Beijing in Lieu of Mongolia (2016)

Pre-Departure Musings

Singapore / Monday 3 October 2016

In an unusually smart move, I took the day off today, despite the flight to Beijing being after midnight. It was just as well I did. First I couldn’t find my hiking sticks, last used in Bhutan. The blurb on the China Highlights Tour website (I’d booked a 2-day tour with them) said ‘walking sticks’ are recommended for those with ‘weak legs’ and ‘poor balance’ when visiting the Great Wall – I figured the latter at least, if not the former too, was me – thus the need for the hiking sticks. In my mind’s eye I could see the sticks in a particular place at home – but all that remotely resembled hiking sticks in that particular place was my tripod case, and a tube containing a parchment with Liwa’s footprint (Liwa being one of the elephants we rode in Zambia last year. Yes, yet to be framed). I had visions of falling over on a steep section of the Wall (worst case), and less dramatically, my visions involved using S’ sticks, since she is part mountain goat and was unlikely to need her sticks.

Mum, with walking frame, attempted to help (bless her) while I told her not to. As always, I was ignored. Next thing I know she’s calling out to me from the room to ask if ‘this’ is what I was looking for – sure enough it’s the hiking sticks! When I asked how on earth she had found them, she said, in her inimitable way, that she’d said a little prayer then looked up at the shelf above the altar and found the sticks! Thank you, thank you, thank you (God and Amma).

Then, seeing as I had the whole day to pack, I decided to go get some hypersensitive teeth checked. I was at the clinic on time for the appointment but had to wait more than half an hour to be seen. I could hear the reason for the delay while I waited. The dentist was with an obviously French patient – obviously because of the accent and because he was going on (and on and on) about how wonderful the French medical system is, it’s all free, etc. etc. The dentist, who normally keeps up a steady stream of conversation with her patients (who are unable to reply), was surprisingly out-talked by this man. I don’t know how he did it if he was indeed being treated at the time. The dentist made an attempt at reminding this Monsieur that the taxes in France are higher, Singapore is not a welfare state and generally, gave him a Healthcare Financing 101 lecture – to little effect. He was still convinced that the French system is better. As it got later and later, and he got louder and louder, I wondered why he didn’t just go back to France.

Eventually, almost 45 minutes later, it was my turn. The dentist was back in form – she practically repeated the entire annoying conversation with the man (she was annoyed too), ending with “I wanted to tell him to go back if he thinks it’s so terrible here”. And then it was back to the next topic with barely a breath in between, with me responding as best I could sans words, till I gave up completely.

Aside from one small-ish moment of panic when my flight booking couldn’t be located online, the rest of the day was uneventful. The bag seemed to weigh a ton but when weighed at the airport it was only 16kg…I really need to get back to exercising properly – when I get back. But for now, it’s almost time to board. Next stop – Beijing.

 

Beijing Huanyíng Ni / (A Gentle) Welcome to Beijing

Beijing / 4 October 2016

SQ800 left on time. Nasi lemak was on the menu and there was a choice of having it after take off or before landing (this was a first!) – decided on the former. It was a rather good nasi lemak, accompanied by ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ – the true story about the quite brilliant self-taught mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujam from India. It was a bit ‘draggy’ and could’ve been tighter, I thought – but that could also have been because it was 2 in the morning and I was falling asleep. After the movie, I slept for about three hours, but felt I’d slept longer – which is always good.

We landed in Beijing 15 minutes early, at 7.10AM. It was a short queue at immigration, a longish train ride to Terminal C for baggage claim, a shortish wait for the bag…and then a very long queue to get the bags scanned before exiting. I had my first experience of ‘people in my space’ – which I was warned about by colleagues who’d travelled to China before. The lady behind me in the queue kept clipping my ankles with her luggage trolley. The first time I turned to look (not yet glare), she ignored me. The second time it happened I glared and she said sorry. The third time it happened, I glared and told her to please stop doing that – sorry once more, but this time she kept her distance, which was fortunate as I might have resorted to something more violent if it happened one more time.

