Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Beijing Tour II

Mutianyu Great Wall
Badaling, Mutianyu and Jinshanling etc. are sections of the great wall that can be accessed from Beijing. Being the first portion of the great wall to open to tourists and for its well established traffic network, Badaling is the most visited section. I was indecisive of which section to visit, considering the number of tourists, accessibility, transportation and level of restoration. I chose the Mutianyu for my great wall adventure.

According to websites, to get to Mutianyu one can take bus no. 916 from Dongzhimen station in Beijing City to Huairou County then change to a taxi or minibus to the Mutianyu. The moment I walked out of the Dongzhimen subway station I saw a bus no. 916 picking up passengers at a bus stop. I ran to the bus and soon realized that it was not an express bus. The ticket collector told me that in order to get the express one I would have to go to the Dongzhimen long distance bus station which is located at No.45, Dongzhimenwai Xiejie, about 100 meters from the subway line 2 exit B. The express bus no. 916 commutes between Beijing City and Huairou County via the Jingcheng expressway (ticket can be purchased on bus from a ticket collector, RMB12, about a 40 minutes ride). I asked the ticket collector how could I go to Mutianyu from here at the Huairo bus ternimal before stepping out of the bus and she told me to take a bus no. 916 elsewhere. I was totally confused: I was on a bus no. 916 and that bus didn't pass by any places that looks like a great wall and why couldn't I take a bus from the terminal? I figured the bus no. 916 in Huairou County took a different route than the one in Beijing City so I followed her instruction and walked to a bus stop waiting for the bus. The driver of the first bus no. 916 shook his head when I asked him whether Mutianyu was one of the destinations of the bus then I walked across the road and got the same answer from the second bus driver. I walked back to the bus terminal and this time got a promising answer: take a bus no. 936. After getting another shaking head answer from the driver of bus no. 936, I surrendered to a taxi driver who had been trying to sell the service the moment I got out of the bus. According to websites, the price of a one way trip to Mutianyu is from RMB 30~50 and I made a deal with the driver in a cost of RMB80 for a round trip.

The Mutianyu great wall (07:30~17:30; RMB40/45 without/with CD) has 2 cable car stations, one of them also equipped with wheeled toboggans to ride down from the wall on a winding metal track. I took the cable car (RMB35 for oneway/50 for a round trip) that lifted to the No 14th watch tower; from there I turned right and climbed all the way to the tower No. 1 where the road ended. I was hoping that I could catch the tail end of autumn hues as a background but as it turned out, the withered surroundings helped the great wall to stand out in the sun and diminished the modern look of it from the renovations, creating a greater sense of time proper to the place.

Mutianyu on Wikipedia: (Chinese: 慕田峪; pinyin: Mùtiányù) is a section of the Great Wall of China located in Huairou County 70km northeast of Beijing. The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is connected with Jiankou in the west and Lianhuachi in the east. As one of the best-preserved parts of the Great Wall, the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall used to serve as the northern barrier defending the capital and the imperial tombs.

First built in the mid-6th century during the Northern Qi, Mutianyu Great Wall is older than the Badaling section of the Great Wall. In the Ming dynasty, under the supervision of General Xu Da, construction of the present wall began on the foundation of the wall of Northern Qi. In 1404, a pass was built in the wall. In 1569, the Mutianyu Great Wall was rebuilt and till today most parts of it are well preserved. The Mutianyu Great Wall has the largest construction scale and best quality among all sections of Great Wall.

Built mainly with granite, the wall is 7-8 meters high and the top is 4-5 meters wide. Compared with other sections of Great Wall, Mutianyu Great Wall possesses unique characteristics in its construction.

  • Watchtowers are densely placed along this section of the Great Wall - 22 watchtowers on this 2,250-meter-long stretch.
  • Both the outer and inner parapets are crenelated with merlons, so that shots could be fired at the enemy on both sides - a feature very rare on other parts of the Great Wall.
  • The Mutianyu Pass consists of 3 watchtowers, one big in the center and two smaller on both sides. Standing on the same terrace, the three watchtowers are connected to each other inside and compose a rarely seen structure among all sections of Great Wall.

Besides, this section of Great Wall is surrounded by woodland and streams. The forest-coverage rate is over 90 percent.

