DIA was as efficient as ever, the cheap parking shuttles rumbling by regularly, and we made it with plenty of time to spare as our flight was leaving a little late. It seemed like any other flight, until we got our luggage tags.
We had plenty of time at DIA, and the flight to LAX was uneventful. We arrived in the evening in the American Eagle island, which is pretty far away from any of the main terminals. Far enough away that we had to get on a shuttle bus and dodge planes, luggage cars, and all the various crews that cleaned, maintained, and stocked food on the all the planes. There's actually a road in the middle of the two main runways, where all the cars, trucks, and buses can go. I'd never seen that before.
At first, we were sure our flight was at the Bradley International Terminal, but when we walked there and couldn't find our flight listed on any of the screens, my cellphone started buzzing. It was Dad. He had assumed the same thing, but when he's gotten on one of the shuttles between terminals, he'd heard them call out China Air for Terminal 2. He got off there and found our flight to Beijing. So we hoofed it over to Terminal 2 (only two more terminals down, as LAX has nine terminals in all) and found Dad at the gate for our flight to Beijing.
The flight left on time. We were in an 777 ER, with three seats on either side and three seats in the center. There was a surprising amount of leg room and an individual entertainment center in the back of every seat. The head rests could be raised on either side and it seemed pretty luxurious until you saw the First Class berths. They could be reconfigured to provide a full length bed, contained a personal desk and full entertainment center, and had plenty of space for multi-course meals.
The funny thing was that only a few hours into the flight, when I was dead asleep, they served a meal. I just waved it off and went back to sleep. I kind of lost track of time during all that, and woke up to a command to close the shutters on all the windows, so I did that and dozed off again for a while. When I finally woke up for real, I just couldn't go back to sleep so I flipped through the action movies, found Stephen Fung's Tai Chi Zero and watched it. *laughs* I loved the subtitling, and it made it very easy to understand, and Jet saw me watching it and decided to watch it too.
So it was breakfast of a sort, and I was hungry, so I dug in. That definitely got my metabolism going. I tried watching the second Tai Chi Zero movie, but it wasn't subtitled and I got lost not too far into it, sadly. My mandarin is not that good, though I could understand the gist, the subtleties of the conversations were pretty lost on me. So I ended up playing Luxor, instead.
When the plane finally started winging down, I was in okay shape, and even better shape when they showed a stretching video that could be done in your seat. I really liked that, but when we finally touched down it was barely 5 am in Beijing! The first bathroom we found turned out to have the squat style toilets I'd heard with so much trepidation by other travelers over there, and I was intrigued. *laughs* So long as I was careful about where I stepped at any time, it worked great.
We ended up in line for Foreigners Entering, and when we got to the head of the line we found out there was something we had to fill in, so all four of us went to the back of the area, found the cards, and filled them all in. Jet got to practice his signature, and when we got back in line, John looked at his watch and said, "It's now exactly twenty four hours since we picked Jet up from his school."
That was pretty cool to realize, especially since May 23 was just beginning in Beijing, and we had a full day ahead of us. I was really amused by a little panel in front of the desk of the guy doing the stamping for letting us in, because it had buttons and a sign in English saying, "Tell me what you think of my service!" and there was a smiley face, a neutral face, a frowny face, and a big exclamation mark, and the buttons all lit up the instant after he stamped a book. They went dark right after, and so when he stamped my passport, I hit the smiley face button! *laughs*
It delighted me, but the guy with the stamp blinked at me in surprise. I don't think a lot of people actually use the panels.
One of the things that amazed me was that all the signs were repeated in English as well as in Chinese characters. There were English translations beside most of the displays as well.
Right outside the baggage claim. we saw a stout man holding a Ritz sign in blue, and it turned out that a couple sitting right next to Dad were in our group! They were from Oklahoma, which had just had those terrible tornadoes and we were able to talk with them for a little while as our guide for the city gathered us all up like ducklings. There were a good dozen of us all on the early flight from LA, most of the people west of the Mississippi were there. He led us all across the lanes of traffic, into a parking lot, and onto a big tour bus. Our luggage came with us in the belly of the beast, and we all hopped on.
Hawk had come to Beijing for college, and he stayed in the city, after school because of the opportunities available in the city. He had fairly good English, and a very interesting proposal. A number of us had come in on earlier morning flights, but several of our party weren't coming until afternoon or evening. So for those that came in early, he was offering a few new additions: a traditional Chinese breakfast and a tour of the Mongolian-built Hutong District. We couldn't get into the hotel anyway, as they wouldn't have rooms until after noon, so we decided to just do the breakfast, extra tour with pedal rickshaws, and then figure out what we wanted to do from the hotel.