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A grey cab ride from the airport

It was more than an hour by the time I finally got out and (easily) located the driver. It was a smooth drive into Beijing. A grey morning, but not as hazy as I’d expected Beijing to be. Along the way there were many rundown housing blocks (which reminded me of Moscow where there were similar rundown apartment blocks near the airport) – but in Beijing, these blocks were juxtaposed with ultramodern futuristic-looking apartment blocks and shopping malls.

I arrived at the hotel way before check-in time at 2PM. The Raffles at Beijing started off in the early 1900s as the Peking Hotel. I’d read that, in 1949 at a banquet “inaugurating China as a republic”, Chairman Mao “took a turn on the wooden dance floor in the lounge” – which is now the Writers’ Bar. Must go have a drink there.

I had initially thought I’d go walkabout but it had started to drizzle and I didn’t feel like

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Porridge done two ways

battling the holiday crowds and their umbrellas. So instead went to East 33 at the hotel and had a leisurely breakfast with my book. As I went to survey the buffet spread (and what a spread it was!), the staff thoughtfully left a newspaper at my table – I didn’t see any other tables with newspapers so figured it was because I was dining alone. Nice touch! I had porridge two ways – pork and salted egg congee, and muesli, then decided on an eggs, bacon, cheese indulgence. There was stuff worthy of lunch/dinner – noodles, chicken dishes, pork etc.etc. And champagne to boot (gave that a miss).

There was a hiliarious article in the papers about Chinese names – or rather about Chinese language foreign students taking a Chinese name, and about Chinese students studying English acquiring English names. There was wise advice – the name should “accentuate the positive” and should have “pleasing sounds and tonal qualities.” For example, Darren could be Da Ren which means “success and benevolence.” Someone called Sam had a more challenging time finding a Chinese name for himself – apparently, Sam is Shanmu is Chinese…but Shanmu is also the name of a killer whale at some sea park in America that kept eating people (though I didn’t think the Chinese would make this association). He then thought he’d be San (I didn’t know this but there’s no Chinese character for sounds ending in ‘m’) – but san, depending on how it is pronounced, could mean ‘three’, ‘disperse’ or ‘umbrella’…nothing terribly positive. Plus he didn’t want to be called Xiao San which means ‘mistress’.

Chinese students studying English have less of a problem with names – they go for the common, like “Jack or Jessica” but also the less common (less common as names i.e.) – like “Demon, Lucifer, Fish, Cotton, Seven or Eleven” (all real examples from an English language teacher, the article said). This reminded me of some of the crazy names I’d come across…like the mother at KK Hospital who named her newborn daughter Rubella Devi (fortunately, not because she’d had rubella), or the Nepali boy whose father was a Gurkha guard in Singapore in the 1990s, and a Glen Hoddle fan – Hoddle Gurung.

Next stop, the lounge for tea and biscuits while I caught up with emails and read my book. I was glad to be inside as the steady drizzle wasn’t letting up and it really looked cold and dreary outside. The room eventually was ready at about 1PM – it was a fab room, even more so considering the rather low price we paid for it; the booking.com price was less than half that on the hotel website! Only downside was that it wasn’t facing Tiananmen Square – that famous 4 June 1989 photo of the student and the tanks was taken from a 6th floor balcony in this hotel. I remember watching that scene on TV at another hotel for another ‘momentous’ occasion in my life.

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An evening well spent

By now the rain was coming down in buckets, so decided to go to the gym – which was quite large, with lots of machines, and quite empty. The half an hour on the cross trainer would not have burnt even half of my breakfast unfortunately. The evening was spent in the lounge, which had rather yummy snacks, and drinks. The Havana rum and coke was particularly good 🙂 What a luxury to have an evening like this – reading, the rain coming down outside, nothing to rush off for. I was thoroughly enjoying my solitude; and if I had good company, I would be thoroughly enjoying that too.

