Hutongs, more temples, Mao and acrobatic feats in Beijing


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Asia » China » Beijing » Tian'anmen
October 24th 2014
Published: November 5th 2014
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After we returned from Shanhaiguan we planned our next few days. We had train tickets already booked to go to Datong to visit the Hanging Monastery and the Buddhist Grottoes and were flying to Shanghai from there. We were very thankful that we had seen all the major sites on our previous visit when the city was much less busy. Though we were travelling in the off season here there are just so many more local tourists now then in 2005. The economy is booming and the locals are spending money - a lot of money. Food in restaurants is as expensive as in Australia - even small local restaurants are costing a minimum of AUD $20 for a couple of rice based meals. Coffee shops are everywhere and all have wifi and reasonable cappuccino. Not that we can access the wifi as tou need a local phone number and we haven't bothered with buying a sim card. Coffee costs AUD $4 a cup though Except at Starbucks which are on every corner - we had one coffee there at a cost of $10 a cup! And they are full of Chinese locals.....

We definitely wanted to revisit Tiananmen Square so the morning before we left to go to Shanhaiguan we were up early hoping to beat the queue onto the square. No such luck - it took forty minutes to get to the top of the queue and the security checks. We even had to show our passport to get onto the square. The square was as massive as we remember - a huge area of paving, only broken by the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall (which is his mausoleum) and the 38 metre high obelisk, the Monument to the People's Heroes. At the moment as well at one end of the square sits the super sized vase of flowers which was creating an enormous amount of interest. Busy with sightseers, it's not really a great place to spend a lot of time as there is no shade or seating. On our previous visit to the square we had no trouble visiting the square but it was nearly impossible to visit Mao's tomb as the queues circled the square. Due to the increased security to now get onto the square it was now a much faster process to visit the tomb. I was interested to see fire extinguishers around the square - no doubt to put out flames should a protester decide to set themselves alight. Of course there were security cameras everywhere and I'm sure many plain clothes police.

We went in separately as it would have meant joining another queue to leave our belongings if we went through together. It was quite an experience. I still had a full body scan and my passport checked closely before I was waved through. Joining the fast moving line, in which most people slowed to purchase a white chrysanthemum for a few yuan, I entered the first room of the hall. Empty except for a snow white stand (It appeared as if his coffin should have been lying there so I presumed he was 'on holiday' too) where everybody was leaving their flowers. There were hundreds of flowers in front and literally thousands in a neat pile behind it making me wandering if they were resold during the day. However his body was lying in a crystal coffin in all it's waxy glory in the next room. No slowing down to have a longer look as the soldiers kept everybody moving very quickly past One man got into trouble for whispering to his friend as he walked by.

From the square we went to the railway station for our overnight stay in Shanhiaguan. We had left the day after our return to the city free thinking that if we were dissatisfied with our Great Wall trip we would spend a day at another section of the wall. However we loved our wall experience at the Jiumenkou section so decided to spend the day visiting the mosque and the Fayuan Temple, which was near the mosque. So pleased that we did as it was a lovely temple - though it took a bit of finding as it was in the middle of a hutong area. Built in the 7th century it was a bustling temple with many halls and lovely tree filled grounds. The main hall had a very interesting altar - a copper Buddha sitting atop four further Buddhas. Behind this hall was one with a huge reclining Buddha. Though this hall was locked people were praying and leaving offerings in front of the wooden door.

We had noticed a long line of people, all holding plastic food containers, forming and realised that the temple offers a meal to everybody when big vats of food were wheeled out. Lines of monks dressed in grey or mustard yellow began walking into a dining hall after a gong and drum were sounded. There were many monks at the temple as it was also the Chinese Buddhist College. We were invited to the top of the queue and offered a bowl of rice and vegetables. Slightly embarrassed to be seen as queue jumpers we soon realised that all the local people were very happy that we were eating with them. We joined the crowds eating as they sat on the steps or perched on the railings around the temple gardens. It was a lovely experience and the food was very tasty as well!

