Bejing Day 5

This post describing our last day in Beijing is being written long after these events took place back in October. We are currently in Arlington, Va (DC) through the end of January after which we will spend a few weeks in Raleigh.

We awoke to cloudy skies followed quickly be a significant drizzle. After our last big Asian breakfast (I really learned to love a pork bun!) we boarded bus 16 for a quick drive to Tiananmen Square where the picture above is one of many taken with strangers that day.

This HUGE space which had been the seating area for guests during the National Day Parade was still decorated for the holiday with TV screens and huge vases of flower which only help to make it difficult to realize just how big it is. It is (according to Wikipedia) 109 acres/440,500 square meters/4,748,040 square feet. This makes it about the same size as the ground area around the Washington Monument in the District of Columbia. It is just huge. Located on the square are museums, the tomb of Chairman Mao and the official national flagpole which is across the street from the Gate of Heavenly Peace which serves as the entrance to the Forbidden City which is where we were heading.

After our long long walk across the square, we (and several thousands of our closest friends) took a tunnel under the wide street and then crossed a moat to reach the Gate of Heavenly Peace on the other side. That’s it above (and below) with Mao’s picture. This is the main gate into the Forbidden City but which had served the other day as the balcony from which the Chinese leader watched the parade and the evening pageant.

Once inside we toured the exterior grounds of this huge palace. It is quite beautiful but the most impressive thing is it’s size. Just enormous.

When we visited Xi’an (Terra Cotta Warriors) Rocky, our guide, had pointed out the upward curve of the roof. He told us to notice how much more curved they were at the Forbidden City-apparently it was a subtle evolution that each Emperor pushed on their buildings- how curved could the roof be. Rocky was right I think, but it’s pretty subtle. The first picture below is from Xi’an and the second from the Forbidden City. In any case, the roofs are pretty incredible.

After a no photo peek through plexiglass into the main building, we went through several courtyards and reached the area where the Emperor’s wives and concubines lived. These spaces were much more intimate and built to a human’s scale.

Along the walkways and in the courtyard were huge bronze pots-turns out these were water reservoirs for firefighting!

The details both wood and terra-cotta and the pavement patterns were beautiful.

As we exited the Forbidden City, we walked through a garden which I’m sure would have been really beautiful on a sunny day (with less people).

After reboarding our bus we headed out of Beijing passing many new modern buildings. It is impossible to portray just how huge the city is but trust me, it’s big.

The port for Beijing is Tianjin, a city of more than 12 million folks located about an hour and a half away. Unfortunately buses in China are only allowed to go 45 mph so it was closer to a two hour drive. Luckily, we stopped in the way for lunch. This was again a banquet hall in a skyscraper just outside Beijing and we had another delicious multi-course meal.

The rest of the drive was uneventful, though it was interesting to hear our fellow passengers (most of whom had arrived in China just two days ago) remark upon the seemingly endless new high rise towns that occurred every few miles along the entire route. Mike and I had grown accustomed to these towns, but it reminded us of our first thoughts in the train ride from Xi’an to Beijing.

Soon we arrived at the port and joined the long queue to check in. This was a first for us with Viking. Normally, there is very little wait. But since most everyone on the ship was using a Viking transfer-those of us on the pre-cruise extension as well as those who either bought (or were given) their air through Viking, I guess we all arrived about the same time.

But soon we were aboard our home for the next 15 days!

You may recall that when we got the email with the promotion that resulted in us changing our original plans (cruise to Japan/fly to Hawaii/cruise to Seattle) to take this cruise and visit China instead, that the promo was a cabin upgrade. Rather than a Veranda cabin (the lowest Viking offers) we were assigned a Deluxe Veranda. The cabin is the same size but in addition to an in-room Nespresso coffeemaker the refrigerator drawer is refilled daily with sodas and snacks. While we were in Japan, we were offered a $199 per person upsell to a Penthouse Veranda. This room is larger (it’s biggest selling point), the fridge is replenished daily but this time includes alcohol and your clothes are pressed for free. After a short discussion, we decided this might be our only chance to experience one of these rooms (if we had of booked it initially it would have cost an additional $1000 per person) so we took the plunge.

As you can see, the room has a large sofa and a chair as opposed to just two chairs and had much more room at the end of the bed making it easier to move around. And since the room is wider, so is the balcony.

Mike and I disagree as to whether we would splurge on this upgrade again. I think I would prefer to put the money towards the alcohol package but Mike really enjoyed having the extra room and the sofa.

Our first task was to use the complementary launderette since we had only a pair of clean socks apiece! We loaded up all four washers on our floor and soon had a pile of clothes ready for the complimentary (or $199 in our case!๐Ÿ˜‚) pressing and the other clothes put away and could start to enjoy being home again on Viking.

Before heading to dinner, we had a glass of bubbly and our usual sushi, shrimp and crab legs on the Aquavit Terrace on the stern of the ship. Tomorrow, we will take the included excursion into Tianjin and then set sail.

