April 21, 2013 From Xian to Beijing

The summer palace taken from the Kunming Lake

The summer palace taken from the Kunming Lake

Another early day with the suitcases out the door at 7 a.m.  We leave the hotel at 8 a.m. and head to the airport. Once again our flight is delayed but most of us took advantage of the opportunity to buy western snacks and coke products. After a two hour trip, we landed in Beijing, our last stop before heading home to Canada. 

On our first day in China someone referred to Mabel as "Marble" and unfortunately the moniker stuck!  Mabel has a quick wit, a keen sense of humor and a fit traveler. She was hard to keep up with...in almost all aspects.  If I run into her on the street I hope to call her Mable....not MARBLE!

On our first day in China someone referred to Mabel as “Marble” and unfortunately the moniker stuck! Mabel has a quick wit, a keen sense of humor and a fit traveler. She was hard to keep up with…in almost all aspects. If I run into her on the street I hope to call her Mable….not MARBLE!

This is a very busy airport and once again, we could not get a gate, so disembarked on the tarmac. This day we were planned to go to Tian An Men Square and the Forbidden City, however due to the flight delay Michael had to make changes to the schedule.  Given how many times we have been late, I believe Michael must be busy in the background, changing dinner times, hotel arrivals and today itinerary changes.

Michael has opted to take us to the New Summer Palace. Originally designed and built in the 1750s the area has been pillaged and rebuilt on several occasions.  The last restoration was done by the Empress Dowager Cixi ( mother of “the last emperor”.) This 700 acre park has many special features and we get a glimpse of only some of them.  Kunming Lake makes up most of the park and is largely man made. 

Foreground - the Tower of Buddhist Fragrance, and background is the Temple of the Sea of Wisdom

Foreground – the Tower of Buddhist Fragrance, and background is the Temple of the Sea of Wisdom

The excavated soil was used to build up “Longevity Hill”.  At the west end of the lake you may find the “marble” boat. This boat is made of wood but painted to resemble marble.  It was not designed to be used as a boat, but was used by Empress Cixi to host dinners and parties. The Long Corridor is a wooden walkway skirting the northern shoreline and leads to the marble boat.

The Long Corridor, a covered walkway that follows a path along Kunming Lake, runs nearly 800 meters. The Qianlong Emperor also built this for his mother so that she could stroll in the garden without getting wet on rainy days. But, today, the trick is to look up, not out. The ceiling and beams are covered with more than 14,000 paintings that depict scenes from classical Chinese literature and folk tales. It’s a great place to get a rich lesson in Chinese cultural history…. to say nothing of getting a “crick” in the neck.

We walked the "long corridor" looking up and the artwork.  Designed so the Empress wouldn't get wet when she was out walking and decorated for her pleasure. It leads to the "Marble" boat.

We walked the “long corridor” looking up and the artwork. Designed so the Empress wouldn’t get wet when she was out walking and decorated for her pleasure. It leads to the “Marble” boat.

The Bridge of Seventeen Arches was built in stone and stretches about 150 meters over Kunming Lake. The beautiful 8-meter-wide bridge connects the East Dike of Kunming Lake with Nanhu Dao or South Island. The railings on each side of the bridge are decorated with 544 carved stone lions.

We walked along the north shore through the Long Corridor,

Made of wood but painted to resemble marble, the boat is being restored. A permanent structure used by the empress to entertain.  The money to build it was embezzled by the Dowager from the " Navy's funds.

Made of wood but painted to resemble marble, the boat is being restored. A permanent structure used by the empress to entertain. The money to build it was embezzled by the Dowager from the ” Navy’s funds.

past the marble boat and rather than retrace our steps, we took a boat back to the start point.  We were able to get some beautiful photos both on our walk and on the boat ride back. The setting sun provided a great back drop.

I felt the visit to the summer palace was rushed and most reviews suggest one could easily spend a day in this beautiful park and surroundings.  We left the area and went for dinner. 

The Bridge of 17 Arches - on Kunming Lake

The Bridge of 17 Arches – on Kunming Lake

The restaurant was on the second floor and the first floor had a dairy queen, which we took note of.  Following our dinner several of us enjoyed a low cost dairy queen treat before leaving.

Our hotel was the Hotel New Otani Chang Fu Gong and one of the nicest we have stayed in.  It is Japanese owned and newly renovated.  The TV converts to a computer monitor, so we all had internet access and could catch up with the folks at home.  We were eager to let friends and family know, the earthquake that struck close to Chendu had happened the night after we left the area and that we were all fine.  This hotel had several English language channels so we also caught up on some of the world’s news, including the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon.  The US news came from CNN Hong Kong and seemed the same as what we would see at home.  Censorship was not evident.  Given the loss of life in the recent Chinese earthquake, the Chinese covered the story but without the CNN hysteria and made for a welcome change.

