A Trip to Beijing Part 5


The penultimate installment of Dr Madhumita Sen's travel diary.



DAY 3: We start early again. After a hurried breakfast, we head for the Antique Merchant street, on the other side of the forbidden city. This is also an old part of town, but has been rebuilt to impress the tourist. It is fully pedestrianised and lined on both sides by small shops selling both real and fake antiques, jade, pearls, silk and tea. Many roadside statues have been made to give a historical feel. There are statues showing tea making, a statue of Cixi, the Dragon Queen, and cobblers with giant shoes.

We then walk to the Zengiangmen watch tower, which was once part of the city gates, past the railway museum (built by the French, this was the old Beijing railway station), and come upon the picturesque Schichahai Lake. This is a beautiful lake in the middle of the old city, now surrounded by bars and restaurants. It is lined by weeping willows and birches, and there are many boats in the water. It is a really pretty place, but we don’t linger because it has suddenly started to rain heavily. We do take some pictures though.
We walk past the big Drum tower, which used to be used for announcements and timekeeping. Right next to that is the large Bell Tower, which chimed the hour in ancient times to let the Beijingers keep track of time as well. It is silent now (“we all have our own time pieces these days,”
says Alice). We go to a pretty little restaurant for lunch. This time we eat light, there is still a lot of walking to be done!

After lunch, we take cycle rickshaws (China is the inventor of these very useful contraptions which are ubiquitous in so many Indian small towns, and of course in Kolkata!), and drive around the Hutongs. This is an area of old Beijing, now a WHO heritage site. These ancient buildings housed the common people of Beijing, and are therefore made of grey bricks (this is the colour for the common man! Red and yellow are reserved for royalty or high ranking officials). The basic housing structure are small rooms built around a central courtyard. There is no plumbing and cooking is done outdoors. There are public toilets built at the corner of every block. In between are some Ming general’s houses with red wooden doors and four wooden beams with blue stars to signify his rank. We also cross an old rice-wine making factory with large clay jars in which the wine is fermented.

There is an open square, and we see people practicing yoga, in the afternoon heat! The pace of life seems pleasant here, though, since we pass many people sitting on porches, riding along slowly on bicycles or just lazing around on sidewalks.
We also go past the old Buddhist temple where the Chinese Lamas reside today.

Next stop: Temple of Heaven. This temple was used by the ancient emperors to pray for a good harvest, China being an agrarian society mainly. It is surrounded by a huge park full of ancient fir trees, in fantastic shapes and sizes, with old, huge twisted trunks. One can spend a whole day, just walking through these parks! There is also a lo-o-ong passageway (half a kilometre, no less!) leading up to the temple. This corridor is really interesting because it is used by the locals as a club/park, and we cross a lot of elderly folk spending the afternoon playing cards, dominoes, a funny game where people are kicking a shuttlecock between themselves without letting it touch the floor (good exercise!), or just sitting in groups and smoking and chatting.

We reach the end of the corridor, and ascend the steps to the temple. It is a large temple with a magnificent roof and large red decorated pillars. In olden times there were animal sacrifices here, and statues of cattle are made to mark the place. The temple is created in 3 levels to signify heaven, the royal floor, where the son of God stays (royalty) and the ordinary world for us mortals.
When we are full with the ‘heavenly’ world, we descend back to the ‘lowlands’ and get back to the van. “We will go shopping next,” says Alice. “Most tourists love to visit the ‘Hongqiao’ market. You get fantastic bargains there!” A quick look at the guide book tells me that this is the place for fake ‘branded goods’ too!

