Beijing Summer 2013: Day One

Time to get back on the bike and blog!

It was a wonderful feeling as I arrived at Chungju Terminal passing the smoking booth and emotion free faces, emerging at the Incheon departure point. I left Chungju with an un-heavy heart and took the express bus to Incheon International Terminal. I was to spend some time in this font of efficiency, taking photos, pottering along the Studio 54 style  discoey travelators. I observed dogs chomping on bananas, strange Koreans sitting cross-legged on luggage trolleys rather than using the seats. After admiring the architecture I settled in at the “Spa On Air” for the night; tomorrow Dragon King Hostel, Beijing.

I awoke at 5:30am and took a spa to start the day; there were water jets for the dodgy back and steam rooms to ride rough shod over the passive smoking filled pipes! Then coffee, pastry, immigration and duty free. Thank you Spa On Air, Incheon! Well worth the 32k (£19) including single sleeping room. Looking forward to Beijing 23 years on from my last visit.

After departure it was a short comfortable flight to Beijing Capital airport, arriving at T3. It is a modern, huge facility managed by fewer-than-necessary and  barely efficient staff. Most initially impressive facilities barren of staff and unused. I clasped the papers I’d been asked to complete on the flight and was ushered towards the long queue ahead of me. After a 30 minute wait I reached the “ray of sunshine” who was to process me through immigration.  As could be expected I was one form short! At this point I was rescued by a charming fella who single-handedly was  dealing with a mass of confused foreigners; English, German, Italian etc etc etc. He kindly prioritised moi, helping me complete the form and guiding me personally back to the front of the queue, an Angel Gabriel no less!

The transit then is pretty straight-forward, I had no baggage to collect and made my way to the Airport Railroad for my journey into central Beijing. The transit is clean, fast and efficient but bizarrely has a double-back feature where it heads into one station and then out again before arriving at Dongzhimen. I then took the subway to Zhangzizhonglu Station and arrived at my hotel (3 minutes away) desperately in need of a shower after the pollution laden humidity. The room was pretty comfortable and the Dragon King Hostel superbly located and good value.

After a refresh, I took a walk through the local hutongs towards the Forbidden City stopping to sample a tea house and after that some extremely tasty and inexpensive pork and spring onion dumplings.

Rising early I purchased a single journey ticket at the metro station and headed for Tiantiandongmen Station and Tian Tian Park for the Temple of Heaven Complex. Founded in the first half of the 15th century, the Temple is set in gardens and surrounded by pine woods. In its overall layout and that of its buildings, it symbolises the relationship between earth and heaven (the human world and God’s world) which stands at the heart of Chinese cosmogony, and the special role played by the emperors within that relationship.

DSC_0143The smog that engulfed the city is put down (by the authorities) as being seasonal due to the huge upturn in the use of domestic barbecues.  Of course we know that this is mildly misleading! It’s nothing at all to do with the pollution that chokes the life out of its citizens? Through the fog came the drizzle; this Lowryesque weather shrouded the Temple and its surrounding buildings. I entered through the East Gate adjacent to the subway station and passed hundreds of souls exercising using traditional T’ai Chi, others ballroom dancing, some playing instruments and spinning tops, many simply playing board games or ensconced in gambling schools.

DSC_0144I took the “Long Corridor” listening to street performers demonstrating Chinese Opera and others accompanying them on traditional instruments, passing the “Divine Kitchen”  on the way. I climbed the steps leading to the elevated plaza on which the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest stands. To my left a young man took pictures of his girlfriend with the back-drop of an ancient gate. I felt so lucky to be solo, not having to be dragged along in a group with the excessive nattering and irritation of a “trained” tour guide. There should be  repository for “trained” tour guides where they can talk to each other incessantly until they lose their voices. I’m sure at times there is a serene atmosphere here but the experience gains nothing from the guides punctuating cries and flag waving. I scurried quickly away to the back of the main hall to find some peace, admiring the emerald-green tiles and lush paintwork before passing through the Gate of Prayer for Good Harvest. Crossing the Imperial Bridge and taking the Imperial Walkway I arrived at the Imperial Vault of Heaven, Imperialed out I settled down at the adjacent café for some refreshing green tea.

Entering the IVH its crowded courtyard reverberated to the cries of those performing vocal histrionics on the infamous Echo Wall. Even trying to capture some images required an olympian effort and the gymnastic skills of a Jeju circus performer. I’m no Louis Smith so after a blast of my shutter I escaped to the Circular Mound Alter with its murky views back towards the HPGH. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the emperors would offer sacrifice to Heaven on the day of the Winter Solstice every year. This took place on the Heaven Heart Stone which today play host to contorted tourists making what they feel are extremely funny holiday snaps. I know what I would like to do with their two-fingered salutes, maybe use them as self-harming suppositories!

Breaking free from the circus performers I stopped for an impromptu English lesson with two excitable but lovely kids and their mum before heading west towards the Hall of Abstinence. The HoA was staffed by a matron like figure, the size of her grumpiness was matched only by the width of her calves, she refused entry! I still know not or care not why, if she’d let me pass maybe she have eaten me on my way out.  I settled on a bench taking solace and offering sympathy to those that soon followed me and were also given short shrift.  It transpires a separate ticket is required which much be purchased on entry at the far end of the park. My abstinence from the Hall of Abstinence has not made me feel unfulfilled! I strolled back through the park passing through the flower gardens. I watched some very skilful “keepy-up” with shuttlecocks and more ballroom dancing lessons in the shadow of a giant screen before leaving through the North Gate.

