Monday, October 26, 2009

Hutongs, Dagobas, Squares, and Forbidden Cities

October 17th, our first full day in Beijing!!

The day started with a quick browse through the hostel menu. We were happy to see they offered a western breakfast. This was expensive by local standards at ¥28 (~$4.5 after bank fees) for tea or coffee, toast, a heavily peppered egg, some baconesque meat with tasty sauce, and some fruit. The result was that we were happy to consume it and they were quite happy to serve it. Everybody happy! The only downside was that ``coffee`` turned out to mean ``instant (or perhaps low quality) with milk and a staggering amount of sugar``. Not a diabetics dream, and not really what any of us preferred. After a few amusing attempts to explain the concept of sugarless coffee we switched to tea for future breakfasts.

Local Strolling
We were still pretty excited about our accommodations being so marvelously stereotypically Chinese. The view of the White Dagoba, or Miaoying Temple from the roof was particularly nice. In subsequent days it also proved an invaluable landmark as it could be seen from far around.

After breakfast we took a stroll through the hutong outside our hostel. Among other things we witnessed feral chickens and a man making some sort of bread or pastry foodstuff by smoothing some sort of dough across a very thin, steaming, spinning disk.

We eventually managed to meander over to the front entrance of the Miaoying Temple. It was quite nice and featured a bell. This was the best kind of bell: ringable (for ¥1). We each gave it a wack and then a small boy, evidently in an effort to one-up us, raced over and started beating it over and over again. Temple staff appeared vaguely amused at the barbarians fascination with the bell. The inside of the complex was very nice, with a number of buddha statues and the like, but unfortunately the actual dagoba was closed off so we couldn`t go up it.

Tienanmen Square
A quick ¥20ish cab (note: 'cab' is not familiar to English-speaking Chinese. Use 'taxi' instead.) ride took us to a mysterious structure near Tien'anmen Square. We eventually later determined this to be some sort of opera-house theater.

We strolled south-east and got into Tien'anmen via the rather serious looking security station. Our observation of future security stations revealed that security is for locals; foreign people are basically waved through.

Tien'anmen Square was ... a square. It had some structures, mostly large rather uninspired looking ones but was overall mostly impressive for being a big square. Curiously a building in the middle of it essentially divides it in two so rather than being a truly massive rectangular space with the Forbidden City south entrance at the north end and the gates at the south it is instead essentially two smaller squares. From the north end Mao gazes out southward over the square from the entrance to the Forbidden City.

Forbidden City
Absolutely amazing. A huge complex built with exquisite detail and workmanship full of displays of staggering artifacts. Any little detour was likely to land us in a new exhibit and all the exhibits were quite good. For example, we strolled up a ramp to get a better view and meandered into a display of Cartiers jewels. This was probably more impressive than the crown jewels at the Tower of London to us as the Tower tended to display large chunks of valuable material that from what we recall were generally not as aesthetically pleasing as these. Large numbers of tourists trying to use flash photography on artifacts behind glass - again and again, evidently not learning from initial results - was quite amusing, though it did mean that to get any photos that were decent it was necessary to shoot in the intervals between flashes.

Walking off the main tourist path (straight from south to north, skipping all side exhibits (where exhibit is 'large building full of artifacts') was very rewarding as there were many magnificent exhibits with relatively few tourists. The Forbidden City had the most external tourists we'd seen; perhaps as many as one in fifteen people were non-Chinese.

We enjoyed lunch in a cafe inside the Forbidden City. Clearly tourist prices, a plate of curry and rice cost ¥30 (just under $5!). China pricing is AWESOME despite that we are told it has gotten much more expensive in the last 10 or so years.

One of the most amusing displays was the clock and watch (imported in most cases, very few Chinese works on display) exhibit. After a rather baffling series of redirections to non-existent ticket boothes we eventually got in and began to view the exhibit only to find that many of the clock builders seemed to have been inspired by the Discworld in that clocks on the back of elephants (or rhinos or whatever) were the norm. If they had simply been placed on top of a giant turtle it would have been perfect. The result of this speculation was that we wound up wandering the displays of clocks laughing. The display of the imperial footrest clock that played music when pressure was applied alongside the table-clock, the rooster-clock, and various other music-producing clocks led us to wonder just what kind of cacophany erupted on the hour in the imperial suite.

Eventually we wandered out the north end of the Forbidden City at closing time and headed right into Jingshan Park (literally right accross the street) after admiring the back of the Forbidden City and a particularly good Engrish sign.

Jingshan Park


Just north of the Forbidden City is Jingshan Park. This is an artificial hill with a series of pagodas, each higher on the hill and more pagoda-y than the next, makes for a very nice stroll. ¥2 to enter, the pagodas also give nice views out over Beijing and in particular, looking down over the Forbidden City. The view would be magnificent if it didn't also highlight the smog.

Unfortunately, while hopping up onto a raised walkway in the top pagoda the crotch of Rod's old jeans tore a bit. Based on the lack of pointing and jeering this was deemed not so serious as to require immediate attention. The view out with the sun dipping toward the horizon was quite nice. The White Dagoba was visible!

Fancy Street
After Jingshan we figured we would head over and try some Peking duck. Unfortunately getting a cab between Jingshan and the Forbidden City was for some inexplicable reason impossible so we decided to walk back south along the Forbidden City walls, past Tien'anmen, and into the streets south of it where many vendors and restaurants are found.

We eventually reached Fancy Street (our name for it, not sure what it is actually called) where the highly recommended Quan Ju De restaurant was rumoured to reside.

We eventually found the restaurant but it was full so a waitress led us off down a maze of side-streets to a much less fancy second location. The duck was very good, though a bit fatty to our taste. The metal staple in the veggies and the allowance for smoking inside the restaurant were somewhat less fun. Still, overall it was a highly enjoyable meal.

Lao She Teahouse
Happy with our duck and not yet ready to call it a day, we headed to the highly recommended Lao She Teahouse. We had seen a picture of in Lonely Planet Beijing featuring a man with a teapot with a spout several feet long pouring and aspired to see the show. We figured it would be expensive by local standards but we had no idea. For tea and a show they demanded a mind-boggling ¥380 ($60ish) per person. This may be compared to going to a touristy, nice, restaurant for three people in the Pingyao walled city (eg tourist central) costing ¥250 TOTAL or admittance to the Forbidden City being ¥60.

The tea at Lao She was OK (it got rather strong if you didn't drink it really fast) and they gave a little selection of snacks but overall the price seemed pretty ludicrous relative to what everything else was costing us. On the plus side a show was provided, featuring a variety of short acts of local types. A man balanced - and bounced - some pretty large pots, kung fu was shown, a lady impersonated a tortured cat (opera), curious local music was played, a man did some magic tricks with ropes, and a cool display of the expected long-spout teapot whirling was performed.

Overall it was worth the price, though thus far it is holding the record as most expensive thing we have done by a rather wide margin.

After Lao She we endeavored to get a taxi home. This was made exciting by the propensity of Chinese travellers to simply walk in front of you and start signaling cabs rather than waiting in line. After 15-20 minutes all the people who were legitimately ahead of us had cleared. We charged a cab, got to it and started trying to explain where we wanted to go only to have a group of Chinese walk up and climb into the two right-hand seats of the car! We were about to accept another defeat until Pavan simply climbed into the right-hand seat. This and our glaring seemed to worry the cab-thieves and they slunk away. The cabby then seemed not to want to take us (our hostel was a bit off the main cab-routes and better customers were plentiful) but we feigned ignorance and he eventually gave up trying to boot us and drove us back.

Not a bad first day!!

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