Day 20 - Beijing Departure

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

I am a bit sad to be leaving Beijing though I think we have basically covered all of the major sites we were interested in seeing. I would have liked to have experienced more of the real city rather than the tourist stuff (and the food) but I think we have done quite well for ourselves. Now, the blacky ink of the night outside the windows of our train cabin is occasionally dispelled when we pass quickly through the villages…I have only a few regrets…

A phone call back to Canada began the day on an upbeat note: Mother for having talked to my sister and myself for mother having talked to my sister.

We planned another full day to make the most out of Beijing before our train to Xi'an was to leave in the evening (9:30). We began by taking care of the hotel by checking out and dropping the luggage at the front desk for us to pick up later in the day.

Our Hotel

A shorter-than-yesterday cab ride later we were at our destination for the day: The Temple of Heaven.

Me at the Temple of Heaven (SW)

The Temple of Heaven is, as you would expect, a temple. Of heaven. Alright, it is a large park area with several large temple complexes that were used by the emperor to fast, pray and offer sacrifices for good harvests. It is quite a sizable and impressive place for what was only a yearly event. Arriving at the walled enclosure it began to rain (such is our luck) so we spent the rest of our visit walking around in the rain. It was particularly coming down hard when we visited the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests – The most impressive structure here – A large pagoda at the top of a circular plinth with steps leading up. We also enjoyed visiting some of the smaller temple buildings around the hall which had displays on what actually occurred here (admittedly, we also enjoyed them because they were in out of the rain).

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

South Gate for Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

I will try to describe the whole area: It is a large enclosed area consisting of mostly parkland. A lot of trees and paths leading to and from the various buildings scattered throughout. The main buildings such as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (see above) and the Imperial Vault of Heaven are in a straight north-south line from the main entrance to the north. Various other buildings are off to the side but it is these other two buildings which are the focus of the complex.

The Imperial Vault of Heaven

A number of the buildings (including various gates) are currently being refurbished for the Olympics next year so we were not able to see everything. I was particularly disappointed to find that the Beamless Palace to the west was completely closed (supposed to have particularly interesting architecture).

Beamless Palace (Closed)

A bit fed up with the rain we found the restaurant to the west for lunch. There were only about three of the many large tables (seating about 8 each) in the restaurant being used. We managed to look through the picture menu and have (for your information): Hot and Sour Cabbage (tasty), Chicken and Peanuts (boring) and I had a pork dish (mother passed on that one). It was a lot like what I would expect to see in any Chinese restaurant in England or Canada. Nothing to write home about…but I did mention it in a journal…hum….

I had noticed something on the map that was quite out of the way but looked intriguing: The Devine Music Office. Am I glad we decided to give it a visit. Though costing a bit extra it was really interesting. They have all sorts of traditional instruments and information about them. They also let you play sample instruments as well. Each room is devoted to a different type of instrument. Really very cool.

Playing an Instrument (SW)

What topped our visit was a small demonstration concert that was performed in the main building in the centre of the small complex of buildings. We were the only ones in the audience to begin with! The lady presenting spoke in English as she could see that we were tourists and helpfully introduced each section of the short concert explaining what each of the instruments was and how it was being used. Great. Really great. Even the building was impressive – A large ornate structure with high ceilings with red and gold painting everywhere. We both enjoyed just relaxing and listening to the serene music so different to what we are used to…

Demonstration Hall

Pausing to admire the Seven Star Stones (so named as there are seven stones placed in the same position as the stars in the Big Dipper with an additional stone laid by soldiers missing their home) we continued on to leave the Temple of Heaven through the “East Celestial Gate”. We had plenty of time so went for a bit of a walk. We knew the area since we have been here before with Jacky and the theatre from last night is just around the corner (we also have a good map). Walking along the road we stopped by a local post office and I was pleased to be able to pick up some stamps (I am a bit of a collector) commemorating the Olympics next year while mother got some for her post cards (she has been sending post cards every other day…).

Continuing our walk I also wanted to continue my search for the elusive 7-11 slurpee (an obsession, it appears, so far unrequited). We had spotted a 7-11 just up the road in our travels so I was determined to see if they had any. Sadly it was not to be – I was disappointed again though it was (moderately) interesting to see that much of what was on sale in the store was from Japan (Japanese) which makes me suspect that the 7-11s here come from Japan and not, originally, from the American 7-11 chain. I consoled myself (weeping slightly) with a cold Coke before we continued our walk.

Large Roads

We turned once again to walking west along the large roads here. They are very wide and busy with a lot of traffic. We are getting used to the method of crossing as pedestrians – Basically, ignore the traffic as they will flow around you (yes, granted, it does take your breath away but it appears to work). There are bicycles around but nothing like what I had been expecting. They say there is a problem with everyone wanting cars here in Beijing – The roads cannot cope. We believe them.