I’d decided to walk North through the hutongs towards Tiananman Square, I expected it would take around 40 minutes. As I crossed the main road I noticed a flurry of activity and entered a local market in some dilapidated buildings.  The atmosphere was electric and the produce looked first class.  I saw a woman cooking eggs then placing then in a fresh pitta style bread with some cooked ham.  This was top-notch fast-food costing the  equivalent of 50 pence. Noticing two hungry looking kids hanging over some stairs I purchased two more.  The look on their faces as I offered them the nibbles was worth a million dollars. Exiting the rear of the market there was demolition work taking place; it will be a retrograde step if the authorities fail to preserve and help update these hutong communities. I stopped to watch the activity at an outdoor cycle repair shop, nothing is wasted, if a part fails to fit it’s re-modeled so it does! I then emerged at the largest restaurant I’ve ever seen before stumbling across a grey bricked area that looked as if it had been recently gentrified.

I’d arrived in the Qianmen area just in the south of the Tiananmen Square. Qianmen Street had been a commercial centre of Beijing some 500 years before. “The Ming and Qing Dynasties” Qianmen Street was burnt to ashes in 1900 when Allied Forces  ransacked Beijing. Physically, there was nothing left for the Chinese to preserve. The present Qianmen Street has been rebuilt and restored, using historical photos, as it was in the 1920s to 1930s.  The 1.45-square km area has been built into four zones for culture, food, shopping and entertainment. Trolley cars are used to transport and entertain tourists up and down the main drag.

Passing through the Qianmen Gate I hit the wall that is a 4 lane homage to Henry Ford. The only way to traverse is using the subway after queueing for 20 minutes to descend. Tiananmen Square site of the 1989 massacre is the most underwhelming public Square I have visited, yes it has historical significance and the scale is monumental but ………………that’s it! The square, despite the smog and drizzle, was packed with picnickers, blankets spread on the dire grey concrete. I made haste to grab my ticket to the Forbidden City. I’d been there in 1990, it was less than claustrophobic, no doubt due to 1989s events. Today however the scenario was oh so different.

1989 had been the catalyst to a new China (faux communist capitalist) the fastest growing economy in the world.  The rise in the standard of living brings with it greater demand for leisure and vacation, hence domestic tourism. I spotted the odd European but the majority of visitors appeared to be Chinese, all one trillion of them descending upon the Forbidden City on the day of my return.  At this juncture I have to confess the plonker that I have become had forgotten it was Saturday! The scale of this place is phenomenal and it is as interesting as Tiananmen is NOT. Quite simply it is a walled section of old Peking, built in the 15th century, containing the imperial palace and other buildings of the imperial government of China.

After passing in the shadow of the gargantuan portrait of Chairman Mao I walked through the entrance which overlooks a massive courtyard where Emperors could address up to 100,000 people at the same time. The Meridian gate marks the beginning of the Forbidden City, hundreds of people flowed through filtering like ants across this massive courtyard. It is called the Forbidden City in Bejing because citizens where not allowed in there. Only royals, guards, house staff and political employees were allowed to visit this part of Beijing.

The City was trammelled in ritualistic and religious ideology. The Yongle Emperor, born Zhu Di, was the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty in China, reigning from 1402 to 1424. The very structure of the Forbidden City was conceived by the Yongle emporers tutor, a visionary monk. He imagined an extraterrestrial city, where the Lord of Heaven resided in a purple enclosure (believed to be a constellation formed by 15 heavenly bodies turning round the polestar). According to Chinese cosmology, the colour purple was a symbol of joy and happiness and also that of the polestar. So the Emperor established himself as the Son of Heaven, with the mandate to maintain harmony between the human and natural world, balancing the vastness of nature with a uniform modular system of rectangular courtyards and buildings. He and his city became linked to the divine forces of the universe. Therefore, the domicile of the Emperor was a purple city at the centre of the temporal world.  Yongle’s residence became known as Zi Jin Cheng, meaning ‘City (Cheng), of the polestar (Zi), where one cannot enter (Jin)’. The literal meaning of China (Chonghua) is ‘the country at the centre’, leading to the idea of the Forbidden City being at the very centre of the world.

I decided to skirt the perimeters to avoid the main crowds, crisscrossing when I wanted a closer view of the architecture. The photos tell the story, fine architecture skillfully executed, a myriad of characters visiting one of the world’s superlative tourist attractions. It’s in a nutshell magnificent and awe-inspiring, enigmatic, puzzling and  fascinating, that is how I would describe the Forbidden City or Palace Museum.

Emerging at the North gate the numpty turned right with my built-in compass providing its usual reliability. The compass may be reliable but the built in distance estimator is completely knackered. I walked for around three hours strolling through hutongs, into closed hutongs with no exits, stopping at markets, chatting to kids, stroking dogs and trying street snacks before stumbling across a subway station. I’d forgotten how useful the iPhone is when in Korea, in China is was just an expensive Oggl camera and not my navigational saviour. I realised from the subway map I had another long walk back to the hotel and decided to take the subway to the Buddhist Lama Temple (Yonghegong).

The temple sits behind high walls on a major Beijing thoroughfare lined with Buddhist vendors selling incense and other offering plus a full range of paraphernalia. The temple was alive but not overcrowded, the wide-ranging cross-section of worshippers made offerings of the monumentally sized joss sticks. Relaxed months relaxed, mingled and chatted to them as they rose from prayer. The thick incense clung to the air and made the atmosphere feel quite intimate. I spent a relaxing half hour just watching the world go by before leaving to walk the two subway stops to my hotel. In the evening I enjoyed braised ox tail in The Crescent Moon muslim restaurant (click here for details).

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