Asia, Destinations

Last stop…Beijing

December 3, 2014 • By

It’s Tea Time in Beijing and I am thrilled to be a part of it. If anyone ever doubted, I am a city girl. I like traffic and subways, people pounding the pavement, stores in every color, Starbucks, and most importantly the English language. I prefer action and fine wine and that’s certainly what I found in Beijing. A little aggression never hurt anyone, right?

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests – Temple of Heaven

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests – Temple of Heaven

How did I get here? I checked out of the Datong HoJo at 6:20 AM to arrive in plenty of time for my 8:06 AM departure but I hit a few snags along the way. The front desk woman on the night watch spoke a whopping three words of English so I somehow agreed to be overcharged for my dinner. I whole heartedly believe she intended to subtract the cost of my dinner from the initial hotel deposit but in the end I suspect I paid an extra $16 USD on top of the $83 USD required deposit. Tired and aware the clock was ticking, I signed whatever form she put in front of me and asked for a taxi. Low and behold she busts out a few words of English, “You call taxi.” Um no and the New Yorker in me showed her true colors as I stuck up my hand as if to say, you wait a minute but “NO! YOU,” came out of my mouth. I think she understood by the tone of my voice I was not messing around because she ran for the door, abandoning the front desk and hailed this princess a cab.

The taxi driver dropped me off with very little effort but at 7:15 AM it’s dark in China and I didn’t know where I was going (throw in a little night blindness issue and it’s a perfect storm). I entered the first waiting room filled with a cloud of smoke and surveyed the board. Realizing quickly that I needed to be elsewhere, I lugged my crap outside into another line where I waited for several minutes. Finally, I presented my ticket and the security guard firmly stated, “passport.” Why on earth did she want my passport when the other passengers showed nothing? UGH! My hands numbing in the cold I could not dig into my purse to find my passport and I mildly freaked. It was clear I would not win this battle and I started yelling, “I am so cold I cannot feel my hands.” She showed no compassion and waved me off. When I turned around to get out of the line, 15 Chinese people desired noting less than for me to disappear. At this point, I lost my composure (cold will do that to me) and screamed MOVE! MOVE! MOVE! and then I literally steamrolled the people in line to clear a path. Mildly panicked, I ran back to the first holding room, located my passport, defrosted a bit and then headed back to the bitch. She let me through after leafing through my passport (ha I just got a new one so you couldn’t pick on me), and once through the metal detectors and the obligatory pat down I could relax a few minutes before boarding.

I decided the previous night that I would not eat or drink to make the train travel experience a smooth one and to my delight it worked. My compartment consisted of two older women traveling together and a mother-daughter (4 year old). I climbed to the top bunk bed (penthouse suite of course) and cocooned myself into the duvet and since conversation consisted of smiles and hand movements I tuned out the Mandarin chatter and wrote for a few hours. It took me that long to physically and mentally defrost from the morning’s frenzy. A mere six hours later through mountain tunnels, countryside, poverty and beauty, I reached Beijing and a city alive with the sound of 21.2 Million people – Many of whom I’m convinced greeted me at the main train station as if to say, “welcome to the jungle.”

I checked into my hotel, the mighty Peninsula, dropped my bags and powered through to check out the neighborhood. With only a hard-boiled egg and a protein bar in my stomach, hunger pains controlled my agenda and I veered beyond the beckoning malls and luxurious stores to the sights and smells of the Dong Hua Men Night Market, the main street food in Beijing. Each vendor called out in English and my mouth salivated at the thought of tasting everything. I settled for vegetable dumplings and some vegetable noodle dish that I shoveled down my throat as I headed to the mall to defrost. Feeling more beer than Gucci, I settled for Dairy Queen and then retreated to my hotel for an early night.

When I got back to my room and flipped through my guidebook in preparation for the next day’s sightseeing and I read the following (about the food market): “We’ll admit this is more of a place to look at and perhaps photograph food rather than devour it. In addition to standard street foods, hawkers here also serve up deep-fried starfish, plus a variety of insects and other hard to identify food items.”  That review likely would have scared me away from a delicious meal costing me a total of $10. Proceed with caution yes but don’t be afraid to try new things just make sure to skip pig tail, rabbit head and chicken feet. Let’s be clear I am only dismissing the guidebook because I didn’t get sick.

