Saturday, December 31, 2005

Forbidden City

Looking back on 2005:
I became debt free. I turned 25. I quit a perfectly good job. I sold my beloved truck. I said farewell to family and friends. I embarked on the adventure of a lifetime. I forged friendships in a faraway land. I learned (some) Japanese. I forgot (a lot of) English\French. I saw things few from my part of the world get to see. I experienced things few have the privilege to experience. I saw and touched things that are thousands of years old. I found the girl of my dreams. (she was hiding in Japan, why didn't anybody tell me?) I didn't do nearly enough camping. I did a decent amount of skiing. I shopped in Tokyo. I haggled in Chinese markets. I have no regrets.


3 hours or so left of 2005 and I doubt I have much energy to do any celebrating tonight. I may even be too lazy to leave the hotel for dinner, might just buy some of the instant Ramen they have at the front desk. Long day today, 9 hours of walking, covered lots of ground. Took a nice long walk last night and found the Canadian Embassy, which is not too far from my hotel. I would have snapped a picture but the front gate was garded by some PLA soldiers, not the most photogenic bunch, especially down a dark street at night. Also found the main bar strip, called Sanlitun, which looked pretty cool but all the bars were empty on a Friday night for some reason...

I was also shocked to find that there is no escape from the Japanese behemoth that is Hitachi. As those of you in Japan know, Hitachi is everywhere from billboards on the streets to signs inside shrines and temples, but I thought I would be safe out here in China. Apparently not. Near my hotel, I spotted this hotel which for some reason has a huge flashing neon Hitachi sign on the roof of it!

Woke up early this morning in order to head out to the Forbidden City. First stop was McDonald's for some breakfast, and while I now remember why I don't eat McDonalds, it was somewhat better than the slop which is served in the hotel restaurant. I then hopped a cab and made my third? fourth? visit to Tiananmen square since I can pronounce it ok in Chinese to the taxi driver and it's a good starting point for lots of the sights in central Beijing. After picking up my entrance ticket and automated audio guide, I plunged into the world of the Forbidden City.

The Palace Museum, as it is now referred to, covers 720,000 square meters right in the center of Beijing, and includes some 800 buildings with almost 10,000 rooms in total. Commonly called the Forbidden City since commoners were bared from entry under penalty of death, this palace complex is the largest in the world and is also the largest collection of ancient wooden buildings in the world. From the start of construction in 1406, it took 14 years and hundreds of thousands of workers to complete this massive project. From it's completion until the abdication in 1912 of China's last emperor, the Forbidden city was home to 24 emperors spanning the Ming and Qing dynasties. Inside the walls toiled thousands of servants, concubines and bureaucrats. The Forbidden City is separated into two large courtyards and surrounded by a 10 meter high wall as well as a deep moat. The southern half was used for affairs of state, while the northern half is where the imperial family lived. From the moment you walk through the gate, you are simply in awe of this place. The complexity of the design, the intricacy of the artwork and sheer scale of it just leaves you breathless. Adding to the feeling that I was merely an ant passing through this great place today was the fact that there was practically no one there with me early on in the day and I often found myself wandering through corridors for 15-20 minutes before encountering any sign of life. I wonder how many people have gotten a picture of the front courtyard (where the emperor attended to state affairs) with not one person in the shot...

As if things weren't already mystical enough, it started to snow steadily shortly after I entered the gates.

The central arches of all the gates, and this marble walkway that runs through the center of the city was reserved strictly for the use of the Emperor, and on some special occasions such as her wedding day, the Empress. This is the largest and most important hall inside the Forbidden City, the Hall of Supreme Harmony which was only used during special occasions such as the Emperor's birthday.

The snow was really coming down hard for a while and everything was quickly coated in a lovely coating of white.

This is the Heavenly Purity Gate, which separates the Forbidden City in half.

As most of the ground is either marble or somewhat polished brick, it quickly got slippery and an army of broom carrying attendants went about clearing walkways and sometimes entire squares of the city, making it safe for our tourist feet to walk on.