We are very impressed with the electronics in the room.  We have blinds that go up and down by remote, but the real treat was the “biffy”  No #6 here…this one was a ten.  Heated seat, self flushing, option  buttons that wash front, the back, dried and “scented” the area.  Now that’s a “potty.”  I do miss that heated / padded seat.

Taking the boat back to the park entrance

Taking the boat back to the park entrance

Our number ten potty, complete with options!

Our number ten potty, complete with options!

April 22, 2013 Touring Beijing and visiting the Great Wall

I can't help but wonder how stunning the view would be without the air pollution obliterating the horizon.

I can’t help but wonder how stunning the view would be without the air pollution obliterating the horizon.

Today is a jam packed touring day and we start by visiting a Jade Factory. If I have one criticism of this China tour, it’s visiting stores ( really that’s what they are) who provide demonstrations of how their goods are made and then spend lengthy periods looking around while the odd person buys something. 

My daughter collects elephants and it was tempting to get one for her, but didn't think it would fit into my suitcase, or if it did, would exceed the baggage weight limit.  My decision not to buy one had nothing to do with the $8880 US cost / each.

My daughter collects elephants and it was tempting to get one for her, but didn’t think it would fit into my suitcase, or if it did, would exceed the baggage weight limit. My decision not to buy one had nothing to do with the $8880 US cost / each.

Upon reviewing various tour packages for China, this is common and likely unavoidable, but it still seems a waste of time when there is so much else one could see and do.  I do enjoy learning how things are made, but the demonstrations are done in minutes, and then we are given way too long to shop. We see beautiful jade artworks however Jade is plentiful in Canada, so I’m quite ready to move on before we actually do.

Joining the hoards to climb a portion of the Great Wall at Badaling

Joining the hoards to climb a portion of the Great Wall at Badaling

Our bus now heads out of town to the Badaling  section of the wall. Unfortunately this section of the wall is where most tour companies stop and today it is crowded with visitors and vendors.  Badaling is only an hour by car from Beijing and provides the “postcard” views many of us have of the Great Wall.  The wall was constructed over hundreds of years, using a variety of materials.  The Ming Dynasty period was one of restoration for much of the wall and this is what we see here at Badaling. 
Starting up the slope which got steeper as you climbed

Starting up the slope which got steeper as you climbed

In many areas of China the wall is in disrepair, or being torn down to make way for construction, or just left for nature to reclaim.  This area has had major restoration but the stone remains worn from the heavy traffic.  In places, instead of stairs, the wall is sloped at a steep angle. 
Jon & Dirk kept us laughing our entire trip.  Lifetime friends, these two are so much fun to be with.  Dirk (on the right) keeps telling us he is going to visit us in Coalhurst. He promises to stop in at the Coalhurst bakery and bring us their " Vanilla Slice."  We're still waiting! ( however we cheated and bought two pieces of vanilla slice the other day)  and he was right, they are yummy, yummy, yummy!

Jon & Dirk kept us laughing our entire trip. Lifetime friends, these two are so much fun to be with. Dirk (on the right) keeps telling us he is going to visit us in Coalhurst. He promises to stop in at the Coalhurst bakery and bring us their ” Vanilla Slice.” We’re still waiting! ( however we cheated and bought two pieces of vanilla slice the other day) and he was right, they are yummy, yummy, yummy!

It’s almost impossible to climb without hanging onto someone or the railing.  We were told this section is impossible during a rain….it was almost impassable now with the worn shiny stones!  Nevertheless it was thrilling to walk the wall and I managed the third tower before heading back.  As I climbed up, I noticed a new staircase on the outside of the walk with a few people on it.  It looks to me it might lead back to our starting point and was much less congested and a much easier decent than the slippery slopes and steep stairs. 
You gotta wonder how much rice wine the fellow consumed before installing this framed piece!

You gotta wonder how much rice wine the fellow consumed before installing this framed piece!

I found a path to the stairs but was still unsure where these steps led to.  There was a group of 8 boys ( around 13 yrs. old) sitting on a rock by the stairs so I asked if any of them spoke English.  They shook their heads indicating no, so I thought I would proceed and hope for the best.  About 50 feet past the boys, one of them shouted out “What?”  I went back to them and using gestures and limited words, I asked if these stairs led back to the entrance.  They nodded and said yes, so I hoped they understood me as I head down. 
Looking back from the highest point I had climbed to.  Peach blossoms are just starting to bloom at this height.

