It was just coming towards the end of September 2004 and I had been in China for just over a month. The Chinese Mid-autumn festival (Moon Cake Festival) was approaching and all of my colleagues were going on vacation during that week. I had so many choices ranging from Thailand, India, Singapore and cities within China. Nevertheless in the end I chose to visit the capital city, Beijing. This was my first trip to a Chinese city outside of Guangzhou and I couldn’t wait to get going. Booking flights and accommodation was bit of an experience for me for a number of reasons; firstly I could not speak Chinese so I could not join a tour and secondly most places were fully booked because of the peak holiday season…I also felt a bit guilty that I had always relied upon friends and colleagues to translate for me and that’s when I also started making a serious effort at learning Mandarin.
In the end I decided that I was going with a tour group however I was only to stay at the same hotel as them, everything else I decided to do it myself as I am a fond tourist and quite an adventurer anyways.
I remember that even though it was the first week of October, the air in Guangzhou was still quite warm and humid on the morning of my departure date. Hurrying to the airport in a rush I finally managed to find my tourist group, who, like most tour groups in China, were carrying bright saffron coloured triangular flags. After the three hour morning flight on a China Southern Airlines Boeing 757-200 aircraft, I finally arrived at Beijing Capital Airport where the temperature was almost freezing and the air was dry with little humidity, which was much fresher than the highly humid and sticky Guangzhou that I had left nearly 4 hours behind me in the south- suddenly it seemed as if I had come to a different country! However, the truth was that for the next five days every experience, every sound and every smell and every taste would echo loudly in my ear that I’ve arrived somewhere magical, somewhere special…and even the cold temperatures didn’t deter me from enjoy moment of it.
This is the beauty of being in China I suppose that because it’s such a massive country that you are bound to come across not just different cultures however different climates as well considering if you travel from east to west or from north to south; and vice versa. Of course as a first time visitor to a country or a city so far away, like most tourists, I found Beijing to be a great place to be in, and I wished I could stay there forever...rather see it with my eyes than keep it in my heart I’d say.
Whenever I’m in Beijing I feel like I am in the real ancient China because you are always surrounded by a bit of history which ever street or building you are in, and amazingly unlike the rest of China, even though Beijing is becoming more modernized, nevertheless it still treasures a rich past; one which is to be proud of. The people are nice, the food is scrumptious and the sights are truly more than just breathtaking…from my personal experience no visit to China is complete without paying a visit to this ancient seat of power and tradition!
Before arriving here my knowledge of this splendid city was quite poor, indeed I had heard and seen the Great Wall of China and TiananmenSquare on various media coverage in the UK and I suppose this made me want to discover those places of interest even more than before. I had five days and four nights to explore the place where thousands of years of history were waiting to be absorbed.
After checking into the splendid Renaissance Beijing Hotel in the Yanshan area (Chaoyang District), I headed off with the tour group to Beihai Park for a brief one hour visit before attending dinner at the world famous Quan Ju De Roast Duck (Beijing Duck) Restaurant on 32 Qianmen St (of course not only the oldest restaurant which has been visited by worldwide diplomats and dignitaries, however also very special because of the unique taste of the Beijing Duck that it has); more often than not it’s renowned to be the mother of all Duck restaurants in China! With this in mind it wasn’t at all surprising to observe that it was busy indeed; luck was on my side when the waitress, dressed in an elegant Chinese Traditional costume (Qí Páo, 旗袍), lead us to our reserved room. The chef brought the freshly roasted duck and served it in front of us…and I must say there is nothing quite like it! That crispy taste mixed with bamboo shoots and soy sauce is a sheer luxury and the art of real Chinese cuisine.
After the scrumptious meal we gently strolled across to the fascinating TiananmenSquare, to witness the largest square in the world. For me it was like a dream come true, I had seen it on television many times but I never imagined it would be as big as it is. The famous portrait of the great Chairman Mao still looks on from the front gate of the Forbidden City. It was an amazing moment; just standing in the middle of the square makes you feel and think that this is something really special. Be it day or night, it’s probably not only the largest but also one of the most beautiful and romantic squares in the world.
From day two onwards I was going to travel on my own without the tour party. I had an early breakfast, naturally Chinese, with fresh warm Soybean milk (Dòu jiāng, 豆浆), a white bun made with Cow’s milk along with a sweet egg yolk mixture inside it (奶黄包, Nǎi Huáng Bāo) and a long bread stick with butter (Yóu tiáo,油条). I had pre-arranged to meet one of my Chinese friends who had been kind enough to accompany me to the Forbidden City where 24 Chinese emperors ruled China for over 600 years.
