March 29 – April 4, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)
We sped along the tracks in the bullet train heading from Shanghai to Beijing sitting comfortably in our seats, and looking out onto a landscape that was becoming more and more eerie as the late afternoon sun slowly sank away into the growing thickening haze of the nearing soupy evening skies of Beijing.
We glanced up at the electronic read-out and were mesmerized by the speed we were traveling down the tracks. This bullet train was worlds away from our first China train experience – but that first train ride had prepared us well for whatever situation may come our way.
We had left Shanghai on a high note after a unique experience; our stay with an American couple who had been living there for several years gave us great insight into China. We really appreciated being able to walk around with people with whom we could communicate and have in-depth conversations about our cross-cultural experiences. But now we were back on our own and headed to Beijing to explore the legendary historic sites. For us, as for most people visiting China, Beijing is a must. We were, however, entering Beijing at less than 100%. I had just about fully recovered from the bug I caught, but Kristin was just getting hit with it, and hard. We had been warned about the level of air pollution in Beijing, and from what we could see out the train windows coming into Beijing, all those red flags about the pollution levels were starting to ring true. Our worries now were about just how much that air pollution would affect us, especially Kristin.
It hadn’t helped that we had downloaded the China Air Quality App onto our iPhones to monitor the pollution levels – we now had the knowledge but no power to do anything about it. We quickly discovered the differences between the two measurement sources on the app: one was the official Beijing government measurement, and the other was the US embassy’s measurement – and there was a consistent 60 to 80 point difference between the two (the US embassy’s measurement was always higher).
From our understanding of the measurements, you want the lowest numbers possible, double digits or less. Once into the triple digits you should be concerned, and above 300 your health and well-being is definitely being compromised. In our 6-day stay in Beijing we probably averaged over 350 points on the US embassy air quality measurement – and Beijing didn’t even have the worst pollution in China.
We arrived at our hostel in Beijing (Dragon King Hostel) without any problems. We had now become accustomed to dealing with similar challenges at each new destination, mainly orientation, sense of direction, and figuring out public transportation. Our hostel was conveniently located down a busy alley around the corner from a subway stop on a major line.
We were pleased to find that the hostel had a very good café/restaurant/bar, and the very friendly front desk staff spoke great English. The hostel had wonderful posters lining the main hallway and providing information on all the major tourist destinations in and around Beijing . The posters included information such as how to get there, which subway lines to take, how long it takes to arrive, how much time you should give yourself at each site and what the costs are. Perfect! Why didn’t all hostels have this? We gave this hostel high marks! It was just another example of exceptional hostels that we were starting to find in China.
Soon after arriving, we had to make a run to the local pharmacy to get what we could for Kristin’s increasingly worsening cold, headache, respiratory, and now ear problem. To say the least it was a bit confusing trying to figure out what to get. The Chinese ladies at the pharmacy did their best to help us, as we communicated with hand gestures. They recommended several things we were unfamiliar with but at the same time we recognized the logos on some medicine boxes. Bayer Aspirin and Tylenol! Okay, lets go with that – and why not try a little Chinese traditional medicine as well!
We sought out some comfort food, and conveniently right around the corner from our hostel were a couple of “Hot Pot” restaurants. We had not tried one yet and it seemed liked the perfect day to try it. We were one of the first patrons at one of the larger Hot Pot restaurants, and the staff was very patient with us as we struggled through ordering our meal. At least we now knew the words for beef, pork, chicken and vegetables. This menu didn’t clear anything up at all!
In short order, they placed a giant pot of broth on the gas burner in the center of our table, and it quickly came to a boil.
We then proceeded to place the other ingredients into the pot and pull them out onto our plates a few minutes later, while the broth got richer and tastier.
At one point we noticed people at another table putting large noodles into their pot. Noodles! We want noodles too! We made some noodle gestures, pointing at the next table – and so we too got noodles. It was a good meal for our ailing health.
The next morning, all hopped up on meds and hot pot, it was time to tackle our long list of things to do and places to see in Beijing. First up was to make arrangements to see the Great Wall of China, and we decided to book a tour of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. See our following post, “The Great Wall Experience” for more details.
Next up on the list was to find our way to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, and Temple of Heaven. That was just to start with. We walked out to the hostel hallway, reviewed the information on the posters, asked a few questions at the front desk, planned our days and set off to see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City first.
