Sunday, December 14, 2008

Winter - who said bring it on - surely not me!!

It was lovely to have family to farewell us at the airport. Mum, Damien and Donna (on her birthday) and Garry came. Tony and Kerrie Sacco had come over to Netta's to say goodbye just before we left. We were lucky enough to get side seats - a window and aisle, so there were no embarrassing moments crawling out over strangers to get to the loo - whew! We had a beautifully memorable departure from Sydney with an almost full moon rising majestically over the City lights - it was just stunning - pity the camera was in the overhead locker!

The plane was chockers and included quite a number of small children who were not at all happy to be travelling. Consequently, we did not sleep on the plane much. Despite that, we were too excited to be tired when we landed at Beijing this morning as scheduled at 5:40 am. This airport is now the biggest in the world. We arrived at Gate 513!!! Luggage is all delivered to the central terminal, so we caught the train across. I got plenty of stares and comments in my summer top as it was -9º! However, it was bliss after a very hot plane flight. Don’t worry – it only lasted to the front door where I quickly put on a jacket in the wind.

Our guide Peter met us at the arrival hall and we moved out to the car park to be greeted not only by a car, but with a driver in addition to the guide. Mr Maa was very obviously used to driving in the City and had been a taxi driver. It would have been suicide to try to drive ourselves – literally! They use the horn for everything and we soon were able to decipher the basics – one blast for here I come, two for here I come – NOW, three for here and I am and so on. No one uses their indicator and they cut in front of each other at will – often literally with cms to spare.

We headed for the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall of China. When asked if we could go to Mutianyu instead, Peter explained that it was in the north east and Badaling was in the north west just outside Beijing. To also see the Ming Tombs, we would need to go to Badaling as we would not have enough time to do both otherwise. So, Badaling it was. Amazingly the moon was still high in the sky on our left and the sun rising brightly (orange presumably due to the smog) on our right. They balanced each other, hanging evenly over the horizon.

We arrived about 8 am, busting to go to the toilet. As the Ming Tombs were not open until 8:30 am, I thought that was a great time to ask to use the bathroom. After much consultation between Peter and Mr Maa, we were driven a short distance to Jing Tomb Village located below the Chang Ling Tombs and shown in to the communal toilets. Well, if there ever was anything to stifle the toilet urge, here it was. If I ever thought that squat toilets were a little daunting, the sight of fully iced in toilets that had only dissolved where the warmer urine hit the ice, certainly cured any need! Too bad I didn’t have the camera around my neck (it would have been very bad form to go and get the camera for a rather unique photo).

There has been recent snow and the ground is quite icy, making walking a cautious exercise for me particularly. It was somewhat disheartening to see the poorness of the local village. Despite the cold (and it is to get colder yet), the homes are quite ramshackle and do not appear to be tight against the cold. The air is thick with the smell of burning timber fires from inside the dwellings.

The Ming Tombs are amazing. For us in Australia, the time scale is almost incomprehensible. We visited the Chang Ling tomb – the only one that is fully open to the public. This is the tomb of the Yongle emperor (reign 1403-1424). The layout is identical to the tomb of the first Ming emperor in Nanjing. Most impressive is the Ling'en Dian - an immense hall supported by 60 huge timber columns left unpainted to create an eye-catching contrast with the green ceiling panels. This hall houses a museum to the emperor and his court. A 3 level plaza around the tomb is constructed of white marble and features the dragon symbolising the Emperor.

We then visit a local Jade Factory. There is a master carver working on a generation ball carved from a single piece of jade. It takes about 7 hours to carve a 5 generation ball (5 balls inside each other). Much of the jade on display is made in a larger factory outside the town. I buy a small souvenir pendant and later realise that I probably paid too much. Learn to apply patience and clear thinking is the lesson of the day.

From here we drove to the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China. And if we had thought it cold before, add a wind chill factor and it was heading for -20ºC. Out came the Drizabones, the beanies, scarves and gloves. There is a very steep climb up from the car park. Being wooses, we opt to take the cable car. Now THAT in itself was an experience and a half. Can you imagine being suspended over cavernous mountains and about 100m above the valley floor with a wind gusting to 15 knots? Didn’t think I could either – but been there done that now. Couldn’t take any photos on the way up – too busy hanging on for dear life!

Once on top, the wind is ready to take you to the heavens. Michael is keen to climb the Wall, but ice on the steps warns me otherwise. I happily watch him clamber up and down taking many photos from my vantage point at the top. After about 1.5 hours we head back down to the car where Peter and Mr Maa have waited in the warm.

From here they want lunch – we just want sleep – but our guides have been working since 5:30 am so we agree to stop for them. They take us to a cloisonné factory where they can also get some lunch. Very interesting, but no purchases – we are already savvy to the suspected practices of guides in taking western tourists to factory outlets on the pretext of cheap sales. Later we find our fears to be well founded when we can buy pieces in our Beijing Hotel for a fraction of the price.

After a quick tour around the Olympic Village including a photo stop, we head for our hotel – the Novotel Peace Hotel in the centre of Beijing. After quickly unloading all our baggage to one of the porters, Peter and Mr Maa leave. The hotel lobby is so warm and welcoming after the chill of outside. We are upgraded to a Premier Room on the 16th floor where the view would be amazing if it wasn’t for the smog. We are about 3 blocks from Tiananmen Square and cannot see the high rise buildings on the other side because the smog is so thick. Yet, when you ask the Chinese, they assure you it is getting much better! Make us appreciate the air quality at home.

Before leaving Maryborough, we had contacted an English speaking guide on EBay. Jack has been guiding for 5 years and was very pleasant in all our dealings. I phone him to tell him we have arrived at the hotel (now 3 pm local time / 5 pm Qld time / 6 pm NSW time). He has reserved tickets to the Peking Opera at the Li Yuan Theatre for us tonight and we arrange to meet him here at 6:40 pm so we can take a sleep. After a 25 minute taxi ride costing ¥17 ($4.25) we arrive in time to see the actors putting on their makeup. We have purchased premier seats at ¥480 each that gives us stage side seats at a table with jasmine tea and more nibbles than we can consume. Two short stories are presented – Hu Village and Eighteen Arhats Fighting Wu Kong - very entertaining presentations that include singing, dialogue, acrobatics and dancing. This opera has its roots in southern China where it dates back more than 1,000 years.

Afterwards, we ask Jack to take us somewhere for a traditional Chinese meal. He explains that the traditional meal consists of a dish each plus rice and tells us that noodles are a ‘fast food’ in Beijing. A chicken dish with onions and nuts all diced into 1 cm pieces in a mild chilli sauce and a shredded pork dish with tofu pancakes plus rice, jasmine tea and a coke for Jack total ¥83. And he apologises because the exchange rate means that instead of paying $A15, it has cost a total of just over $A20!

It is now 10 pm and we are knackered, so off to bed as Jack is meeting us around 9:30 am tomorrow.

No comments: