Friday, January 15, 2010

Beijing - Pace yourself to keep pace

On the Emperor's family bridge in the Forbidden City
Tour itineraries - and as a first-timer you'll be glad you're on one - rarely devote more than two days to China's capital which can be a shame or a good thing, especially for Levelers.

My introduction to Beijing was like looking through a thick brown scrim; the city and color will be etched together forever in my mind. Someone said a dust storm from the Gobi had filled the air with brown particulates. As if your jet-lagged vision  weren't bleary enough, air pollution coats everything.

Tip: After the 24 hours it takes most of us to get there, the next two days will be something of a fog. If you can handle the air quality or lack thereof, I advise at least a three-day stay. Give yourself a day to further explore your favorite sites when your brain is clearer and more receptive. Or, return to Beijing at the end of your trip and spend a few days before flying home.

If you luck into one of those rare, clear and sunny days, push yourself to the limit and see as much as you can. Rest when the air is muddy.

The layout. Beijing is a big city surrounded by four ring roads crammed with cars, trucks, scooters and bicycles circling monuments from the past and today's government buildings; think Washington, D.C. with many more residents and tourists.

The first ring road surrounds the heart of government past and present - the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square. The second encloses the hotel and retail center and the third the prime office and apartment core. The "quaint" of your imagination, assuming any is left, is hidden down obscure alleys or preserved and presented as tourist attractions.

Tip: Realize at the outset that you'll barely reach the surface much less scratch it here (or anywhere in China for that matter). If you are on a tour, it will of necessity be regimented and you may spend more time in Friendship stores and cloisonne factories than at major sites. If you can afford a private guide and driver you still will go to those (I think they have to take you), but you'll be able to leave sooner and stay longer at what you want to see.

What to see. Let's start with most everyone's two list toppers.

The Great Wall. Badaling, where most of us including the Chinese visit, is a half-day trip and while we know the wall is big - 20-30-feet high, 25 feet wide at the base. 16 feet at the top and 3,930 miles long - how much you see and your overall impression depends on weather conditions when you visit. Crowds, clouds and fog can limit your vision to what is under your feet. After climbing the stairs and ramps to reach the top, I hobbled through two guard posts/watch towers hoping the fog would clear (I was on a cane then, pre-knee replacement). When I asked Li-li, my guide, what I'd see if I walked farther, she said to turn around. In other words, the same.

 Tip: Don't knock yourself out here. If you want more "private" wall moments, there are other, less trafficked portions near Beijing, but I wouldn't recommend them for Levelers. This is the most touristy because it's the easiest to negotiate and most completely restored. Your guide probably will have you eat at the restaurant here and visit the large store adjacent to it. The food was fair and the souvenir prices were high.

There are great photo-ops besides the ancient structure and the fascinating groups, couples and families wall-walking with you. As hokey as it is, wish I'd taken/had the time to don the costume of a Mandarin emperor, princess or concubine and have my picture taken astride the Bactrian (two-hump) camel or the Tang-like white stallion - preferably both!

The Forbidden City. This will be the most challenging must-see for Levelers. There is no way around it, you have to walk to see it. Fortunately, it's flat. There are stairs but they come at intervals and there are places to sit or prop.

This is a monumental exercise in dynastic aggrandizement and is almost as impressive now as it was meant to be. Not as daunting, though, because most of us Westerners are unaware of the stringent protocol that was rigidly and brutally enforced. All you see was designed to emphasize the emperor's importance and godliness, to enhance his success in bringing peace and harmony to the nation and to ensure his safety.

Gates, more like buildings than mere openings, have several entrances, the smallest for mortals, the largest for the emperor. Likewise, three bridges cross a moat - one for the emperor, another for his family, the third for those who served them.

Every stud, sculpture and color has meaning. Walls and columns are red, the lucky color, Roof tiles are yellow, a color representing gold, food, water, earth and fire reserved for the emperor. Floor tiles add up to lucky numbers, protective statues glare out from the eaves. Nothing was left to chance in the 8,700 halls and buildings. Most are off limits to visitors.

The emperor's garden, a small gem of vistas, paths and viewing pavilions, is the only comfortable space and the only place in the Forbidden City where you will find trees or greenery.

1. Nothing should be higher than the emperor.
2. Trees in courtyards were not considered auspicious.
3. Trees could hide spies or snipers.

Tip: Schedule your visit - several hours if you can - so that by the time you have gone from one end of the Forbidden City to the other, it is time for lunch and a bit of sitting. When you are rested, return to take in Tiananmen Square.

There is so much I missed inside the halls because my knees were killing me, but I wouldn't take anything for what I did see and I know where I'll head if and when I return.

The Summer Palace. Or, more accurately, the Idyllic Garden of Ease and Harmony, has all the pleasure in its 700 acres that the Forbidden City lacks. Emperors and their entourages found relief from the city's heat, hubbub and formality in this compound of lakes and palaces during the 19th century and Beijingers and tourists do today.

On any given day thousands stroll along the lake front, sit under under the ornamented covered arcade known as the Long Hall admire the pocket gardens and river rocks, wander palace structures and sail across the lake in dragon boats, large barge-like incarnations or small, bright plastic pedal versions.

In short, it's a delightful way to spend an afternoon although you could take months getting to know its nooks, crannies and vistas.

Tip: Yes, you'll walk, but it, too, is relatively flat, there are ample places to rest in the shade, vendors of food, drink and souvenirs at each of the four gates and fascinating people watching.

Tian Park and Temple of Heaven. In Dynastic days,  this is where the emperor communicated via sacrifice with Shangdi, the Pearly Emperor Supreme of the Sky.

I've read glowing reports of the temple's architectural grandeur and the park surrounding it is idyllic and as unstructured as any open space I saw in Beijing.

Unfortunately, I was taken there straight from the airport - the plane had been delayed by several hours - for dinner. Those dust particulates darkened the twilight and jet lag blurred the vistas.

I remember brown, a large fancy dining room that had seen better days and good food once I got over the oddness of being the only person not only at the table but in the room (everyone else was at tables outside). There I was, seated at a huge round table upon which a banquet's worth of food was brought and placed on the lazy susan by staff that stood by silently watching my every bite. Bizarre.

"Flower fish, chicken with peanuts, braised lettuce, dumplings" is what I find in my notebook - not much help. I do remember lots of steps leading up to the temple and suspect the park would be a great place to go to meet Beijingers.

Which brings up
Eating.  Hotels frequented by tourists offer Chinese- and Western-style breakfast fare. Your guide will have preselected stops for lunch and dinner although if you are traveling without a group, you probably can arrange changes if you have a particular restaurant in mind.

No trip to Beijing - Peking in former times - however, would be complete without a Peking Duck Dinner. I know there are less touristy places but Beijing has its more egalitarian version of Tour d'Argent, Paris's duck joint, and I'm glad I was taken to Quanjude. Don't be deterred by the very large, very yellow plastic ducky by the entrance; it's a nice place. I was seated in a cavernous but grand dining room on fifth floor - there's an elevator - just beyond the duck ovens.

Tip: Duck banquets can have so many courses the quack gets cooked twice but I'd recommend the basic dinner. Don't fill up on the pre courses - duck soup and beef with onions - because the whole, crispy skinned duck is ahead. Here, as in every other restaurant I was taken to, a plate of fruit, usually melon, signals the end of the courses.


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