We were fortunate to have been able to buy very low-priced tickets to Beijing from a budget airline seat sale as early as June last year. I had been to Beijing before in 2008 to watch the Olympics, and I knew going around in that huge city is pretty difficult without a private car.
So for this trip (like we did in Seoul before), I decided to hire the services of a private English-speaking guide to bring me and my family around. From a survey of choices on the internet, we chose to go with Ms. Catherine Lu. She was very prompt and professional when answering my email inquiries to her. She offered a tour plan that I liked very much. We paid a deposit via PayPal to formally book her services. The balance was to be paid in CNY when we got to Beijing.
TEMPLE OF HEAVEN
The guide Ms. Lu assigned for us is Sophie. She picked us up from our apartment at 9 am. Our first stop on today's itinerary was the Temple of Heaven. This temple complex was built in the 15th century during the Ming Dynasty. The emperor would visit this temple every year in thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest. From 1918 to today, it is a big public park, popular among the senior citizens of Beijing as a place for their morning exercises and games. It was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 as a masterpiece of symbolic architecture and landscape design.
The first section we visited was the Circular Mound Altar, with its steps and posts all in the sacred number nine or its multiples. The second section was the Imperial Vault of Heaven, a circular building with a single tier. It was mainly remarkable because it was surrounded by an Echo Wall, where sound can transmit all around. The third and most important section was the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. It was really a breathtaking sight against the blue sky. The completely wooden building (with no nails!) had a circular shape and three levels roofed with royal blue tiles. This is an amazing and elegant feat of architecture indeed.
Because my kids were tired of all the walking at the temple, Sophie decided that we eat lunch first. We were brought to a restaurant called Big Bowl where Peking Duck was served. It is said that when you visit Beijing, you need to do three things: climb the Great Wall, visit the Forbidden City and eat Peking Duck. We were about to do one of them and it was exciting. The whole roast duck was prepared in our view. First plate was for the skin. Second plate had white meat. Third plate had combination. These were served with special sauces (both sweet and spicy), shallots and cucumber. YUMMY! Sophie also asked that the duck bone and remaining meat be fried and served.
This historic square is really huge, almost 45 hectares. It is bound by the Tiananmen Gate (the one fronting the Forbidden City) to the north and the Qianmen to the south. In the middle of the square is Mausoleum of Chairman Mao Zedong, with the Monument to the People's Heroes. On its east side, you can see the National Museum of China. The Great Hall of the People is located on the west side. The security to access the square is tight, with all bags having to pass through x-ray machines, creating long queues during peak hours of the day.
The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace for,almost 500 years, from the Ming dynasty until the last Qing emperor Puyi was driven out by Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution. It is located in the center of Beijing, China. The sprawling complex consists of 980 buildings (mostly with roofs of yellow glazed tiles symbolizing the Emperor) and covers an overwhelming 72 hectares. You need to be ready to WALK if you plan to visit this immense area.
During our long walk through the palaces and the huge courtyards, our guide refreshed our memories with interesting tales of the emperors, the empresses, the eunuchs and the concubines. When we reached the Hall of Mental Cultivation, we learned about the most powerful concubine of all was Cixi, who through her literacy, cunning and political ambition, ruled China as the Empress Dowager behind the scenes to a series of minor emperors from 1861 to her death in 1908.
From the grandeur of the Forbidden City, our guide took us to a typical Hutong. A hutong is a neighborhood with small alleys with traditional courtyard residences. This particular hutong we visited is already protected from any demolition for cultural preservation. We took a motorized rickshaw (only two passengers each plus the driver) to go around the narrow streets. We visited one house whose owners allowed tourists to enter to see how life in old Beijing was. It was most interesting to learn that houses in hutong neighborhoods do not have toilets and baths. They needed to pay a whopping 15 CNY to use a public shower.