Then we got introduced to Beijing's traffic. *laughs* With 25 million people, to say it was congested was mild, and Asian driving is always rather more aggressive than what we have a home. Also, the sheer numbers of bicyclists and scooters made it feel really crazy as the bus pushed its way through crowds. In some ways it reminded me of how one moves through crowds, just go into the openings and people adjust for you, and there was no anger involved in it on any side.
Jet loved it, and ate happily. I really liked the congee, it was just soothing after travel, and it was all tasty. The tea helped me just feel a little better, and it certainly refreshed us for the next leg.
A British couple, Sally and Joe, arrived as we were eating, introduced themselves, and we really enjoyed their company for the next couple of days. Experienced travelers, they were eager to see what was available. I really loved that. Their flight had just come in as well, and we had waited for the food until their car arrived. So we were gathering, piecemeal, and those that had come up to this point got back on the bus and headed over to the Hutong District.
On the way there, Hawk was full of interesting information. Beijing is the third largest city in China, at 20 million people. The biggest is Chongquing, which has nearly 32 million people. The second largest is Shanghai, which has about 23 million people. Those three cities along with Tianjin, in the northeast, are the four cities that are big enough to be considered by the Chinese Government to be direct-controlled municipalities, which are directly controlled by the national government, as if they were provinces themselves. So they have the status of an entire province.
That line of bike rickshaws that seems to go off into infinity? It's probably less than a fifth of the number of people that were lined up to give people rides. Each held two people, and Hawk recommended a tip of $5 US as it was pretty hard work to get us through it all, and so I tucked my money into a pocket before I even got in. I was astonished at how many men were just lined up and waiting to give people rides, until I saw the alleys themselves.
The Mongolians, when they took over they started to rule from Beijing. The Han in the city had established a method of building in courtyards called Fun-shui. Each house was actually a four-sided courtyard of rooms, with a wall in front of it with an off-set gate. Each square of courtyard would house a family: parents in the North, sons to the East (as they were the promise of the future of the family), daughters to the West, and servants anywhere they would fit. An extra courtyard was built in back of the main house when a son acquired a family.
The word 'hutong', as Hawk told us, meant "well" in Mongolian, and each of these courtyards usually dug their own well, or shared one for each family complex. These were fixed houses, not like the movable yurts of the Mongolians, so the Mongolians called them by the most fixed feature, the wells. However, the 'streets' between these compounds were very narrow. The narrowness of the alley and the offset of the front-facing wall, all made for very defensible architecture. And when they filled a lot of Beijing, the locals started to take the word 'hutong' in vain, turning it into the meaning of 'a narrow alley' instead. Any area that had this twisty tiny setup started to get called a "Hutong".
They were a maze. We saw a few SmartCars in here, but most people walked, rode bikes, or when they had cars, they just squeezed them in on the sides like this one. Some of the buildings had turned into businesses in here, we saw a Hutong Pizza, a car repair place with just room enough for one lift, a few corner general stores selling everything from water to cigarette to souvenirs.
While we were walking in, Dad talked about how when he was a kid, he'd climb a tree to the top of those walls and lie on the tiles to watch the sky and see the B29 bombers flying overhead to bomb the Japanese. The American bombers couldn't land in Beijing, which was occupied by the Japanese, so they would do their bombing runs, drop the extra bombs on the nearby airfield or Japanese military camps, and then head back inland to a safe base not controlled by the Japanese. And a significant number of them didn't make it or were captured during the raids.
Of course, the Hutong he'd lived in is now long gone, but he was eager to see the ones that remained.
The family was good enough to allow us in, to take as many pictures as we wished, and walk anywhere in the compound we wanted. Back when these were built, there was no sewage, and no private bathrooms, just a shared place with a sort of chamberpot, and workmen carried away the nightsoil every day.
Dad's hand is by a model of the typical Hutong compound, you can click on it to see it bigger. It shows the double-walled entrance, with the four sides that all contained rooms, and the servant's quarters on an extra row.
The entire complex was made up of 13 rooms on the four sides. There was a kitchen, a receiving room, and the parents' bedroom on the North side. There were two tiny bedrooms on both East and West sides, on converted into a painting room/study for the Uncle of the man telling us what was what, and a couple of rooms to the South. The man said that there was an American couple that had bought one of the rooms so that they could stay there for a few months out of every summer.
The base of the red bed is all brick, in the very old style, and it was built so that servants could go in from the back and build a fire in the base! The fire would not just warm the bed, but warm the whole room in the winter. Beijing winters include the cold. Their average high in January is 36 degrees Fahrenheit and average low is 16. Brr...
I was very taken by the paintings, too. The plum blossom is a favorite of Chinese painters everywhere, and the uncle did some amazing renditions of it, along with one that contained brilliant yellow flowers! I was amazed by them, and studied them for a good long time. I would love to be able to paint *that* some time.
