Sunday, November 18, 2012


Checked out early, stored my luggage and met Suzanne in the hotel restaurant. I’d already eaten my last protein bar and Suzanne got the buffet with plans to push a coffee across the table at me.  An unnecessary criminal collusion, as the restaurant host approached me and offered me one—score!

Old hands at the Beijing metro now, we took the short jaunt to Lama Temple. Its easy to tell you are near a temple in China, as incense shops pre-dominate the area and this is about the only place you will ever encounter beggars.

Entrance Gate to Lama Temple, Beijing

The very few beggars we saw in China were not of the Squeegee Kid variety, but  were seriously physically-deformed or injured individuals. Neither health care (nor grade school education) is government-provided in China- a fact that came as a big surprise to me.

Buddha shrine, Lama Temple

Lamaism is a branch of Buddhism, practiced mainly in Tibet (ever heard of the Dalai Lama?  He’s the spiritual leader).
The beautiful and extensive temple was built in 1694. The entrance is marked by an ornate gate followed by an allee of lush, sunshine- yellow gingko trees.

Gingko tree allee- Lama Temple

Monk's quarters, Lama Temple

We were lucky to view a fascinating onsite exhibit of Lama religious statuary from India and China, documenting the doctrine of Buddhism and explaining different facets and figures of that religion in detail.  I absorbed a wealth of information.

Shrine with bell, Lama Temple

Prayer Wheel, Lama Temple

The Temple’s most prized possession is an 18 meter tall sandalwood Buddha, considered to be the largest sculpture carved from a single tree in the world. It was incredible, and the temple’s other Buddha statuary were similarly beautiful in colour and detail.

The Maitreya Buddha, Lama Temple

It was soon time to head to the airport- just enough time for a quick lunch of green beans and dog meat near our hotel.
Suzanne and I had both wanted to try it on the trip, but neither of us could manage more than a few nibbles once it was laid before us. The blackened skin - it’s morbid origin forever etched in our minds thanks to the Yangshou market -really did us in.
I‘ve had similar experiences with other exotic meat on other trips (alligator, camel etc)—I can chew it, appreciate the flavour, but have a devil of a time actually swallowing…

Dog with tofu and parsley

My Starbucks Americano misto stoically washed it down and settled my stomach for the start of the long haul home. A heartfelt goodbye hug to Suzanne as I shouldered my now-bursting bags and hopped the airport express for the Beijing airport.

Good thing I had left plenty of time to spare- the Beijing airport is among the largest I’ve ever been in and the security and exit procedures are accordingly lengthy and frustrating.

At long last I boarded my flight— an exit row seat with plenty of leg room and a Globe and Mail newspaper for my first Western news update in three weeks.

As we lifted off and I watched the Beijing city lights spread out underneath me, I whispered farewell to one of the biggest adventures of my life.
Good bye, China.
                                                                And thank you.

Full moon, Beijing


Another early start and no time afforded to get a coffee meant I had a splitting headache (and an empty belly) as we walked over to Tiananmen Square.
Our hotel was located only a few blocks from the Qianmen or Zhengyangmen (South) gate of the ancient walled Imperial City and marks the far end of the Square today.

Tiananamen Square is the third largest public square in the world at 109 acres and is perfectly rectangular.
The Square has existed in a smaller form since 1651, but  has been expanded and altered several times since. It is so large in scale that even the thousands of daily visitors and  dense military and police prescence are completely dwarfed by its enormity.

Great Hall of The People

At the far nothern end of the Square is the Tiananmen Gate- the gate into the Forbidden City.

The Monument to the People’s Heroes and Mausoleum of Mao ZeDong are located approximately in the middle of the square between the Qianmen gate and Tiananamen Gate, upon the site where the ancient Gate of China once stood.

Monument to the People's Heroes, National Museum of China behind

Flanking the sides are the National Museum of China, and the Great Hall of the People (Chinese Congress building). Our guide proudly remarked that the Great Banquet Hall inside the congress building holds up to 5000 dining guests at one time.
I replied scathingly that I bet they serve coffee there, and fixed my attention on some massive flower sculptures erected for the recent national holiday.

Flower sculpture, Tiananamen Square

The Tiananmen Square student protests of 1989 are a completely taboo subject- nothing is published or discussed about them in China by anyone. I bent down on one knee -ostensibly to tie my shoe - on the spot upon which I believed the young man faced down the tank alone, and touched the ground with open hands.

We walked the length of the gigantic square, crossed the busy multi-lane street, and crossed the massive marble bridges over the moat to enter The Forbidden City via Tiananmen Gate.

Tiananamen Gate, to the Forbidden City
The Forbidden City is surrounded by a  26 ft high, 28 feet wide wall and a 20ft deep by 171 ft wide moat.

Southern (Meridian ) Gate's moat, The Forbidden City

Built by the Ming Dynasty between 1406 and 1420, the Forbidden City consists of 980 buildings, over 9000 separate rooms and covers 720,000 square meters.

