I'll admit that throughout the tour the breakfast buffets at all the hotels were impressive, and very multi-cultural. This one was on the second floor of the hotel, and had a huge baked good island in the midst of it. There were two kinds of congee with all the toppings, a noodle soup area, where you could pick the vegetables and proteins that were going into your soup. There was a grilled fish and seafood area with a tub of miso soup and a tub of rice on the side, and a few trays of yogurt next to half a dozen bowls of cut fruit. There was an enormous cereal and museli bar with all three fat levels of milk on the side, and two tubs of hot soy milk and hot cow's milk next to a tray of the long strips of fried dough called yo tiao. There were often steamed buns next to a cooking station that had bacon, grilled tomatoes, various styles of potatoes, and a couple styles of egg if not a chef making omlets to order.
There was something for everyone, and something easily digestible for everyone. It made it easy to start off the day with a good, full stomach, and not worry about the day. Jet glommed onto the yo tiao, and happily had them every morning for the whole trip, along with almond croissants, chocolate croissants, yogurt, fruit, donuts, and all the bacon he desired.
So we were happily fed by the time we got to the lobby and met up with our national guide, Jevons Gee. He's a Shanghai native and an English teacher when he's not doing tour guiding. He's been guiding for 13 years and an employee of Ritz Tours. He was really the one that set up the whole thing, hired the local guides in the cities he didn't know that well, and setup all the hotels. He was ebullient, eloquent, and enthusiastic in all good of ways. And he and Hawk had deliberately set us up to do a lot of walking early on in the tour so that there would be no problems getting to sleep at night.
Google has a great map of the area. Go on and take a look, I'll wait here. That whole blue surrounded square to the north is the Forbidden City. The rectangle to the south of that is Tienanmen Square, a bit south of the A marker. The mausoleum of Mao Zedong is in the center of it and at the south end, with that green crescent, is where the Bell Tower is and where we got dropped off by our buses. The "Square" is rectangular, about 2,500,000 square feet. It's huge. Immense. But the Forbidden City covers 7,800,000 square feet, nearly there times the size, and that's not nearly as big as the Temple of Heaven's parklands. The sheer scale can be staggering. And we were doing both with the Summer Palace, after.
Like the US's National Mall, Tienanmen Square is also surrounded by all kinds of national museums, memorials, and government buildings. Here's a link that has a lot of the things that are there, but I'll touch on a few here that got identified to me as we walked by it all.
There were probably thousands of people on the square, just walking through, taking pictures, and getting their pictures taken under the picture of Chairman Mao on the North end of the Square.
There were umbrellas against the heat of the sun, as it was all entirely open, and there were beautiful lamps all along the way with ornate poles and glass enclosures. They were also bristling with surveillance equipment of all kinds. That was fascinating to see.
My father's aunt is actually his mother's first cousin. So I guess that makes Maya Lin my second cousin once removed... or something like that? Anyway... she was a pretty amazing architect and designer. She and her husband were involved in the design of the National Emblem of the People's Republic of China. She was a pretty remarkable woman and it was fun having Dad tell me about her while we walked so near her works. On the other side was the National Museum.
I think John said that the body is frozen within its coffin, and they're just trying to keep him forever.
There are areas for making offerings in commemoration to him, and a huge statue of him in the building as well as a whole floor devoted to him and the other leaders at the beginning of the People's Republic.
The official date for the beginning is October 1st of 1949, so the entire nation gets seven days off starting with That Day. Mao declared himself on that day with a million people standing in Tienanmen Square, and now the whole nation goes on vacation on that day. My Dad said that it's amazing to see a billion people travel on a single day, and have the whole national transportation system NOT completely bog down. They are ready for it, because it happens every single year, and that's when the Square gets packed with people. Ours was a fairly light day.
It was fascinating to just walk with thousands and thousands of other people toward the picture of Mao that hung on the gate that was before the Forbidden City. It was interesting to see how they'd decided to build all of this in front of the old Emperor's castle, so to speak, and then put Mao Zedong's picture over the gates. Hawk spoke of taking your picture with Father Mao, and that a lot of Chinese came here for just that purpose. It was interesting, because I know that people here in the US don't talk that way about getting their picture taken with someone like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, though we do it, it's not with that encouragement to think of them as family.
