Could there be a worse Monday morning? The milky haze that blankets beijing is hot and sour. It’s the worst weather we’ve seen in the past week. On the day we went to the wall, we could see the mountains, which is unusual at any time of year.
But this is even bad for summer, which is often foggy. We can’t see buildings on the next block. It’s oppressive and stifling.
Unfortunately this is also the morning we set aside to do the major Beijing sights: Temple of Heaven, Tienanmen square and the Forbidden City. Trish wilts seconds after we get out of the cab at the Temple of Heaven. Beijing isn’t making it easy on our last day.
Sunday night on Nanluogu Xiang
After our Great Wall trip on Saturday we were completely wrecked. And Trish and I both needed a mental break so the family stayed inside. I hate to lose a day in a country as great as China, but we were just plain tired. Lily and I napped together in what may be one of our last cuddly daddy-daughter naps. She begins Third grade in a few months.
In the evening we went to the walking district of Nanluogu Xiang, a food and shopping district with hip and urban stores that sell clothes, collectable toys and some nice handmade stuff.
There was a surprisingly repetitive selection to the stores. Two stores featured the same collection of wind-up reproduction antique robots. I have a real antique robot in my house, a gift from one of my Dad’s friends. I love them and was tempted to buy but I have no way to fit them in my pack.
I had no idea there was so much Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies plushie and windup paraphernalia. It was everywhere. There were knock-off Dr. Martin’s called Dr Markens that I wanted to buy Emma (white patent leather.) Two stores had them, and oddly when I asked for her size in the second store, I realize it was the same sales clerk as the first one. Weird.
Trish found a beautiful A-line linen shirt with some hand painted chinese water-color style flowers and koi. One side has some linen detail ruffles. It’s very tasteful, not stylized and cliche like so much of the clothing here. (See weird t-shirts of Obama as Mao, and I
One of the local crazes are hair-pin bunny ears, possibly because it’s the year of the rabbit. Or maybe because they are so damn cute. Lily bought a pair for a few bucks and was very happy with her purchase. Chinese teen girls could be seen with them too.
Our last Chinese meal
We found a Chinese restaurant full of Chinese people (always a good sign) and picked from the picture menu. I ordered shrimp and peanuts, which came in a slightly spicy and sour dark soy sauce – typical of northern Beijing cuisine. We ordered some dumplings that were juicy and the Yangzhuo-style fried rice (ham, peas, egg and shrimp) for lily was not bad.
The cucumbers in a raw garlic dressing was refreshing. But the surprise was some kind of pork mystery meat, probably a gland of some kind, in a sauce that was tasty. But I wasn’t hungry enough to do more than sample the chewy bites. Trish won’t eat organs. (insert tasteless joke…)
It would have been a good meal, if it wasn’t for the smoking. Lily asked why there was a no smoking sign that everyone ignored. It fostered a short discussion on ‘Rule of Law’ which is something the USA takes for granted. These kind of discussions, done over the unforgettable sensory experience of being in a smokey Chinese restaurant in Beijing, are the ones I love.
The Temple of Heaven
In less foul weather, The Temple of Heaven is a beautiful park with some very accessable Ming dynasty buildings used by the Emporers for sacrifice, worship and significant cultural events. It was one of the few places they would go outside the Forbidden City.
Trish and the girls gather enough energy to join one of the dancing grandma groups in the park.
China isn’t generally a charming place, but the public groups of dancers and martial arts practitioners is very endearing.
The line dance is simple enough and my girls, all of whom are dancers, easily join the show. But how those ladies do this for longer than 10 minutes in the heat is beyond me. Several of them are wearing long pants too. Trish and the girls retreat, panting in the heat.
But we take a few photos and the kids like the big pagoda in the center. Trish takes lots of photos of the art detail on the buildings, which is truly amazing.
The plan was to stop by here briefly anyway, though you could do a few hours here if you wanted to see every building.
The largest public square in the world
For once it’s not hard to get a cab, and I say (Chi’-en-men) which is roughly how the Chinese say Tieneman square. This cab is not air conditioned however, and Trish groans in the back seat. She mumbles that she wants to hang her head out the window like a dog.
The second time she had Chemotherapy triggered menopause in a ferocious way and with it, fierce and frequent hot flashes. The incredibly uncomfortable enough, but she also hates being sweaty. A day like today makes her really cranky and grumpy.
At one point I suggest, with annoyance, that she go back to the hotel and relax. It’s hard to have someone who looks so miserable along. She says she doesn’t feel well, but really wants to see the Forbidden City. I know she’s trying her hardest. We continue our trudge across the half mile concourse of Tienanmen square.
On the way, Emma Lily and I have another great discussion about the 1989 protests, Soviet architecture, Mao Zedong, and the great cultural revolution. I’m impressed later when Emma remembers the great cultural revolution as an answer to one of my questions.
Lily finally gets the socialism and capitalism thing, and talks to me at length about how shopkeepers need to set their own prices. I don’t know where she found the mental energy in this heat to grasp something I didn’t undersand until High school. She’s a very bright kid.
Tienanmen square would be long by ltself. It’s the largest in the world. But they also have tightly controlled entrances and exits, which are not the shortest distance to where you are going and usually involve long underground passegways with throngs of people that let you off on some even farther corner of the square.
Eventually we make it to the Mao Zedong portrait after at least 3 security checkpoints, and into tienman park. Our next stop is the Forbidden city, the motherload of China tourist destinations. We picked Monday over the weekend because it would be a little less busy, but the crowds are still incredibly dense. Trish is barely hanging on, so I deposit her an the girls in a souvenier shop that has an AC.
I need money in China
Before we can get into the Forbidden City, our final activity in China, I need cash for the $40 tickets. In anticipation of departure from China, I let my cash dwindle down a little too far.