There was a little girl in the lounge, who came by and said, “Hello” but ran away when I asked her her name. Her name was Fei Fei (or Fifi?) and she was the daughter of the lounge staff, who apologetically said she had to have her there as her mother who usually babysits had to go somewhere. She had only one child (“Enough!”) and this little one was three, but looked at least five. She kept apologising for having her there, which was quite unnecessary as she was the best behaved kid I’d seen so far. There were two kids I’d seen earlier – both throwing tantrums in various parts of the hotel.

The rain had stopped so thought I’d go for a walk pre-dinner. The streets were still 14.1475575087.photo-ops-at-the-red-wallcrowded. Walked a little way past the red walls of the Forbidden City, made redder by the lighting, and a spot for much posing, selfies and wefies. It was very cool now, and the air felt fresh after all the rain. I hoped that the weather would improve in the next few days, especially when we’re at the Great Wall, which might be slippery when wet – though at least I had my hiking sticks!

14.1475575087.beef-noodle-soup---very-yumLater that night, I was back at East 33 for dinner. A nice, light beef noodle soup, which had melt-in-the-mouth beef. A few tables away, there was a Very Loud party of four. I actually didn’t really notice them after the first few minutes of loudness, and was buried in my book. Then the waiter comes over and very apologetically suggests I move to a quieter corner as “they’re very noisy, I’m very sorry.” Service has been really very thoughtful so far.

Tomorrow – my Mongolia-returned friend will be here.

 

1,383,861,385 and Counting

Beijing / 5 October 2016

I woke up to the sun streaming into the room through the cracks in the blackout curtains – I’d had a solid 7 hours of sleep, and a bonus hour of lolling in the super-comfortable bed. What luxury! Had a leisurely breakfast – at the same table as yesterday. Quite amazingly, the staff at East 33 remembered and directed me to the same table. A big east-meets-west breakfast was had, and progress made with my book. Then, armed with a map (which was totally not to scale), I set off with my camera for a walkabout.

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50 seconds to go

It seemed like I had walked right into the entire population of China (1,383,861,385 as of today). Ok, I exaggerate, but only a tad. The (surprisingly clean) streets were CROWDED. The green man at the traffic lights said we had 99 seconds to cross the street  (the longest I’ve ever seen) – it took almost that much time to cross, weaving my way through humanity, clearing a path with shoulders and elbows; “Sorry”, I said as I was shoved by a barrow-wielding woman into a slip of a girl next to me. “Mei xi”, she said. Having had some rudimentary lesson from the Mandarin-learning S while he was at home for the summer hols, I figured that “Mei xi” was a contraction of the usual “Mei guanxi” or “It’s okay.”, and felt quite pleased with myself that I understood that. Note to self: I should learn some conversational Mandarin at least. I am not proud of the fact that I’ve lived in Singapore for almost all my life and I can’t speak Mandarin.

Being the National Day holiday week, there were people selling Chinese flags and stickers at every corner, and one had to do a fair bit of manoeuvring to avoid being poked in the eye by the flag ‘sticks’. Every other child had a Chinese flag sticker on their cheek – half of these were stuck the wrong way around. At one corner, a Chinese girl in a t-shirt proclaiming undying loyalty to the USA bought two Chinese flags – one for each hand?

Having taken close to 1.5 minutes to cross the street I found myself at a gate which looked like it led to a park. I later found out that this was one of the gates to the Changpuhe Park. It was a little oasis after the crowds in the streets, and came complete with a water feature. Families were out picnicking by the water – almost all with just one child. All very nice and peaceful. There were little lanes within the park, flanked by old buildings – I had no clue what these buildings were.

At some point, I came out on a narrow street at the other end of the park. If I turned left, I would be back on Chang’An Avenue (where the hotel was), and if I turned right, I would be …I know not where. I did know, though, that there were crowds of people walking towards Chang’An Avenue. They looked like they were coming from somewhere or some event, so I decided to walk in the opposite direction and see where/what they were coming from. I walked and I walked, and the crowds kept coming and coming – I couldn’t figure it. Eventually, I concluded that they were just coming out of the nearest subway station and were making their way to the Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square.