That just kind of struck me, is all.
Soldiers are dressed in green, police in gray, and if they have black collars, they're security troops.
We got half an hour to just wander around the vastness of the Square and take all the pictures we wanted. It was kind of fun to see that the Chinese tourists were wandering around doing the same sort of thing. We got a picture of the four of us from a man who was waiting on a friend, who was intent on taking pictures of some of the landscaping. There were colorful plant sculptures all over the place. Shapes that had slots for putting potted plants into, so they could always be in bloom. We saw similar structures in Shanghai and in a couple of the gardens, and it implies that there's people who are willing to change the flowers in and out when they've bloomed or stopped blooming, rather than just planting everything once and just let them go through their cycles through the season. That bemused me.
If you click on the picture and see it full-sized you can also get a pretty good view of what's on those ornate lamps. There's also quite a few more pictures of everything on that plaza on Flickr, with explanations when I knew what they were. *laughs* We sometimes just shot in all directions, but the flower sculptures are there.
Once the time to explore was done, we all lined up and they did a professional picture of the extended group. It turned out that two tour groups were being combined for the Beijing portion of the trip. The other group was going to be doing down the Yangtze river on a cruise. All of us, though, got in on the picture with the picture of Chairman Mao in the background. That was pretty fun.
From there we took one of those underpasses to the far side, and ended up lined up by the garden and fountains of the front gate. It was slow going there, a bottleneck into the Forbidden City. The City itself was named that because everyone was forbidden to go into the City other than the Emperor, his highest officer, his concubines, and his wife. Since the Jade Emperor, the ruler of Heaven, had 10,000 rooms in his palace, his son, the Emperor on Earth (it was actually the Ming Dynasty Emperor Zhu Di who moved in and expanded it to it's full size), decided to build 999 and 1/2 rooms in the Forbidden City to house himself. There are legends of some Emperors having as many as 3000 concubines. There are three main parts to the City: the Front Court (where more people were allowed to petition the Emperor), the Throne, and the Living Quarters, but behind those was built the Imperial Gardens.
The Forbidden City used to be at the center of the Imperial City, and the Imperial City was surrounded by the wall that the Bell and Drum Towers were built to hold up. There were only nine gates and nine towers in the wall, but the whole thing was torn down by the government when it came into power, but for the two Towers.
So after going under the picture of Chairman Mao, and through an open area that was bounded by a lot of official buildings for all the various Ministries, including the Ministry of Rites (which includes a department of Confucian Order), Ministry of Taxation, Ministry of Strategies, and the Ministry of Military, we got to the Meridian Gate, which is the way to the Front Court.
Common folklore said that all high end political executions were held right in front of that central arch of the Meridian Gate, where the Emperor could witness justice done. They'd fenced off a concrete pad right in front of that central gate, but I think that it was actually just a ticket booth and slots for entrance that were just not being used today. The two side entrances were being used, but the fencing off did give it an extra chill on thinking about how it might have worked.
Whatever the reason, I really liked it.
Going through the cool tunnels of the gates was soothing, and the darkness made the sight on the other side all the more amazing.
The pavement was interesting to me, as most of it was the rough, obviously old flag stones, which had worn around the edges and was quite uneven to the foot. Pathways had been repaved through the center and radiating out from the center to the other gates and the sides. The colors red and yellow were reserved for Imperial use, so the yellow roofs and red walls were supposed to be used no where else. Those colors are pervasive in the city today, but it was interesting to see it completely dominate the architecture in here.
There was just the one central gate, called the Gate of Moral Standards, and then the two gates to either side. Dad was pretty impressed at how few people there were here today, and he figured most people would be going through the central gates. We took the left side door to the Hall of Supreme Harmony Square.
The last time Dad came here for a tour, they were able to go down the central path instead of one of the side paths, but they were saying that it was closed off for the 16-year renovation, too. The flooring in the Hall of Supreme Harmony was made of "gold bricks", which had actually been boiled in some sort of copper oil, but the technology to make them had been lost, so they were trying to recreate it in order to renovate it properly.