Looking back from the highest point I had climbed to. Peach blossoms are just starting to bloom at this height.

The descent was very easy so I walked slowly and took my time, enjoying the walk, the air and the scenery.  I heard people coming up behind me so I stepped aside to let them pass.  As they approached I noticed the lady was wearing a lovely embroidered jacket.  Michael had taught us a few Chinese words and everyday he would ask if we enjoyed the previous day to which we would all answer “ Ding Ding How” 
Oh how I wish I had obtained her name or given them one of my cards. Perhaps we could have been pen pals.

Oh how I wish I had obtained her name or given them one of my cards. Perhaps we could have been pen pals.

I think it means we liked it.  Friends of our who had visited China years ago had mentioned if you get away from your group and approach someone, they are usually very friendly and eager to say hello ( and practice their English.) As the lady passed I smiled and gesturing my own jacket… pointed to her jacket and said “ ding ding how.”  I am not sure exactly what that means but her face lit up like a Christmas tree.  We exchanged hellos ( Knee How) and they walked passed.  Quickly they stopped and the young man with the older couple came back and said in English…my mother would like to take her picture with you. I was thrilled and the two of us got our photos taken. 
Looking back at the wall - taken from the outside pathwy

Looking back at the wall – taken from the outside pathwy

I was told the Chinese people are not touchy feely people, but she grabbed both my hands and held on until we parted.  The son asked where I was from and what we were doing.  We chatted for about 5 minute before moving on.  This brief meeting made a lasting impression on me.  No matter where we live, or what we do, what we believe in…we are all the same and crave human contact.  I am so glad she made the effort!

As it turns out Brian and one of our Pats also had a memorable experience.  Neither of them felt up to the climb to they toured around the entrance before departing to return to our meeting place.  The entrance is accessible from two directions so one must remember which way they entered from as both roads leading to the entrance, look the same.  As it turns out they took a wrong turn and went for a long walk anyway.  They eventually figured out they had taken the wrong turn and head back to the meeting place.  I think I was the last of our group off the wall and while I made the correct turn I forgot where we were meeting.  I couldn’t see one person from our group and ended up going into the coffee shop purely by accident and there was our group.  Talk about relief!  Before we got to the bus I spied a tee shirt “ I walked the wall” which I absolutely had to have.  Michael saw me veer off and stayed with me and quickly translated and negotiated the price.  Good thing…I’d have lost the group and would never have found our bus among the 100s waiting.

The " Bird's Nest" Used for the opening and closing ceremonies for the Beijing 200 summer Olympics and now sits largely unused.

The ” Bird’s Nest” Used for the opening and closing ceremonies for the Beijing 200 summer Olympics and now sits largely unused.

Next stop – Beijing Olympic Park where we got a brief stop to take photos of the “ Bird’s Nest” ( stadium) and the water cube ( home of the aquatic events.) The air is thick and despite being two city blocks away, the photos taken show a deep haze. 

The " Water Cube" used for aquatic events during the Olympics.  Now seen as a costly place using valuable resources ( water and electricity) which the people of Beijing are not eager to support.

The ” Water Cube” used for aquatic events during the Olympics. Now seen as a costly place using valuable resources ( water and electricity) which the people of Beijing are not eager to support.

It was quite a distance to walk and was a real quick step to get back to the bus on time.  Our local guide tells us the stadium has been used for concerts and other major events but upon doing some research it appears most of the event structures are under used and left to decay. 
Olympic Mall - extends for miles.  Much of old Beijing was destroyed and many people lost their private homes, during the construction.  They were never properly compensated for their loss and now live in sterile high rise buildings.

Olympic Mall – extends for miles. Much of old Beijing was destroyed and many people lost their private homes, during the construction. They were never properly compensated for their loss and now live in sterile high rise buildings.

The local people are concerned the money spent to up keep the “water cube” and “bird’s nest” would be better spent on needed infrastructure. It seems no lasting sporting legacy for Beijing.

