Published: August 31st 2005July 6th 2005
Tiananmen Gate in Beijing
This 15th century gate is opposite Tiananmen Square and leads to the entrance of the Forbidden City. It was here the Mao proclaimed the People's Republic in 1949.
Our overnight train trip from Pingyao was very easy - certainly the train was much cleaner and because it was a tourist line we were less of a novelty. We really enjoy travelling on the sleeper trains actually. We arrived at Beijing West train station early in the morning and joined a throng of people all pushing their way off the platform. They only ever open a couple of small gates and a whole train load of people have to pass through them to get into the arrivals area. It took us at least half an hour with constant shoving and pushing comimg from all directions. This station is the largest in Asia and you don't realise just how large it is until you get out side and look back at it. It was very modern and clean! We had planned on taking a taxi to the hotel but didn't even try when we saw the length of the queue. With a bit of help we found the right bus stop to the city and headed off towards our hotel which was very close to the second train station in Beijing. The hotel was a pleasant surprise, much better then we
Wall of buddhas at the Summer Palace
Part of the arcitecture of the very beautiful Summer Palace, Beijing
were expecting and very central.
We were very impressed with Beijing - particularly the wide through streets and the tree lined side streets which made walking along the footpaths a much cooler experience. I'm sure that the city will make a big impression in 2008 during the Olympic games. China is proud to be hosting the games - our students talk about it all the time. After settling into the hotel Jerry and I headed to one of the large hospitals to be tested for typhoid after being advised by our doctor in Australia that we may be healthy carriers of the disease, despite having no symptoms. The hospital block that we went to was for foreigners and high office cadres of the Communist party. We had to wait 5 days for the test result, which thankfully was negative. We were very concerned if they found a positive result as they told us we would have had to go into quarrantine in hospital for 2 weeks. Rennee is now out of hospital and recovering at home though she needs ongoing tests and 4 weeks rest.
Next day we went to the Summer Palace which was one and half
Marble boat at the Summer Palace
This boat was built by Empress Cixi with money which was supposed to spent on modernising the navy.
hours from our hotel by a combination of bus and metro. I enjoyed the palace, particularly the covered walkway which is 900 metres long. It goes from the palace to a marble boat on the lake that the empress used as a 'play area'. The whole length of the corridor's roof is covered in beautifully detailed paintings of early Chinese life, birds and flowers. The marble boat was built with money she was given to spend on the navy. I enjoyed looking at a collection of photos of her - she was Empress until 1911 - amazing clothes and her servants were supporting her as she couldn't stand alone due to her bound feet. When we visited the Forbidden City we saw her courtyard house - she had her own whereas all the other concubines shared houses - as she was the mother of the next emperor. Her child was the first born child to the emperor so she went from concubine to empress. She ordered 128 plates of food every meal and had her eunichs taste each one before she ate it (checking for poisons). The Summer Palace covered an enormous area, though two thirds of it was lake,
Long Gallery at the Summer Palace
This beautifully painted corridor is 900 metres in length, and allowed the Empress to go between her numerous pavilions and palaces undercover. It was very beautiful!
it took a long time to explore. It was also packed with Chinese tourists, as was the Forbidden city when we visited it.
We were disappointed in the Forbidden City as most of the pavilions are closed for renovation. The Temple of Harmony - also one of the principle attractions for tourists in a different part of the city, was also closed for renovations. That temple won't reopen until next year but the Forbidden City will be undergoing restoration until 2020 - it will then take 5 days to see all that the site has to offer. The main halls at the Forbidden City were open however, though the intense crowds made it difficult to see them properly. We saw part of the restored area and it was glowing with fresh paint work and gilding. Quite spectaular! We had a very informative guide however who made it quite clear to us the Chairman Mao is not a hero to the younger generation, despite the constant comment we get from our students about his hero status. He said that whilst they are at school they say what they are told to via their textbooks and start to really question it
Jerry in Tiananmen Square.
Jerry is standing in front of Mao's Mausoleum.
once they start university. In fact they are encouraged to question it by all their tutors at uni. I was very pleased to hear that!
One evening we walked up to Tiananmen Square and watched everybody flying kites. They seem to get them really high in the sky. The square is a meeting place for locals in the evening and it was alive with kids playing, rollerskating and families enjoying each others company. The square seemed to us quite small, despite being the largest public square in the world. I think it is because it has a very large monument in the centre which breaks it up. On one side is an 8 lane road, which is 60 metres wide at the point it passes the square. The road is 45 kilometres long and very straight and was built by Chairman Mao in the late 1970's to act as a runway for planes if war ever broke out. It must have been an impressive road then as the main traffic using it would have been bicycles. Underneath the road is now a metro system. This area was once an underground bomb shelter for the population of Beijing. Behind the
Queue to go into Mao's Mausoleum.
