Saturday, April 4, 2009

Day 3-Beijing, China

Day 3-Beijing, China

Our first true day in Beijing was truly a highlight. Our first stop was to Tiananmen Square. Maybe it is due to my political science background or the many east asian classes I have taken, but, when I think of China, I think of this infamous Square.

Tiananmen means “Gate of Heavenly Peace” which is kind of ironic due to the events that have taken place there. On October 1, 1949 Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China in that very square. His government would ultimately, directly or indirectly, kill millions. Many parades have also taken place in the square be it during the Cultural Revolution or a military parade. Finally, the infamous protests of 1989 unraveled in the square and just when students thought their communist government was loosening up they were massacred for their protest. The accuracy of how many were killed or how the event went down varies tremendously. Some people who witnessed the event say that no one was killed in the square itself, while NATO believes 6,000 were killed. It is rarely discussed in Chinese textbooks. Some of our guides seemed to deny that even,t but the Chinese students I talked with did say that it happened. It’s a particularly interesting event, both in analysis of the actual event and the denial, by some, of the event.

When we walked onto the plaza we immediately began taking pictures with the red gate which has a brown “typically Chinese” roof (the corners turn up), which is decorated with Mao’s picture, the crisp, cool breeze chilling our skin.

Then we took a few pictures with the National Centre for the Performing Arts which is also known as The Egg, since it is dome shaped and made of titanium and glass and encompassed by a lake. It was pretty gorgeous.

From there we walked toward the center of the square which has the “Monument to the People’s Heroes” which is a 10-story obelisk, sort of similar to our Washington monument in shape. It has a quote by Mao on it and even an inscription by Zedong himself.

Next, we dropped our bags with the guide who promised me like 10 times that he would watch my camera closely, in order to go to Mao’s Mausoleum. China having been my third communist (if you count Russia) country I am constantly trying to look for bias or “sucking up” or similar tilts. I found a major sign in this mausoleum. Not only were people bringing rented flowers to this man (who killed so many) but they were bowing and seemed genuinely sincere in their actions. Besides that (which I guess I can understand because some people view many of Mao’s worst creations, i.e. the cultural revolution, as things that just backfired but were not meant to hurt people) the fact that we were ushered so quickly by his “actual” (embalmed) body that it looked so fake. Who knows? It was odd. Maybe its just cultural.

Then we headed back to meet the group and walk to the gate to go to the Forbidden City. While Jeff (the university guide) explained how to use our headsets (which were super cool and would just start talking when we walked to a certain place in the FC) a cute Chinese family came up to us and asked us to take our pictures with them. Apparently that is very common and we were asked to take our picture with Chinese individuals many times throughout our trip.

The Forbidden City itself was the imperial palace for China, starting in the Ming Dynasty all the way until the Qing Dynasty. During this time, almost 500 years, the Emperor used it as his home and as the center for politics in China. It was created from 1406 until 1420 and there are still 980 buildings which have made it until today. It is also a World Heritage Site and holds the most old wooden structures on the globe. Its north-south axis is still used as the axis of Beijing.

The FC is constricted by a 26 ft high wall and a 170 ft wide moat. They were used for defense of the city as well as for keeping the servants in. One of the main colors of the city (amongst the blues and reds) is yellow which is the color of the Emperor. Most of the roofs have yellow tiles, which sparkle in the sun. Most of the roofs are adorned with a line of statuettes, most of them depict a man riding a phoenix who is chased by a dragon. The more statuettes, the more important the building.

I could go on for pages about the beauty of the buildings. The bright reds mixing with gold carvings, The paintings of dragons, in gold, on top of bright greens and blues, the sloped roofs contrasting to the thick beams, the beauty was endless.

At one point Brittany remarked that she had gotten dusk in her eyes, I laughed as I told her that it was actually a snow flurry! Very cool. Time seemed to fly by as we posed with gold lions, intricate beams and everything in between. It seemed like we could spend days getting lost in this Forbidden City. Just before we made it to the exit we were surrounded by the beautiful Imperial Garden. Branch like vines twirled and we felt the zen.

Since our guide was not a regular tour guide, rather a professor from UIBE, he took the fact that we had extra time to take us to another site rather than a shop where he got kickbacks (oh, India). Anyway, he directed us up the Jingshan hill which is about 45 meters high (it was a bit of a hike). It had amazing views of the FC and we were really able to see to the massive size and quality of it. The pagoda on top was magnificent in itself. Bright red beams with two layers of roof, all in golds, blues and greens. It was magnificent.

