Day 2: Beijing
Excited for our first full day in China, we follow signs in the lobby upstairs to the Chongwenmen Hotel breakfast buffet. Holding up two fingers, a hostess writes our total on a piece of paper. We pay sixty Yuan then open the doors to Dracula’s castle. We find an empty table in the dimly lit room furnished with dark wood and deep red velvet. The buffet consists of lo Mein, white rice, scrambled eggs, varieties of sauteed vegetables, steamed buns, soup, fruit, and cookies. We each choose a bowl of wonton soup and pour coffee into a plastic juice glass. I pile scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, and a small container of yogurt onto my plate. Feeling adventurous, I grab a mysterious cookie and return to our table.
We meet the rest of our G Adventures tour group in the lobby and begin our walk to the metro station. Paul, our CEO, purchases our tickets and expertly herds us all onto the public transportation before the doors close. Exiting the station, we are surprised the streets aren’t crowded. Our first stop is the world’s largest public square, Tiananmen Square, home to the National Museum of China, Monument of the People’s Heroes, and the Great Hall of the People. As we walk towards the center of Beijing, we pass Zhengyangmen Gate south of the square. The colorful building is very noticeable among the surrounding tan and gray skyscrapers. As we continue north, the Tiananmen Square garden comes into view. Perfectly trimmed pink, red, and green hedges pepper the grass near waves of purple, pink, and red flowers. Across the square, is the Monument of the People’s Heroes. This light gray memorial constructed of marble and granite towers ten stories high.
Also on the far side of the square, a line of red flags lead visitors to the Great Hall of the People. Thousands of people visit the square each day. To our right, a large portrait of Mao Zedong is proudly displayed on the Tiananmen Tower, also known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace. In front, one male and one female lion stand guard before the seven bridges crossing the Golden River.
As we finish our tour of the square and pass through the Gate of Heavenly Peace into the Forbidden City, we notice our group has increased. Non-English speaking visitors are following and taking photos of us as we learn about the history of Beijing in a language they cannot understand.
We have two hours to explore the maze of halls and gates creating the outer and inner courts of the Forbidden City. There are three main buildings in the outer court: Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Central Harmony, and Hall of Preserved Harmony. The Gate of Heavenly Purity separates the outer court from the royal family’s home, the inner court.
Each gate is entered through heavy, red doors with golden accents. The roofs of the red wooden buildings are decorated with intricate accents in bright blues, greens, reds and yellows. Statues of dragon turtles, cranes, and other animals decorate the entrance of the halls.
Through another enormous gate we pass from the inner court to the Imperial Garden, an area for the royal family to relax. We are immersed in a tranquil garden of beautiful rock formations and trees over one hundred years old. At each corner of the garden is a red pavilion, representing one of the four seasons. After enjoying the peaceful retreat, our group reassembles outside of the Forbidden City, and we continue to our next attraction.
We walk along Houhai Lake towards the Drum and Bell Tower. Finally, we feel like we are in China as we pass small restaurants and shops along the water. Wind chimes and lanterns gently sway in the light breeze. As we approach the town square, the towers come into view. In the Han Dynasty, the towers communicated the time to the city with morning bells and evening drums. The Drum tower is ornate, painted red with gold accents. Directly across the square is the slightly taller Bell Tower made from brick and stone.
As our group explores, we notice we have become an additional attraction in the square. A group of nearby Chinese are delighted as we wave and smile for their cameras. As our photo shoot comes to an end, a line of rickshaws appear. Paul provides directions to the peddlers as we separate into pairs and climb aboard to be taken to a local home for lunch.
Our nine rickshaws encounter several traffic jams of bicycles, motor bikes, and small trucks making deliveries on the narrow streets. After maneuvering through back alleys, we arrive at our destination. We greet our host and divide between the two rooms with large round tables. As we sip our Yanjing, plates of asparagus, tofu, white rice, bean sprouts, cabbage, and salad are brought to the table. After a delicious lunch, we thank our chefs and begin our walk to Mr. Liu, Beijing’s Champion Cricket Man’s, home in Hutong.
