Monday, January 18, 2016

Hutong Hangout in Beijing


It's Day 5 on this wonderful tour of Beijing, and after breakfast, I remember telling my new friend, Mary, how I wasn't feeling too good about all of the delicious food I'd been eating lately.  She felt the same way.  It's hard to control myself when all of this wonderful Chinese food (and there was American fare, as well), colorful fruits and vegetables, and delectable desserts are staring right at me.  I don't stuff myself with food.  Normally I'm mindful to chew my food, eat slowly, and stop when I begin to feel full.  Also, my meals normally fit in a bowl, and not piled up high on a plate.  Ugh, I felt this trip was not going to end well for me.  I was going to go home looking like a blimp!  Oh well, Mary and I figured that once we got on the Viking ship, we'd do a lot of daily walking around the perimeter of the top deck, only to find out later there would be no track on the upper deck!  In fact, the ship was designed in a way that you couldn't walk the perimeter no matter what level you were on.  If I was going to be a happy lady on this vacation, I needed to control my food intake. Seriously. 
This day was another check off of my bucket list because we would be visiting a hutong, which is a centuries-old, tree-lined alleyway that is the true heartbeat of Beijing.  There are several remaining hutongs left in Beijing, following the rapid growth spurt of roadways and buildings beginning in 1949, and more so after the announcement that Beijing was going to be the site of the 2008 Olympic Games.  However, many of Beijing's ancient hutongs still stand, and a number of them have been designated protected areas.  The older neighborhoods survive today, offering a glimpse of life in the capital city as it has been for generations.

Hutongs are the winding narrow streets that traverse the traditional neighborhoods of Beijing.   These alleys surround traditional courtyard residences, and the term hutong has come to refer to a neighborhood.  In the past, and to a certain degree still true today, the closer you lived to the Forbidden City, the higher your status was.  The elite lived to the east and west of the imperial palace in high-end hutongs with gardens and ornamental houses. Today many famous people live in these hutongs. In other areas, however, the hutongs are smaller, less decorative, and poorer.  Hutong is a Mongolian word meaning "water well".  In the Yuan Dynasty, Mongolians attached great importance to water, so almost every community in the city was designed around a well, which provided the daily water for the locals.  To this day, no one will find a dry well in some of the old alleys.

It was a smooth ride in our rickety rickshaw.  We passed residents coming out of their courtyards and I'd take quick photos as we passed their open doors.  Mainly there wasn't much to see.  But I wondered what the courtyards would look like if I were standing in it.  Would it be pretty?  Would it be nice? 
There were times when cars approached from the opposite direction and it was a traffic jam in the hutong.  It would take a few minutes for all vehicles to be free and clear.
There came a point where we exited our rickshaws to walk to a residence belonging to a gentleman named Mr. Wang and his extended family.  We passed people going about their usual business of daily living.  We even got a close-up view of people's living areas. I thanked God for the life that I have.  I also was conscious of the fact that these people might be grateful for what they have, so I didn't want to show that I felt sorry for them in any way.  I noticed how our group would greet them with a cheery "ni hao!".  Hello!
We walked through a narrow alley, turn left and entered a door into a place that was colorful and inviting.
Birds were chirping, and lots of plants and flowers were on display.  Red lanterns and other ornamental pieces dotted the courtyard, and it exuded a welcoming of peace, good luck and wealth to all who entered this place.

Mr. Wang welcomed us with tea and told us about his life in the hutong.  Before the 2008 Summer Olympics, his family was given permission by the government to host tourists and dignitaries.  Having a relative who served the last emperor proved beneficial.  To earn money, Mr. Wang's family also serve sit-down meals to visiting groups and sell folk art created by his daughter.  I loved being there, in that small, sweet-smelling place.  I highly recommend a visit to a hutong to better understand the old Chinese culture.  If you can visit both high-end and lower class hutongs, you'll better appreciate the disparity in the social and economic status of these hard-working people.

