Wednesday – the Forbidden City

Up early for our first joint outing. We were off to the Forbidden City. It was still raining when we left and my heart sank at the thought of putting my mac on over bare arms in the steamy atmosphere. In the event the storm had cooled things down and the humidity was a lot less.

We arrived at Tiananmen Square in drizzle and heavy greyness. Mao Tse Tung’s picture still looks out over the Square from the Gate of Heavenly Peace (!?) the outer building of the Forbidden City. Today the Square is edged with flowers and full of Chinese families keen to be photographed on such an iconic spot with only the military presence indicating any evidence of the location’s sinister history. It was a bit surreal in the murky light.

In the ‘heyday’ of the Forbidden City there was a walled passageway that stretched out into what is now the Square.

Apparently Mao considered knocking the Forbidden City down but was persuaded not to. Maybe someone had the foresight to realise what a money spinner it would turn out to be in the future! So much for idealism!

The palace complex that is the Forbidden City is said to be the largest in the world. Everything is giant sized. My particular memory from my previous visit was the size of the gold studded doors and time has not made them any smaller. They are huge!

As we passed through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, we entered what is a comparatively small courtyard before passing through the Gate of Supreme Harmony which leads into a much larger area complete with streams and marble bridges. All around the place are the big copper and brass vats which in past times formed the palace’s fire defences. Full of water they were covered with blankets during the winter and when it was very cold a fire was lit underneath them to prevent them freezing over.

As an aside, walking around in the heat it is very difficult to visualise the fact that Beijing gets extremely cold in winter. The lake area where we were staying apparently ices over to the extent that people ice skate over them and the moat around the Forbidden City (which is huge) freezes.

With our Chinese guide to explain the buildings, the palace protocols and answer questions we toured the site. The names of the big gates, palaces and halls fascinate me – the various Halls of Harmony (Supreme, Middle and Preserving), the Complete Palace of Peace and Longevity, the Gate of a Heavenly Purity and the Thousand Year Pavilion. It is all so exotic,

I am currently reading the life story of the Empress a Dowager Cixi and it was really interesting to visit the Forbidden City against the background of her life. Cixi started life as a concubine and quite a long way down the pecking order, but then produced the only son of her particular Emporer which lead to her being effectively the power behind the Chinese throne for more or less the rest of her life. An amazing woman who never came out of the two royal buildings – the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace – she could neither read nor write well but she is accredited with putting in place the basis for modern China. She certainly had a lot of ups and downs and looked to be something of a Queen Victoria figure – who reigned at a similar time.

We saw the Emperor’s royal suites and Cixi’s rooms, various offices, the gardens and the harem where all the concubines lived. Apparently the concubines all had a number and the Emperor turned the tablet over with the number of the concubine he wanted that night and the young lady concerned was delivered naked ( for fear of assassination!), foot bound and gift wrapped In a gold cloth. Lovely!

A very interesting three hours later we emerged through the north exit gate and took the bendy bus back to the hotel. What a contrast!

We lunched at a very tiny cafe across the road from the hotel. I had dumplings and Keith had soup. We both had more than we could eat and with water it cost for us both the equivalent of £3.50! Dinner proved equally cost effective with a veritable banquet of dishes (including Peking duck and drinks) for £8.40.

Tomorrow we set off on the truck….

Tuesday – the adventure proper begins and we meet fellow travellers

We decided to visit the Museum of China as we were not required to meet with our fellow travellers until later in the afternoon. As we were preparing to leave we met up with Peter a lovely, laid back Australian chap who was also with the Odyssey party. He asked if he could join us on our excursion and off we went! A taxi took us to Tiananman Square and we we emerged from its air conditioned loveliness to the blanket of heat and teeming humanity that was the centre of Beijing on a warm school holiday day in July. Phew!

We found the direction of travel required and headed up the side of the Square with the Forbidden City ahead. There were lots of police and military types about, far more than I remember when I was last hear nearly 20 years ago to walk the Wall. Far more people too. Thousands of Chinese tourists – a real sign of changing times! There is a feeling of good times about – nearly everyone we saw looked affluent and well dressed and heavily laden with all sorts of technical looking equipment.