National Day

This post is being written in Houston well after the events described below.

I apologize in advance for all the pictures in this post. Most are taken of the television screen in our room with the others taken out our hotel window.

As you’ll recall, when we initially booked the Viking cruise in China, it was done due to a promo they were offering (upgraded stateroom and “free” air). We paid not a whit of attention to the dates so didn’t realize that we would be in China for their National Day (which is really a week). This is their counterpart to the 4th of July in the USA but like everything chinese is at a massive scale. This was especially true this year as it was the 70th anniversary of the founding of communist China which was celebrated more grandly than other years as the USSR only lasted 69 years.

If you watched the news you probably saw some of the festivities but I doubt you got a full picture. The military parade started at 10 am and lasted about an hour, followed by the people’s parade for about an hour and a half. The evening gala/pageant was about two hours long and was basically a blown up version of an Olympic opening ceremony. Everything took place at Tinammen Square and most of downtown streets in Beijing were closed to traffic. Only invited guests were allowed near the square and most businesses were closed so we decided we would pretend it was a sea day and just enjoy our nice hotel and room.

We slept in and headed to the huge buffet breakfast which was included with our room just before it closed. Like all Asian hotels with buffets like this, they have foods for American breakfasts as well as Asian ones-so eggs, bacon, hash browns, pastries as well as Chinese soups, stir frys, steamed buns and dumplings-think of a holiday buffet brunch at a big city hotel and you’ll have the general idea. The room was full of Chinese folks who had come into ten city for the celebration and all the TVs were tunes to the festivities. Actually, all the stations were covering it so it wasn’t possible to watch anything else. Before the actual parade started, Chairman Xi Jinping rode in his limo (which has its own microphones) and reviewed the troops.

There were reportedly 15,000 troops in the parade and gosh knows there was plenty of military hardware on display There were several flyovers involving helicopters, fighter jets and other military planes. We got to see these fly by our hotel window and then a minute or two later show up on tv!

After all the military might had finished being shown, the People’s Parade started with the unfurling if the HUGE flag by 2,500 (at least if my counting of heads and multiplication is correct) Chinese shown at the top of this post. Those are people in white outfits marching along (in unison of course) carrying the flag. It was originally rolled up and carried by the last row. When the parade started, it was unfurled and ended up in the center of that huge block of people. I can’t imagine being one of the poor 600-750 folks who spent the entire parade holding it up over their heads! The flag was followed by 15-30 other motorized”floats” each of which was surrounded by a mass of people. According to the news reports, there were over 100,000 marchers! The parade ended with the release of 70,000 doves followed by 70,000 (biodegradable) balloons. All in all it was a pretty impressive show!

After the parade was over, the television channels spent the rest of the day reviewing it and interviewing those who were in the square. We decided to enjoy the hotel’s indoor pool and perhaps a nap might have been taken๐Ÿ˜‚

That evening we watched the four act gala on television. It included a 1000 piece orchestra, a large group in mirrored suits holding LED screens with changing animations-flag, amoeba like shapes, etc), dancing and dribbling basketball players, singing and saluting children and lots of fireworks-including those that opened the pageant by making a huge 70 in the sky. Unfortunately we couldn’t see the fireworks directly from our room but we could see their reflection in a nearby building. The party leaders all watched this from the balconies of the Forbidden City’s Gate. They had attended a big dinner inside the palace and had dessert and tea served to them during the show. Given how bored they all looked, I think we had a better seat for the show!

All in all the daylong celebrations had been most impressive to see-I suspect the logistics would have been ever more impressive to learn about. Where did they find another space big enough to allow for rehearsal (and trust me they had been well rehearsed!), where did they house 100,000 people and 15,000 soldiers-perhaps that is why our hotel was changed at the last minute? How did they feed them all? After seeing the havoc a simple parade in a city like Houston causes, it’s amazing to thing of putting on this event which was hundreds of times larger and in a city that is 5 times bigger!

Tomorrow, we do a walking cultural tour and then transfer to the hotel to connect with our Viking Ocean Cruises’ precruise extension. V

Xiโ€™an Day 2

This post is being written in cloudy Santa Fe, New Mexico on November 7 (more than a month after the fun below actually happened).

When we were emailing back and forth with Lily our contact at China Highlights about how to spend our time in Xi’an, she suggested we might enjoy a bike ride on the city’s wall. Hmmm, wonder if the bikes will be big enough? Will we end up falling and breaking an arm (or at this age now maybe we need to start worrying about a hip?!). Lily suggested we plan it and if upon arrival we just wanted to walk them that would be ok too.

