Finally getting to load photos, but very slow, so only done the last few days, will be back in few days to update the rest of our trip covering the last couple of weeks.
Off to Shanghai tonight on sleeper train - finally get to experience our first train journey in China after a month of being here!
Beijing over the last few days has very much reminded us of being somewhere like Paris. Massive boulevards, and very large and mostly pretty cool tourists sites situated all around town. We were here for nearly a week in all, and had to miss a lot of things. At least we staggered things out a bit and had some rest. This is such a massive city, that we learnt to use taxis whenever we could, but we still did a very large amount of walking - especially around the famous parks/palaces/temples. We never quite had the weather again that we had when we went around the Forbidden City, but it was still hot and sunny. Just very hazy most of the time as well. The chinese really do have a problem with pollution, and something that we do not think will be rectified in time for the approaching Olympics. Those poor atheletes. They will be here at this time of year as well, as they celebrated the two years to go milestone while we were here. At least the temperature has still been, a much cooler for us, 28-30 degrees celsius.
So highlights over the last few days. One had to be the visit to Mao's Mausoleum. After a bit of a fall from grace through the nineties, Mao mania appears to be back in China. It was probably the longest queue either of us has been in to see his body in the centre of Tianamen Square. Seeing a body is not usually a highlight, but seeing the thousands of chinese still paying their respects to the 'father' of China is. He is still held in very high regard, and from the state down, they seem to adhere to the Mao was 70% good, 30% bad rule of thumb they have applied. Despite, his body still lying in state causing some controversy in the lead up to the Olympics, I reckon he will still be there for a while yet. The good news was that the 1.5km long queue that we joined moved along very swiftly, and we were through and done in just 40 minutes! The troops move you along pretty sharply once you are inside. On that day, we also went across the road and visited the rather palatial Great Hall of the People where Mao gave many of his long speeches to up to 10,000 delegates. The 5,000 seated Banquet room was also where President Nixon famously came to tea in 1972. This place is only open when the People's Congress is not in session.
And we visited two of the really large parks in Beijing. Two of many, except these two were made famous by them also being emperors' playgrounds, when they wanted to get away from the Forbidden City. The most impressive of the two was the Temple of Heaven Park which we were fortunate enough to go on a Saturday. The buildings in this park were built between 500 and 600 years ago by the Ming Dynasty for the emperor to make prayers and animal sacrifices to the gods. The most outstanding building is the very beautiful Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a wooden building on a marble tiered terrace. Amazingly the wooden pillars support the ceiling without nails or cement! The white marble round altar was also pretty good, but again some of the other buildings were again covered in 'ready for the olympics' scaffolding, but the best highlight in this park was simply seeing Beijing people out enjoying themselves on the weekend (or mostly, but I'll get to that). There were people doing tai chi type exercises, some were having instruction on martial arts, and best of all were all the wannabie musicians who were making strange screeching noises in far flung corners. It was marvellous to watch them, especially the older men who would be sitting attempting to play something resembling a violin, while the wife would be standing above him pretty much singing at him, or yelling, we could not quite tell sometimes. It was absolutely hilarious. (but they looked like they were having fun - so good on them!)
On the also funny side to us, was watching an amazing guy, who was obviously a pretty famous opera singer, who would have played female roles, and seeing him with an enormous crowd around him jostling to get a view as he made the most incredible sounds with his voice. Without seeing him, you would have been certain it was a woman. But the very funny side was that the jostling ended in a massive fight between two women, and a brilliant right hook nearly cleaned one up! The singing stopped for quite a while, while things calmed down. We thought it was funny as it probably served them right for being so damned rude when it comes to queueing and their general lack of patience in anything the chinese seem to do.
The 2nd park we went to was the Summer Palace, which is a massive tourist attraction so we thought we should check it out. It was pretty dull really - and not helped by the very very hazy weather that day meaning we could not see much over the gigantic Lake Kunming that takes up most of the park. Although the long walk around the lake meant we did get away from the crowds a bit and we crossed some lovely high arch bridges on the way, and passed water lily ponds with hundreds of weeping willows. This place was another playground for the emperors and his entourage, except that it was built mostly in the 19th century as the British and French destroyed the old Palace during the Opium Wars.
Being in Beijing, we had to spend one night at the Peking Opera, which was a bit touristy where we went, but showed how different it is here, with lots of acrobatics, mime and screeching voices!
We also explored some of the many Hutong in Beijing. These are the tradional old alleyways that have been home to the local residents for centuries. If you go down the right alleyways, you get a real good look at how life has been for many years in old Beijing. It was especially cool to see the old men and women sitting out in their PJs, or singlet and shorts, fanning themselves and watching the world go by. This is a common sight in many of the very pleasant gardens all over Beijing as well. Sadly much of the Hutong is under threat. Rapid development and of course the Olympics has led to many Hutong being pulled down and replaced by ugly high rises (sound familiar?) This is at the amazing rate of 10,000 dwellings a year being destroyed. But some areas thankfully are being preserved. Some of course are now being filled with yuppies and have become quite affluent areas - another familiar tune!
Finally, there are the eating experiences of Beijing. The best places to explore to eat and drink are the night markets and 'snack' streets, although exploration is often better than partaking. We had some great dumplings of course, and lots of kebabs, but we stuck to the more conventional - squid kebab for example which were freshly cooked in front of us and tasted delicious. There were some areas you would not want to eat because of a lack of hygiene, and other stalls you would not want to eat at because of what they were selling. Try live scorpions on a stick, seahorse on a stick, baby turtles, whole snake on a kebab, small shark, and of course, things like chickens bollocks, ducks tongues, lots of different feet, all very yummy we are sure, but not for us this time!!