Day 5: Lama temple, Confucian temple, veggie lunch, Drum tower & Bell tower, hutongs, Beihai park, Coal Hill.

The day was really hot and sunny, around 30 degrees, which was a bit too much for me.

This was also our guide’s day off and our chance to spend time on whatever we wanted.

In the morning we visited the Lama temple. This building complex started out as the residence of an imperial prince, but was turned into a Tibetan Buddhist temple when he became emperor. The architecture was the same as we’d seen before: north-south orientation, courtyards, red pillars, yellow tiled roofs, elaborate eaves.

Inside, though, things looked different: in each hall there were statues of Buddhas, saints, devils, and other creatures. (It is interesting, really, that a religion that started out as abstract as Buddhism has now acquired so many mythical objects of worship.) Many statues were golden, and they were often clothed. Unlike the Temple of Heaven, this was an active place of worship, which gave it more life and made it more interesting, but unfortunately meant that photography was not allowed inside the halls. On the other hand, there were people burning incense in front of each hall, and we could even see a few monks walking around.

Next, we went to a Confucian temple nearby. We were met by the same architecture again, but a completely different atmosphere. It was a quiet, contemplative place, with large scrolls instead of golden statues, and educational texts about Confucianism.

Pavillion housing an imperial poem

Outside in the courtyards there were pavillions housing stone tablets memorializing important events: the suppression of a rebellion, the renovation of the temple, or just the emperor’s writing a poem about Confucius. When the emperor writes a poem, it isn’t enough to just frame it and put it on a wall. No, first you carve it in stone, then you make a huge statue of a tortoise to carry the carved stone, and finally you erect a massive pavillion around it.

By now it was time for lunch, and very luckily for us there was a vegetarian restaurant opposite the temple, called Xu Xiang Zhai. (No web site that I can see.) It turned out to be an excellent place, with fabulous food (esp. compared to the uniformly boring fare we’ve been served otherwise). As a nice touch, their menu had photos of all options – very practical, since the staff’s English was very limited. And besides, the photos were beautiful, really whetting the appetite. We ate copious amounts.

After lunch we walked through the nearby hutongs to have a look at Beijing’s Drum tower and Bell tower. We didn’t feel like climbing in the heat, and viewed the towers from the outside only. The hutongs themselves were interesting to see – this was the first time we did any significant walking in Beijing, until now it’s mostly been bus rides.

On our way to Beihai park, which we wanted to see next, we passed through the area by Houhai lake. This was a very very touristy spot, with trendy shops and cafes everywhere. It must be where all the westerners go – we had not seen another place like it in Beijing. Hutongs killed by marketing.

Beihai park was a very nice park. (They’re good at parks and gardens). The park is dominated by a large lake, and there are gardens, pavillions, ornamental bridges etc around it. We had been hoping to take a boat ride on the lake but the boat rental had closed already. Instead we had a pleasant walk around the lake, and tried out the contents of the mysterious clay pots that were sold everywhere – and turned out to contain chilled sweetened yoghurt.

By now Ingrid was finding her energy. She’s been much more energetic in the evenings – I guess she must still be severely jetlagged. In the mornings she’s hard to wake, grumpy, and doesn’t want to do anything. Now she is jumping and running around, racing up and down ornamental bridges, climbing on stones, running up stairs, jumping down stairs, with endless enegy.

Just at dusk we walked across to Coal Hill, climbed the hill and got a panoramic view of the city. To the south, the yellow roofs of the Forbidden City; elsewhere a very green and relatively flat city centre (although hills were visible further off). And a very large city, of course.

Day 4: cloisonné showroom; Great Wall; Sacred Way; market; duck.

The main activity for day 4 was seeing and climbing the Great Wall. It takes about an hour and a half to drive to the section we were going to visit, so we stopped on the way to visit a cloisonné showroom. We first saw the (very fiddly) process of producing a cloisonné object. A lot of work goes into them! Draw the pattern, glue the copper strips, paint all the little spaces between them (using an eyedropper), fire the object, repeat 4 more times, and polish.

