Mrs. Fong and the Dragon Lady

Its official, i don’t think i have ever sweated as much, in fact i pretty much felt like i had turned to liquid – it was about 35 degees and so humid that the whole city was buried in a fog. No need for saunas over here!

We started the day with a rickshaw around the hutong. The hutong is a very old part of the city where people live in quadrangles, its largely pedestrianised as the roads are really alleyways and people live their lives on the street – cooking, playing “cards”, chatting, doing laundry and rearing small animals! This for me, is the China of the imagination. We visited a school for children from 2-7. They were doing their exercises when we got their – stretching and bending. Some of these kids board and get home 2 a week. schooling is not free – it costs Euro30 per month – out of an average industrial wage of Euro300 per month. This suprised me as i thought in a communist country education would be free.

The one child per family policy is really noticable – children are quiet and very sedate as they spend so much time with adults. i am fascinated by this policy and people’s acquiescence. I’d love to know if the effect on women has been studied – you hear so much about ticking bio clocks and reproductive rights in the West…. I’d imagine it also must have a huge impact on the economy to have women so available for working outside the home.

We had lunch in a family home – a Mrs. Fong. She spoke no English, but through our guide it was obvious that she was charming. Her family home was 4 rooms, 3 of the 4 being multifunctionable. She had 2 daughters. Her home was part of a quadrangle, the centre courtyard had been built on too. I was taken aback how closely these families lived together – washing dishes, sitting around together. I asked about how they settled neighbor dispuites and was assured they didn’t have any :)
The food at Mrs Fongs was the nicest yet.

We left our rickshaws and the hutong after lunch and headed 35 km outside the city to The Summer Palace. This place was all about a loud, aggressive statement of power by the Dragon Lady – an Empress who ruled at the turn of the 19th century. Her son was too young to rule when he succeeded to the throne so, Mom ruled instead. Then when sonny was old enough she arrested him and kept him hidden in The Forbidden City until he died- 3 days before her !!! What a dame!

The palace was beautiful and situated by a lake. She (dragon lady) had a continious corridor built from the palace to the lake of over 1 km long – all with ornamental roofs and hand painted scenes. The whole place was amazing- power and affluence are demonstrated in the size of the buildings, the external ornamentation and the size of the grounds. The insides are pretty low key and not really that interesting. We walked the corridor and then took a dragon boat back up the lake – wonderful.

After the palace we went to a pearl “factory”. Adam & Cora dug pearls from an oyster…….and yes, we bought some pearl jewelery – tourist suckers that we are :)

We then went to the biggest and busiest train station i have ever seen! Actually, it was a bit panicky there were so many people, lots of very loud Chinese announcements over the tannoy, the heat unbearable, uncooperative suitcases …..and did i mention the number of people! Thank heavens for our guide – he is incredibly helpful. Our train was to take us to Xi’an – a city of 7 million in the centre of the country. We had a cabin with 4 bunks and a little table – reminded me of a ferry cabin except you had a window and flat screen tv’s for each bed and the air conditioning was brilliant – can you imagine 35 degrees with over 100% humidity in a tiny cabin!
The kids were really excited about sleeping on a train, so we needed some severe beatings all around before sleep settled on one and all :)

Emperors, Kites, and Kung Fu

Today we began with Tianemen Square, big enough to hold 1 million people – and it sure felt like it! Bloody massive is the term that comes to mind :) It’s surrounded by various buildings including the one where the government sits (which also hosts concerts!), the Southern Gate, and Tianemen Gate. The square itself is mostly open space apart from an obelisk and Chairman Mao’s tomb – which was undergoing renovations in anticipation of the Olympic Games next year. The mausoleum itself was just a square grey building, but apparently the queues can go twice around the square when it’s open!

Mao rears his head once more as you pass through Tianemen gate, and there are several more gates before reaching the entrance to the Forbidden City. All the gates (which can be up to 30m high) along this north-south axis have several entrances, and the Emperor was the only one allowed through the central one. The lower your rank the further away from the centre was your entrance – if you were allowed in at all!

The Forbidden City is ostentatious in its use of space as much as in its decorations and buildings. We only saw a small section of it, but you could easily imagine the Emperor living there separated from his people and living in luxury. It was a shame that several of the buildings were under renovation, as it spoiled the effect somewhat. However it was still impressive. We exited through the Northern gate in the 10m-high wall, crossing the 35m-wide moat, all powerful symbols to the surrounding population and any visitors.