Stunning roof detail, The Forbidden City
For close 500 years, it served as the home of emperors and their households, as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government.

Entrance to the Forbidden City, and moat

One could spend a few days here exploring the enormous complex. We visited a few of the highlights, including the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Palace of Heavenly Purity and the Imperial Garden.

Imperial Garden, the Forbidden City

One of the notable architectural points of the Forbidden City is the yellow roofs- yellow being the Emperor’s colour.

Hall of Supreme Harmony, The Forbidden City

As in other ancient buildings in China, roof eaves are decorated with “roof guardians”, but inside the Forbidden City, the guardians are led by a phoenix and followed by a dragon.
As with other roof guardian decorations, the number of guardians denotes the building’s relative importance, with the only most crucial of buildings boasting the full nine “sons of the dragon’’.  The Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City boasts a tenth- a hangshi.

Roof detail and 10 roof guardians, Hall of Supreme Harmony

As we exited through the Northern (Meridian) gate of the City, we looked above us to Jingshan Park and its stunning pavilion, a raised park made with the earth excavated to construct the moat.

Jingshan Park and pavillion, Beijing

After a quick lunch, Suzanne headed back to the Silk Market for a second fitting on her new wardrobe, so David, Helen and I made our way via a 40 minute metro to the Summer Palace together.

The Summer Palace, Beijing

When the Jin Dynasty emperor moved his capital to the Beijing area, he had a palace built on the site of the hill where the Summer Palace now stands @1150 AD. These palace grounds were expanded over the following 500 years by subsequent emperors, who used the palace as a lushly planted refuge from Beijing’s summer heat and humidity.

A gingko tree, aflame

The Summer Palace, houses a large variety of palaces, gardens, and other classical-Chinese-style architectural buildings, dominated by Longevity Hill and the Kunming Lake. It covers an expanse of 2.9 square kilometers, three quarters of which is water.

The Marble Boat, The Summer Palace

Kunming Lake covering 2.2 square kilometers was entirely man-made wi and the excavated soil was then used to build Longevity Hill. The Marble Boat was built by Empress Cixi in 1860.

Helen and David and I spent a couple relaxing hours there, refreshed by the water and densly wooded glens, before meeting up with Suzanne and our guide for  our “Last Supper” of Peking (Beijing) Duck. David and Helen were leaving for the UK early the next morning.

Peking Duck

The oily-skinned roasted duck is cut into thin slices and served with green onions and bamboo shoots to be rolled itogether in a crepe with sauce. We also enjoyed Lions Heads- massive pork meatballs served on a bed of lettuce. We soon made short work of that memorable meal!
We gravely exchanged email adresses for continued correspondence, then ventured to the market area for a few last minute souvenirs before heading to bed.

Dumplings are lovely, but liquor is quicker!

Thursday, November 15, 2012


We battled Beijing morning rush hour traffic to get out to the Mutianyu section of the Wall, located about 70 km northeast of the city.

This distance, elevation and relatively difficult terrain means Mutianyu is less visited than the other two Beijing-area sections of the Wall.
Mutianyu lies in a very mountainous and heavy forested area- at a much higher elevation than I expected. Just getting to the base was steep.

I had read in my researsch that THE BEST banana pancakes were found here and it only took a minute to find her cart. Actually crepes not pancakes, but stay with me..
I stepped right up and surveyed the filling choices; jam, apples and bananas. I requested bananas AND chocolate and tipped her 10 cents for extra chocolate and it was quite possibly the best thing I have ever eaten.

OMG Best Thing EVER!!!

Energized by this feast, we jumped aboard the cable car for a ride up to the summit, having been advised the steep hike up was not scenic and waste of valuable energy. Stepping off at the top, the view was unbelievable. Just as I’d imagined it would be and more.
The “Tail Wall” as it is referred to stretched out above and to the right- along the ridgeline of the mountains. The brisk wind tossed my hair and the fall foliage lit up the whole scene like the dream it was- a lifelong dream come true.

First glimpse-The Great Wall of China

Mutianyu section

I wiped tears away as I took my first steps, running may hands over the bricks as my feet tread the uneven path. It was a very powerful and emotional moment.

This is what making a dream come true feels like

Suzanne and I made our way from watchtower 14 all the way to 21--snapping photos and just stopping to stare at the stunning scenery.
We met a 70+ year old man who told us he was celebrating his birthday that day- what a way to celebrate!
All along the watchtower...

Each watchtower is approximately 300m apart- two arrow shot lengths- so no section was ever left undefended.

Just hanging out--- ON THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA!!!!

Watchtower 20 to 21 was hand-over-hand climbing like a ladder.  It was a tough go but we made it and we felt like a million dollars at the top.

Just another brick in The Wall

First built in the mid-6th century , the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall was rebuilt in 1569, the Mutianyu Great Wall was rebuilt and most parts of it are still well preserved today. Built mainly with granite, the wall is 7–8.5 metres high and the top surface is 4–5 metres wide.

