Category Archives: travel

The Forbidden City and the Dragon Throne

Our last day began with a trip to the Temple of Heaven, a large pagoda. The bus dropped us as near as possible – parking is very difficult in Beijing – and we walked through an adult exercise park.

Adult exercise park beijing

Retired people could get cheap season tickets; it was quite a community gathering. Further in, groups of elders played cards and board games with great excitement, and a small choir practised in the park. The ‘maybe later’ marketeers added ping pong bats and feathered shuttlecocks to their repertoire here.

Temple of heavenly peace

This Temple has been used since Neolithic times, to hold sacrifices for a good harvest. Bamboo scrolls and brass compasses on sale here may hint at record keeping and feng shui functions too, but we couldn’t understand much of the information. The artwork was marvellous though.

Paintwork on temple of heavenly peace

We scrambled back on to the bus before its parking time expired and stopped off at the Chinese Medicine Academy for a foot massage. This was partly to give their students practise and partly in the hope we’d buy something. If you want to take Chinese medicines out of the country, you need a certificate from the prescribing doctor.

Reception desk at Chinese Medicine Academy

Finally we arrived at Tiananmen Square. It was smaller than Linda had expected, and less crowded than I’d thought. There were red flags, neat soldiers and police, impressive buildings all around.

Tiananmen square with forbidden city view

From there, we entered the Forbidden City at last. It’s vast; the guides warned us to keep up with the flag, as we had a lot of ground to cover, and the bus was meeting us at the far end.

Map and flag Forbidden City

The courtyards were huge. I could imagine the officials waiting in throngs for their instructions, standing in the cold dry wind. I hoped they let them go inside if it snowed!

Inside Forbidden City

Our guide lectured us on the various structures, their purpose and history. The roof decorations on the pavillions represented the Emperor riding on a rooster followed by nine dragons; this was considered to be a fortunate emblem.

roof detail Forbidden City

There were a number of large metal cauldrons throughout the city. These were for firefighting; charcoal could be lit under them so they didn’t freeze in winter. Their stone stands, and most other surfaces, banisters and doorways were all intricately carved, often with a dragon motif.

Cauldron stand Forbidden City

We crossed the second large courtyard, Harmony Square, and climbed the steps to the Palace of the Supreme Harmony, where the Dragon Throne sits. The prospect of actually setting eyes on this legendary artefact had excited me more than anything else about the trip!

dragon pathway Forbidden City 
Stairs to the Dragon Throne

Tourists weren’t allowed to enter this palace, but you could join the small crowd around the doorways to view the Throne inside, and take a picture obstructed by a pillar. Already used to the rules about not photographing the Buddha statues, I didn’t see this as an imposition. Given the effort required only a few decades ago to get this close, I felt a short glimpse was enough of a privilege!

Dragon throne

There were many Chinese tourists patiently waiting for their turn, so we didn’t linger. We had a better view of the metal ball hanging over the throne, which falls on any would-be usurper. It’s said that some Emperors shifted their seat a little to the side!

Ball over dragon throne

We turned off to the side through the next courtyard, to view the charming Western Palaces. These used to accommodate the second wives and concubines of the Emperor, including the Empress Cixi. A long alleyway linked a number of little courtyards surrounded by wooden houses, which now hosted various exhibitions.

Courtyard bird statues Forbidden City Western Palaces

Time was pressing, the light was failing. There were many more exhibits. Some, like the clocks and jewellery were extra; however the ticket office was closed by the time we got there. To really see a place this vast and historical, you’d need a full day and a guide book.

courtyard dragon forbidden city

Dusk was falling on our last day in China. As we reached the Imperial Gardens, we had to hurry. Loud music began to sound, like a scene from ‘Inception’. Barriers were coming down around us, our group had to look sharp not to be separated.

We walked quite a distance to the bus, past the moat surrounding the Forbidden City, past the ‘maybe laters’ with their fake Rolex, past street vendors selling red sticky things on sticks, to a street corner where the bus driver hastened us aboard.

As we climbed on, we were serenaded by an old couple busking with a traditional stringed instrument, almost like a farewell to China.

Imperial gardens Forbidden City
Imperial Gardens, Forbidden City

 

You certainly cover a lot of ground on an RSD trip, and face some interesting challenges! As an independent traveller, I find them invaluable for getting to know somewhere I’d struggle to make my own arrangements to visit. Linda and I had already been on their tour of Turkey, and we may yet follow through on our independent plans to spend a week visiting Troy and the hot spas in more detail, if the political situation improves there.

