Sunday, April 11, 2010

Saturday, April 3

Up by 4:30 AM - Beijing is 12 hours ahead of New Jersey. Lots of time to prepare for the day!

We started our day off with a hearty and delicious breakfast and the pattern for the day was set. In addition to the expected, we were also offered lychee nuts, sushi, vegetables, and some other unidentified cuisine! The day just continued to improve! Even before we got on the bus, the "independent entrepreneurs" were hawking their wares with "very special prices" being offered with wide and friendly smiles. In the future and in the interest of time, I will refer to t
hese street tycoons as "I.E." These men and women get super high grades for persistence and determination! Add to that an outstanding score for annoyance and you've got yourself an enormous and everpresent team of Donald Trumps...with better hair! :) Clearly, this self-employment illustrates an enviable hard work ethic and is an improvement over the questionable image of a healthy person with their hand out begging for money. The population of vendors never left us...all day...they were everywhere...but ambition was evident! Rachael bought a panda hat to add to her panda collection...or was it to her hat collection?!

We proceeded to Tiananmen Square, the largest square in the world representing the true political center of China. This square
is located in the center of Beijing. "Tiananmen" means literally "Gate of Heavenly Peace". There is lots of security present here, as we will find throughout China. The square is closed at night for security reasons, as well. It was here, in 1959, that Chairman Mao announced the formation of the Peoples Replublic of China to a crowd of a million people on October 1, 1949. The square is also the site of the June 5, 1989 massive protest, also known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, where students and intellectuals were protesting government corruption after the death of Hu Yaobang, who was also a suppporter of democracy. This protest left hundreds dead, between 200 to 3,000 or more - there are no official numbers. This event was further made famous by the photograph of the "Tank Man" or "Unknown Rebel" who challenged a column of Chinese Type 59 tanks by standing in front of them, unarmed. This was such a significant gesture that in 1998 this anonymous man was named as one of the "Most Important People of the Century" by Time Magazine. Check out more info: While Mao may have been responsible for the deaths of over 40 million of his own people, his revered portrait still hangs in a place of honor above the giant gateway to the Forbidden City and his mummified body lies in an eerie mausoleum in the square, as well.

We had a group ph
oto taken here as we noticed the crowds starting to form. In addition to it being the start of a Chinese holiday to honor the dead, keep in mind that China's population is @1.3 billion...1/5 of the world's total population, so crowds are inevitable. This holiday allows time for families to spend time together to remember and honor lost loved ones and we would feel its effects through Monday, as we explored more of China's historic sites.

Most Chinese groups wear brightly colored team "headgear" - hats, visors - to make a group easily identified. Our group did not have anything similar but Michael, our guide, had a stuffed panda on a stick that he held above his head for us to follow. We affectionately referred to him as "Panda Man". Rachael was particularly fond of our mascot. Thank goodness for the panda. The crowds continued to build. We proceeded to the Forbidden City - more people - LOTS more - and more police security present.

The calculated and ornate designs on each building and the symbolism respresented make it clear to us that the Forbidden City was a place of great importance viewed with much reverence. No "commoner" had set foot inside this area until 1949! This particular spot was chosen because a century and a half before, the Mongol ruler, Kublai Khan, chose it as the location of his fabled winter capital, Khanbalik. It is believed that 100,000 craftsmen and one million laborers and convicts worked tirelessly for three years to create this remarkable earthly paradise. Its creation was originally commissioned in 1406 for the Yongle Emperor, son of the Ming dynasty founder. From 1421-1912 this was the world's most magnificent command center with a rumored 9,999 rooms filled with nearly a million art treasures spread over 178 walled and moated acres. In its prime, the Forbidden City was home to the emperor and @3,000 concubines, courtiers, eunuchs, and soldiers. The place is huge and impressive and nothing was done without purpose. Keep in mind that the most important duty of the emperor was to maintain a sense of harmony between Heaven and Earth. To help him achieve this, the Forbidden City was designed as a small model of the entire cosmos. If you really want to know more - and there is SO much more to know! - go to which contains hundreds of photographs and lots of good information.

Now, it may seem inappropriate to discuss toilet facilities at this juncture but here we go! There is everything from hole
s in the floor to western style bathrooms with 5 star ratings with heated seats! We've seen them all. Simon likes to refer to the more accommodating ones as "happy rooms"! We all tend to agree as the holes tend to create an anxiety only rivaled by the thought of having to tend to one's needs with no stall get the picture! So far, so good on that! We waited as long as 20 minutes today for a happy room! BTW, these are usually BYO in the TP department. 2 suggestions, ladies: bring plenty of hand sanitizer and don't wear your good shoes!