We took our leave and got back into our two passenger rickshaws. The pedaler of our rickshaw was a very likable young man who spoke very good English, and he gave a little tour as we went zooming along. It was fun listening to him and it was evident that he had many of the same stories Hawk had as to the origin of the Hutongs and what had happened to them. He told us about the man made lake, that was created to cool this part of the city and make fire suppression easier, and showed us the statue of the Tai Chi master practicing his craft and bits of the construction going on in the hutong itself.
Beijing still had its two towers, but no city wall, That had been torn down by the government as soon as it got into power. The old Imperial City had nine gate and two towers. The lake is called Hohan, or back lake, which was also used as a shipping canal into this part of the city. In the winter the lake freezes and everyone ice skates there. No one is supposed to swim in the lake, but we saw one energetic man breast stroking away down the lane.
It was great having my Dad as he happily remarked on the signs across the lake, which were mostly restaurants advertising their food. And there a full raft of pedal boats across from us, ones that were more in use over the weekends than on the weekdays, but we saw the one on the water.
We got to the Crown Plaza Wangfujing in the Dongcheng District soon thereafter. It was only a little after noon, and with as big a breakfast as we had we weren't all that hungry. Hawk had told us not to use the hotel to change money because they charged us something, and the banks wouldn't. So we decided that if we had to wait we might as well go to a bank and get some money. We needed a little more cash because they'd asked for American cash to pay for the Hutong tour, and we needed cash to pay them their tips, and we thought that they required American money for the tips. We found out much later that they were quite happy to take Chinese money as well as American, but we didn't know that then, so I made the mistake of asking for $50 US for a $50 traveler's check as well as changing one of the checks into Chinese Yuan. The exchange rate is about six RMB/yuan to one US dollar.
Live and learn. Jet exchanged his $30 US for Chinese money in about ten minutes. Dad and I took over two hours to get our traveler's checks cashed and exchanged. Oops.
Luckily, our rooms were ready for us when we returned. *laughs* It was a beautiful hotel, brand new, shiny, with a lovely lobby and huge rooms. One of the things the bellboy showed us as he ushered us in, was that you had to put the door key card into a slot by the side of the door for the lights to turn on. It turns out that it's actually for all the power in the room, including the air conditioning, so it can get a little stuffy when you're away.
We laid out our luggage, dropped all our carry ons, and then headed out into Beijing with a map from the hotel concierge. Our goal was the Beijing subway system, and on the way over there we passed a lot of good stuff, including probable restaurants for our evening's dinner. It wasn't paid for with our tour, so we were going to have to find something for ourselves, and the hotel's restaurant had $40 US steaks... *laughs* So we weren't going to do THAT when there were a dozen interesting places just on the street outside.
You can notice in the picture that every single handhold had its own advertising. *laughs*
One of the interesting things was that while there were five machines that were supposed to sell tickets to you if you put money in them, nearly none of them worked or had the proper change. You had to pretty much just put two one yuan notes into them for them to work. Since we didn't have them, we just went to the one ticket booth with a person in it and bought our passes there. Most people, I suspect, have a monthly pass or something like that, which gets returned to them every time they use it, instead of having to buy the one-way tickets. But it was an interesting mix of availability without actual utility.
We were making our way to the Lama Temple, also known as the Yongehe Temple. It is one of the largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world, and it's all built in a combination of Han and Tibetan styles. It's nearly 500 meters long, and completely surrounded in a red wall that has no public gates in or out. When we arrived at the correct station, it was just on the north end of the Western wall.
There were other shops that sold prayer bracelets, which I was intrigued by, and other Buddhist items such as little Buddhas to create your own shrine. The interesting thing for me was that people along this row were not quite as insistent as the vendors that haunted the Hutong site, and I relaxed as we walked and walked and walked to the other end.
The entrance to the Temple was on the South end, as with all Feng Shui, the best entrance to a building is when it's facing South. There were arches in the red wall, that led into the parking lot for the site, but it was just jammed with buses and cars.
This one happened to have a very modern looking ticket booth to the left there, with lots of stalls for lines, and a very efficient ticket seller, who took one look at us and sold us two adult tickets, one senior ticket, and one child. Dad was pretty pleased by his discount, and even more pleased that at three in the afternoon on a Tuesday, the place was relatively quiet. There were only a few people at a time, instead of eight line's worth.
I think that's one of those things that's constant around here, that there's all these very old things now linked with things that are very very new. The other is the incessant presence of people, everywhere all the time.
The temple was built to be the residence of Prince Yong of the Qing Dynasty (the last one), after he came into power as Emperor Yongzheng, he took it as a temporary house called Yonghegong or Palace of Harmony and Peace. His successor, Emperor Qianlong gave it to the Tibetian lamas and they turned it into a lama temple. It has five gates, its own bell and drum towers, five courtyards, and a bunch of side buildings as well.