I liked the statues on the outside, too, and the tier upon tier of steps. The three tiers of steps was common for Imperial structures, usually with a panel of Heaven/sky, a Dragon, and a Phoenix. The crane statue was for longevity and fidelity. The Turtle is known to hold the world on its back, so it's for a sort of strength and wisdom. And in this picture you can see that this particular building has all nine mythical animals between the Dragon and the Man on the corner. It was the most important building in China, so it got the the most on the corners, too. That was fun to see and go, "Oh! I know that!"
Though I'll admit that the sheer ornateness of the decorations all over the eaves and everything else is a fine indicator!
We went through another side gate, got to see one of the Nine Sons of the Dragon and the Phoenix, went up a stairway while dodging photographers that wanted to dress people in Tang Dynasty costumes and take pictures of them, and ended up in the Hall of Preserving Harmony. This used to be the building where Imperial Officials were tested and examined to see if they were good enough to work in the Court. It's not quite as huge as the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
It has, as you can see, a throne, as all three buildings had a throne for the Emperor. All three buildings had the nine animals, and it was kind of cool to see. You had to climb up to get a good look, and while I was up there, I sketched one of the heads that were holding the handles of the giant fire fighting urns. They all had San Mi, the eighth son of the Dragon on them. He's very fond of smoke and fire, and when I looked, he had little flames flickering all over his mane. He's a guardian and he's usually depicted on incense burners.
The Nine Sons of the Dragon and Phoenix were mythical creatures, and they all have particular abilities and desire or tendencies. Gong Fu is the sixth son, who loves water, resides in lakes and pools, and is carved into drains on bridges and palace balustrades. He's supposed to be the one willing to fight against flooding and water disasters, so really good for drain mouths like the ones pictured up in the second picture. I really liked finding these guys everywhere. Hawk gave us plenty of time to explore the area, and when he said we were to gather, we gathered and kept going.
Being a concubine, especially one favored by the Emperor meant that at girl could provide for her family back home, so many families vied for the chance, but it meant that the girl would never marry, and in some cases, wouldn't set foot outside of these confines for the rest of their lives. It was a hard life, and with 3000 women vying for the same man, it was cut-throat.
In the Palace of Gathering Elegance lived Xi Xei, who became the Dragon Lady by being the concubine of the very unlucky emperor, Xianfeng, who had no son by his empress. The only other son of his that was by another concubine died under very suspicious circumstances, and Xi Xie's son Zaichun. When the emperor died, she became Empress Dowager Cixi, an equal of the Empress who had married the Emperor in name, but not really in power, yet.
It was fun to wander through and hear a bit more about the Empress, who played the political games so well that she basically destroyed the regents that the Emperor had setup so that she could dictate the direction of the country in the name of her five-year-old son. The guides told it as if she were behind some curtain always telling him what to do, but that seems a metaphor for the simple fact that she was able to manipulate and navigate the political waters he was entirely unable to cope with. The figurehead son, however, died young, and her influence was such that she was able to get one of her nephews on the throne instead. There was more about her at the Summer Palace as well...
The pockmarked and hollowed stones all around are unique rocks. They're called Taihu rocks, which come from, as the name says, the Tai Lake. There's enough acid in the waters of the lake to eat all kinds of shapes into these limestone rocks. They're a favorite element in all classical Chinese gardens.
It was cool to just walk among them and touch the bark.
I've walked amid giant redwoods and up north in Bellingham where old-growth forest lie and the trees are so huge that you can't even hope to see the tops and they're so big around that 20 people might barely be able to get their arms around them. But almost all of those are far far away from people. To think of these trees living in a palace courtyard, not just tended by people, but also threatened by the very same people because of the politics of those living near by... it seemed incredible that they lasted this long. Some of them were worn bare on the sides by all the visitors touching them, but they seemed happy, hale, and still growing.
