I woke early in Beijing, still getting used to the time change, a full 12 hours ahead of Ontario. Heading downstairs, a very friendly Kansas man on my tour offered me a seat at his breakfast table. The Jianguo hotel offers a variety of Asian delicacies for breakfast as well as your usual North American fare.
Our group consists of about 14 travel industry and media members, there are three Brits, an Australian and a bunch of very friendly Americans.
Our tour guide, Lily, has impeccable English and is fun and adds a lot of insight to our tour.
We start the morning with a trip to discover the secrets of the Forbidden City, also known as the Palace Museum. The imperial palace was home to 24 Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, the magnificent palaces feature a series of courtyards and beautiful buildings that open up to reveal more courtyards, each new ring that we progressed through seemed to distil the crowds down and down into a smaller and smaller space, until we were shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, jostling and moving, a vibration through the throng like molecules buzzing in a solid mass.
These places were constructed more than 600 years ago and still carry an air of regality today. The last scene that the crowd seemed to be pushing forward to view was the bed chamber that the Emperor and Empress shared the first two nights after their marriage. Our guide, Lily told us to be brave and bold and push ourselves forward into the melee.
I am not sure exactly what I saw through the window but riding the crowd to get there and then struggling against the waves of people to get back out was quite the experience.
As if an antidote to the pushing and press of people we were led through to the royal gardens, a large open space of statues and ancient tress protected with bamboo rings, even the air felt fresh and clean.
It was time for lunch, where I got my first taste of some real Chinese food. We were served on large rotating glass trays (lazy Susan) a feast of chicken and onions, thin slices of beef in a sticky sauce, rice, aubergines, potato sticks served with ginger and a thin broth. Despite my lifetime reliance on western cutlery I decided when in Rome…. and struggled on with my chopsticks I didn’t go hungry!
In the afternoon we moved onto a Bicycling tour to Yonghegong Lamasery, Confucius Temple & Imperial College, or “bike-ling” as Lily calls it.
Our guide was a very enthusiastic cheerful young man called Harry. I am pretty sure our hosts are humoring us with these Anglo names and probably have much nicer Chinese names-but I wonder if there was some fun involved in choosing an alias.
We got kitted up with bikes and helmets, our group was pleasantly surprised to find the bikes were in excellent condition and some of them would be quite expensive at home. We were expecting to cycle through small alleyways called Hutongs, instead Harry led us to the busy Yonghegong second ring road, I felt a sudden rush of anxiety cycling amongst cars, vans, buses, motorcycles and more all weaving and honking their horns, but at Harry’s “this way” request we took a deep breath and went for it. Turning off down a side street we started our slow weaving meander through the hutongs. So slow that two cyclists fell off their bikes, its hard to cycle really slow without wobbling!
We cycled past little homes, small food stalls and laundry hanging on lines and there in the middle of this rustic scene was a hipster craft brew bar, we had to stop for a pint, it would have been rude not to!
We continued our journey back to the bus and on to our next stop, a visit to the Chinese Arts & Crafts Museum, where we had the opportunity to see craftsmen and women at work on traditional craft work.
We watched a woman use an angled brush to paint an intricate design on the inside of a glass bottle. Her previous creations showed such attention to detail and included miniature portraits, animal scenes and ancient inspired sketches all on the inside of frosted glass vials, it was an impressive skill to watch in action.
There was no time to return to the hotel before our dinner and show so we forged on to the Legend of Kungfu Performance at the Red theatre. This show was spectacular, the lights, music and Kungfu performance were very exciting. They used a transparent screen at the front of the stage to mix graphics and illustrations into the live action. My favorite moment was when the lights went down and as they came up, monks were scattered throughout the aisles right next to our seats playing a rhythmic beat on their drums, it was unexpected and very exciting. The story included action, romance, a pupil and wise teacher and for me a Mum who has left her boy at home, the most moving part was when the young monks mother left him at the monastery and he clung to her legs, I admit a tear escaped!
We moved onto the finale of our evening, the famous Peking Roast Duck Dinner. Some of the initial dishes suited my palate more than the rich duck but I enjoyed watching the chef prepare the bird and my groups attempts at making and rolling their duck mini pancakes.
Today was such an exciting start to my trip, highlights for me were the garden inside the Forbidden city, the general bussiness of the Palace and the bicycle tour which was too short but still an unforgettable experience, I can’t wait for day 3!