One thing is definitely for certain, if Shanghai is the land of the future, Beijing is the wonderful land of the past. The history! We saw a lot today – and said “WOW!” pretty much every step of the way.
A bullet ride to Beijing
In only five hours, we traveled 800+ miles and went by three of the world’s 10 largest bridges and 7th largest building, all via the very luxurious bullet train. Our first class ticket was WAY more than we were expecting. We basically had our own private car, complete with fully reclining seats. It was awesome. After a quick subway ride from the train station, we made it our hotel in the Wangfujing district, where we got a great room upgrade.
An early start at Tiananmen Square
Our driver and guide picked us up at 7:30 a.m. and brought us straight to Tiananmen Square. It was like we were severely late to an epic block party. There were already about 100,000 people in the massive square. It’s flanked with the national museum, congressional building, Mao Zedong’s tomb, Hero’s tower, and the Forbidden City. Our tour guide Kathy only referred to it as the Holy Square and that it was a great gathering place for people to honor China’s heroes. On our way to the square, she talked about how the Qing dynasty was overthrown in 1911 before the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. When she quickly corrected me that China’s first prime minister was Mao Zedong, not Sun Yat-Sen (who was democratically elected in 1911 and overthrown by Mao in 1949), I opted not to ask about the 1989 event.
The land of yesterday in the Forbidden City
Made in the 1400s, the Forbidden City has been rebuilt several times over the years. It’s primarily made of wood … and, well, fires tend to happen when you have fire-based lighting systems. Regardless, this place is completely massive; the 178-acre, 1,600,000-square foot encased city has 90 palaces and courtyards, 870 buildings, nearly 10,000 rooms, and has 14 different entrances. Which entrance you use depends on where you landed in a hierarchical sense: Emperor and Empress in the middle-front gates, high officials from the side-front gates, soldiers from the side gates, concubines from the back gates. (Naturally, we used the middle-front gate.) The City was as impressive as it sounds.
A fun nugget of knowledge: One emperor could have up to 3,000 concubines living in the Forbidden City with him. If he had any children with them, any sons, whether from his empress or concubine, could be the next emperor.
Temple of Heaven
This was my favorite stop of the day. It was so colorful and lovely, full with different buildings with blue and green rooftops. The Temple of Heaven is where the emperors would go to pray. In Chinese culture, blue represents heaven, and it’s often represented in circular-shaped architecture. Green represents earth, and buildings are more square-shaped. So the main temple is blue and circular shaped. It was SO beautiful, with intricate carvings and paintings on it.
On a side note, red is the color of luck and yellow is the color of power. Dragons were another sign of power. So emperor’s clothes were typically yellow and had dragons on them. People could get killed if they wore yellow dragons around the city; it was seen as a challenge to the emperor.
Literally four times the size of the Forbidden City, the the emperor and empress spent their time from April – October in the Summer Palace. Situated on the man-made Kunming Lake, it was the perfect place to escape the scorching summer heat. The western mountains fade in the distance. It’s really beautiful.
With it being still Chinese New Year celebrations, there were some 40,000 people in the park with us. It’s definitely colder in Beijing, so the lake is frozen over. We were in complete awe when we walked through the gate to the lake to see literally thousands of people skating and playing on the ice.
Fun fact: Concubine-turned-Empress Dowager Cixi has quite the story and was quite the powerhouse. She more or less ruled China from behind the scenes for 50 years and appointed the last three “puppet” emperors of the Qing dynasty.
Silk and pearls
As part of the tour we stopped at a silk manufacturing shop. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea silk comes from silk worm cocoons. Seeing how they extract a single, 5,500-foot thread from one cocoon was was pretty incredible. I bought a silk-filled comforter that will keep me warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
We also stopped at a pearl harvesting company where we saw how they harvest river pearls, which come in some pretty gorgeous colors – cream, gold, pink, and black. I got a really funky necklace made of black pearls and sea glass.
Small fish in very large ponds
Eric and I had a “holy shit” moment on the bullet train yesterday. Shanghai is home to 24 million people, Beijing to another 21 million. The number of people in these two cities is equal to about 15% of the total U.S. population. We were really dumbfounded by that reality. It’s no wonder the suburbs, like the one Eric lives in, is a commune of massive high rises. When there are that many people, you can only go up.
Another early start to see something Great
Tonight, we’re going out hot pot, and I can’t wait. We’ve had this on our dinner agenda the last few nights, but kept running out of steam. We have another early start to the morning, this time checking out the Great Wall and Ming Tombs.