While we were walking through the tunnel to the other side of the road to continue through the Forbidden City, we saw a local woman whose hair went down to the middle of her calf! She was probably about 5'7" making her hair @ 4'5" long! That's about the average height of a 5th grader or @ 5" shy of the height of my cousins' Armenian grandmother!

We hopped back on the coach for lunch, which was very conveniently connected to a pearl shop. You know the old saying, "If you feed them, they will buy."... and buy we did! Room after room of pearls, all of which we visited after our lunch and a short info-mercial making us aware of the different colors and kinds of pearls and the process by which they are formed. Prices ranged from @$10 USD to $20,000 USD and more! Many of us walked away happily carrying the signature little red bag...or TWO...thoroughly pleased having been separated from our money! Of course, wherever we went, we were accompanied by the ever-present I.E. It's important to remember that the bold and consistent approach of the I.E. designed to increase sales is partially driven by need but they also do not bear the burden of building that all-so-important customer base. For the largest percentage, each one of us represents a one-time-only sale so they keep trying...and trying...and trying, returning to us many times in the hopes that we will buy something simply to get rid of them (which, you have to know, works at times!). Of course, there is always the possibility that we will suddenly come to the realization that we simply cannot live without whatever they are offering and, in turn, this, too, increases sales. The overall inventory of each I.E. changes very little. It's the excitement of the bargain - the thrill of victory - on both sides of the sale! :)

On to the Summer Palace and more
and more people....lots and lots of people! The Chinese call it "Yihe Yuan", Garden of Restful Peace. The Summer Palace is another World Heritage site and is yet another overwhelming example of the opulent lifestyle of Chinese royalty. This was the emperor's retreat from the oppressive summer heat of Beijing and represented the obscene wealth enjoyed by him while his fellow countrymen lived a very simple and, often times, difficult life in an effort to survive. There are 3,000 buildings surrounding a man made lake. Today, this lake was full of paddle boats driven by leg-power and dragon boats taking visitors from one side of the lake the other. While exploring this area, we were treated to a Tai Chi lesson by a very lovely graceful young woman. Tai Chi is a time-honored favorite form of traditional exercise enjoyed by the Chinese, young and old alike. At the end of the day, our legs opted for the dragon boat alternative back to the other side of the lake!

After a very busy
day, we were treated to a rickshaw ride through the hutong where we enjoyed a conventional dinner in the home of a Chinese family. Once again, the food was delicious and we were privy to the intricacies of a typical Chinese home and family life. Chairman Mao's photo was on the wall. Compared to what is characteristic for us, their lives are far more simple and spartan yet there is no question that they are happy and satisifed, proving once again how frighteningly spoiled and ostentacious our American lives really are. We have so much more than we need and even when we realize this and attempt to simplify our lives, we seem to unconsciously revert back to our overindulgent habits simply replacing what we eliminated in the first place. Good grief!

Rickshaw races in the hutong! Let me explain. There were 2 people to each rickshaw powered by a surprisingly strong, yet slender Chinese man. Personally, I saw no women drivers and believe that tradition dictates it is only for men. I will get back to you on that! Our driver's name was never quite clear since he spoke no English and we spoke very limited Chinese...VERY limited meaning we really only had "Ni hao" under our belts! When our question finally became clear to him he happily pointed to his name tag... which, of course, was printed in Chinese so no progress was made. But, he was like the Energizer bunny on his bicycle and he pedaled his way to victory as we raced the other rickshaws through the hutong to our family home dinner! The streets were very narrow and there were at least 12-13 rickshaws in our first group in the competition, which incidentally was unintentional on his part. Nadia and I just urged him to get ahead and, of course, Marci and Rachael took that as a challenge and consequently encouraged speed out of their driver, as well. Nancy and Karen followed suit and soon, all rickshaws were in the rivalry amid car traffic, pedestrians, and other bicycles and rickshaws all vying for space and position. Remember those I.E. we talked about? Well...THEY'RE BAAAACK! And this time they are riding bicycles alongside our racing rickshaws whilst hawking their wares, negotiating "good price", encouraging sales and balancing inventory while simultaneously trying to simply stay on their bike and stay alive! Quite a site and a great time!

We learned that our family cook was also an accomplished artist and a number of us made purchases. An outstanding night - lots of cherished memories...the Wall tomorrow...Come on, feet, don't fail me now!

Update: Nancy's luggage has arrived safely after spending the night in San Francisco! Yea!

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