Following in the Footsteps of Emperors

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ah, what a relief. Yesterday, we rolled into Beijing shortly after noon, excited to check in to our 4 star hotel. Of course, before we could get there, there were the usual hassles of arriving in a new country: money, and transportation. We intended to change our Tugriks at a bank on the border, but everything was closed when we rolled through at around midnight. Fortunately, it didn't take us long wondering through the crowded square outside the Beijing railway station to find an ATM, where we pulled out the nearly the maximum amount (not knowing what the exchange rate was, except for a general guess, we were a little concerned, but we knew we had things to spend the money on). Then it was off to find out how to get to our hotel.

I had looked it up on our maps prior to our arrival, and knew it was only 1.8 km away, but didn't want to hoof it all the way there. So, we decided to find a taxi. We couldn't figure out how the taxi stand works, so we ended up corralled by a guy offering us a taxi ride. After some discussion with his associates, he figured out where our hotel was, and offered us a rate of 150 yuan (which we thought was about 20 or 30 dollars). He took Bridgit's rolling duffle, and we set off. However, by the time we'd walked well past the taxi stand, I started to get a bit uncomfortable. I finally put a stop to it when he was starting to load our stuff into his unmarked car (quite different than all the obvious taxis we had been seeing). Unwilling to try again, we braved the subway instead, and were able, for a measly 4 yuan, to get within a 15 minute walk of the hotel. A much better deal!

The hotel itself was a wonderful change. It was impressively nice looking even just walking up to the entrance!

We checked ourselves in, and headed up to the 10th floor where our room was. The hallways were decorated in keeping with the lobby ...

... and the room itself didn't disappoint. A full sized bathroom with both a tub and a shower, king-sized bed, bathrobes, and all the amenities. After coming from gers, hostels, and trains, this was luxury!

We were pretty beat, and wanted to just relax, so we didn't venture out of the hotel for dinner. We had a pleasant surprise in the hotel restaurant, which had very tasty food at quite reasonable prices (we got way too much food last night, because we didn't know what the portion sizes would be).

Today, we were ready for some sightseeing. Our first stop was the Temple of Heaven, a park complex that was used by the emperor for a yearly harvest ritual. The park itself was very big, and we had several more things on our agenda for today, so we hit the primary buildings (which were arranged on a line at the center of the park, running north to south). Before we got to them, though, several things caught our eyes (besides the hawkers preying on all of the tourists). In one spot, we saw a group of people dancing with what looked like badminton rackets with feathers on them. As we got closer, though, we noticed that the feathers that looked like they were attached to the rackets were actually attached to a ball that was cradled in the racket, and that it was just the smoothness of their dancing that kept the ball in contact with the racket itself.

It reminded me a lot of people doing tai-chi, and in fact, as we were watching, a hawker tried to get us to try it and called it a tai-chi ball. (Doing some searching around later, I think this is what we were seeing: Taiji Bailong Ball). There were also large groups of people singing, and some doing tai-chi with swords. All in all, it was a happening place!

The first building we visited was the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, towards the north end of the park.

One thing I found amazing about this building is that, at least according to the guidebook, it's constructed entirely of wood (and has no nails securing it). The building itself was also marvelously colored and carved. Sadly, we couldn't actually go inside, but we were able to peer in and look around a little bit over a hand rail.

Our next stop was south down a very long stone bridge to the Imperial Vault of Heaven. This was a miniature version of the Hall we visited above, surrounded by a round wall that was supposed to conduct sounds well. We weren't able to figure where to stand to get the wall to work for us, but we saw several groups of people talking into it, so it must work somehow.

We kept going south, and arrived at the Circular Altar Mound, a huge white marble structure, decorated with posts carved as dragons.

At that point, we'd walked most of the way through the park, so we left out the south side, and headed back towards the subway. It was then that we figured out that our Beijing maps were at a very large scale. What looked like a short walk on the map turned out to be quite a hike in reality.

We took the subway up several stops closer to the center of the city, where the Forbidden City, the Emperor's ancient palace complex, stood. We came in through the Tienanmen Gate, decorated with a picture of Chairman Mao, on the southern end of the palace, just a small part of crowds of people looking to do the same tour.

Inside, we were treated to huge bronze lions ...

... and fantastic views of the palace structures.

This first building is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, and was where the Emperors hosted entertainments. Like the structures in the Temple of Heaven, it was built entirely of wood, and sported some impressive columns inside. On one corner of the courtyard in front was a sundial, symbolizing the Emperor's ownership of the privileges of time and measure.

Around one side, we found a huge gold covered urn, that our audio guide informed us was a fire extinguisher. They even kept it heated in the winter so that it didn't ice over.

As we made our way north through the palace, we saw carvings on many of the staircases. This was the longest, and the stone for it was brought to Beijing over an ice-road during the winter.

We also saw the throne room of the Emperor!

At the far northern end of the palace was the Imperial Garden. It was quite a beautiful space, a mix of trees, walks, and small buildings. One of the first things we saw on entering it were two trees, twisted together, symbolizing the Emperor and Empress joined in marriage. It being our honeymoon, we had to get a picture of us with it as well!

Further on in the park, there was a huge stone mountain, all from imported rock. The rocks were crazy! They had a very distinctive shape, all twisted and full of holes. The mountain even included a gravity fed water fountain (but it wasn't on while we were there).

We would have kept going (there was so much more to see in the palace), but it closed (at 4:30... it seemed very early to us), so we headed back home to the hotel to rest up for our trip to the Great Wall.


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