Monday, November 2, 2009

Last Day in Beijing

October 21st, our last day in Beijing.

We planned to take it fairly easy, being a little footsore from the Great Wall the day before. As we had seen rather a lot of imperial buildings and temples we decided to try something a little different and figured we'd walk from our huton to the back lakes, perhaps see Prince Gong's, maybe swing by the bell and drum towers, then grab some dinner and get on our overnight train to Pingyao. Initially the route was as we had pictured, through our hutong and it's usual collection of characters. A small workcrew on a man-powered trike, a decaying old electric bike, and of course a man taking his pet cinderblocks for a morning ride were the highlights.

After existing the hutong heading on some street in a direction we hoped was east it began to dawn on us that our map had a few minor flaws. First, it was zoomed out enough many streets were missing and distances were deceptive. Second, the translation to English for our map was not a 100% match to the street signs so it was a bit hit and miss as to whether even large streets could be matched up with the map. Luckily the map indicated numerous McDonalds so we attempted to use them as indicators ("should be approaching an intersection with a McDonalds on the far left if we're going East..."). This strategy was semi-foiled by the apparent relocation efforts of McDonalds, or possibly because the map only indicated really big impressive ones. Either way, the McDonalds navigation system had to be abandoned. At around this point we began to hit a nice area with tourists and touristy alleys so we decided to just enjoy the ride and keep going. We eventually found a physical map and as far as we could tell it looks like we got onto a street that was less straight than it seemed and some point and while heading generally East we had headed less due East than we had hoped. Luckily we were in the vicinity of Prince Gong's Mansion anyway so we headed thataway.

The mansion was quite nice but compared to the palaces we'd been seeing it was really nothing special. The gardens and the little lake in the back were definitely the highlight. We had lunch in our most black-knight safe location yet.

In the gardens we found the Chinese answer to the La-Z-Boy. Bear in mind these are the people who thought a porcelain pillow might be pretty awesome.

After Prince Gong's we finally had a definitive landmark that was supported by both reality and our map so we headed for the back lakes. There were lots of rather fancy looking restaurants along the lakes, little boats, guys flying long chains of little kites, and even some swimmers. We were a bit surprised to see swimmers. The lakes are also evidently a popular wedding photography spot; we saw several photo parties. In the distance you can see the bell and drum towers on the east side of the lakes.

We decided to walk over to the bell and drum towers and were presently surprised to find a drum performance going on when we got up the Drum Tower.

The Drum Tower also had a rather awesome ancient time-keeping instrument. Essentially water flows down a series of hoppers, each with what must be a remarkably precisely measured spout to pour into the next one down. This is then linked up to a mechanism that causes a statue of a guy to clap on regular intervals. Transcribed below is the note from the nearby plaque:

"Bronze Kelou

Bronze Kelou was once set up for time measurement at the Drum Tower, however, it is no lost. It was recorded in historical books that the Drum Tower was named as "Qizheng" in the ancient times. The Bronze Kelou was very exquisite and it was passed on from one generation to the next, it was regarded as the old article from the early Song Dynasty. There are four copper clepsydras (devices for measuring time by regulating the flow of water through a small opening) in it; the top one is called Tianchi, the next is called Pingshui, the next is called Wanfen, and the lowest is called Shoushui. The God of Cymbals and some mechanical structure are set up in the middle part. When the time arrives, the cymbals are struck eight times for every quarter hour. According to relevant historical documents, the cultural relic storage station of the Bell and Drum Tower and the Suzhou Ancient Chronometer Instrument Research Institute have successfully researched and made a replica of the "Bronze Kelou". The research and replication was aided by the National Natural Science Foundation."

Pretty cool stuff. The Drum Tower also has a nice view south towards what looks to be Jingshan park. You can also see the rounded dome of the mysterious `probably opera and theater` house, or if you look a little further West, the White Dagoba.

Across from the Drum Tower is the Bell Tower. The Bell Tower was also used for time-keeping. The bell is simply monstrous and according to the literature the building itself is specifically built to help the sound resonate so the noise must be quite impressive. Sadly it was a bell of the un-ringable variety.

The Bell Tower, not to be outdone by the Drum Tower`s Bronze Kelou, had a "touching folk legend" to go along with it, transcribed below.

"Legend of the Bell-Casting Goddess

There is a touching folk legend about the casting of the bronze bell in ancient times.

It is said that in the year when the Bell Tower was built, the Emperor ordered the casting of a large bell to be used for time announcement in the capital, he called all the craftsmen from around the country to come to the capital to cast the bell. A long time had passed, and still the bell was not completely cast. The Emperor was becoming impatient, so he ordered that the bell should be cast within a limited period, otherwise all the craftsman would be beheaded. As the time limit was fast approaching, the bell casting kept failing repeatedly. Hua Yan, an old coppersmith, was burning with anxiety. His daughter, Hua Xian, also thought the bell casting was so difficult this time, perhaps there was some spiritual reason behind it, so she asked her dad to allow her to have a look around the site used for the bell casting.

On the final day of the bell casting, appointed officials from the court and the leaders of the craftsmen all arrived at the site where liquid copper was bubbling in the furnace. Master Hua Yan shook his head several times in dismay, he knew the last furnace of liquid copper would fail again soon, and that he and all the craftsmen were on the point of being beheaded. At that moment, Lady Hua Xian rushed to the furnace and said to her father "Look at the sky! What's that?" Master Hua raised his head and watched the sky, seeing that there were colored clouds floating closer and closer. Just then, Hua Xian jumped inot the furnace. The old coppersmith quickly tried to grab her, but there was only an embroidered choe left in his hand. Suddenly, the fire rose, and the liquid copper churned, Master Hua gave out the order "Cast the bell" while resisting the pain in hi sheart. The craftsmen banded together and the large bell was finally cast successfully.

In order to commemorate Lady Hua Xian, a temple named Jinlu Shengmu Zhuzhong Niangniang Temple (Temple of the Golden Furnace Bell-Casting Goddess) was built at #24, Xiaheihu Hutong. You can still find the temple there today."

After the Bell Tower, we enjoyed a meal at what we had read was a very expensive Vietnamese style restaurant on the back lakes. Once again, the local definition of expensive was rather nice. For ¥287 (about $46) we fed the three of us. Of particular note, the orange duck was rather good and the orange onions that came along with it were absolutely outstanding.

Our next target was our overnight train. We had booked hard-sleepers because people warned us that although the soft sleepers were somewhat nicer, train officials often took bunks in them and felt empowered to chain smoke. The train station was staggeringly packed. With giant backpacks on our backs and somewhat smaller ones strapped in front we staggered through the crowds to find our bunks. Rather basic bunks. In cars with nowhere you could possibly sit for an extended period. According to Chris, these may have been the least impressive trains he`d seen, and that included some pretty dodgy countries.

We hung out and fiddled a little with cards and some pictures from places Chris had visited before meeting up with us until about 8:30, then decided to checkout the dining car. It proved to be full of smoking Chinese men, dining on rather unappealing looking food. At train inflated prices, three tall-boy beers, three waters, and two iced teas ran us ¥47 ($7.5). It is going to be very hard to go back to North America prices!!

We put the big Brio packs up on the storage shelf but we wanted to keep our second packs with key valuables in them near us (plus there was no other option). Pavan and Chris were able to more or less fit into their respective beds. Rod was rather longer than his.

The train also came equipped with the latest in modern sanitation facilities.

Only 10 hours to Pingyao! On the upside, once it got moving the sound of the rails was actually quite soothing and the people on the train were very considerate about being quiet so it was actually semi-restful and possible to get at least a little sleep.

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