|From Xian we flew to Beijing, where we had planned to stay with a couple we met while scuba diving in Thailand. Inge works for the Norweigan Embassy and Alison is a Thai/Chinese massage practitioner and self-proclaimed Lady of Leisure. Which means while Inge was at work, and Paul was catching up on his TV and internet responsibilities, Alison was free to hang out with me and partake in important Chinese rituals like manicures, pedicures, massage and bargain shopping for knock-off designer goods.
On a more serious cultural note, Paul and I were actually able to tear ourselves away from the air-conditioned luxury of Alison & Inge's high-rise golf course view apartment and venture out into the heat and smog of the city long enough to partake in many of Beijing's most amazing sights. Alison and Inge treated us like emperors, so it was hard to tear ourselves away...
By the way, Beijing is preparing itself for the Olympics in 2008 and so many of the sites we visited were undergoing complete or partial renovations, which you may notice in some of our photos.
Here's what we managed to see in Beijing:
The Forbidden City - This cluster of ancient buildings was off limits for 500 years when it was home to two dynasties of emperors, the Ming and Qing. It is FABULOUS and we rented great audio guides to learn all about it. We spent about 3 1/2 hours exploring its many halls, temples, gates, gardens, palaces and exhibits until we had to pronounce ourselves on complete fabulousness overload.
Tianenmen Square - This is the world's largest public square and the symbolic center of the Chinese universe, according to our guide book. This is where the national flag is flown and surely you recall the events of 1989. The square is flanked by The Chairman Mao Masoleum, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, The Front Gate, The Monument to the People's Heroes and The Great Hall of the People. There is a constant police presence, including undercover police and cameras everywhere ready to deal with the smallest issue.
The Temple of Heaven Park - The Temple of Heaven is Beijing's most perfect example of Ming architecture, surrounded by a 267-hectacre park. We learned about the solemn rites that were originally performed in the various buildings. One of the structures was so colorful and beautiful, I had one of those "Wow, I can't believe I'm in China and I'm looking at this right now!" moments. It actually brought tears to my eyes.
On the weekend, we all drove to The Great Wall at Mutianyu, just over an hour (90km) from Beijing. There are several places near Beijing where you can access different portions of the wall. We chose Mutianyu because it attracts smaller crowds and is not quite as physically demanding as some of the other options. There had been a heat wave all week, so we were relieved to be able to make our approach up the mountain via cableway. We spent a few great hours hiking up and down the wall and took lots of photos. It was awesome and lived up to all of our expectations.
There are thousands of restaurant choices in Beijing, and Alison and Inge steered us to some great places. We had Szechuan, French, Arabian, Italian and of course, Peking Duck! We saw an amazing Chinese acrobat performance, had a great night at a bar with Alison and Inge's friends, visited the huge Panjiayuan antique and handicraft market, watched some World Cup games and saw an entire season's worth of "My Name is Earl" episodes (all American TV shows and movies are available on DVD in China for about $1.00).
From Beijing it was off to Palau, Micronesia for the last leg of our trip...