The showroom had everything from huge cloisonné urns for 490,000 yuan to cheap knick-knacks for 50. (They had lots of cheap Christmas tree ornaments for some reason, and I mean LOTS, probably as many as the more traditional, and more Chinese, vases.) The larger items were also of higher quality, so price generally went up faster than size. Everything above ca 500 yuan was really pretty: I found the whole cloisonné concept (and realization) very appealing. They are durable and solid, and yet elegant, lustrous and colourful.

Then, the Great Wall of China, which we visited at Badaling, the first section of the Wall to be opened for visitors, and a very popular spot. A bit crowded, as all sites, but really not too bad. (Enough people so you can’t take a photo without getting a number of strangers in your picture, but not so you that it would be difficult to walk or that can’t get a view at all.)

The Badaling section of the Wall is in a very nice setting, with steep, rocky, verdant hills all around. Even if the Wall itself had been dull, a walk in that beautiful landscape would have been a treat. The Wall snakes goes up and down along the hills, with towers on top of some of them.

Upon arriving, we were offered a choice by our guide: turn right for an easy walk, or turn left for a steep and dangerous section of the wall. We assumed that the “danger” was relative to the average tourist (which in China often means retired people) and chose to turn left. Our choice was quickly proven right: the going was somewhat steep in places, with slopes and stairs, but really nothing very taxing or perilous. The surface of the Wall was in good repair, and there were walls (at least waist-high) and handrails on both sides. So we had a very pleasant walk, uneven and varied enough to make it easy for the legs even when steep. I would happily have walked there far longer than the hour and a half we got.

I had expected Ingrid to complain about all the walking but she marched like a champion. Litle miss “my legs are tired” took the stairs two at a time. We walked mostly uphill to a suitable tower, where we had a snack (Ingrid devoured all our dried apricots, and all of Grandma’s raisins and nuts). It seems that many visitors had found that tower a suitable turning point: beyond it, the Wall was much emptier. On our way back the downhill slopes and stairs seemed to scare her a bit so I carried her on my shoulders for a while, but then she hopped and skipped onwards with great vigour.

On our way back to Beijing, we stopped to walk a part of the Sacred Way leading to the Ming tombs, Ming dynasty emperors’ graves. This was basically a long straight road with an occasional ceremonial gate, and then a section flanked by statues of animals and people to guard the graves: lions, horses, elephants, unicorns generals and officials, etc. (Interestingly, most of the animal statues were in a realistic style, while others were more symbolic. The elephant looked like a real elephant, and so did the camel; the unicorn was a symbolic mythical creature – and so was the lion. This must have been a conscious choice; I’m sure they had seen actual lions but chose to depict a heraldic/imperial/mythical lion instead.) Halfway along the road we were caught in a thunderstorm, which we waited out under the eaves of a souvenir shop. It passed quickly, after scaring away most of the people, and leaving us with clean, fresh, but wet views.

Back in Beijing we were taken to yet another market, with more cheap clothes, electronics, jewellery, shoes, bags etc. I’m sure you can get a bargain at these places if you’re determined, but my philosophy of shopping is to go for quality rather than quantity, so this was not of much interest.

In the evening, the meat-eaters had Beijing duck for dinner. Their unanimous verdict was that the duck was a disappointment: it didn’t taste much at all. And apparently it’s supposed to be that way. All this roasting, carving and rolling is much ado about nothing. But the restaurant itself was nice: although we didn’t eat the duck we got better food than usual.

Day 3. Beijing Zoo, a pearl market, Summer palace, Olympic venue, tea, acrobatics.

Again a cool day, no more than 20°C. Ingrid slightly unwell but nevertheless coped relatively well.

