We've finally made it to the People's Republic of China!
Leaving Sydney on 27 April around 10.30am, nine and a half hours later we landed in Guangzhou (where Seb's dad came from) and where we transferred to a shorter domestic flight to Beijing. Getting through Chinese Customs at Guangzhou proved to be quite easy so once we'd landed in Beijing, after collecting our bags, we walked out to be welcomed by a sea of faces amongst them representatives from TravelAsia, the agency we'd booked our holiday with. It was there we also discovered which passengers - who'd been on the same plane with us - were now to be part of the same tour as us. Then it was on to a bus to be driven, for about an hour, to our hotel - the Park Plaza Beijing Science Park - which like all the hotels on this tour turned out to be in the suburbs of whichever city we were visiting. Finally, around 2am our weary heads were able to hit the pillows!
There were over 140 others doing the same trip as we were which necessitated us being divided into groups, around enough to fill
a coach. The coach we were on was mainly Australians - most from Melbourne - plus two couples who were on working holidays in Australia. One couple were from Ireland and the other couple from Colombia. So on Saturday, our first day in Beijing, we were introduced to our tour guide Kitty who proved to be excellent. As Kitty explained that was not her Chinese name but she chose it because she likes the 'Hello Kitty' character. She explained that amongst the tour operators in China we're not known as Australians but as Kangaroos. Kitty was full of knowledge about China, answering any questions we had as well as keeping us fully informed of where we were going, what to expect and giving us the run-down on the weather etc. Amongst other things, she told us that for 860 years Beijing has been the capital of China. Once known as Peking, should you be interested, you can read my short biography of Margaret Shen - a Chinese Australian - which I wrote for the Australian Dictionary of Biography and who was born in what was then Peking before migrating to Australia. Details can be found here - http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shen-margaret-20708
Once on the road we saw how clean everything was; there were nice parks along the way; lots and lots of mostly new cars and plenty of people on bikes. Amazingly too we were blessed with a bit of blue sky which is somewhat of a rarity in Beijing. Our first stop was at the Beijing 2008 Olympic site which, before all the infrastructure was built had been farmland. Since this entailed moving all the farmers to the suburbs, naturally not all of them were happy with this arrangement. Olympic events took place at eleven pre-existing venues with twelve new venues constructed especially for the games. The area we explored included the Beijing National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest which held 91,000 spectators, and used for the opening and closing ceremonies. There was time for a walk along the wide walkway with the main stadium and various performance halls on either side. We passed a roped off area where a group of people were practising their roller blading and with plenty of overseas and Chinese tourists - the day being a national holiday - wandering around. It was also where I was able to buy my first green
bean ice cream; not quite up to scratch when compared to green tea ice cream, but a delicious second best!
The next place we visited the traditional Hutong area - famous for the old-style buildings and time-honoured workshops - where we were allocated a rickshaw driver to take us through the narrow streets and laneways. In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of subdivided housing and family business complexes with a traditional courtyard in the centre. Many neighbourhoods were formed by joining one hutong to another, the word used to refer to such neighbourhoods. Such buildings don't have their own toilets but there are fairly regular community toilets which we were able to access. Since the mid-20th century, a large number of Beijing hutongs were demolished to make way for new roads and buildings. More recently, however, many hutongs have been designated as protected, in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history. Hutongs were first established in the Yuan dynasty (1206–1341) and then expanded in the Ming (1368–1628) and Qing (1644–1908) dynasties. Saying goodbye to our trusty cyclists we enjoyed a meal with a local family before walking back to where our bus
has been left and then being taken to our next are to explore.
Our next stop was Tiananmen Square, one of the largest and grandest public squares in the world. Occupying an area of 440,000 square metres it can accomodate 1,000,000 people at one time. The square contains the Monument to the People's Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. It was in Tiananmen Square that Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China on 1 October, 1949. While in the square we had a group photo taken. Outside of China, the square is best known for the Tiananmen Square Massacre, an armed suppression of the pro-democracy movement in June 1989. However, since coming home I've realised that there are many more historical events which took place there, most of which I know nothing about. There were plenty of people wandering around amongst the soldiers and plain clothes police who kept their eye on us all so it was expedient not to say anything controversial.
From the square we progressed on to the Forbidden City, once the exclusive domain of
the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty from the years 1420 to 1912. The Forbidden City served as the home of emperors and their households and was the ceremonial and political centre of the Chinese government for almost 500 years. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, it is also listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. Constructed from 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 buildings and covers 72 hectares. Kitty gave us a great run-down of some of stories of what took place there including fascinating details of all the concubines available to pleasure the emperor whenever the fancy took him. Apparently some Emperors could manage to have around four liaisons each night; all I can say is that those emperors must have been studs in their day! There were so many concubines, some maybe only once visited by the Emperor throughout their life time which also resulted in concubines murdering each other out of jealousy or trying to exceed each other in order to gain the Emperor's favour. By the Qing dynasty there were around 20,000 concubines who, once inside the Forbidden City weren't allowed
to leave. They served a dual purpose – to ensure the Emperor had a very good chance of producing an heir and, of course, limitless opportunities to indulge his more licentious instincts. There was also a very convenient Daoist theory that helped the Emperor justify requiring the favour of 20,000 different women. According to the theory, the Emperor represented the extreme of Yang, and so therefore it was essential for the harmony of the cosmos that he have sex with as many women (women are yin) as possible. Kitty was a mine of information on these and other stories of what went on in the Forbidden City which of course included ceremonial and political events. Following an extensive walk through the Forbidden City we were well and truly ready to head back to our hotel.
A very full and interesting day!
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