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12th SEPT. 2007  BEIJING

 London to Dubai, Dubai to Bangkok with a brief overnight stop before catching an Air Egypt flight to Beijing which seemed to be full of athletes from Iraq and Egypt. The excitement of arriving overpowers the jet lag and we arrive at the Jade International Youth Hostel on a high. Situated close to the Forbidden City it was a good choice with immaculate en-suite rooms, a restaurant and security lockers. After a good nights sleep we set off to explore.

The Forbidden City built in 1406 it has only been open to the public since 1949  and has been home to 14 Ming Emperors and 10 Qing Emperors. It covers 720,000sq metres, has 9999.5 rooms and 800 buildings– it’s HUGE! We spent the whole morning wandering within the grounds before crossing over to Tiananmen Square. I had been really excited about standing in the infamous square and had to confess to being slightly disappointed at first sight. The square has an 8 lane highway running between it and the Forbidden City which visually reduces the impact of it true size, the best time to see it would be at either dusk or dawn when all traffic is stopped for the flag raising/ lowering ceremonies. We stopped off at the famous Donghuamen Night Market and after inspecting the choices of  silkworm, sea slug, star fish, centipede, snake, seahorse and general creepy crawlies, we wimped out and bought noodles with vegetables and meat on a stick. Yummy.

17th SEPT.

Today is our last day so after breakfast we visit The Temple of Heaven. Completed in 1420 it was believed to be the meeting point of heaven and earth, the Emperor who was believed to be the son of Heaven, would spend three days fasting before he and his entire court would move to the temple to pray for good crops. The common people of Beijing were banned from witnessing this annual event and had to close themselves within their houses until the procession had safely passed. In 1912 the Temple was opened to the public for the first time and two years later a power hungry General decide to take it upon himself to restart the solstice ceremony-  he died within the year. Now the Temple and grounds are a haven for the people of the city– they flock there to meet, sing, dance and practice some rather odd looking reverse walking exercises!

Determined to see as much as possible we push on to Beihai Park– a lovely lake and park just north of the Forbidden City and a favourite spot for ice skating in the winter months. Reputedly created by Kublai Khan before the buildings of the Forbidden City were thought of, it is another great place to people watch. It was here that we saw water calligraphy and a couple of rather odd looking instruments being played. The grounds are full of interesting buildings and temples -almost all of which were closed for renovations but we still enjoyed boating on the lake and, if it had been a clear day, the views over the Forbidden City would have been stunning.

We reluctantly had to leave for our evening flight.

So why did we fly into Beijing?? We cannot afford to drive through China alone so we have to agree a route with our travel companions– we wanted to drive from Xi’an east toward Beijing then enter Mongolia, they wanted to drive west from Xi’an and drive through the Taklamakan desert. We compromised and agreed to their route but flew into Beijing desperate to see the city– it was worth the flight.

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15th  SEPT.

Today we decided to visit the Summer Palace. It has to be one of the highlights of Beijing. It was the playground of the royal court but sustained severe damage during the Second Opium War in 1860, some twenty years later the Empress squandered money meant for the navy to cover the costs of refurbishing and the results are wonderful. Kunming Lake sits in the centre of these enormous grounds which are filled with temples, halls and gardens. You could easily spend the entire day wandering the grounds watching the locals use the smaller buildings to practice dancing, singing and taichi. Bring a picnic, rent a row boat and make a full day of it– you won’t regret it! Luckily the weather stayed dry for us but the dull hazy skies persisted limiting our views over the lake and beyond. TOP TIP-You have the opportunity to rent Emperor/ Empress costumes and pose for a photo. If you really want to do this wait until you are in the Harmonious Interest Garden, the natural backdrop for the photo’s are beautiful.

At night we took a wander around the shopping area only to stumble upon a Japanese festival. It was absolutely stunning! Huge dancing dragons, lantern boats, women tottering along on high wooden shoes dressed in traditional kimonos, men demonstrating karate and an indescribably beautiful demonstration of women dressed in rice picking clothes. Of course– we didn’t have our camera with us. We were very annoyed about that!!