At the zoo the main attraction was the giant pandas (who turned out to be pretty dull creatures, mostly lying still or perhaps eating at best). Then we took a walk in the park while Ingrid had ice cream. I was a bit surprised to see them charge extra for various parts of the zoo – at first it felt sneaky, but on the other hand I guess it allowed them to keep the gate fee affordable for more visitors.

Next we went to a pearl market, about which I don’t have much to say, other than that it had lots of pretty, shiny, expensive things.

The Summer Palace was a large park, of which we only saw a tiny bit. The buildings looked quite familiar by now, similar to the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. And there were the familiar crowds as well. But unlike the Forbidden City which mostly consisted of large paved courtyards, this was a very pleasant place with a large lake and beautiful gardens. I would have loved to spend more time here. (Now much of my attention was taken up by Ingrid, who was rather whiny and impatient.) The two most eye-catching sights were the Long corridor (which really was very long, and beautifully painted) and the marble boat.

On our way back into town we took the road past the area where the Olympic games took place. The main Olympic stadion looks, in real life, pretty much like what I’d seen in photos.

Then we went to a tea tasting and demonstration. Tea is not really my thing, but they did have a nice Oolong with ginseng.

Finally, in the evening, we went to an acrobatics show by China National Acrobatic Troupe at the Tiandi Theatre. This was a grand experience. There were the usual numbers (contortionists, juggling, vertical poles, jumping through hoops) but also a slack wire act (which I’d heard of but never seen). This was amazing: the guy managed to do a headstand on the wire, as well as unicycle on it, etc. No photos allowed, unfortunately.

Ingrid adored the show. We’d expected her to fall asleep (she was really tired this late in the evening, plus slightly feverish) but she was on the edge of her seat, totally absorbed. Then she showed us all sorts balance tricks in the minibus all the way back to the hotel, and asked if we would go back to the circus the next day.

By the way, I am getting very tired of rice + pak choi, which is pretty much all we (the vegetarians) were served yesterday and today. And I used to love pak choi. It seems to be their equivalent of a vegetarian lasagna (which is the vegetarian staple at many lunch restaurants in Sweden). And they all serve sliced watermelon as dessert – even Ingrid (who usually loves watermelon) is getting tired of it.

Some fresh bookmarks from delicious.com

  • Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard – Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves "Why in the world am I doing this?" Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle.
  • The Radioactive Clock In Your Teeth – How bomb testing in the 1950s is helping scientists determine a person's age.
  • NY Times: Diet and Exercise to the Extremes – The ultramarathoner Scott Jurek needs 5,000 to 8,000 calories a day to fuel his running regimen, and he gets them without consuming any animal products.
  • Tom Wujec: Build a tower, build a team | Video on TED.com – Some research into the "marshmallow problem" , where teams try to build the tallest tower out of dry spaghetti, one yard of tape and a marshmallow. Which kind of team will win, and why?
  • Lies, damned lies and statistics (about TEDTalks) – Using statistical analysis on TEDTalks to come up with a metric for creating "the optimum TEDTalk" based on user ratings.

Day 2. Temple of Heaven, silk factory, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden Palace, market.

Woke with a stiff and sore back, since the beds at our hotel are rock hard. Not just uncomfortable, but in my present state actually painful to sleep in. It’s a struggle just to turn from side to side (because lying on my back is out of the question in these beds).

The day was gray and hazy again, with the sun barely visible through the clouds in the morning, but nothing thereafter. Cool, under 20°C.

The Temple of Heaven is, despite its name, mostly a large park. It is lively and crowded, clearly a park for the citizens (especially the elderly) and not so much for tourists. Everywhere there were social activities going on: card games, mahjong, dominoes, opera singing, jianzi, tai chi, tango lessons, etc.

The main building, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, was monumental. As with most “old” buildings in Beijing, it has been rebuilt after burning down (in 1889). It is beautiful in shape, colour and detail, and chock full of symbolism.