The jade work around some of these doors was amazing, I can't imagine the time and effort that went into designing and building this place.

This was one of those eerie moments where I felt I was totally alone wandering the halls of the city.

They ARE everywhere!!! In what was once a semi-important building (you can tell by the number of animals on the corner of the roof) sits a small Starbucks outlet, catering to us foreigners in search of some java to remind us of home.

This is the Divine Military Genius Gate, which allows entry from the North and from which I exited the Forbidden city after 4 hours of aimless wandering. Unfortunately (or fortunately I guess) many of the artifacts were removed from the city and smuggled to Taiwan when the Communists took power. The fear was that the cultural revolution would destroy many if not all of these priceless artifacts and so a museum was built by the "exiled" government in Taipei to house them. This is still a major bone of contention between The People's Republic of China and the Republic of China, but I think it was for the best. I've seen much of the damage inflicted on cultural objects during the years of chaos and upheaval which swept China, and it's a good thing some people had the foresight to protect at least some of this country's heritage.

Here you can see the gate, the wall and the moat which surrounds the city... frozen of course in this frigid temperature.

After my tour of the Forbidden City, I plunged into one of the nearby Hutongs, heading in the general direction of the Drum and Bell Towers. It's amazing how much more comfortable I feel walking the streets after spending a bit of time here. These are essentially VERY poor areas of the city, but quite safe nonetheless I guess due to the number of tourists who walk through them. I think the police department (of which I saw three stations in my 20 minute was through the Hutongs) would have something to say about bums scaring away tourist dollars.

Hutongs are essentially a maze of alleyways of non-standard size snaking in every direction.

No idea how long this car's been here, but I figure it's been a while.

After exiting the Hutongs, I stumbled upon Lotus Lane, which runs along a frozen lake which people were skating on. Notice another Starbucks...

On Lotus Lane, an obvious attempt at marketing from the Tintin books which I read as a child, in French of course... the Blue Lotus restaurant, from "Tintin et le lotus bleu."

These two behemoths towering over the neighbourhood are what I was after. In the forefront is the Drum Tower, with the Bell Tower in the back.

This is the Bell Tower, which I didn't bother paying to climb up into. It is said that the bell maker's daughter plunged to her death into the molten iron before the huge bell was cast. Her father was almost able to reach her, but only managed to hold onto her shoe. Some say this is why the sound of the bell tolling sometimes sounds like the "xiƩ" which is the Chinese word for shoe.

And of course the Drum Tower, as seen from the Bell Tower. The drums inside were beaten to mark the hours of the day.

So after all this walking, I hopped into a cab and headed back to the Xuishui Silk Market to buy another couple of things and made out quite nicely. I am especially proud of the strategy I used with a particularly pushy silk dealer to which I said I was running out of cash and couldn't afford what she was asking. I would constantly apologize and attempt to leave her booth but she wouldn't let go of my arm and she kept lowering her price for at least 5 minutes until she finally agreed to a price only 15 Yuan higher than my starting price. She, by comparison, dropped down 700 Yuan from her starting price. She was somewhat disappointed at having dropped down when she looked into my wallet, but I explained what was for one more full day in Beijing and a taxi ride to the airport. Made off quite well again today, averaging an 80-90% drop from the initial asking price of the things I bought.

Tomorrow, the Lama Temple, and the Dirt Market (maybe, I need to review my Yuan situation... though if I'm not going out tonight, I think I'm ok), then early to bed for my early flight the next day.

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Friday, December 30, 2005

Ancient Xian

So after an ok sleep and a rather rude awakening, (conductor threw open our door, flicked on the light switch and yelled something in Chinese before moving on to the next compartment) I said my goodbyes to my bunkmate and hopped off the train. When I exited the train station, the first thing that came to mind was "Wow, foggy" and that turned out to be true throughout the day. After the initial look around the group of people holding name cards, I spotted mine and headed off to introduce myself to Bryan, my guide for the day and our driver, "nameless chinese-only speaker in black leather coat driving black VM Santanna". It's quite nice to finally be one of those people important enough to have someone holding your name when you arrive in a city.

