I’m still pretty sick with my cold and sore throat. Glad I brought some Sudafed and Mucinex with me! I hope I have enough. I only brought a couple of nights of NyQuil, so I know I’m going to run out of that. I’m also going to run out of throat lozenges. Trying to communicate in a pharmacy here is going to be tough if I have to get more cold meds.
There’s lots of smog today and very overcast. At least there’s no rain.
We had to have our bags down in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, checked out of the hotel and breakfast eaten by 8:00 this morning as we have a heavy schedule today.
We did a LOT of back and forth driving today with our suicidal driver. Our first drive was to the Summer Palace, a fair distance to the northwest of town. I noticed as we were driving that we were passing by the Drum Tower. Our crack guide, Leo, didn’t point it out, but did identify it as such when asked. It’s much bigger when you’re right up on it that how it looked from Jingshan Hill.
The van dropped us off right at the East Gate of the Summer Palace – nice that we didn’t have to walk a long way. Some amazing floral displays greeted us at the entrance. These were for the October National Holiday 10 days ago so they were a little bit wilty, but still pretty special. This one is an urn with a chrysanthemum on it (not an upside-down dead spider).
Although the Summer Palace was originally laid out in the 18th century, it is famous for its association with the autocratic Empress Cixi, who began building it in 1888, with funds embezzled from the Chinese Navy. Instead of investing in real ships, she built a “ship” on the shores of Kunming Lake made entirely of marble. Unfortunately, we didn’t walk far enough around the lake to see this marvel.
Our tour of the Summer Palace was an abbreviated one to be sure, but we did get to walk down the Long Corridor, and take a short one-stop Dragon Boat ride. We could see Longevity Hill but no time to actually explore any of it.
The smog was so bad that we could hardly see across the lake. I’m sure it’s totally gorgeous when it’s clear. Pretty enough even in the smog.
We did see the huge yellow rubber duck done by an artist from the Netherlands. We read later in the English language newspaper that the duck was moved to Shanghai where they overfilled it with air and it burst. Kind of an eyesore to me and didn’t fit in with the tranquility of the Summer Palace anyway.
Another interesting thing we saw was an older Chinese man and woman with huge brushes, almost as tall as their waist, drawing calligraphic characters on the sidewalk using rice water as “ink”. People would walk over the wet characters, but this was expected as the calligraphers were simply practicing their handwriting, or so we were told. Also saw some folks doing tai chi and other more active forms of exercise.
We saw a lot of school children, and I took some photos of two adorable Chinese little girls, about 7 or 8 years old. They were happy to practice their English, which was good enough to engage in the opening conversation of “how are you?” and “how old are you?” Surprising and simply amazing!
We came out at the East Gate again and Leo called our van. Then we drove from the northwest side of town to the opposite southeast side of town to the Temple of Heaven. We passed by the Grand Canal that connects the Forbidden City with the Summer Palace, dug by the Emperors to connect the two. Leo simply said that it was a river when Sandra asked what it was – no history or details. Dragon boats were ferrying passengers along the Canal.
The van dropped us at the Eastern Gate to the Temple of Heaven grounds (Tian Tan in Chinese). We got in a bit of a walk down a Long Corridor similar to the one at the Summer Palace. This one was lined with Chinese folks playing various card games, one of which reminded me of Crazy-Eights with the players slapping down their cards. People were also playing mahjong, and ladies were selling their crochet wares.
Then the magnificent round blue-roofed “Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests” stood before us – although in the smog the colors were sort of washed out. However, we could see why this is such an iconic image of Beijing.
Wedding photographs were being taken all around the temple – one bride was in a beautiful red dress; red being a very auspicious color in China. Check out the shoes the groom is carrying for his bride in white.
Leo gave us 20 minutes to climb to the top and browse through the two museums that were flanking the Temple. The inside was once again not illuminated, but since the roof was higher we could actually see inside a bit and catch a glimpse of the Emperor’s throne. This is where the Emperor came twice a year to pray for a good harvest for the following year. It was constructed without any nails – the wooden pieces just fit together, perfectly joined. Although crowded, it wasn’t the crazy crush of people as it was to see the Forbidden City interiors.
Then Leo said we were going to leave – without seeing the actual Altar we had read so much about. Leo said it was a 20 minutes’ walk to get to the Altar, which it wasn’t – more like 10 minutes. Pam wasn’t happy as she wanted to make sure there was enough time for her to see the BirdsNest, but I was determined to see the Altar now that we were here. A test of wills! So we walked down a very wide boulevard, close to a quarter mile to the Altar. Once again, we tried to imagine the ancient courtiers, eunuchs, and ministers who twice a year marched in procession as the Emperor went to make his offerings at this Altar for a successful harvest. There would have been 1,000 of them in all.
The Altar actually wasn’t as big as I thought it was going to be, based on the pictures I’d seen. It was still neat to stand on the center stone and imagine the Emperor making his sacrifices here so many years ago. And it wasn’t just us Westerners that had to do so.
On the way to the Altar we literally whizzed through the Echo Wall. There were a ton of Chinese little kids along the walls screaming to try to hear their own echoes – quite cacophonous. You’d clearly have to get here early in the morning to hear yourself echo. The van picked us up at the Southern Gate. We could tell Pam was miffed – kept asking about the BirdsNest. And we still have to eat lunch!
The restaurant was near the center of Beijing and was located in a high-rise building. We took an elevator up to the 3rd floor. Once again Leo ordered for us which was a good idea, because once Pam gets a hold of a menu, a big discussion always ensues and results in a major production. The food was great Chinese food! They had “hairy crabs” tied up in little bundles in a tank in the entrance foyer. The crabs seem to be a bit smaller than our Chesapeake blue crabs, but not by much. We thankfully didn’t have any of these. I can’t imagine trying to eat them with chopsticks.
Then we drove to the far north of Beijing to see the BirdsNest 2008 Olympic Stadium and the Water Cube where they held the swimming events. With the smog and our viewpoint, we could barely see it (BirdsNest on right, Water Cube on left). We did get out of the van and climbed up to a pedestrian overpass to get a better look, but you still couldn’t see much. Poor Pam was very disappointed with the whole thing and barely spent two minutes there.
Then more driving to the airport, which is on the northeast side. We got there in plenty of time for our flight. Leo stayed with us until we went through security, and did give Pam our communal China Spree phone. Then the flight was delayed an hour – 30 minutes of which was sitting on the plane. At first DH and I were delighted with our seats because we were only 2-abreast on a 3-abreast plane – until we realized that the seats didn’t recline – we were the row in front of the exit row. Bummer.
About a 2-hour flight to Xi’an. They served us dinner, which consisted of two doughy buns filled with some sweetish brown paste that was unidentifiable, and a drink. Since we were not getting dinner tonight as part of our included tour, we ate them anyway.
When we got to Xi’an we were greeted by a guy named Leo – can you believe it?!? Only this guy was older and we discovered very quickly, a much, much better guide. It was a long drive to the city from the airport – about an hour. Leo kept us entertained the whole way with facts about his city and its history.
When we got to the Shangri-La hotel, Leo told us that we could have a complementary dinner at the Shangri-La. Wonderful! Wish we had known this before we ate those awful buns on the plane. We didn’t think we were hungry now, and it was pretty late by the time we got there, but when we sat down to eat we still managed to demolish a lot of food. I must be gaining weight!
The room was on the smaller side compared to our suite at the Ritz, but still lovely and charming. Beautiful bath with two sinks, shower and tub.
Two Big Beds.