Bird Nest and Water Cube
I think the most mentionable architecture on the planet in August 2008 was the Bird Nest (ticket selling: 09:00~17:30 at gate D, RMB 50; open hours: 09:00~18:00) and the Water Cube (09:00~18:30, RMB30) in Beijing. Getting there is best done by subway line 8 from the two stations, Olympic Sports Center and Olympic Green. There is no better station as both stations are situated in a 10 minute walk from the center of the venues.

I followed the arrow signs that were hung on the fences of the water cube to get a ticket to go in. After circumnambulating the building I still couldn't find the place for tickets. I overheard a guy asking a security about the location of the ticket booth, so I followed him to the booth that was one block over the water cube on the west side. It was 18:00 around, all the lights were off and the area looked like a construction site. I read the rule for ticket purchasing: started at 8:30AM, 5 sections would be opened daily for ticket purchasing, once tickets for one section were sold out, visitors could start purchasing tickets for the next section until all tickets were sold out. I wondered under such ticketing policy how tourtists could ever get a chance to buy tickets as scalpers teamed up to plunder. I was frustrated about the situation and my last resort to get in the water cube was the large scale symphonic concert that integrates lighting, laser and waterscapes with world music. The show started at 19:30 in the price ranged from RMB200 to 800. I read the advertisement and went back to the east-north corner of the water cube to buy a ticket. Once again, the booth was closed and after the trip to Mutianyu I decided to call it a day.

Hutong and Night life
Hutongs are narrow streets or alleys formed by lines of siheyuan--the traditional courtyard residences. The most extensive and best preserved hutongs can be found around Jiaodaokou, Dongcheng district. Situated in the center of the hutong area, the Gǔlóu (Drum Tower) and Zhōnglóu (Bell Tower) were used to tell time and became watches for the officials and civilians. Although the towers have lost their function of telling time, they could be served as a landmark and starting point for tourists in a hutong tour. The NanLuGuXiang (NLGX) and Yandai Byway (click on the blue and purple lines on the map below for more information) are the two most tourists attracting hutongs in the area. Hutongs in modern era have become tourist attractions, a place where cultures and the living styles of ancient Beijing could be unveiled. However, souvenir shops, restaurants and bars came and stationed in with tourists, despite the effort of preserving the old hutong style, the atmosphere in NLGX and Yandai Byway was never the same as in the old time.

I rented a bicycle (RMB15/hour; RMB300 for deposit) to explore the area and saw a large construction in progress on the west side of Gulou Dajie. I worried such scale of construction would create more modern hutongs as tourist attractions instead of renovating the traditional courtyard residences as hutong cultures conservation. I saw the dilemma from the point of view as a foreigner and I was curious about what the residents have to say.

There are two bar areas in Beijing, the Sanlitun Entertainment Area and the Shichahai Bar Area. Shichahai consists of the following three lakes: the Xihai (west sea), Houhai (back sea) and the Qianhai (front sea). Bars are concentracted on Houhainanyan and Qianhaibeiyan (red line on the map) whereas restaurants are located on Qianhaisiyan, a pedestrian precinct(green line on the map). I was hoping to enjoy myself in a bar that has a live band performance but those who approached wanted to offer not only beers and live bands but also sex. I didn't know it was because I looked desperately horny or what, I couldn't lose those panders tailing me every corner I went. I fled the area like a chicken.

View Beijing Hutong in a larger map

Lama Temple
According to travel books, Yōnghégōng (Lama temple, 09:00~17:00, RMB25, Subeway line 2/5 Yonghegong Station) is one of the largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world; the building and the artworks of the temple combine Han Chinese and Tibetan styles. The Buddhism in China (as well as in Taiwan) is a combination of Mahayana and Taoism, I was curious to see what kind of fusion would be when the influence of Tibetan Buddhism was introduced.

The architecture looked like any buildings in the imperial palace, I couldn't tell the true identity of this court as a temple without censers and cushions in front of the buildings for worshipers. Most of deities worshipped here were commonly seen in Buddhist temples, it seemed the influence of Tibetan Buddhism was limited, I couldn't find a new style of Buddhism that combines Mahayana, Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism as expected. A huge statue of Maitreya (18 meters) was positioned in the Pavilion of Infinite Happiness, the last main hall, won a position in Guinness Book of World Records for being carved out out of a single piece of sandalwood.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Beijing Tour I

Tiananmen Square
I was in junior-high when tanks ran over protesters at this very spot. I searched those faded images in my head and superimposed with my vision: tanks speeded up and transformed into vehicles flowing on the Chang An Avenue that seperates the gate and the square; armed soldiers marched to haul down the flag which ritually attracts crowds gathering where they evicted the protesters. I couldn't find any traces of the June 4th Incident there, just propoganda and annoying solicitors.