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Part of cleaning army

Despite the crowds, the streets were impressively clean, barring the fairly frequent hawking and spitting. There was an army of cleaners – but more than that there were dustbins and people actually sought these out, and threw their litter in the bins and not on the streets. I walked past many a public toilet and was suitably impressed that no smells emanated. Here too (in the streets i.e., not in the public toilets), many families of three were out and about. Interestingly, despite all the reports on rising childhood obesity in China, I didn’t see a single obese kid.

Feeling adventurous, I turned into one of the hutongs off the street; there were many and this one was the South Wanzi Hutong. It was probably one of the wealthier hutongs, with most looking like they were one-family homes, and big cars along some of the lanes. It was a bit of a maze and at one point I got a little lost – slightly worrying as there was no one else on that stretch. I turned another corner and managed to  figure out the way to the ‘main street’ and back to the heaving throngs. I passed a building which had a plaque proclaiming its history as the 1946 “Headquarters of the Military Mediation Department Delegation of the Communist Party of China”. The blurb said it was the HQ of the ‘mediation and execution department’…I hoped that by ‘execution’ they meant ‘implementation’ rather than beheading or hanging; it now is the Jade Garden Hotel.

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Matching a/c cover and grille, South Wanzi Hutong

I eventually found myself back at the hotel, and a few cups of green tea later, the front desk called to say my friend was on her way up – how very thoughtful! It was wonderful seeing S again, she was none the worse for wear. In almost one sitting we caught up with most of the stories, mostly of her amazing Mongolian adventure – and I wished once again I could’ve gone too…

We continued our catching up in the lounge over rum and Coke, and then over dinner which we had at the Writers’ Bar – where Mao had taken a ‘turn on the dance floor’ back in 1949 at the banquet celebrating China’s becoming a republic. On our return to the room, we had a voice message – we guessed it was from our tour guide (for the next two days) – but it was entirely in Mandarin, and I couldn’t hear anything vaguely familiar that even hinted at what time we’ll be picked up tomorrow morning. As we were wondering what to do or whom to get to come listen to the message, the phone rang – it was our tour guide, Linda, and she informed us (in English) that she’ll pick us up at 7.30AM – any later and we’ll be stuck with the crowds on the Great Wall. And so, an early night was had.

A Great but Wet Wall

Beijing / 6 October 2016

I woke up just before the wake up call at 6.15AM. We had a sleepy breakfast, and were in the lobby at 7.30AM. Our guide, Linda, and driver Mr Lee, were waiting. We got an umbrella reminder as rain was expected today – no brolleys but we had our raincoats, and kept our fingers crossed that the sun would be out by the time we got to the Great Wall. But nope, it was a steady drizzle all the way to the cable car stop at the Mutianyu section of the Wall. It was a bit of a steep (but well-paved) slope to the cable cars and I was feeling quite winded. I put it down to just being unfit, but my Mongolia-returned friend was also huffing and puffing – so I didn’t feel so bad.

As we made our way up in the cable car, we eagerly looked out for a view of sweeping vistas with the Wall stretching further than our eyes could see…and we saw…nothing but swirls of mist; we couldn’t see more than a few metres. We still foolishly held out hope that sweeping vistas awaited us at the top. But alas, the rain was coming down, and

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Sweeping vistas…not

when we were finally ON the Wall, we peered into the mist, but however hard we peered, all we saw were short sections of the Wall ahead of, and behind, us. I felt like an f1.4 with a very shallow DoF.

When it rains, one makes one’s own sunshine. And so we threw ourselves into getting some creative rain-on-the-Great-Wall shots, while being careful not to throw ourselves off the wall or down one of the steep inclines that flanked most of the watch towers. I’d stupidly left the camera’s raincoat back in the hotel, so had to keep the camera inside the rain jacket as much as possible. I hoped the camera and lens lived up to their ‘watersealed’ claim.

This section wasn’t as crowded as the Badaling one (which is the section most people, including visiting dignitaries, visit) – but still it wasn’t exactly people-less and one had to exercise a fair bit of patience to get a photo of the wall without people. We spent an hour or so on the wall, and the hiking sticks were used (only by me). Some of the stairs were quite steep (at least for me) with very low side walls – I wasn’t sure if they were meant to be used like bannisters. Either people were Very Short, or you were meant to go down the steps on your behind – there was no other way these side walls would’ve offered any support otherwise.