Being in the forbidden city makes you feel as you have step back in time, the remarkable feeling is that I was walking on the same piece of ground that those emperors had been walking on…of course some parts are still the same and some have been renovated. We strolled through the main gates and into TiananmenSquare itself. During the day time it is quite beautiful. I felt lucky to have met Chairman Mao in his Mausoleum; however, we did not talk much (!). I also got the chance to observe the stunning Arts Museum in the square.
The afternoon was spent shopping at the long Wangfujing Dajie for souvenirs before departing to a Beijing bazaar to do window shopping as well have dinner in one of the many local eateries!
Day three: I was going to spend time at the Great Wall (Badaling) in the morning and then the Ming Tombs in the afternoon. The cost of the transportation and tour guide (Chinese Speaking) for the whole day was only 50RMB, this included traveling from Qianmen Gate in the centre of Beijing to Badaling Great Wall, about 2 hours drive in the north of the capital; then to the Ming Tombs, visiting a Beijing Duck factory and a handicraft factory on the way from Great wall to the Ming Tombs and finally visiting a traditional Chinese herbal medicine clinic/museum on the way back to the city centre in the evening.
After weeks of planning I finally arrived at the Great Wall of China. Snaking its way through the lush green mountain tops, it was just like a dream come true for me to even step foot on this speculate of the humankind. Just looking at it makes you wonder how much hard work must have gone into constructing such a marvel. No matter how differently I want to describe the Great Wall before the millions who have before me, I cannot think of any other words except that it simply is a “Magical place”.
Two hours was not enough to absorb the exquisiteness of the place. We made our way to one of the 13 grand Ming Tombs and on the way paid a visit to a Duck factory, where on one side of the factory you see the alive ducks, while on the other side of the factory you see the roasted ones…quite attention-grabbing indeed…each prepared to sheer perfection. Here you can get your hands on all things to do with a Beijing Duck; everything ranging from duck meat sweets (!) to preserved duck food and soups…ironically the only thing you cannot purchase is an alive duck itself!
Then we arrived at the Ming Tombs themselves. Situated here are the tombs of 13 of the 16 Ming Dynasty emperors. Dragon Hill lies to the east and Crouching Tiger Hill to the west. The first emperor to be buried here was Yongle who died in 1424. His tomb, Chang Ling, and that of Emperor Zhu Yijun, Ding Ling, who died in 1620, are the only two opened to visitors today. One of the more impressive sights at the Ming Tombs is the Sacred Way. The Sacred Way runs for about a kilometre and is flanked on both sides by carvings of human and animal figures. There are 12 large stone human figures and 24 of animals, all carved from single blocks of granite in 1435 during the 10th year of the reign of Emperor Xuan De. I spent the evening enjoying the renowned Peking Hot Pot dinner in the city centre.
Day four: I went to the Temple of Heaven in the morning, while the rest of the day was spent looking at the Summer Palace (and you need more than half a day for this!). Words are not enough to describe the exquisiteness and peaceful ambiance of this nature’s gift. Vogue Greece happened to be carrying out a photo shoot in front of the main Lake, much to the unwanted attention from the large crowd which had gathered as the word quickly spread around.
As the evening drew closer I made my way towards a park in the middle of the city centre where there was to be a spectacular fireworks display along with a musical Peking Opera show in the middle of the lake in celebration of the Mid Autumn Festival. This park also accommodates a small zoo at the park with a small number of monkeys and Peacocks as well as other smaller animals, all of whom you can touch without worrying. The opera show was nice with the brightly lit and colourful boat making its way slowly around the lake while the people dressed in traditional costumes told folk Chinese stories through Peking opera. A pleasant ending to a long day.
Day 5: The concluding day of my short trip had arrived quicker than I could say “TiananmenSquare”. I had a late evening flight back to Guangzhou; so subsequently I spent the morning going to Beihai Park again, this time to enjoy a peaceful walk and taking a few last photos. The afternoon was spent walking around the Hutongs that are within the main area around Wangfujing Dajie.
In these walled hutongs you'll find individual residences and courtyards where thousands of Beijingers still live, many astonishingly without modern conveniences of which we take granted for in our lives, such as a fridge, television, an electric cooker or even hot water. Many have opted to move into the more modern apartment buildings, but many still prefer the community style living of the hutong. Like many other Asian countries (India, Thailand etc) there are quite a lot of Rickshaws (3 wheeled cycles powered by a human) and I could not resist but taking a small ride around town.
I took the last flight of the day with China Southern Airlines, this time with a smaller Airbus A318 aircraft which gently flared its way towards a warm and humid Guangzhou at midnight. On the taxi back to my home from the airport, my mind was still fresh with the sights and smells of the past five days and again I had the feeling that I just experienced a long dream, where I ventured in another country and then the reality hit that maybe I may never get the chance to go back again.
