Our Beijing adventure started on Thursday April 10th. We had booked an action packed weekend through Catherine Lu Tours (highly recommended). The kids came home from school, we rushed through dinner and packing and then set off for the train station to catch the sleeper train from Shanghai to Beijing. It had all started well, the traffic was not so bad and we made it to the Hongqiao Travel Hub with plenty of time to spare. However, when we asked where our train was, the reply was “at Shanghai Station”!! Owen made a couple of frantic calls to Catherine, I made a couple of calls to my lovely assistant and we immediately called Fu to return back to pick us up and take us to the right station!
This was a stressful journey as the time was ticking down and we were not sure if we would make the train or not. I did not know that Shanghai actually has several (ie, more than 5) major train stations! It was obviously not clear on our tickets either as it was all in Mandarin which none of us can read.
We did make the train – 4 minutes before departure time we were sitting in our cabin and catching our breath. We had run all the way through the station and down the platform and were all panting. Once on the train, we saw that the cabin’s were set up with 4 beds (fluffy duvet and narrow pillows on each bed) bunkbed style. The kids were on top, Owen and I had a bottom bunk each. In the cabin next door were Kim, Ashley and Harley. We had paid for the extra bed so that they would not have a stranger sharing the last bunk! There was room underneath the beds to stow our luggage and a small table inbetween. We quickly organized the kids into their pj’s, cleaned their teeth and settled them into their beds. The kids thought it was all cool! The toilet’s (one of my favourite subjects!) were not as bad as I was expecting and there was a choice between western and squat so all of us were especially happy about that.
The kids soon fell asleep lulled by the gentle motion of the train. It had the same effect on me and so I organized my duvet, got in my pj’s and prepared for sleep. It was quite a hard mattress and the pillow was not very soft. I had seen some of the locals carrying their own pillows and I now discovered why. I did sleep, but not particularly well. However, the kids had a blissful full nights sleep!
We woke up in the morning with about 1 hour to go until arrival in Beijing, so got ourselves ready and packed everything away.
When we got off the train, our guide Jeff was waiting for us and eager to get going. We had to delay him for a few moments as we had seen a MacDonalds and all of us were hungry and adults needed coffee! I think that Jeff might have been a bit depressed at this point, thinking “these westerners only eating western food!!” We all felt perked up and raring to go after food and cafeine. Jeff asked about lunch and we all said, “local, of course” and I am sure he felt much better about being our guide for the day!
We had a lovely van to transport us around – spacious and comfortable for all 7 of us. Jeff took us straight to the hotel (Marriott Apartments at Imperial Palace) so that we could check in and leave our luggage. Immediately after we were on our way to Ti’an’anmen Square and the Forbidden City as our first stop.
Jeff was entertaining, knowledgeable and full of energy. He really made a difference to our time in Beijing as he was flexible with our schedule (tight to start with) and conscious of all our needs (including ensuring that Oliver’s nut allergy was covered). Jeff also knew all the good photo stops so throughout our visit he was stopping us to take pictures of all of us.
Tianamen Square was quite the sight to see. The 25th Anniversary of the protests are this year and Jeff was pointing out where the tanks and Chinese Army had been. I had expected some reluctance to discuss this episode in Chinese history, but Jeff was very matter of fact about it and did not try to gloss over or distort the events. Security was tight around the Square and into the Forbidden City – we all had to pass bags through X-Ray and walk through metal detectors, but the line moved quickly and we were in the Forbidden Palace grounds within 10 -15 minutes. We entered through the Meridian Gate (午门; Wǔ Mén). In ancient times, this gate was reserved for the Emporer. The Emporer’s Army would enter through the West Gate, while mere mortals had to use the East Gate. Once through Meridian Gate, we immediately enter an enormous courtyard. The Golden Stream (金水; Jīn Shuǐ – shaped to resemble a Tartar bow and spanned by five marble bridges) runs through this area. The other side of the courtyard is the Gate of Supreme Harmony (太和门; Tàihé Mén). This courtyard could hold an imperial audience of 100,000 people.
The Forbidden City was built between 1406 and 1420 by over 1 million workers. There are 980 buildings over 180 acres. It was the home of the Imperial Palace for the Ming and Qing Dynastys. After being the home of 24 emperors – 14 of the Ming dynasty and 10 of the Qing dynasty – the Forbidden City ceased being the political centre of China in 1912 with the abdication of Puyi, the last Emperor of China. In 1933 the Japanese invasion of China meant that many of the precious relics were evacuated to Taiwan. They can be seen today in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. However, there were still many beautiful and ancient artifacts to see in the many buildings within the Forbidden City Walls.
