Sunday, June 1, 2008

Tanks, Ducks, Concubines, Kung Fu, and Heaven

*sigh*  I swear to you that I have written more notes and taken many more pictures than what I am going to post for you today.  This *IS* the edit.  :)

Today marks the first real day of our tour of China.  We started with a nice breakfast.  As is usually the case with these tours, breakfast was pretty westernized.  Actually, I found it a nice combination of Chinese and American food.  Sort of like my own diet.  

So on my plate there is bacon and eggs, pineapple and watermelon, potatoes and pork bao, snow peas and bok choy.  On the side I have congee with green onions and tofu, and hot tea with milk and sugar.  Mmm... the best of all worlds.

Our first stop was Tian'an men Square.  Interestingly I can't access much about Tian'an men Square from the Internet here. In fact in addition to the blogger block, I found that in researching Tian'an men Square wikipedia, youtube, and most photos searched are blocked too. And Google? It's sort of half-assed. It seems someone in China has a grip on the Internet here. And whoever that is is not real willing to let local information seekers learn about the massacre.

Anyway... we went to Tian'an men Square today and I learned that in the center is a tower called, "Hero's Memorial." On Sundays local honored primary students get chosen to stand at the entrance to the memorial and raise flags in couple-hour shifts. Today just happened to be Sunday so I snapped a shot of the uniformed tykes.

It was a strange sort of place to be. There were guards in uniforms walking amongst us casually. On the bus we were told you may not take pictures of these guards though... they ARE working. And if it looks like you are wanting to cause a ruckus you will be "handled". Our guide told us that on a previous tour a group took out a newspaper and snapped a photo (I am thinking like the Delta Discovery--people take the local AK paper to different places and snap a photo that appears in the newspaper as a sort of shout-out) Anyway... this newspaper was apparently confiscated by the guards and the couple taking the picture were held up about 20 minutes for questioning. It was all just sort of strange feeling.

I snapped a photo of the group traveling. And while my plan was to not post it... just keep it for my own collection, I am going to go ahead and show it to you here.

Do you see that chain behind them. It marked off the square that didn't seem particularly important or anything. But a few minutes after I snapped the picture a little boy ran under the chain and into the open area. Two guards called after him. He didn't respond so they chased after him. When they reached him he looked up at them.

WAY UP at them. Because he reached about mid-thigh. They pointed to the chain he had crossed. He sort of half stumbled, half ran, back to his family, frightened. They too were frightened and took a hold of him on both sides. I couldn't snap a photo of the guards but I did get this one here of the criminal.

At the edge of Tian'an men Square is the Imperial City (wherein lies the Forbidden City). Prior to the end of the last Emperor this is where the Emperor's family would stay when visiting. We entered the Imperial City and walked the 3.2 miles through the part that is open to tourists.

There is this one particular place called the Meridian Gate within this outer area of the Forbidden City. The Meridian Gate was a place where people were tortured or put to death 400 years ago. Wars were also "announced" in this great open area. Our guide told us specifically about one autumn when 360 officials were tortured and then dropped from high off the ground to eventually die by hitting the ground. It was all pretty gruesome.

I looked down to the ground to imagine these 360 bodies meeting their eventual end by broken neck or whatnot on the earth, and I saw I had a hitchhiker with me. Do you see him there? Using me as protection as we crossed the meridian? Wishing me luck perhaps?

After we crossed the Meridian Gate we officially entered the Forbidden City, or rather the gathering place for officers who waited for the Emperor's daytime Court. Here I had a photo snapped of our whole group crossing one of four bridges crossing a moat. This was an entrance only for men. It seems the Empress and concubines (the only woman allowed into the Forbidden City) had another entrance. An entrance forbidden to us tourists.

Our tour guide gave us some time near the officer's "Break Room" so I snapped a photo of Sabrina poking the roof of one of the several male-only buildings. This one in particular was one that is being all shined up for the Olympics so we couldn't go inside. This picture could have been better without my backpack in the way, but you get the drift.

I took a random picture near the highest point in the Forbidden City. You can see here a little of the general expanse. There are 9,000 rooms within the Forbidden City. Heaven is believed to have 10,000 rooms so the Forbidden City worked hard to get close to Heaven and yet respect that the Emperor is not a god.

Everything was so intricately designed. I snapped a photo of a roof top corner just to give you a little peek as to the details in every building. Numbers of animals in the design all have important meaning. Buildings with odd numbers of animals are for men. Also, specifically, the number nine means longevity. Any even numbered designs signaled places for the Empress and other concubines.

The life of a concubine fascinates me; what can I say? I snapped a picture here of one of the many concubine rooms. Each one had a lock from the outside. The guide said they pretty much spent their entire existence in this room. In the evening the Emperor would walk the courtyard between the concubine's room and choose one or two to talk to. Yes, my tour guide told us he would chose who he would "talk" to. hee hee.

When the Emperor died concubines had one of two choices. She could choose to be buried alive in the tomb of the Emperor, in sacrifice; or she could move to a small house until she died of natural causes. This second choice carried with it little honor. What a lonely existence and what a strange choice to make at the end. I imagine the concubines all together at the end who chose to be buried with their Emperor. Sure, they were seen as nobel... but in that room... did they share stories of regret? Or did they stay proud? They are woman after all. I can imagine some major bitch-fests.

