November 2007 - Forbidden City
I spent Thursday at the Forbidden City. Forbidden because no one but royalty was allowed inside for centuries. In the first courtyard there are all the freelance tour guides. I picked ‘Bob‘ who is an English teacher at night and guides during the day to pay for his son’s university tuition. A great guy, we spent 5 hours together talking politics and everything possible about the complex and its history.
I can’t properly describe its size, but I can tell you there are 9,000 rooms. Government business was done at the front and the Emperor lived behind. Giant square after giant square. There are, I’m sure, five in succession. Each one has a courtyard the size of several football fields with a palace around each square. P’u Yi, the Last Emperor lived in a lovely palace right at the back of the complex, a good 20 minute walk from the front gates. He has a nephew who does calligraphy on site but he was an arrogant little pisser and we quickly moved on. Thousands upon thousands of people visit here every day. The usual tourists but from the countryside there is a pilgrimage of Chinese seeing their history for the first time.
Right across the street is the infamous Tianaman Square. Blanketed in thick smog, it must be 10 or 15 football fields in size. Huge, monolithic buildings surround the square including the National Museum and Communist Party headquarters. I was intercepted by no less than 6 or 7 pairs of university kids wanting to speak and practice their English. Fun, but, annoying after day one. One student took me to a gallery where I met his professor and we had tea. I wound up buying two of the professors paintings for 3000 yuan; about $200 Sing dollars or $140 Canadian. We now have art from Bali, Vietnam and China on our walls.
Saturday, Cisco kindly provided us with a car and driver. Due to heavy fog and some of the famous pollution, the Great Wall was left for another day. We engaged ‘Charles’ as our guide and went to The Summer Palace; even bigger (much bigger) than the Forbidden City. Absolutely beautiful, surrounding a giant private lake with dozens of buildings, courtyards and a 700 meter long covered walkway with every inch hand painted. Lots of stories of the intrigues of Emperors and Empresses. Once again, the scale of the place is overwhelming. Words don’t due it justice, it is so beautiful and so vast. Like the day before, thousands of people pouring out of hundreds of tour buses. In the spring, the grounds and ponds are full of rare flowers and we committed to going back. Each tree (Junipers) is numbered with a colored badge that shows its age. There are thousands of trees, many over 800 years old from what we could see.
Lunch was at a traditional Chinese restaurant set up for tourists, but Chinese ones. You walk through gardens and over streams to your private dining rooms as the staff, all in traditional clothing, hustle back and forth from small, medium or large private parties. The food was great once our guy Charles translated the menu for us.
Charles then took us to the Hutongs; the traditional one story courtyard homes. There used to be 30,000 Hutongs, now there are less than 3000. Situated on a river, it is being rebuilt as a show piece for the Olympics. We took a tour on a rickshaw that included a visit to a household. A central courtyard with four designated wings for living, eating, sleeping and socializing. The owner was an interesting, gabby old guy. Cool dialogue between him and Ellen whose Mandarin is improving daily. By the end of the day, we had learned to love Charles, a great guide except for his habit of introducing every sentence with “You can see”. Given he is a non-stop talker we must have heard that 1,000 times over two 12 hour days.
Ogilvy and Cisco took us to ‘Lan Club’ for dinner, the newest Phillip Starck offering in Asia. I’m not a fan of Starck having lived in his non functional Hotel ‘Jia’ in Hong Kong. A place where technology overwhelms you and common sense is defeated by style. He gets it right here, the place is amazing. The most interesting open ceiling I’ve ever seen. Not just open pipes it has suspended dozens and dozens of picture frames, some with mirrors, some with art. Gives amazing depth. A tremendous buzz to this place with great food and drink, jazz bar and private rooms. There are 35 private rooms at ‘Lan’, every one of them different. Funny, all the restaurants here don’t let you take pictures so I just had time to grab a few. Too see more look at : www.lanbeijing.com
The Great Wall
After big rains on Saturday night, the fog was gone and bright, sunny skies allowed us to take our delayed trip to the Great Wall. Charles and our driver picked us up at 8:00 for the 60 minute drive to Badaling, the closest section of The Wall and the only one with a cable car. Temperature was cool, about 10 degrees C, and we passed a lot of the Olympic venues on the way. Mostly all finished and quite amazing architecture.
Once again, Badaling is packed with people, hawkers (‘I climbed The Great Wall’ T-shirts) and photo-ops (camels of all things). The cable car was old and Ellen had her eyes closed all the way. At the top, the temperature was 2 degrees with a fierce wind. I discovered there are really no steps to climb, just a steep stone slope at vertigo inducing angles. Ellen stayed at the bottom out of the wind and Charles and I went no more than a hundred yards up. Since we had only t-shirts and wind breakers it was freezing, the wind whipping us nearly off our feet. That was all we needed and headed down after only 15 minutes.
Again, the scale is beyond belief. This thing is 6,000 kilometers long and is the only thing ever made by man that can be seen from space. It hugs mountain ridges at impossible heights, steep drops and there are guard towers every 1,000 meters or so. I haven’t yet been to the Pyramids but this thing begs the question “How did they do this?”.