I circle around the park and walk by the entrance to the Forbidden city, which in addition to requiring money I don’t have, has lines at least 30 minutes long just to get a ticket.
This isn’t looking good. My watch says it’s 12:30 and we have to get back to the hotel, get lunch, finish packing and check out by 3pm. Our flights from China leave around 6pm. The Forbidden City is supposed to be at least 4 hours long. (Some people take a full day.) If we don’t get in there by 1pm we won’t even have an hour.
“Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck” I’m yelling in my head. How did I not get more money before we left? And why the hell are there no ATMs (or credit card machines) at the worlds largest tourist activity? It will be humiliating If spend three weeks in China and miss the Forbidden City because I didn’t bring cash.
Trish and I try to talk it out in the SOuvenier shop she and the girls are in. But there isn’t much to say. Trish is feeling sick, I’m stupid and China is beating us.
The crowds are swarming. I can’t even walk in a straight line. I’ll make one last try in the other direction. If I can’t get money in the next 25 minutes, we will have to skip the Forbidden City.
Back out the park, under Mao Zedong, through the underpass, along Tieneman square and into a metro station I run. ATMs are hit or miss in China. There are a lot of them, but many don’t work or don’t take my card. The first three ATMs I get to are broken. It’s 12:55, and in 5 minutes I’ll turn around and hang my head in defeat.
It’s always in the last place you look. Around the corner of the underground walkways is the entrance to the Beijing opera and philharmonic. On a hunch that there will be an ATM near the ticket office, I race up the stairs, which are at least, air conditioned. Sure enough a brand new ATM machine sits in the spanking new beautiful foyer.
Back I go, down the metro, along Tienanmen square, under Mao Zedong and through the park to the girls who are practically falling asleep on the dirty floor of the sounvenier shop. Trish says I just missed a fistfight between some tourists and the shop owner. The heat makes everyone aggro.
Into the Forbidden City
Trish seems to be feeling better. And I have money. Even better, the long lines for tickets have dwindled to a few people. They still try to cut me, but I’ve spent to much time in the Soviet Union to get edged out by a grandma’s elbow. I keep my place in line and purchase tickets.
The pavement of the ticketing area, outside the enourmous gates is covered in trash (above left). This place is nuts!. But we are about to enter one of the most fabulous royal residences of a great empire.
It’s so amazing that it was twice spared destruction by it’s enemies. The British and French, camped out in victory on it’s doorstep in Tienanmen square considered burning it but decided to burn the old summer palace instead. And Mao himself presumably gave the order to leave it even though many other imperial and religious buildings in Beijing and other cities were flattened.
The heat is even worse at 1pm, and my clothes are soaked through with sweat. The crowds inside are difficult but we can fight our way to see inside the major buildings without too much difficulty. In a crowd, Lily is grabbed away from me by a Grandma for a picture with her family and I yell ‘NO’. Not only was I startled, but I’m out of patience with China today. The woman grabs her again and I have to wave her off aggressively. Not now.
We talk about the dragon throne, on which the Emperor’s minions would tremble because nothing he demanded from the throne could be questioned or refused. Trish teases Lily that is she were Emperor, Trish would make her love Justin Beiber. The thrones are magnificent, although a little hard to see until you fight your way up front for a spot.
The city is laid out on a north south axis, with the most important buildings on that line. There are 3 or 4 throne rooms, each with different levels of importance. Since we are getting out of here quickly, the buildings to the side are ignored. We’ll see them when we come back in the less busy spring time another year.
We think we’re almost done and then we spill into a beautiful courtyard with ponds, ancient trees and sculpture. It’s getting late but this can’t be missed.
If only there weren’t so many people and so hot. It’s just to difficult to thoroughly enjoy this way. But we knew July would be bad for crowds and weather. Go in spring or fall if you can!
And with an unceremonious brisk walk out the exit, we are done with China. Almost three weeks of touring around one of the greatest ancient and modern civilizations has been, like all good adventure travel, exhausting and rewarding.
Outside I consult my map and figure that it’s a 20 minute walk. It’s going to be hell finding a cab right outside the Forbidden City. People are pouring out by the dozen.
So we walk. But I’m wrong. Those Beijing blocks are incredibly long.
A little scam
After 10 min, a few guys on Bicycle tuk-tuks stop near us on the corner of one of the moats for the forbidden city. We aren’t even close to our hotel and everyone is panting. He sais ‘Tieneneman square? Three, Three” “Sure” I say. But in the back of my head, three yuen sounds like too little. I bet that this is some kind of scam.
We get in anyway. Even if they overcharge me or something, I’ll just argue with them. We need the ride badly. The driver, no a pretty face, looks back at me as we are rolling through the hutong and says “Three Money! Three Money Three Money” I’m not scared, but he is a little creepy. We’re not on any main street, but deep in the back alleys. At least I can tell we are mostly in the right direction.
And then he stops in the middle of an alley. ‘Out!’ he shouts. If it weren’t broad daylight, I’d be scared now. “One minute walk’ and points toward the main street that I can see 100 yards ahead. I know we are not at our hotel. This is the scam. he only goes a short way, drops off the dumb tourists in a back alley and wants three dollars not 3 yuen.
I bark back pretty hard and we get eye to eye. I give each driver 10 yuen and walk off. They can come after me if they want, but they won’t. It’s still another 20 minute walk to the hotel.
China gives me one more little nudge on the way out. My Air China flight is delayed indefinitely with no announcement to the passengers. (A few hours later I take off.)
It’s a little hard to be in love with this place. China fights you back sometimes, even in spite of itself. But it does have amazing sights and history. You can’t say you’ve traveled the globe without visiting China.