This was only a small part of the queue - it just went on and on!
road the pink walls of the Forbidden City loom. The three other sides are edged with the natural history museum (one side of which has a big clock counting down to the Olympics), the Hall of the People which is where the Government sits (all 10,000 in one room) and the Mausoleum which houses Mao's body. We were planning on visiting this until we spotted the queue - it went round and round the building and was four abreast all the way. It is the first place that all Chinese tourists visit when they arrive in the capital. We also spent some time exploring the hutongs areas of the city - these are the old courtyard housing areas which are being demolished to make way for apartment blocks. It was in this area that we got pickpocketed though nothing was stolen. They had opened two zips on my backpack and were just unzipping my camera case when I realised what was happening. I was very close to losing my camera! We left the area after this - it was the only area in Beijing that we were really pressured by hawkers and it really looked no different from Guangshui with
The Great Wall at Simatai.
To see the wall was an amazing experience - it was very steep and gave us both a real feeling of exhilaration!
all it's old housing areas.
We met up with our tour group and already we have become friends. There are 5 graduates of Harvard Law school (MBA programme - very bright young ladies and one man!, 2 young girls from Sweden, one Canadian woman (41), and 2 other Australian men both around late 30's/early 40's. Our tour leader was a young Chinese man but he left the tour after 24 hours to go home to his family - he received very bad news- his family had been involved in a serious car accident - whilst we were on the Great Wall and had to make an emergency trip home. He has been replaced by a 27 year old Aussie - Nick. Nick was to prove to be a good leader though without as much knowledge of Chinese culture as Sean. He was pretty laid back and easy to get along with - sometimes maybe a little too casual! The first evening we went out with Sean for a lovely meal at a local restaurant which we all enjoyed.
Next day we were collected early in a mini bus (these front door collections to be taken to places were
The Great Wall at Simatai.
Climbing the wall was hard - it was very steep in places!
one of the bonuses of the trip - it made it all so easy!) and driven to Simatai - a section of the Great Wall 3 hours from Beijing. It was an amazing experience. Because that section of the wall is the so far from Beijing there were virually no other tourists there (literally only half a dozen) so we were really able to experience it properly. We all gasped when we saw it in the distance - there was the mountains and right across the top of the mountain ridges snaked the wall. How it was ever built is hard to believe - so many lives must have been lost. This section of the wall is very steep and at some stages we were nearly climbing up it on our hands and knees! To make it harder all the steps were an uneven distance apart. We made it through 12 watchtowers before the section is closed to the public, presumably because of the danger of falls. I still can't believe I actually managed it! Climbing steep steps is not my favourite activity. We were 'helped' along the way by the usual band of local farmer's wives selling postcards and
The Fobidden City
Detail of a door within the Forbidden City.
water. Those women must be so fit... Towards the end of the walk we spread some of David's ashes from one of the watch towers. The view of the rest of the wall following the contours of the surrounding coutryside from the top was well worth the climb and sweat lost. That evening we all went to various theatre performances - Jerry and I chose a performance of the Chinese acrobats which we thoroughly enjoyed. We had seen a similar performance in Toowoomba just before leaving Australia and were very happy to repeat the pleasure we had got from it.
Next day, after a well earned rest (we were all exhausted from the high temperatures and hard wall climb) we toured the Forbidden City. We enjoyed all our organised tours with the group as Intrepid had great Chinese tour guides who were very knowledgable and spoke excellent English. The Forbidden City received it's name as it was off limits to the general Chinese population for over 500 years. It's an absolutely enormous complex, most of which is under covers as it is being renovated. It will not be completly renovated until 2020 and then it will take 5 days
to tour completely. The main areas will be finished by 2008 of course, most of the other renovations are on areas which have never previously been open to the public. As with many buildings in China it has been mostly rebuilt in the last 200 years - buildings constantly were burnt down accidentally during fireworks displays. The Eunuchs and officials at the Forbidden City regularly burnt parts of it down as they became richer every time it was rebuilt - they obviously had interests in the building firms. Not much has changed in China over the years! The whole complex was swarming with Chinese tourists - thousands of them - all following their guides who carry coloured flags or banners. We banned flags with our guides though there were a couple of instances where they may have been useful. We saw part of a newly opened renovated area and it was beautiful - glowing with vivid colours and sparkling with gold leaf. The guide said that the local people don't like the finished colours as they are too bright and sparkly but they have been assured that the colours will fade quickly. After the tour of the Palace we climbed
Muslim butcher in Xian
This is why we are vegetarian in China!
up a hill in the park behind the palace which gave us a great overview of the site and just how large it actually was. We finished the day off at a great bakery we had discovered - one month later we are still overdosing on bread and cheese whenever we can find it.