I paid 15RMB to go up to the Tiananmen (08:00~17:00). Before entering, I was asked to deposite my camera bag (RMB2/bag for 1 hour) and was frisked. Ribbons blocked tourists about 2 meters away from the marble railings obstructing the panoramic view of the square from the balcony. Some areas closed to the public made the Tiannamen one of the overpriced tourist attractions.

More info:
  1. Getting there: Subway line 1, Tiananmen East or Tiananmen West Station.
  2. Raising and lowering flag ritual: At sunrise and sunset respectively. Check Beijing Evening Newspaper or call 114 for the exact time.
  3. Audio guide: No

Forbidden City (National Palace Museum)
Standing over 500 years, the forbidden city was the imperial palace for Ming and Qing Dynasties. The vivid color of renovated buildings vs. patinas on censers; ancient furniture and setting vs. the modern heating/cooling system, the city is a place where time conflicts itself. My attempt to do justice to the magnificence of the Forbidden City was futile. In spite of the fact that most of the rooms were closed to public and most of the valuable art collections were taken to Taiwan when the Republic Of China retreated from the mainland, the forbidden city can offer not only the majestic Chinese ancient architecture but also its mysterious stories and history that have been told over 500 years.

More info:
  1. Opening time: 08:30-16:30, Oct. 15th-Mar. 31st, 15:30 stops selling tickets; 08:30-17:00, Apr. 1st-Oct. 14th, 16:00 stops selling tickets
  2. Price: Apr. 16-Oct.15, RMB60; Oct. 16-Apr. 15, RMB40
  3. Audio Guide: RMB100 deposite, RMB10 for Mandarin, RMB20 for English
  4. Transportation: as the Tiananmen square.
  5. Great info and 3D virtural tour:
Summer Palace (Yihe yuan)
This royal garden was designed in images of garden architecture styles of various palaces in China. The man made Kunming Lake was an imitation of West Lake in Hangzhou; view over Kunming Lake towards Yu Quan Hill with Yu Feng Pagoda was a design of "borrowing views" that incoporates elements from a distance far away from the garden. Artisans used different kinds of Chinese landscape garden designs such as imitation and borrowing views, etc. to harmonize the Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, the two basic frameworks of the garden, and won the garden a place on UNESCO's World Heritage List as a "masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design".

Covering an area of 2.97 square kilometers, the Summer Palace can be divided into 3 parts: Political area (Renshou Dian as the representive building), living quarters (Leshou Tang as the representive building) and recreation area (vast west part of the garden) based on the functions they served. After a few hours traveling in time through the palace with my audio guide, I was lost in legends. Willows swung in the breeze; autumn colored leaves shimmering in the afternoon sun, a walk to the west part of the garden was a good way to reconnect to the time continuance.

More Info:
  1. Transportation: Subway Line 10, Bagou station. A 5 min ride by taxi to Shinjiengon Men of Summer Palace (RMB10). No taxi at the Shimen (West exit); it takes about 30 min by bus to subway Bagou station.
  2. Summer Palace Official Website: Opeing time and pricing etc.
  3. Audio guide: Multi-languages to choose from
Temple of Heaven
The temple of heaven comprises three main groups of construction: the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Imperial Vault of Heaven, and the Circular Mound Altar. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the representative construction of the complex and is easy to be confused to the place where the ceremonies of prayer to heaven took place.

The Chinese emperors were considered as the son of God and inherited divinity. An altar like this was a place where emperors were once human again: voices could only be heard by worshiping on the altar that was built to compliment God.