There are stories *everywhere* here. Laid as thick as the history, and what is 'real' and what makes a better story seems to make very little difference, sometimes. It was funny to find out, online, that the actual number of rooms in the Forbidden City is somewhere a little above 8,800 rooms; but to realize that oral tradition of calling out the ten thousand rooms in Heaven being matched by the nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-nine and a half rooms on Earth just makes for a better story.
Once we were back on the bus, Hawk and Jevons regaled us with more history and stories about China as a whole. They had stories about how good Ching Tao beer is, given its Germanic origins. They were advertising it a little for lunch, as it's cold, refreshing, and none of the restaurants can offer water, as the tap water can't be drunk unless it's boiled. Hot tea was safe, but with the heat of the day less appealing than pop or a cold, light and low alcohol beer. They also offered both a Beijing duck dinner the next night as well as a Martial Arts theaters experience that night. We decided to do the duck dinner, but not the performance, because we still had a whole other site to go, and we wanted to swim in the hotel pool.
There's no anger about the fact the bicycles are slower, or smaller, and it's like the drivers here can see them, which in the U.S., even in Boulder County, which has some of the highest concentration of cyclists in our nation, isn't so true. A lot of U.S. drivers don't even seem to see bikes or just run them off the road without even noticing them. In Beijing, though, I never saw that happen, and there were thousands more scooters, bikes, and small two-wheeled things running around.
After lunch we got back onto the bus and learned a little bit about how land works in China. All of it is owned by the government, nearly no one privately owns land. Everyone leases it from the government in 70 year leases. They only pay property tax once for that entire lease, and then they get to build whatever they want on it. If it's part of an apartment building, then they have to do all the interior of the shell. They have to put on a floor, walls, etc. and then do all the improvements to it to make it livable. In Beijing proper, in the center circle of the roads, the lease alone is half a million dollars per 1000 square feet. The astonishing prices for real estate are a good indication of how wealthy China's big cities are getting to be.
One of the interesting things is that U.S. designed items, for all that many of them are made in China, cost far more in China than they do in the U.S.. As an example was a pair of Levi jeans costs $500-600 yuan, or about $100 U.S. in China. No one really seems to know why that's so, but it's far more expensive. And it was interesting to hear about Hawk's take on the corruption of government officials and how much the Chinese do like to gamble.
Not all the units have air conditioning, and those that didn't had the windows open, and I realized just how weird that was when I first saw it and just gaped at them. In the U.S., if it's a high-rise there isn't anything like a window *to* open. It's a safety issue in some sense, and it's also about the integrity of the building. Most high rises in the U.S. have central air conditioning for the whole building. But here these apartment buildings would be built all in a row like this. It really brought home to me just what the density actually does both the architecture and the expectations on how the housing is provided.
Our second adventure of the day was to explore the Summer Palace, which is built on the shore of a man-made lake with three man-made islands and the gardens to match. It's another World Heritage Site, and contains both Longevity Hill and Kun Ming Lake on it's 2.9 square kilometer site, and most of it is water.
We entered through the gate you see here, and there's an island right in front of us, with a walkway across the water. We went onto the island, which was filled with nice seating areas, trees, and plenty of spaces for people to play dominos or cards, sit and just talk and enjoy the breeze and cooler air over the lake. The water brought the temperature down significantly, which is why the Emperor moved to this site in the summer. Of course the Dragon Lady did her thing, and took over the Summer Palace for her own when she came into power.
You can see the Palace on the right, up on the hill. Each of the islands has a small pagoda or structure that would keep the rain off, if it came. The whole area is now used as a public park, where everyone can just come and enjoy the coolness.
This was our destination, but the stone walkway actually went all the way around on the way over to the old Summer Palace.
Dad remembers, as a kid, coming here, and how his two older siblings climbed it with him, but he had to halt about halfway up, and never made it to the top, though his two teenaged siblings did go all the way up the building! He regretted never making it to the top. We didn't have the time to climb the enormous thing, but we did have fun walking across its feet.
The paintings are a collection of stories, some historical, some fictional, and some allegorical. We started here at the Eastern Gate. On one side was the lake, and on the other side was all of Longevity Hill, so above us was the Palace and buildings.
