Oh boy... not sure how I did it, but I managed to drag myself out of bed around 6am this morning after only 4 hours of DEEP sleep, following my journey from Vancouver which ultimately delivered me here in Beijing at around 2am! Thankfully, the Doubletree by Hilton hotel put on a cracking good buffet breakfast so a full belly put me in good stead for the full day of sightseeing that was ahead of us.
Since the Cathay Pacific China Experience tour that we are on is fully guided from start to end each day, the first and really only decision Dad and I had to make was whether or not to go jeans or shorts for the day?? Dad and I both opted for shorts seeing as though we were fortunately blessed by Buddha, or whichever God it is that overlooks this neck of the woods, with blue skies and warm temps.
As 8am rolled around and the first due-to-lack-of-sleep yawn escaped my gob, we were met by Jessica, my airport escort from last night and our guide for the day. I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty considering whatever sleep I had had since arriving last night, there was no doubt that Jessica was functioning on less than me.
Regardless, we jumped into our clean, modern four-wheeled chariot and headed towards our first stop of the day in the middle of Beijing – the Forbidden City.
I'll no doubt make mention of the driving/traffic situation over here (in China) on numerous occasions over the coming days. Dad and I were gasping and giggling all at once as we took in what played out in front of us during the 40 or so minute drive to the Palace's northern gate. The roads are in good nick – everyone, whether they are in cars, on scooters or bikes, or hoofing it, use them. The various lane markings and traffic signs were all perfectly visible too... but NOBODY used them.
I don’t really know how to explain it yet (give me another day or so of white-knuckle observation time), but somehow the frantic road-based-mayhem and unrelenting horn honking works. There seems to be a hell of a lot of trust involved, but for all the mayhem we witnessed, there wasn't a single vehicle scrape or accident to be seen.
But anyway... I digress.
The Forbidden City
Arriving at the Forbidden City's northern gate (below), we jumped out of the car and were immediately presented with a scene, that matched exactly, all the postcards and tourist books you see from this part of the country featuring the large, distinctive, single and double eaved palaces and other royal quarters. It was at about this time that I think Dad and I both suddenly clicked that we weren't in our respective home towns anymore.
We met up with another guide, Tina, as we approached the northern gate entrance, and together the four of us (pretty awesome tour group size I have to say) passed through the vast, imposing city walls.
Now a registered UNESCO World Heritage site due to its Chinese historical, architectural and cultural significance, the Forbidden City spans over a massive 720,000 square meters. Completed in 1420, the "city" served as the Chinese imperial palace and home of 24 Emperors, spanning the Ming and Qing dynasties over five centuries.
I could probably go on and on with structural statistics and all sorts of interesting historical tidbits relating to the Forbidden City, considering the impressive complex has so many unique and fascinating stories to tell, but Wikipedia does a much better job at covering all that kind of stuff, so check out the Forbidden City article if you'd like to read up about it in-depth.
Here's a few fast facts for the time-starved amongst you:
- Construction lasted 15 years, and required more than a million workers.
- The Forbidden City is the world's largest surviving palace complex consisting of numerous, beautifully kept gardens, palaces, halls and royal residences.
- The Forbidden City is surrounded by a 7.9 meter (26 ft) high city wall and a six-meter deep, 52 meter (171 ft) wide moat.
- The sloping ridges of building roofs are decorated with a line of statuettes lead by a man riding a phoenix and followed by an imperial dragon. The number of statuettes represents the status of the building.
Double Glory Palace / Shu Fang Zhai
Now I must divulge at this point that neither Dad (think I can speak on his behalf) nor I are huge buffs when it comes to Chinese history. So it’s fair to say that any of the historical highlights we encounter over the coming days will probably be met with a mixture of amazement and relative ignorance. Take, for example, our first stop this morning in the Forbidden City.
One of the things that makes the Cathay Pacific China Experience tours so unique and special is that they include a number of VIP opportunities – experiences not available to your everyday tourist or member of the general public. Our visit this morning to The Double Glory Palace and Shu Fang Zhai were our first taste of these VIP highlights.
The following two paragraphs are taken from the China Experience website and explain briefly these two highlights.
