Beijing Part Six- Got Money? Spend It Here!

If I were to break down my time in Beijing into percentage, I would divide it like this:

25%- sightseeing

35%- traveling inside the bus

40%- window shopping

I will be honest here and admit that I am not a shopaholic, so having to spend two of the five days that I was there inside shopping outlets instead of historical place didn’t exactly thrill me. And that didn’t include the visits to the so-called authentic  centers which we did sporadically in between sightseeing during the first three days. So yes, I did spend more time loitering around the lobby waiting for our entourage to finish shopping or window shopping in various places instead of doing things a proper tourist should do. Unfortunately according to my traveling agency representative, this is the requirement for tourists who wished to enter the country under travel groups. According to them, unless you’re so used to traveling in China you can do so on your own or if you’re there for business purposes, they will feed you with all these shopping sessions- and you won’t be able to avoid contributing at least some of your money to the local economy.

Actual silkworm cocoon, pre-process

As I have mentioned earlier, we were brought to several centers around Beijing in between visiting historical sites during the first three days that I was there. The first of these places was a silk center in the heart of Beijing. At first, we were given a briefing (emphasizing on the brief) on the process of turning the silkworm cocoon into ready-to-wear silk. But after ten minutes of that, the rest of the trip was spent listening to the various salesladies promote their various silk products, ranging from purses to bed sheet. Funnily enough, when some of us decided to sit that one out (my aunt and I were the culprits) these charming ladies would try to make us join the rest of the crowd in listening to the promotion.

But the ‘cream of the crop’, I have to say, would be the full-blown shopping session in the last two days of my trip in Beijing. We were taken to two of the biggest shopping emporiums in Beijing, which specializes in ‘Original Copies’ as they named them. Original copies, according to my tour leader, stands for goods which looked so original, they could pass off as their branded counterparts, and it would be marginally cheaper than those you’d buy from original stores. For example, a Louis Vuitton bag you’d find in these shopping emporiums probably costs half to three quarter of the price of a Louis Vuitton bag in a Louis Vuitton store, but only a true blue brand snob can tell the difference. An inside joke between us was that these things were nicknamed ‘Aspal‘ which was a shortened version of ‘ASli-PALsu‘, the Malaysian language for ‘Original-Pirate Copy’.

Still, one must never forget to haggle when they come across these places, for despite the price being cheaper than the branded ones, they were still marked-up pretty high. I managed to buy a chess set for CN¥85 from its starting price of CN¥270. My mother (to her glee, if I might add) got a tablecloth for CN¥160 from the starting price CN¥450. So if you’d like to walk out of there satisfied (and perhaps a little smug too), do have a thick face and iron heart, and be firm with what you’ve put on the table no matter how the salespeople whine or wheedle. Also, be prepared to be accosted by some of the bolder ones, for they will do whatever it takes to get you to buy something from their shops. I myself had been physically dragged into the shops twice by these salesladies. Guess no one could say that they’re not determined!

Fortunately, the other centers we visited, such as the jade center, pearl and traditional medicines were not as bad as the silk one. At

Jade-sculpted Chinese Ship. Is this cool or what!

least we weren’t personally tailed by these salespeople, probably due to the fact that there were tourists from other groups alongside ours to attend to. In the jade center, I had quite a time admiring the various jade sculptures, which are really exquisite and impressive. One of the best ones had to be the sculpture of a grand Chinese ship, complete with a chained anchor made of jade as well. This jade center also offered a small jade museum, which chronicled the history of jade-making in China, as well as some artifacts. In one of the traditional medicine centers, we were treated to a brief foot massage while various medicine experts examined our health in the traditional Chinese way.

In conclusion, if one ever decides to join a tourist group to Beijing, one must be prepared to have a lot of money. Because whether you like it or not, you will spend at least for a trinket or two. If I were to find any fault in my Beijing trip, it would be the endless shopping trips, which to them seemed so much more important than displaying the richness of culture and heritage of China. Which is a pity, since I believe that the true treasure lies in the history of the city and the country. While one can get a bag or a blouse in any old store anywhere in the world, one can only appreciate the authentic Chinese architecture, and its unique  in China.


Beijing Part Five: Like A Dragon In The Mountains

“Just a little bit further up, Big Sister! Come on!”

Anybody up for a climb?