Before our afternoon flight to Xi'an, Angie introduced us to a Jianzi champion currently listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for keeping the jianzi in the air the longest.  A traditional and very popular national sport in China, the goal is to keep the heavily weighted shuttlecock in the air by using any part of the body, apart from the hands.  Jianzi is better known as hacky sack in the United States.
Then we went to a tea house to learn about the different kinds of tea and the ritual of drinking tea.  Tea is life here with social, medicinal and cultural roles to play.  It's in every thermos pulled out on park benches and everywhere.  China is a country with many nationalities, and each nationality enjoys their tea differently.  The history, culture and geographical environment of all nationalities vary and their customs of drinking tea are also very colorful and have their own strong points.  What is common amongst the nationalities is when guests show up at their door, they are always entertained with tea.  The Chinese people love to drink tea all day long.  The tea ceremony that most of us think of as Japanese actually originated in China.
We arrived in Xi-an in the late afternoon and, as always, it was a pleasure to view the heavily wooded areas surrounding the city, and to be thoroughly entertained by the chaos of the evening commuter traffic!
I hope you're enjoying my diary of my days in China!  This trip is becoming so unforgettable!


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

My Days in Beijing - Day Four




I had dreamed about this day forever.  A visit to China hit my Wanderlust list in the early 1990s when the Chinese government announced it was going to build the Three Gorges Dam.  That meant villages would disappear or be relocated, and ancient sites drowned in the famed Yangtze River.  I had to go to there to see as much of the old China (before the dam project) and other amazing sites like the Great Wall.  I've wondered what it would be like to walk and stand on that wondrous wall.

"Bu dao Changcheng fei haohan."

An original line from a Mao Zedong poem, it is often translated as "He who has never been to the Great Wall is not a true man", or "He who doesn't reach the Great Wall is no hero."

Well, let me just say, first of all, that I didn't really get to walk the wall, in normal fashion.  I tried, but I was pushed now and then because it was so crowded, but I, too, pushed  forward so I could make my way to the highest point of the wall.  If I didn't do that, I most certainly would've fallen backward and knocked everyone behind me down like a stack of dominoes!  When I reached the highest point of the Badaling wall, I did feel like a hero  - a very hot and exhausted hero.  It was a very difficult trek, and I'm in good physical shape!  This marvel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which once stretched for more than 6,200 miles and symbolized the country's isolation from the rest of the world.
But wait, let me back-track and show you how we got here.  Our tour group had an early start.  By now, we all know the daily routine.  Early breakfast, on the bus by 8am-ish, but that's a good thing.  We knew we'd be in the middle of the early commuter traffic but our bus had to be one of the first to reach the cable car parking lot.  We traveled 60 miles out of Beijing.  In an hour, we arrived. Many buses were there already, but more buses would come, so we were thankful to be there early.  Tourists can hike up to the Great Wall, but we took the cable cars as our time was limited with other activities planned for the day. 
Angie, our tour director, led us inside the cable car building where we passed everyone standing in line.  We had a fast pass!  I think being a part of a Viking group was the key to being in the express lane.  That, or Angie was the cutest little thing, no one could say no to her.

It took a few minutes to reach the Great Wall.  Once we got off the cable car, we could choose to walk north or south.  Going north would take you down the mountain to the towers, but we chose to go south, which would take us to the highest point of the Badaling wall.  The views were outstanding, and exceeded all of my expectations of what the Great Wall would be.
I could not leave Padre, the Globetrotting Gnome behind at the hotel today.  He had to be here.
There are many sections of the Great Wall around Beijing city, but the wall in Badaling is the most visited since its restoration in 1957.  It is a well-developed area with a bear zoo, slow roller coaster that takes tourists up and down certain sections of the mountain to the valley floor, and the Great Wall Museum in the vicinity.  Hotels and the Safari World are nearby.
My navigating the steps of the wall, for the most part, was precarious.  Besides the thick crowds of people, the most difficult part of walking the wall were the stairs.  The steps were of different depths, so if you weren't watchful, you'd stumble.  Also, the climb up was very steep so all of this combined, I was out of breath a lot.  When I had to stop, I needed to hold on to a piece of the wall so I wouldn't fall back.  Sometimes, when I had to stop, there would be no wall for support as families would be sitting there to rest.  That's when I'd have to slightly hold on to someone else for support, and I could feel people doing the same with me.