Zhengyangmen Gate

Without Jacky we were able to visit Tian'anmen Square a bit more on our terms beginning with our walking to the south side of the square and the Qianmen Gate which we had not previously seen due to the fact that we were only shown the north side of Tian'anmen the other day. On the other side of the road running in front of it is another gate in the square itself: Zhengyangmen. This gate is, in turn, just south of the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall then just north of that is the main part of the square. There are people everywhere. Not many buskers as I don't think the police would take too kindly to that but a lot of people looking around which did make me a bit nervous with our cameras and bags. Slowly walking north through the square I noted that it was very close to the time when they would be lowering the flag and I knew that there would be a ceremony so we decided to have a look. We still had a lot of time before we needed to be back to the hotel for the onward journey to the train station so we waited. And waited. Ok, I thought 15 minutes but it ended up being more like an hour before the ceremony started (as the sun sets). There was the whole bit of soldiers marching up and taking up positions around the flag pole but what was more amazing was at the beginning of the ceremony they stopped the traffic on the VERY large road that runs through the square (10 lanes on each side or something like that) to match soldiers across the road from the Tian'anmen Gate (the one with the picture of Mao on it). This was like parting the red sea. Amazing. A lot of people were there watching as well, most of them Chinese which was good to see. The snapping to attention and precision marching was appreciated. The red flag of China was lowered and folded up. The end of another day in Beijing.

Lowering the Flag in Tian'anmen Square

It was difficult getting back to the hotel. Much more than we expected. We did finally manage to catch a taxi but it was quite some way away from the square. We were both tired and did moan and complain to each other – It was a bit frustrating to say the least. Transport has been a problem for us here in Beijing – We never took any of the subways but they go no where near anywhere we want to go (never mind the fact that they look pretty dark and dingy) and the buses are incomprehensible. The only alternative, taxis, seem to be unreliable and unpredictable. If they want to encourage tourist they will need to address these problems. Hopefully with the new subway lines coming in for the Olympics it will help. I can only hope. Perhaps in the future I will visit again and I pray that it is easier to get around.

Hotel Foyer

The taxi trip from the hotel to the train station, after we picked up our luggage, was a lot further than I thought. Our train left from Beijing West which is (I believe) the largest train station in China. Not hard to believe. The traffic getting to the station, many miles from the centre of the city, was not that bad but once we got there it was absolutely horrendous. The taxi had to let us off a the front of the terminal building which was only accessible via an incomprehensible spiral ramp leading off of the road. At the front of the station it was complete chaos as we had to pass through a x-ray scan before we could even get into the station.

Beijing West Train Station

The station itself was very busy and the electronic signs not terribly helpful though Jacky had given us the train tickets yesterday so we knew the train number, time of departure and our carriage information. We were a bit hungry though so we managed to pick up a few things in the snack/eating area before making our way to the waiting lounge.

There are a number of large waiting lounges off to each side of the main corridor running down the length of the station. Each lounge is intended for people traveling on specific trains (we had to show our before we were allowed in). Our lounge was being used for waiting for people for four or five trains. The lounge is a large room with rows of seats running the length with people seated and/or sleeping thereon. At the end of each row is the entrance to the platform that opens when the train is ready to board. A number of the trains waiting in our lounge were local so there were very large queues of people waiting when the boarding was announced for those trains. It also looked a bit rough with people jostling and shoving one another.

We were not the only tourists (non-Chinese) waiting so when our train was announced (in English – I guess they get a few tourists on this train) we joined them in the queue to get on board. Walking out of the station and onto the platform you could be excused for thinking it was like any train station in the world. The trains are perhaps a bit older but serviceable and our cabin, which we have to ourselves, is very good indeed. It is the best class you can get (“deluxe soft sleeper”) and it consists of two bunks on one side, a comfy chair on the other along with our own toilet (there is a small table in between).

Our Toilet (SW)

Each bunk has it's own colour television (if you can understand Chinese, it is great) and it is quite clean and tidy.

Me on My Bunk (SW)

To be honest, we would have been happier without the chair as it does occupy a fair amount of the limited space available but since mother took the lower bunk I have been sitting in it so I can look out of the window. I can do that for hours.

Our Table and Chair (SW)

Our deluxe carriage has an aisle down one side that you walk through to get to your cabin (which is, thankfully, lockable). I have been warned about security on the trains in China so a lock on the door was good to see. We have security locks with us in case we feel we have to chain our luggage up but hopefully we will not have to. I feel quite good about the train. It is a lot nicer than I thought it would be.

Me and Mother on our Bunks

We were, of course, early getting onto the train so we waited for a few minutes, getting comfortable, before leaving Beijing. This is an overnight train so it is important we get some sleep. I think that after the boat we should not have any problems with motion sickness (neither of us have had any problems yet). Though, still hungry, we did have something to eat before going to bed. I managed to get a few chicken skewers from the neighboring dining car a while after we left (evidently the secret to eating is to do so as soon as you get on board otherwise you get stuck with leftovers – as we did). Not bad but not exactly fine dining. Munch, munch…

Not much to see out of the window. We are looking forward to Xi'an: A relatively new stop on the tourist map and a long way from Beijing. Now, to bed.

Day 21 - Xi'an Arrival

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