After an easy flight via Hong Kong (where we shipped a few gifts and souvenirs home, don’t worry mom and dad the package will most likely arrive after we have found our own apartment), we landed in Beijing. The China part of our trip was our splurge. The daunting task of figuring out where to go and how to get there seem too large a task. We booked through a travel agent (which turned out to be a Canadian agency) and after a 40 minute cab ride from the airport to our gorgeous Intercontinental hotel, I hand washed most of our clothes and went to bed. We were excited to meet our tour mates. We gathered in the lobby after a delicious eastern/western breakfast buffet and met our traveling partners for the next 14 days. In case we missed Toronto, all of the guests on our tour were Canadian mostly from Toronto (and almost everyone had some sort of Canadian flag paraphernalia on them!). Aside from the difference in our passports (Gabe is traveling on his American passport) there was one other difference, a very big age gap. We knew that there wouldn’t be many other 30 year olds traveling in Asia for 2 months, let alone on a tour group, so we were prepared to be spring chickens. Also interesting was that out of the 10 people on the tour 9 held Canadian passports, yet only 2 were actually born in Canada. We met our tour guide, Jessica, and introductions were made. Everyone seemed very nice and excited to be in China.
Beijing is HUGE! It makes NYC look small and Toronto look like a village. With a population of 17 million registered residents (the actual total is around 18 million due to floaters from the Yangtze River area- wait for next blog on that) the city boasts 6,500 square miles of government buildings, apartment buildings, office buildings, temples and gardens. Our first stop was Tiananman Square, which looked a little different without thousands of Chinese soldiers marching through. Even though it was a clear, brisk (a little chilly) day, the square was less crowded then I expected. We learned a lot about the relationship the government has to the Chinese people and that Chairman Mao is regarded as a god. It was reiterated and reiterated. After Tiananman square we walked through the forbidden city. This palace was built by the third emperor of the Ming dynasty as his winter palace from 1406-1420. The palace and structures surrounding were gorgeous. After crossing a moat and entering one of the 3 gates (we entered through the largest gate, reserved only for the emperor), we were transported back 700 years. The city remains exactly as it was built. There were buildings for governance, entertaining and sleeping. Sleeping was an interesting issue for the emperor, his empress had the largest dwelling while his 14 concubines lived in smaller houses behind. There was a lot of feuding among the concubines as well as trickery, every concubine tried to elevate her son to the highest position possible and nothing was higher than emperor. It seemed like you always had to watch your back!
Two statues of lions flank the front of most imperial buildings, the one on the right is gently playing with a cub and the one on the left is standing on a ball. One is male and one female, here’s the trick to remember which is which. Female on the right because women are always right, male on the left because men are left behind. We heard this at every palace we went to, most of our tour guides were women.
Our guide, Jessica’s mother became very ill and she had to leave us after the first day. Such an amazing first day ended on a bit of a sad note as we wished Jessica farewell and her mother a speedy (hopefully) recovery. Because of the one child policy and the respect and support that all Chinese show to their parents (most modern Chinese still live with their parents even after marriage) Jessica has no siblings to share the responsibility of care taking. Luckily we met Fang, our new guide. The first thing you notice about Fang is her amazing smile, which didn’t leave her face the entire trip!
The next day we woke to a freezing grey day. We piled on all the layers we could find and sat in 3 hours of traffic to go 55 km to the Great Wall. Unbeknownst to us it was a 3 day holiday throughout China, Grave Sweeping. On this holiday one offers gifts to the deceased. Paper cars, houses and other earthly goods along with fruit and wine are burned at ancestor’s graves. Worshiping and paying respect to ones ancestors is a large part of Chinese culture. Unfortunately, the grave sites were on the way to the Great Wall and we experienced insane Beijing traffic. We finally arrived at the Great Wall in the pouring rain. It was still magnificent and even more daunting. The wall seemed to stretch for miles and miles and after purchasing a paper thin raincoat Gabe and I trekked as far on the wall as our 1.5 hour time limit would let us. As we stood on different lookouts, we understood why this wall served to protect from so many intruders.
During the 3 days in Beijing we explored Hutong, the old city where we were treated to a tour in a carriage on the back of a bike, we walked through the summer palace built in 1750 as a birthday gift from the emperor to his mother and we discovered the temple of the heavens which the emperor visited once a year to pray for a good harvest for his people.
We ate every meal (except for breakfast) with our tour mates and we were beginning to form relationships. It was an excellent start to the next leg of our Asia experience!