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Day One - Beijing
Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Hutong, the Temple of Heaven, Peking Opera
Our tour guide, Zhang Lu, or Mark as he told us to call him, had told us that we should meet in the lobby at 8:30 A.M. - sharp! No one could be late. So we had to get up by 6:45 in order to get breakfast. The breakfast was a large buffet with lots of Chinese dishes, eggs cooked to order, many breads, toast, lots of fruits and on and on. Very nice.
I got Reuben on the bus and the wheelchair stowed underneath and had to run back to the room to get his cane. I was worried about being late so I was moving rather fast. Coming out of the hotel there was a small 3-inch step. I never saw it. I twisted my ankle and fell flat on my face. But I was up again just as fast, feeling very embarrassed. I wasn't too worried because I know that walking on it will work through it and I suspected we had a lot of walking ahead. Little did I know!
Our first stop was Tiananmen Square. It's a huge open area surrounded by many official buildings. With an area of 109 acres, Tiananmen Square is one of the largest city squares in the world. At the south end is the Monument to the People's Heroes and the Mao Zedong Mausoleum. This is where we began our tour.
In front of the Mausoleum there is a monument of soldiers.
As we walked toward the Forbidden City we had the Great Hall of the People on our left,
and the National Museum of China on our right.
You could probably spend an entire week just exploring this one area. I would have loved to have gone to the National Museum of China, but there was no time. I pushed that wheelchair from one end to the other. Occasionally you would see groups of police officers marching through.
There were beautiful flowers all around the square.
We finally reached the Tiananmen Gate (literally the Gate of Heavenly Peace) at the north end. This is the famous building with the image of Mao Zedong on the front. In front of this building is a stone column with carvings of dragons.
This is where we stopped to have a photo made of our group, with our tour guide, Zhang Lu.
As a group, we entered through the Gate of Heavenly Peace and had our first look at the Forbidden City. Reuben had to get out of the wheelchair and climb the stairs to get through the gate. This was to be done many times throughout this place, and indeed on the rest of our trip.
The Forbidden City was built between 1406-1420, during the Ming Dynasty. The construction was ordered by the powerful Yongle Emperor, and more than a million people worked on the construction. Within its walls are 980 buildings, 90 of which are palaces. There are at least 8,700 rooms, but it has been said that there are 9,999 rooms because 10,000 rooms would be reserved for heaven alone. The total floor space is over 1,600,000 square feet. It is said that if the Emperor slept in a different room every night of his life, that he would be over twenty-four and one-half years old before he could sleep in the same room twice!
The main buildings are all aligned in a straight line from north to south, following many ancient Chinese rules of design showing symbolism and philosophy. Having the buildings all face to the south symbolizes holiness; facing away from the north which represents China's enemies, cold winds and evil. The five elemental colors - white, black, red, yellow and green - are used all throughout the palace. Yellow is the exclusive color of the emperor and symbolizes his ultimate power. No ordinary mortal was allowed to use the color yellow on the pain of death. This color was used for all the roofs of the buildings, except for the library which had a black roof. This was to represent water in order to protect the writings from fire. The number three represents heaven. The numbers 5 and 9 represent the majesty of the emperor. You will see groupings of these numbers throughout the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City was home to both the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Over the course of 500 years there were 24 emperors who lived in the palaces. Puyi, the last emperor of China, abdicated the throne in 1912. He continued to live in the Forbidden City for another 12 years. After that time it became the Palace Museum and was opened to the public.
After entering the south gate, we walked to the north gate where the bus was to pick us up again. That is just about one mile. We had a little time to explore some of the areas on either side, but not a lot. Most of the Forbidden City is paved with large cobblestones. They were not difficult to walk on, but certainly difficult to push a wheelchair across. And there were many places where we had to stop, walk up or down stairs, then set up the wheelchair again and carry on. It didn't leave much time for us to explore the other areas. That was a very long mile.
Reuben and I both found the Forbidden City beautiful and intriguing. It would have been nice to have had time to see more of it, but that would have taken at least the better part of a day. We didn't have that kind of time.
As a little aside here, bathroom facilities in China are a bit difficult sometimes. We had been told to bring toilet paper. In many places, this is true. However, most places have one large roll of toilet paper near the front door when you come in and you take some from there into the stall. And, for us ladies, most of the toilets are eastern-style, meaning they're at floor level! Squatting is a must. However, some places do have western toilets like we're accustomed to. And the Forbidden City's toilets are highly rated!
This tour was designed to introduce us to many parts of China. And by now it was almost 2 P.M. and way past lunch time. So we boarded the bus and headed to The Hutong.