However to my delight I surprised myself, after this trip I have had the chance to go to Beijing many more times.
On business trip, I have been lucky to go to Beijing more than five times, and after that I have also had the chance to live in the city for over a year (in the “Shangdi” and “Qi Er Xi” area). It’s a city which does not bore me at all. Every time I go to Beijing, it seems to get more attractive!
It was my first trip to Beijing way back during the Mid-Autumn festival (widely known as the "Moon Cake Festival") in the first week of October 2002; and I was extremely excited at the prospects of actually going to experience the sights and smells of the city at first hand. I had long awaited for this moment and finally that thought was to become reality. Prior to this trip, I had two solid images of Beijing in my mind, the first one was of the Great Wall of China- the image which I suppose most foreigners would have when China is mentioned to them; and the second one was of Tiananmen Square. However that image of Tiananmen Square was the same image that, sadly, showed tanks and student protesters during the 4th June 1989. I was a 9 years old youngster living in London at that time and, obviously, I hardly remember anything at that time. However as the years have passed since that atrocious day in Chinese history, the images we in the UK (and outside of China) have been accustomed to watching are of a young man waving something (a white flag or shirt) and standing in front of a tank in the middle of the square. So on this trip; I was curious to see that square and to stand on that piece of historical land. By all means, it was not the purpose of my trip, however I wanted to see that exact place, and just compare the sight of what life is like in 21st Century Beijing, compared to what I had seen through western Media.
On this trip I was fortunate enough to be accompanied by one of my good friend’s who was kind enough to take a couple of days off her work to show me around. Born and raised in Beijing, educated at the famous Tsinghua University and an aspiring Chinese model/actress, I could not have been in any better company in this splendid city. Arriving on a hot and dry afternoon at my hotel, I spent the final hours of that day sightseeing in central Beijing, having been to look at Beihai Park, the Tian Tan (Temple of Heaven) and eating a scrumptious meal at the acclaimed Duck restaurant on 32 Qianmen Street, I eventually made my way through to Tiananmen Square.
Standing at the largest square in the in the world for the first time was just such a wonderful feeling. I immediately felt as if I was part of China’s history and not just Beijing’s history. It was a quite atmosphere to absorb. The weather was still fairly hot and there was a slight breeze coming in from the south. There were many families, tourists and residents’ alike taking an evening stroll, some taking photos, while others were just whiling away the time chatting amongst themselves. There were also quite a lot of children flying kites, taking advantage of that slight breeze I suppose.
However one thing I did notice which was somewhat difficult to avoid. As a rough estimate, there must have been about two hundred uniformed army and police personnel in the square (possibly more if one includes the non-uniformed ones). Some were marching in line, while others were just standing and watching the crowds. Were they anticipating for something to happen? Was this a routine procedure (or should I say a daily one?)? I did not know the answer to these questions. Nevertheless their presence was all the all a bizarre occurrence to me, as the only time I have seen such high number of police presence is at, say marches or public events (musical concerts and so on)- and here I was standing in Beijing on a perfectly normal and quiet summer’s evening. Every time I got my camera out to take a photo, it had always occurred at the back of my mind, “Is it safe?”, “Will they stop me from taking a photo?” It seems bad that I had these thoughts, but for some reason (I still cannot explain as to why), I always felt a bit fearful of seeing Chinese police. If I, as a foreigner felt this way, I can only imagine what a native Chinese person may feel like.
Just then a group of about 10 soldiers where marching towards us. I took a chance and asked my friend to take a photo of me with the soldiers marching as a backdrop. She asked me to stand in front of a tree, and carefully placed the camera at an angle so that no one could tell that she was talking the photos of the soldiers as well.
My friend and I strolled our way to the south side of the square, and she was happily explaining to me the daily ceremony of raising (at sunrise) and lowering (at sunset) of the national flag by the guards, when I asked her a few questions; and I could not resist the opportunity. “Is this is way the tanks came in from on the 4th of June?”, “Do you remember what you were doing on that day?” Immediately I realized that I made a mistake of even asking her up front. Suddenly her smile disappeared, and she completely ignored my questions. “Is everything alright?” I asked, to which she replied with a simple nod with a straight facial expression before we changed the subject and carried on talking about other things. To this day, I do not understand what was going through her mind, and will probably never know why she ignored my questions. Interestingly, during my many years in China, I had come to realize that this was not just an isolated case, it was quite common for anyone to just suddenly go quiet and change the subject...would be interesting to know if anyone else (Chinese or non-Chinese) has had a similar experience.
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