The Land of Confucius is Down Right Confusing Reply

dsc04093Spring Break in Beijing…not your typical destination and yet our diverse group (ages 10 – 69) found it chock full of adventure.  We landed on a Saturday night and were met by Nancy and Mr. Xin (pronounced Sin, we think).  They quickly piled the 7 of us and our bags into the van which we would call home for the next three days and whisked us off to our 5 star chinese hotel.  When the van pulled up to what looked like the equivalent of a U.S. Howard Johnson’s we were all a bit clueless.  This didn’t look anything like the 5 star Grand Hyatt we had been promised.  Ummm, Nancy, we are staying at the Grand Hyatt I said.  “No.  Your itinerary says this your hotel.”  Ummm, Nancy, I don’t care what my itinerary says but this is NOT where we are staying.  Take us to the Grand Hyatt.  She hesitated.  We didn’t move.  She called central headquarters to check.  They were going to call her back.  I insisted that she move the van and drive directly to the Grand Hyatt which she eventually did.  Moments later, we pulled up to a fabulous hotel and were astounded by the size and luxury of our 2 bedroom family suite.  The price per night was so reasonable that if it were Tokyo we would have had one small hotel room with a queen size bed.  In Beijing we had a kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a large living room.  The next morning, after a nice hotel buffet breakfast, we met up in the lobby and waited for Nancy.  Unfortunately, Tom and my father had met a little on the early side and had proceeded to discuss the cluelessness and lack of service provided by Nancy the tour guide the night before.  Weren’t they surprised when we joined them and said good morning to Nancy who was standing right next to them the entire time.  Our first stop that day was to the Dirt Market.  This was a place that a friend of mine who had lived in Beijing for several years told me not to miss.  It was held outside in a walled in area with over 1000 vendors selling every type of oriental memorabilia you could imagine.  This is where places like Target and Pier One come to knock off the knock offs.  There are no “real” antiques sold at this market but boy is it fun.  And of course, you have to negotiate.  But its not all junk and we all walked away with interesting keepsakes.  Next on the itinerary was a visit to the Temple Of Heaven, a Taoist temple used by the Emperors of the Ming and Xing Dynasties to pray for things like good harvests and good weather.  Like every other temple I’ve been to in Asia, there was nothing very spiritual about it but more a place to socialize and buy souvenirs.  Within moments of entering the gates and paying the entrance fee, we were offered numerous items to buy (everything from their version of hacky sack to their version of kadima).  The park was packed with middle aged (to old age) Chinese citizens enjoying the nice spring Sunday.  They were ball room dancing, singing opera, playing kadima, playing hacky sack, and most surprisingly, playing cards.  I passed at least 10 or 15 heated card games going on along the temple wall.  From the Temple of Heaven, we were taken to our first “government” lunch.  Even though we had hired a private guide and driver we were required to have lunch at the restaurant of their choosing and everything was paid for in advance.  Each restaurant had a government market selling souvenirs that we had to walk through in order to get to the lunch.  The food was basically the same each day – a large amount of “barely edible” dishes.  Nothing good, but nothing that would make you sick either.  After lunch, we made our way to Tiananmen Square.  The pictures on CNN don’t do this place justice.  It is enormous.  And the red flags are big and bold and flapping in the breeze.  And the portrait of Mao that hangs in the center of the Tiananmen Gate is so big that the wart on his chin is the size of a basketball.  We tried to get some information out of our guide Nancy about the riots but she said they don’t talk about that with visitors.   She did tell us about Mao’s mausoleum on the square where he is entombed in a crystal coffin (this took us a few minutes to figure out what it was she was saying) and the monument to the soldiers that died fighting the Japanese in WWII.  We had to go through metal detectors to go onto the square – which seems ironic, and then we walked through the Tiananmen Gate and came out into the Forbidden City.  Thankfully we had just watched the Last Emperor with the kids so they had some perspective (albeit a Hollywood one) about where we were and why it was important.  It was about this point in the day where my father’s ankle had just about given up (something to do with an injury on the treadmill that morning) and we put him in a wheelchair while Hayden happily wheeled him around.  Of course there were a few places they couldn’t come in to see but this was fine as Hayden said he missed all the boring parts.  The size of the Forbidden City is literally too big to describe.  Its not like any place I’ve ever been to.  And to think it was for one lone Emperor to live in.  How sad.  When we finally finished the tour of the Forbidden City we were all ready for a rest and so we went back to the hotel to spend a few hours at the indoor pool.  I’m adding a photo of the pool here to show you how a). large it was and b.) how luxurious it was and c). how un-communistic it was.  dsc04264(Is that a word?  Uncommunistic?  I spent a lot of time using it this week.)  You could order food, drinks or even have a foot massage while lying by the pool.  Is this the new communism???  That night, we ate at the hotel.  