Today, I layered up like the kid from a Christmas Story and made my way to the Temple of Heaven. This was one of my favorite sites to date. It’s a little different because it’s not an isolated tourist spot. It’s a massive functioning park that happens to contain a slice of history in it. As I wandered the grounds, I noticed an area set aside with exercise equipment, a section with locals playing cards and chess and others congreating for the daily gossip session. The Temple of Heaven is a combination of architectural styles from the Ming (1369-1644) and the Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the most prominent building. It reminded me a great deal of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem especially its style, height and color. This design shows that the heaven is high and the earth is low. This reflects an ancient Chinese belief that “the heaven is round and the earth is square.” Nearly 500-year-old Cypress trees decorate the park making it worth a trip to walk amongst nature alone.

Lama Temple

Lama Temple

A little bit of history under my wing, I decided to spend a few minutes testing my will in the market. I left my ATM card in the safe and with only $100 USD in I provided myself with little opportunity to shop—on purpose. Fighting through the “real cashmere, real pashmina” women past the electronics and up to the jewelry section. I arrived at the famous pearl place, Fanghua. In my head, I repeated, “you have no money and you don’t need any pearls” but that did not stop Sandra from giving me the hard sell and even doling out a few prices. I think I had her down from $650 to $300 before I kindly decline and exited out the side stairs to get some fresh air and pat myself on the back for the heroic escape.

Next up, the Beijing subway – a test of patience and strength. Once I figured out the machine calls for 5RB and not singles (an Italian tourist actually told me), I breezed through the security check and right to the platform. I shouldn’t admit this but sadly for Americans, it’s easier and much cleaner than either the New York subway or the Chicago “L.”

I took the subway about 10 stops to the “Lama” Temple or the Yonghe Temple, a temple and monastery of Tibetan Buddhism. Construction started in 1694 during the Qing Dynasty and the temple originally served as both an imperial palace and a monastery for Tibetan Buddhist monks. It survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution as a result of Premier Zhou Enlai who apparently intervened. It’s an incredible complex with a series of temples and even in the cold I recognized its spiritual significance. Hundreds of people lit incense and bowed in careful prayer to the Buddha. Aware of the importance of this visit for many, I stepped to the side not wanting to take a prominent spot away from a practioner.

I tried to absorb all I could visually as people threw their hands in the air and kneeled to pay homage to the Buddha. Pictures prohibited it allowed me to focus on the depth and history of this religion and the beauty and magnitude of each hall representing decades and decades of treasures and architecture. I’ve now experienced Buddhism in Thailand, India and China and it was’t lost on me the people of China suppressed their beliefs from public to private worship for many generations.

Buddhism is a religion primarily practiced in Asia. Founded by Siddartha Gautama in northeast India in the 5th century BC, it has no creator and believes heavily in the doctrine of karma. The ‘four noble truths’ of Buddhism state that all existence is suffering, that the cause of suffering is desire, that freedom from suffering is nirvana, and that this is attained through the ‘eightfold’ path of ethical conduct, wisdom, and mental discipline (including meditation). There are two major traditions, Theravada and Mahayana.

For more on Buddhism, see here

I wanted to call it a day after visiting the Lama Temple but the Confucius Temple made the must see list and since it was across the street, I pushed my aching feet a few more blocks. Built in 1302, it includes four courtyards and 198 stone tablets with the names of Jinshi, advanced scholars, of the Yuan, Ming and Quin dynasties and 14 stone stele pavilions of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Basically, the area contains stone carvings, more temples and a statue of Confucius greeting guests. It’s worth a visit for the less tired and the less traveled. And for those who learned this information years ago but need a refresher (like me), Confucianism is a way of life taught by Confucius in the 6th and 5th Century BC. It’s a system of philosophical and ethical teachings and believes that “human beings are teachable, improvable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavor especially self-cultivation and self-creation. Confucian thought focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics.”

—–The Forbidden City awaits —–

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