I think perhaps the Chinese people’s apparent acceptance of their collaborative social order is due in part to hundreds of years of Imperial rule. Or perhaps it’s an inbuilt trait which allowed strong leaders to take and keep power for so long, holding together so many people with diverse ethnic backgrounds, dialects, and customs. Even since the end of the Empire the country seems to have stuck with autocratic leadership.

In any case, we took a welcome break from the heat and humidity with lunch in a local noodle restaurant. We were greeted at the door, and once Terry indicated how many of us there were the waiter called out the number, which was greeted with cries from all the other waiters followed by a beckoning call from the particular waiter who had a table of the right size available.

The atmosphere was great, full of life and the buzz of conversation – though we could understand none of it of course! We ordered some noodle dishes and fried rice – Adam’s favorite dish now :) The noodles arrived along with different sauces to mix into them. The taste was reminiscent of teriyaki, and quite tasty. As with most of our meals it was very cheap – less than €20 for us all!

We continued our tour with a visit to the Temple of Heaven – another old Chinese building :) By this stage we were flagging, so we headed into the surrounding park where Terry provided a kite each for Adam and Cora. We found a shaded area to put them together, and used a quiet pathway in our attempts to get them airborne. Unfortunately only occasional brief gusts of wind arrived, and the still, humid air couldn’t lift the kites – it just raised a sweat as we ran like fools trying to get our eagles soaring, just to see them twist and tumble to the ground :)

At this stage we needed to get out of the heat, so we headed back to the minibus and its glorious air conditioning! Terry took us to one of his local restaurants, pointing out his home on the way. We had Chinese barbeque food – chicken wings, chicken skewers, fried rice (for Adam, naturally!), roast potatoes that were more like crisps coated in chilli flakes, and strange ear-shaped mushrooms you dip in a wasabi sauce – with extra chillis if that’s not hot enough :) We declined the “Devil’s Tears” chicken wings (eat ten and your meal is free!), but Adam and Cora really took to the regular ones, even though they left your mouth “tingly”, as Cora put it :) They are both taking pretty well to the local food, dispelling our fears that we wouldn’t find anything they would eat. Rice seems to be the best bet, and Adam is getting more adventurous each day.

We returned to the hotel and freshened up before heading out once more to see a local show. It told the story of Chung Yi, and how he became a monk as a young boy, learning Kung Fu and seeking enlightenment. It was full of noise, movement, and spectacle, with just enough “plot” to string together the various martial displays. Some of these were impressive, others less so :) It struck me as a kind of oriental Riverdance.

One particular performer – the hero of the tale – displayed how his skin had become “like iron” by leaning on a pair of spears, bending their shafts, being suspended on three spear points, having wooden staves broken over various bits of his body, breaking three metal bars simultaneously with his head, and finally lying on three swords with a concrete block studded with nails resting on his torso supporting another “monk”, who in turn had a concrete block on his chest, which was smashed by a sledge hammer! Thus he proved he had found enlightenment, and following a big battle with the other monks, the abbot realised his work was done, passed his mantle on to his student, and went and lit his funeral pyre, his work in this life complete!

During the whole performance Cora kept up a stream of questions, such as “where has the little boy gone?”, and “will he see his mother again?”, and so on! No attempts at hushing her or encouraging her to whisper worked. In contrast, Adam slept through most of the performance! I’m not sure how he did since the noise was really loud at times, but the heat and the walking had taken their toll :) In fairness we were all tired, and myself and Adam were asleep by 10:30, though apparently Cora struggled on till 11:00 before finally getting to sleep. It was a full day with lots of walking and lots to see – tomorrow will probably be more of the same!

Sunday

Hi

Sunday today and we walked along the Great Wall of China and visited the DingLing tomb. The Great Wall of China is very long and took us one and a half hours to walk a great distance.In the DingLing tomb I was bored.we had rice and chips for dinner.

Day 2

Things improved somewhat yesterday evening when we came down at 6 p.m. after a much needed rest. We were met by “Terry” (Chen Tsiaochen) our guide, and it looks like we’re the only ones on the tour. He’s very friendly with good English, unlike the hotel staff. That said, the rooms are clean and comfortable, with good air conditioning, and breakfast this morning was fine, with a wide selection of food on offer.

