A snowy day in Beijing

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Here’s the view from my hotel room when I woke up for the first day of my Intrepid tour in China:


I mentioned it yesterday, but it bears repeating: I do NOT have the wardrobe for this kind of weather. I suppose it's a combination of bad luck and poor planning. Apparently it’s very unusual to have snow and sub-zero temperatures in Beijing at this time of year. Also, I should have realized that northern China in early March wasn’t going to be exactly balmy. Then again, it’s not like I had the room or the inclination to lug a suitcase full of cold weather gear around for eight months until it was needed. Whatever the reason, when I suited up for the day I had a feeling I was in for a rough ride. On the agenda was a trip to Tiananmen Square, followed by a tour of the Forbidden City – all completely outdoor activities. Then we were to visit a community project, and stroll through the hutongs (old alleyways) before having the rest of the afternoon off.

The “we” in question is my new tour group for Intrepid’s “Essence of China” tour. There are thirteen of us in total – me, a single Aussie guy, an Aussie-Fijian couple, an Irish couple, six (!) young and excessively Nordic girls from Denmark, and our tour leader Huang. After meeting our local guide, we took the metro to Tiananmen Square, but didn’t actually get to go into the Square because it was closed for the annual meeting of the Chinese Peoples’ Political Conservative Congress, an annual eleven day meeting where representatives from all over the country come to present information and ideas to the central government. This meant that we, and every other tourist in Beijing, had to walk along the sidewalk beside the square, streaming towards the entrance to the Forbidden City, past a mile of police tape and an endless number of young Chinese soldiers.

The crowds, the snow, the grey, grey sky.

Eventually we made it through the slush and crush to the Gate of Heavenly Peace, and started out progress through the Forbidden City. So-named because it was off-limits for 500 years, the Forbidden City was home to two dynasties of Chinese Emperors and is the largest and best-preserved collection of ancient buildings in China. (Thank you, Lonely Planet, for that bit of Forbidden City back story. It’s good to have you back on the team.) Our local guide said that the only people who were allowed to live in the Forbidden City were the Emperor, his wives and concubines and other women, children, and eunuch servants. Thus, the Emperor was the only “real man” in the whole place.

It’s a massive complex. Apparently there are enough different rooms that if you were to sleep in a different one every day of your life starting the day you were born, you would not finish visiting them all until after your 27th birthday. (Thanks to Lily, our local guide, for that fun fact. Nevermind that she also mentioned the figure of 7,000 rooms, and the math on that doesn’t really add up.)

Big building, crowds, snow, grey, grey sky. (Ok, I think it’s actually the Hall of Supreme Harmony.)

I’m trying to think of other interesting things to say about my visit to the Forbidden City, but honestly, I was shivering and miserable most of the time. It was probably a combination of the weather, the jetlag, and my increasing level of tourist burn-out, but I found it really hard to maintain any kind of enthusiasm that morning. Nevertheless, I took a few photos and stuck it out until we made it all the way the the Imperial Gardens at the Northern end of the city. My main goal was to find an indoor space with heating, warm drinks, and a place to sit. I found all three, and I wasn’t the only one in the group who was grateful for a shockingly overpriced cup of hot chocolate (¥20! Honestly!).

Huang met us outside the gate and led us to the next stop for the day, a visit to Beijing Huiling – a community service training centre for people with learning disabilities. It’s part of Intrepid’s commitment to helping the local community in the places they visit, similar to the trip to the carpet factory in Agra and the paper factory in Orchha. “Huiling” (pronounced sort of like “hwee-ling”) is a Chinese world that means “intelligent spirit”, and the various Huiling centres in different cities exist to help train people with learning disabilities so they can take buses, shop, and generally function in society. I was not in the best frame of mind when we arrived at Huiling, still feeling cold and sort of sorry for myself and not interested at all. But they made us a nice lunch of dumplings and noodles (as opposed to the dumplings I had for breakfast, or the noodles I had for supper…). And they put on a little show for us with music and dancing and skits and bright costumes.

A couple of the participants in the show.

After the show, we had to clear out of the room so they could set up tables and chairs. Outside in the courtyard we ended up playing a bit of Chinese hackysack with some of the Huiling gang, and it was fun and helped me warm up a bit.

One of the Danes in mid-kick.

And hackysacks in China are totally different than North American ones! They look more like psychedelic badminton birdies than bean bags. The huiling participants made them as handicrafts, and they consisted of a flat, heavy base with a number of washer-like thin metal pieces on a shaft on top of the base. Above that was a sprouting of multicoloured feathers. Because the base was weighted, they always fell with the base down, and every time you kicked them the thin metal bits made a nice jangly noise. They were really cool.

Chinese hackysacks

After the round of hackysack we moved back inside and got a lesson on Chinese calligraphy from another of the Huiling men. They set us up with paper and brushes and ink, and showed us how to make a few different Chinese characters. I really liked that part, and found that it was much easier to make the characters look smooth and natural if you spent less time obsessing and dashed them off quickly and confidently. (Me? With a tendency to obsessiveness? Never!)

David and Claire trying out Chinese calligraphy.

Eventually we left and made our way slowly back to the hotel. I was hoping I’d have time for a long, warm nap, but I only managed 45 minutes before I had to dash out to get more noodles for supper. I joined the group again and we were off to see a Chinese acrobatics show. I figured the display of acrobatics would be impressive, but I had no idea that the show would have such high production values and such sophisticated technology. There were moving lights and lasers and projections on fog and massive moving flying set pieces… it was really well done.

And I was right about the acrobatics, too. Very impressive. I even managed to get a couple of decent photos. They did teeter-totter leaping-and-landing stuff, hoop-jumping and tumbling stuff, synchronized diablo, balancing-on-a-tippy-board-and-landing-stacked-cups-on-the-head, many-people-balanced-on-bicycle, improbably bendy women, incredibly strong men… all the greatest hits. It was an incredible show, and ended early enough that I had time for a beer in my room once we made it back to the hotel.

Balancing act

So the day ended well, despite its grim beginning. I think I’m starting to get my mojo back. Look out China!


Global Granny said...

Love the festive hackysacks! And I admire how you strive ever to bounce back from a bit of a travel low (read: freezing your buttuzzi off, closed Tienanmen, etc.) and make the best/look on the bright side.

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