That evening we left to catch the overnight train to Xian - we were loaded down with french bread and peanut butter as train meals leave a lot to be desired. Intrepid booked day rooms for us so we were all able to shower etc before we left on the train. The train was very comfortable and we all enjoyed a good nights sleep. It was great to be able to spend a bit of time chatting in English! Xian train staion was a bit of a shock - at least to the rest of the group - the usual shove and push to get out into the open. The bus took us to our hotel - again much better then expected (they all were the whole trip!) - and very centrally positioned on the main square between the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower.
These bamboo cages full of crickets are a regular sight in China.
After a welcome shower we all set out independently to explore the city. Most of the group chose to walk around the city wall but they must have all been crazy as the temperatures were in the hihg 30's by mid morning. We had the wall walk in Pingyao so didn't need to experience another one! Jerry and I chose to explore the Muslim quarter which was five minutes walk from the hotel. It was very interesting - Harriet (the Canadian lady) accompanied us and we were able to give her a lot of insight into daily Chinese life. All the shops etc were very much Guangshui style though the Xian butchers were a little more gruesome then our local butchers. We spent a long time at the Great Mosque which is one of the largest mosques in China. The mosque is built in a Chinese architecture style and most of the grounds were taken up with beautiful gardens. It was a very peaceful place to sit and we spent a long time there watching all the local Muslim men and boys arrive to pray in the prayer hall. Later that evening we joined the rest of the group for
The Great Mosque in Xian
The peaceful gardens within the walls of the Great Mosque.
a hot pot meal in a restaurant in the Muslim quarter. You collected skewers of meat and vegetables at the front door and then cooked it yourself in hot broth which was boiling in clay pots at your table. Unfortunately the size of the tables was minute and we had hardly any elbow room which meant that I ended up with most of my greasy skewers in my lap!
Early next morning we were collected and driven the hour or so to visit the site of the Terracotta Warriors. They were stunning - beautifully housed and deserving the title of one of China's premier tourist attractions. In 1974 some farmers digging wells uncovered the first vault. The life sized clay figures were buried in pits which had floors laid with stone and pillars and beams once supported a roof which covered them. They were all destroyed hundreds of years ago by invading armies and were all in hundreds of pieces when the tombs were opened. Presently 1000 of them have been beautifully restored but the majority of the remainder will stay buried until science discovers a way of keeping the colous bright on the figures. They were brightly painted
The Great Mosque in Xian
Entrance to the main prayer hall of the Great Mosque.
when uncovered but have now lost all their colours. Many of the figures carried real weapons - 10,000 have been discovered so far. Though they have been buried for over 2,000 years the bronze swords were covered with a thin layer of chrome and were not covered in rust and were still capable of cutting paper when uncovered! The farmer who discovered them is 'paraded' at the site and signs autographs for those prepared to pay. I felt very sorry for that old man. After arriving back in Xian we spent the afternoon at the local museum before catching another overnight train to Lanzhou to start our tour of the Tibetan Grasslands.
We enjoyed our short visit to Xian and would have enjoyed another day or so there. The city came alive in the evening - the square outside our hotel was covered with families socialising after dark. During the day it was too hot to do much (except if you were a tourist) as the daytime temperatures hit 43* when we were there. Incredible heat. The city was full of enormous shopping malls. All Chinese large cities have enormous glittering shops so there must be plenty of people
Wooden ceiling at the Great Mosque in Xian
The wooden domes have no nails used at all in their construction.
able to afford to shop in them. The contrast between city and rural life is really very obvious in China. Last week we read in the local paper that Xian has over 200,000 people who cannot afford to eat or clothe themselves and the government has decided to give them a yearly pension of 695 yuan. There must be hundreds of thousands more who can just barely feed themselves living there as well. I guess as the population of China is so enormous even if 10% of the population is wealthy it's a very large group of people.
There are more photos below