Sunday, July 26, 2009

Beijing and the Great Wall

Sightseeing on a cruise is not always easy to plan or to execute, and this 2-day stop was by far the most challenging for us.

Cruise ships sometimes stop in the hearts of great cities, but othertimes they must dock well short, such as in Thailand and Viet Nam when our ports were 2 hours distant from Bangkok and Saigon respectively.
The closest that ships the Volendam's size can get to Beijing is Xingang, or "New Port," a fairly new city that handles an enormous amount of container traffic and other freight. It's a half-hour drive from Tianjin, China's 6th-biggest city at 11 million population, and almost 2 hours on a fast toll road to the edge of Beijing, the second-largest city with 17 million (Shanghai is an astounding 20 million, give or take a few).

The temptation is to book a shore excursion with the ship, but they can be quite pricey.
That expedition we took in Cairns Australia, up a mountain one way by cable car and back by railroad, was not cheap and yet we did it for half what the shore excursion would have cost, by booking it all ourselves. For Beijing, however, the only options the ship offered were two days of bus rides, one to Beijing and then back to the boat, then next day past Beijing to the Great Wall and back; or a bus to Beijing and the Great Wall with an overnight in town, but at a price that would require rewriting the will to take out a beneficiary or two.

Fellow passengers Lucy and Alberto told us that their travel agent had booked them a car and driver and a hotel in Beijing for a much more affordable price, so we started looking into that.
Our confidence got a big boost from Abilio, the Port Lecturer. On the way to each new port, Abilio would take the stage in the onboard theater and explain where the ship would dock, where the main sights were, how much to pay for taxis, whether US dollars could be used and if not what a decent exchange rate was, and so on. He assured the crowd, and us individually when we still had doubts, that we could wait 'til the ship docked and find a taxi that would take us to Beijing and show up the next day to bring us back (the trick is to not pay until you're back on the dock...).

So there we were with a bundle of Yuan in our wallet and a reservation at a hotel in Beijing that we had booked two weeks earlier. Sure enough, an English-speaking woman worked out a deal for us, and off we went with a driver who works for her and
two fellow-passengers from the ship whom we'd never met before, John and Les. The deal was that we would all drive to the Great Wall, then to the Summer Palace, then to Tiananmen Square. We would then be dropped of nearby at our hotel and our new friends would see a little more of Beijing before being taken back to the ship. Next day the driver would pick us up at 1 pm and return to the ship via the Temple of Heaven, giving us the whole morning to see the Forbidden City. It was a great plan, and it worked flawlessly.

Flawlessly except for three little details. (1) our driver spoke no English while none of the four of us spoke any Chinese except a badly mangled thank you; (2) our driver had never been to Beijing before in his life; and (3) he had a detailed map of Beijing in his taxi but it was entirely in Chinese, and we had nothing more detailed in English than the half-page handout of Highlights Of Beijing the boat had provided.

Louise and our new friends put Jeff in the front passenger seat and had entertainment for the next 275 km as Jeff and the driver "conversed" in sign language and Jeff muttered things like "I wonder if this squiggly blue line is that brook we just crossed."
Fortunately, highway road signs use roman letters and arabic numbers along with Chinese characters, so Jeff could see how many meters or kilometers it was to a turn (assuming he knew the name of the turn, which was sometimes a wild guess), then lean over to see the taxi odometer and be sure the driver knew when to turn. We had given him a list of the various stops in Chinese characters we had copied from a guidebook, which Jeff pointed to at appropriate times. And, almost flawlessly, we actually made it to each one of them.

Words are inadequate to express what seeing the Great Wall for the first time was for Jeff. Louise had seen it 30 years ago, and was also deeply moved. It's not visible from space (a common urban myth), but it is enormous, and climbs up from the pass at about the steepest angle of any set of steps you've ever been on! In the steepest sections, each step was at least twice the height of a normal step, sometimes higher.
We had fantastic weather -- a storm came through a day ago, while we were at sea, and cleaned the air out better than it was for the Olympics -- and we could see all the way into Beijing from the Great Wall! By the time we had to quit climbing to return to our taxi, we were a few hundred meters above the starting point. Our brains tingled for hours afterward, an interesting counterpoint to our legs, which felt like jelly for a similar period.

