Trekking Through China…Beijing Revisited

Beijing was our very first stop. In my earliest blogs in this Trekking Through China series, I focused on Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City and the Great Wall. But I must have been jet-lagged and mushy-brained in those early days of blogging this series, because we visited some other beautiful places in Beijing as well but forgot to write about them before. So I decided to backtrack and write a wee bit more on our four days there.

Hubby and I arrived in Beijing a day earlier than the start of our 23-day tour. When we arrived at the airport (after traveling for over 16 hours), we had some difficulty figuring out how to get a cab to our hotel…we managed to find our way to the taxi stand, but the drivers didn’t seem to know where we were going (even though we had the hotel name and address written in Chinese). The drivers who knew, wanted to charge us 500 dollars (not Chinese Yuan but in US dollars!) But we had already been advised by our travel agent to make sure that the cab used the meters, and that the cost of the cab to the hotel shouldn’t be much more than $50 CDN dollars. Finally we found a driver willing to use the meter and we headed out.

We drove, and we drove and we drove…well, sometimes it felt like we were parked on the highway because the evening rush-hour traffic was so slow. The city was bigger than any I’d ever seen before, and the drive to the hotel seemed endless. As one hour elapsed, we asked, and our driver assured us we were heading in the right direction. We passed amazing sights, including pagodas and interesting-looking buildings, and even the Olympic Eagle’s Nest all lit up (when we went back to get a picture a few days later, it was too foggy and there were too many obstructions in the way). As we kept driving, my husband began to get anxious about how much this was going to cost. We had fears that we were going to spend half of our entire trip’s budget just on this one cab ride! Now we understood why other drivers either hadn’t wanted to take us or had wanted to charge so much…this was turning into a 2-hour taxi ride!

Finally we reached our hotel, and the driver asked us for $123…hubby started to give him CDN dollars, but the driver called the porter over to translate that it was $123 YUAN! Which translates into less than 20 of our dollars. Now we were worried that the poor driver wasn’t going to get enough for the ride, so asked the hotel porter to clarify. Yes, that was the amount…he showed us the meter. It didn’t seem enough to us for a 2-hour drive, but the driver insisted. So we gave him a huge tip (hey, 123 plus a hefty tip was still so much more palatable than the originally-quoted $500 US!!!) The driver was very happy with the tip, we were happy to still have money in our wallet, and very glad to finally reach sanctuary!

A sampling of the artwork on display in the corridors of the Four Points Sheraton in Beijing…we were stunned to see these vases and other carvings displayed right out in the open throughout the bedroom floors of the hotel. How long do you think something like this would last back home before it was stolen?!! We were impressed!

We really enjoyed our stay in Beijing. We stayed at the Four Points Sheraton, and the staff there were amazing. Everyone did everything they could to help us figure things out. One employee in particular, Nicole, went out of her way to help us navigate through our first day there (including pointing out the best place to get a bowl of soup for supper that first night).

After a soothing bowl of soup and a welcome night’s sleep (albeit having to get up at 2am for a more substantial snack), we followed Nicole’s directions and found our way to the nearby shopping mall. It was enormous – we were told later that it’s one of the largest in all of China, and used to be one of the largest in all of Asia. We were glad to have experienced it, but came away empty-handed because the designer-brand prices were so much higher than the same stuff would cost us back home in Canada. Well, also because they don’t carry clothes in my size, lol. I’m not that heavy, but when even the XXXXXL didn’t fit, I gave up trying.

Waiting for the mall to open (Beijing)

Beautiful fountains at the shopping mall in Beijing

Hubby enjoying the fountain at the shopping centre in Beijing

By the end of the day, we were glad to see the rest of our tour group arrive and enjoyed our first meal all together. And then the tour began its hectic pace and we quickly fell into the jam-packed itinerary. I’ve already blogged about Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Somewhere amongst those three big stops, we also visited some other places which deserve a mention as well.

At the Imperial Summer Gardens, Beijing

One such place was the Imperial Gardens at the Summer Palace. Although it was raining, the gardens were beautiful and we really enjoyed our visit there. Such a peaceful oasis in the middle of a hectic bustling city!! (As described in Wikipedia “The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value”.

It was very crowded in there, so it was often difficult to elbow our way through to some parts of the Gardens. But what we did manage to see was exquisite. I especially enjoyed the beautiful artwork painted throughout the covered walkway. From what I can recall hearing the local guide tell us, the emperor used to travel incognito throughout China. Whenever he would see a beautiful scene he wanted to remember, he would task his traveling artisans to paint the scene for this covered walkway back in his Imperial Summer Gardens. The result of his foresight and love of beauty was some of the most beautiful artwork we saw in all of China. But because of the jostling crowds (and fear of being separated and lost from the rest of my group), I only managed to capture a few pictures of that artwork.

