Thursday, January 29, 2009

Beijing - Day 3 A.M. (Tian'anmen Square, Hutong Tour, and Summer Palace)

I was just going through photos and realized that day 3 was pretty huge, so I'm breaking it up a bit... First, the morning:

We went to Tian'anmen Square at 8:30 in the morning. Our guide, David, told us that he'd never been there when it was so peaceful and empty. He attributed it to the fact that it was New Year's day. It was kind of incredible to see such a vast expanse of empty concrete:

My brain kept flashing back to the image of the young man stopping the line of tanks in 1989. David also touched on that incident, and let us know about the differing accounts of how many died - depending on who you ask (foreigners who were there at the time, the Chinese government, the Chinese Red Cross, etc) the number fluctuates between 200 soldiers killed and thousands of civilians killed. It was unnerving to imagine bodies and blood filling that empty square.

The only major interruption in the flatness was a 10-story monument in the middle:

This has an inscription of Mao's handwriting which says "Eternal Glory to the People's Heroes," referring to those who fought for Mao's New China.

There is also the Chinese flag on an enormous flagpole, guarded sunup to sundown by three guards - two at the base, one pacing all around.

And here is the Man himself, Chairman Mao, whose huge picture graces the front of one of the initial gates between Tian'anmen and the Forbidden City.

His body is still on display at a mausoleum at the square, but it wasn't open that day. He had requested to be cremated, but the people wanted to believe in his eternal life, so they have his body displayed in a crystal coffin.

After the Square, we were off to a traditional Hutong. Hutongs are neigborhoods of small alleys built around a courtyard. There used to be about 6,000 in Beijing, but the government has torn them down to the point where there are only about 1,000 left. We got a chance to visit one in the coolest possible way - via rickshaw!

Here is our driver, Artie (R.D.... Rickshaw Driver...)

After we saw a bit of the Hutong,

Artie let me drive the rickshaw! This is the picture he snapped just before I ran right into him:

He decided it was time to take over again, so I let him drive and filmed a bit of the Hutong to share with you!

After our rickshaw tour, we went down an especially narrow alley to visit a family in their Hutong home.

This woman and her husband have lived in the Hutong for over 50 years. They were incredibly generous to share their home with us, and the woman never stopped smiling the whole time. She got a kick out of us trying to say "Happy New Year" in Chinese:

We learned that most of these homes are now basically "welfare housing" for low-income families... and most don't have a private toilet - they use the public toilets located around the Hutong.

Robin (our guide for this mini-tour) also taught us about a popular pastime in the Hutong neighborhoods: Cricket Fighting. Apparently they take their cricket fighting seriously... they have all the tools for catching, feeding, poop-scooping, and aggravating their crickets! The family was kind enough to let Robin show off their tools:

I think I'm going to start Cricket Fighting League in Korea... Maybe someone can get something going back home, too :)

After the Hutong we traveled to the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace was originally built for a woman affectionately referred to as the Dragon Lady. This woman was a Concubine of an emperor who sucessfully arranged for both her son and her nephew to become emperors of China (their "rule" was really just a face - she was always the "power behind the throne," as the Chinese say). She also killed her own three-month-old daughter, who was beloved by the Emperor, and framed the Empress, leading to the Empress's being cast out of the Forbidden City. Quite an ambitious gal!

A prime example of her hunger for power is in the statues in front of one of the throne buildings at the Palace:

Dragon (representing the Emperor):

Phoenix (representing the Empress):

Now ordinarily, the Dragon is on the inside, closest to the doors (because the Emperor is the most important), and the Phoenix on the outside. She had the statues switched around at the Summer Palace, to show HER influence over the throne. Quite a rise to power for a former Concubine!

The Palace grounds also hold the Longest Corridor in the World - which is covered with over 14,000 paintings. Pretty amazing:

The Palace itself is really beautiful - it sits on a 2.2 square kilometer manmade lake (Kunming Lake), which was mostly frozen over when we were there (and some CRAZY people were actually out walking on it!)

Ok, that's enough for today. I'm extremely tired, and I think you have enough pictures to look at :) But remember Kunming Lake - it comes back in our story in Day 3, Part Two!

Bonus pics for today:

Our tour guide, David (an awesome guy!) and me finally gaining a little control over the rickshaw (with Artie's help):

Love you all!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Beijing - Day 2

Did you love Day 1? Were you unable to sleep last night, fantasizing about Day 2?? Well, friends - that's a lot of pressure :)

Day 2 began with a fairly delicious buffet breakfast at the hotel - It was a combo of Chinese and Western food, so I had an omelette and fried rice (which, PS, is delicious!).