Our next stop was the Summer Palace, where the Qing Dynasty escaped summer heat and the Empress Dowager Cixi, the xenophobic nut case who was the effective ruler of China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, escaped reality. Alas, we could only spend an hour and a half here, and it is an enormous place that deserves at least a full day to see more of the grounds and to explore places like the ones shown below, the Wenchang Tower in the first photo and the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha and the Realm of Multitudinous Fragrance above it in the second. At least we now know that this is a "must see." We also know that we won't go hungry with street vendors hawking goodies like these all around the entrance!

The drive to Tiananmen Square was quite something. Beijing has a series of Ring Roads, the outermost one or two being limited access highways and the rest boulevards of traffic, many lanes of it. Louise came to Beijing in 1979 a few weeks after it opened to Westerners for the first time in decades, and in two days saw maybe 3 automobiles and more bikes than have ever been ridden in the Tour de France. No longer, though we did see bikes on a few side streets where they could avoid the crush of car traffic.

The square looked smaller than she remembered, though we were too exhausted from our walks earlier in the day to do more than look at it from across the street when we walked a kilometer to get there from our hotel. Having 8 lanes of traffic cut it off from the Forbidden City will do that to a place. But the immense Tomb of Mao and the Monument to the Peoples' Heroes look nice against the darkening sky, and the gate to the Forbidden City we would enter the next day was even more magical.

Our hotel, the Cui Ming, was fantastic, and very reasonable at $100. The lobby was elegant and the staff friendly and sufficiently proficient in English to get us checked in and, as you can see, the room was attractive and comfortable. Out the window we could look over the hutong, or alleyways, and see the gold gabled end of one of the buildings in the Forbidden City two blocks away (the entrance though was about a kilometer).

After our brief walk to see Tiananmen Square that evening, we wandered past a temple with Wii-hypnotized youngsters who never looked up to notice us, then through a lively neighborhood of shops and restaurants, picking one with a menu that had lots of pictures.

After a scrumptious breakfast the next morning we walked back to the Forbidden City through this small neighborhood garden. Having taught about the Open Door Policy in his earlier career as a History teacher, Jeff was anxious to test it but it was a bit beyond him.

The Imperial Palace, or "Forbidden City" as English-speakers call it, is beyond imagining. It is eeeeNORmous! We were told this was a light day for tourists, since you could actually look off to the side in a few places and not see hordes of them.
Much restoration work has obviously been done in recent years to the fabulous painted designs, and this pair of lions gives you an idea of why you do need to restore even seemingly impervious objects like stone statues.

After passing the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Perfect Harmony and the Hall of Preservation of Harmony, Jeff looked in vain for the Hall of Four-Part Harmony
(sorry -- special joke for our musical friends the Schoepflins). We took relief in the more human scale of the areas away from the pomp and ceremony, but this is where the eunuchs lived and worked. And kids today think they have to sacrifice a lot for a career!

At last we exited out the back door, as it were, and watched the crowds climb onto the tour buses, including many from those expensive shore excursions from the Volendam.
We kept on going, up the hill you see that was formed by the dirt excavated for the moat around the Forbidden City. From the top we got to see where we'd spent the last two hours, tracing our route, like rats getting to see the maze afterwards. Nearby were local tourists being helped, for a fee, imagine they were royalty. And, off to the west, the rare treat: a view through unhazy skies to the Great Wall in the mountains 30 km away!

We're always on the lookout for cycling shots, and on our walk back to the hotel got two, the first of an outdoor bike shop and its proprietor, the second of our next tandem (we're flipping coins as to which of us gets relegated to the back seat of that one), plus a lunch break candid that just had to be taken. Bicycles do have a continued role in Beijing, as you can see from the "freight bike" across the street from the tandem and in the fourth photo that we caught on the drive out of town.

Well, one last stop on the way back to the ship, but it was anticlimactic after the splendor of the Forbidden City. The Temple of Heaven is where the emperor made sacrifices to the gods on behalf of the population, and it lives up to Chinese royal standards, but we'll just focus on the human scale and close out with a close-up of Jeff, of a pennant-waver, and of a jam session of traditional musicians keeping the crowd well entertained.

As we rode back to the Volendam, Louise mused that this was a very different Beijing than the one she saw only 30 years ago. The old has been spiffed up, the new is brash and bold, and cars have overwhelmed the streets. But our stay in a cozy neighborhood let us see that for the locals it can be a nice place to live. These are things you can read about and not understand in the same visceral way that we did. We came away from this visit, as we did from Shanghai and Hong Kong, with a new appreciation for the energy and excitement of China.

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