If I ever have the opportunity to come back, I'd definitely want to visit the museum and this time head south on the wall to go through the towers and make a day of it.  Any season is a great time to visit the Great Wall.  In the spring, the landscape is so green.  In the summer, the rains come late in the day which leaves the air cool and fresh.  We were there in the autumn and the leaves were on the verge of changing colors, and the sky was blue with a bit of haze.  Or was that smog?  We were always questioning that!  I hear winter on the Great Walls is enchanting with the snow on the ground, and no visitors.  Oh, I think I can brave that cold temperature.
Next stop was the Ming Tombs (or the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty), located 30 miles outside of Beijing.  The Ming Tombs are a collection of mausoleums built by the emperors. In a carefully selected site, according to Chinese feng-shui traditions, the tombs are surrounded by mountains on three sides and a river flows near them.  The tomb area is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.  It offers insight into imperial Ming Dynasty life, including stone thrones, huge human and animal sculptures, and other evidence of Chinese culture and traditions.
We entered the Thirteen Tombs through a stone arched gateway, and onto this avenue called The Sacred Way, which means "a walk to heaven". According to Chinese history, an emperor descends from heaven upon death and returns through the walkway.  The emperor was referred to as a Son of the Heaven.  The Sacred Way ends at the Dragon-Headed Turtle Tablet Pavilion.
If it wasn't for the beauty of the emperor and animal statues, I would've laid my hot, tired body under a shade tree and taken a nap.  Hiking the Great Wall was a challenge already, and now I have to look down this long, long avenue.  And it wasn't just that, but this place was so ethereally quiet and serene, and so green.  And birds were chirping!  See what I mean?  (yawn)

The details of each imposing human and animal statue differed.  No two were alike.  Also, the sculptures were transported purely by human labor.  Water was first poured on the road during the winter causing it to become icy.  They were then hauled forward by sliding on the slippery ice. Wells were dug every 500 yards or so in order to get water for this purpose.  Only two tombs of the thirteen are open to the public.  The others are in ruins or entombed in one of the three forested mountain ranges.


We exited the area through the Dragon-Headed Turtle Tablet Pavilion.  Inside was a large stone carving of a turtle with a dragon head and a Chinese tablet containing more than 1,000 Chinese characters.
We saw and learned plenty on this day.  In addition to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs, we made a stop at a big place that sold jade - lots and lots of it.  Different sizes and different colors.  Jewelry, statues, wall art, souvenir type of items -- all made with real and varients of jade.  Gerry and I came away with some nice jewelry and souvenirs.  
We had a fabulous Peking duck dinner at Hua's Fine Dining Restaurant at Wangfujing.  It's a famous duck dish from Beijing that has been prepared since the imperial era. 
Upon entering the restaurant, we saw ducks being roasted in a hung, or open oven.  The ducks were carved in front of us at our tables.  With other delicious dishes, the Peking duck was served on a Lazy Susan table with all the sides: scallion, cucumber, sweet bean sauce and other tasty items. Pancakes (spring roll wraps really) held it all together.  Oh my goodness, I couldn't eat enough of the Peking duck. Gosh, I want some right now.  I wonder where they serve it up good in San Diego?

In 2011, The Huffington Post ranked Peking duck first in a list of "10 Foods Around the World To Try Before You Die".  

What are you waiting for?



Monday, November 23, 2015

My Days in Beijing - Day Three



This day was a very long day.  Lots of walking, lots of people and lots of sunshine, which doesn't serve someone dealing with the autoimmune disease, lupus, very well.  Too much sun, even in all its glory, can be vicious to a lupus warrior.

Same routine.  Gerry and I enjoyed an early morning breakfast at the Seasonal Tastes restaurant. I'm really missing the tuna sushi that I enjoyed two days ago.  The restaurant didn't put out the same dishes as the day before in some of the food stations.  That tuna sushi was the yummiest.  I'm sure there's a proper name for that sushi.  I don't know it, I just eat it.
We finally met the rest of our tour director's group.  I was sure they'd like Angie as much as I did. Our group filled a bus.  There are other Viking groups that filled buses, and I'm thinking, "Wow, Viking truly has a hold in the tourism market in China."  