It was amazingly crowded at the beginning, but it thinned out with distance, as not everyone was willing to stay inside when they could as easily walk outside the covered walk. It kept off the sunshine, though, and eventhough I didn't know the stories that the pictures were supposed to be telling, there were some utterly beautiful paintings that I just had to take pictures of while I walked through.
All the towers along the way had extra large panels, too, each with completely individual artwork. Thinking about it, I guess when it was built there was no quick and easy reproduction abilities, so each of these paintings was painted by hand by a person, so of course they were all individual paintings! It was amazing to think of just how much time and effort was spent on these.
The ship is 300 years old, and the same words "Marble Boat" are a homonym for Longevity.
We were told, here, that there's a modern Summer Palace for the Chairman, that is tucked away in the hills of this park, out beyond where people can go, but close enough to the water to still have some of the cooling effects.
Dad told me that in the winter, one of his friends who still lives here comes here for a Winter Festival, and they walk across the ice to all the various islands. No one seems to worry if the ice will break, mostly because the water is so shallow that if it did no one would drown. I'm not sure I'd dare that. But when we were there we saw countless paddle boats, where no one was wearing anything even resembling a life vest, and then there were the Dragon Boats.
Once we reached the far shore, we disembarked and people went off to the restroom, and it started to rain just a little. It turns out that all of China is just starting to enter its rainy season, so they'd recommended bringing some rain gear. It wasn't anything serious, though, and it was so nice to just stand in the rain. *laughs* It also helped clear the air. Beijing is known for its smog, and while the air was hazy I wasn't having too much difficulty with breathing.
We walked back through the park toward our bus, and along the way were were cheerfully assaulted by vendors of all kinds. All through the day people had been trying to sell us things, and one of the cooler things were these paper hats. They're just paper strips cut with a curve to fit when they're opened and glued like this. Jet grew determined to have one after we'd passed half a dozen different vendors that were selling these.
On the way back to the hotel, Jevons gave me some interesting things to think about. The first was that Beijing represents China as it is today. Xi'an, with it's Terracotta Warriors represents the millennium long history of China. Shanghai, with its ultra-modern skyline and mainline into the world's economy, represents China's future. Guilin is scenic, and is only a "tiny" village of 500,000 people. *laughs* Xi'an has only seven million and is considered a very small city. Also, religion-wise, the biggest religion is Buddhism, after that is Taoism, but as far as the Chinese are concerned, the ultimate aim of Taoism is immortality. There are about 120 million Catholics, which is about 10% of the population as a whole, which was far more than I'd thought, especially given that there are only 80 million Chinese who are actually in the Communist Party. There's actually a fairly large Muslim population in the west side of the country as well, and the Chinese are having terrorist problems with them as well.
Once back at the hotel, my Dad took a nap while John, Jet, and I went to the top floor of the hotel and swam. The changing rooms had lockers and everything, and the pool was cool, had really high concentrations of chemicals to make it safe, and after cooling off in the very buoyant water, I really loved just soaking in the hot tub and decompressing with the boys. It was a great way to spend the time.
Dinner was buffet at the hotel, with much of the same array of possibilities as the breakfast had, and pretty good quality on everything, enough that we found plenty to eat. We got to sit with Mila and Angelo. They live in the Bay area and it was fun to talk about the differences between Colorado and California. They're a very comprehensive couple, and Angelo asked some very good questions about this whole change in Colorado, going from a very Red State to one that's now legalized pot and added civil unions. That was a really fun conversation, as was the whole thing about the impact of fracking across the nation.
That was fun.
We got Jet to bed soon thereafter, and the walking really worked, because I slept like the dead that night.
I have to say that the price we paid for the whole tour was pretty high, but it was well worth it. The luxury of the hotels really made a big difference, because with all the strangeness of the new places we were seeing every day, of trying to deal with being in a country were our language wasn't the native one, and with all the things we were doing, it was really really excellent to have an extremely safe and comfortable place to come to at night. Between the comparative luxury of the rooms, the choices we always had for breakfast, there was enough stability to allow all the adventures.
Next: The Ming Tombs, the Great Wall, and Beijing Duck