After breakfast, we went to a Jade factory. We learned about different grades of jade (based on hardness, color, etc) and how to properly point a jade cabbage to ensure money would be flowing into your home (and how to sabotage your neighbors by pointing THEIR cabbage at YOUR house, mwahaha). We also got to see a man carving jade and a woman polishing a piece (these are the assigned gender roles for jade manufacture - our guide said it's because the polishing is the most important, and women are more patient and detail-oriented...)

We left the jade factory and headed to the pinnacle of the entire tour - the GREAT WALL OF CHINA!

Here, you can see the Wall, far in the distance, winding over the mountain (from the bus):

From the base:

All dressed up, and a LONG way to go:

The Chinese say that once you climb the Great Wall, you become a Hero. Every Chinese person we mentioned the Wall to said, "Oh, you are hero now!" After climbing to the "Hero Point," I can TOTALLY understand why. Holy cow. The steps vary from a 4" rise to a 12" rise... Some of the shorter people on our tour were climbing steps that came up to their knees! And it's STEEP! I remain in awe of the Chinese soldiers hundreds of years ago who had to climb these steps every day...

Needless to say, I needed a break halfway up... here's the view from my sitting-on-the-stairs position:

And once at the "top" (they are sweet to call it the top - it's not, but it's still incredibly high) the view of the stairs I just cried and panted my way up :)

And the view of what I could have continued on, if I didn't love being able to stand without falling down :)

But at least I made it this far:

And now have proof that, at least in China, I am a HERO:

The descent was only slightly easier (I'd like to give a shout-out to my friend, Gravity!), and on the way down I passed an Indian man, using the handrail to pull himself up each of the crazy stairs, and with every step nearly-shouting "Oh God Mercy! Oh God Mercy!" My sentiments exactly.

Still, I wouldn't change a thing. I have climbed the Great Wall of China. And it was amazing.

After the Great Wall we went to a Cloisonne factory and learned how they make incredibly intricate copper pots and vases, and ate lunch upstairs from the factory. Chinese food again... and again, delicious. We also got to try a traditional Chinese liquor... Once I was finished coughing I decided it wasn't that bad :)

The Ming Tombs were the next stop on our tour. These are the burial sites of the 13 Ming Dynasty Emperors and their 23-some-odd Empresses and Concubines. Chinese history is full of scandals and intrigue related to Concubines (I capitalize because I believe in their importance) - I was totally enthralled by how much sway they held over Emperors and matters of state.

Anyways, we visited the Changling tomb, the largest of the Ming Tombs. They had a map of all the 13 tombs and their names - this was my favorite (Fantasy Island, anyone?)

Also - at the bottom you can see the "Feizi Tomb" - Feizi means Concubine... they're all lumped in there together, I guess.

This is a giant statue of Yong Le (the man who is buried here) in the Hall of Emminent Favour at the tomb - This guy is the brains behind the Forbidden City and the move of the Capital to Beijing... Very deserving of a giant statue!

This is a view of the Soul Tower - from here, the souls of the Emporer and Empress ascended into Heaven:

Inside the Soul Tower, there is a large monument on which is inscribed something about the "great acheivements of Yong Le." Behind the monument, you can sort of see the man-made mountain under which the bodies are buried:

And here is Jordan, trying desperately to warm her toes in the sun (it stayed about 30 degrees the whole time we were in Beijing):

And me being friendly with one of the Tomb guards:

All the officers of the law wore those awesome hats - I wanted one so bad!

To continue our FULL day, we went to a silk shop to learn how exactly that fabulous fabric is made. We got to see just how they extract the silkworms from their cocoons and strech the fibers out:

Then we got to help strech a little bundle of silk fibers out to make part of a silk quilt!

We learned about the durability and hypoallergenic properties of silk, and browsed a giant silk fabric warehouse... it was pretty interesting! (PS - they also showed us what 5-year-old silkworms look like - Google it, it's disgusting!)

On our way to dinner, we were lucky enough to pass by the two amazing buildings Beijing built for the Olympics (and which were the subject of a pretty interesting Discovery Channel show!)

Here's the Bird's Nest (which is also the largest steel building in the world):

And the Water Cube (the bubbles change color at night!):

Dinner was... er... interesting... this was our menu:

Just kidding! That was our room service menu in the hotel!