So the day's itinerary included breakfast, a visit to the Xian City Walls,The Terracotta Army and lunch before heading back for the train back to Beijing. Breakfast was ok, kind of Western style (if you exclude the spaghetti) with passable coffee at a nice hotel near the center of town. The most interesting part of it was that the urinals in the men's room all had ash trays on them, guess them Chinese folk REALLLLLY like to smoke. After breakfast, we headed back to the car for the short ride to the City walls.

Xian is one of the most ancient of ancient cities. For a period spanning over 2000 years, over a dozen Chinese dynasties rose and fell in and around Xian. The city was the starting point for the famed "Silk Road" to the Middle-East and to this day over 100,000 Muslim-Chinese people live here. To put things in perspective, 200 years before Rome was founded, and 500 years before Buddhism started, Xian was already a classic world city. The population today is somewhere around the 7 million mark, and it is still an important city in China, not only as one of the premiere tourist attractions due to the proximity of the Terracotta Army. The city served as capital for many dynasties and as such was protected by huge city walls which have recently been restored\rebuilt. We entered the wall from the South Gate, and headed east towards the East Gate. This is the main guardhouse near the South Gate.

If the emperors at the time knew barbarians such as I would be hopping around on their wall a few thousand years later, I wonder if they still would have built it?

While the fog didn't do much to help with lighting for these pics, it did lend an eerie feeling to the whole walking of the wall thing with towers disappearing in the distance as you can see here. The wall is 12 meters wide at the top, wider at the bottom and is interspersed with archery towers. Since the arrows at the time only had a relatively short range, the towers are built every 100 meters or so to ensure adequate coverage. This later became unnecessary with the advent of firearms but the wall was still used as a defensive measure during relatively recent conflicts when it was mounted with canons for defense.

I don't quite recall the whole story behind this lovely tower, but it was built to honour the bureaucrat in charge of literature for the city, I think.

This is the tower which guards the southeast corner of the city. It is offset from the wall and provides lines of sight to both approaches as well as the distant hills and was used to track enemy troop movement.

Of course there is modern (kind of) life still going on inside the city walls. Here is an open air market where local residents are buying fruits, vegetables and other goods. Most of these traditional neighbourhoods are being razed and replaced with "modern, but looking like traditional" housing, all along the walls.

Having reached the East Gate where our car was waiting, we headed out of town to see the Terracotta Army. This along with the Great Wall, was definitely a highlight of my trip to China.

Here's a quick rundown of the history of these bad boys. Over 2 thousand years ago, Qin Shi Huang led a military campaign to unite China, which until then had been in the throes of constant infighting between the many warlords controlling their respective regions. In 221 B.C., having finally conquered all his enemies, he established the Qin dynasty and named himself the first emperor. He immediately started construction of a huge Tomb Complex through which he could be honoured after his death for having brought peace to China. As part of this massive project, covering over 56 square kilometers, he ordered a massive army to be built to ensure his continued supremacy into the afterlife. The first emperor of the Qin Dynasty was not a popular one, leading by force, purging huge amounts of people and using forced labour in huge construction projects. And so it was that after his death in 210 B.C., his son and successor was overthrown and the Huan dynasty was eventually established. As was customary at the time, any and all symbol of the former regime was to be annihilated and so Qin's tomb (including the Terracotta Warriors) was attacked, sacked and destroyed. And so it was that for over 2000 years, the army lay underground with no one the wiser. In 1974, some peasants digging a well stumbled upon what some say is THE most important archaeological find of the 20th century. The Chinese government immediately ordered a massive archaeological dig, and initially found over 6000 soldiers in what is now called pit number 1. They've undertaken an extensive restoration project and are slowly piecing the soldiers back together and arranged them as they once were. As you can see, it must have been one hell of a puzzle to put these guys back together after they were so thoroughly destroyed by the marauders.

