Wednesday, April 15, 2015


March 29, 2015

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.


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.

The final area of the Forbidden City was the Imperial Garden with its rock decor. Being early in the spring, there are no peonies in bloom. We exited the Forbidden City after the garden. We walked along the beautiful moat around the walls. There were several disabled men on the sidewalk, apparently begging. This is actually the first instance I saw begging in Beijing. Our guide treated us to traditional Beijing homemade ice popsicle made with cow's milk. Very good!


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.

Saturday, April 4, 2015


April 4, 2015

For the past few years, we had been doing our Visita Iglesia, or the practice of visiting seven (or more) churches during Holy Week to pray and meditate on the Paschal mysteries, around Metro Manila. We have visited various historical and new churches in Manila, Quezon City, and just last year, Makati.

This year I planned for us to visit churches in a nearby province. We decided on Bulacan. These are the seven Bulacan churches we visited yesterday Good Friday:


We exited NLEX from the Marilao exit (no. 23). I just followed the road up to the dead end, then turned left. Not long after, the traffic already got very heavy and we were just inching along. I turned right when it pointed to the parking area. There was a very long queue of cars as well. Parking was P20 for a car. Luckily, it was not too difficult to find a parking spot on the field.

There were really so many people there walking under the burning hot 11 am sun, making rounds in the life size Stations of the Cross. In the basketball court, you could rent an umbrella for free by just leaving a valid ID, an offer my wife took up. We trekked up to the front together with the crowds and entered the church from the front door.


From Divine Mercy, the Grotto is still quite a long distance away in Tungkong Mangga. There was a Savemore near the corner of the main road where you should make a right turn. It is still quite a distance from the turn, but the road just went on straight until there was a road block. Luckily there was still space in the parking lot near the road block. It was already 12 high noon and very hot when we got down to walk to the church.

I was very excited to visit this church because it was said to be based on the actual church of Our Lady of Lourdes in France. However when we got there, it was very disappointing to see that people have littered trash all over the grounds and these have not been collected yet. There were a lot of market stalls selling food, clothes and other dry goods lining the road going to the church and even in the church patio. After saying our prayers inside the church, we did not stay anymore to look for the actual grotto and just walked back to our car.


From Grotto, we found ourselves back to the main road heading back to NLEX. We took a lunch break at the Hidden Sanctuary Resort restaurant, which unfortunately had very slow service so it was already about 2 pm when we left. There was a bit of a detour fronting Divine Mercy church, so it was not easy to get our way back into the main road. We crossed NLEX over to the other side and went along the service road. We just followed this road all the way till it reached McArthur Hi-way, with a McDonald's right at the corner.

We crossed the intersection to the other side and saw this church on the right side. This was the St. Andrew Kim Parish Church, which was surprisingly unfinished. We said our prayers and looked at some of their historical displays outside depicting the history of St. Andrew Kim, a Korean priest and martyr who stayed in Lolomboy before. There is a shrine further along the road, with an ornate chapel and pagoda with an Oriental motif. This was a very peaceful, serene area with a quiet lake beside it.


From St. Andrew Kim, we drove back to McArthur Hi-way and turned left. We crossed over a big bridge. To go to the St. Martin Church, I was told to turn left at a 7-11. I just followed the road in and finally saw the church. We parked at the side of the church since the front area looks narrow.

When we got inside, we were lucky to be just in time to hear their church choir singing "Pananagutan" and "Tell the World of His Love." It was a very moving performance. This is one of the oldest churches in Bulacan, dating back to the 1600s. This is the church where the Holy Cross of Wawa, of the Pagoda Festival fame, is enshrined.


We got back to McArthur Hi-way and continued to the next town of Balagtas. The St. Lawrence Church is located on the right side of the road just behind the Balagtas Municipal Hall. Its history goes back all the way to 1598, though the facade we see now looks modern already because of repeated renovations.


From McArthur Hi-way, we went on to the next town of Guiguinto. St. Ildefonse Church is a small church located on the left side of McArthur itself, before a bridge. There is a school located beside it. Though it looks modern now, this is is also a very old church with a history dating back to 1691.


I had wanted to go on to the next town of Malolos, but it is already about 5 pm and the kids were tired. So I turned back and returned to Manila also via McArthur Hi-way. For our final church to visit, we decided to stop by the National Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Valenzuela, a city that used to be in Bulacan, but had been included in Metro Manila since its inception in the 1970s. I have heard of this shrine for a long time, but this is the first time I have actually seen it.