We get to this huge mall, the front of which is decorated with a huge pearl-in-a-shell. Hubby gets down on his knees in front of me. I’m not sure whether this means he’s feeling romantic and will buy me some pearls or that he’s begging me not to! We go in. The first floor is filled with, well everything! Son is fascinated by some ‘antique’ pocket watches; he’s always wanted to own one. He finally buys a brass engraved watch. It looks quite authentic, and it even ticks, although it is actually an electronic watch. There are a lot of silks. Hubby wants a shirt. He finally chooses a beautiful silk ‘mandarin’ jacket with golden dragons embroidered in front. Son prefers a simple jade coloured mandarin shirt, and I buy a silk cheongsam dress. The second floor is full of fake designer goods, all the top brands! We decide to bypass these. The third floor has electronic goods. Son is fascinated by some remote controlled gadgets and mobiles. I’m not sure they’ll work once we get home, so we just window shop. The third floor has the goods – pearls and jade! I don’t bother with the pearls, have already bought enough in India, but we look seriously at the jade. There are a lot of beautiful objects, and also very expensive. We finally buy a pair of jade lions and son goes for a small horse, his Chinese zodiac sign.

Okay, now that our pockets are considerably lighter, we head for our next destination – Donghuamen snack street. A whole street for snacking? No kidding!

The sky begins to look ominous as we head for the snack street. Hopefully the weather will hold out. We get off the van and walk down a large pedesdrianised square. We enter one of the side streets and it is a cauldron of humanity ... much like an Indian railway station during the summer vacations! This area is mostly filled with the locals and the street is lined with open ‘dhaba’ style shops selling lots and lots of food we don’t recognise. After a few minutes of being jostled around, Alice tells us we should try the section of the square meant for ‘foreign tourists.’ We comply, she’s our guide after all!

We go back to the open square, where there are a lot of foreigners, of course, and walk to the stalls on the opposite side. There must be a hundred stalls at least, and this place is still crowded, but more spacious. We gaze at the amazing array of ‘jiaozi’ dumplings and ‘baozi’ pancakes, and of course the ‘kaorou,’ pieces of various meats on a stick – chicken, pork, octopus, liver, kidney, prawns, crab, silkworms, scorpions, spiders, grasshoppers and cockroaches (yes, it’s true!). I am willing to try something new, so I buy some silkworms on a stick – ugh! Definitely not worth it! After this I stick to what I know, chicken, octopus and kidney. Hubby plays safe right from the beginning and only tries the known kebabs. Son is still feeling adventurous, even after the silkworm fiasco, and goes for a huge grilled spider! The head is not edible, we are told, so the shopkeeper breaks it off, and then son bites into it. I can tell it’s no good, but he scrunches through the whole thing, bravely. One more YOLO experience he tells me. And that is? “You only live once!”

We pack up some baozi fish dumplings, a couple of potato omelettes and a local sweet delicacy (don’t remember the name) to have for later. It has started to rain and we have to run back to the van.

We are really tired after our ‘snacks,’ but the evening is not over yet. We have tickets to a “Kung Fu” ballet at the local opera house. The opera house is quite grand, and the Kung Fu show hoardings look impressive. Alice gets the tickets and shows us in, then leaves. The lounge in front of the theatre has a large shopping cum exhibition area. In the centre is a boxed-in place with a large throne on which sits a young boy dressed in monk’s robes, one of the actors in the show. We can take pictures, which we do. No photo or videography is allowed inside, but we can buy the DVD of the show. Hubby buys one, and we also pick up a copy of the show synopsis in English (it is also available in Chinese, French and German!). Most of the spectators are western tourists and the chatter around us is in as many languages!

The show is truly amazing, beautifully portrayed on a grand stage with many special effects. The play is in English, though the songs are Chinese, with English translations scrolling on an LED screen at the top of the stage. A lot of the Kung Fu dances are done with chants of ‘om mane padme hum’ the Tibetan Buddhist incantation! Kung Fu is an ancient Chinese art, developed over many centuries, and the chant makes one realise how much Buddhist culture has influenced mainland China throughout history.
The wondrous show comes to a close, and we can take pictures with the actors on stage. Avinash manages to push his way up, and we take as many pictures as possible.

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