Our bus takes us to a Cloisonne Factory/ store for more shopping.  Cloisonné is an ancient technique for decorating metalwork objects. The decoration

Applying the metal wires to form the "Cloisonné"

Applying the metal wires to form the “Cloisonné”

is formed by first adding compartments (cloisons in French) to the metal object by soldering or adhering silver or gold wires or thin strips placed on their edges. These remain visible in the finished piece, separating the different compartments of the enamel or inlays, which are often of several colors.
Before - metal wires have been attached to form the pattern

Before – metal wires have been attached to form the pattern

Cloisonné enamel objects are worked on with enamel powder made into a paste, which then needs to be fired in a kiln. We tour the “factory” and watch people shaping the metal pots, adding the wires in a decorative pattern and layering the enamel paint.  I am not convinced these folks spend all day doing this.  As soon as we passed, the men “hammering” the copper pots stopped and went outside for a smoke and all their tools were gone. 
After - the layers of enamel paint have been built up to fill the spaces, then fired in a kiln to finish.

After – the layers of enamel paint have been built up to fill the spaces, then fired in a kiln to finish.

Pretty sure this is just a demonstration leading us to the “shopping” areas.  Again we spent a long time looking around before heading out to have some fun.

Our bus takes us to an older part of the city for a “Hutong” tour.  Hutong means “ narrow alley. We are in for a treat as we are not going to tour the area on foot, but rather by bicycle rickshaw. 

Starting out on our Rickshaw ride.  Ended up being more fun than anticipated.

Starting out on our Rickshaw ride. Ended up being more fun than anticipated.

Each carriage holds two people and off we go.  There are long lines of bikes waiting for the tourists and these guys ride the bikes with as much abandon as a little kid, squeaking their way between cards, making hair raising hair pin turns and occasionally coming to a stop by hitting the carriage in front of them.  We pass private homes, shops, café, bars, parks and on coming traffic. 
We tour a private residence - a rare thing now with high density housing.  This room rented for guests attending the Beijing Olympics.  I'm not sure we ever discovered the bathroom.

We tour a private residence – a rare thing now with high density housing. This room rented for guests attending the Beijing Olympics. I’m not sure we ever discovered the bathroom.

We do stop to tour a local private home, which incidentally rented out it’s bedrooms to Olympic visitors.  If you booked in here, you were in for a treat….perhaps.  First of all if you could find the place…you’d be lucky..or not…depending on your point of view.   
Here we are setting off on our rickshaw experience

Here we are setting off on our rickshaw experience

After a very fun ride it was back to the bus and off for dinner, then to the hotel for a well deserved rest.

We passed by this quiet spot while touring by Rickshaw

We passed by this quiet spot while touring by Rickshaw

April 23, 2013 Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven

As you can see the shorts and tee shirts have given way to jackets.  Tiananmen Square.

As you can see the shorts and tee shirts have given way to jackets. Tiananmen Square.

Today is another busy day as we set off for Tiananmen Square. The square is aptly known as the political heart of modern China and covers 100 acres, making it the largest public square in the world. Due to the fact we will be walking for the next three hours, Michael suggested we rent a wheelchair (with an assistant) to help Brian navigate the area. We agreed and were met at the gates by our helper who was attentive and kept Brian entertained ( although he spoke no English.)

Brian having fun with his "pusher"

Brian having fun with his “pusher”

He was excellent and made sure Brian was at the front of the group allowing him to take in everything our local guide was telling us.  Brian in turn helped him by doing stairs himself. Off we went to join the approximate 80,000 daily visitors to the square.

The square was developed under Mao Zedong. Today the square is packed with sightseers, vendors( street hawkers) and undercover policemen.

Standing ramrod straight and unmoving.  I hope they don't have to do this for long.

Standing ramrod straight and unmoving. I hope they don’t have to do this for long.

As we entered the square I saw uniformed guards and asked Michael if I could take their photo and he suggested to wait until we got to the monument where soldiers stand on guard. It had been suggested to us this was not the place to ask political questions. During the Cultural Revolution hundreds of thousands of Red Guards filled the square and in June 1989 several student demonstrators were killed. I think many of us will recall seeing pictures of a single student standing defiantly in front of an on coming tank.  Brian asked our local guard, where in the square was that photo taken and our guide pleaded ignorance of the event.  It was then Brian remembered…NO POLITICAL QUESTIONS.  In defense of the young guide, he was unlikely to have ever been told this piece of history.
The queue to enter the Forbidden City

The queue to enter the Forbidden City

While the square is large it is bleak with little greenery, shade or benches ( good thing Brian has his own seat today). The Square is lit with large lampposts which are fitted with video cameras. It is heavily monitored by uniformed and plain clothes policemen. At night I understand it is an eerie empty space in the middle of a bustling city. After doing a bit of research I find there is a network of tunnels beneath the square.  Mao is said to have ordered them dug in the late 1960s after Sino-Soviet relations soured.  These tunnels extend across Beijing.