We set off around 8.45 to see the Great Wall, which lies to the north of Beijing. The section of the 6,700km long wall we were brought to runs along the top of a series of hills. We took the easy way up via cable-car and ascended into the misty hilltops.

It was remarkable there. You see images of the Wall on TV and in books and magazines, but the reality of this solid stone structure stretching away as far as you can see cannot be truly captured that way. We walked about two thirds of the section that’s open to the public, both Adam and Cora doing really well with the often uneven and steep steps and walkways. We descended by foot through pine trees and a stone garden full of strangely shaped rocks. My legs were getting shaky by the end – not enough exercise no doubt to blame :)

We continued on to have lunch at a Friendship store, a state-run souvenir shop, though emporium might better describe it :) We had a fixed menu lunch which had more than enough “normal” Chinese food dishes to fill us up. We then wandered among the silks, paintings, jade carvings, and other assorted wares, though we left empty-handed.

Our next stop was the Ming Tomb area, where 13 emperors of the Ming dynasty built their tombs. It’s a huge area, but there’s only one tomb that has been excavated and is open to the public – the Ding Ling tomb. There are three surrounding courtyards planted with pines and cypresses leading up to the Soul Tower and the tomb itself – a palace buried beneath the hill. The exact entrance wasn’t discovered until the 1950’s, when a stone tablet was found that gave the exact direction and distance to the entrance. Archaeologists excavated according to these directions, and found a thick wall, behind which was the underground palace with several chambers. These held the coffins and thrones of the Emperor and his two Empresses, as well as precious artefacts.

On our trip back to the hotel we had a brief stop at a jade factory, where we discovered how to differentiate between jade, glass, and marble. After wandering around another large shop full of jade items, where we again bought nothing, we headed back to the hotel.

Despite the 32 degree heat and high humidity we had a great day. We were pretty tired, so we just chilled out before heading down for dinner in the hotel restaurant, which was fine. A brief trip out to find a working ATM was followed by a relaxing drink in the front courtyard of the hotel, while Adam & Cora played with the sprinklers :) Tomorrow, Tianemen Square and the Forbidden City!

Timeless and Mysterious…

On Saturday evening we ventured out for dinner…….finally picked a large and busy place that – thankfully had the menu in pictures and some sketchy English…..we managed to avoid bullfrog, black goat, turtle (steamed) and pigs face – our loss possibly! The whole street was festooned in red paper lanterns, golden lettering and silk flowers -almost “comic book” Chinese.

Our sunday morning wasn’t that typical really……we spent the time wandering on the Great Wall-pretty cool. The Wall itself was spectacular and shrouded in mist, it was timeless and mysterious. What really added to it was the atmosphere – the place was filled with Chinese tourists thoroughly enjoying themselves…..at 11am it seemed like everyone sat down on the top of the wall and took out picnics. It was really festive in a way. After lunch we visited the Ming Tomb area and the Dingling tomb in particular – this is a series of courtyards and an underground palace – naturally :) Its over 30 degrees and very humid – not a pretty look when you have curly hair like myself and Cora :)

The kids are having their photos taken by people everywhere – people love to have them pose with their own (strictly one only) child. Must be the light hair and blue white Irish skin!

Here we are in Beijing

So here we are in the first of our destinations – Beijing, city of over 30 million inhabitants and 6 ring roads, as our transfer guide informed us.

After a long flight and not much sleep, we were happy to see our hotel – except they had no record of our booking :( Little English on their part and no Chinese on ours didn’t help. Finally we managed to find a local contact number of someone who managed to sort things out. However, not an auspicious start.

To top it all we ended up with two rooms quite apart from one another, though on the same floor. I’m lying on the bed typing this, and I think the pillows may be damp. That’s not going to stop me getting some rest in anticipation of starting the tour proper this evening.

It’s all becoming very real

What started out as a plan crafted on a wet Sunday afternoon has now become a full blown adventure that is mindblowingly exciting. We can’t quite believe that this is about us – trying to picture us with the backdrop of Ayers Rock, Toyko and Bejing is too much!!! We have 7 weeks left before we head out- still planning and organising to do, but, frankly- it’s been extraordinarily easy…….for such a life altering event (hopefully). The countdown begins in earnest next Friday at the 6 week stage………..:-)

Welcome

Welcome to our blog. Over the coming months we will be keeping you up to date with our trip to the Far East during July and August. We will be taking in China, Australia, and Japan. Needless to say, we can’t wait!