[Before moving on, I forgot to mention that after lunch on Day 3, we went to the Kunming airport to catch our evening flight to Beijing. The Kunming airport literally felt like a bizarre bazaar. There were enormous stands selling flowers, fresh fruit, packaged candies, bags of nuts, dried eel, everything. Masses of people dragging rolling luggage were squeezing through fruit stands. So strange. And once we made it through the vendor maze onto the plane, we had a daredevil pilot who thought it would be fun to fly through a thunderstorm cloud with lightning flashing outside the windows for a full hour. Okay, I don’t think they were really doing it for fun, but they didn’t provide much reason for me to give them the benefit of the doubt. The most the crew could say in English was, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing a little bit of turbulence,” followed by a whole bunch of Chinese. You hear that every 10 minutes for an hour and you start to really wish you had a Mandarin dictionary so you could at least point to the words, “Are we going to crash?” We didn’t crash, but it was a little tense. Well, I was a little tense. Apparently Chad can sleep just fine with his head bobbing up and done like it’s on a pogo stick.]
We had checked into our Marriot hotel the night before, so on the morning of day 4, we converged in the breakfast lounge to decide what we would like to see. After some lengthy talks with the very nice concierge - (Really everyone at every single restaurant, hotel, check-in counter, etc was incredibly nice. They just keep smiling and bopping their head and asking if you need anything else, all the time.) - we set the plan to do the Forbidden City and one of several sight-seeing options, depending on how much time we had left, and end with dinner at a traditional restaurant on a lake. For the next day, we set up a tour guide with a van to take us to the Ming Tombs, a jade factory, and the Great Wall. The concierge gave us several cards with our destination written in Chinese on one side and the way back to our hotel. We got two taxis, showed the drivers the cards, and off we went to the Forbidden City. We met back up in a large square in front of the city and again felt like we were the star attraction in the place. Six Americans and 300 Asian tourists, all with cameras. We didn’t have a chance. Every time we took more than a single step toward the ticket area, another group asked us to have our pictures taken with them. At first, we thought it was great fun. We’ll be all over facebook and myspace! But after 10 photo ops, we were a little tired of smiling and giving thumbs up and doing the funny peace sign that they all do in pictures. We eventually made it inside, and with the audio guide headphones on, we must have looked less approachable. We wandered and listened to the audio guide and took pictures. We split off a few times, and wandered back into each other.
The Forbidden City is a fully contained complex of imperial palaces that was in use by emperors from 1420 until 1911. We couldn’t go inside any of the palaces, but the exteriors were phenomenal. The large palace buildings were at least 60 or 70 feet high, with the traditional two-tiered triangular clay tile roofs, and every single eve had detailed images painted to depict imperial myths, animals from Chinese legends, various geometrical designs, and such. These tiny frescoes were underneath edges of the roofs and continued several feet onto the wall itself and wrapped all the way around every building. There must have been miles of these eve frescoes. There were maybe 8 large palaces, set in a North-South line down the center of the city. Each palace had a walled plaza and an entrance into the next palace and walled plaza. On the sides, although we didn’t see much of the sides, there were smaller palaces and many what I would call normal-sized buildings, all of the same roof and eve style as the palaces. There were a total of 9,999 rooms. (9 is a lucky number.) The entire city was for the use of the emperor, his concubines, his children, staff (all of whom were women or eunuchs), and a few officials (also usually eunuchs) only. Some walkways were only for the emperor, and everyone else had to use a side walkway or back entrance. Even in 1911! The last emperor of China abdicated his throne in 1912, and China became the new Republic of China, but the emperor remained in his Inner Court until he was thrown out in 1924. I don’t blame him, it seemed like a nice place to live.
We left the Forbidden City, and wandered through Tiananmen Square and saw the changing of the guards. I bet there were at least 50 guards/soldiers in that one square. There weren’t any reminders of the student massacre from 1989, though. As an interesting side note, I tried to do some research on the Tianamen Square massacre at our Beijing hotel and the top 5 Google hits were broken links. The link names and the descriptions were just like what we would pull up in the States, but every link that had some description of the massacre was surprisingly not functioning. Mysterious…. Equally mysterious was our inability to access Wikipedia, and we tried several searches in different languages. Anyway, we ate lunch at a Chinese fast food restaurant just off the side of the square, and it was quite delicious. I had beef with sauce, bean sprouts, white rice, and egg drop soup, all very familiar tastes. We then set off to find the Olympic Stadium. We decided to try out the subway. By the way, if you are in Beijing for the Olympics, do not use the maps that are posted on the walls and in the subway cars – those are all incomplete. The only complete maps we found were actually printed on the back of the metro tickets. We got to the subway stop but couldn’t find the stadium, so we hailed some cabs, tried to explain to two very confused cab drivers where we wanted to go, and finally they said, “Birds nest!” Apparently, that’s what the stadium is called. Once there, we marched right into a hotel next to the stadium - through armed guards and metal detectors – pretending that we’re guests, so that we can go up the elevator to get pictures from an overlooking window. After a full day, we excitedly head back to our hotel for a quick change before going to the restaurant. Our taxi drivers didn’t know exactly where the restaurant was, so it took a while for everyone to get there, but we did, and we had another fabulous meal with a full lazy susan. We even tried camel hump, although it tasted pretty fatty and watery to me. All of the pork, beef, and chicken dishes were very good, though. Another successful day in China.