Beijing: Getting a Glimpse of Culture
We take so much for granted in the U.S., notably our freedom of expression. There is no Facebook access here, nor can I post directly to my blog as social media is very restricted on the mainland. Our daughter Ashley is acting as my surrogate “poster”, and hopefully we will be able to keep telling our story . . .
We are taking an escorted tour since it’s pretty much the only way we could navigate the country and see the highlights. After researching just about every tour available, and talking to many friends who have traveled to China, it appears most tours visit the same places, with some exceptions for the relative style and luxury of the trip. The exceptions, of course, are different for those who are either studying, in business, or have family here – of which we have none. So we have selected an itinerary that will take us from Beijing to Xi’an, Guilin, Chongqing, east down the Yangzi River, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
We always come in for trips a bit early, and we always try to make the most of our free time to see some things off the planned schedule. At the start of any travel, we love to just wander around on foot and get a little of the feel for the sounds, smells and sights. Beijing has not disappointed.
We headed west towards the walls and moat surrounding the Forbidden City (known as the Palace Museum here). Along the way we tried to experience as many of the hutong routes as possible. These narrow alleyways were once home of the courtyard residences (called siheyuan) of locals, but are now being rapidly lost to development. Although most are being bulldozed in the name of progress, some have been restored, some have been replicated, others are restaurants, and many others appear to be crumbling, losing the battle to the years and lack of upkeep.
The smells range from incredibly good scents wafting from the doorways of the many small restaurants in the area, alternating with the awful odor of sewers. It is spring in China, and we are also hearing birds singing and seeing beautiful trees in the first stages of bloom. Someone told me they never saw birds in China – but they are certainly here now. We are pleasantly surprised by the amount of green spaces we are finding in the old part of the city. Most significantly, we have been blessed with incredible weather – chilly but comfortable, the strong breeze has helped with the pollution, and the morning was sunny with bright blue skies. As the day progressed, the blue sky became a bit obscured, but the embassies pollution index has been good!
We saw so many amazing historical buildings with beautiful entries featuring intricately detailed doorways (as seen in the photo above). Unfortunately, we don’t know the former or current purpose of most of the buildings, but I did, inexplicably, get into trouble for photographing one of them. We walked along Dong Jua Men to Nan Chizi Dajie and down Pudu Si Xi Xiang. Once we turned into the narrow streets, the sounds of the busy Beijing traffic were imperceptible. This is an area where many of the old-style courtyard houses have been replicated and now house government officials. We saw the beautiful 15th century Mahkala Temple (now being re-purposed as the land tax office), the Imperial Archive from 1536, and the lovely, peaceful Changhe Pu Park.
We had been warned about the famous con here of trying to lure tourists into high-priced misadventures and it turned out to be true as we were approached often by those trying to lure you to a special spot for tea, shopping or a tour, but they were pleasant and pretty easy to deflect.
Exiting the massive gate entry for the area, we walked along the walls that block the park from the massive Dong Chang’An Jie Boulevard, and wove our way back through the streets to the modern shopping area of Wangfujing Dajie. You can find any store you want here – luxury or typical mall retail. Wangfujing is partly pedestrianized and has major construction going on (we think in an area that was one of the ancient hutongs we were trying to find). We were immediately greeted with a GIANT sign featuring none other than Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat.
Area shopping options include everything from Zara, Sephora, Forever 21, and Apple to Channel, Hermes and Lamborghini. Everything is BIG. Restaurants, including American staples of KFC, McDonalds and Starbucks are everywhere. We stopped at a Haagen-Dazs for some chocolate ice cream before making our way back to the Regent Hotel where we are staying.
Beijing is known for having some pretty good traffic jams, so we decided to head by cab to the famous Hong Qiao Market, known for its pearls. Located next to the Temple of Heaven, we survived the ride and are happy not to be driving here- cars, trucks, motor bikes, pedal bikes and pedestrians everywhere and in all directions. We probably should’ve taken the subway, but would’ve missed the experience. Honestly, the first floor of this market is reminiscent of South Florida’s Swap Shop. We headed for the 4th floor, which is known for better pearls (fake and/or real?) the quality was nice.
For dinner we took the advice of several friends (thanks!) and went to Da Dong for their fabulous Peking Duck. The menu is huge and a bit overwhelming, but we stuck with the famous duck and a variety of other dishes and enjoyed a feast. The restaurant is modern, service attentive and instructive as we were taught how to put together and eat the duck, condiments and Chinese pancakes. It was interesting to see the chefs cook the duck in huge fire ovens, and then carve them into small delicate pieces that are reconstructed on the serving platter. Never knew duck skin put in a little sugar could be so good.
Tip of the day- don’t plan on keeping in touch through social media and be a very careful pedestrian.