In honor of the May 1 Worker's Day holiday the college where I teach had no classes for more than a week, so I decided to take a trip to Beijing. Getting a train ticket proved difficult, as most people in China have the same week off and many choose to travel. To make matters worse, train tickets do not go on sale until 3-5 days before the departure date and round trip tickets are not available. I had asked a representative from the college's foreign affairs office to write out in Chinese what I wanted: basically a sleeper berth on the Friday night train from Hohhot to Beijing. Early Tuesday morning I took this note to the train station, which was even more chaotic than usual, and passed it to the clerk when I reached the front of the ticket line. After checking her computer, the clerk scrawled something on the note and handed it back to me. I returned to the foreign affairs office and learned that she had written that there were no sleepers available, only "hard seats" (Chinese trains offer both "hard" and "soft" categories of both seats and sleeper berths). Since I had heard from several people that "hard seats" were very cramped and uncomfortable, I really did not want to take one for an almost 12 hour overnight journey, so instead I contacted one of the local English teachers who had mentioned that she had a travel agent friend who might be able to procure a ticket if none were available at the train station. Apparently this is quite common and there are many such agents who, for a commission, can somehow get tickets even on sold out trains. The teacher's friend succeeded and got me a soft sleeper berth on a Friday night train.
The train ran about an hour late and I did not arrive in Beijing until after 10 AM on Saturday. Over the Internet I had made a reservation at a 2 star hotel downtown and had printed out its name and address in Chinese to show to taxi drivers. Nonetheless, the taxi I took from the west train station couldn't locate the hotel but dropped me in the general area. Everyone on the street I showed the address to pointed me to a larger but different hotel, so finally I went in there and asked if they had changed their name or something. They hadn't, but apparently enough other stupid foreigners looking for the "Oriental Peace" hotel got directed to this "Novotel" hotel that they had clear directions in English on how to find it: it turned out to be down a small alley a short distance from where the taxi had first dropped me. By the time I checked in it was after 1 PM. I first walked to the main train station, about a kilometer from the hotel, to check on getting my return ticket. (Unlike the west train station where I had arrived, the main train station has a foreigners' ticket desk where they speak some English). They told me to come back on Wednesday: again no tickets were sold more than 3 days before departure. Since cold symptoms had suddenly appeared during my train ride from Hohhot, I had not slept well so I then just spent a short afternoon looking around Wangfujing street, Beijing's major upscale shopping street located just around the corner from my hotel, followed by a quick dinner and early night.
The cold medicine I had picked up on Wangfujing street the night before worked well, so I woke up early Sunday morning (1 May) refreshed and ready to start touring. I first went to Tiananmen Square, about a half hour walk from the hotel. My plan was to see Chairman Mao, whose mausoleum is the large building with columns you can see at the back of the picture, but apparently the Chairman had the May Day holiday off. I then decided to see the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City, located just north of the square. However, even in the underground passageway to cross from the square to Tiananmen Gate, the crowds meant very slow progress, and when I saw the throngs waiting to cross under Tiananmen Gate itself I decided to leave the Forbidden City for another day and find somewhere less crowded. I headed further north to visit the drum tower, where drums used to beat the hours of the day and night. The balcony of the tower offered views of the city and of the nearby bell tower. The interior of the tower was also quite impressive, and on the half hour some drummers in costume performed a short drum concert. Near the drum and bell towers are two small but scenic lakes that I walked around for awhile, exploring the many fascinating hutongs, as the narrow streets and alleys in the older parts of town are called. (Full disclosure: these two hutong photos are actually from a different part of town of a different day, but the ones I saw on Sunday but didn't photograph were similar.)
On Monday the crowds were still out in force so I decided to visit the spacious Temple of Heaven, a 273 hectare park-like complex south of the city center. Inside is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, described on this sign. The architecture of this structure was quite impressive - here's a closeup. Since entry was prohibited it was difficult to get good pictures of the interior, but I did snap this one through a window. South of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the Imperial Vault of Heaven, which you can read about here. Further south is the Circular Mound Altar, a flat base with three tiers representing heaven, earth, and the mortal realm. The Altar was too crowded with people to make a very interesting picture, but I did get this shot taken from the top of the mound looking back towards the other two structures. The park of the Temple of Heaven was quite pleasant and featured many old trees, including this Nine-Dragon Juniper.
Tuesday's hike along the Great Wall proved one of the highlights of the trip for me. A bus organized by a local youth hostel drove us for 3+ hours to the Jinshanling section of the Wall, where we rode a cable car from the valley up to the Wall then walked for about 10 kilometers along the Wall to meet the bus 3 hours later at the Simatai section for the drive back into Beijing. The Wall impressed me from the very first glimpse I caught of it from the cable car. Reading that the Wall was once almost 4000 miles long is one thing, but seeing it snake out into the horizon is another. While parts of the Wall, particularly near the two endpoints of the hike, had obviously been restored, other parts of it were largely ruins, often requiring care to safely navigate crumbling steps. However, away from the endpoints the Wall proved an uncrowded and fascinating trail, with many picturesque views and ruins to explore. (For those of you who still doubt that I am really here, here's a shot of me on the Great Wall.) Near the end of the hike we crossed a scenic gorge on a narrow footbridge, then walked down to meet the bus in the Simatai parking lot near the bottom of the gorge. From that parking lot another cable car carried visitors up to another dramatic-looking section of the wall, but, alas, we did not have time to take it. After the long bus ride back to Beijing, I didn't get back to the hotel until almost 8:30 PM, but the shoppers on Wangfujing street were still out in force.