We headed back onto the bus, flushed with images of imperial greatness. The next stop on our itinerary was lunch and we were slightly surprised to hear that we would be eating at the Temple of Heaven.

Large golf-like carts took groups of us through the chilly park to a Chinese restaurant on the side of one of the buildings. Once again we had lovely Chinese food (and toilets, lol, non-western, hole in the ground style) on a lazy susan, enjoying more duck, orange chicken and rice.

After our food fueling, we headed out with Nicole and Ben (the trip leaders) to explore the tripartite temple. The Temple of Heaven is a compilation of Taoist buildings. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, emperors would come to pray to heaven for good harvests for their people.

It was very interesting as the three separate temples were laid out on a hill and we decided to go to the bottom first and make our way up to the “best” one last. The first was an altar and is known as the “Circular Mound Alter” it is basically a large circular platform made of marble stones. It is where the emperor would go to pray for good weather. The next building we visited was the Imperial Vault of Heaven which is a one tired building on small round alter. It was beautiful. Its circular shape was accented by red around the base and then gold, blue and green trimming with a blue roof-a distinction from the yellow roofs in the Forbidden City.

Before heading with to the final temple, we went with Ben and Nicole to do geocaching. Which is a global treasure hunting game in which individuals utilize GPS to navigate to find little containers with logbooks or small trinkets. Ben let me be in charge of the GPS which had a virtual compass. It took us a while, walking through the garden and surrounding forests, but we found a 35mm film canister which had been signed by individuals from across the globe. It was pretty awesome.

Feeling proud of our find, we headed to the last temple which was called “The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests”. This was a combination of the first two temples we had seen. It was amazing. Almost 40 meters tall and 32 meters in diameter this three tiered circular building, on three layers of marble stone is where the emperor would go to prayer for good harvests. It is made in entirety of wood, without any nails or the like. The prominent color in it is blue with accents in red(the base of the building) and golds. The top of the building (it comes to a conical point) is a fiery gold. Once again we took a plethora of pictures including some of the surrounding rectangular buildings which were mainly red with gold accents.

Our feet were aching by the time we returned to the bus. Jeff told us that the acrobatic show that we were supposed to see before dinner was sold out so we would “have to” see the longer one after dinner, but that we would have time to go to The Pearl Market. Brittany and I were pretty psyched about the news since we wanted to see what the shopping was like in the city and who doesn’t like a longer show?

The pearl market is a multiple story air conditioned (or heated) building which has individual vendors selling everything from knock off lesportsacs to knick-knacks. We only had a little over an hour and we didn’t know what we wanted to buy so we just explored. The vendors were VERY aggressive. They literally pulled us or blocked us from leaving their shops. It was intense but with the right attitude it wasn’t too bad. I ended up getting Mom some glass pendants before we went upstairs to see the touristy goods. I really wanted a chomp which is their version of a name stamp. They are carved into decorative stone and then you use them with special inks to stamp your name on art work, etc. The Chinese still use them today.

After circling the place for while, Brittany worked on bargaining some pearls down while I found the perfect chop. It was sparkly and had a dragon (my year sign) carved into it and I managed to bargain it down to only 40 Yuan (6.7 Yuan=1 USD). They promised me it would take only 20 minutes (I had only 30 until we had to be back), so I gave them a deposit and walked around pricing out various items (I got black pearl earrings for 10 Yuan). Brittany wanted a LeSportSac so we literally ran downstairs to haggle for one before running back upstairs to check on my chomp. It turned out that they couldn’t get it done in time and they kept telling me 5 minutes. Well we didn’t have 5 minutes and I really wanted that Chop, so after some pleas, slight raising of my voice and a tinch of back and forth I got my uncarved Chop for 20 Yuan, with the plan to get it carved elsewhere.

Exhausted, we headed back to the bus. The deal with going to the acrobatic show later was that we wouldn’t get dinner until after and we were hungry. We ended up stopping at…McDonalds, for a crutch dinner which we ate in our seats at the acrobatic show. The show was VERY impressive. The acrobats were particularly talented from the Juggler who could balance TEN balls to the TWELVE women who managed to all fit on a bicycle, we were very impressed.

By the time the show was over our  beds were particularly welcoming, especially knowing we had The Great Wall to explore and climb in the morning.

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