Continuing this amazing day, Charles took us to ‘The Commune by the Great Wall’. Again, we are amazed. There are 21 stunning, architecturally designed villas. A fairly grand scheme for this ancient neighborhood and accordingly, it quickly went bankrupt. Each fabulous villa is a different designers vision, now complemented with a central building, restaurants and a spa. In full view of the Great Wall, it is now managed by Kempinski Hotel Group as a resort and conference centre. We had a great lunch, and enjoyed reading a terrific wine list although they were out of my first four choices. Of course, they had to go away to some far away cellar each time and come back empty handed. As we were getting impatient and thirsty, the manager stepped up and we drank Australian shiraz for free. Check this place out at : www.kempinski-thegreatwall.com or www.communebythegreatwall.com
The Ming Tombs
From there, we went to The Ming Tombs. Situated in a gorgeous, green valley, the Ming Dynasty Emperors built 21 tombs all around it. Some are hidden but most have large pavilions above them. They still had elaborate devices to prevent tomb robbers, secret doors and such. Again, gorgeous gardens, thousands of trees but not so impressive after all the grand things we had seen the last few days. Perhaps everything seems small after The Great Wall.
Now about 8 hours into our day, we sped back to Beijing for a visit to the Pearl Market. I do mean speed as our driver is famous for getting to appointments based on time not distance. Cisco says they tell him how much time they have to get someplace and he always does it regardless of traffic or how far it is away. In China, the breakdown lane is well used for passing. Actually, every lane is used for passing. Audi is the preferred luxury car in Beijing (the Grand Hyatt has 30 identical Audi A6’s) and there are 120 Audi dealerships in China. By Ogilvy’s office, there are Porsche, Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborgini and Rolls Royce dealerships all in a row.
The Pearl Market is 5 floors of knockoffs, t-shirts, antiques of questionable heritage and one full floor of pearls. It has become so famous it even has its own house brands. These are freshwater pearls and, with Charles as our negotiator, they wound up to be about $20-$30 dollars per double strand. Quality is really good (like I would know?) and bargaining is, in a word, vicious.
Charles and I went in search of knockoff watches for fun. They had everything, including new models just in stores now. I picked out a Patek Philippe and a Lange & Sohne. The vendors first price to me was 1,050 yuan; about $150 Cdn. After much yelling and two walk away’s, Charles and I shouted our final offer of 240 yuan for both. We got them for 250 yuan as Charles said he was being more generous as the watches had multiple complications. That is around $17 dollars CDN each. Great fun and they are really lovely knockoffs.
Home at 8:00 we’ve been on the road for 12 hours. Taking our Singapore friend and travel expert Matt’s advice, we went to “Made in China“ in the Grand Hyatt for dinner. A simple and simply gorgeous restaurant with an open kitchen off the lobby. The open kitchen has wood fired ovens, and, if you have ever had Peking Duck, trust me; you have never had it like this. Delicate, smokey, crispy and expertly carved at your table. So good we cancelled another reservation and had it the next night as well.
Next up were after dinner cocktails in the Red Moon Bar. We went every night to hear the bar band. Imagine a black lead singer with pipes like the old Whitney Houston and an all girl band playing contemporary music on traditional Chinese instruments. Add in the eclectic bar crowd and we couldn’t get enough of it. A bit like the bar in Star Wars.
Ellen did brilliantly in China. They love her in Beijing and her unique Western marketing savvy combined with her daily improving Mandarin is prompting job offers. Of course, it is winter there and much like Canada in terms of temperatures, wind and snow. The summer is blistering hot with crazy sandstorms blowing in thousands of miles from the Gobi Desert. Add in the awful pollution, terrible traffic, the sheer breakneck pace and it was nice to get back to beautiful Singapore at sunrise where it was a clear, unpolluted and a lovely 28 degrees. Even jet-lagged it looks good.
So, that’s Beijing. Put it on your lists. It is a fabulous place, lovely people, great history, amazing food, killer shopping and a Chinese economy growing at nearly 11 % annually despite all attempts to cool it off. A lot of the pollution is from burning wet coal for cooking and heating and, sadly, as the Hutongs continue to disappear it will get better.
Now, if it wasn’t for winter……..
Update 2013: We did move to China in 2009. Fortunately we picked Shanghai and had a fascinating three years there. We didn't go back to Beijing much and today the pollution and traffic are so much worse I'm glad of it. The Olympics were a huge success and, much like Shanghai Expo, they cleaned up the town, closed pollution creating companies, stopped construction, restricted cars, and, in both cities we saw more blue sky days than locals could ever remember. But, after both events ended it was business as usual. Pollution now can hit 500 levels where 140 is dangerous anyplace else. Traffic is simply nuts. Still, Beijing is an amazing cultural experience, new restaurants and hotels like the Opposite House are world class. Just try and pick a good day when the winds are up if you can.