Wednesday morning I woke up early for another attempt to visit Chairman Mao. This time he was working, and while the line was long it moved very quickly so I was in and out in less than an hour. Sorry, no cameras were allowed in the mausoleum, but I can tell you that Mao did not look well. But then, I suppose that none of us look our best after being dead for almost 30 years. I then headed back to the main train station to try to buy a ticket back to Hohhot, but learned that once again only hard seats were available. Therefore I returned to the hotel and spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon phoning different hotels and travel agents trying to get a sleeper berth for Saturday night. Finally, the same youth hostel where I had booked the bus to the Great Wall called back and said there were no sleepers available, but if I wanted they would check their black market connections. I said sure, then took a walk to the Yonghe Lamasery or Lama Temple, which you can read about here. The temple was a pleasant park-like setting in the midst of busy Beijing. The many buildings had the usual intricate decoration and there was a large inscribed bell on display that one could ring for 5 yuan. The many flowers and landscaped garden were impressive, and the aroma of incense being burned by the faithful was everywhere. While no photos of the massive sandalwood Buddah statue were permitted, here's a plaque from the Guinness Book of Records attesting to its authenticity.
On Thursday morning it was cloudy and windy with a bit of light rain, so I thought this might be the time to visit the Forbidden City, thinking the weather would keep the crowds down. On the way there, I stopped off at the youth hostel that was checking for a black market train ticket to drop off a deposit to secure the sleeper ticket they had called to say they could get. By the time I arrived at the Forbidden City, the rain had stopped, and while still busy, the crowd was nowhere near what it had been on Sunday so I crossed under Tiananmen Gate and entered the Palace Museum, which you can read about here. The Forbidden City was impressive for its sheer scale. According to my guidebook, it contains some 800 buildings and 9000 chambers. Here are shots of just a few of the buildings I saw: 1 2 3. Nearly all the buildings were covered with intricate decorations. While entering the interiors of most of the buildings in the Forbidden City is still forbidden, I was able to get a few shots through the doors and windows: 1 2 3. I lost count of how many winding courtyards I visited, most of them entered through colorful gates. Though I stayed in the Forbidden City for several hours, I know I did not see all the buildings and courtyards that were open, much less the many areas undergoing renovation. Scattered all about the complex were large water urns that were used for fighting fires and heated in the winter to keep the water from freezing. There were also many sculptures and other art works, including this colorful Nine Dragon Wall that you can read about here. Exhibits included the Hall of Clocks, which, not surprisingly, displayed hundreds of intricate clocks ranging in size from this small pomegranate watch to this massive clock. While there were many, many, many fascinating time pieces on display, one of my favorites was this relatively simple sunflower clock. There was also a Hall of Jewelery showcasing imperial relics, including many intricate carvings made of jade or ivory and jewelery ranging from this relatively simple hairpin to this spectacular crown.
On Friday I headed by subway and public bus to the Summer Palace, in the northwest of the city. Though the reflections off the glass make it a bit difficult, you can read about the Summer Palace here. According to my guidebook, the Summer Palace reached its zenith under Dowager Empress Ci Xi, who used funds intended for the imperial navy to instead build her summer playground. And an impressive playground it is, with more than 3000 halls, pavilions, towers, and courtyards, not to mentions its own lake and island. Here, you could visit the interiors of many of the buildings, where much of the original furniture and decorations were displayed. As with the Forbidden City, the sheer number of buildings, courtyards, and other structures was overwhelming. The long corridor, which you can read about here, was particularly impressive, both for its length and for the thousands of unique paintings and that covered it both inside and out. I enjoyed walking around the huge and scenic grounds, especially the walk up Longevity Hill, where one could look over the temples off to the distance and where there were also excellent views of the lake, island, and city beyond. Behind one temple on Longevity Hill was an interesting rock garden with numerous oddly-shaped tunnels and passageways in which children were playing hide-and-seek. The stonework on many of the sidewalks of the Summer Palace impressed me, with each of thousands of sections having a unique design. There were also nice views from the island and from the sidewalks along the shore, as well as a very pleasant walkway lined with weeping willows to the west of the lake. Lest it be said that Empress Ci Xi misappropriated the funds intended for the imperial navy, she also commissioned this fixed-structure Marble Boat. ;-) When the Summer Palace closed, I took a long public bus ride back to the Tiananmen Square area and walked to the youth hostel to pick up my black market train ticket, but, alas, it was not there yet. Rather than wait an indefinite time, I decided to take an evening stroll back to my hotel and come back the next morning. On the way I snapped this shot of Tiananmen Gate at night.
On Saturday morning I headed back to the youth hostel where they at last had my sleeper ticket for that night's train back to Hohhot. The train didn't leave until about 5:00 PM and I thought about visiting another site such as the Beijing zoo or the ancient observatory, but since I had to check out of my hotel by noon then either lug my bag around with me or else check it at the hotel then stop by there again on the way to the train station, I decided instead just to spend a leisurely morning in the hotel packing and showering then check my bag and wander around the shops on Wangfujing street near the hotel. I bought some English books and a dictionary to take back to Hohhot, had a late lunch, then picked up my bag and headed to the train station. The train left on time, I slept well though awoke a bit stiff from all the walking, and arrived back here in Hohhot about 5:30 Sunday morning, giving me plenty of time to work out a lesson plan for my Monday morning classes.
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