The adjustment of our internal clocks to the 15 hour time difference with the People’s Republic of China started with a 6 a.m. flight departure from Phoenix to San Francisco.   The long layover before a 2:50 p.m. Air China flight gave us the opportunity for a relaxed breakfast at Yankee Pier, considered one of the top ten U. S. airport restaurants, and time for reading.  The 12 hour flight was made longer by an hour-and-a-half delay on the tarmac to repair a mechanical problem.  Beijing’s airport, its third in only 15 years, was expanded and modernized specifically for the 2008 Olympics.  The massive open spaces and fast tram service to the baggage area are a marvel.  Beijing, which means northern capital, is the political, commercial, and cultural center of the most highly populated country in the world.

Tower of Buddhist Incense

Tower of Buddhist Incense

The Summer Palace, built during the Jin Dynasty (1153) by Emperor Zhenyuan for his mother, is a spectacular garden surrounding 700 acre man made Kunming Lake. In 1888, Empress Dowager Cixi, referred to as the Dragon Lady, made improvements.  The buildings in her living area are colorful and ornate. Sculpture accents the symbolism of the royal reign. The walk over a small bridge to Spring Island places one in a contemplative mood with willows providing shaded views of the Kunming Lake and a Buddhist temple, the Tower of Buddhist Incense, on a mountain, Longevity Hill, which was formed with the dirt from the digging of the lake. We observed an unusual form of exercise, a man with two broom-sized brushes using water to form calligraphy on the sidewalk with each hand simultaneously.  A covered walkway, the Long Corridor, is 728 meters with 273 sections.  It features 8,000 colorful paintings depicting birds, flowers, landscapes, and stories from Chinese literary classics.  Money for the construction of this royal retreat was taken from the navy’s budget.  Hence, there is some logic behind a stationary marble boat.  Near it we boarded a dragon boat to cross the lake, landing close to another island and the seventeen arch bridge.

New City Jewelry specializes in pearls.  An interesting way to assure tourists is to offer lunch as well as tours.  Our lunch and dinner meals were served family style at tables.  Dish after dish was placed in the center of the table and rotated for self serving.  Each restaurant served different specialties.  Small plates and chopsticks, forks optional, were used.  Soup is served later in the meal with fruit announcing the final course.

The Forbidden City or Imperial Palace housed the emperor, his family and servants.  It was also where the business of the empire was conducted.  This complex of buildings has 8,707 rooms occupying 720,000 square meters. While the formal entrance was on the south, we entered from the north after noting the protective moat, high walls, guard house, and gate.  The empress, concubines and children were housed in the inner area surrounded by beautiful gardens and trees.  Some of the buildings we explored included the emperor’s preparation and receiving areas.  This area was devoid of trees making observation of all entering easier.  We were told that the ground had 17 layers of bricks to discourage tunneling.  Another building was where the national examination was offered every few years in rotation with local and regional exams.  This was a means to find highly qualified governmental officials rather than using patronage or heredity.  We didn’t get to visit the museum because there had been an “accident.”  Later, we read in China Daily that nine pieces of jewelry, dating from 1920-1945 and worth 1.5 million dollars, borrowed from Hong Kong for a temporary exhibit had been stolen.  The English language newspaper quoted the museum director as apologizing for this “accident.”  One of the robbers was quickly apprehended.

Tiananmen Square, continuing in a north-south line from the Forbidden City is the largest gathering place in the world and is capable of holding a half million people.  At one end is the Gate of Heavenly Peace where Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949.  A huge painting of Chairman Mao is centered on this building.  At the opposite end of the Square, the Chairman Mao Memorial serves as a shrine for Chinese who make the pilgrimage to see Mao’s body.  This section also has a tower commemorating the People’s Hero.  The Great Hall of People sits on one side of the Square opposite the National Museum.  Our bus dropped us off at the north entrance of the Forbidden City and we walked some three miles to the south of Tiananmen Square, passing the National Railroad Museum, with its classical Russian architectural influence.  A special Peking Duck dinner was a great way to finish a great first full day in this country half a world away.

Our second day started with a visit to a Jade Factory where we learned about the different kinds of jadeite and nephrite.  Jade has been and continues to be a precious, symbolic gemstone in China.  In some tombs archaeologists have found small squares of jade fastened together as a blanket covering the dead.  In modern times women wear a jade bangle on their left arm, close to the heart.  With a wide selection of colors (and price) we found the perfect bangle.  We admired other jade pieces such as galloping horses.  A circular piece of jade with four or more smaller balls carved within it represents each generation of a family and is a precious heirloom in a culture that values ancestors.