The Palace of Double Glory (Chonghua gong)
In 1727, the Yongzheng Emperor built this palace for his heir, the Qianlong Emperor. After Qianglong ascended the throne, he moved away, but continued to use the palace as a private meeting place for his friends and ministers.
Every New Year's day, the Emperor would host an annual tea party where grand secretaries, palace ministers and members of the Imperial Academy accompanied Qianlong to drink tea and write poetry.
With much of the furniture and building's arrangement still intact since Qianlong's reign, you will experience an exclusive glimpse into the day to day lives of China's royalty.
Shu Fang Zhai
While the Shu Fang Zhai has never been opened to the public, it has served as a reception area for Heads of State and visiting dignitaries. On this VIP tour, you'll also have the unique opportunity to view the two stages where the Imperial family would host operas for celebratory banquets or treat specially invited officials with the tea of three purities during the first Lunar month.
Most of the furniture you'll see inside date back to the Qing Dynasty.
While we weren't permitted to take any photos inside the Double Glory Palace, I can tell you that some of the furniture was amazing including these delicately crafted jade murals that featured on many of the walls. I had to keep reminding myself how old all of this stuff was. Wow!
I was able, however, to attempt to snap a few shots of the ornate main stage of the Shu Fang Zhai. It was fast approaching the middle of the day by now and lighting (high contrast) wasn't great for any kind of shots, but here's a few of what we took, below.
More Forbidden City...
With our first VIP experiences behind us, Jessica, Tina, Dad and I continued onto our next task which was to wander the remainder of the 961m long north/south axis of the Forbidden City, along with thousands of others, taking in stunning views of some of the more notable buildings of the city like the Hall of Preserving Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and largest and most impressive building of all, the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
Returning back to the public or "non-VIP" area of the city, we realised just how privileged we were earlier in the morning with our VIP mini-tours. We found ourselves darting in and out of large numbers of tourists sporting group defining, wildly coloured baseball caps and bucket hats which, of course, matched the flag being held by their respective guides. On more than one occasion I turned to Dad with a, "...how lucky are we to be avoiding that circus act!" look on my face. He grinned in agreement.
Escaping the crowds through the huge red, gold studded doors of the southern gate, we suddenly found out where all the masses of people were coming from. Dozens of tour buses from which hundreds of people were still spilling out from, were parked before us. The girls certainly had the right idea shuffling us through the comparatively quiet northern gate earlier in the morning.
Jessica used her mobile to call up our driver, he magically appeared, we said our goodbyes to Tina and we were whisked away to our next destination.
Getting a taste for Hutong living
Not far outside the walls of the Forbidden City is a section of Beijing known as the Hutongs. Essentially a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways formed by lines of "siheyuan" (traditional courtyard residences), the Hutong was apparently where the workers lived during the construction period of the Forbidden City.
Hutong numbers have decreased by almost 25% since 1949 when the People's Republic of China was formed, as the traditional neighbourhoods have been gradually replaced by wide boulevards and high rises. With this in mind, our Hutong visit this afternoon was a special opportunity to get a first-hand glimpse of traditional Beijing living.
First of all we were introduced to the fella charged with preventing us from getting lost in the Hutong – our guide, Will. With a quick introduction out of the way, Will led Jessica, Dad and I into the maze of crisscrossing alleyways to a residence where we caught our first glance of the tiny rooms that made up the tiny houses of the tiny people that inhabit them.
We were introduced to the lady of the house who just happened to be a skilled Chinese calligrapher. We were then invited to seat ourselves at a table in what appeared to be a family member's bedroom and proceeded to partake in a quick Chinese calligraphy lesson covering basic numbers and a few more complicated characters. I was shuffling between camera and brush so I wasn't doing a terribly good job at the whole thing, but Dad was told repeatedly that he was a bit of a natural and the praise came thick and fast as he built up quite a take-home library of ink-work.
As quick as we breezed into our gracious host and teacher's abode, we breezed out again and onto a couple of awaiting rickshaws that whisked us off to another residence where we enjoyed a traditional family lunch consisting of lots of tasty, "not scary" (Dad's words), dishes consisting of beans, shoots, cucumber, eggplant, pork and duck served with rice and washed down with tea and 7Up. Thankfully for Dad, chopsticks were optional – the one thing that I think was worrying him about this trip more than anything else! Haha!
