Sunday, January 24, 2010

Beijing -- Part 1

Alright! Let's get started . . . we're back from our wonderful (and cold) travels in China and Tibet. Our first stop was Beijing - judging by the size of the airport terminal (1 of 3) we knew the city was going to be a big place!

We once read in a guide book, "If you visit China, at some point you will get ripped off." We didn't expect it to happen so soon. After traveling through Thailand and Cambodia, we considered ourselves somewhat 'travel savvy' and we had read up on the various scams that are common in China so we felt prepared. We ignored all of the offers for rides from 'taxi drivers' inside the terminal and went straight for the official taxi queue. We waited our turn and followed the airport security guard's signal to get into the next cab. We hopped in and, soon after, a 2nd guy gets into the front passenger seat and the taxi speeds away. Well, we were a bit alarmed but the guy was speaking a little English to us and was helping the taxi driver find our guesthouse on the map so we didn't panic, yet. Then, I noticed the meter wasn't running. Some arguments ensued and we were given a glossy card with the 'official fares' written on it. "400RMB from airport to downtown Beijing" but our guidebook quoted 90RMB." Some more arguing ensued and when the driver realized we weren't going to cough up the money he pulled over and said "GET OUT!!". Well, we would have except . . . . we were on the shoulder of the highway in the middle of China!! Anyway, we bartered and bartered and argued some more. After about 20 minutes of this we ended up handing over 250RMB ($37US - 2 and a half times what it should be) and he agreed to take us to our hostel. Man, what a way to start our vacation! Oh well, we got over it and got our 'promise of a ripoff' over with.

At least our guesthouse was awesome! It was called the "Templeside Hutong House" and it was in an old Hutong district a little bit North of the Forbidden City. The Hutong's are old neighborhoods in alleyways that still look like the China you would imagine. Butchers, markets, people on rickshaws and bicycles . . .really cool . . .

Our first morning, we decided to head to the heart of the city. Tian'anmen Square, the largest city square on the planet and the place where the famous protests happened in 1989. Tian'anmen means 'Heavenly Gate' and the square was named after the gate in the picture below - the gate to the Forbidden City.

The square was full of tourists and we were a hot target for group photos!

We would end up back at this square quite a few times during our tour of China.

Our next stop was at Beijing's Drum and Bell Towers called 'Gulou and Zhonglou'. They were used as musical instruments and acted as giant clocks for the people in the city.

The Drum Tower was built in the time of Kublai Khan (1200's) and the drums were played at dusk to let the people know it was 'quitting time' at work.

We timed our visit to the drum tower so that we could catch the traditional performance. It was really good - those big drums made a big sound!

Next was the adjacent bell tower - steep climb!

This is what it was all about . . . the big bell at the top. It was played in the morning to start the day.

We had some dinner arrangements booked with some friends from Toronto but had some time left over so we wandered to a nearby Hutong district. It was quite lively with shopping, bars, and restaurants.

But our eyes were on the river. We saw a bunch of people on chairs speeding across the ice! This seems to be a classic winter activity in Asia (we've seen it in Korea, too). They attach giant blades to the bottom of school chairs and give modified screwdrivers as ice-picks. We had to try it out. Good Fun!

Well, we had worked up an appetite and headed off to meet our friends for dinner. They took us to a really fancy place to show us what real Chinese Food tastes like. It was delicious . . . here's what real Kung Pao Chicken looks like . . . we also had fish, stir-fried vegetables, cashew chicken, lotus root, pork, . . . the works!

On the left is Kiki, then Stella and Yao Yao. They used to work with Shawna at The Green Beanery in Toronto and have since moved back home to Beijing. They would end up being an integral part of our trip to Beijing and really made our time there 100% better. They were fabulous hosts!

After dinner, we went to "The Place". A giant mega-mall that was hosting an outdoor New Year's Party. They had the biggest screen I've ever seen blanketing the entire square.

We rang in the New Year with a massive crowd of Beijingnese party people.

The next morning we were off to the Forbidden City - China's Imperial Palace for over 500 years.

This looks like the paparazzi! Judging by this display you'd think the Emperor himself was inside the throne room!

We were lucky. Since we didn't understand Chinese and the closing time in our guide book was off by a halfhour, we didn't notice the announcements to get out. We were some of the last people to leave and were able to snap some 'crowd-less' photos.

Before we finally left the Forbidden City we caught a glimpse of the guards taking down the flag at Tian'anmen square. These soldiers are trained to march at strictly 108 steps per minute and exactly 75cm per step. Very impressive . . . and just a little bit scary!

Well, next up --- we'll be going to the Temple of Heaven - Eating Peking Duck - and starting our epic journey to Tibet. Stay tuned!

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