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As we made our way back to the cable car for our ride down, the rain started coming down too. After all the careful negotiating of steep wet stairs and slopes on the Wall, I got on the bus (which we had to take back to the main entrance and the car), and managed to bump my head on the overhead compartment – in a past life I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but now visions of bleeds and Burr holes immediately leapt into my head (it’s all in my head?) – the new normal…

There were rows of touristy souvenir shops near the main entrance. We stopped to get stone name seals for J and J, which when held together spelt ‘Love’ in English and Mandarin – a nice gift we thought, and symbolic of the sibs always being together. There even was a book with Western names and their Chinese counterparts – which I had to use to find J & J’s names and point them out to the man doing the engraving. It was fascinating how quickly the man engraved the names in mirror image on the stone seals. We had our first experience of bargaining in China – this involved walking away several times, with the shop man running after us with a new low price. Between all this walking and running, he reminded us how cheap this was in Singapore dollars. In the end the amount we paid for the two seals, was less than the initial price for one. Then he showed us the ink and the box – and we ended up forking out some more RMB. We also got ourselves matching Oba Mao t-shirts for a laugh.

Lunch was at a large roadside restaurant near the Mutianyu section and a beautiful aqueduct – I think it was called the Yu Jia Ao restaurant. The eggplant preparation and the fried fish with cumin were unusual, and unusually good. It was a longish drive back

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Cumin fish

to Beijing and our next stop – the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace is one of the largest royal parks in China; it started out as a royal holiday home then became a permanent residence to the royal family in the 18th century. The Empress Dowager (aka Dragon Lady) featured in many a story our guide told us – the real power behind the throne, from all accounts.

The centrepiece of the palace was the Long Corridor, a 700 metre-long corridor that runs from east to west, and which was built by the emperor so his mum could go for walks with a view (of the gardens on one side, and the Kunming lake on the other), rain or shine, or snow. Every colourful beam and cross-beam was covered with intricate paintings that apparently all told a story.

Here too, there were crowds of holidaying Chinese – though our guide said that there are crowds always, holidays or not. Groups of elderly men and women sat along the low walls of the corridor, playing cards and chess, families (of three) wandered about, selfie stick-wielding friends were plentiful (if a bit annoying as one had to go into various contortions to avoid being poked in the eye – or elsewhere).

As the rain had stopped, we decided to take a boat (on the Kunming Lake) back to our start point. It was a short ride which afforded more views of the gardens…though I was a bit distracted by a Donald Trump Jr lookalike who was on the boat and taking selfies (sans stick) with his girlfriend.

14.1476403537.wBack at the hotel, all that was left to do was to change out of our rainproof clothes, dry our hair and wander down for a rum and coke before dinner. Dinner today was at East 33 – I finally had the wantan mee soup that I’d been eyeing for the last two days, but hadn’t been hungry enough to order (it was a rather large serving). Another early night today. 8AM start tomorrow.

Beijing Watercolours & A Still Forbidden City

Beijing / 7 October 2016

We woke up to another overcast day, a steady drizzle with no sun in sight. So, it was back to the raingear, and today I remembered to take the camera’s ‘raincoat’. We could’ve walked to Tiananmen Square but Mr Lee was ready with the car and so we were driven there. What can I say…the theme for today was water. We managed some photos with Linda helpfully holding the umbrella over us. The constant feature for today’s photos was umbrellas – and reflections, which made for some interesting shots.

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Tiananmen Square from under an umbrella

Rain or not, the queue to Mao Zedong’s mausoleum, where he still lies, was a snaking one around the block. Much as I would’ve liked to have gone, we had to give this a miss – Linda said it was a two-hour queue at least. Oh well.

We crossed over to the entrance to the Forbidden City, and thought we’d finally be out of the rain…but, while the gates are open to the public, much of the indoor sections are still forbidden…so there was no relief from the steady drizzle.