The Hutong is the old section of Beijing. The word derives from the Mongolian “hottog” which meant “water well.” Centuries ago the villagers would dig a well and then build homes around it forming a courtyard. The word “hutong” today means ‘alley’ and refers to the tiny streets separating these various courtyard-centered compounds. The alleys are very narrow, most are around 9 metres, but sometimes an alley will be no wider than 3 or 4 metres, and some are so narrow that even a compact motorised vehicle cannot pass through them!
Beijing was redesigned 800 years ago after Genghis Khan had reduced it all to rubble. These narrow alleys crisscrossed the city. By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) there were as many as 2,000 Hutong. By the mid-1900's there were more than 3,000. However, with all of the modern development in Beijing, most of the Hutong are being replaced with modern buildings. One of the oldest neighborhoods, Sanmiao Jie - over 900 years old, which predates the Mongolian Hutong design - was demolished in 2009.
Our tour company arranged for us to tour some of the Hutong. Because of the small roads our bus could not take us there. So we all had to disembark and hire rickshaws. The rickshaws of today are bicycle powered and seat 2 passengers.
We rode for about 15 minutes through some of the old neighborhoods. There were many little shops that looked interesting. We also passed by Qianhai Lake.
After a lovely drive through many Hutongs, we were taken into the home of someone who prepared a traditional lunch for us. We didn't know it at the time, but this turned out to be one of our most memorable meals. There were many courses, but here is how it began:
After the lovely meal it was time to leave. But we needed to make a pit stop first. Remember what I said about the toilets? This was our only choice.
Reading (and writing) all of this feels like I've been in China at least a week. Remember, this is still Day One - and there's so very much more to come!
The Temple of Heaven was built by the Yongle Emperor from 1406 to 1420. This is the same man who ordered the building of the Forbidden City and it was built during the same time. It sits on 660 acres of land and is four times larger than the Forbidden City. Surrounding the main buildings are many parks.
Outside of the east gate there are seven large stones called Qixingshi. They are supposed to represent the seven peaks of Taishan Mountain which was a place of Heaven worship in classical China.
The most famous building is the imposing round building known as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. This building has become a symbol of Beijing. Its location was determined by the Emperor's Fengshui master as the exact point where Heaven and Earth meet. As with the Forbidden City, the wooden pillars supporting the roof are joined without using any nails or cement.
Opposite this building to the south is the Imperial Vault of Heaven, another round structure. It is similar to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests but much smaller, having only one gable of eaves and a single tier marble base. This building was originally built in 1530 during the reign of Jiajing Emperor (Ming Dynasty).
Surrounding this building is the Echo Wall. A whisper spoken at one side can be clearly heard all the way on the other side, and there are stones within the courtyard that return various numbers of echos. Of course you must be there before the throngs of people in order to hear them. We didn't get that chance.
At the southern end of the park is the Altar to Heaven, or Circular Mound. This consists of an empty three-tiered plinth made of marble that rises 5 metres. It is used to worship heaven at the winter solstice.
In between the Imperial Vault and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is the DanBi Qiao (Vermillion Steps Bridge). This pathway is 360 metres long and is 1 metre high at its beginning and 4 metres high at the end. In walking this path one ascends almost imperceptibly to signify the progression from Earth to Heaven. Along the path are many centuries'-old cypress trees - some more than 500 years old. It is believed that these very ancient trees have the power to absorb negative forces and transform them into good energy. So we were told to stand near the tree and hold our arms out toward the tree, palms facing the tree. This way you can absorb the good ‘Qi’ from the tree.
The Temple of Heaven is a lovely place. It has areas of smooth pavement, but many places are still rather rough. There were also many areas where Reuben would have to get out of the wheelchair and walk up several steps. However, most of the pavement wasn't so bad. Again, we went from one end of the monument all the way to the other. Toward the end we approached the ancient cypress trees. It felt very nice to stand by the oldest tree with all of us holding our hands out. It was a lovely way to end our visit here.
Here are some more photos from around the Temple of Heaven:
After leaving the Temple of Heaven we went to dinner, then on to the Peking Opera. It is totally different from operas that I'm accustomed to working in the theatre. As the audience is coming in and finding their seats, one of the actors was on stage applying his very intricate makeup so the audience could see the transformation. Fascinating.
The accompaniment is from a small ensemble that uses traditional Chinese instruments. The sound can be harsh and shrill at first, but as you get more accustomed to it, the sound was quite lovely. Rather than one long story, there were several short stories. Fortunately for us there were screens on either side with English translations. Very nice.
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