The four sides of the Square each have a notable land mark. The west side has the Great Hall of the People which I believe is their main government ( legislative) building. On the east side you will find the National Museum of China, the north side is home to the Tiananmen Gate and is the entrance to the Forbidden city,

Open door leading to the Forbidden City. Forbidden no more!

Open door leading to the Forbidden City. Forbidden no more!

while the south has the Zhengyangmen Gate tower. The square is home to the 125 foot granite obelisk – Monument to the People’s Heroes – commemorating  those who died for the revolutionary cause of the Chinese People.  The Square is also home to the Mao Zedong mausoleum.  We saw huge lines waiting to enter the mausoleum. The remains of Mao are on display for public viewing (though some claim this is a wax sculpture placed over the actual body).
Tiananmen Square brought back painful memories for Tan and she was eager to leave the area.

Tiananmen Square brought back painful memories for Tan and she was eager to leave the area.

People line up for hundreds of yards every day, to see the former chairman, many paying tribute to him with flowers that can be rented at the entrance on the north side.  One of our group, Tan, struggled with seeing Mao’s portrait as she had fled communist Vietnam and Tan was eager to leave the area.  Despite being surrounded with significant buildings, our tour of the square was confined to walking through it to enter the Forbidden City.

Many China tours start in Beijing and tourists come to the Forbidden City early on in their tour.  Speaking for myself, I was pretty much done with looking at ancient buildings and hearing more Chinese history and I didn’t get as much out of this tour as I should have.  I think at this point I was on sensory overload.

Note the grey walls and stone structures...it's all marble.

Note the grey walls and stone structures…it’s all marble.

There is a great deal of information on the Forbidden city and I won’t attempt to recreate it here but I did find some interesting facts:

  • 24 Emperors and two dynasties ruled  from this location
  • The emperor was the only non castrated  male allowed in the eastern and western palaces.  This was to ensure that any pregnant concubine was carrying the royal one’s baby.
  • The palace has been used in films, most notable would be Bertolucci’s “ The Last Emperor” where the passage outside the hall of Mental Cultivation was used to film the young Puyi, riding his bike.

Our guide told us many interesting stories of the history of the palace but the one that captured my attention was the story of Puyi’s mother 

Cixi's bedroom

Cixi’s bedroom

The Empress Dowager Cixi. Apparently she served as de facto ruler from 1861 until 1908. She was a concubine at 16 and became Emperor Xianfeng’s favorite.  She gave birth to his only son to survive, and therefore heir apparent. She was ruthless and ambitious learning the workings of court and used every means to gain power. I hope I can find a book about her life.  I think it would make an interesting read.

After travelling straight through the Forbidden city, we leave and go for lunch.  After lunch we are off to the Kingdom of Heaven temple.

The round Temple

The round Temple

This is where Emperors performed religious rites and sacrifices meant to please the gods so they would be generate bumper harvest. 

The Temple grounds cover 2.73 km² of parkland and comprises three main groups of construction, all built according to strict philosophical requirements:

  • The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is a magnificent triple-gabled circular building, 36 meters in diameter and 38 meters tall, built on three levels of marble stone base, where the Emperor prayed for good harvests. The building is completely wooden, with no nails. The original building was burned by a fire caused by lightning in 1889. The current building was quickly re-built after the incident. ( Much of the timber was imported from Oregon) The building’s design is based on the calendar: four center pillars represent the seasons, 12 pillars represent the months and 12 outer pillars signify parts of the day.  Together these 28 poles correspond to the 28 constellations of the heavens.
    The Temple of Heaven covers a very large area and the park is used by many, including these eager card players.  They take it very serious as they "slam" their cards down.

    The Temple of Heaven covers a very large area and the park is used by many, including these eager card players. They take it very serious as they “slam” their cards down.

    A carved dragon swirling down from the ceiling represents the Emperor.
  • The Imperial Vault of Heaven  is a single-gabled circular building, built on a single level of marble stone base. It is located south of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and resembles it, but is smaller. It is surrounded by a smooth circular wall, the Echo Wall, that can transmit sounds over large distances, great for eavesdropping. Put a friend on one side of the building and yourself on the other side. It’s possible to hold a conversation by speaking to the wall.  You need to tilt your head in the direction you want your voice to travel. The Imperial Vault is connected to the Hall of Prayer by the Vermilion Steps Bridge, a 360 meter long raised walkway that slowly ascends from the Vault to the Hall of Prayer.
  • The  Circular Mound Altar is the altar proper, located south of the Imperial Vault of Heaven. It is an empty circular platform on three levels of marble stones, each decorated by lavishly carved dragons.
    Playing music by the Temple of Heaven.  Interesting looking instrument.