I looked up towards the clambering figure of my younger brother, both admiring and grudging his childlike energy and stamina. The stone steps ahead of me were almost as steep as a ladder’s, its surface cold and biting to my hands when I touched them. Looking upwards, I could only see more steps, seemingly endless and reaching towards the clear winter sky, the very thought of trying to conquer them all made my knee sockets ache. It was only when I looked to my back did the scenery reminded me that I was in no mere quest. I was right on the Great Wall, one of the most iconic monuments in the world and the crowning glory of China’s history.

As I sat back on the steps to admire the view, I touched the brick wall on my right, brown and worn down by

One of the guard posts at the lower side of the Wall

time and nature. The walls on either side of me were smooth stones and had been reconstructed during the Ming dynasty, but the history surrounding these walls has existed as far as 5th century BC. It was built mainly as a defensive measure against nomadic tribes to prevent them from attacking the kingdom. A sadistic addition to the legend of the Great Wall of China stated that many a thousand workers died during the construction of the wall during the reign of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. There was an additional version of this story saying that the dead workers were buried underneath the walls to save cost on burial, one which Hollywood had adapted into the third Mummy movie in 2008, Tomb of The Dragon Emperor.

Whatever the true story is, nothing about the Great Wall is short of majestic. Stretching across the mountains, it reminded me of a large dragon snaking across the landscape, prowling for its enemies and prey, eyes menacing against anything and everything that could ever threaten its peace. From where I sat, it really does look as if the wall goes on and on, and one could actually believe that this wall could have surrounded the whole country once a long time ago (although in truth it only covered the west and northern sides of the kingdom). In the valley between the two mountainsides, the lands could have been stretched bare in those times, the silence broken by the rare appearance of supply caravans for the guards. Or there could have been a tiny village there. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of a lone scouting post among the dry greens, seemingly unattached to the wall. It’s not hard to imagine the soldiers staying up in turn, eyes bright and alert for anything and everything suspicious, of perhaps they would each steal a snooze while on duty when their commanding officer weren’t looking.

Breathtaking is an understatement

The side of the Great Wall where I was is called Juyongguan Pass, the northern section of the monument and the nearest to Beijing. It is also the most visited, the highest point here being the Beibalou- a good thousand metres above sea level with the breathtaking view of the mountains of northern China. But that was as far as I go, as much as I would love to conquer the whole place. It is said that to walk across the whole Great Wall of China, one could take up to eight or nine months, depending on the speed!

Ah… well. Mother and Father were already waving from below, hollering for me to bring down my two siblings so that we can hurry to the next destination. I stood up and prepared to go down the stairs… wait a minute. Didn’t I just said that the steps were steep? Looks like it’s going to be a looong way down. Gulp!


Beijing Part Four: How Many Chambers Are There Really?

It was the mid-90’s, and the little girl would sit perched on her grandfather’s rickety old sofa at 6pm, waiting eagerly for the television program to start.

The TV series, named ‘Princess Returned Pearl’, starred Vicky Zhao, Alec Su and Ruby Lin, and told the tale of a commoner who was mistakenly identified as a long-lost Princess of China, and thus brought into the Emperor’s household. This is actually based on the legend of a real-life commoner adopted by the Emperor Qianlong as his princess.

Now, while the story itself is interesting (the Princess Huan Zhu is really hilarious I can tell you), what really make an impact on the little girl was the grandness of the complex called the Forbidden City, home to the Emperor and his many entourage for many dynasties. Fast forward to 2011, and the girl- now a full grown young woman- can still recall the bright red walls and yellow roofs of the buildings, and the flags waving from the top of the gates of the city as they welcomed the Dowager Empress home from her long pilgrimage, and how exquisite the wooden furniture inside the chambers of the Emperor’s favourite concubine as he sat with her having tea.

Emperor's Throne in the Hall of Supreme Harmony

That kind of life may well be true or merely depictions from a Chinese production company. Either way, the Forbidden City is the main emblem of Imperial China. It is the symbol of the Emperor’s absolute power upon his subjects and the mark of his wealth.

The Forbidden City today stood at the heart of Beijing as a tourist attraction. It is next to yet another historical landmark, Tienanmen Square (which will be discussed in another post). Walking up to it from Tienanmen Square, I can’t help but feel how small I was standing next to this building. A picture of Mao Zedong, the Republic’s founding father, adorned the Southern Gate, while two stone lions greeted us as we approached the gates.

I believe my breath stuck at my throat the moment I entered the Outer Court of the City, where the Inner Golden Water River ran across the grand ceremonial square, connected by five stone bridges.  This square brought back the memories of those years of watching ‘Princess Returned Pearl’ on TV, with my late grandfather. In fact, I can hear the opening theme song of the series as I descended down the square towards the Gate of Supreme Harmony.

