Saturday, March 3, 2012

A China Experience (Beijing part 1)

So the tour was called 'A China Experience' and who am I to disagree?! It really was an amazing experience and an amazing vacation. This all started out after purchasing a bargain-priced Groupon for a 5 day tour to Beijing, and in the end we added time in Macau and Hong Kong for a total of 2 weeks. At times it seemed like a fabulous long holiday, in other ways it shot by in a flash. I know though that it was brilliant, and just the right length of time away.I've spent the last 3 nights sorting through our photos and sifting the original 1400 or so down to around 900 (that was just 'phase 1' - I normally do a couple of rounds of delete button action!) But I don't want to put off blogging too much longer, I want to record these great memories. And so...

I think this is the first time Chris and I have crossed the international date line. Although I'd been to Hong Kong before, since we lived in Europe we would've travelled the other way round the globe. Talk about messing with your brain (and sleep pattern!) We arrived in Beijing on a Thursday evening and got met and ferried straight to our hotel in the north west part of the city. We were delighted to find we were in a really great Four Points Sheraton (rather more plush than our usual lodging budget allows!). After a long day of travel we weren't really up for any food adventures the first night and just grabbed a 'western' meal in the hotel and called it a night.

Bright and breezy Friday morning we met the rest of our tour group - 18 of us in total from various parts of Canada and the US. We were surprised to discover that, bar 3, Chris and I were probably the oldest there! I think when we'd booked 'a tour' we had resigned ourselves to touring with the blue rinse brigade, instead the average age I would say was around 30 - a pleasant and welcome surprise. With no time to waste we headed off on our small tour bus with our young guide Ba-yong (excuse my spelling I'm sure - this is just how we pronounced it!) and our driver Sexy-Don (I think his name was probably something like SeSe-Dong - phonetically but you can see where we were coming from with the nickname!) First stop the Capital Museum with heaps of displays (and plenty of English signage) on Jade, City History, Traditions, Artifacts etc. After our first fabulous* authentic Chinese lunch (it was fabulous the first time, the third, fourth, fifth....not so much - it got a little 'samey' shall we say!!) We headed to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. It was bitterly cold and hanging out around the square was tough going. I was actually surprised that it didn't seem as BIG as I thought it would be. But still very imposing nevertheless, especially with the portrait of Mao staring down over everything and everyone. Having read a few books about the Chinese Great Famine, and crazy-assed ideas he had (Red Guards etc) I just don't 'get' how this guy is still so revered in the eyes of so many Chinese, but he certainly seems to be...
The Forbidden City was full of wonderful buildings and doors and gates, leading to more gates and doors and buildings - it's like a maze. A very beautiful, ornate maze of a city - just check out the middle picture - that's a just a lil' old rooftop decoration!

We went through the city gate into the Forbidden City. And then through another gate. And then another gate. And then I think we may actually have entered THE Forbidden City (the first gates just being 'on the way' apparently) After all those big walls and big gates it really is another world once truly inside. You'd never imagine there's this crazy bustling city of 20 million people buzzing around just outside - it's so peaceful and serene. It's times like this having a tour guide is awesome. Not only so he can direct us toward the 2-star graded toilets (Yes - the Beijing Tourism association rates their toilets - we saw as high as 4-star, and sadly all too many unrated ones. Lets just say you should be looking for 2-star and up!! - you can sit instead of squat and you should have toilet paper at your disposal! - you can also see that the porcelain is in fact, white), but also he was able to give us plenty of running commentary and history about the various dynasties that ruled China, and stories of the Emperors and households that lived there. We followed him through the city for the most part, but then also had some free time to wander off on our own. Its such an amazing place to wander around - it's just SO BIG!
Olympic Park Birds Nest Stadium, Water Cube and the funky 'dragon' building to the left of the Cube is apparently an uber-expensive building. Plus the wonderful kite sellers pestering us.

Day 2 we headed out first thing to the 2008 Olympic Park where the Birds Nest Stadium and Water Cube are. It's an enormous open, pedestrianized space - great for wandering. I loved the architecture of the stadium - so funky. We had plenty of free time to wander the sites in this area. The afternoon was the 'biggy' - the Great Wall of China! We had a few hours here - plenty of time to go hike...after watching a romantic proposal of marriage from one of the guys in our group to his girlfriend we set off on a mission. I think we climbed about 1000ft up the section of the wall to the highest point and a dead end at a watch-tower. We could see for miles back down into the valley where we'd started and way off in the distance the suburbs of the city. It was a tough climb - the steps are so uneven. One minute they are barely more than a few inches high and the next they are taller than my knees - it was a tough slog up not being able to get into a rhythm, but it was tougher down - at times it felt like suicide it was so steep (and my ankle was getting fed up with the strain!). I'm so happy to have finally got to see one of the greatest wonders of the world - THE great wall of China (GWOC) Incredible!
Our tour group, plus various pictures showing you just how far we hiked up. If you look on the bottom left picture you'll see the valley floor and the winding road to the left of the wall - that's where we started! And you don't mess with Mao Zedong - 'He who doesn't reach the Great Wall isn't a true man' - thankfully my husband is (now) ALL MAN!

As with any tour I've had the misfortune of partaking in, there will be the obligatory visit to 'the shops' Ah Yes. "Ok, we'll spend 10 mins at the GWOC followed by 2 hours at the local [insert drossy shop/factory of choice here]". It was to be expected, and thankfully wasn't quite as excruciating as it could have been because for the most part I felt like we'd had plenty of time at the 'real' attractions. Stops at the factory shops generally meant clean toilets and a small bar whilst others would shop till they dropped at super inflated prices!! After the GWOC we had a stop at a Chinese Tea House and took part in a traditional tea ceremony where we sampled about 5 different types of teas which was great - really. (it was the half hour for shopping after that gets me - $20 for a box of tea - seriously?!) Dinner on our second night was another of those meals I was looking forward to. REAL Peking Duck from Peking (And lets just talk identity crisis here for a moment - this city has had more name changes than you can shake a stick at over the past 3000 years - Nanjing, Peiping, Zhongdu, Beiping, Peking (this is not a complete list!) and finally Beijing (again - it had been Beijing back in the 1400's) in 1949 seems to have stuck (for now)

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