Updated: Mar 21, 2022
I had found “Mary” on-line at Infohub.com when searching for guides for Beijing. In a slew of corporate web sites hers was simple and unassuming. Our e-mail exchanges had been friendly, and she seemed like the perfect person to show us the capital city. So when the phone rang at 7:15 and she asked if we could head out at 9:30 we were happy to oblige. When Jason realized that his camera had not made it to Beijing we seized the opportunity to head out into the city on our own, do a little shopping, and then hit the sights. When she called at 9:25 to tell us that she was not in fact going to be our guide, but that her buddy “Hu” would be taking us around we were still cool with the whole gig. By the end of the day we would be questioning the wisdom of our choices, but in the end I still think we did the right thing. Hopefully there’s some wisdom in this post for you no matter where you travel. If you’re going to Beijing I’ll break that wisdom down really clearly... “Don’t let your guide take you anywhere they make things.” You’ll understand why, trust me. But for now let’s start where our day did... at the Forbidden City.
Jason was out in the courtyard when Hu showed up at the hostel. I walked out into their conversation and almost started a “Hu’s on first” discussion introducing myself to the man now known as “Bill”. Soon we were out the door and headed to the day’s premier destination, the Forbidden City. Coming from the North we actually went in through the out door and thus started our tour with fewer tourists milling about as they were all still up at the front of the complex, over 900 meters, and several massive palaces, away. As we made our way past the concubines quarters (“28 to the East, 28 to the West - must have balance”), and wandered into the Palace of Heavenly Enlightenment, or was is Enlightened Journey to Heaven, or maybe Enlightened Peaceful Tranquility, well you get the idea... anyway wandering through the Forbidden City feels like you’ve moved onto a technicolor fantasy land of Pagoda architecture. And being there literally took our breath away. At least a dozen times during our first hour there Jason or I would turn to the other and state the obvious “We’re actually IN the Forbidden City” which sounded somewhat profound every time, as it was an acknowledgement that we were in fact comfortably making our way through a massive complex that was, until fairly recently, accessible only to the hand picked servants of Chinese Emperors. And back then that wasn’t necessarily a great gig since there was no “Out door” on the Forbidden City. Once you’re in you’re in... unless you’re the Emperor. Which you’re not.
Coming from North to South each palace and temple we came to opened up to an even more impressive one behind it. This place literally goes on forever. We spent about 2 hours here, and saw a fraction of the grounds. The crowds also grew thicker as we progressed. Many of the temples were not open to the public, but you could see in past the roped off open doors. Each of these gateways became a sea of humanity as tourists (mostly Asian) swarmed like bees to a hive to get a glimpse and a picture of the fasting room or the wedding room, or the palace where the Emperor had his tea in the morning and got the debrief from his advisors. The nice thing about being 6’3” in a world of smaller people is that the views are pretty good, even from the back of the pack... and it’s easier to get past people when they turn sideways to look up at you.
I could go on to try to describe the architecture of the Forbidden City, but to save us both a couple thousand words, why don’t I just leave that to the pictures. In addition to those included here, you can see more Forbidden City pics than you could want to at http://gallery.me.com/gonesailin#100224&bgcolor=black&view=grid.
One stop we did make in the middle of the City was to see the Last Emperor’s nephew at the Forbidden City Calligraphy studio. As Bill handed us a cup of tea and sank into the background, the “resident guide” began a major league sales pitch. He was barely convincing as he went into the deeper meaning of spending $300 on a piece of paper written on by the Emperors most direct and ancient relative. We managed to ignore his professions that the royal nephew’s eminent death would escalate values, and escape from this particular lions den unscathed. Our abrupt departure did seem to piss him off a little, but maybe it was that we were drinking his tea, or that my backpack caught on the door. Certainly he couldn’t have been looking at the two of us and thinking “Jackpot!”
As we continued out through the main gateway Palace and under the famed Meridian Gate both Jason and I were speechless. Standing in front of the massive red wall with Mao’s gigantic face smiling down on us we did what any reasonable tourist would do... we posed for a picture. As Bill worked our camera, it was soon obvious that he was not the only one taking our picture. Several dozen Chinese tourists packed in to get a shot of these two big American guys standing before the Chairman’s benevolent eyes.
