Friday, November 22, 2013

Back to Beijing - Part I

Last weekend of Golden Week - and we were off to Beijing! Truth be told, we almost didn't make it - train tickets sold out at an alarming rate, much faster than I had anticipated - but after juggling some dates and booking plane tickets for one leg of the journey, thankfully, everything fell into place! Flying out of Hongqiao airport is easy - only about an hour away from Suzhou, this is a comparatively small airport - which means less waiting time!

Beijing airport, on the other hand, is vast - it does serve the capital of the nation, after all! As we queued up for a cab to the hotel, we encountered something unexpected - we were five, 4 adults and Manasi, and apparently Manasi doesn't count as a 'kid' anymore - so we had to split up into 2 taxis, which led to a small logistics problem. Obviously, Kaka and Kaku couldn't go off by themselves, and the thought of Manasi and I setting off on our own didn't go down well with Ajey - in the end, I rode with Kaka and Kaku, and Ajey and Manasi took the second cab. Granted this wasn't my first time in Beijing, but I hadn't really taken taxis anywhere the last time, so I was a bit jittery - in any case, we made it to the hotel without incident!

Looking for hotels, I was amused to find that the last Beijing hotel I stayed at - the one which hadn't really made me happy - is actually a 'courtyard hotel', and a stay at one of these is a must for the true 'Beijing experience'! Well, you know what, been there, done that - can I have a nice 'brand' hotel this time around, please? We love the Crowne Plaza in Suzhou, and our stay in Xi'an really made us fans - and since there is a Crowne Plaza right off Wangfujing Avenue, I ended my search happily! True, this CP is a bit older than the our shiny Suzhou one, but the hospitality and guest services remain the same! In fact, as we waited for our rooms to get ready, they kept handing us coupons for free drinks to apologize for the delay - Ajey and Kaka managed to have free beers for all 3 days of our stay here!

After lunch and a short rest, we set off towards Tiananmen Square - an easy 20 minute walk from the hotel. It was curiously foggy - but it was neither cold, nor was it the right time of day for a fog - much to our dismay, the thick soupy air was the infamous Beijing pollution! Seriously? Air pollution that is visible?? It didn't seem to deter the heavy crowds of people on Wangfujing Avenue! Even the brightly lit Tiananmen Square could not dispel the gloomy fog! We did walk around the whole square, though! From gate to gate - Tiananmen in the north to Qianmen in the south - with Mao Zedong's Mausoleum and the Monument to the People's Heroes smack dab in the middle of the Square! My pictures are all foggy - but blame the air quality, not the photographer! Also, at Qianmen Gate, we took the first crazy pictures of this vacation - this soon became an ongoing theme!

Tiananmen Gate

Monument to People's Heroes

Mao Zedong's Mausoleum

Qianmen Gate - and the picture that started it all!

The walk back to the hotel felt like it was miles - of course, we still had to figure out a place for dinner. We had earlier toyed with the idea of finding an Indian restaurant, but nobody was in the mood to brave the Beijing traffic and air once again! In a pinch, McDonald's is acceptable for a quick lunch - but for, dinner? Nah! We decided to gamble a bit and headed to the lantern festooned Chinese restaurant right opposite our hotel - well, it was either that or McD' there weren't many complaints! Most unexpectedly, this humble restaurant served us a vegetarian feast - dumplings, noodles, fried rice and fried potatoes!

Manasi with her audio guide
Another culinary surprise awaited us in the morning - the breakfast buffet included idli-wada-sambhar and chhole-paratha! Unreal, right?! Indian food for breakfast at a American chain hotel in China! Needless to say, my foodie husband was the happiest person in the room! We headed back to the Square, this time to walk through Tiananmen Gate into the Forbidden City. The crowds were unbelievable! I remembered standing in line at a single counter to buy tickets. This time around, to handle the large number of visitors, over 50 ticket counters had been opened up - and there were people queuing at each and every one! Inside, too, large sections had been cordoned off, creating a sort of one way street- no backtracking!The air quality wasn't any better today, and the sheer number of people a bit daunting! Still, we did make it to the other end! First check mark on the list!

I was determined to visit a couple of places I had missed on my first visit - so after a quick trip back to the hotel, we set off to another iconic site in Beijing - Temple of Heaven! This is an ancient garden complex built in the 15th century by the Ming Dynasty - the layout that can be seen today was established during the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the mid 18th century. Themes of the union of heaven and earth can be seen throughout this complex, for instance, 'circular heaven, square earth' - the outer northern wall is semicircular, whereas the southern is rectangular, 'blue heaven, yellow earth' - all the buildings have special glazed dark blue tiles on the roof and the inner tiles are yellow! Quick lesson in Chinese symbolism!! The entire park is planted with ancient cypress and pine trees - the air is much fresher here, and not surprisingly, this is probably the best place in Beijing for a morning run, or an evening walk, or some tai-chi!

Temple of Heaven
The 'Temple of Heaven' or the 'Hall of Prayer of Good Harvests' is built on a 3 tier marble platform and has a distinctive 3 gabled roof. This is where the 'Son of Heaven' prayed to the Gods for a bountiful harvest. A little south of here, is the Imperial Vault - similar to the Temple of Heaven, but smaller with a single gabled roof. This is surrounded by the famous 'Echo Wall' - 2 people standing at opposite ends can hear each other clearly due to the reflective properties of the perfectly circular wall. In theory, that is - and not when there are a hundred people shouting at the wall, and then looking over their shoulder to see if their friend heard them! Further south is the Circular Mound Altar - presumably, this is where sacrifices were made to appease the Gods. The center of the altar has a small marble platform called the Heart of Heaven - speaking from here creates a strong resonance with the entire structure - all the better for prayers to reach high, high up!

Of course, the innovative pictures continue - Ajey tapping his creative inner photographer!

And here's one of the ingenious photographer and his very charming model!

I was hoping to wrap up the vacation in a single post - but I'm only about halfway done at this point! So I'm going to stop here with this photograph of my 2 favorite people, and carry the rest over to a second post. Part II of Back to Beijing coming up very soon! Don't go anywhere!

No comments:

Post a Comment