I just returned from a 2-week tour to China, my first time there.
Arriving in Beijing airport in early August, I was impressed with how modern it is and its bilingual Chinese-English signs everywhere; the airport even had a Starbuck's near the the baggage claim but I never use Starbuck's. Our thirteen-member group was met by our local guide Wang who held up a small navy blue "China Focus" flag, the name of our tour group.
As we rode in our bus, we arrived in Beijing downtown around 5:00 just in time to be caught in a traffic jam on the freeway full of buses, trucks, and cars. Next to us was a crowded local bus whose riders sat and stood up, many looking at us in our tour bus who are looking at them. We wave; they wave. All over we see skyscrapers being erected for apartments and offices. Many signs on building were in English including Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, Toyota, etc. After our bus finally got off the freeway the streets are crowded with more cars, buses, trucks and also bicycles and motor scooters; the streets are full of crowds walking on this hot summer evening. Beijing's streets pulse with energy. The sky is a dull gray from air pollution. Everywhere we went in China was the same: huge building booms in every city; gray polluted skies; traffic jams; and pedestrian crowds in summer dresses, short-sleeved shirts, and short pants on the streets these hot, humid August days.
Our four-star Guangxi Hotel has at least 10 stories and many amenities: our room had two fluffy-white terry cloth robes and a safe to lock away our valuables. In the lobby was a Business Center with Internet. The hotel also had a pool and a breafast buffet that includes both Chinese and Western food. Next morning I looked at this huge buffet, sampled some Chinese rolls and noodles as well as asked the cook to make me up an omelet. The fruits were watermelon and honeydew melon; as it was watermelon season, watermelon ended every meal.
That morning our national guide George Hu, who couldn't fly the previous night from Nanjing because of an typhoon, arrived as well as Wang, our local guide (China Focus gives us one national guide as well as a local guide for each city we visited). Since we couldn't drink tap water, we could buy 3 bottles of bottled water from our busdriver. We were off for our first stop, the Summer Palace. One the way there Wang tells us that young university graduates want to buy condos in new aparatments in the new high-rise buildings (the old apartments are run-down three story buildings form the 1960s) but need to get a mortgage. The Chinese government only lets the condo-buyers get a 70-year lease so they don't really own the land.
At the Summer Palace there are thousands of other tourists--most were Chinese. 90% of us are in tours with tour guides, each guide holding a little color flag leading the way. I felt like a little duck walking after Wang, our head duck, past the entrance with snack and souvenir shops. The Summer Palace, Wang told us, was the last Dowager Empress's summer residence as during Beijin'gs hot summer it was cooler here beside the huge lake. We had to step over the board of about 1' high on each doorway to keep the evil spirits from getting in. We walked through gorgeous old-style one-story Chinese buildings where the last Empress lived; lovely gardens; a long covered arcade; near a huge Buddhist temple where the Empress prayed; and then took a boat ride across the lake. Some small two-person boats were propelled by 1-person bicycling in a bicycle-boat.
After a Chinese lunch at a restaurant, the bus left us off at the south side of Tinanmen Square. Wang had warned us against "hello people," folks who came up to us saying "Hello, want to buy rolex." Yes, as soon as we started north in Tinanmen Square hello people come up to us saying, "hello," and asked us to buy watches, books, and silk. Tinanmen Square, the largest public square in the world which holds a million people, had a few children flying kites and thousands of tourists. Huge monumental government buildings ringed the square: Mao's Mausoleum; Monument to the People's Heroes; Musuem of Chinese History; and Musuem of the Chinese Revolution.
Next visit to Beijing I'd like to visit some of these monuments, but on this visit Wang led us north the Forbidden City where we had to enter the huge stone Gate of Heavenly Peace adorned with a huge photo of Mao. The Gate of Heavenly Peace, built five centuries ago, has 5 doors and seven bridges but only the emperor could use the central door and bridge. Mao declared the People's Republic of China here on October 1, 1949. We kept walking north the the Meridian Gate, the 2nd huge gate which was also used exclusively for the emperor. We still walked north to the Supreme Harmony Gate, the 3rd huge gate on the southern side of the Forbidden City. This gate overlooks a huge courtyard that could hold 100,000 people.
Finally, we're in the Forbidden City and we ascend the stairs of a marble terrace to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, a huge building which had the dragon throne where the emperor celebrated his birthday and coronation. The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the 1st of three great halls were the emperor conducted his public business. The 2nd hall, the Hall of Middle Harmony, was where the emperor changed clothes. The third hall, Hall of Preserving Harmony, was where candidates in imperial examinations were tested. To get to these halls were walked up and down stone stairs along with thousands of others.
Wang led us to look at some of the small buildings on the west side which held 1-story houses where the emperor, his concubines, his servants lived--up to 10,000 people could live here in the Forbidden City. Wang took us into one building where courtasans lived, and told us stories of courtesans who had different ranks as well as eunuchs. The Chinese emperor had a similar set-up to the Middle Eastern caliphs with their huge harems guarded by eunuchs I had read about in school. Amazing that this huge empire was controlled from this one city-within-a city.
Most of these buildings were empty. Wang told us that when Chaing kai-check was leaving Beijing, he stripped the Forbidden City of decorations and art objects and took these objects with him to Taiwan. Finally, in the northernmost section of the Forbidden City is the Imperial Garden, a classical Chinese garden where we wandered an pathways through stone rockeries and small pavilions. I felt the Forbidden City architecture was beautiful but intimidating --designed to impress morals of the power and glory of the Empire. The Forbidden City was empire impressed into stone and marble.
For dinner we were taken to a dining house at Lama Temple, which are guide book described as a "stunningly beautiful" Buddhist temple. All we got to see was the huge dining room which was impressive with painted ceilings. I would have wished to see more of Lama Temple, but was our first day and I was suffering jet lag. After dinner we were walking through the courtyard outside the dining hall, and a woman had a stall full of pashmina/silk shawls. My tourmate Juana bargained, so she and I bought two shawls for about $7.50 apiece. Our first day we saw huge contrasts between the imperial past of palaces, temples, and stone gates versus the present day China busily building the infrastructure of buildings for a modern industrial city.