In China, almost everywhere we went could do with another, longer visit. Our favourites would be a week in Shanghai, another river cruise, and a whole day in the Forbidden City. A Great Wall hike sounds lovely, as long as it’s warmer, and we’d like to spend some time in the South too.

We felt a bit nervous about this adventure, and most of the time were probably well out of our depth. Our tour guide, Kevin, shepherded us around diligently though, despite the British tendency to irrational overconfidence in a totally strange country. We always feel that being polite gets you a long way, and this does appear to be true in China.

It ‘d be quite hard to make any but the simplest travel arrangements yourself. You have to give the addresses you plan to stay at on your visa application form, and may have to make bookings on the phone with someone who doesn’t understand English very well.

However, the resilient traveller loves a challenge!

Next week – Return to Resilience

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The Great Wall of China

Dawn at the Mercure Wanshang, Beijing
Dawn at the Mercure Wanshang, Beijing

It was a cold morning in Beijing, below zero before dawn. We packed our lunch and were off on the coach at 8 o’clock for the Great Wall, some 45 km away. The Wall originally stretched for over 6000 miles, from the sea in the east to the Gobi desert in the west. The best preserved section is at Badaling.

The Great Wall isn’t one continuous structure, nor was it all built at once. Many Chinese empires and states constructed such fortifications along their northern borders, to protect themselves from the fierce nomads who lived on the wild steppes. As these depended on horses to make their raids, a wall was a useful deterrent.

The first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who we have already met – it was his terracotta army – unified many of these state walls, so is often credited with building the Great Wall. Very little of his actual work survives though; the upgrades carried out by the Ming dynasty (1368 -1664) are what we see today.

going up the Great Wall of China November 2017

We disembarked on a plaza surrounded by little shops and found ourselves barely prepared for the bitter cold, worsened by the thin, icy wind. This bit deeper as we ventured out along the Wall itself, which is naturally on the highest ground.

Great wall of China, walking back down

The first part of the ascent was steps, then rather steep ridged cobbles. These could have been difficult in wet weather. Although you could walk quite a long way along this section, we only made it to the third guard tower before the cold got the better of us. At least there weren’t the crowds we’d been warned about.

Great Wall third guardhouse

We could see that it would be a splendid place for a hike in the spring, following the dragon-like curves away into the hills. There are hotels in Badaling, as well as day tours from Beijing, but it may not be either safe or permitted to take off on your own for any length of time. A number of guided walking holidays are available. It’s a good policy to check reviews before booking.

View of the Great Wall of China at Badaling

The surfaces of the walls are covered in graffiti marks scratched into the stone, possibly by the hundreds of soldiers standing guard in this cold and lonely outpost over the centuries.  This custom explains the baffling ‘No Scratching’ notices we’d seen around other important monuments!

Ancient Graffiti on great wall of China

Most of us returned to the Hotel Cafe quite soon. The staff gave us bottles of hot water to hold as we ordered coffee!

Great Wall Plaque

Tired and cold, Linda and I rebelled against the walk in the park and the Ming tombs. We stayed on our tour bus and enjoyed the peace of the country. The bus driver chatted to the persimmon seller at her roadside stall; it was nice to just be there, in an ordinary place.

Peaceful car park

By the time we arrived at the tea garden, we were fairly awake again, and a few sips of refreshing samples were welcome. I bought some Puer tea, which improves with age unlike the other herb teas languishing on my shelf. More elaborate brews unfolded into flowers in your cup!

Flower teas

We were offered some optional extra tours – a rickshaw ride, viewing the night lights – but none of these involved going back to the hotel for a rest first. ‘Maybe later’ we all said and grumbled so much we got taken back in time for dinner. Nobody wanted to miss the final day by being too tired!

Wooden toys
Wooden toys seem more popular than plastic ones in the homeland of the latter!

Written Chinese is 1900 years old. There are 8 – 10 thousand characters to remember. About 2.5 thousand are learned in primary school. 3,000 to 4,000 are enough for everyday life; 5,000 for a writer. Over that, you are counted as an expert.

Over the centuries, the complicated characters became very difficult to understand, such that literacy was only possible for the leisured classes. After the formation of the People’s Republic, written Chinese was simplified in various important ways, and now nearly everyone can read.

Next week – The Forbidden City and the Dragon Throne