Elaborate Dragon carvings on the marble stairs

As we make our way steadily through the complex, I note that the marble steps have designs of the dragon intricately carved into the very center of the stairs. I learned eventually that this is exclusively meant for the Emperor’s use (and maybe the use of his family as well) as the Emperor, called Son of Heaven, was said to be the impersonation of the Dragon on Earth. An Emperor’s symbol was always the dragon, and Empress the phoenix, so it made sense that the very steps of which the Emperor thread should be adorned with dragon patterns.

Among the many things I find charming about the Forbidden City is that each and every building is given some sort of name symbolizing prosperity, good luck and happiness. For instance, the ‘Hall of Supreme Harmony’ refers to the heart of the Outer Court, the center where the Emperor held his court as well as royal ceremonies. Unfortunately, most of the artifacts within the Forbidden City are being preserved and displayed in the Beijing Museum (which I did not get the chance to visit), so the only thing remaining within the hall is a replica of the Emperor’s throne. The thrones were wrought in gold and bronze, with dragon and crane motives clearly placed around the area.

After trudging around the Outer Court, we took a turn down the steps behind the ‘Hall of Preserving Harmony’ towards the Inner Court, wherein lies the living quarters of the Emperor, his family and their servants. Sometimes we can get the funniest piece of trivia from our tour guide. The fact is I have always known that an Emperor can own up to hundreds and more concubines, and certainly even more children. So naturally, he would need thousands of chambers to occupy them all. What I didn’t always know that the total amount of rooms in the Forbidden City is nine thousand nine hundred ninety nine and… a half. Huh?Well, according to my tour guide, the number 10,000 is meant for the heavens, and to have 10,000 or more chambers will anger the gods. Therefore the emperors built the Forbidden City with the next best number- 9,999 1/2. This carries the message that the Emperor is superior to everything save the gods.

Love The Names....

The Inner Court, unlike the Outer Court, has a more homely atmosphere to it, as befitted its purposes as the imperial home. The Outer Court has more space, looked grander and wider. But the Inner Court is filled with trees and finely carved archways and beautiful gardens. The Emperor would have resided in the “Palace of Heavenly Purity’, in reference to his representing the heavens, while the Empress would stay in the ‘Palace of Earthly Tranquility’, referring to her symbol of the earth. There is a large jade in one of the garden courtyards, which symbolizes purity and virtue.

Like the halls in the Outer Court, the chambers in the Inner Court are prohibited from the public. Visitors instead can only look through the windows and glass to see the arrangements of furniture inside the chambers. An average living quarter for a palace official or concubine may include a sitting room, an adjoining chamber and the bedroom, among other things.

After three hours, we exited the Forbidden City through the northern gates or otherwise known as the “Gate of Divine Might’. Before us, the Jingshan Hill stood tall and proud and towered over the more sweeping Forbidden City. I was sorry to leave this place behind so soon- it felt as if I still have much to explore. I certainly would have hunted that half room down and see what it was used for. Heck, if I could spend all day here I would have gone through each and every room and count them all just to prove there ARE 9,999 and 1/2 chambers in total.

Maybe I’d do just that. Next time.

Beijing Part Three: Summer Palace in The Winter

I first read about the Summer Palace in the fictional Empress Orchid by Anchee Min.

A stone-carved lion oversaw the lake from the bridge

In the book, the Concubine Lady Yehonala (the future Empress Cixi) would accompany her husband, Emperor Hsien Feng to the Summer Palaces. The palace was called Yuan Ming Yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) and it was the emperor’s getaway during China’s turbulent times. Up until then I have never heard of such Palace, as China is usually so synonym with either the Great Wall or the Forbidden City. Built in the 17th century by the Qing Emperors, it is said to be one the most beautiful architectural masterpieces of China and sometimes called the Chinese Versailles.

Unfortunately, Yuan Ming Yuan was destroyed by foreign troops in 1860 after the Second Opium War Ended. The historical Empress Cixi, would build a second Summer Palace a few years later, really named Yihe Yuan (Garden of Nurtured Harmony) using funds meant for the Chinese Navy. Comprising of a complex of  buildings, Longetivity Hill and the vast Kunming Lake, this palace stands today and is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

Summer Palace from a distance

Stepping into the estate for the first time, I wondered that perhaps the very reason it was called the Summer Palace is because the whole place would have looked glorious during the summertime. The Kunming Lake was almost as vast as two football stadiums, divided by the Seventeen-Arch Bridge. On the right end of the lake, the palace complex stood tall and proud at the edge of Longevity Hill, a set of pavilions and other classical-style structures surrounded by trees. The lake were surrounded by stone pavements, with trees on each side. In the summer, the lakeside would have been a pleasant place for a stroll, with the trees shadowing the pavements from the sun. However, here during winter, it has a different sort of charm altogether.

