|The temple overlooking the Forbidden City|
On the top of a hill just to the north of the Forbidden City, in Jungham Park, is a temple. There, the massive golden Buddha sits looking down on the Emperor’s massive residence. It’s not a large temple, but high enough that perhaps it might have reminded the leaders of China of their mortality and that while they might not have been anyone on earth they had to answer to (except for the British during the Opium Wars), there were those to whom even all-powerful kings had to give an accounting. After spending hours exploring the Forbidden City, a place that’s so massive and magnificent that it’s hard to comprehend, I climb up to the temple and looked out over Beijing. The recent rains had partly cleared the skies, but it was still hazy. Pollution is real here. I’d entered from the Meridian or Southern Gate and worked my way through gate after gate and hall after hall. There is no way to capture the grandeur of the place with a camera or to take it all in during a day of wandering. To draw from an old cliché, the place is fit for a king.
|View of the "city" from the temple to the north|
|In front of the "City"|
I wait as long as I dare at the temple overlooking the palace, then I leave, quickly walking back around the Forbidden City’s walls and to the subway station to the South. Beijing has a fantastic subway and for about 40 cents, one can travel anywhere in the city. It was with mix feelings that I rushed back to the Harmony Hotel after spending the day in and around the Forbidden City, in order to meet up with the group that I would travel with for the next three weeks. On the one hand, I was a little melancholy. After two months of freedom, I was now going to be tied to other people and their schedules and agendas. However, I was also looking forward to not having to worry about finding a place to sleep or making connections, a burden I was more than willing to pass on to our trip leader.
It was five minutes after six when I entered the room where the group had gathered. Being five minutes late meant that I missed the introductions of everyone but Ana. And she had a story to tell. Her real name is Anastasia, which she shares with the lost Romanov princess who was rumored to having survived the murder of the rest of her family and lived out a long life in America, a myth DNA evidence debunked a few years ago. In a sense, this journey was to be pilgrimage for Ana. We would be traveling through Yekaterinburg where the original Anastasia and the rest of her family were shot in a basement in the summer of 1918. And then our journey would end in St. Petersburg, where the princess had a happy childhood, cut a little short when the Bolsheviks seized power. In the late 90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the remains of Anastasia and family made their way back to St. Petersburg and are now buried in the chapel at St. Peters and Paul’s Fortress, where the remains of the rest of the clan of czars are buried.
Anastasia is a lovely name; it rolls off the tongue with such a pleasing sound. Throughout the trip, Ana would go by both names. When it came my turn to introduce myself (being late, I was last), I decided to forgo the tale that I was named for a British poet, but my parents didn’t know how to spell and so my named begins with a ”J” and not a “G” as does Chaucer’s. Ana’s drama didn’t stop with her name. Some people are into laundering money; Ana was into laundered passports. In that fateful thunderstorm that I’d been caught in coming back from Changde, and a high speed rail crash had occurred, Ana got drenched. The Australian government provides their citizens a “waterproof” pouch for their passport. As an American, when I first learned this, I felt slighted as our government doesn’t provide us with such an item and (to the glee of the Tea Party), I had to buy my own Ziplock bag to protect my passport. However, after hearing Ana’s story and seeing her passport (her photo had faded to the point she looked like the ghost of the original Anastasia), I no longer felt slighted by Uncle Sam. The topic of Ana’s passport provided us with much entertainment over the next few weeks.
After our opening pow-wow, we went out to a local restaurant where we feasted on a Peking Duck (why they don’t change the name of the duck to Beijing as they did the city, I don’t know). Afterwards, a group of us walked back down to Tiananmen Square and then back to the hotel via a market where you could buy all kind of food. There seemed to be an abundance of roasted snake on this particular night.
The next morning, our group met early for a trip to the Great Wall. Although the section of the Great Wall was only 70 kilometers from the city, it took a couple of hours to get there, with our travels giving us a taste of Beijing traffic woes. The Mutianya section of the wall has approximately three kilometer’s open for walking, but it stretches as far as the eye can see in three different directions (the wall does actually split here, with one end running north and the other two ends running east and west). The recent rains had cleared the air, providing us with an incredible view of the mountains and the wall that caps the ridges. We split into a couple of groups with an agreement that we’d be back at the bus by 1 PM.
|Yulia, our group leader|
Because we had only a couple of hours, I joined with most of the group in riding a “ski lift” to the top. Several of us hiked to the far end of the wall, at the high point where you could see the wall stretching out in several directions. There were signs saying that the wall was closed, but curiosity got the best of me and I decided to explore a little further. It didn’t take long before I was back on the straight and narrow, gasping for air. Going on beyond the “maintained section” obviously required a gas mask as it appeared half of Beijing had used it as an open air toilet. So I set off in the other direction, walking mostly with Yulia and Judy. Feeling weensy, I checked my blood sugar and I was dropping fast, which meant that I could enjoy a cold Coca-Cola, hauled up to the top by one of the man vendors that one has to deal with while hiking the wall.
We’d been promised a lunch stop on the way back to the hotel. It was a late lunch, as the traffic was terrible, held at a place where the local tour guides obviously get a kickback or at least a free meal. There was an extensive food court where we pigged out, but to get to the food court one had to go through four floors of stores selling a little bit of everything. On my way up, I’d spotted some silk shirts and decided to check them out on the way back down. I couldn’t believe they were marked $110 (American). I started to walk away and the saleswoman insisted I make her an offer. I wasn’t that interested in picking up a new shirt, but she kept after me, holding my arm so I told her I’d pay 110 yuan (at 6.6 yuan to the dollar, I figured I was safe, but I knew if she accepted my price, I’d be buying a shirt or have one very angry salesperson on my hand). She countered with 190 yuan and I shook my head and started to walk on when she grabbed my arm again and said okay. That’s how I ended with up with the blue silk Hawaiian shirt you will see in many of my photos.
After getting back to the hotel, some of the crew went out to see a Kung Fu show. Having recently seen the animated movie with my daughter and having grown up watching the TV show during its original run, I decided not to go but to use the time to pack for our first train journey. Leo and I agreed we’d eat later with some of the Kungfuers group, so we met at 9 PM and headed into the subway in this city of 18 million people (18 billion of whom were out for the evening). As Mark Twain once said, if you don’t like the weather in Beijing, just wait thirty minutes and it will change (maybe it was Peking or was it San Francisco, either way the proverb applies here too). We left on a beautiful evening without rain coats and umbrellas. When we got to the station where we came up from the bowels of the earth, we noticed distant flashes of lightning. Five minutes later, right before Yulia and Judy met us outside the subway entrance, the skies opened. It poured and we decided rather than trying to find the club that Yulia had been told of, we’d head back to the hotel through the dry subway.
Going back, hungry Leo and I stopped to eat at a small restaurant near the hotel. It was now pretty late and I didn’t want too much and tried to explain this to the waitress, ordering some Kung Po tofu with a bowl of rice. Obviously, my attempt to ask for a small bowl was misunderstood and I ended up with only a bowl of rice! It was only 3 yuan or about 40 cent. They put our bill together and Leo readily offered to pick up the check and, if I’m not mistaken, said something about letting me pick up the check the next time.
Early the next morning, we gathered in the lobby at 6:30 AM and walked over to the train station where we boarded the Trans-Mongolian Express for Ulaan Baatar (or Ulan Bator or Ulanbaatar, depending on which map you use, or as it is also affectionly known, UB), the capital of Mongolia. But before that adventure, we’d have to get through the border which, with a member of the group holding a laundered passport and others with bloated bladders, was going to present some challenges. Stay tuned…