The Great Wall of China is a remarkable feat of construction.  We took a good number of the uneven 1,730 steps to the top of the Great Wall at Badaling, 43 miles northwest of Beijing.  The low lying fog added an eerie element.  An opposing Mongol army would have been foolhardy trying to breach this part of the Great Wall built during the Ming dynasty.  The Wall itself is 26 feet tall and 23 feet wide at the base to accommodate up to six horsemen riding abreast.  Small garrison forces in watch towers built on high points every 200-300 meters could communicate with fire signals or fireworks.  The Great Wall serves as a marker of Chinese cultural and national identity.

A visit to a Cloisonné Factory introduced us to the elaborate and complicated enameling processes to create this type of Chinese art marked by brilliant colors and splendid designs.  This spot offered another delicious lunch.

Bird's Nest

Bird's Nest

The innovative Beijing Olympic Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, is composed of a complex mesh of steel bands incorporating elements of Chinese art and culture.  Architects Herzog & de Meuron collaborated with Chinese artist Al Weiwei to design this National Stadium which hosted the memorable opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics.  The light fixtures surrounding the stadium use a bird’s nest design.  Adjacent to this stadium which holds 90,000 spectators is the National Aquatic Center, known as the Water Cube, which has 6,000 permanent seats and 11,000 temporary seats.  While the Bird’s Nest is not often used, the Water Cube is a water park.  Coca-Cola, which was a major sponsor of the 2008 Olympics built a nearby office building known as the Dragon’s Head.  The Media Center for the Olympics features a unique tower.  “First-rate Jade in China” is a 21 ton stone mined from the Hetain Kunlan Mountain in Xinjiang.  As we toured the grounds between the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube Chinese tourists wanted pictures with us.  We surmised my moustache was a curiosity as well as being foreigners.  Three Miao women, one of 55 Chinese ethnic minorities, were in their native costume and very much enjoying themselves.

A hutong is an alley or lane.  As tall apartment buildings with amenities such as toilets have been built, only a few hutongs remain.  We toured the Hutong District of Beijing by rickshaw and visited a local family.  This family, which moved into their hutong in 1936, was one of 24 families selected to offer tours during the Olympics.  We were told that I sat in the same place as 8 time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps.  The concept of feng shui continues to be important to most Chinese.  It is used, for example, to determine the type of trees and their placement in a hutong.  Likewise, the placement of buildings for the 2008 Olympics was established using feng shui principles.  A one story hutong with several rooms surrounding a courtyard such as the one we visited is worth more than a million dollars.

My birthday (eve) dinner was at the elegant restaurant in the Wuhaha Hotel.  Our local guide convinced the wait staff to serve the cake after dinner rather than before.  The cake was topped with a plastic flower.  A match inserted at the top lit eight small candles which then opened the petals to fully display the candles and played “Happy Birthday.”  Being in China for a birthday is a great present.

Temple of Heaven

Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven, built in the fifteenth century, was visited by the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies requesting good harvests and during the winter solstice.  The emperor and his entourage would make their way about 2.5 miles from the Forbidden City to this site.  The wide walkway has a central marble path for the emperor and outside paths used by other ranking officials.  The Circular Mound Altar, the site for the emperor’s prayers during the winter solstice, is an empty circular platform on three levels of marble stones decorated with dragons.  The center of the altar is a round slate called the Heart of Heaven which was so populated by Chinese visitors we couldn’t even approach it.  The Imperial Vault of Heaven, built on a single level of marble stone base, is surrounded by a smooth circular was, the Echo Wall.  Because the weather conditions were not conducive for transmitting messages, we didn’t experiment with the echo.  The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is a triple-gabled circular wooden building using no nails that was built on three levels of marble.

The pedestrian Wangfujing Street has major luxury brand stores.  There are several statues along the sidewalk such as a rickshaw and Manchu barber.  There were also young men in unusual dress such as an armor clad guard in front of some stores.  Narrow alleyways nearby are crowded with shoppers perusing the street market stalls.

The Chinese are quickly transitioning from bicycles to automobiles. The city of Beijing currently has six ring roads with the first being the one that circles the Forbidden City.  Many drivers are learning how to drive and the heavy traffic is very dangerous for pedestrians, bicycles, and other vehicles.  There are strict regulations concerning how many cars one can have yet Beijing is adding 2,000 cars per month.  Also, the last digit of the license plate restricts two numbers each day Monday through Friday from using the roadways.