The Forbidden City and its accompanying support systems are archeological and architectural marvels of the world. However, there was a staggering human cost to building these structures. The Forbidden City was built between 1406 and 1420 and took over 1 million men to build, with over 3 ½ million men indirectly involved, and an additional 1 million soldiers to supervise and guard the work. The Grand Canal, the longest man-made waterway in the world, was enlarged and lengthened (1,800 kilometers) from Hangzhou in the south to Beijing in the north, in order to transport the food and grains for the feeding of the massive work force for this project. During this time, the Great Wall of China, which was built by the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi (221-206 BC), was repaired and extended an additional 1,400 kilometers, totaling over 6,400 kilometers and running from the shores of the Pacific ocean to the Heavenly Mountains in central Asia. Millions of lives were lost in the course of constructing these mammoth works. This is what awaited us as we headed out to explore the spiritual center of Beijing.
We stepped out of the subway and, after going through security, we stepped into an enormous open plaza – the famous Tiananmen Square.
We were surrounded on three sides by large buildings and the ancient city gates.
On the fourth side stood the impressive entrance to the Forbidden City.
The crowds of people seem to be heading in one of two directions, either to the Forbidden City or towards Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum at the other end of the square, leaving the center of Tiananmen Square sparsely spattered with people wandering around taking pictures and taking in the scene. A few small groups of soldiers marched by in formation every once in a while. They didn’t seem to care if you took their picture, then again, there were so many tourists from all around the world and China taking pictures, it would have been nearly impossible to stop them from taking pictures – this is, after all, one of the top tourist attractions in China if not the world.
As you approached either ends of the Square, the excitement of the crowds increased and you had to fall into step with the flow. And so it was that we entered the Forbidden City.
We crossed over a bridge over the moat surrounding the Forbidden City, and entered through a large gate with the large image of Chairman Mao looking over us.
The first large open area inside the Forbidden City is basically a staging area for tourist groups to organize, with tickets booths, a small military complex, and an opportunity for freelance guides to hawk their services to foreign and domestic tourists.
Once we bought our tickets and made it by all the guides and tourist groups, we passed another set of large ancient gates and entered another large open square. We were taken aback by the immenseness of this ancient complex. Each and every time we passed through these massive ancient gates we were amazed at the size of the open area in front of us.
This one had a river running through it.
We climbed the steps at every succeeding gate and/or temple to look at the chambers of different dynasty rulers, then moved on to the next massive complex – each time thinking surely that was the last one.
The crowds were large enough to make it sometimes almost impossible to get a view of some of these chambers. There were no organized lines here. It was a push and get pushed, first dibs, for chance of seeing anything here.
Check out our video “Everyday Pandemonium at the Forbidden City” http://youtu.be/30w2V6tAQyg
After about the third or so large open plaza complex (actually I lost count of how many we passed through), the Forbidden City then broke down to smaller areas off to the sides containing different kinds of museums, courtyards, gardens, chambers exhibiting different artifacts, treasures, and stories of dynasty figureheads.
The scope and the volume of this ancient city (not to mention the sheer amount of walking we had to do) fascinated and overwhelmed us, and we had to take several breaks along the way.
We walked out the other end of the Forbidden city, crossed over the moat and decided we had enough energy to hike up a hill to take in the view of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park.
From on top of the hill, although the smog was thick, we were able to gaze over the entire Forbidden City and surrounding city of Beijing.
Check out our video “The Forbidden City from Jingshan Park hilltop”: http://youtu.be/1xdCAu7DxpM
We decided to walk back to our hostel because we wanted to walk through some of the older areas of Beijing, known as “hutongs” – and everything looks a lot closer on the map than it actually is. In one section of the hutongs we noticed public bathrooms and showers on almost every block.
We came to the conclusion that the homes here did not have their own bathrooms and that the government had provided these facilities for the residents. The streets, alleyways and homes here were full of working Beijing residents going about their daily lives. We walked among them taking in the scenes and ambience of daily life.
Bouncing onto a major street we continued down towards our hostel walking by other historical residences and walled complexes. We learned of their historical significance from the plaques on the outside walls.
We made it back to our hostel and had another wonderful meal there.