Lunch gave us the opportunity to ask Will and Jessica a bunch of questions and engage in some casual conversation. Neither Jessica, nor Will's English was perfect, so I'm sure Dad and I missed a few of the answers offered to our questions, but it was a lovely way to end our time in the heart of Beijing.
A visit to a jade outlet store
With our car and driver magically appearing at the end of a mobile phone call once again, we jumped in and made our way to the outskirts of Beijing (45 minutes or so) where an impressive set of mountains appeared and we got our possible first glimpses of the mighty Great Wall of China.
Before we reached our much anticipated destination, however, I guess in true "tour" fashion we made a surprise stop at a local jade factory and outlet store. As stated on Wikipedia:
In the history of the art of the Chinese empire, jade has had a special significance, comparable with that of gold and diamonds in the West. Jade was used for the finest objects and cult figures, and for grave furnishings for high-ranking members of the imperial family.
These facts were presented to us by a young girl who gave us a quick tour of the on-site jade sculpting and polishing studios as well as explain to us the difference between the two types of jade – nephrite and jadeite. As is traditionally the case with retail tour stops like this, we found ourselves dropped off in a collection of connected showrooms featuring a vast and very expensive selection of incredible jade sculptures and jewelery. And, as is traditionally the case with connected showrooms like this, it was near impossible to find your way out.
Salespeople 1 – Confused Aussie tourists 0
The Great Wall of China
Finding daylight again with our wallets still untouched and firmly planted in our hip pockets, we jumped back into our awaiting car and made the last push out into the rolling hills of the country surrounding Beijing where we eventually found an impressive section of the legendary, 3,700 mile long Great Wall of China.
Being one of the items on my "bucket list" prior to embarking on this trip, I was pretty excited about the way we were ending our day, and indeed visit to Beijing.
Consisting of a number of different sections constructed over a period ranging from 5th century BC and the 16th century, the Great Wall was raised along the northern borders of China in an attempt to keep the nomadic Mongol tribes out. It certainly is a jaw-dropping structure in person with its 26-foot tall sections punctuated by guard towers for as far as the eye can see.
With a spring in our stride, Dad and I headed straight for the base of the wall where we were met with some pretty steep steps. I have to say, I was somewhat surprised to see just how steep the opening section of the wall from the car park was – like a Chinese-style "Grouse Grind"!
Completing the first two sections of the wall with some pretty heavy breathing and moisture on the brow, Dad and Jessica opted to put the anchor down at a sign that basically proclaimed you were a legend if you had made it that far.
I, on the other hand, was pretty keen to attempt to get some decent photos to mark my "bucket list" moment. In order to do this, however, I felt I had to get well clear of the crowds, the cheesy gift shops and any sign of the car park and highway.
I charged on ahead and spent the next hour or so covering another couple of kilometers of the wall following it up and over a couple of extra peaks that delivered me well clear of all signs of modern day China. I think it did the trick... and I ended up with the following selection of shots.
The Great Wall was definitely my highlight of the day, and being lucky enough to hike the sections we did under blue skies and a warm sun was pretty cool I have to say.
Guzzling multiple bottles of water on the way back into town, Jessica took us on a bit of a drive by the 2004 Olympic Aquatic Center ("Water Cube") and National Stadium ("Bird's Nest"). It took two hours or more to get back to the hotel as we had to cross from one side of peak hour Beijing to the other. The traffic was unbelievable! I have a better idea of what the deal is with the traffic here now... but I'll throw that theory at you in the morning.
Back at the hotel, Dad and I showered up, cooled down, had a bit of a rest before heading downstairs to grab a pizza for dinner, and now here I am completing my first monster Blog entry! PHEW
Next stop Xi'an, Shaanxi province and the famous Terracotta Warriors!
Links & Credits
- All images // Rob Masefield
- Doubletree by Hilton, Beijing // hilton.com
- Cathay Pacific China Experience Tours // cathaypacific.com
- Forbidden City // wikipedia.org
- Great Wall of China // wikipedia.org