Here are some more pictures from the Imperial Summer Gardens.

The 17 arches in this bridge are significant because when you’re standing in the middle, you’re only 9 arches away from the shore in either direction. The number “9” was the most favoured number by the emperor. Read more here!

This vendor had the most beautiful smile, but when she realized I was trying to take her picture, the smile disappeared. Maybe if I had bought one of her rain ponchos the smile would have come back? One of my favourite faces of China.

One example of the hundreds of pieces of artwork painted all along the very long covered walkway that meandered through the Imperial Summer Gardens in Beijing

Another beautiful painting inside the covered walkway at the Imperial Summer Garden in Beijing

And another…at the Imperial Summer Garden in Beijing

And the last one, just before the crowd jostled me all the way out to the other end of the walkway, lol. At the Imperial Summer Garden in Beijing

The jostling crowd dropped me here at the Marble Boat, at the Imperial Summer Gardens in Beijing

We saw a few of these beautiful bridges at the Imperial Summer Gardens in Beijing

The view from one of those bridges, in the Imperial Summer Gardens in Beijing

I love the reflection of the trees in the water! At the Imperial Summer Gardens in Beijing

Ricksaw driving through the Hutong in the pouring rain (Beijing)

Later that evening, despite the pouring rain, we went for a rickshaw ride through the Hutong (Old City). It was too wet and dark to see anything; it would have been quite a different experience in the daylight. But it was still an adventure and we were glad to see what little we could of it.

At the Beijing Opera, we were only allowed to take pictures of this prelude. I’m not sure what this instrument was, but it was beautiful to listen to.

From there we went to the Beijing Opera. We knew we were in for something different when our tour leader stressed, over and over again, that we could leave after 20 minutes. She wanted us to stay long enough to see the costumes and to hear a bit of the opera, but not-so-subtly stressed that we would WANT to leave after 20 minutes.

And she was right.

We were allowed to take pictures of this guy getting dressed in this costume. It was quite elaborate, but we were way in the back of the balcony and this was the best my little camera could do from that distance.

The costumes were well worth going to see, and while we were glad to have experienced it, some of us (hint: hubby) were ready to leave after 5 minutes, lol. The music was, well, very different than anything we’d ever heard before, and after a few minutes, it was admittedly difficult to keep hearing it. But we obligingly stayed the requisite 20 minutes, then gratefully snuck out through the back curtain to find sanctuary. Again, we were very glad to have experienced it, but equally glad to be out of there.

At the Beijing Opera, I especially enjoyed this elaborate tea-pouring ceremony. It’s not too clear in the picture, but the server is pouring tea using a teapot with an exceptionally long spout. It was quite fun to watch him.

Our overall impression of Beijing was that it was huge, overcrowded and polluted. The traffic was always bumper-to-bumper (we spent many hours just driving to get around from one place to the next), the apartment buildings spread out everywhere as far as the eyes could see…mile after mile after mile after mile of sky-scraping apartment buildings. I don’t know why I didn’t take any pictures of the apartment buildings, maybe because it seemed so dismal to me at the time. The crowdedness, the pollution, the lack of clean drinking water and other familiar amenities really woke me up to how lucky we Westerners are to be able to enjoy generous green spaces and clean air to breathe. I don’t think we saw any blue sky at all during our 4 days in Beijing.

But our most lasting impression of Beijing was of its exceptional hospitality. We met very friendly helpful people everywhere we went there. Even when they couldn’t speak English, people would go out of their way to help us navigate our way, or they would find us other people who did speak English. We are grateful for having experienced that side of China, and will forever carry their kind smiles and generous hospitality in our hearts.

One of the street vendors in Beijing (we were sitting on the bus getting ready to move on to the next venue)

Hubby couldn’t resist the apple! Hubby did good at keeping the vendors’ economy going everywhere we went throughout our 23 days in China! We have a lot of souvenirs to prove it! (And yes, he did wash and peel those apples before eating them)

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Copyright © Sharon C. Matthies, Meanderings (blog), 2012. All rights reserved.

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About Sharon

I love to write. I love to write myself into being right here right now. Writing releases something in me that needs wings, writing opens doors and windows that I often don't even realize are possible, writing helps me breathe out the dusty old, and to breathe in the new and possible. My hope is that maybe writing here in this blog will bring new light into these dusty old hallways and help me to clear out the thinking processes and mindsets that just don't work for me anymore. I seek to breathe new light and life into the nooks and crannies of a soul that has been feeling somewhat lost and frayed because of the last few patches of road I've had to travel.
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