The Museum of China is housed in a new massive building that takes up about half one side of the square. The British Museum would eat its heart out for the queues of people waiting to get in. However, it was all very efficient and after about half an hour of shuffling we were swallowed up into the building like our fellow ‘queuers’ and we hardly touched the sides! Entry was free on presenting our passport and what a hoard of riches were on display. It is all beautifully set out. We enjoyed the Ancient China in the basement that included artefacts from the Silk Road and ancient maps that showed China as the centre of the world. Indications that the 16th century missionaries who drew them were keen to play to their commissioners! I guess it was a healthy way to keep your head on your shoulders!

It is quite amusing to have rarity value! Several times older family members were seen encouraging their embarrassed offspring to come and demonstrate their ability to say ‘hello’ to us and others were found to be surreptitiously taking photographs with us in them! There is no accounting for taste!

We returned to the hotel to gather ourselves for the inaugural meeting of our travel group. There are 11 of us. Australian Peter, already mentioned, an old friend of his called Helen from Alice Springs, two other ladies, Wendy and Sarah (originally from Whitstable!) from Sydney, Diane from New Zealand and Barry, Ken and Elizabeth from Canada. Our two crew, a couple called Emma and Simon, from the UK and for the Chinese section (about 5 weeks) Jason our Chinese guide. We met in a nearby restaurant and after all the ‘who are you’ stuff and some basics about the trip (we have been advised that it is not a holiday!) we tucked into an excellent meal chosen by Jason and got to know each other a little better. I will save the pen pictures until I have had the opportunity to know them more, but suffice it to say that all of the travellers are of about the same age with many thousands of travelling miles under their belts. Elizabeth and Ken are considerably younger.

We adjourned to a bar and sat outside drinking beer and exchanging tales and then went to bed content that there were going to be interesting times ahead.

And then a major storm started which rumbled around most of the night. Apparently now is the time of the year for the majority of the rainfall to occur and they had a good helping over night!

Monday and the move to The Huguosi

We had heard there was a big farmers market in the vicinity and decided to go and have a look prior to moving out of the Hutong to the hotel where the trip starts from on Tuesday. We were therefore out by 8.30 and joined the early morning activity round the lake.

The market was great. A large covered area where vegetables, spices, meat and fish were on sale. It throbbed with activity. Discerning housewives doing their shopping for the family, older people with much smaller bags and chaps with huge amounts of stuff who I decided either had very big appetites, had large dinner parties to cater for or ran restaurants! Such was their food mountains that they carried off on the back of bicycles or barrows.

Our return journey was not quite so straightforward. We missed the lake altogether! However we were soon back on track and back at the Hutong condensing our luggage into our bags. Already no small feat although not one item has been added.

There had been a discussion about how we were going to get ourselves to the hotel as the Hutong alleyway did not accommodate cars and the hotel is about two kilometres away. A taxi was definitely not an option! As our bags do not have wheels as they would be dangerous when getting them on and off the truck, the combination of weight, distance and heat was not an attractive proposition in terms of carrying them! Our hosts came up with the solution of their goods trolley. Hmmm . Pride and falls come to mind……

So we took off with our trolley which to add to the drama only had three wheels! It was a long trip – or it seemed that way! After we got out of the maze of hutongs we were onto the open and very busy road, vying with cycle powered rickshaws, motorised tourist rickshaws (rather like those used in the film Oklahoma but without the horse!) and of course cars! Great.

Anyway, we got there and were both privately relieved to find that the only thing to welcome our rather ignominious appearance was the truck (it is official – it is a truck!) which was parked neatly on the hotel forecourt with a similar monster next to it, the property of Dragoman Tours. Keith checked in and I sat outside guarding our loaned trolley – you never know who might want to steal a three wheeled trolley in down town Beijing on a Monday lunchtime!

We then had the walk back with said vehicle to return it to the Hutong. By now it was 12.30 and the heat and humidity were at their height. By the time we had returned and set out again for the Hotel I was ready to do murders for a beer…..! In the absence of said beer I just got very snarly.