From there we found our way to the Cow Street Mosque which dated back to the 10th century. It is Beijing's largest and is now lost amidst a sea of high rises. Though very Chinese in style it did have many flourishes of Arabic. The main prayer hall wasn't particularly large and whilst we were there the call to prayer began sounding through the loud speaker system. Always a sound we enjoy we sat and watched the men (and some women - not all wearing headscarves, but with Muslim men) arrive to attend prayers. They were welcoming but we decided to leave when we realised that many police had also begun to arrive. We think that the increase in security throughout the city was because of the unrest in the Western provinces between the Han Chinese and the Muslim Uighurs. As we left the mosque we counted at least 20 police out the front and cars of them arriving further down the road.

From there we decided to wander some of the surrounding narrow hutong streets. We quickly realised that these hutongs (like so many in the city) were in the middle of being demolished. In some of the ruins people were still living under tarps, with their washing lines strung above the pile of rubble that was once their home. We saw one sad old lady sitting on her tiny chair beside the remains of her uninhabitable home. Very sad - though saying this, as we walked through the alleys which were soon to be demolished, the hutong houses were literally shacks and most not much more then slums. Hopefully the Government at least houses the hutong residents in high rises surrounded by the people who were in their community and doesn't scatter them in all directions around the city.

That evening we had tickets for the Chinese Acrobatics - though we had seen them before we really wanted to go again. We went via the subway to the Chaoyang Theatre which is overlooked by the CCTV building, affectionately called 'The Big Underpants' as it silhouette looks like a pair of long boxer shorts. We could barely see it due to the smog and because after dark it had hardly any lights on it soon disappeared into the gloom. We loved the acrobatics, very colourful with beautiful costumes and lots of weird and wonderful acts from walking up and down stairs on one arm, a man balancing whilst running blindfolded on top of a large rotating wheel, eight girls on one bicycle, and a girl doing ballet pirouettes on top of a man's head. The finale though was amazing - eight motorbikes roaring around the interior of a spinning globe. All good fun but rather them than me.....

On our last morning in the city we debated about revisiting the Forbidden City but after seeing the queue decided we didn't need to battle the crowds and instead headed into the hutong area behind our guesthouse. It was in much better condition then the previous days hutong area and we spent an enjoyable few hours exploring. We found different areas within the hutong where we browsed the shops - one area was full of music shops selling all types of fascinating traditional musical instruments, another was lined with shops selling calligraphy brushes (hundreds of them in blue and white china holders) and realms of the wide rice paper they paint on and yet another lined with shops selling 'antiques', most of which are newly made and covered in mud to age them.

Back at the guesthouse we checked out, enjoyed one of their burgers and a beer, before we went back to the train station to catch our late afternoon train out to Datong. Boarding this train wasn't as horrific as our first trip but hard seats greeted us. They were most uncomfortable after a couple of hours and we ended up spending the remaining few hours chatting to a group of Aussie ladies from Tasmania in the dining car. The trip was six and half hours long and we were very thankful to arrive eventually at our comfortable pre booked hotel in Datong. We could actually see the stars in the sky so looked forward to waking up to blue smog free skies...


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Selling enormous shallots (they weren't leeks) off the back of a truckSelling enormous shallots (they weren't leeks) off the back of a truck
Selling enormous shallots (they weren't leeks) off the back of a truck

The street was lined with trucks selling the same vegetables
No desire to leave...No desire to leave...
No desire to leave...

Old lady in the demolished hutong


6th November 2014
Posing in front of the vase of flowers

I'm too late!
How lucky that you went to China earlier! Those queues, those prices, those hutongs being torn down, the smog--all so discouraging. However, I'm glad your hutong was still standing and attractive, and you did find lovely sites, but I, like you, wouldn't want to stand in a long queue for the Forbidden City, even though I've always wanted to see it. Glad you could see the stars in your new spot--maybe there won't be queues either.

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