    Playing music by the Temple of Heaven. Interesting looking instrument.

    The numbers of various elements of the Altar, including its balusters and steps, are either the sacred number nine. The center of the altar is a round slate called the Heart of Heaven or the Supreme Yang, where the Emperor prayed for favorable weather. Thanks to the design of the altar, the sound of the prayer will be reflected by the guardrail, creating significant resonance, which was supposed to help the prayer communicate with the Heaven. The Altar was built in 1530 by the Jianjing Emperor and rebuilt in 1740.

We leave the area and head for a pearl factory through the never ending traffic, although here in Beijing it’s mostly private cars, very few scooters and bicycles. Upon entering the pearl shop we are given a demonstration of growing fresh water pearls.  The guide plucked an oyster from the tank and asked our group to guess the number of pearls we may find inside.  I think the highest guess was 20 and I think they found 29.  I had planned to buy pearls here and opted for the “salt water pearls.”  I am quite sure I overpaid, especially since I have come home and have been told the purchased pearls are likely fresh water pearls.  Buyer Beware I guess.

We leave here and head for the “knock off” market. What a zoo with vendor after vendor selling the same stuff and they all know the phase “ Hey Lady.”  This is not my kind of place although I did buy two purses and again paid too much…but they seemed like a bargain compared to prices at home.

Tonight is our “farewell dinner” and we are treated to Peking Duck.

Carving the Peking Duck

Carving the Peking Duck

Peking duck is a famous dish from the Beijing area.  It has been prepared since the imperial era, and is now considered a national dish of China. The dish is prized for the thin, crisp skin, with authentic versions of the dish serving mostly the skin and little meat, sliced in front of the diners by the cook. Ducks bred specially for the dish are slaughtered after 65 days and seasoned before being roasted in a closed or hung oven. The meat is eaten with pancakes,scallions, and hoisin sauce.  It was fun to watch the elaborate preparation and carving of the duck and was very good. I would say there was very little left overs at this meal.

This was our last day of “touring.” Tomorrow is a free day and some of the group plan on shopping. I would have liked some touring options if one didn’t want to shop and I think several of us are wondering what we are going to do for the day.

Here are a few more photos of our day today.

These bricks are said to be 15 layers deep, to keep anyone from tunneling up into the Forbidden City.

These bricks are said to be 15 layers deep, to keep anyone from tunneling up into the Forbidden City.

Not sure...perhaps a throne?

Not sure…perhaps a throne?

Not sure if this is the Inner or Outer Courtyard.  Impressive none the less.

Not sure if this is the Inner or Outer Courtyard. Impressive none the less.

The Forbidden City has the largest collection of ancient Chinese artifacts ad these are but a minuscule portion.

The Forbidden City has the largest collection of ancient Chinese artifacts ad these are but a minuscule portion.

Dawn - A beautiful women inside and out.  Despite life's challenges she remains positive and kind. A joy to travel with. She shared with Tan for this trip.

Dawn – A beautiful women inside and out. Despite life’s challenges she remains positive and kind. A joy to travel with. She shared with Tan for this trip.

Beijing April 24, 2013 A Day on Our Own

Peaceful park near our busy hotel and right next to the Russian Embassy.

Peaceful park near our busy hotel and right next to the Russian Embassy.

No need to jump out of bed early today.  Today is a “free” day to do as you like.  Our hotel is not really located in an area where you are very near to things, so Brian opted to stay put in the hotel.  After a long leisurely breakfast we went back to our room, while many of our fellow travellers went shopping. In the morning I pulled everything out of all the suitcases and repacked – making room for purchased items.  I also found some things I packed but didn’t need and found some things I needed and couldn’t find…so I guess I didn’t really need them.  Using the in room computer I spent some time seeing what was happening at home and reading email.  No Facebook however….Facebook is blocked in China. 

Our hotel is across the street from a Macdonald’s so   we wandered across the street to grab a bite to bring back.  MacDonald’s appears to have issues with quality control as the burger was of very poor quality, in particular the beef. Oh well it filled a hole.  We had watched an English language movie earlier but I got stir crazy and decided to go for a walk. 