Next we were off to Tiananmen Square. We all know Tiananmen as the place where that guy stood in front of the tank in 1989. However, the Chinese prefer to talk about other aspects of the square’s history and importance. Just last week it was the site of a major National Day celebration. The massive outdoor television screens were still in place to attest to this (As is the massive internet firewall that's keeping me from posting any of this on my blog site in real time). Out in the middle of the Square, you start to get a feel for how massive a space this is, but there’s no meaningful perspective to work with. Everything here is gigantic. That is, except for the people. As we approached the Great Hall of the People we were flagged down by a couple of groups of Chinese tourists who wanted to have me pose for pictures with them. Everyone was quite friendly and polite. Even though none of us could speak the other’s language, I did feel more like a D-list celebrity than a side show freak. I fully understand that nobody here is going to mistake me for a local, so I’d rather they find me interesting than odd.
We hopped in a cab as we left Tiananmen behind and made one last stop before lunch. Bill wanted to show us the furniture studio where they produced all of the furniture for the Forbidden City. Stepping out of the cab we slipped through an indiscreet side door and into an entranceway alley lined with pictures of furniture, and of world leaders sitting on furniture. We were soon greeted by the “local guide” for the studio and led back to the gallery rooms. I was hoping to see more of the craftsman’s area, but in hindsight that wasn’t going to happen. Once again Bill sort of wandered off as our lovely new guide showed us around the courtyard and the showrooms that surrounded it. The furniture was stunning, and the craftsmanship incredible. Fortunately all of it was so far beyond our price range that it wasn’t even a little bit tempting when she offered to ship a chest of drawers, or a throne home for us.
In the last room, beside the 8 foot intricately carved room divider was an array of groovy carved trinkets and stone pieces. We had read repeatedly that you should drive a pretty hard bargain with everybody in this city, but for some reason both Jason and I chose to ignore this advice. For me this proved to be a good thing as I simply turned down the opportunity to buy a $25 wooden horse cell phone charm for Grace. Jason on the other hand walked out of there pretty stoked with a set of door knockers to match the ones on the doors of the Forbidden City. His purchase assuaged my misplaced guilt, and we were out the door and off to lunch.
Back in the cab we decided that since we were in Peking (aka Beijing), we should have the Peking Duck. Bill took us to what he described as the 2nd best duck in the city. “There is one that is better, but it is very expensive.” While Jason and Bill went inside to order, I borrowed Bill’s phone to contact the local Waterkeeper folks. Much to my surprise, they had been expecting me to arrive at their offices that morning, and were a bit put off by my calling at lunch time. Apparently a couple of e-mails had arrived in my mailbox since I had last checked my account in Chicago. Duly chastised, I made arrangements to contact my interpreter for the next day and apologized profusely for my unintentional rudeness. As I walked back into the restaurant Jason could tell that something was bothering me. That unease was quickly erased by a fantastic lunch of dumplings and Peking Duck. Jason had never eaten duck before, & I’ve never had one that tasted like this. Sweet and tangy flavors infused the tender meat which was surrounded by a light, crispy skin. This we dipped into a fantastic black bean sauce, placed in thin rice wafer wraps and rolled with celery to make a small handful of edible heaven. The dumplings were great too, but you can get great dumplings at every roadside stand in Beijing. The star of the show was definitely our beautiful duck.
Now fully re-fueled we were off to our next destination, the silk factory. But first we had to take a quick stop at the ATM. Lucky for Bill he found one right across the street from the studio where he works as an art and calligraphy instructor. Before re-loading our wallets we went upstairs to check out his work. Both Jason and I ended up with one of Bill’s paintings at a price we were assured was well below market value, and he whipped up a couple of very cool calligraphy pieces for us which were the only free things we had seen since the tea at the Forbidden City.
At the Silk Factory, once again we were met at the door by a pretty young guide who would show us around the place. Here the sales pitch didn’t wait long. We spent about 5-10 minutes learning about silkworms, their cocoons, and the machines they use to harvest the threads. This part of the tour was pretty cool. Soon though we were led into the comforter making area, or the fake comforter making area where we were able to stretch the silk cocoons out to make a layer of silk for one of their very fine silk comforters. At this point we hit full sales pitch and started looking for the door. Our guide picked up on this and led us away from the comforters and into department store sized sales floor of all things silk. Bill of course had slipped away again, but as soon as I found him we rounded up and hit the exit. At this point I explained that we were NOT here for shopping, but to see the city. I had picked an independent tour guide to avoid these types of scams, but apparently the web site was built to appeal to just that market. Bill was a nice guy, but it was obvious that part of his job was to deliver us, and our wallets, to a certain number of living infomercials pitched as artisans studios.