More Info:
  1. Temple of Heaven official Website
  2. Temple of Heaven on Wikipedia
  3. Transportation: Subway Line 5, Tiantandongmen station.
  4. Audio guide: Multi-languages to choose from

Saturday, December 06, 2008

2008/2009 Purple Crow Butterfly Watching Activity

The 2008/9 Purple Crow Butterfly Watching Activity will be held during the weekends between 6 Dec 2008 and 7 Mar 2009. Those interested can make reservations for a butterfly watching guided tour online (free gifts offered). At the special exhibition room in Maolin Tourist Center, Chen Wen-Long Specimen Painting Exhibition, Purple Crow Butterfly Instant Image Display, and The World’s Two Largest Over-wintering Butterfly Valleys Exhibition will be held. Moreover, with the local community participating, a weekend crafts market will also be launched to improve local economy. Ecological tour lovers are welcome to appreciate the beauty of butterflies at Maolin.

An opening hiking activity will be held at 0830am, 6 December. The route starts from the Administration of Maolin National Scenic Area to Maolin Ecological Park along the 132 Highway. All are welcome to participate. Reservation hotline: 07-3452942.
Started from Dec. 6th, 5 purple crow butterfly hiking tours will be held at 08:40, 09:10, 09:40, 10:10 and 10:40 on every Saturday and Sunday (not including Jan. 24th and 25th, 2009, the Chinese New Year period). Reservations will be closed before Friday for the up coming weekend tours, each section has a maximum 50 person restriction.

For more information, visit the Maolin National Scenic Area website


Monday, December 01, 2008

Beijing Dining

Dishes are served as appetizer while staples such as noodles are considered the ending of a meal. To show respect, make sure your cup/bottle is lower than the others when toasting . It is interesting to learn the dining/toasting custom in Beijing. I wonder when a bowl of tasteless steamed rice is served as the staple for a meal would the locals order more dishes to go with the rice? Would the locals ever lie on the ground in order to fight for a lower position in a toast?

Peking duck is one of the must eat delicacies in Beijing and the name "Quanjude" has become synonymous with peking roast duck. Founded by Yang Quanren in 1864, the quanjude restaurant (Hepingmen branch, subway line 2, Hepingmen station) developed the hung oven to roast ducks and has become the biggest franchise that serves peking ducks in China. We paid a fortune, 784RMB for a set meal for 4 which included a whole roasted duck and a few duck related dishes, to eat the number 115,747,001 duck served in Quanjude since 1864 and got a certificate (the photos). Frankly, Taiwan roast duck tastes as good as the authentic peking duck, even better, in a much cheaper price (50~70RMB for a whole duck). More info regarding the peking duck on Wikipedia.

The lamb hotpot is another must eat delicacy in Beijing. Donglaishun (the 5th floor of Shidongan market. 138 Wangfujing Daijie, Dongcheng District, subway line 1, Wangfujing station), founded in 1903 by a Muslim, has more than 130 branches all over China. The restaurant specialized in Muslim dining, the lamb hotpot served in a charcoal heated bronze pot is the recommended specialty of the restaurant. We ordered a combo lamb hotpot for 3 (400RMB) that included a bracket of vegetables, 3 BBQ lamb sticks, one dish of fish filet, a dish of sliced beef and 2 dishes of sliced lamb that contained different fat percentage giving the dishes different textures. There was no odor in the meat but small spiky bones in fish filets made the feast less enjoyable.

Wangfujing (23 Dong An Men Dajie, Dongcheng District, subway line 1, Wangfujing station) and Longfusi (1 Lingfusi Qianjie, Dongcheng District, sybway line 5, Dongsi station) are the two famous snack streets in Beijing. Flour pancakes cooked with egg, coriander, chilli and black onion seeds, pancakes stuffed with pork, eggs and vegetables, kabab, fruits coated with maltose, and the exotic fried scorpions, cicadas and sea horses etc.; a trip to the snack streets is definitely a feast and mind blowing. I had a little setback when ordering BBQ lamb in a Longfusi snack restaurant though. I ordered a BBQ lamb stick from a girl and she told me to come back later since the meat was not cooked. I went to a stall nearby to buy a pancake about 2 minutes later the BBQ girl announced that the BBQ was ready. I turned back for my order but she told me that I couldn't buy it because somebody had already paid for the sticks. I finished my pancake and the craving for BBQ lamb pushed me back to the BBQ girl: "one BBQ lamb stick please" I said. "The meat is not cooked yet, come back in 15 minutes" said the girl. Right there my appetite was lost.