In pit number one, you can see a classic battle formation with three lines of archers, crossbowmen and spearmen (long distance fighters) supported by columns of cavalry and infantrymen. There are many types of statues, each with a distinct and unique face and with a posture according to his purpose. Each soldier had been outfitted with actual weapons, most of which were stolen during the attack.

Of the 8000 and some odd soldiers unearthed so far in 3 different excavations, only one, this kneeling archer was found completely intact. The reason it was missed was likely due to it's kneeling posture, it was probably covered in debris during the attack and luckily was not damaged. You can still see the colour on the back of his neck and the intricate detail of his hair... amazing!

This was quite the experience, to be in the presence of such pieces of art which are over 2000 years old was astounding, again too much to put into words. Following this trip out of town, we headed back in. Since it was only 2PM, my guide suggested he could take me around Xian a bit since we had about 5 hours to kill before my train left. The driver unfortunately put the kibosh on us getting around by car saying his job was over when he got me back to the train station, he promptly lost his tip at this point. Bryan then suggested he could take me from the train station by bus and still tour the city, since he had to stay with me until my train left anyway. So that's what we did, hopping on an old Double-Decker bus where I got some really strange stares from everybody. Price was good though, only 1Yuan (about 16 cents) and we got to the Muslim Quarter. As I mentioned before, Xian has a substantial Muslim population, stemming from the existence of the Silk Road which served as a trading route to and from the Middle-East. The area is covered in small stalls selling everything from arts and crafts to food and watches with Chairman Mao waving at you. The atmosphere was definitely different than that in the rest of the city, much quieter and the salespeople not at all pushy.

At the top of the "sights of the Muslim quarter" is the Great Mosque, the largest mosque in China. It is still an active holy site and holds prayer sessions several times a day. The architecture is of course traditionally Chinese, and most of the grounds serve as parks, must be really nice in the spring.

The carvings were just amazing.

This is a gate leading to the main prayer hall, which can hold over 1000 worshipers. Notable guest to this mosque include Pakistani president Musharaff and Boxing legend Mohamed Ali.

The walk through the Muslim Quarter led us to the Drum Tower, which you can see here shrouded in mist.

Near the drum tower, Bryan pointed out this building which is the largest Chinese dumpling restaurant in all of China, with four floors serving only dumplings. This building is of note since Utsunomiya as we all know is "famous" for it's Gyoza, a Japanized form of Chinese dumpling. Unfortunately, it was quite busy and I didn't feel like waiting so I didn't get to try the real thing.

This building is the Bell Tower, which is now located right next to a major shopping center, interesting contrast, too bad it's so misty.

Heading out from the Bell Tower to another shopping\market area, we went through these undergrounds tunnels which serve as a market\shopping area. (See a main theme here?)

This is the shopping area we were heading for, which is filled mostly with calligraphy supply stores (popular with the Japanese tourists) and galleries as well as jade shops... all way above my price range for this trip.

Finally we headed into the Forest of Stone Steles Museum, where Bryan's eyes lit up and he started spouting off more historical facts than he had all day, I guess this must be one of his passions. This museum sits on the site of what was once a Temple and it now contains hundreds of priceless stone carvings as well as the heaviest collection of books in the world. It was originally used as a library of sorts when Xian was used as capital and it developed quite an extensive collections. Among the more notable stone tablets was a series written by some isciples of the great philosopher Confucius recording conversations they'd had with him... Confucius himself! Another tablet of note records the arrival of Christianity to China when the first Nestorian church opened in the year 781. There is also a large stone tablet outside one of the buildings which was actually carved by one of the Tang (I think) Emperors. Most of the stones (The ones older than 600 years, newer ones don't deserve protecting, lol) were covered in glass and so I didn't bother with pictures.