In between all of the concubines' rooms we saw the Emperor's room. I wasn't that impressed. It was frankly pretty small. We KNOW this is the Emperor and Empress's room though because it had a golden blanket and only the Emperor would decorate his bedroom with this color.

Leaving this area we entered the Forbidden Garden. Honestly, I missed the stories here because I had somehow managed to misplace my sun glasses attachment. Marissa offered to retrace our steps to see if it could be found. The tour moved on without us into the garden while she ran back. I didn't even find them which is a bummer because they fit rather nicely and it's damn sunny out. But that's just the the way it is sometimes. Life could be worse. I could like... be a concubine or something.

I did though hear an explanation on why the trees were each given a red or green plate. They said the green-plated trees were less than 300 years old but the red plated trees have been growing for more than 300 years. You can see here a photo of both.

After we left the Forbidden City we had a nice lunch, and then headed over to a park called the Temple of Heaven. Also in Bejing there is said to be two gates. One gate enters a Temple made by an Emperor the other enters the Temple of Heaven. It is said that an Emperor had a dream that God dropped seven stones from the heavens indicating where to build this specific temple.

The temple itself is a architectural mystery. It is said to be made of three large tree trunks and there isn't a metal nail in the whole thing. The drawback to this is that this is actually the third Temple of Heaven because the first two burned down.

The temple is not open to the public. But there are four showrooms around the temple that show what it does look like on the inside. In addition to the amazing paintings and other decorative elements the temple has a staircase and an alter. The Emperor was to place his givings to God on the steps and then burn them. Yeah, do you see how the Temple of Heaven burned down a couple of times?

Here's another group shot of us facing the Temple. That building behind us is one of those showrooms. We had about 30 minutes to wander this area. I was rather disappointed with this because on the outside of the gate surrounding the Temple of Heaven and the four showrooms, was a park. The park is very popular for exercise, music, dance, card games, etc. In the mornings the locals pack the place with their leisure activities and in the afternoons it's flooded with tourists and retired people. There was one guy in particular we passed on the way to the Temple who was playing a really interestingly looking string instrument. I was hoping to snap a picture of him, but our "freetime" was within the Temple gates. Not in the park.

So... left with just a quick walk by, I was only able to snap this photo to share. As you can see playing card games near heaven is a popular past time. Who am I kidding, this is exactly how *I* hope to be lucky enough to spend my retirement. Whether that be really here in Bejjing or some other beautiful park that makes me feel near God is irrelevant to me. I'll place my own seven stones. 

Sitting near the temple I snapped a couple of photos myspace-style. Here's Sabrina and me on the left. And Marissa and I are posed here on the right.

After we left the Temple of Heaven we went back to the hotel for about an hour. Marissa and Kiana whipped out their DS and started clicking away. Sabrina sat at my computer and typed an email to her mom. I flipped on the TV and watched "The Net" on one of the two English stations we get in our hotel. My parents went to a nice courtyard on the side of the hotel and did a little Tai Chi before  one took a shower and the other took a quick nap.

After our hour of downtime we went to an optional performance called, "The History of Kung Fu." It told the story of a young boy who trained at the Shaolin Temple to be a great leader. It was amazing! I bought a copy of it thinking I would gift it to a couple (Ted Berry and Pam Lau) I know who run a Karate program in Bethel. However, not opening it myself might be tough. It was so amazing. The costume. The strength. The acrobatics. The color. The pacing. It will be hard to not open it up myself to share it with others. I snapped just this one photo as the curtain fell. You'll just have to use your imagination until I break open my DVD copy.

After spending some time and money at the gift shop there, we were bused back to the hotel to pick up those on our tour who did not go to the History of Kung Fu.

Reunited, we all went to dinner together. We had our official Peeking Duck dinner. Or rather our Bejing roasted Duck dinner. They cut the duck tableside and then taught us how to roll them up with these potato pancakes.

Inside the pancake is the oily and flavorful Bejing Duck dipped in oyster sauce and sprinkled with onion threads.

We were told by our local guide that Bejing food is known for being very oily and very salty. I liked everything but it also further drove home for me the fact that I prefer the poor, light, Vietnamese food to the more popular in American-Chinese food.

It was tasty. Everything was tasty. Here's a closing picture of our dinner table.

Tomorrow we go to the Great Wall.


Auntie Kiki said...

Fascinating stuff!!! And the thought of pork bao for breakfast...mmmmm. Me gusta. I look forward to the next installment! I should be kind and go copy and paste the info about Tian'an men Square from Wikipedia and e-mail it to you... As a matter of fact, I'm going to do that.

funky punk said...

Hey Christina! I love all of the awesome photos you've put up on here. Unfortunatelly, I'm being called away from the comp. So, I can't read all of the entries that I know are packed with some history & a variety of insights.

We're headed towards Queensland (NE of here) for a double holiday. Marina hasn't been up that way, so things are new for her as well. Last night, we ate Aussie foods (croc, kangaroo, emu, etc.) at this 6 course bistro which was quite nice. I'm probably going to have to make a load of posts when I get back to the US.


funky punk said...

Now I too am curious about the Tan'an mystery! That po' little tike!

I like the info. on te Forbidden City too. Funny how an Empress can be on about the same level as concubines, according to the Emperor.

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