In the silk factory we had a demonstration/talk about the silk-making process, which was quite interesting. We saw silk worm cocoons being soaked and reeled, and double cocoons (containing two worms), unfit for reeling, being stretched into “fluff” that was then used for making blankets and pillows. They also had a large shop (of course). Lots of fine clothes, but nothing that would fit me, even without the belly – Chinese women have no hips.

Tiananmen Square was vast and empty. Well there were people (tourists mostly, taking photos) but far from enough to fill it. If I recall correctly, our guide said it can take a million people. Apparently every day except today, much of it would be filled with a huge queue of people waiting to visit Mao’s mausoleum.

The Forbidden City was also vast. Scaled for an empire, it mostly seemed to consist of huge empty courtyards. It felt quite repetitive: the same shapes again and again. In style it was quite similar to the Temple of Heaven. I would have loved to stare at all the detail at close distance but the group (and Ingrid) didn’t give me much chance for that.

At the market the main impression was that of salesman attacking from all sides. Fake bags of fashionable brands, watches, jewellery – which we quickly passed. I bought silk handbags for Ingrid and myself, and a bowl. (I do like to take something home from a trip, but it has to be something I can use, not just a knickknack to put on a shelf.) Bargaining is de rigeur, and it was a good thing we had my mother with us: I hate haggling, she loves it, and she gets good prices.

Ingrid drew big crowds whenever we stopped; everyone wanted to touch and take pictures of her. (Tourists from the countryside, I guess: Beijingers would have seen at least a few foreigners by now.) Especially parents all wanted to take photos of their kid next to Ingrid. They clearly had different ideas about personal integrity than we do: pulling her close when she’s loudly telling them NO. (She now knows five words of English: Hello, Bye-bye, Yes, No, Thank you.)

Often they are surprised and a bit upset when she doesn’t want to be cuddled. What they don’t realize is that they are not the first, nor the second, but about the tenth person within the last hour who wants to do it – and that dozens of people have tried to hug her yesterday too.

One solution is, of course, to never stop walking. Another is for her to take photos of them while they photograph her: it makes her feel like less of a passive victim, and them less likely to crowd her (because a blonde girl with a camera is even cuter than just a blonde girl). But sometimes we had to resort to physically pushing them away from her.

Day 1: jet lag & first impressions.

Most of our first day in Beijing passed in a daze of sleepiness. The airplane crew thought it best to wake us early for breakfast, a good hour and a half before landing, i.e. 1.30 am body time, a scant 4 hours after lights-out.

We did a little bit of sightseeing before lunch. We were taken to see something the guide called “anti street” but I think meant “antiques street”, with little shops selling figurines, ink paintings, ink brushes, old books etc. (The real name is Liulichang.) Mostly it was a good chance to stretch our legs after a long time of sitting still, but also a gentle introduction to street life in Beijing.

After lunch we checked into our hotel. Some people in the group then went for a walk around the neighbourhood; I slept instead. Then, dinner and another little walk along some local street markets. The weather is warm this time of the year and the city is crowded, so quite a lot of life seems to take place in the streets: vegetable and fruit stalls, raw fish and meat, noodles, sidewalk restaurants, card games, just hanging out, etc. It reminded me of the residential back streets in Egypt, except that this was a lot cleaner. I wonder how they take care of their grocery shopping in winter.

Both lunch and dinner took place in large restaurants. The whole group (10 people) sat around a large table with a Lazy Susan in the middle, and that was then filled with rice and various dishes. At lunch I counted 10 different dishes for the 10 of us – and they weren’t small either, not single-person servings exactly. They must throw away A LOT of food. I hope it goes to some happy pigs somewhere.

I had expected the food to taste more foreign than it did. It was really quite similar to Chinese restaurants at home. I guess they must be mostly based on Beijing cuisine.

Beijing is vast. It seems that you always need to drive to get anywhere. It’s not like central London where the tourist sights are all crammed together – look left and you see one, look right and spot another. Here it’s a 15-minute drive to someplace, then another 15 minutes to lunch, then another 20 minutes to the hotel, etc.