Each of the "gates" is actually a temple, with multiple Buddhas and other statues all set up through them, and the first three all have collections of ancient scroll paintings, and cultural relics like the 500 Arhat Mountain that's carved from red sandlewood. One of the Buddha niches has three layers of carved filigree.
Problem was that there were signs everywhere stating that in the Buddhist faith, it was considered sacrilegious to take pictures of the Buddhas while standing in their shrines. So we decided not to do that at all, and the interiors were dark enough that it was very difficult to take them from outside the shrines. There were, of course, idiot tourists who were taking their sweet time lining up shots as we went through all the gates. But I figured we weren't going to be them. *laughs* So we don't have pictures of the mountain or the 18-meter tall Buddha that was carved from a single log of sandlewood, either.
It was really cool having Dad there to tell us these things and explain what it was we couldn't read. He was really happy he got to go on this extra adventure because he hadn't been able to see any of this on his previous trips, and he loved telling us about what was going on.
In front of each of the Gates were braisers for the incense, like this one. The boards at the woman's feet are actually for kneeling with ones offerings. All the incense was to be burned outside of the temples, unlike more modern temples. I suppose that it was to keep the smoke from destroying the artifacts inside, but they all had signs inside to say that all incense and photography should be kept outside from the sacred areas.
The other thing you can see from this picture is that the doorway to the right of the lady. At the bottom of that doorway is a raised sill that clearly delineates the threshold to the door. There's a lot of Chinese legends that state that ghost and vampires can only walk on even ground, so that they cannot cross a raised threshold. It's also so that Buddhists can step in properly and consciously. Our guides later said that men go in left foot first, and women do the right foot first, but in American temples it's not by sex; you always step left foot in first, leading with your 'weak' side as a sign of humility (I always wondered if that meant lefties should go in right foot first?), and go out with strength on your right foot.
In any case, we went through all five gates. The Buddha's and honorary statues in the first three were pretty impressive, but in the fourth was an enormous Buddha all covered in gold leaf and spread in front of him were half a dozen tables completely covered in tiny oil lamps or candles in glass holders, and the monks were filling another table with light before even that. He was free-standing (or is that sitting) in lotus position, and his head was three stories above mine. There were curtains all about the railing, and they fluttered in the cool breezes that traveled through the shadowed room.
It was amazing to experience, and it set me up beautifully for the very last temple.
It's the one with the three layers of filigree "niche", but four stories high! The 18-meter tall (60 foot!!) tall Buddha was also on a pedestal that was ten meters tall, and surrounded by the smoke darkened gold-leafed filigree in all kinds of shapes, carved intricately into hundreds of windows and niches for scrolls, busts, jewelery, artwork, and relics of various sorts. It was massive, and so tall, and it smelled amazing in the temple itself, even with all the joss and incense outside. There were no other statues in the last temple, and it was fun to just look our fill before coming back out, going back through all the courtyards and heading back to the subway.
Jet was pretty hungry and tired by this point, as we really hadn't eaten any lunch, and most of the usual treats we would have tried were something that Dad wasn't sure of. Especially stuff like milk tea, which had ice cubes in it, may well have had water that was unsafe for *us* to use in the ice. So Dad and I talked over the menu for a while to figure out what Jet wouldn't object too much to eating. We ended up getting dry cooked string beans, wonton soup, beef chow mein, a slow cooked beef on noodles, and a gin bin ite tze or pork wrapped in layered dough that was baked. Jet really liked the baked pork roll, as it was crisp on the outside with sesame seeds, and the pork filling was thin but savory and tasty. The beef noodle was hot with spices, which all the adults liked, and the string beans were tender to the tooth, but still had chew to them, not overcooked.
I had an unexpected treat, a bottle of "plum drink" which is actually made with preserved plums and lots of spices and is very sweet and wonderful for summer. It's something that my mother used to make every summer, and my memories of it are wonderful. It's a little sweet for John, though, and he got a bottle of green tea, as did Dad, and Jet got an orange juice and we all ate very well. Though Dad worried about how clean everything was, and regretted not having his alcohol wipes for the bowls and chopsticks. Still we didn't suffer any ill affects that night or the next day. *laughs* So it was probably just fine.
A few doors down was a grocery store! And we found that an enormous bottle of drinking water was less than two yuan, so we bought that along with some other drinks we don't find in the US, including Pocari Sweat, a Japanese drink that is like Gatorade, but rather more forthright in its naming! *laughs*
We were pretty exhausted by then, so we went back to the hotel and went to sleep. With the way the tour worked, we were able to have two rooms, with John and I in one and my father and Jet in the other. Jet decide that since he was rooming with my father, that he would forego some of his usual routine on the days when we were too tired to read to him before sleeping. This proved to be one of those night. *laughs* And he settled in happily after being awake for nearly 22 hours straight.
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