We drove around Beijing the previous evening for some night views of the sites.  Seeing Tiananmen Square in the daylight was very impressive, more so than at night.  Angie said we had to be at the square early in the morning to avoid the crowds, but crowds were already there.  The square looked very festive with giant floral and plant arrangements everywhere.  The square was the center of a huge celebration in the city just days before, on September 3rd.  To reduce air pollution, the government ordered factories and many businesses to close beginning in August.  The Chinese Victory Day Parade was held to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Victory of Japan Day stemming from World War II.  The commemoration was the first high-profile military parade held to celebrate an occasion other than the National Day of the People's Republic of China.  Over 12,000 troops of the People's Liberation Army participated in the parade, in addition to over 1,000 troops from 17 different countries. 
The Padre at the  Tiananmen Tower, Gate of Heavenly Peace.
The square was swarming with tourists and photographers hoping to make money taking group shots.  Angie gathered us together, our picture was taken, then we received our photo packaged in a very nice book later that evening.  That's when we paid for the photo.

I brought my little travel buddy with me on this trip.  He's Padre, the Globetrotting Gnome. Sometimes, he comes with us on our travels, other times, it's so hectic at home that I forget to pack him.  OR when I do bring him on a trip, he sometimes has to stay at the hotel or the bus because, honestly, it's a lot of work to bring him to every single tourist site.  When he comes out to sightsee, I have to be careful how I pack him in my day bag.  He's broken his arm numerous times and it takes a while to glue his arm back on. It's also difficult to hold him straight up while I attempt a one-handed camera shot of him and his awesome background.  I was approached three times that morning about Padre.  One lady asked if I was in the Amazing Race, one of my favorite reality TV shows. The other two wanted to know the story about the Padre.  They all thought it was a cute idea and that I should send the photos to the San Diego Padres.  I have plans to do that once I watermark all of the photos.  I've also thought about setting up an Instagram account for him.  In due time.

Before I share photos of other important buildings and structures in Tiananmen Square,   We all know that it's rare for a large population of the Chinese people, more specifically those who come from the countryside and are touring the big cities, to see someone quite different from them in appearance.  They become excited to see a tall, white person, and if they have blonde hair and are very pretty, as Angie said, the Chinese are all over that western person taking photos, or sneakily sidling up to the westerner and posing for photos, whether the westerner knows it or not.  The country folk will take quick photo shots, or politely ask to have a photo taken.  It was fascinating to watch the interactions.  Two worlds coming together.  Beautiful, if you ask me!
Quianmen Gate, once an entrance into the ancient Forbidden City, is now a museum.  Climb to the top and get a fantastic view over the archery tower and Tiananmen Square.  Walk through the tunnel and enter the pedestrian area where there are a plethora of souvenir shops and restaurants.  We weren't sure if the building was shrouded in morning haze or smog.  My asthma wasn't acting up so I assumed haze.
The Monument to People's Heroes commemorates the people's heroes in modern Chinese history.   In the background is the National Museum of China.  It was built on the basis of the former Museum of Chinese History and the former Museum of Chinese Revolution, being the most inclusive museum of time-honored Chinese culture and history in the country.

The Great Hall of the People is where the National People's Congress is held and also where state leaders hold diplomatic meetings and the masses stage political activities.

Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen Tower).  Above the archway hangs a large portrait of Maozedong.  On the east and west sides of the portrait are giant placards.  The left one reads "Long Live the People's Republic of China" while the right one reads "Long Live the Great Unity of the World's Peoples." 