Coffee shop inside what I thought was a shopping mall

Coffee shop inside what I thought was a shopping mall

I took the under pass to get to the other side of the freeway and just started walking in a straight line.  I found a large building that might have been a shopping center and it had an outdoor sidewalk sale going on.  I stopped for awhile to people watch and then went inside to have a look around.  It was very strange inside.  It looked like it may have high end stores inside but doors were closed, and covered with curtains, so you couldn’t see inside, yet the window displays showed clothing accessories etc.  I did get a glimpse inside and some places looked bare with a couple of people sitting inside, but no racks of clothing, or shoes etc. were visible.

I kept walking and passed The US and Russian Embassy enclaves.  They both had Chinese guards out front.  I had expected both countries would have had their own nationals doing that.  I eventually crossed the street and found another similar building that I am sure was a shopping center, but again, lots of store fronts but all doors were curtained off.  Again I did get a glimpse inside once in awhile, and from time to time the stores had merchandise inside, but for the most part were just a couple of people and a computer.  Can’t figure this out. 

Here are a couple of the musicians making music in the park.  The "orchestra" had about 7 members playing a variety of instruments, some of the instruments unknown to me, as you see here.

Here are a couple of the musicians making music in the park. The “orchestra” had about 7 members playing a variety of instruments, some of the instruments unknown to me, as you see here.

I was going to walk in a square and hope to return to the hotel but I had gone several blocks and wasn’t sure if I would recognize the street our hotel was on once I got to it, so decided just to back track to be on the safe side.  I walked the opposite side of the street and as I approached the Russian Embassy I saw what looked like a garden courtyard with a sign that said free entrance.  I decided to have a look and I had found a park.  It was gorgeous.  I wandered around for awhile and was hoping I could find a way out that I could be confident of leading me back to the hotel.  I eventually had to retrace my steps and leave by the entrance.  In the mean time I enjoyed walking in the garden and came to a stage area where the seniors were playing instruments and singing.  I sat with them and watched for awhile. 
This lady sang solo following a couple of very senior ladies who had been singing duet.  I enjoyed the melody but this lady's voice was not pleasant to my ears!

This lady sang solo following a couple of very senior ladies who had been singing duet. I enjoyed the melody but this lady’s voice was not pleasant to my ears!

I would have stayed longer but I didn’t want Brian to worry about me.  No problem there.  When I returned to the room, he was sleeping!

During my walk I had found a western style restaurant so we joined a few others for dinner.  So nice to find a western salad bar.  We managed to kill time but what a waste of a day. Given how many “shopping” opportunities we have had along the way, I don’t think this “free” day was necessary, or at least those who didn’t want to shop should have had touring options….although Michael would not have been with us.

Pat M.  What a lovely warm loving person. She and her husband ( Fred) have had a gut wrenching loss.  The two of them display so much grace when talking about that loss.  Wonderful people and great travelling companions.

Pat M. What a lovely warm loving person. She and her husband ( Fred) have had a gut wrenching loss. The two of them display so much grace when talking about that loss. Wonderful people and great travelling companions.

Pat's hubby.  Great guy and lots of fun.  He likes to snap a lot of photos, just like myself.  We often found each other elbowing for just the right shot.

Pat’s hubby. Great guy and lots of fun. He likes to snap a lot of photos, just like myself. We often found each other elbowing for just the right shot.

April 25, 2013 Saying Good Bye to China

This is Michael, our China Tour Guide.  We had a wonderful trip and he kept us safe and entertained.  He was thoughtful and paid attention to the details. At the end of our trip we tossed in to give him a tip....I think he would find we were all very pleased with him and our gratuity would indicate that.  Thanks Michael for a wonderful experience.

This is Michael, our China Tour Guide. We had a wonderful trip and he kept us safe and entertained. He was thoughtful and paid attention to the details. At the end of our trip we tossed in to give him a tip….I think he would find we were all very pleased with him and our gratuity would indicate that. Thanks Michael for a wonderful experience.

It was over one year ago we looked at the brochure and thought this might be an interesting trip to take.  Here we are a year later and we are leaving China.  Did the trip live up to expectations?  Absolutely. We have seen and experienced so much in just a short time.  Our senses have been bombarded with stunning visions, our ears assaulted with traffic noises, the smells from unidentifiable sources, the tastes of different food and we’ve been touched by the people we’ve met. We’ve travelled by foot, by plane, by bus, by train, by rickshaw, by sampan and by ship. We’ve been entertained by professionals, every day people and certainly by the traffic.  We’ve been surprised by the differences and equally surprised by how similar we are.  All of us are taking away special moments and unforgettable experiences and everyone’s will be different.