     THE GREAT WALL AT MUTIANYU                                    LAMA TEMPLE                                              CONFUCIUS TEMPLE

16th SEPT.

We decide to try for the Great Wall again and this time head out to Badaling. The Gods smiled on us and although the haze persisted, it didn’t rain and we even managed 45 minutes of sunshine. This has got to be the busiest section of The Great Wall and it was mobbed with tourists. You have a choice– take the gentler gradient to the right and be elbow to elbow with everyone else or go for the steep ascent to the left and escape the crowds.

If you’re not good at walking or steps then there is a cable car up and back for both sides.

We took the quieter side and felt it was best as you can look back over the longer section and see the Wall snaking into the distance over the hills. For 3 hours we wandered along enjoying the views and wondering at the sheer size of it all. What a tremendous treat.

On the way back to the city we stopped at the Ming Tombs. Paul dropped us off at Ding Ling’s tomb which is in an underground cavern which sounded great but in reality was rather bland and overpriced. You would be better to visit Chang Ling’s tomb on the Spirit Way. In all it’s a 7km walk along a willow lined avenue filled with large stone statues of animals and generals awaiting midnight when they ‘change guard’ to serve the spirit of the Emperor. Get your driver to drop you off at one end and pick you up at the end by Chang Ling’s tomb. We returned to the city and finished the day by having a stroll through Tiananmen Gate and into the People’s Culture Park at night.

SUMMER PALACE

                           GREAT WALL at BADALING                                                                    SPIRIT WALK—MING TOMBS

BEIJING THOUGHTS:

This was our first experience of China and Beijing and it was superb. The government census claims a population of 30 million whereas some of the locals believe it could be as high as 50 million. It’s a big place. What surprised us was the general attitude of the city’s residents, who believe that because there are so many people everyone has to work together and be patient for things to work. And would you believe it? Somehow it does!

You can sit on the streets at dawn watching the city slowly coming to life, small concrete parks are full of locals waking up by doing tai chi, small dogs and birds in elaborate cages are being taken for a walk by careful owners and wares are being peddled around. The streets are amazingly clean and the people wonderfully friendly and patient. We can’t recommend Beijing enough just wait until after the Olympics by then all the renovations will be completed and you won’t miss out on any of the sights.

HIGHLIGHTS: People watching, almost every place we visited and the food.

DISAPPOINTMENTS: Ming tombs, Confucius Temple and the weather- dull, hazy and wet.

                     BEIHAI PARK                       &                      TEMPLE of HEAVEN

14th SEPT.

Yesterday we were ‘picked up’ by Paul, he normally works as an international lawyer for the government but during holidays he becomes a guide for tourists. ( A very nice guy !)

At 7am sharp he collected us and we drove out of the city to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. The rain and mist of the city followed us and we could barely see 30 feet so the toboggan ride down was cancelled and we left very disappointed. Our next stop was at the Olympic village to see the famous nest stadium, the sci-fi looking swimming pool and the black cube shooting hall– it poured with rain the entire time. Back in the city we asked to be dropped off at the Lama temple where the rain eased for a time, allowing us some leisurely sightseeing. The Lama Temple is a complex of halls each becoming more elaborate until the penultimate hall which hosts a 26 metre high golden Buddha carved from a single piece of sandalwood. Amazing. We walked around the complex breathing in the smoke of the large incense burners and imagining the time when human sacrifices used to be common. Our final stop for the day was at the Confucius Temple which turned out to be a big let down– all of the buildings were closed for renovation work which left only the bare grounds to walk around in and on a wet overcast day it was not a thrill.

FORBIDDEN CITY                                                                                                                    TIANANMEN   GATE

EVERY DAY LIFE IN BEIJING’S PARKS

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