Before arriving in China, I had no idea Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City were physically connected.  Also, all I knew about Tiananmen Square before my visit was the tragic events that unfolded in 1989.  The "June Fourth Incident", as the Chinese government called it, was truly a culmination of other protests against the government that had been building and spreading across the country.  On June 3 - 4, the heavily armed troops marched towards Tiananmen Square opening fire and crushing all who tried to block their tanks and troops. It is estimated that some 7,000 were wounded and 241 killed (including soldiers).  Since the incident, the government has attempted to suppress references to it.  I've included a great pictorial, published by The Atlantic in 2012, of the events that unfolded in the days prior to and during the 6-week demonstration. 


DID YOU KNOW:

The architect of the Forbidden City, was a Vietnamese architect named Nguyen An, or Juan An, in Chinese.  He was a professional architect in Vietnam when the Ming Dynasty invaded Vietnam in 1407.  Juan An was brought back to China and made a eunuch, which is a man who has been castrated then employed to guard the women's living areas in the imperial palace.
Next stop was the Forbidden City, a palace so grand and so perfect in every sense of the word. Massive red doors with gilded door nails (9 rows across, 9 rows down because 9 is a lucky number for the Chinese) open up to the Imperial palace complex.  In the heart of Beijing, the palace adheres rigidly to the traditional Chinese geomantic practice of feng shui.  If walls could talk, I'd hear tales of opulence beyond my wildest dream, one hundred course meals, and a harem of 9,000 concubines.

As I looked through the Gate of Supreme Harmony (just beyond the red doors),  to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, I imagined the lives of those emperors and their royal families who ruled from their thrones, soldiers and warriors who stood steadfast at their posts ready for battle, civil servants rushing from building to building to get their chores done, the robes of eunuchs gently moved by the breezes, and the concubines who dressed to perfection on a daily basis, hoping to catch the emperor's wandering eye.  Most concubines, you know, never got to fulfill the duties they were recruited for, and they grew old never having spent time with the emperor or seeing life outside the palace walls.  If their ruler died, they were then buried alive with him!  Hence, the name Forbidden Palace, where ordinary citizens weren't allowed to approach the complex during the 500 years of its use, and most palace residents were forbidden to leave.  
Each hall housed ancient art and antiquities.  To see them was a bit of a challenge.  You had to be mindful of all the stairs that took you from here to there.  The crowds were so thick you had to literally push your way to the building, then to the windows to peer in.  I don't say this lightly.  For every five steps I took forward, I was pushed back three steps.  Sick and tired of being shoved around, I decided to push back and hard.  But not to hurt anyone and not to take personally.  In a crowded China, that's just what you do.  You push.  There are no bad intentions.
The Hall of the Center Harmony is behind me.  This is where the emperors came to rest between ceremonies held at the Hall of Supreme Harmony.  There are a multitude of stairs through the complex.  My stumbling journey began here in the Forbidden  City.  I will continue to trip and stumble for the remainder of the trip. 



I was fascinated with these massive cauldrons.  There are 308 total, small and large, on the imperial grounds.  Spread throughout the complex, the cauldrons were used to hold water in the event of fires, and some of the gilded handles were used to hold burning incense.  The Forbidden City is so amazingly beautiful.  So much to see, but you'll just need to go to my Facebook Albums to see the rest of the photos at:

https://www.facebook.com/msablan/photos_albums.

The Imperial Gardens was the last major area to visit, and it was so lovely, I wished it were my own.  Even with the crowds, the gardens maintained its sense of serenity throughout.

The Peking Opera at the Lijuan Theater was a perfect way to end the day.  It is a form of traditional Chinese theater which combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance and acrobatics.  Known for its complex storytelling, it is regarded as one of China's cultural treasures.  I've never seen theater like this.  The performances were spectacular, the characters in their beautiful costumes were mesmerizing, and the sets were brilliantly gorgeous.  Breathtaking!  We enjoyed a delicious dinner before and during the show.
The bus ride back to the hotel was ridiculous.  Traffic congestion was terrible!  It felt like it took us an hour to get back to the hotel, which really was suppose to be about a 20 minute ride.  As we sat idle, I'd look out the bus window at all the cyclists and pedestrians navigating the road.  It was a show in itself.  How they manage to cross the big and busy intersections astounds me.

Well, tomorrow is a very big day.  A day I've waited years for.


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