Marlene was Mable's roommate for the trip. I think they were well matched.  Both were fit as a fiddle and a great sense of humor. Marlene is very kind and considerate of others and so glad she was on our journey with us.

Marlene was Mable’s roommate for the trip. I think they were well matched. Both were fit as a fiddle and a great sense of humor. Marlene is very kind and considerate of others and so glad she was on our journey with us.

We would like to thank Triple D Tours of Lethbridge ( Bob & Donna) for putting together this trip and for all their organization efforts both before and during this tour.  Thank you to our China guide Michael.  You are very good at what you do and you contributed  a great deal to the success of our experience. To all of our local guides and drivers.  Thanks for sharing your stories and keeping us safe in an insane environment.

As I close off this trip’s blog I will take this opportunity to share some experiences and thoughts.

Our country of Canada has barely 400 years of history, China can trace theirs predating Christ. During the cultural revolution many of China’s historic places and relics were destroyed or abandoned. Today’s China appears to embrace their history and are preserving ( to some extent) their past and restoring and bringing life back to many of their treasures. However they will place expansion and growth ahead of preservation and one only needs to look at the Olympic Plaza in Beijing and the Three Gorges area as examples. The government owns all the land and if they decide to build or flood an area, the people have no say.  Compensation for loss may not be fairly distributed. It appears growth at any cost for China.

Busy Beijing Airport

Busy Beijing Airport

I wondered often about those people ( who would be my age) that were raised during Mao Zedong’s rule and raised through indoctrination…I’ve wondered how they have coped with change. The Chinese young people have access to education and technology and value many of our western life styles, this must provide a difference in values with their grandparents. I saw many things I think the Chinese have got right – they value family and close friends very dearly.  They eat a healthy diet and exercise is just part of their life.  I hope they don’t embrace the western food and lifestyle too closely.

China’s economy is booming and the state seems to provide a great deal for many of it’s people.  People retire early at 55.  Housing and health care for seniors is subsidized. They have a public education system but parents have larger expenses for the child as they progress with their education. All our guides tell us how happy the people are now and everyone seeks a happy life.  Don’t we all?  While we were never confronted with being in a “Communist” country it is obvious that our guides have very strict limits in information sharing. When looking at a variety of tours offered foreigners, they all look pretty much the same.  I think we saw what the government wants tourists to see.  I have no illusions we saw the real China.

I am writing this post on June 3, 2013.  Tomorrow June 4 is the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising where many people were shot, killed and imprisoned.  Just yesterday the last prisoner of that uprising was released from jail. For those  of us who watched the uprising, I  am sure we will never forget the young man standing in front of oncoming tanks, and just standing there blocking their way. I mentioned in a prior post our guide claimed no knowledge of such an event and he likely didn’t know about it.  The Chinese government have arrested a small group who petitioned to be allowed a small ceremony to mark the anniversary of the  uprising.

Fresh air and improved visibility - great - we're at the airport leaving China!

Fresh air and improved visibility – great – we’re at the airport leaving China!

All internet searches for the uprising have been blocked in China.  Certainly using the internet   to find more information on the places we toured has proved a challenge.

We met and saw many lovely people getting on with their life and pursuing their dream much like here in Canada.  I hope their government lets them do just that.

Our last hours in China were spent packing and waiting for the bus to take us to the airport and give us one last look at Beijing.  The weather was changing and it was windy…finally just as we are leaving….the air pollution has dissipated and we actually have a clear view!

Here is our group photo taken at the Great Wall. Left to right starting with the back row: Michael (our guide) Fred, Dakota, Don, Pat S, Jon, Margaret ( Marie) L, Pat Mc, Bob ( Triple D Tours), Next row down - me ( in purple) Pat M, Harry, Sherry, Marlene, Donna (Triple D Tours), Front row, seated - Allyn, MaryAnn, Dawn, Mable, Brian (behind Mable) Pat E, Karen T, Marie ( Sweet) Tan, Sandra, Dirk, Ian and local guide.

Here is our group photo taken at the Great Wall. Left to right starting with the back row: Michael (our guide) Fred, Dakota, Don, Pat S, Jon, Margaret ( Marie) L, Pat Mc, Bob ( Triple D Tours), Next row down – me ( in purple) Pat M, Harry, Sherry, Marlene, Donna (Triple D Tours), Front row, seated – Allyn, MaryAnn, Dawn, Mable, Brian (behind Mable) Pat E, Karen T, Marie ( Sweet) Tan, Sandra, Dirk, Ian and local guide.