Monday, April 8, 2013

Spotlight: Beijing

Exploring Beijing is easy since the Olympics. The subways have English buttons and the maps are relatively easy to read. My husband and I liked it so much in 2010, we journey back in 2012. Here's some of the places we visited: 

Beijing Zoo -  The zoo was pretty depressing. The Panda Houses were dreary and the barrenness of winter only amplified the feeling.  One panda was miserable – flailing around trying to find a comfortable position, tearing off wood splinters and rubbing them on his head. The other animals did not fair much better. The lions and tigers were in small, empty cages. We decided not to see any more animals because it was just too sad. 

Beijing Aquarium - The aquarium is located behind the zoo and is very nice. The first section is a recreation of a rainforest with ramps going up and down through vegetation and open fish tanks. The rainforest section opens into a huge space with gift shops and two beautiful Beluga whales at the far end and smaller shallow ponds with fish and sea turtles along the side. The Beluga whale had this concave opening where it put its head in and blow bubbles. 

Summer Palace - The palaces at this location have been destroyed twice: once by British forces and once during the Boxer Rebellion so the buildings are only about 100 years old. This is where the Emperor or Empress would go during the summer when the Forbidden City got too hot. The benefit of the Palace’s young age is that a lot of the furniture is still in place in many of the halls. It is a beautiful location since a lake was dug to create a waterside retreat.  This digging process created a hill where the Emperor placed a temple. This property also features a traditional long corridor with intricate drawings.

The property is massive. Every corner holds another path and another set of buildings in various states of repair. Glenn continued his potato chip tasting from around the world with some chicken flavored snacks. China lost this round to Turkey. At the end of the long corridor was a “marble” boat.

The Empress had used funds earmarked for modernizing the Navy to commission a boat of wood painted to look like marble. 

 Lama Temple -  The Lama Temple an incredibly ornate Tibetian temple which supposedly symbolizes China’s tolerance of other religions. The site houses several halls with large Buddha statutes – the largest an impressive 55 foot tall Buddha. The smell of incense fills the space as followers lit it to honor Buddha. 

Hui Lake -  We loved the area around Hui Lake – we could really tell that it is quite a hot spot at night and in warmer weather. We set out to find No Name restaurant – a recommendation from our guide book. It only took us one wrong turn. We were a little nervous because we were the only people in the whole restaurant, but they let us upstairs to a beautiful sun room overlooking the hutong roofs. We ordered crispy spring rolls and lemongrass roasted fish. Both were excellent.

Wangfuijing night market - This market is the spot to try all the unique treats: starfish, scorpions, etc. 

The Beijing Police Museum -  It was so interesting plus admission was less than a dollar. Win. Win. 

It started with the creation of the Public Safety Bureau when Mao found the New Republic of China. The most interesting sign referred to the cultural revolution as a grim and terrible time – even though it was one of Mao’s biggest initiatives. Several displays outlined the fate of dissidents who were discovered and put to death. Being in a now modern Beijing- it is so easy to forget that just 70 years ago it was still a feudal society. And just 40 years ago Mao ruled supreme. The second floor was crime investigation. The displays told the story of a particular crime with crime scene photos, detective notes and other evidence collected during the investigation. One display even had the actual bag that the body was stuffed into! Shocking! Another had the heroin that was confiscated. I often forget when we go other countries that they have very different laws and rights. This museum definitely reminded me. The third floor contained displays giving an overview of all the duties of the police. This is very different that the US. Licenses, registrations, census functions, traffic, transit and overall public safety are all under the national policy/public safety division. They showed an example of the traffic cameras that surveyed more of the local building entrances and public sidewalks than our traffic cams. 

 Maison Boulud – an outpost of Chef Daniel Boulud. It is located in a collection of old government buildings that have been transformed into high end shops and restaurants. The restaurant was one of the most beautiful restaurants I have ever seen. 

Nanluoguxian  – One of the more popular alleyways in the  Hutongs. Hutongs are historic alleyways that the Chinese government has decided to preserve and develop to make into a tourist attraction.  It is a bustling area filled with shops, bars and restaurants. We found some great souvenirs and had a lot of fun walking around.

Ming Tombs - This is an area where the 13 emperors from the Ming dynasty are buried. The tombs are quite large because when the Emperor died, his concubines would also commit suicide so they could be buried with him. We didn’t get to see the actual tombs, just the gates and the stone statutes lining the walkway in between. 

The Great Wall - Driving through the hills, we were able to catch glimpses here and there. Then we got there and headed up the wall. Climbing on the wall up to the Towers is very steep. It was quite an exhausting experience! We climbed to the first tower, almost got flattened by the wind, and then headed back down for a celebratory beer.

Tiananmen Square  Security is very tight getting in. All bags must be X-rayed. The Square is considered the largest square in the world – holding over 1 million people – Chinese people as Sam our guide said. It really is quite a sight. The square is surrounded by Mao’s mausoleum, the Parliament building, the national museum, and the famous gate with Mao’s picture. In the center is a monument to all the people who died during the revolutions prior to communism.

 Forbidden City - The Forbidden City was constructed during the Ming dynasty and then rebuilt during the Qing dynasty. We entered through the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Then the Meridian Gate. Then to the final gate to the outer court – the Gate of Supreme Harmony. This leads to the Hall of Supreme Harmony where the emperor would perform special ceremonies. The Forbidden City is called the Forbidden City because common people were not allowed to enter – even though a million of them worked for 50 years to construct it. The Gate has three openings – the largest for the emperor, the second largest for the Empress and high ranking officials, and the third for guards and lower ranking officials. 

Jingshan Park – This park is located just north of the Forbidden City.  It has a hill made from the dirt excavated building the moat around the Forbidden City. I was hoping for groups of locals practicing tai chi and other morning exercises. We paid our 50 cents and walked into a harmonica band performing with dancers.  

We headed up the hill for an amazing view of the Forbidden City. The haze prevented any good pictures but all the guide books were right – this view is incredible. I didn’t appreciate how large the Forbidden City was since when we visited we stayed in the central portion. On the way back down, we came across the site of the last Ming Emperor’s suicide. The highlight of the trip was watching women practice a routine with a paddle and a ball. A man came up and invited me to join so I did.

Temple of Heaven - The Temple of Heaven literally means Altar of Heaven and this is where the Son of Heaven prayed for good harvests and sought divine intervention. Practically this means that people don’t pray here so no incense. It was originally constructed in the 1500s, destroyed and then rebuilt in the 1700s. The property covers 267 hectares and is used as a park. We came across lots of people practicing dance routines, tai chi, or just enjoying a brisk walk around the property. 

If you have any questions or want to book your own Chinese adventure, please email me at

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