Sunday, June 8, 2008

China Trip: Gate of Heavenly Peace

We travelled with the travel Company Kuoni and were escorted from London back to London. Our English guide was Patti. We met our Chinese guide, Jack, who is the representative of C.I.T.S. which is the China International Travel Service. He seemed surprised that we were on time as the Chinese call China Airlines (CAAC) "China Airlines Always Cancelled!!" Everwhere we went in China we had a representative from C.I.T.S. The first thing Jack taught us was to say hello in Chinese it is pronounced 'knee how'.

Our hotel is the Grand View Garden Hotel. We changed some traveller cheques into Yuan. When we were there the exchange rate was 12.80 Yuan to $1. It is now 13.60 Yuan to the $1. We had a relaxing day to recovering from the flight.

Grand View Garden Hotel

Our first visit was to Tian An Men Square. The first thing that struck me was the hundreds of bicycles, I have never seen so many people going about their business on bicycles. In the U.K. we have bike lanes in some towns, here they own the streets!

Tian An Men Square. Called the biggest plaza on earth it covers 100 acres. I noticed there was a long line of people, the line must have been at least half a mile long. The were filing into the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall which contains the embalmed body of Chairman Mao who led the Peoples' Republic for 27 years. He led the country through periods of famine and ideological disaster, culminating in the Cultural Revolution, when millions died in great purges and leftists world-wide quoted the 'Little Red Book'. Through it all, China became a Great Power. Twenty years after he passed from life into legend, Mao still haunts the dreamscape that is China. Over his life, the messiah of China's communist revolution has decayed into a household god.

There were lots of people in the square. There were some colourful kites being flown, one, that looked like a bird - actually, very like a kite - was very realistic. The Parliament building is also quite impressive. We were given plenty of time to wander around on our own. There were a lot of red flags flying on high poles which looked very colorful. On the north side of the square is the Gate of Heavenly Peace which leads into the Forbidden City. On this gate was a huge picture of Chairman Mao, which seemed to dominate that side of Tian An Men Square.

Tian An Men Square

We went into the Forbidden City. This is a huge complex, 175 acres of palaces, courtyards and gardens, all walled in a rectangular island. The Forbidden City was off-limits to ordinary people for 500 years, and quite a lot of it is still off limits to us.

We walked through courtyards and peered into a lot of the buildings. The buildings inside the City were of ornately carved wood and on the gables of every roof, on every corner there were carved animals to ward off evil spirits.

In some of the buildings there were displayed glassware and clothes but the items were dusty, the rooms dingy and everything was poorly displayed. We went into the gardens which were for the concubines who were not allowed out of the Forbidden City. These gardens were the only place the concubines were allowed to go.

At lunch we had our first experience of eating with chopsticks. We all managed quite well although the tablecloth was more than a little grubby when we had finished. Lot of dishes were brought along at intervals and you helped yourself to what you wanted. Most of the time you had no idea what you were eating, but most of it tasted pretty good. The soup arrived halfway through the meal, as did the water melon, but that, we are told, is par for the course. Most of us enjoyed the first of many such meals we were to have.

After lunch we went to the Summer Palace, the Chinese call it the Park of Nutured Harmony. A beautiful palace by a lake, the lake is called Kunming Lake and it is surrounded by 700 acres of parkland and lake. There is a wooden covered walkway nearly half a mile long which is decorated with landscape paintings of Chinese legends; many were damaged during the Cultural Revolution. We went on a boat ride out into the lake which was the best way to view the beauty of the Palace. There was a long bridge which has seventeen arches, most impressive. There is a marble double-decker 'boat' beached at the edge of the lake, the Empress Dowager Ci Xi squandered the naval budget on this folly.

Jack talks a lot about the ways of the old people and the young people. His mother, who during the cultural revolution was often short of food still asks him today "Did you eat breakfast".

In the evening we went to the opera. The opera was quite different to English opera. The actors are very heavily made up and ornately dressed. We would describe it more as a cross between mime, ballet and acrobatics. The first story was about an innkeeper who lost his guest in the dark and was trying to find him as he suspected he was up to no good. The miming, timing and acrobatics were remarkable and very funny. There is a story board by the side of the stage telling you the story, the English narration was very Chinese! The last act we saw was a beautiful display of acrobats, mime and gymnastics. It was all very colourful.