These stone sculptures were originally tied to the front of rich people's houses and guests could tie off their horse\ox\mule\etc. to them... quite interesting. So that was pretty much the day, Bryan was great and I gave him a good tip (100Yuan, equivalent to 100 bus rides, 10 KFC combos, 30 bottles of coke or a number of meals) and he seemed quite happy. I didn't mind forking out the cash, though tipping is not the norm in China, since he showed me so much more than the 2 items our itinerary had us covering for the day. he could have had me sit at the train station for 5 hours instead! So I hopped back on the train along with about 60 other foreigners belonging to a few tour groups, and again had an on-and-off night of sleeping. Xian was interesting, is was nice to get around by bus here for the first time. One thing I did notice throughout the day, since we were in what is considered a much less cosmopolitan city than Beijing, is that it was difficult for me to hide my relative wealth. I wasn't wearing any jewelry, but damn was I still a marked contrast to the people around me. For the first time, I was approached by women dragging dirty kids behind them begging for money, horribly disfigured people sitting on the cold pavement and hoardes of migrant workers carrying their shovels on their backs looking for a job for the day. Quite the contrast to the "New" China which I've seen emerging all around me. The gap between rich and poor is definately growing here, though people tell me the government is trying to deal with the problem. If it weren't for the constant military presence, you'd forget you were in a communist country here... I doubt the USSR had a Ferrari dealership within walking distance from the Kremlin... quite an interesting trip.

Was picked up from the train (not the station, she actually came onto the train and to my compartment) by Joy today for the ride back to my hotel. I told them I wanted to go elsewhere instead and I was dropped off near the Temple of Heaven and we released the driver. She had some time so we had breakfast together and I helped her with some English while I waited for the Pearl Market to open. She's quite nice, has great big dreams which I hope she realizes. She then took me into the market and did some haggling for me in Chinese, though she said I was doing fine on my own. We parted ways and traded email addresses and I went off and got myself some dress shoes and then turned in to the hotel for a much needed shower and change of clothes. I had planned on heading back out for some shopping this afternoon, but this whole blogging thing has taken me a while. I don't mind though, it helps to remind me of the million things I've done in the past 5 days! My stuff is now strewn throughout my room as well, so I may sort that out instead of shopping and will head out to the Chaoyang Embassy area for a nice dinner, it's not too far. Tomorrow is another busy day with the Forbidden City in the morning and The Llama Temple in the afternoon. Sunday I'll keep pretty mellow since it's a national holiday here and all, lots of people will probably be out and about, not sure what I'll do... and then I fly out on Monday morning and arrive into the arms of my lovely lady sometime around 5PM.

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Bring on the haggling!

Yes I've returned from Xian, sorry to Alex for having to wait to read up on what he's missing out on... first, Wednesday:

I think I've found my new favourite hobby, haggling for a while and beating down somebody's initial asking price by 90+%. I love it! On Wednesday, after checking out of my hotel and leaving my luggage with the front desk, I hopped in a taxi and headed to Xuishui Silk Street. After reading some stuff online, I was somewhat apprehensive about what I would find there. The original Xuishui Silk Street was an actual street lined with shops and stalls selling all kinds of stuff from silk and pearls to fake designer label clothes, bags and watches. However, since Xuishui is very close to the US Embassy and due to the international pressure on China to attempt to control the crazy-huge knockoff market, Xuishui was shut down and moved inside to a multi-story building where vendors had to obtain permits to sell their goods. Of course, as with any new law\policy, it's only effective if enforced, and enforced it ain't. All it's done is move the vendors off the street and into the warmth with storage space for their goods. Upon arriving at the market, I immediately spotted an oasis in the craziness that is Asia... a Subway. Now, seeing as I haven't had Subway since I left Canada, I just had to stop in. We have them in Japan of course, but only far away from my apartment. So I ordered a foot long Roasted Chicken sub with a side of pumpkin soup... and it was good... not quite up to par with the ingredients we have access to in Canada, but quite tasty nonetheless.

This is the front of the Xuishui Silk Market.

