Our departure to and arrival in Beijing was full of stories all its own: ridiculous traffic as a result of Koreans paving the road during rush hour; not realizing I left my hiking shoes in the car until after we went through security at the Busan airport; stories about dark alleys in China… that turned into actually driving through dark alleys in China to get to our hotel. Needless to say, we were ready to get the trip kicked off on the right foot the next morning on our bike tour of Beijing.
We walked to the office of Bike Beijing from our awesome hotel, the Red Wall Garden Hotel, which took an easy 10 or 15 minutes. A nice warm up for the legs. We all got sized up for bikes and helmets and met our character of a tour guide, Frank. He weirdly reminded me of Mr. Chow from the Hangover movie series. [Ironically, the actor who plays him, Ken Jeong, is Korean.] Anyway, Frank had these big, plastic circular sunglasses that we all agreed were most definitely women’s sunglasses, and paired them with a white jacket and emphatic accented speech that made the whole tour very comical – he inserted the word “yeah” at every pause. At the end of the day, he definitely didn’t measure up to some of the other tour guides we have had while traveling, but his persona was so entertaining. It helped to have a big group to laugh with along the way.
Lara, the Mars, Chris, Michelle, Hannah & Rob
It was a bit chilly that morning, and all the guys (dressed exactly alike in Nike dri-fit t-shirts and casual shorts) looked a bit unprepared. Still, it was probably a bit warmer than I would have expected for China in October. Now might be a good time to apologize that all my photos (and the video at the bottom) look so out of whack with white balance and virtually no sky to be seen. You can really see how bad the infamous air pollution is in Beijing with the warm haze hovering over us the entire time.
We got going through the streets, and at first I was a little concerned about bike riding through one of the most densely populous world cities, but it was surprisingly leisurely. This may have been due to the fact that we stuck around most of the touristy sites, which strangely don’t have a whole ton of busy road traffic right nearby. I think a lot of people walk to these sites from local hotels in the area.
One of the first things we came across was a group of women in a square practicing what was an interesting combination between aerobics, synchronized dancing, and tai chi. If I was an older Chinese woman, I’d totally be doing this as part of my morning routine. We all wanted to participate, and probably looked like the awful Western tourists eager to experience local culture. However, we held back and just watched in part amusement, part jealousy while Frank droned on a bit about the history of the “old city” and Beijing’s place as the current capital of China, which has not always been the case throughout the country’s history. I say Frank “droned” because this was the part where the heavily accented English did him in a bit. He talked for 15 or 20 minutes straight about the history, and a couple of minutes in, you stop trying so hard to decipher the words. It was a bit hard to follow, but I give him credit for trying to share important information about Beijing.
Continuing on with exploring the old parts of the city, we navigated through an area with a lot of hutongs, which are alleyways formed by what is best described as long connected walls of stone houses. Even though they give the impression of a very ancient communal living area, people still live and work in the hutongs today. It was really cool to ride around and feel like a part of the past.
Look at that handsome man! We asked about the boards covering the hubcaps of many cars parked in the hutong area, and the answer was surprisingly practical: to prevent dogs from peeing on them.
One area with a lot of hutongs and government-owned housing [well, everything in China is government owned] had this beautiful pathway along a narrow river.
For more examples of ancient Beijing construction, we visited the historic bell and drum towers which centuries ago served to publicly tell time. They both date back to the year 1272, but have each undergone reconstruction and updates over many years of existence.
To be honest, I didn’t know much about ancient Chinese culture, and I still don’t. There is so, so much to know and learn about – so many dynasties, wars waged, cultural traditions and power structures that have contributed to what Chinese society is like today. One good glimpse of the way some of the ancient dynasties lived can be had by visiting what they call the “Forbidden City”.
This is essentially a humongous walled-off compound that has all kinds of extravagant, artistic buildings and structures that housed the emperors and their families, including their many concubines. Or “con-ckyew-bines-uh”, as Frank would pronounce it. That word surely wins Most Repeated Word on the tour, and was certainly in the running for Most Emphatically Enunciated.
It was kind of sad and frightening to learn how these young women would be treated as child-bearing slaves of the emperor. If they At least they got special housing inside of the Forbidden City that a common citizen would never have access to. Still, there was all kinds of interesting power dynamics with the emperor’s leading wife, his secondary consorts, and several levels of concubine classification. There were informal social structures within the concubine hierarchy, with women holding fast to their unofficial rank above others, which would change based on beauty or particular favor by the emperor, or by producing male heirs.