The following day as we crawled along in the Beijing traffic we watched people doing their morning exercises. We also saw quite a lot of couples doing what has become very popular, ballroom dancing, it seemed strange to see couples dancing in the parks and squares.

Our first stop was a cloisonnes factory. Cloisonne has a long history of several hundred years, and was very popular as far back as the Ming dynasty. The manufacture of cloisonnes is a complicated process, namely; base hammering, copper wire curving, soldering, enamel filling, enamel firing, polishing and gilding. We watched people working at the different stages of the cloisonne.

We then visited the Ming Tombs of which there are 13, but we couldn't go into them. The Sacred Way to the tombs starts at a great marble gateway. Beyond this is the main gate with three archways, the middle passage was only used once in each reign - for the delivery of the emperor's remains to his tomb. From there you walk up a long avenue of stone animals, mythical beasts and warriors. There was a party of school children laughing and giggling, they looked very smart in their yellow hats.

After lunch we went on to one of the highlights of the tour, The Great Wall at Badaling Pass. We had two hours to wander along the wall and explore. It was exciting to walk along the wall. The first elements of the wall system were built more than 2,000 years ago. The wall is about 3,700 miles long, and it is said it is the only man-made landmark visible to the naked eye from the moon. The wall here is 7.8 metres high and about 5 metres wide and is built with rectangular slabs of stones and green bricks. We walked up and down the steep undulating wall going through several of the many watch towers. The ladies loo was dreadful here, the worst so far. The loo's have become a major talking point everywhere we go, especially for the ladies, they go from bad to worse and worse still!

The Great Wall

This evening we are having dinner in the famous Peking Duck restaurant. This is the original restaurant that was started by the chef to the Emperor. The meal was excellent and the crispy duck was delicious, and better than the "Peking Duck" proper, that came as a later course.

The next morning we looked out of the window and it is raining. The cyclists going to work are all wearing different coloured capes as they pedal past the hotel.

First visit was to the Temple of Heaven. As we went into the grounds leading up to the Temple of Heaven there were two men, one was talking to a tree which Jack had told us about; it is a form of meditation. One man was practicing tai ji - a sort of slow balletic movements.

The Temple of Heaven was a splendid building but it was unlit inside and we were not allowed in so it was difficult to appreciate the real beauty of it. The circular, blue tile roofed building is called the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. The emperor was carried here in a solemn procession in the first lunar month of each year to pray for a bountiful harvest. There are 12 columns which represent the months and four central columns which represent the seasons. As we left the grounds we saw a colourful ladies musical aerobic lesson going on which we stopped to watch.

We took a one hour 30 minute flight to Nanjing. Our guide in Nanjing is called Julia, easy for me to remember that name.

We stopped off at a local market and as we went into the market a troupe of schoolchildren came down the road, we were obviously a source of great interest to them as they were to us. The market was mostly birds in cages, including a hawk, fish, mynah birds and some chipmunks. All, we presume, for the pot. This was not a tourist market and there were a lot of local people buying.

Nanjing is not on the normal tourist route and this became obvious as we walked around, we were stared at and people were obviously curious about us. We found that a few 'knee hows' worked wonders and the locals were full of smiles.

Nanjing is one of the six ancient capitals of China and sits on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Nanjing means Southern Capital. In the 20th century a series of dramas overtook Nanjing. It was here that Dr Sun Yat-sen formed the first Chinese Republic, and became the first president. Chiang Kai-shek made it his capital until the advance of the Japanese troops drove him out in 1937. The 'Rape of Nanjing' was added to the catalogue of Japanese war atrocities. Around 1,000,000 died in the first four days. The Japanese left in 1945. Not surprisingly Japanese tourists are not popular with the older people anywhere in China, but especially here. In 1842 British troops and gunboats laid siege to the city in the first Opium War.

We are staying at the Nanjing Grand Hotel. The hotel has 26 stories; we have breakfast tomorrow on the 24th floor!! There is a marvelous clock in the entrance to the hotel, it is impossible for stills photographraphy because at certain times of the day it opens out and to music, two little people appear and bow to dragons that come out on each side, the performance lasts about three minutes, with something happening all the time. It makes superb video with the movement and sound.

In the evening we went to the Chinese Instrumental orchestra. It was a really good evening, very lively and very well staged. Founded in 1963, the Nanjing Chinese Musical Instrumental Orchestra is one of the few professional orchestras in the country that gives performances of typical Chinese music with tradional Chinese musical instruments. Lots of the traditional "Chinese music" was surprisingly full of melody and harmony.

