Friday, September 7, 2007

Sep 7 – Downtown Beijing

This is the the sight from our window when we get up in the morning. The pollution is pretty bad here and we see lots of people wearing masks.


Robert, our guide is ready and waiting for us at 9:00 am with the driver, to drive us to the Hutong to see a 700 year old village within the city that is considered a historical site. This surrounds the Forbidden City with its narrow winding streets (one car width, no more), packed jammed with people and stores.

We rode a pedicab around the Hutong with a local guide and Robert in tow. Walking would have been impossible, as the streets are not square and take the shape of auspicious symbols in the Chinese culture, i.e. a pipe? The old village was a self-contained area with its own restaurants, daily markets and other stores.




Some of the places look quite poor but others are built on the architectural style of multi-generational dwellings, a Quadrangle consisting of four buildings enclosing a central courtyard. The head of the household usually occupies the north building, the son is given the east wing and the daughter gets the west wing, if she is still at home.Img14859


We walked to the Drum Tower. The staircase was steep and the steps were very well used, tired and numerous.


Our timing was good, as there was a short drum beating performance scheduled 5 minutes after our arrival.



We walked around the interior view the structure, the drums and then walked out the balcony. The drum tower functioned as the morning alarm to waken the villagers and tell them to go to work; the Bell Tower, facing it (like male and female figures, facing one another), alerted them to quit work and go home.


We could see the some of the thick city walls, which surround the downtown, complete with moat. The inner city is entered through 8 gates punctuating the walls. We did not get to see these gates up close during the day or to do a drive around in the evening when they are lit up and quite lovely.

After that we walked back into the Hutong to go inside someone’s house.




The father used to be a Chinese opera singer. Unfortunately he wanted to give a recital. It was painful to listen to and went on for many minutes. I tried not to laugh.

They heat the house with the cakes of coal stacked beside the stove.


Under the old style, girls are usually married off early and move into the homes of the husband’s family. In those days, people owned their familial dwellings, especially the farms. In modern times, land is so expensive, it is near impossible in the city to own your own dwelling. In the Hutong, one can inherit the property from your parents and despite being rich; the appearance to a Westerner is that it is still a hovel.

The Mah Quadrangle was divided into half where the son got half and the daughter got the other section of the square residence. We visited the daughter side. She married a locomotive engineer who’s hobby was playing female roles in the Peking Opera. They had a son who is married now and lives in the north wing with his wife and children. The two daughters are married too but they live in apartments with their own families. On weekends, everyone comes together at the quadrangle in the main facility, for meals and to catch up with one another.

The kitchen is smaller than an apartment sized kitchen in T.O. The washroom is shared and the whole dwelling is damp, crowded and looks dirty to me but according to their standards, clean and rich. They are considered a rich family. They own their home and they have a long line of ancestors and prestige. Some of the places have been renovated and revitalized. In view of the Olympics coming to Beijing, many parts of the city are being cleaned up and there are all kinds of construction happening everywhere.


We were asked to tip the local guide 100 Yuan for the short period of her session and the cab peddlers 20 Yuan each because this was their living and get no salary other than this. The local guide’s fee was excessive and we were taken by surprise at this expense. It set a precedence of what our Guide was expecting. We went into panic. We had asked the travel agency what the rates of gratuity were and Steve told us, $7 – 10/day (or 50 – 70 Yuan) to be shared between the guide and driver. In our estimation was manageable and quite cheap.

After visiting the tower, we were whisked across town to a restaurant and traffic was horrendous. Beijing is hard to get your bearings, as it is a planner’s nightmare with streets that go around in circles, in diagonals and follows the curve of the land, i.e. water, hills, etc. Beijing has gone through a series of changes with the different changes of rulers and political dominations. Streets are very confusing but punctuated with interesting buildings and so much new construction on nearly every block.

After lunch, we went to Ti’an An Men Square. It took a long time to cross to square, and do a 3600-circle vision of the surroundings; People’s Parliament, Mao’s Mausoleum, Government Offices and Banquet Hall. Mammoth buildings that inspire awe and make one ask, “How does one afford to build the structures with marble and granite staircases and halls?”



We went down and underground that lead to a subway station and tunnel that is the crosswalk for the roads above. The traffic is crazy and too many lanes to cross safely and pedestrians navigate this section by going through the tunnel. Upon emerging from the other side, we are at the Imperial Palace or at The Forbidden City.


Due to on-going renovations and the facelift on some of the structures, we could not view some of the buildings. We did not realize what a blessing it was because after a while, they begin to appear the same but seeing as this was our first day, we were disappointed. Each structure had a specific purpose, i.e. birthday hall, business affairs, Emperor/Empress’ residence, etc.

Robert spewed a lot of facts and figures about dynasties, rulers, date of construction and changes due to changes of political climate. He is smart enough to give us time to see things at our pace and leave us alone to wander around sections. It is hot, sunny but nice in the shade; good for sightseeing and walking around.











The moat that surrounds the forbidden city.


We drive across town to a teahouse to sample various flavours. This stop is not listed in the itinerary and we later realized that it was a selling stop, not a point of interest. I bought a tea mug that changes colour when hot water is poured into it. The red dragon on a black background turns white with the image of the Great Wall over-riding the dragon. I got a bonus gift of a clay boy figurine, which spouts water when hot water is poured on it. Unfortunately he broke, in transit.




The pitch was to sell us tea. Since Stuart does not drink, and I can buy loads at home, it made no sense for me to bring leaves home at a higher price and pay duty or for excess baggage fees. We were happy to sit for a spell after all that walking. It was nearly 4:00 pm, too early for dinner, so Robert told the driver to drop us off at the hotel and pick us up for dinner at 5:30.


Nothing is scheduled for the evening so we have an early night. We are quite tired, not adjusted to the time change. We toured the hotel and decided to go to the health room for a hot tub and sauna. It was great, relaxing and not available at the other hotels. Had I known, I would have taken my time to enjoy it more than I did.

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