Inside lies a bustling atmosphere full of desperate vendors trying to make a sale in the off-season where tourist dollars are relatively rare. A perfect opportunity for the shark in me to let loose and get some stuff for next to nothing!!! I think I did quite well, picking up a few gifts and some ties for myself for anywhere from 85-90% off the vendor's sky high initial asking price. I learned quickly after buying two sets of postcards for 20Yuan my first day here and then having someone else offer the same thing for 5Yuan... never take the first price... lol

After my first foray into the land of China's markets, I started hiking down the street towards the beginning of the Wangfujing Dajie walking tour suggested by my Lonely Planet guidebook. Wangfujing Dajie is the premiere shopping district in Beijing, where the elite come to be seen shopping. Names such as Swarovski, Rolex, Rolls Royce and Luis Vuitton grace the walls of these shopping malls... most of it unfortunately out of the reach of the common Beijing citizen, and myself for that matter... but an interesting stroll nonetheless. While I was walking around, I was approached by 4 different sets of people, 2 of which were nice and just wanted to chat, one of which was a student trying to draw me into an art exhibition and the last of which was a prostitute who simply said: "Hello Hello, Your hotel sex?" Not that I would ever consider such a thing, but the mustache certainly didn't help her cause... lol Branching off from the main shopping area is Wangfujing Snack street, a small market-like area which sells foods from all corners of China, as well as the usual tourist souvenirs.

I continued walking, following the map in the guide and stopping to read about interesting buildings and such until I reached St-Joseph's Church, also known as the East Cathedral, which was recently renovated and adds a certain je-ne-sais-quoi to a stroll down a Chinese shopping street. Originally build in 1655, this unlucky church was destroyed by an earthquake, a fire and a war, but rebuilt each time, the last time being 1904. I just read in my guidebook that there is a Starbucks across the street, which I missed on my first visit... since this is close to the Forbidden City, where I'll be heading on Saturday, I'll probably hobble my way back down there to grab my first real coffee in 5 days.

The next item of note on this 3Km hike through central Beijing was this small park, dedicated to the remains of what was once the fantastic East Gate of the Imperial City. Unfortunately, as is the case with countless cultural relics in China, this one was destroyed in the period of chaos following the fall of the last Emperor in the early 1900s. All that remains is this sad little stump of bricks. It is however interesting to note the level of the ancient street compared to today's, a 2 meter difference.

The walk continued, and after saving a few German tourists who'd been in Beijing for a mere 2 hours and were being hounded by postcard salespeople (look at me the veteran having been in China all of 5 days) I continued my walk until I got my first view of the magnificent Forbidden City behind it's large walls. I'll be visiting tomorrow but here's the first look I got of one of the towers guarding the city.

Got out to Tiananmen Square again and tried in vain to take a snapshot of the Gate of Heavenly Peace with the Chinese flag fully extended... but the wind wasn't cooperating.

In search of a taxi, I spotted this countdown clock (sorry it's a bit far) to the 2008 Beijing Olympics in front of one of the museums next to the Square.

Again, my experience served me well and when I was mobbed by a bunch of taxi drivers (real painted taxis, not the fake illegal ones) offering me a ride for a set price, I kept on walking... ended up getting one off the street and paying less than half what was being offered. I now just ask the driver to take me to Tuan Jie Hu street and can find my way down the back alleys to my hotel, since taxis have been having a hard time finding the place.

So I waited in the lobby until a black luxury car pulled up and my English tour guide came in to take me to the train station. The driver had to fight through some nasty traffic, but I got to talk to the guide in the meantime and she tried to teach me some Chinese. The word Qing (tshing) said in 4 different ways means please, emotion, light and celebrate... and I have no idea what I was saying, but she was laughing at me, though I did get it right a few times. She escorted me to the train, got me on board and bid me adieu until my return to Beijing. The train carriage was comfortable, I was sharing with one fellow and he was very nice though his English was limited. He broke out some green tea, offered me some and after I said I had no cup he scoured the train looking for one and finally succeeded. The Chinese people I've met so far have been very friendly and relatively outgoing and happy to show off their English skills. So that was that for Wednesday, got a good (enough) night's sleep on the train and was ready to face the ancient city of Xian on Thursday.

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