Their restaurant, Made In China is famous for Peking Duck.  We had pre-ordered two of them and we ate every bit plus many other fabulous dishes.  It was a fantastic meal.  Day Two was dedicated to The Great Wall.  The ride out from the city of Beijing took about 90 minutes and we drove through extensive farmland and orchards.  When we arrived at the wall, the path to the gondola up was paved with vendors.  This turned out to be a good thing as it was a little chilly and we needed some gloves and my father bought a cane which came in handy for the remainder of the trip.  The Great Wall of China… how to describe something indescribable.  It boggles the mind.  I highly recommend putting it on the Bucket List.  My dad hates heights but he forced himself up the gondola and walked around a little bit at the top before taking the gondola back down with my stepmother Joanne.  That was a good idea as the rest of us spent about an hour hiking up and down the wall, going through look out posts.  The wall winds with the mountain and takes various forms depending upon the landscape.  There were flat parts and steep parts, cobble stone and rugged areas, flat paths and steps.  It was a breathtaking hour.  All along the route there are Chinese sales men with coolers filled with water beer and soda and the ever present Snickers Bars.  We paid the equivalent of $15 for three drinks and three snickers.  Now that’s true capitalism.  At the end of our hike, we ended up at a toboggan that took us speeding down to the bottom.  Unfortunately Sophie’s toboggan went a little too fast and she crashed and halted traffic for a few minutes.  It was a great morning and even Hayden said it was pretty cool.  Another government lunch and then we were dropped at the Silk Market.  Shopping at Beijing’s famous Silk Street market is the 3rd most popular tourist attraction after the Forbidden City and The Great Wall of China.  This 6 floor building is dedicated to the sale of counterfeit designer luxury brand goods.  But basically, its a very physical experience.  Lots of grabbing, wrenching pushing and prodding.  And this is being done to the customers by the sales people!   The vendors sell just about everything you can imagine:  clothes, electronics, bags, shoes, sporting equipment, cameras, electronic games, sunglasses, the list goes on.  All negotiations are done by calculator even though they all speak English.  Its a bit stressful.  Sophie loved her new Abercrombie and Fitch shirt that she got for $15 but after 1/2 hour of constant haggling she had a look of fear on her face and she wanted to escape.  Again, if this is communism, its a strange brand of it.  Unless you witness what goes on here, you wouldn’t believe it.  Small chinese girls literally bar your way from exiting their booths.  They grab you as you walk by, pulling you into their booths to look at their merchandise.  And there is just so much, it can get very confusing.  We spent about 1.5 hours there and then we left, several bags heavier.  That night we had dinner at a restaurant called Courtyard.  It was located on the moat looking over at the Forbidden City and had the reputation of being one of the best restaurants in Beijing.  Maybe it was the fact that it was a Monday night but the place was empty, the food was just ok and the bill was ridiculously high.  My dad picked the wrong night to pick up the bill.  The next morning was our last and we started at the Summer Palace.  The Summer Palace is only about 30 minutes by car from the Forbidden City but it was the summer house used by the emperors.  And it is quite the summer house.  The Hamptons has nothing on this place.  It goes on for miles, along a lake with boats and several different houses and structures.  Really beautiful.  On to lunch at the third and final bad restaurant and then we went to Lama Temple which is an important Buddhist temple for the Tibetans.  It still has several monks living there and they could be seen walking around the grounds.  Lots of incense burning and Buddhas of all shapes and sizes were on display.  The day ended early and we all decided to return to the Silk Market for one last shopping extravaganza.  My step mother and I both had to buy another suitcase to take it all home.  We were able to fit one last visit to the pool before leaving for the Chinese Acrobat Show.  We had terrific seats right in the middle of the theater close to the stage and were mesmerized for 90 minutes.  This is where Cirque De Soliel must come and recruit.  The sheer talent was so evident because the show lacked all the glam and glitz of similar shows back home.  The stereo system was terrible and the dance moves a bit laughable but the acrobatic talent was genius.  They had a juggler who couldn’t have been taller than Sophie juggling 9 balls at once while tap dancing in a circle.  And the grand finale was at least 7 or 8 girls riding together on top of each other on an old rusty Chinese bicycle.  You just couldn’t believe what they could do with an old bike.  After the show was over, we went to the Red Capital Club for dinner.  This restaurant was dedicated to China’s burgeoning “red capitalists”.  It was hidden in an ancient hutong alleyway  near the courtyard homes of many of China’s past and present leaders. Out front, you know you’ve found the place when you see a vintage Red Flag limo.  The food is called “Zhongnanhai Cuisine” which is the name of the secretive compound of China’s top leadership.  Each dish came with figures carved from vegetables in the shape of Mao, Deng and Zhu Rongji.  We felt like we had stepped back in time to the 1950’s…we loved China and we’ll be back (hopefully!)dsc04275

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