Sunday, March 4, 2012

A China Experience (Beijing part 2)

We started Day 3 with a visit to the Summer Palace which was just minutes from our hotel. This was where the emperor and his royal household would head for during the hot summer months. It's an enormous walled park covering more than 700 acres with a large lake as it's centrepiece. There are paths all around and among the buildings and palaces. The Summer Palace in particular was a favourite of the Dowager Empress Cixi who 'ruled' over the empire from 1861 to her death in 1908. She joined the royal household at age 15 as a Concubine and quickly became a favourite and bore a son. When that emperor died her infant son was too young to rule so she became regent, ruling in place of her son. Except it seems that she carried on ruling for the next 35 years (I'm thinking he wasn't still infant and incapable at that point?). Stories about her that our guide told us sounded like she was a bit of a nut - extravagant and misguided. Linking lots of the buildings along the lake shore is a 700m covered corridor (supposed to be the longest in the world or something, but then we thought the network in Mount Pleasant in the Falklands had that claim so who knows?! - ....I've just checked Wikipedia and it appears WE DO know best!!) I have to say, having visited both, the Summer Palace is a heck of a lot prettier! We also had time to stop by the Marble Boat - another of Cixi's indulgences - it's one heck of a lakeside pavilion....and it doesn't even float! This was the first time on the tour that I felt a little pushed for time. Whilst I think we saw a lot of the 'key sights' it's the sort of place I would have liked to spend less time 'box-ticking' and more time soaking up the atmosphere - a walk around the lake and a picnic here would have been a peachy way to spend the morning. But for us it was time to move on...
The Summer Palace: There was this delightful little old man writing Chinese Calligraphy across the pathway inside the palace (apparently - according to a sign he had, practicing Calligraphy helps prevent senile dementia!). The architecture in the Palace was so full of colour - the reds, blues, greens and golds made for such a pretty sight wandering around.

To the old neighbourhoods of Beijing - those that so far have escaped the demolitions and will now probably be preserved as part of old Beijing. The Hutongs are the traditional courtyard style housing and are narrow alleys full of single storey housing that to us now appears very cramped and dirty. The houses have little or no plumbing so every couple of hundred yards there are public washrooms which are for the residents to wash and toilet! - eewh! We rode around the area by cycle rickshaw which was fun! - our guide spend a fair amount of time sizing us all up to match us to a suitable peddler! We also had lunch in a family home inside the Hutong. Not sure how 'legit the whole family home thing was - it's a tour group after all and I'm ever the cynic. But I have to say it certainly appeared that we were dining in someones bedroom! The food was a refreshing change - slightly different dishes to all the restaurant meals we had and looking a lot more natural and dare I say it, even MSG-free?! (Surely not?!) It was good and a surprising highlight.
The Hutong Neighourhood: A peaceful street scene with our rickshaws waiting for us during lunch. The doorway was into the family home where we had lunch! Such a great way to travel - slow enough to enjoy the view but snuggly enough under our blanket to stay warm and cosy!

To work off the lunch we all took in a quick Tai Chi class in the grounds of the Temple of Heaven. I think this was more for the entertainment of the locals rather than us - a bunch of Westerners doing Tai-Chi in the middle of the park worked up quite the crowd - we even had a video-photographer stopping by! We then had plenty of free time to wander the Temple of Heaven. It was Sunday so there were crowds of locals out - playing checkers, mah-jong and hacky-sack. Hacky-Sack was quite the game for all ages and we were mesmerized by some seriously groovy moves. We succumbed to buying a few ourselves and set up an impromptu game though we've got a long way to go with our moves! The hacky-sacks are different to what we're used to. These are a bunch of feathers attached to some discs of old aluminum cans and a bit of plastic (OK - that's a fairly dire description but they work sweetly!) And finally, a day wouldn't be complete without a quick visit to some shop or factory now would it?! - Today's offering being a Silk Factory where even we nearly suckered ourselves into buying a silk duvet (the last minute thought better of it which was just as well as we couldn't remember the size of our bedding and would have bought the wrong size!)
Temple of Heaven: Checkers Players and some silly-looking Western tourists attempting Tai Chi
Day 4 was originally a free day on our itinerary but group consensus was that we all wanted to do the same thing - SHOP! And so for a few extra Yuans we 'bought' a guide and bus driver for the day and set off to the markets. Specifically we wanted fakes - and lots of them. These markets are crazy and not for the faint-hearted. The Silk Market was six stories of goods and hundreds of different stalls all inside one giant building. The basement alone was just handbags and shoes and is where we headed for my 'top-notch' Mulberry and Tod's handbags - fake as heck but at $15 a pop I'm not really too bothered! Bargaining is all part of the fun - the seller started at 800RMB for each bag and after a brief interchange of way too high prices, followed by us walking away with her calling out ever-lower prices she eventually shouted out 100RMB we turned around and sealed the deal! We resisted the watches and outdoor clothing but did buy a few art items, some silk table runners and a mah-jong set - real ivory I'm sure ;-) We worked a steal of deal for the set only to discover there were no instructions so she managed to sting us an extra 10RMB for those - overall the set was still just $6!! Now we just need to figure out how to play it because the instructions are quality Chinglish and seriously complicated - anyone? anyone?

After all the shopping a little refreshment was in order and so we headed to Xiaochi Jie or 'Little Eats Street'. This was an alley full of food stalls. But not your run-of-the-mill food stalls. Oh no. Pick a beast, any crazy-assed beast - preferably with numerous legs, spikes, scales and/or wings, fry it up in a bit of 3-month old oil and stuff it on a skewer and sell it to a foreigner. THAT kind of food stall. Locusts, Silk Worms, Centipedes, Scorpions (either the fresh, smaller still-wriggling variety or the giant black 'run-like-heck' variety), Starfish, Seahorse, cat, goats balls and things that to date I'm really not sure about. As a group we tried pretty much everything on offer. Obviously Chris is much more robust than me and was suffering from a severe bout of male bravado so was game for most of it. I just sampled the Starfish (which was crispy and tasted like 3-month old cooking oil). Certainly an entertaining afternoon and great fun to be with a group at times like this! Our final night as a group we had a great dim sum and dumplings meal in downtown with a few beers followed by a major session back at the hotel. We were still going after the bar staff went home for the night evidenced by the beer bottles still on the lobby bar tables when we went crawled down to breakfast the next morning. We 'broke' our young tour guide well and truly - he arrived to meet us in the lobby the next morning with an emergency sick bag in his pocket and excuses about not being able to take us to the airport so he'd managed to arrange a favour for someone else to escort us!!- too funny!
Xiaochi Jie: 'Small Eats Street' In the top left pic are the mini scropions stuck into the cabbage - these are still alive and wriggling - they 'lightly peirce their bellies with the skewer then fry them up super fresh from wriggle status. As opposed to the Scorpion in the top middle picture that Chris is clearly eager to devour! Starfish was my bravest (only) effort I admit!!- yum, yum!

Beijing was brilliant. And after having always snubbed the whole 'tour' thing in the past I have to say it was an excellent way to see much in a city like Beijing with such radically different culture and language. I would highly recommend it and SNA tours in particular were awesome. We were fortunate to have such a fun bunch of fellow tourers (I think the age range of our group had to do with the Groupon offer - after all not so many blue-rinsers groupon now do they?!) We were able to do and see so much with the convenience of our own driver and tour guide and that alone was a huge plus.

Next stop Macau...

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