Our first stop the next morning was to the Nanjing Museum. This museum displays colourful ancient pottery, elegant figurines and a famous jade burial suit which is 2,000 years old . There are two jade suits, one is at the British Museum (1996), on loan for the Chinese exhibition which was on then. The jade suit that was on display in London is held together with gold threads and was made for the Emperor. The one on show here is held together with silver threads and was made for the Empress. The museum was well presented and the explanations of the artifacts were in English which helped no end!!

Next stop was to the Mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic. We walked up the tree lined avenue to the top of the hill and were then confronted with 392 steps up to the actual memorial hall. As I was not feeling too good this morning and needed to go and find a loo we left the others toiling up all the steps to see the mausoleum. On the way to lunch we saw the original city wall. To cement the stones together they used sticky rice and sand mixed together. We visited a pearl farm. A fresh water oyster was opened for us and inside there must have been at least 20 cultured pearls. We had the chance to buy pearls if we wished. But what created most of the interest from the female point of view, was the Pearl Cream. Patti is always commissioned to take some home to her mother. Most of us bought some. We had lots of rude comments from the male members of the party about what it could or could not do for us ladies.

We then visited the Yangtze River Bridge, an impressive double decker bridge. The top tier is for cars and the bottom tier for trains. There are only three bridges over the Yangtze River and this is the longest - 1,577 metres over water, a little less than a mile. Julia told us that during the cultural revolution, to walk across the bridge you had to quote from Mao's red book to the Red Guards before they would let you cross. Julia's mother couldn't read so the family had to teach her some quotes before she could cross the bridge to visit her two daughters.

It was a misty afternoon and we took the lift right to the top of the tower. It gave us an impressive view up at the top of the tower of the river and bridge. The Yangtze is a busy working river with a lot of boats moving up and down and the bridge was heavily used by both road traffic and trains.

We drove to the railway station and caught a train to Wuzi. The train is very spacious and comfortable. The Chinese train drivers are like the car drivers, very noisy. As they come through the station they blast their horns and make a great din.

As we left Nanjing we were offered coffee by the train steward, British Rail could learn a thing or two from the Chinese. The train guards come along selling silk pictures, ties and scarves and did good business.

On route we saw lots of coolies and the odd buffalo in the fields working the rice fields. I was surprised at how much water there was. We were very much in the Yangtze flood plain area. By the time we arrived at Wuxi (Wooshee) it was dark. We met our guide Mrs Chee and went straight to the hotel, the Hubin Hotel.

The hotel is very beautiful and is on the shores of Lake Tai. Wuxi means 'no more tin,' a reference to the depletion, a couple of thousand years ago, of the local mines. Posting cards home is fun in China. Chinese stamps have no gum on them so you have to go into the business centre in the hotel and put glue on the stamps before sticking them onto the postcards, a messy business.

After a good nights sleep we went out to visit a silk factory. We saw the whole of the silk worm process. Inside the factory it was very noisy and we saw all the silk being taken from the silk worm cases. The factory was so noisy that we had a job to hear Mrs Chee's explantions, but we got the general idea of what was happening.

We then went to visit the Ji Chang gardens. It is amazing to see these gardens in China. You walk along a narrow, busy, smelly road teeming with people, go through a tall wooden gate and you are suddenly into a tranquil quiet large garden with lakes and lots of large colourful carp and Koi. The gardens are split up into different sections so there is no one place where you can view the complete garden. Different parts of the gardens were used for different things. Some places were just to sit and paint, or play musical instruments, or just to walk around and enjoy the trees and flowers. There are lakes, arched bridges, gaudy pavillions and covered promenades as well as open walkways. Like other gardens we saw later in the tour, this one depended much less on plants, and much more on water and stone, than those we are used to. Parts of the gardens could, indeed, perhaps just as well be described as "grottos".

I really liked Wuxi. The canal is busy and there is so much to see. The Grand Canal runs right through the centre of town. We crossed over the canal on a bridge and there was an old man wearing a Mao suit.

We walked around with Mrs Chee, looking into peoples' little houses. We were being stared at here, the little children were really sweet. Mrs Chee said not to worry if the people turned away from us, they were not used to Western people. But they were not in the least hostile, and it was great to be able to see a bit of the real old China; it won't be here for much longer. I would have liked to stay longer here.

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