This day had taken its toll on Kristin, as the bug she had been dealing with had now turned into a respiratory cold and cough – most likely from the high air pollution levels. We both collapsed back at our hostel, but after a rest I set out to look for some medicine for Kristin. Now that several days had gone by and Kristin was not getting better, I sought out some more help from the pharmacy ladies. I bought some additional pills and some comfort food for Kristin and I returned to our room. She was done, and for next few days she could barely leave the bed. I did what I could to comfort her, but at this point, rest and sleep was all that she would be doing. After a day of rest, she was able to summon enough energy to make it out of the city to visit the Great Wall, hoping the slightly fresher air would help her clear her head and chest.
The day after our Great Wall excursion, Kristin dragged herself out of bed to see Chairman Mao in his Mausoleum. She had already seen a waxy Lenin and Ho Chi Minh in their mausoleums, and needed to see Chairman Mao for the Triple Crown of Embalmed Communist Leaders.
We made our way back to Tiananmen Square, and this time we walked to the other end, away from the main entrance of the Forbidden City. Security here was ultra tight. Not only had we heard that the line could be hours long to get in, but if you had bags or cameras on you, it would take even longer because you have to check them in another building. We didn’t like the idea of waiting even longer, or of leaving our cameras with someone, so we decided to travel light without bags or cameras on this expedition. Besides, it had been made clear to us that carrying (but not using) phones with cameras were ok – go figure!
As we walked across the massive square we could see crowds of people already gathering and lining up to enter the mausoleum, but luckily the line was not as long as we had anticipated.
Soldiers lined the walkway, manned the security check point and surrounded the mausoleum. Several large super-Communist statues surrounded the mausoleum, depicting heroic scenes of the People’s Republic of China and the Cultural Revolution.
Even though we had our iPhones we didn’t dare take them out to take pictures once we got to security, and as it was our planning worked out perfectly. Since we didn’t have any bags or cameras on us, we were whisked right through security and into the Mausoleum. The first chamber you enter is a large lobby where people place flowers for Chairman Mao. There was already an abundance of flowers early in the morning — they must have to clear those out several times per day. Then you enter a large darkened high-ceiling room where Chairman Mao is lying in state inside a sealed climate-controlled glass case. An overwhelming sense of national respect quickly engulfs you as the line of people silently and somberly walk by paying their respects, some even weeping. From the time we entered the line and exited the mausoleum it took 11 minutes. I have to say I didn’t know what to expect, but because of the surroundings and the people, it turned out to be one of those moments.
As soon as we exited the Mausoleum we whipped out our phones and started taking pictures. Well, actually I did sneak a little video before we walked into the mausoleum, and as soon as we left.
Entering Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum video: http://youtu.be/d0ZQ2yD_5i8
Exiting Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum Mausoleum video: http://youtu.be/fwybdG6BdRc
There was no way of doing anything like that once you entered the mausoleum, as several security soldiers had their eyes on you the entire time you were inside the mausoleum.
For Kristin that was all the energy she could muster up for the day. She returned to the hostel as I walked around Tiananmen Square taking in the sights and more pictures.
Returning to the hostel shortly thereafter I found Kristin covered up in bed. She convinced me to go out and see one more sight without her, since she would mostly be sleeping and resting most of the day.
I set out to see the Temple of Heaven. Arriving there easily via the subway I was again surprised at the size of area I would be walking to see all that there was to see at the Temple of Heaven. It’s not really a temple but a palatial estate with a huge surrounding forest. The forest was hand planted so that all the trees are lined up perfectly in rows for as far as you could see.
Scattered throughout this forest are different temples, palaces, other garden areas, and the main attraction – the Temple of Heaven. The Temple buildings and the surrounding open squares were large and beautiful.
I could easily image large religious and official dynasty ceremonies being held here.
It took some time to not only walk through each temple area but to also walk to each temple area. There were marked pathways, some beautifully paved, but you could also just wander off through the perfectly aligned forest to the next destination.
I quickly found out that I should have left earlier in the day to give myself more time to see all of what the Temple of Heaven had to offer. As I walked out of the walled in grounds of the Temple of Heaven I walked by one other temple area where it seemed like either Temple ground workers or area residents were gathered. Many were either singing in casually organized groups or were grouped around in small circles playing some sort of gambling game.
It was a fitting end to the day, listening to the singing, watching the older folks enthralled in their games and seeing the sun setting behind the Temple of Heaven.