We arrived in China yesterday afternoon at about 12:30 Beijing time. The smog was really bad and a white haze hung over the tarmac. We found our guide and our group and the bus took us in to the city. Beijing is nothing like what I had imagined. Given it’s huge size (over 16 million people live in the city and 1.3 billion live in China) I assumed it would be congested, dirty and chaotic. It is none of these things. The first thing I noticed driving into the city was how green it was. The city has built a windbreak around the entire municipality in an effort to keep out the yellow sand from the Gobi desert. Apparently it has been successful so far. The expressway from the airport is lined with huge trees and all different kinds of flowers, vines and bushes. As we drove through the “Manhattan” area of Beijing we were all impressed with how organized and clean everything is. There are garbage cans along the streets (something Korea has yet to institute) and people employed to sweep the streets all day long. Everywhere I looked there were flowers. The interesting thing is that all of the flowers are in small, individual pots. They are then arranged into different shapes and designs. I just kept trying to imagine how long something like that would last at home. I am quite sure that the designs would be ruined sooner than later and that a lot of people would have their own little pots of flowers at home!
Beijing is surrounded by a huge moat built hundreds of years ago to protect the city. It is also guarded by massive stone gates and towers. The city seems to be well designed (admittedly they have had a long time to work on it) and there are separate bike paths that run parallel to many of the main roads. They are often more congested with bikes than the streets are with cars. Everywhere we looked we could see some kind of construction going on. The preparations for the 2008 Olympics are in full swing. Already I am excited to see the Olympics – I am sure that the world will be as impressed as I am with the beauty of Beijing.
The first place we visited was the Temple of Heaven. It was built in 1420 A.D during the Ming Dynasty, as an offering to Heaven. It is magnificent. The temple walls and floors are covered in marble and the pillars in gold. The main temple has three levels reaching up into the sky. Each level represents a level of life: the earth, the sky and the people. At the time the temple was built, people believed that the earth was square and that heaven was round. To represent this idea, there are two walls inclosing the temple. An inner circular wall and an outer square wall. The inner circular wall was built so that if you speak into it, a person on the opposite side of the courtyard should be able to hear you quickly. The Chinese were very skilled at architecture with function - in this case, making use of echoes. Brian went up to the wall and yelled “I love Caroline” at the top of his lungs. It was so funny. Everyone in the temple heard him and it had nothing to do with echoes!
The central temple area is surrounded by beautiful parks and courtyards. Everything is so green and beautiful. The skies were very blue today and there were dozens of kites dotting the sky. The kites here are almost as impressive as the temples! They have long kites with a line of faces heading towards the clouds and huge kites shaped like birds and planes. It was great to watch the old men and little children fly their kites in such a beautiful sky and in such a beautiful place. The courtyards were full of people selling “Rolex” watches and postcards. We managed to buy a Beijing book for only 20 yuan which works out to about three dollars Canadian. Not a bad deal.
We bumped into an older couple at the Temple who had "motorhomed" to Beijing from Holland! We couldn't believe it! I hope I can do something like that when I am retired. Which hopefully should happen in the next five years.
We went to a dai restaurant for dinner last night. The Dai are a Chinese culture located on the borders between China and Myanmar. The restaurant was really neat and all of the servers were dressed in traditional Dai costumes. They had a stage set up with dancing and traditional musicians. It was all very colourful and beautiful. We ate our first Chinese meal and I was very impressed. They brought all sorts of dishes to our table and set them on what is basically a large, glass lazy Susan. You just spin the centre of the table and take whatever you want. One of the dishes was a bird (I have no idea what kind of bird!) in a wooden tube. They cook the bird in what looks like bamboo and then empty it onto a plate. It was really good!
After dinner we headed to the Beijing opera. The opera has existed for over 200 years and is a large part of Chinese art culture. It was banned during the cultural revolution (1966-1976) but was re-introduced in 1978. By then, the world had changed and the opera no longer drew the crowds it once did. The opera has been referred to as a dying art. It started off kind of slow but it got better as the the show progressed. The makeup and dancing was really beautiful and I knew I was watching something from an entirely different time and an entirely different culture.
We were exhausted after such a busy day and headed to bed as soon as we booked into our hotel, the Garden View Beijing Hotel. The first thing I noticed were the fluffy pillows…feather-filled fluffy pillows. Now, I am deathly allergic to feathers and cannot sleep on down pillows so we called the front desk to ask for synthetic pillows. They sent a bell-boy up to help us out. We explained the situation as best we could and waited for him to come back with our new pillows. He was very prompt. He returned shortly with…two new feather pillows. We thanked him and smiled. Now we had six feather pillows! We made a pillow out an extra blanket and some towels. We were so tired we were asleep before our heads hit the...blanket.