ate it with a few of the different sauces provided, the best of which was an herb paste similar to pesto. I used this sauce to flavor my broth as well. Near the end of the meal, more noodles are brought out and the broth, now flavored by all the meat and vegetables, is consumed like a noodle soup. Yum! Unfortunately, one of our Midwestern compatriots could not get the hang of the meal at all and did not enjoy herself.
January 12 and 13, 1999
Back to Hong Kong
The next day we flew back to Hong Kong and arrived quite late at night. The following day evening, our last in Hong Kong, we met up with our friends Ed and Philipa at a bar in Kowloon called Bahama Mamas. It was supposed to have a Caribbean theme so I had a virgin Pina Colada. For dinner, we went next door to a Spanish Tapas restaurant called El Cid. It was actually quite good and the food was fairly authentic. We had good olives, jamon serrano, squid salad, and garlic shrimp. They even had some of our favorite Rioja wines on their list, but we didn’t order any.
After that, it was home to bed and off the next morning to Taiwan…..
Please note, this post was not sponsored in any way. We always pay for everything out of our own pockets and all opinions are truly our own.
Have you been to Beijing China? Thinking of going?
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There is so much history in China, which makes it a great destination in my book. I haven’t thought of visiting it though until recently. Thanks for sharing your experiences, makes for a great read.