We pass signs for bathrooms every few yards along the walk. Paul explains the public washrooms are used by the nearby residents and customers. In this area four families live in a square home, one family per side. The middle is shared open air kitchen and garden. We arrive at Mr. Liu’s home and pass through the entrance. There is no roof above us we follow the path through the garden. A web of clotheslines with drying laundry stretch above us. To our right, a small roof provides some shelter above the open air kitchen. Walking by turtles, birds, parrots, and cats we are lead to the enclosed portion of his home. The small space is crowded with knick knacks and fish tanks. Only a bedroom, living room, and dining area have protection from the elements.
As we settle onto the mismatched furniture, magazines featuring our host, Beijing’s Cricket Fighting Champion Mr. Liu, are passed around. Included in the stack is a 2011 issue of the NY Times. Mr. Liu knows only cricket, hello, and yes in English, but he compensates well with his theatrical gestures. Our translator frequently pauses to laugh at his charades. Excited to teach us the way of the crickets, Mr. Liu begins. The first step to choosing a good fighting cricket involves, a pusher, a toothpick sized piece of wood with a fluffy hairs on end. A cricket that bares it’s teeth when nudged with the pusher is a good fighter. Winning crickets live out their life in royalty, eating and drinking only the best from porcelain dishes. When Mr. Liu is feeling generous, he provides the honeymoon suite and a lady cricket to visit the champion. We are laughing, but Mr. Liu takes his crickets very seriously.
He shows us a retired red, wooden fighting stage. A cricket is placed in each end of the stage. When the fighters are ready, tiny doors are slid open, and each cricket is gently tapped into the stage with the pusher. Present day, the stages are clear so there are no obstructed views from the onlookers. Cricket tournaments are very popular in Beijing. At times, possessions such as cars and homes are wagered. When a champion crickets passes away, it’s placed in a small wooden coffin while losing crickets are smashed under his shoe. We are honored to take a glimpse as Mr. Liu carries around his current reigning champion, Tyson, named after the famous US boxer.
Legends of Kung Fu
After a very entertaining afternoon, we take the metro back to the hotel before this evening’s Kung Fu show. Wanting to get a drink before the show, we ask Paul if there is a bar nearby. Paul laughs and tells us no one in China goes out for only a drink, if we are drinking we are eating. Taking advantage of our free time, we walk to our favorite place in Beijing, a steamed bun restaurant around the corner. “Vegetable, pork, beef?”, she asks when it’s our turn in line. As I order two vegetable for me and two pork for Mitch, I feel the breath on the back of my neck from the woman in line behind me. After holding up a calculator with our total, we exchange Yuan for a plastic bag of steamed buns. I welcome the return of my personal space as I exit the line.
Passing several stores and eateries, we choose an empty restaurant. Greeted by a waving lucky cat on the counter, we carry two Tsing Tao from a glass door cooler at the front to the register. After paying, we have a seat by the window. A waiter brings us two menus and we shake our heads no. He reappears a few moments later with bowls and chopsticks. Not wanting to be impolite, we point to a photo of dumpling on the menu. Finishing our drinks and dumplings, we walk back to the hotel lobby to meet our group before leaving for the metro.
As we walk along the empty street, the lights of the Red Theatre glow against the dark sky. We take a quick bathroom break before going to our seats. I open the stall door to the dreaded squat toilet. There is a handle to flush the receded toilet bowl level with the floor and no toilet paper. I decide to wait and notice there is no hand soap or paper towels on my way out of the bathroom.
We settle into our seats and wait for the Legend of Kung Fu to begin. English subtitles scroll above the stage as we watch six scenes telling the story of a young boy evolving into a Kung Fu master. Most of the actors are very young and their skills are extremely impressive. As entertaining as the show is, we struggle to stay awake after an exhausting first day in Beijing.
*For more information on our tour check out: G Adventures China Express.
- Day 1: Fly into Beijing
- Day 2: Beijing: Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square
- Day 3: Great Wall Mutianyu and travel to Xi’an
- Day 4: Xian: Terracotta Warriors Guided Tour and travel to Suzhou
- Day 5: Suzhou: Master of the Nets Garden Tour and overnight train to Shanghai
- Day 6: Shanghai: Orientation Walk of the Bund
- Day 7: Shanghai: Carte Blanche
- Day 8: Fly out of Shanghai