Triple take: all of us being touristy at the Forbidden City.
There were all kinds of examples of interesting ancient history within these walls, and it could take you hours to wander all the temple areas and elaborately decorated structures and statues that served different purposes. It’s impossible for me to remember them all, but one statue in particular had something to do with women standing in front of it, granting them “all the salary” (of their husbands). Girls pose necessary.
When we first arrived at the Forbidden City, like all good Asian tourists, we whipped out the selfie stick for a group shot. This garnered a lot of attention from non-foreign tourists, I think particularly because we had several tall people in our group. A couple even asked to take a picture with or of us, which is not uncommon if you’re a white tourist in Asia. Again, especially if you’re tall.
I love this shot of J-Mar and Hannah going inside the Forbidden City wall.
Asia is known at times for its disorderly crowds, and people trying to get a peek inside the different structures contained in the Forbidden City is no exception. Thus, another comical part of our adventure were stories of a man not-so-inconspicuously passing gas while a couple of our group members were standing close behind him. Between that and getting pushed and shoved out of the way, we were all about ready for lunch. Before departing for the restaurant, though, Frank just had to ask: “Would you like to go to the john to do a Number Two?” All we could do was giggle.
One of the benefits of a group trip is pictures from many perspectives. One of my favorites is the candid, sweet moment of us on a tour – not something I usually get to have on record!
The chronology of the tour is escaping me… I guess that’s what you get for being four months behind in blogging. I’m not certain, but I think the first site to see after lunch was Houhai Lake, which is a mysteriously beautiful area to ride a bike or just take a stroll. With all the “mist” as our many tour guides called it, aka cloudy air pollution, it was quite romantic and peaceful. Houhai Lake was probably one of my favorite parts of the day, and I can only imagine what it looks like at night.
On our way to the Temple of Heaven, another major Beijing landmark, we rode by the National Center for the Performing Arts, a cool dome-shaped building surrounded by a moat so it sort of looks like it’s floating in the water.
We also rode by Tian’anmen Square. I’m not exactly sure why we didn’t stop, but we had conflicting information as to whether or not it’s open to visitors. Our tour guide told us that in order to enter, you had to provide your passport. Then he said this was due to tight security, particularly on holidays. There wasn’t a holiday going on at the time, as far as we were aware, anyway, so we couldn’t quite figure it all out. This was not the first nor last time on our bun-quest that we were given some questionable information by our tour guides. With the mystique of what communism really means in China as well as the sort of surveillance state which we constantly assumed we were under, it was difficult to separate myth from fact and truly believe all our tour guides.
Given the history of the square, especially from a Western point of view, I would have been interested to go and see Tiananmen Square and hear its history from the perspective of the Chinese. You certainly can’t miss the major homage to Chairman Mao with the huge portrait of his face proudly displayed over one of the archways. Well, and then there’s the fact that his embalmed body is still there.
Heavy stuff! Onward to the the Temple of Heaven. At this point in the journey, some of us were really needing some hot coffee, for both warmth and caffeine. We were also in desperate need of panda baseball hats. Lara and I took a trip to the coffee stand at the Temple of Heaven and to our luck were able to acquire both!
Exploring the park was fun – it’s amazing that such a polluted and densely packed city can harbor this much greenery and beautiful scenery. Beautifully constructed landmarks such as the Temple of Heaven certainly add to the beauty and wonder of these tourist attractions.
The famous circular Imperial Altar is just one of many, albeit the most awe-inspiring, parts of the temple’s complex. The altar was constructed in the era of the Ming dynasty, in the early 1400s. Its beautiful design called emperors [considered “sons of heaven”] here each year to ask for good harvest and forgiveness of the people’s wrongdoings.
The gorgeous, colorful paintings and incredible construction could certainly make you forget about your mistakes for at least a few minutes.
The Temple of Heaven inspired the first of several jumping photo series that quickly became a trademark activity of the trip, particularly because no one could agree on the timing of the jump relative to the shutter countdown. Uncoordinated hilarity then commenced, with J-Mar being the odd one out, yelling at us all to stop jumping too soon. He was always right