Most areas looked and felt the same to me on a large scale – I got no feeling that different parts of the city had a different character. In fact the city as a whole lacks character, I think. It’s a spread-out mass of buildings, rather than a coherent whole.

The city was amazingly clean and tidy, with no litter and no dust anywhere. It was also unexpectedly green: almost every street was lined with trees, and there were greens and lawns along many larger roads. And despite what I’d heard, the air felt and smelled reasonably clean (although it looked hazy).

There weren’t as many bicycles as I’d expected. Most large streets have a wide bike lane, which hardly sees any use. Where are the hordes of cyclists I’ve read about? The car traffic is dense but orderly, no jams and no honking, but bicycles seem to drive all over the place pretty much as they please. And they apparently have right of way ahead of pedestrians. On smaller streets there are no sidewalks and pedestrians mix with the traffic, keeping a constant lookout for cars (which you can generally hear) and bikes and mopeds (which sneak up on you from behind).

Ingrid’s still firmly stuck in the age of NO. Her spontaneous first answer to most yes/no questions is a firm NO, which she sometimes immediately retracts, when she realizes what she’s said no to. Sometimes it helps to phrase questions differently, more openly, so it’s not a clear yes/no situation, but sometimes even that fails, and the answer is “nothing!”. And it’s still very important for her to try and get her will. I wonder how long it takes for this age to pass. It’s not much fun for the rest of us.

The cycling season also continues. Ingrid has, I think, cycled to nursery every day, and happily cycles to other nearby places, too. All this cycling has been good in itself, but I think it’s also made her generally more active. And it has forced her to walk some, too: when she tires of the bike on the way home, there’s no other option except walk. It’s good practice: we’ve started to talk about how she won’t be able to ride in her stroller at all when the baby arrives. (We will get a buggy board for Ingrid, though.)

Speaking of which, there’s been some talk about the coming of the new baby, but not much. Ingrid doesn’t seem to think it’s a big deal. When it comes up, it’s mostly in practical, caring terms. When we spoke about the baby being much smaller than her, she exclaimed, “You will have to buy small baby clothes for her!” She’s mentioned that she will have to cut her fingernails so as not to hurt the baby. (Not too fond of having her fingernails cut, she really only lets us do it when they hurt me and I start complaining.)

She’s so comfortable on the bike that she’s becoming overconfident. This has led to some falls, including one that gave her a big bleeding gash in the forehead. That required a nurse’s attention, but healed nicely with a clean straight scar. I’m now packing a first-aid kit for longer outings. Luckily Ingrid quite likes plasters, most of the time, and happily sticks them on various barely-visible red spots she finds on herself. She doesn’t like the children’s versions (they’re glossy but often too stiff to be comfortable) and takes the real stuff instead. I don’t want to declare the first-aid box off-limits (she’s got more than enough sense to not drink any medicine) but sometimes she uses up so many plasters that I’m thinking of buying and hiding a separate backup box somewhere, to make sure that we don’t one day find ourselves out of plasters when we actually need one.

The cycling may be easy but the traffic rules are harder to imprint. She’s accepted the helmet rule (must have helmet when cycling, except within the nursery grounds or other playground) and the edge rule (must keep to the side of the road, rather than the middle). When she sees others cycle without a helmet, she often comments on it.

I’m still struggling to get her to understand the importance of stopping in good time when we come to a crossroads. The streets around here are mostly small and quiet, so she can’t quite see the point of stopping to watch out for cars, and sometimes rides right across. That may work out OK 95% of the time but the other 5% can be very dangerous. So I keep on harping about it.

It’s interesting – she’s so fond of some gross motor activities (climbing, swimming, balancing on stuff, etc) but so not at all fond of walking, and not really running either. Is it the balancing she likes, perhaps? She’s always been very fond of swings as well, which would fit that theory.