Our last stop of the day was the Temple of Heaven. Fortunately we had hightailed it out of the Silk Factory in time to make it through the gates before they locked up for the day. This was more like it. The Temple of Heaven is where the Emperor would go once a year to pray for a good harvest. This was an elaborate multi-day ceremony, and the temple grounds are just as elaborate. Multiple gates lead to multiple temples each with a specific purpose in preparing for the main ceremony which is held on top of the a nine story circular plaza, the top of which even the Emperor was not allowed into as it was reserved for the Gods. Sacrifices of livestock, jade, and gold were burned on massive jade pedestals, and a 27 meter flag pole was managed by a color guard team that coordinated the multiple players throughout the ceremony.
The Temple of Heaven itself is a beautiful round building intensely decorated in vibrant colors and so full of symbology that I can’t even begin to describe it. Once again, I’ll defer to pictures. Besides those below, you can see more at . http://gallery.me.com/gonesailin#100228&bgcolor=black&view=grid
On the way in and out of the Temple grounds I did have a couple of great experiences with the locals. Bill grabbed a giant calligraphy brush out of a small pot of water on the way in and started writing on the stone blocks that make up the walkways on the Temple grounds. A small crowd gathered to compliment him on his style, and soon they were asking me to give it a shot. While my calligraphy is certainly in a different realm than Bill’s, I was told that it was in fact legible (which is a decent way to describe my handwriting in English). Like I said, better interesting than odd.
On the way out through the grounds, there were several groups of people playing hacky sack with what was basically a weighted badminton birdie. One of the guys popped a shot over to me and signaled me to jump into the game. After a few minutes of play I felt that I had held my own, and knew that Bill was ready to call it a day. Of course the guy I was playing with offered to sell me the birdie, which I bought for less than a dollar, and felt like it was the best purchase I had made all day.
To wrap up our day Bill insisted that we go to the Tea Shop to have a cup of tea, see the traditional tea ceremony, and rest after a long day on the run. He even prefaced this with “You don’t pay. You’re my friends.” Of course, as soon as the tea ceremony started, so did the sales pitch. And this time we were sampling the goods. And they were good. These girls make a great cup of tea... and will tell you all about the cup, the tea, and the different pots they use to brew it. After a half dozen cups of several varieties of brews we were off wandering the store, followed constantly by sweet young girls offering to wrap anything we wanted to send home to our loved ones. I was just about to escape when I saw Jason at the counter with his credit card out. What they hell, he owed me a little money from his camera purchase earlier in the day right? “Hey, can you put this on your card too?” “Yeah, no problem.” Boom. There you go. That’s how you spend waaaaaay too much on tea. If credit cards don’t feel like real money, then someone else’s credit card, that you’ve already paid for feels even less like real money. A perfect combination that cost me real money that I am still kicking myself for. I won’t tell you how much I spent on that tin of tea (enough that they threw in a free one). Not out of vanity, but because it will probably end up as a gift to someone who may read this.
Exhausted and well harvested we hit the street once again, looking for a cab to take us back to the hostel. It took a while to find one, but soon we had bid a fond farewell to Bill (who insisted that he only worked for tips and that Mary kept the whole guide fee). Back at the hostel we grabbed a couple of cold beers from the fridge to nurse our wounds (50 cents each) and chatted with our fellow travelers until well past dinner time. By the time we headed off to bed we had discovered that Wild Bill’s Chinese Highway Robbery Tour was a veritable right of passage for the newly initiated Chinese traveler. It seems that everyone had their own version of this story, and that in the grand scheme of things we hadn’t been beaten up too badly. I’d like to think that we paid for an education as well as the overpriced teas and trinkets sitting in our luggage. I’ve already put it to work on a couple of other purchases (including ones I didn’t make), and can barely feel that ache in my back pocket anymore.
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