Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Last stop, Beijing, known in my childhood as Peking.  The name for the city has changed, but not the name for the famous dish, Peking Duck.  I loved Beijing.  It is like other international cities - lots of fabulous shopping, great museums, crazy traffic, a sense that life is moving forward.  Friendly Planet had a lot planned for us to see, and since Sam, our guide, lives in Beijing, he was also our local guide.

One of our first stops was the Forbidden City, with its 9,999 rooms.  When we returned home, I watched "The Last Emperor," the story of Pu Li, the last emperor to live in the Forbidden City.  The story made the Forbidden City come alive for me, since when we saw it, the only people inhabiting the city were tourists - mostly Chinese.  If I were to go back, I would like to have time to sign up for a tour with a guide that would show me more than we were able to explore in our short visit.  I am looking for a video tour of the Forbidden City, so if anyone comes across one, let me know.

Also that day we saw Tian'an Men Square, the site of Chairman Mao's Mausoleum.  His embalmed body is on display mornings and afternoons, but we did not have time to go through the line waiting to pay their respects.  What I did not expect was the size of the square.  We were supposed to walk from one end of the square to the focal point, the Gate of Heavenly Peace where the portrait of Mao hangs and have our group portrait taken.  Some of the wussy members of our group refused to walk that distance because of the cold and the wind whipping across the expanse of the square.  Sam quickly adjusted to the desires of the group and arranged for our picture to be made in front of the Hall of the People, only halfway across the square.  This was the only time that there was any indication that we were in a communist country.  Sam had instructed us not to have conversations about the 1989 Massacre.  He said there were undercover police in the square and we could find ourselves in trouble if they overheard us talking about something that, officially, never happened.  The government's position is that the tragedy of the student demonstrations was simply a media event.  That the press "made it all up."

In his book, Oracle Bones, Peter Hessler describes his visit to Tian'An Men Square.

          "After a while, I began to notice that some people in the crowd didn't look like tourists.  They were men, usually in their thirties and forties, and many of them had crew cuts.  They were not well dressed: worn trousers, cheap windbreakers.  They did not look educated.  They did not look like they were enjoying themselves - they weren't smiling, or taking pictures, or buying souvenirs.  They loitered and lingered; they lurked and looked.  They dawdled.  Sometimes, a man would stand directly behind a group of talking tourists, as if trying to overhear their conversation.  Periodically, one of the crew-cut men sauntered over to another crew-cut man, said something, and then sauntered away.  Several held rolled up newspapers.  I saw one man raise his newspaper, hold it next to his face, and speak to it.  Curious, I walked past and took a furtive look.  Inside the rolled paper, I caught a glimpse of black plastic - walkie-talkie." (p. 59)

The following day we went to Badaling, 44 miles northwest of Beijing, to view the Great Wall.  Compare the photo from my climb on the wall to other pictures you've seen in magazines and brochures.  They generally show two or four people walking some distance in front of the camera.  That is not what I saw.

While in Beijing we saw a Jade Factory and a Pearl Factory, both of which were interesting because, I very rarely, if ever, have seen any product being made in the U.S.  What about you?  Have you visited factories in your hometown or on any of your travels to see how different products are made?  That is something we need to institute in our country and let people be proud of things that are "made in America."

Other sites included in our tour of Beijing were the Ming Tombs and the Temple of Heaven.  There is so much history in China, a four-year degree would barely enable you to learn about all that we saw.  A favorite excursion was the Hutong tour via rickshaws.  Though Beijing is a modern city, a visit to the alleyways shows the charm of old Beijing.   The hutongs, created by the walls of courtyard houses, were the residences of officials and the well-to-do, although now most are state-owned. Our rickshaws wove in and out of narrow streets, revealing shops of every description, restaurants, bars, and houses.  Suddenly we came upon an open space beside a lake where people were walking their children and their dogs, cruising in paddle boats, and enjoying an ice cream on this leisurely afternoon.  I could have stayed the whole day there just soaking up the feeling of actually being in the middle of a place I've dreamed about since I was a child and watched my mother read Pearl S. Buck's books about China.  She looked so enraptured, I wanted to feel that way.

The grounds around the Temple of Heaven are a gathering place for people to exercise, to play mahjong or other games, and to just hang out with their friends.  I shot a video of people line dancing and one of several men passing a ball around with a racquet, never letting the ball leave their racquet until they gracefully tossed it to their partner.  There were, again, so many people gathered in one place we felt a bit uneasy.  Americans are simply not accustomed to so many bodies sharing the same space.  But it made me so happy to see all these people smiling, having a good time, spending time with friends outside in the sunshine.  I wish we did more of that sort of thing in our country.  Many of our gatherings, like mornings in the park, are focused on the children, not on the adults.

Friendly Planet saved the best for last; we visited a village just outside Beijing and had dinner with a host family.  We learned much about the history of the village from our delightful tour guide, who lives there, and had a tai chi lesson from a master.  He was so beautiful to watch.  It must take years and years to master those movements.  This village is known for its hand-carved furniture and we were treated to a tour of a working shop.  Then we went to the home of our hosts for the best meal we had on the entire trip.  The wife taught us how to make dumplings, but, of course, she made 99% of them since we were so slow!  There were many other dishes and the husband did most of the cooking. They were so friendly and gracious - they truly made us feel like honored guests.

I hope I have another opportunity to visit China.  We saw only a small percentage of the country - there is a lot more to see and learn.

There are photographs from our trip on my flickr site: santanartist

Questions are welcomed.


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