As we passed through an enormous gateway, we assumed that the surrounding building was part of the royal residence – but we were set straight by Linda who said that the building was for the Emperor to change out of his dusty travel attire when he returned from his trips, before carrying on to the palace proper. A ride-in wardrobe?

The complex with 9,999 rooms (not sure if this is true) took 14 years to complete – from 1406 to 1420 (this fact was repeated several times, and has lodged itself into my consciousness) – I thought that was pretty fast considering the size of this place, with close to 1,000 buildings – the main palace building immediately recognisable from my recollections of The Last Emperor. One of the Halls was the hall where the Imperial examination took place. It is no wonder that civil servants in those days were considered elite, given the resplendence of their examination hall, and the fact that these candidates were allowed into the Forbidden City.

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The other fact that was oft repeated was that it lies on the north-south axis – as does Tiananmen Square (the centre of Beijing) to the south, and Jingshan Park to the north. As legend has it, the Emperor’s concubines were not allowed to go home – so all they could do was go to the highest peak at Jingshan park and look towards their homes. How sad! And the peak apparently was made from the earth excavated in the construction of the Forbidden City and its surrounding moat. So, land reclamation was alive and well hundreds of years ago.

The other concubine story we were told was about one who decided she would murder the Emperor. At the last moment she chickened out, was caught, and was put to death by a thousand cuts.

Lunch today was at a gorgeous little hutong hotel restaurant – Courtyard 7. It was a welcome relief to get into the warmth, and a very yummy hot ginger tea was even more welcome. The food was fab too – especially the lamb, which was thinly sliced and stirfried with onions, cumin, chilly and coriander.

A rickshaw ride through a hutong followed – it was interesting to say the least, what with the rain beating in on us, the plastic sheet that hung across us from about neck level down frequently flapping loose, and coming within touching distance of cars, humans, and walls as the ‘rickshaw man’ pedalled furiously down the narrow alleys, hurtling around blind corners without slowing down the teensiest bit. He actually had his head down under his raincoat, so he probably hurtled blindly too. A giggle-worthy experience.

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Reflections

By the time we got to the last stop for the day, the Temple of Heaven, the rain had stopped. This temple, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, was where the emperors went to pray for a good harvest. All the tiles in the roofs of this temple were a dark blue, to represent heaven. The entire building is made of wood, and there are no nails, and as most things wooden, it was burnt down once and then rebuilt – so this was not quite completely original.

Here too, we couldn’t get into any of the buildings, but had to peer into the dimly lit halls after slowly (very slowly) inching our way to the front of the hordes. The whole layout and design of the temple was very symbolic. For example, the intricately painted pillars in the Hall of Prayer has four inner, twelve middle and twelve outer pillars – representing the four seasons, twelve months in a year and 12 traditional Chinese hours.

,And so, our rainy day ended. We said our goodbyes to Linda who told us what we might be able to do tomorrow, our last full day in Beijing. It was set to be a sunny day tomorrow and we momentarily considered going back to the Great Wall. By the time we had our by now customary rum and coke, and something to eat, the rain had definitely stopped – so we took a walk to Tiananmen Square for a 50mm evening. The crowds had thinned (the end of the holiday week so everyone was heading back to their homes), the air was clear (so far no sign of the famed pollution – we weren’t complaining) and it was a nice pleasant 14C or so. As we walked back to our hotel, I glanced back at the soldier standing guard at the entrance to the Forbidden City, ramrod straight under Chairman Mao’s watchful gaze, and wondered how long it would be before his replacement took over.

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Entrance to the Forbidden City

Sun, Stairs & A Star-Rated Loo

Beijing / 8 October 2016

We woke up to a sunny day! Our very helpful guide had given us a list of places we could visit today – and instructions to get the hotel concierge to write the names of these places as most of the cabbies don’t speak English.

First stop was Jingshan Park, which turned out to be a very pleasant park, despite the sad story about concubines going to the highest point to look at (or towards) their homes. We made our way to the highest point too, now home to a Buddhist temple, and with a fab view of the Forbidden City, as well as the more modern part of Beijing. From here we could see just how big the Forbidden City is. I still think it’s pretty amazing that it took just fourteen years to build.