Rocky picked us up bright and early at our hotel and we drove to the north gate (there is one in each compass direction). Xi’an is one of the few larger Chinese cities whose walls thankfully haven’t been demolished to make way for new buildings or roads. While Rocky bought our tickets to mount the wall, we looked around the base of the gate. This was our first (but not last) time seeing how hard the Chinese work to keep places clean. They use the old fashioned brooms everywhere. With tickets in hand we went through the tunnel and into the courtyard and up the stairs to mount the wall.

The wall is well preserved and one could circumnavigate the entire older part of the city on it, a distance of about 9 miles. It was originally built in the 1300s. It is about 40 feet tall and just as thick at its top and even thicker at the base. In addition to the four towers at the gates, there are towers every 400 feet or so along its length. The walls were relatively empty when we arrived shortly before 9 am but by the time we left an hour and a half later they were becoming more crowded with folks taking morning walks, sightseeing, a company morale boosting run celebrating National Day. the towers were decorated for the Holiday as were the battlements at the corners.

We ended up deciding that the bike ride would be a great way to see more of the wall and are so glad we did. Not only did it give us a great overview of the 1/4 of the wall we rode, it got us some exercise in before our afternoon train ride to Bejing. Turns out the bikes have easily adjustable seats so they were able to fit even me! The bike ride turned out to be a real highlight of our time in Xi’an.

After returning our bikes, we went to a city market where Rocky (we apparatuses don’t have any pictures of him ๐Ÿ˜ข) pointed us in the direction of ten souvenir sellers and advised us on how to bargain. He said however that he wouldn’t join us for this portion as the vendors blamed him if we ended up not buying something. We think we did ok buying chopstick sets for “bread & butter” gifts for our friend Andy in Seattle and Jeff & Ken who we stayed with last week in Tucson. The market reminded me of a single alley in Istanbul’s huge bazaar. The vendors all try to get you to buy their stuff as it’s better than everyone else’s even though it’s pretty obvious it’s all coming from the same manufacturers. When we did t have enough small bills to pay for what we bought, our lady pretended to not have any change and wanted to give us the change in merchandise until we started to walk away….then suddenly her vendor neighbor “loaned” her enough to make change. ๐Ÿ˜‚

Rocky met us at the end of the market and we then headed to the food portion. He explained to us what each of the foods was and we had some delicious fresh squeezed (crushed?) pomegranate juice.

Even though it was a little early, we had lunch in one of the local’s restaurants in the market. Rocky ordered on our behalf and we had “soup” dumplings. We had heard about these before our trip and were excited to have them in person. The “soup” is broth made from bones and then chilled into a gelatin which is chopped up and mixed with the dumpling’s stuffing. When the dumpling is cooked, the broth liquifies. Theybare eaten by tearing a small hole in the dumpling, draining the soup into a spoon and drinking it. Then you eat the dumpling after dipping it in the ponzu sauce served in a small bowl along with the basket of dumplings. Delicious!

Rocky also wanted us to try “Chinese” hamburgers. These were steamed buns with a chinese meat filling that reminded me of pastrami. Not a hamburger but certainly tasty. We finished with the local fried dessert made of yams and filled with nuts.

After lunch we were driven to the HUGE railroad station newly built just to handle bullet trains. Rocky left us after making sure we (and some other gringo tourist) made it correctly though the first security check. We had to go through another to get to the area of the stations for trains headed to Beijing (perhaps extra security for the holiday?) where we faced hundreds of people waiting for the gates to open to let us go downstairs to the platform. After a short wait, the crowd finally started moving and we made our way to the train where the platform seemed relatively empty compared to the chaos upstairs!

The train trip was uneventful. Speed was slightly greater than on the Japanese trains and we got some snacks though most weren’t very tasty and were left behind! Legroom may have been a little less than in Japan but the lack of a footrest meant it was just as comfortable. Even though they didn’t bow, the attendants were just as pleasant and even better dressed. Unfortunately, unlike the Japanese, the Chinese don’t think it impolite to chat on their phones or sing/hum along to whatever song they are listening to over their earphones! ๐Ÿ˜ฑ

We arrived in Beijing just before sunset and after wandering around the station for waaay too long (apparently there was more than one Exit 3) we finally found our guide, “Coco” and after basically retracing our steps, we got to the van and were driven through the heavily decorated streets to our hotel for the next three nights.

Just before we left for Japan, Lily our contact at the Chinese travel agency emailed me to inform me that due to the holiday, our hotel near Tinammen Square was no longer available and she suggested another hotel. After checking TripAdvisor and finding poor reviews, we looked to see if we could find another hotel. We found a great rate for the Crown Plaza and asked her about booking it. She did but I order to get a king room we paid an additional $20 a night. Upon arrival, apparently they had given away “our” room so we were upgraded to a huge fancy corner room with an entry hall, separate toilet room, and big shower/tub room. So glad we “splurged” for the extra. I think even with the extra the room was under $80 a night!

After checking in, we had a snack from the mall next door and quickly went to bed. Tomorrow we attempt to conquer The Great Wall!