Dinner was more Chinese food (still amazing!) and afterwards, Jordan and I were totally pooped and ready to hit the sack. We relaxed in our hotel room, watched Rush Hour 1 and 3, and were out by 10:30.

Until the sound of a million gunshots shook us awake.

Fortunately, I realized what night it was and checked the clock. Sure enough, it was midnight. Lunar New Year. AKA Chinese New Year. In the birthplace of Fireworks.

Jordan and I clamored out of bed and stood freezing in the window, watching our 360 degree fireworks show (thanks to the perfect reflections on the building across the street)... It was pretty incredible to be in China, watching how the locals celebrate Chinese New Year... Happy 2009, China!

The fireworks went on and on for days - we were still hearing them when we caught our taxi to the airport - but that night, we were only able to watch about 20 minutes before exhaustion overtook us and we climbed back into our beds, visions of sparklers dancing in our heads :)

Bonus Pics for today: Jordan and I doing some light renovations to the Changling Tomb grounds, and the view from the Soul Tower:

Hope you're loving reading about this adventure as much as I loved living it (and am loving sharing it)!!

Love you all!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Beijing, China - Day 1

I'm back from my amazing trip to China, and am so excited to share everything with you!! We did a ton of incredible things, and the mere thought of blogging about them all is giving me arthritis :) so I've decided to break it up into each day's activities, so to save my fingers and your eyes. Be sure to check back for tomorrow's news!

We started our journey by meeting at 5:30 Saturday morning. It was a frigid walk to the bus stop, and as we waited on the (late) bus to arrive, the sky decided to testify to the cold by dropping thousands of giant snowflakes on our heads...

But if you know me, you know snow makes me happy :)

This was our view at the airport:

But nothing could stop us from being excited about our adventure!

We arrived in Beijing around 11:30 (delayed because of snow) and were met by our tour guide, David. The 22 of us on the tour piled onto a big (heated) bus and were off to our first stop - the Peking Duck Restaurant!

All of the restaurants we ate at served food in a very familial style - tons of dishes piled up on a lazy susan for everyone to rotate and share. At first I liked this dining concept, then I realized the sweet and sour chicken was ALWAYS gone before I got seconds! I decided I'd rather just have my own order :)

This is our server teaching us how to roll a traditional duck-rollup with some weird dumpling-type wrap, veggies, and sauce:

I got to try the first one!

Then I rolled my own - and was the only one at the table who could imitate the actual rollup using only my chopsticks! I think this speaks to my Mexican restaurant background :)

Our next stop was the Temple of Heaven. This temple was built during the Ming dynasty to offer sacrifices to Heaven. It was a really beautiful place.

Me looking scholarly under a 300+ year old Chinese Scholar tree:

Click on this picture and read the inscription about the door - pretty fun history here :)

This is the room where they filled cows' bellies with water, then killed them... the idea was that a well-hydrated sacrificial cow would bring much rain to the area:

Can you read it? Me either...

If you look in the upper right-hand corner, you'll see that I stood where Nixon did before me... And many other world leaders:

Our next stop was a traditional tea-house:

We got to taste all kinds of different teas (my favorite was the oolong with ginseng - if you find any back home, try it!) including hand-rolled teas and a special tea that, when brewed, blooms!

We also learned how to properly hold our teacups to be real ladies (bring on the jokes, CJ):

Our last stop before dinner was a Chinese circus show called "Flying Acrobat Show." This show involved amazing acrobatic feats and actual (well-trained) cockatiels and parrots flying around... A pretty stellar show (during which I started dozing off, which more accurately reflects how totally exhausted I was than how yawn-inducing the show was... because it wasn't. It was awesome.). They didn't allow photography so I only have this picture of the building outside:

And this of Jordan and I being confused when we lost our tour guide for a moment:

Then we had dinner (Chinese food again!)... A word about Chinese food in China - it's EXTREMELY similar to Chinese food in America!!! Way more similar than Chinese food in Korea (which seems to have missed the mark)... And it's delicious... even after 5 straight meals of it!

After dinner, Jordan and I dragged our weary bones up to our hotel room and went to sleep - anxiously awaiting the 7:00 am wake-up call so we could prepare for GREAT WALL day!

That's all for Day 1. Be sure to stay tuned for the continuing adventure! In the meantime, here's some bonus pics for you!

The Puppet Palace where I was hoping we'd be eating:

Loving the bus ride:

And the traditional Chinese door-knocker... it was on all the doors at the ancient buildings we went to. I want one. It tells potential visitors, "If you're knocking on this door, it better be good! Otherwise I'll eat your knuckles!"

Love you all!