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Bronze braille-like model of Jingshan Park (around the central elevation) with the Forbidden City below it

We chanced upon a group of elderly men practising top spinning, using a couple of sticks, a string and their bodies – it was quite an acrobatic performance, high speed taichi almost. They were willing photography subjects and one of them came over to approvingly check out our cameras. We wandered around a bit more before getting a cab to the Drum and Bell Towers.

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Bronze bell at the Bell Tower

There were many many stairs to the Bell Tower – but with a railing and so not too bad.The huge bronze bell used to sound the 7PM hour and it could be heard for miles. There was a legend surrounding the making off the bell. The man making it was having a lot of trouble casting the bell. His daughter, fearing for her father’s reputation and possibly life, if he didn’t get the bell made, sacrificed herself by throwing herself into the molten metal (!!!) – all that was left of her was her slipper. Her sacrifice worked and the bell was completed soon after.

Across from the Bell Tower was the Drum Tower – both on the north-south axis that runs through all the major historical structures in Beijing. There were more steep stairs to the top – to see some large and old drums. There are performances a few times a day but unfortunately not while we were there. On they way out we followed the signs to the washrooms and were thrilled to see that the toilet had been given a Star rating (which14.1476637442.the-star-rated-toilet we were sure was only given to star-worthy toilets). The toilet was locked (we surmised that was how it got the award – it was opened for inspection only when the Star Award judges came around). We were directed to a toilet outside the tower area. I waited with the cameras while S walked in to the public loo – and out – all in one smooth movement. This was one of the famed door-less loos – apparently, S’s about turn was cause for some mirth amongst the ladies inside.

We had earlier been badgered by a rickshaw driver, and now, after our Indian lunch (!), another one came around to offer us a ride through the hutongs. Some bargaining later we decided to hop on – at least it would be a dry ride. The driver obligingly stopped for us to take photos and explain the significance of various buildings, including Chairman Mao’s childhood home. We visited a courtyard which used to be home to a Kuomintang leader and his extended family. His daughter still lives there and conducts calligraphy classes for tourists.

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Tobacco Pipe Street

We got off near the Houhai Lake – or at least somewhere near there. The rickshaw driver pointed us in the direction of the lake (though we couldn’t see it). We ended up in the quaint Yandai shopping street. Yandai means tobacco pipe and the street is supposed to resemble one. The other story is that it’s called that as it used to have many tobacco shops. Now the little shops seemed to sell all manner of interesting stuff – from tea sets and mugs, to leather goods, postcards, notebooks with interesting covers, and Minions paraphernalia.  I bought as gifts (for fellow civil servants) some of the aforementioned notebooks which said “We Serve the People” according to a helpful girl in the shop (who seemed to speak good English). I found out when I got home that they actually said, “We Serve for the Yen”. Oh well, that works too.

We eventually got to the lake, and wandered past more tea houses and quaintness before

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Bugs awaiting the fire

getting a cab back to the hotel. Our last night in Beijing and I was determined to have Peking duck. We were just round the corner from Wangfujie, the shopping street, with the night market – so that was the plan for the evening. The night market was a stereotypical Chinese night market with all sort of wonderful creatures on a skewer waiting to be roasted –  live scorpions, bugs, starfish, seahorses – colourful drinks with dry ice (worthy of a bit part in a Harry Potter movie). As our guide had told us – look, take pictures but don’t buy. So that’s what we did.

 

14.1476637442.a-very-extensive-and-comprehensive-menu
A very large menu

 

 

 

Dinner was at the famed Dadong which had a humungous menu – both in terms of number of items on it, as well as literally its size. We got by with much pointing at the pictures – of which there were many. It was an excellent last Beijing dinner. Tomorrow it’s an early wakeup call for our 9AM flight to Singapore. It was an interesting short break – my first time in China, and with the visit to the Great Wall, a tick in one of the many checkboxes on my bucket list.

14.1476637442.peking-duck-in-peking

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