After enjoying the amenities and hospitality of the Loong Palace Hotel including it's extensive breakfast menu which we thoroughly enjoyed, we assembled in the (cold!) lobby of the hotel to meet our new guide, Velma. She had warned us that we would be doing a lot of walking today so to wear our most comfortable walking shoes. She did not disappoint!
Our first stop of the day was to see the famed Tiananmen Square
, a large city square in the centre of Beijing, China, named after the Tiananmen ("Gate of Heavenly Peace") located to its north, separating it from the Forbidden City.
The square contains the Monument to the People's Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. As it was our first taste of the brisk Beijing weather and being out in the open for most of the morning, we decided to break down and purchase Panda caps from the hawkers who descended on us as we got of the bus. Although we were encouraged to bargain then down to 20% of their asking price, we felt bad to push it as we were going to get mobbed by more of them the longer we hung around so settled for a 2-for-1 deal at their asking price (of 35Yuan). Others, we learned later got theirs even cheaper! However at 3$ vs $2, we didn't feel to bad! Eventually we were dubbed the Panda Parade with 5 valid members and one honorary (she didn't want to wear the hat even though she had it, saying that she actually bought it for her grand-daughter!)
Velma warned us of the crowds at the square and that we should make like 'sticky rice' and not spread out like 'noodles'. Despite the warning, Freida managed to get lost as we did a quick turn to get through the entrance gates but caught up with us quickly. After a brief description about the capacity of the square (one of the largest 10 in the world, could accommodate a million people standing shoulder to shoulder!) and the surrounding buildings we were allowed to roam around on our own and take photographs of the surrounding monuments and sculptures. There was a restricted entry to the Mausoleum where no cameras or bags were allowed
. Apparently his embalmed body housed in a crystal coffin is visited by more than several thousand people daily.
After getting a chance to appreciate it's size and beauty, we headed over to our meeting place to have our group picture taken by an official photographer who had accompanied us that morning. At first we were wondering why we needed an official photographer and then realized that the square was full of free-lance photographers offering to have subjects pick up their photographic keepsakes in a souvenir book at the end of the trek through the Forbidden City, which was just across from the square. Ours was on offer for $20 which was acceptable to several couples in our group.
We then made our way via an underground passage to the other side of the multi-lane roadway to enter the Tiananmen Gate of the Forbidden City
under the watchful eye of a huge portrait of Mao ZeDong (which is replaced in a ceremony every year) and his undercover police watchfully scanning every person entering the complex. It was so named because it was off limits to commoners during the Imperial reign and only royalty and nobility could enjoy it's fabled 9,999.5 rooms, only 0.5 room less than heaven in deference to that ultimate sanctuary! (in actual fact... the Forbidden City covers an area of about 72 hectare with a total floor space of approximately 150,000 square meters. It consists of 90 palaces and courtyards, 980 buildings and 8,704 rooms. ref
The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty—the years 1420 to 1912. It is located in the centre of Beijing, China, and now houses the Palace Museum. It served as the home of emperors and their households as well as the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government for almost 500 years.
The complex is arranged symmetrically
along a km long central axis with one immense courtyard bordered by buildings and halls leading into another, each with a different significance until you get to the innermost buildings which served as the high courts. You can get an idea of the immensity of the construction from this virtual tour.
After going through what seemed like endless gates and courtyards, we took a slight detour to view some historical items in a (gratefully heated) museum and then continued through after a much needed 'susu break'. It probably took about an hour or so to complete the visit without stopping for too long.
Definitely an impressive show of medieval construction with the ubiquitous glazed yellow roof tiles challenging the load bearing of the buildings!
Before exiting the complex we were treated to the delightful Imperial Garden with all the tranquility we had come to expect from Chinese gardens complete with their complement of Chinese scholar's rocks
arranged in a large facade.
As it was now close to lunch time, for those (majority) of the group who had decided to do the hutong
tour, we were taken to a meeting point where the others could knock down a beer or two while we walked over to the rickshaw stand to enjoy the sights of this ancient community up close. Hutongs represent an important cultural element
of the city of Beijing. Thanks to Beijing’s long history and status as capital for six dynasties, almost every hutong has its anecdotes, and some are even associated with historic events. In contrast to the court life and elite culture represented by the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven, the hutongs reflect the culture of grassroots Beijingers. The hutongs are residential neighborhoods which still form the heart of Old Beijing.
I was surprised by the number of expensive vehicles in the cramped neighbourhood which lent itself better to two-wheelers and the enclosed tri-wheelers that seem to have made a niche for themselves between the open bikes and expensive cars.
After losing our group to a slipped chain, we panicked while our driver struggled to catch up between negotiating slower vehicles and other roadside obstacles created by the constant state of construction/renovation the area seems to be undergoing. We soon caught up with them just before we were arriving at our destination where we were to enjoy a home cooked meal in a typical rental household that opens into a common courtyard. We walked the remaining way to the home enjoying the views at a slower pace in the intimate neighbourhood of the hutong. We eventually arrived at our destination to be greeted by our hostess, her son and daughter-in-law who had prepared a traditional meal for us. She had retired from the restaurant industry and used her experience to supplement her family income after her husband retired from driving a tourist bus.
We were seated around two round tables in a small dining room which was decorate with items handed down through the ages from previous tenants of the home, probably ancestors.
The meal was simple but tasty, with an unusual vegetable, later identified as garlic sprouts, making this vegetarian very happy. We enjoyed their hospitality and were shown around the main house starting with the modernized kitchen (lots of granite) and then the main dining room that appeared to have been set up for another party. After taking some pictures with the hostess and her family we walked back to the rickshaw stand to be driven back to the bus.