The building names within the Forbidden City, are interesting! Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Middle Harmony, Hall of Preserving Harmony, Hall for Ancestral Worship, Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Union, Palace of Earthly Tranquility, Complete Palace of Peace and Longevity, Pavilion of Cheerful Melodies, Hall of Mental Cultivation, and the Palace of Gathered Elegance. Each of these buildings have many symbols to identify the significance and importance:
- Yellow is the color of the Emperor. Therefore, almost all of the roofs in the Forbidden City have yellow glazed tiles. There are 2 exceptions to this – the library at the Pavilion of Literary Profundity had black tiles because black was associated with water (fire-prevention) and the Crown Prince’s residences have green tiles because green was associated with wood (growth).
- The main halls of the Outer and Inner courts are all arranged in groups of three – the shape of the Qian triagram which represents Heaven. The residences of the Inner Court are arranged in groups of 6 (Kun triagram) which represent the Earth.
- The sloping ridges of building roofs are decorated with a line of statutuettes, starting with a man riding a phoenix, followed by an imperial dragon. The number of statuettes represents the status of the building – a minor building might have 3 or 5. The Hall of Supreme Harmony has 10, the only building in China to be permitted this in Imperial times. As a result, its 10th statuette, called a “Hangshi“, or “ranked tenth” is also unique in the Forbidden City.
Inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the Dragon Throne. This is where the Emporer would sit before his trembling, nervous court! The entire court would have to touch their heads to the floor 9 times in his presence. This is called kowtowing!
After this history filled morning, it was time for lunch. Jeff took us to a great local restaurant. He ordered a great selection of food for us to eat. We all enjoyed everything.
After lunch it was time to go visit the Hutongs via a Rickshaw ride.
In the past, Beijing was composed of hundreds of courtyards around the Forbidden City and these lanes stretched out in all directions, inter-connecting with one another across the city. Hutong is a Mongolian word meaning water well. They were originally formed in the Yuan Dynasty and grew rapidly during the Ming and Qing dynasties. In the Yuan Dynasty, Mongolians attached great importance to water, so almost every community in the city was designed around a well, which provided the daily water for the locals. Until now, one can still find dry wells in Hutongs. In the Yuan Dynasty, there were about 29 Hutongs, while in the Ming Dynasty (1368 –1644), this number increased to 1,070. In the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), it grew to 2,076. It is said that by 1949 there were as many as 3,250. Unfortunately, during the Cultural Revolution, much of this was demolished for “new development” – housing and buildings and in 2003, only 1,500 were left, and now no more than 1,000 remain. Today, protecting what is left is now a priority.
The lanes have their own layout and structure, and when viewed from the air the combination of the lanes and courtyards resemble a chessboard with delicate gardens, fine rockeries and ancient ruins this makes them a wonder in the world. Because of the cross interlacement of the lanes every house connects to the other, making it easy for local people to keep in touch with their neighbors. Therefore, once one enters any of the lanes, one can feel the deep and warm relationships among people, which is rarely found in this modern world.
When we had checked into the hotel at the beginning of the day, the kids had seen the swimming pool on the 8th floor. I am glad that they knew it was there as the promise of swimming later in the day kept them going through all the site-seeing! Ashley and Harley were keen to go with Isabelle and Oliver and it was a race to see who would be ready to go first! Kim and Owen took this opportunity to nap while I “supervised” from the side of the pool! An hour of so of swimming recharged the batteries ready for dinner…..
I had asked a few local colleagues that live in Beiing for recommendations on a good Peking Duck restaurant and the reply was unanimous – “Da Dong Duck”. So, the 7 of us were excited to eat Peking Duck in Peking at Da Dong Duck!! Jeff had recommended that we order 2 ducks and then a selection of vegetable side dishes so that is exactly what we did. What a delicious meal! The Duck was beautifully carved and there was plenty of perfect crispy skin for everyone. The traditional accompaniments is spring onion (scallion), finely chopped garlic, plus sugar! Sugar and crispy duck skin is a wonderful taste explosion!
We all had multiple duck pancakes. All of the vegetable dishes were yummy too – we had each picked 1 that we liked the look of in the menu (thank goodness for pictures!) By desert time, the kids wanted a Chocolate Bomb. This arrived at the table with what looked like a big sparkler sticking out. The server lit this and when it had burned down, the chocolate “bomb” had opened to reveal lots of packets of chocolate sweets inside.
A very busy day, with another one ahead of us. It was an early night for all of us!