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Thursday, April 6, 2017

I'm in Tiananmen Square - where are the tanks? Mao is a no Show.

On The Go Tour - Great Wall & Warriors
the morning bread buffet

March 19, 2017 - Day 2 - Beijing

I’m up early and head down to breakfast. I’m blown away by the size of the buffet.  It’s enormous! However, upon closer investigation, it appears the bulk of the buffet is made up of bread products:   white bread, brown bread, whole wheat bread, rye bread, baguettes, sesame buns, croissants, fried bread…  I count 17 different types of bread - there’s even “trophy bread” labeled “for display only.”   Of course that’s the one I ask for.   There’s butter and jam available for all that bread - but no knives.  Have you ever tried to butter a croissant with a chopstick?   Not easy.
Special display bread
I look around the restaurant and spot a couple of non-Asian faces.  I walk over and ask them if they’re on the tour.  Turns out they are they’re from Malta and are part of the group.  After breakfast I make my way to the lobby to meet the rest of our tour.  Besides the two guys I just met there’s a couple from England, two couples from Scotland, a mother daughter couple from England, a young woman from Siberia - and me – the only North American!  Twelve in total - a very workable group - not too big and not too small. 

Feng, our guide, introduces us all, goes over some housekeeping details, then herds us into our van and we’re off to the first stop of the tour: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. 

Tiananmen Square - not a tank in sight

Two things strike me as we get off the bus:  Tiananmen Square is enormous – 109 acres in all.   The other thing that catches my eye is the enormous amount of Israeli flags.  Feng tells me it’s not because they’re celebrating my presence – rather Benjamin Netanyahu, the president of Israel, is visiting.  Evidently he has a yen for some kosher Peking Duck.
We’re wander around the enormous square taking pictures of each other and having our pictures taken by Chinese secret service men disguised as tourist from Guangdong  province.  Other than the odd soldier and the aforementioned flags there isn’t much to see.  I’m hoping to see a tank or two that I can pose in front of - but no such luck.  I suggest to Feng  they might take a couple of ideas from Shanghai Disneyland and have some live action figures walking around for tourists to have their pictures taken with - maybe a few dressed as Chairman Mao - or various Emperors and Empresses in period dress.  Feng makes a note – I’m not sure it’s to make the suggestion  - or report me as a subversive.

A quiet day at the Forbidden City
Adjoining Tiananmen Square is the Forbidden City – another huge impressive attraction.  The Forbidden City served as the home for the emperors and their households for almost 500 years. It was built from 1406 to 1420 by the Ming dynasty – when they weren’t turning out vases.  It’s hard to believe such a huge complex could be built in just 14 years.  Today we can’t build an overpass in that time.  I’m told there were a million workers and ten thousand artisans working on it.  I asked where they all had lunch – but Fong doesn’t have an answer - but makes another note.      All but three of the structures are original.  Three buildings were destroyed after being struck by lightning.  The Chinese invented many things, but had to wait for Benjamin Franklin to invent the lightning rod in 1749.  The good news is the Chinese managed to make a bunch of cheap knockoffs “lightning sticks” for a fraction of the price of Ben’s – they work - for the most part.

What impresses me the most is the vibrant colors of the buildings.  Some of them are over 500 years old and still look great!  I can’t get the paint on my cottage to last a year!   I ask Feng where I can get a gallon or two but she won’t tell me.   

After lunch we go for a Rickshaw ride.  Most people think the Rickshaw this is a Chinese invention that dates back hundreds of years.  Actually it was invented by Jonathan Scobie, an American (no kidding- google it), in 1869 to transport his wife through the streets of Yokohama – but don’t tell the Chinese that! 

Brenda trying her hand at rickshaw driving

Jane, the British woman traveling with her mother, never tires of putting her to work.   Jane tries to convince the rickshaw driver to take the day off and let her mother pull the cart around. 
“Me mom’s stronger than she looks,” she tells us.  I like Jane.

Mr Ho panning for ancestors
The Rickshaw ride ends in a warren of narrow streets filled with one level houses.  These are a few of the “protected” areas in Beijing – as in protected from future development.  These “condos” were originally built to house officials of the emperor and are just a short distance from the Forbidden City. The Chinese government subsidizes the current owners to keep the house in its original configuration and open it to tourists one or two days a week. 

Richmond Monster House
The house we visit belongs to Mr.  Ho.  We find Mr. H. digging in the garden –he’s either panning for ancestors or gardening – I’m not sure which.  The local guide explains that this house and others like it house three generations of one family.  The grandparents get the best room, the parents the next best room, and the kids get a lean-to in the courtyard.   I point out that Mr. H.’s relatives, some of whom might have moved to Richmond in Canada, also have multigenerational houses that look like this.

Evidently Mr. H’s current family isn’t keen being squeezed into 1500 square feet in a 400 year old house.  His grandparents and kids live in nice modern apartments in downtown Beijing and visit him on weekends.

We leave Mr. H. to his genealogy or gardening and head off to view a traditional Chinese acrobatic show - which features traditional Honda Motorcycles.  In the grand finale six guys on motorcycles whirl around inside a golf ball globe on stage.  Despite these are gas powered bikes in an enclosed building the air quality inside is still better than the air outside.

A special Peking Duck Dinner

After the acrobatic show we’re transported to a restaurant near out hotel for a “traditional Peking Duck” dinner where we encounter the ubiquitous Chinese turntable.  This creates numerous dining disputes as various members of our group spin the turntable in different directions at the same time trying to move the choice dishes (bills and feet) out of the reach of other starved diners. 

Then it’s back to my room to catch some more heart stopping curling.

Tomorrow: the Great Wall of China.


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