I did not have the opportunity to explore the actual palace. The two hours that we have there were spent around the Seventeen-Arch bridge- named because of the seventeen arches upholding the bridge over the lake. I especially loved the stone carvings of  different lions perched over the railings. From afar the bridge seemed to be like white marble, although it is really built and carved in stone. On this bridge there were plenty of vendors selling cheap merchandises: souvenirs as well as scarves and gloves for the cold weather. The challenge with these sellers was to turn them down and walk away unscathed, as they were

Frozen Reed!

persistent and would still shove their goods into your faces even after you’ve said no. There were a group of elderly men flying kites in the middle of the bridge. Something that, apparently, seemed to be a favourite pastime there.

The walk from one point to the other on this bridge is not really that far, but I took my time looking across the lake at every other step. The lake itself is a masterpiece, I had to actually pause for a moment to take in just how vast it is. Winter meant that it was frozen, though not solid enough to do any walking or ice-skating (can’t say I didn’t think about that!). But when I peer over the bridge, I saw underwater plants being frozen solid. It was quite a sight!

Although the trees surrounding the lake and bridge were pretty much bare during the season, it was pleasant to walk across the stone pavements around the lake, which I would have liked to do if we had more time there. The biting cold actually caused my mother’s tongue to freeze, and she had a hard time talking, but it no longer bothers me.

And as I trudged down towards the front entrance, I could close my eyes and envision the Empress Cixi taking a stroll by this lake with her entourage, her head as high and proud as her palace not very far away. Perhaps she would be even prouder, if only she had heard UNESCO claiming this palace to be “”a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value.”

And rightly so too.

Beijing Part Two: To Be A Chicken In The Freezer

Six hours of flight made us sore by the time we reached Beijing International Airport. Luckily we had a brief flight interconnection in Hong Kong. Mum complained that she disliked flight transits, but for me it was opportunity to take a look in yet another airport. Call me odd, but I like airports. There’s a sense of thrill watching the planes taking off and landing, and it was fun watching people come and go and guessing which country they were from or where they are heading.

By the time we arrived in Beijing it was already midnight. Fortunately as China shares the same time zone as Malaysia, there was barely an issue of different time zone. The airport was quiet and somewhat empty as we trudged our from our plane and towards customs. I took my time appreciating the vastness of the airport, something I can’t obviously do if I was rushing around and the if the airport was crowded.

That first midnight, the temperature outside was recorded to be a whopping -8 degrees celcius. What?? Of course, for those among us who were lucky enough to be living in countries where their winters were filled with snow, this might not seem like a lot. But unfortunately for us who lived in the tropical rainforest climate, where there are only two seasons: Sun and Rain, such temperature is like placing us in a freezer. Truly enough, as we stepped out of the airport and waited for the bus to take us to the hotel, the people around me- my family included- scampered for their sweaters and jackets and coats.

I can practically feel blood freezing on their way to my fingers. My aunt went so far as to borrow my brother’s earmuffs to cover her nose, as she began to feel it aching. Thankfully there was no wind, otherwise it would have been colder. I stood there thinking: So this is what a chicken in a freezer must feel like. I didn’t put my jacket on that night (my mum scolded me so severely about the dangers of getting hypothermia), and I sort of half expected my hand to fall off from frostbite. Mercifully, the bus arrived after we stood there for 10minutes (must have felt like an hour to some) and we rushed into the warmth. I bet nobody ever complained about Malaysian weather ever again!

Our tour guide, a man in his mid-thirties named Johan, was up front introducing himself and briefing us on the journey for the next couple of days. But I wasn’t really listening. Instead I stared out the window towards the dark road around me. There really isn’t much to see in the dark, but I can still make out the trees, bare and naked. They would have discarded their leaves at the end of autumn and beginning of winter, sometime in November, in preparation for the cold. As we entered the city, we saw the hints of a nightlife in Beijing. Believe it or not, there are some people, including elderly men and women, who did tai-chi even in this weather and hour.

Next Post: Why it is called the Summer Palace.