Eric put up a swing in the garden just before our trip, and Ingrid loves it. She hasn’t quite learned to pump the swing the way it’s normally done, but she can make it swing side-to-side, and even make it go in circles when she’s standing on it (and gets more leverage), so it’s just a matter of getting the knack of it when sitting down. In the meantime, she pushes off with her legs, and then goes on to clamber around and hang off the swing in various weird ways.

Another favourite outdoor activity is picking flowers. Earlier this month she picked scillas, now it’s mostly dandelions and cowslips.

She is as social as ever, always wanting to play with her friends. While we were in Beijing she kept talking about how she missed them and wanted to play with them when she gets home. She made pretend phone calls to them, saying hi, asking if they were at home and if she could come over. (Interesting: she only spoke her part, but in that way they sometimes use in movies, where hearing one half of the conversation is enough. “Are you at home? You are? That’s great.”)

A car, with a headlight (left), a button to make it go (right), and two
passengers (the red shapes floating on top), plus other stuff.

Ingrid has suddenly become fond of drawing, and has started drawing actual recognizable figures. Previously she’d draw a large blob/circle and a small one inside it, and tell me that the small one is a whale and the large one is its house. Now during our Beijing trip she’s produced clearly human figures (mostly of the tadpole kind, with legs and arms attached directly to the head), even with different facial expressions, as well as cars, houses, flowers etc. This happened overnight; one day she just started drawing.

She is also still interested in writing. Now it’s not just drawing individual letters and numbers (although she still likes that, too) but also writing words. “How do you write NO?” “How do you write ELIN?” (a friend’s name) “How do you write HELEN?” she asks, and writes the letters one by one. The results are interesting to look at. The letters are all of different sizes, arranged on the sheet with no apparent internal order, and with different orientation. She thinks an angle is an angle, so a 7 may well have an obtuse angle.

She likes fairy tales and similar stories, ideally with princesses, dragons, knights, witches and magicians. Snow White, Cinderella, Puss in Boots – but also the #4 book in the My 1-2-3 series (which has a knight rescue a princess, plus a dragon and an evil magician). The stories she makes up and tells are also dramatic, with crocodiles and dragons, storms and fire and lightning:

“Det är krokodiler och hajar på mattan för där är det hav, men inte just där, där kan du gå. Och dom bits och sprutar eld, men då kommer någon och släcker så att det inte brinner längre. Och en dag kom det en minikrokodil, en bebiskrokodil, och den bet dig, fast bara på låtsas, så det gjorde inte ont, och den sög på din tumme istället.”

“There are crocodiles and sharks on the rug because it is a sea, but not right there, there it’s OK for you to walk. And they bite and breathe fire, but then someone will come and put the fire out so it won’t burn any more. And one day a mini-crocodile came, a baby crocodile, and it bit you, but not for real, so it didn’t hurt, and it sucked on your thumb instead.”

We’re back from Beijing, alive and well. Photos and trip report will have to wait, as I am feeling slightly less than perky after about 20 hours of awake time.

We’re off on vacation from now until next Saturday, touristing in Beijing. We’re thinking that right now should be a sweet spot for a non-trivial vacation, i.e. not Estonia, and not a week of hanging around on a beach. Ingrid is old enough to not require constant maintenance and might actually enjoy a new environment – and baby 2 is not yet here.

I have no information about whether an Internet connection will be available at the hotel, so I may be incommunicado for the duration of the trip.

A conversation at work today:

Dev 1: How did you become interested in Middle Eastern music?
Helen: I guess I heard a good CD somewhere, and went on from there…
Dev 2: A CD? That is so 2006.
Dev 1: 2006? Were you still listening to CDs in 2006?

See what having a family does to you… our age difference is about 4 years but it sometimes feels like a whole generation. They can sit attached to their computers by a headphone cord all evening, while I am walking around the house all the time. And even when I’m not, I wouldn’t want to be cut off from Eric and Ingrid by a pair of headphones.