Things calmed down in the afternoon and having come across none of our soon to be compatriots we dined alone in a very brightly lit and noisy Chinese cafe.

Sunday – the bag arrives :-)))) and views of Beijing

Another early start, this time accompanied by the master of the house, Ian. Ian is 25 and until recently taught English to primary school children but has decided to try his hand at being a tour guide. Never people to miss an opportunity – we volunteered to be ‘guinea pigs’.

We left the house by turning left out of Gladys Garden (new territory for us!) and found ourselves in local land, with the local green grocer having set up shop round the corner!

Some of the Hotung area is on the Chinese tourist guide route and we passed large groups of them visiting one of the houses which has been opened up as an attraction. Apparently there used to be many more than there are now but as part of a drive for modernisation some families are being encouraged to move out and we were to quite a lot of evidence of this during our walk.

I saw a lovely old Chinese saying written on a wall: ‘There are 3,600 hutong with names and as many without names as the number of hairs on an ox.’

We moved out of the Hutong area, crossing the wide thoroughfare marking one of the ring roads that form a major part of the grid system upon which the city is based. We eventually arrived at Jingshan Park, a much larger green area than yesterday’s Behai Park. The meticulous gardens were very colourful and there were several choir groups practising, so e of them quite large with their music accompanying as we puffed up the steps of Coal Hill to reach the top and the amazing views of the city. There is a Buddhist temple on the top with Buddha looking out on the amazing sight of The Forbidden City laid out before him. The view was well worth the climb! Apparently the hill was formed by the earth excavated to make the Forbidden City moat. It must have been some moat!

We descended to enjoy further activity in the park – dancers, singers, flag wavers all totally, taichee groups and individual. All totally unselfconsciously went about their particular ‘thing’.

During our walk Ian told us something of his parents history. They had met in Canada studying ancient classical art and his father followed his mother back to China. Her father had married an English woman and both had been imprisoned during the cultural revolution for being intellectuals and intermarriage. Ian’s grandfather had been imprisoned for 4 years. His wife had been in solitary confinement for much longer. Both of their parents had been missionaries. David’s parents were also missionaries

While we talked we left the park and meandered back through a street of local artisans and the Drum and Bell towers, two enormous buildings, the originals forming part of the Mongol capital. The drum and bell tower used to be the timekeeping devices of the city with drumming and bell ringing marking the passing of the day. The bell tower is a enormous hexagonal red building, a landmark which I found later could be seen from the roof of our Hutong. Looking at the map, both are on a line forming the northern axis with the Forbidden City in the centre and south of that Tiananmen Square.

We then walked back to the house to find the dreaded bag had still not arrived. Leaving our hostess to await it’s arrival, we took Ian and David, our host, off to lunch. Choosing was left to David and we enjoyed a feast of very different dishes including an ‘interesting’ combination of celery and tofu shaped (and tasting) like straw. I don’t think that particular dish will go down as one of our favourites! We drank beers, but David gave us a sample if his preferred beverage. A raw spirit, 56 % proof.

It was definitely time for a siesta after this as the temperature had risen to 96 degrees. When we arrived at the house – alleluia! – the bag had arrived. Thank goodness! There was no indication of where it had been. I was just very relieved to get it back!

At last some fresh clothes, lighter shoes (I have been wearing walking boots since I left London on Thursday!) and some toiletries!

After a snooze I adjourned to the house roof which gave a good view over the surrounding rooftops and showed how closely the houses of the Hutong are crammed together. There is no sign of the alleyways from up there, just roof tops butting up to each other. There was also evidence of a lot of pigeon fanciers! Many of the roof top areas had cages of pigeons and there were swirls of them overhead. Nevertheless it was very pleasant up there with lots of breeze albeit hot!

We decided no more eating was required and instead strolled round another part which to date had not been explored. It took us to the most western tip where the bars were a lot less raucous and the cars much larger.

Deciding we deserved a beer – we also found the prices considerably more expensive. It was £9 for two bottles of Hoegarden beer! That’ll teach us! Darkness comes down very quickly and we wandered back past all the fisherman much better equipped in this area with little green lights on their floats!

Another day over!

on Thursday