We made our way back a bit more briskly this time- back and beyond—to watchtower number 6—where another adventure awaited us.

View from watchtower 21
All smiles at the summit

That Adrenaline Package provided me with a tobaggan ride back down. In my mind I was picturing an old school wooden toboggan down a snowy slope (now terrifying because of the steep height and densely forested terrain- Sonny Bono Sonny Bono…) No snow in sight---and the meaning had been lost in translation—it was instead a luge!
The money shot

Perhaps that sounds even scarier for you but it wasn’t. The track looked solid and the luges were in good condition. Sure, no helmets and likley some degree of lax safety standards, but they only went about 50k an hour and there were working brakes aboard.
Wheeeeeee!!! Barelling down the track in the bright sunshine, crisp fresh air, surrounded by the beautiful fall foliage was an exhilarating way to end the day.

Of course I had to have another chocolate banana crepe to celebrate the day and recharge my batteries after that strenous 7K hike.

As an added unforgettable day bonus gift with purchase, our driver brought us to the Olympic Park on our way back. Another massively-scaled landscape with striking buildings- the ultimate of which was The Bird’s Nest- the National Stadium. Built for the 2008 Summer Olympics, I always had a shine for this one of a kind architectural marvel and it was thrilling to visit it.

The Birds Nest- Beijing National Stadium

I wrapped up my day with a Kung Fu show that night with Suzanne- an absolutely incredible day and one I will always remember.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Beijing has enjoyed a long history as China’s capital. First capitalized as Khanbaliq or Khan’s City it was rebuilt and expanded on a massive scale by Kublai Khan under the Mongol Empire.

The city was walled with two main opposite gates with smaller alleyways connecting broad straight roads. A few of the big roads still exist as do the alleyways- called hutongs, which are a tourist destination in themselves. When the Ming Dynasty took control from the collapsing Mongol Empire, they renamed the city BeiPing (Northern Peace) and moved the capital to Nanjing (Southern Capital). In the 1400s, the capital was moved back to the newly renamed Beijing (Northern Capital) and it has remained the capital ever since.

Beijing metro with holograms projected onto the passing walls

After checking in to our well-appointed and well-located hotel, we took a metro to the Temple of Heaven. The Temple of Heaven is a gigantic park and temple complex where the Emperor, priests and select entourage would go annually to pray and make offerings for a successful harvest.
Temple for Abundant Harvests, Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven is about 10km from the Forbidden City (Emperor’s Palace) and he would be carried by hand on a dais through the streets with much ceremony for this event. Like the Forbidden City , the temple was off limits to all except a select few members of the government, clergy and royal court, and no women (even the Emperor’s wife) were permitted in the Temple of Heaven.

The blue-roofed temples are circular, set upon square marble foundations, representing the belief that heaven is round and earth is square.

The Long Corridor, Temple of Heaven

We entered via the east gate and through the impressive Long Corridor –I could certainly envision this lengthy and ornate hallway made for a stunning processional.

Ceiling detail, Long Corridor, Temple of Heaven

Next we climbed the marble platform to the Altar for Good Harvests and enjoyed the view from the top.
Temple for Good/Abundant Harvests

We pressed on through the next gate on the 450m raised pathway connecting the two main altars, known as the Red Stairway Bridge. Only the Emperor was permitted to tread upon the wide center marble pathway. This was beautifully decorated with gigantic flower sculptures and the ubiquitous red and gold lanterns.

Red Stairway Bridge, Temple of Heaven

The Bridge links the Abundant Harvest temple to the actual Temple of Heaven and to the sacrificial altar (the Circular Mound) a massive tiered marble structure culminating in a raised sacrificial altar. According to superstition, standing on the altar puts you closest to the gods and wishes made here have a good chance of reaching their ears. I elbowed my way up there and made my wish. Still awaiting a reply…

Inside the Temple of Heaven
View from theCircular Mound (sacrifical altar)-Red Stairway Bridge connecting to Temple of Good Harvests
Gate detail, Temple of Heaven

Roof Guardians, Temple of Good Harvests

We left through the south gate, heading next to the Silk Market for tailors to make us custom dresses. It was fun pawing through the gorgeous silk and other fabrics, but the intense haggling over prices was exhausting. We got a good idea of price and sewing time for the type of dresses (traditional Chinese style) we wanted in the Silk Market, but actually ended up using a tailor nearby our hotel. They took detailed measurements that afternoon, make them overnight, and they would do a fitting check the next morning. If no alterations were necessary, we walked out with the dress right there. Talk about service- and for a tenth the price you’d pay for a custom-fitted garment back home.

Does this roll of fabric make my butt look big?

After a much anticipated PIZZA !!! supper in our wicked penthouse floor hotel bar, we attended an astounding Chinese acrobat performance.

Their incredible moves and flexibility was shocking (and inspirational---definitely going to do more stretching back home!), especially to Suzanne; who as an orthopaedic nurse declared the contortionist as having severe physical abnormalities. Looking at the way her spine and limbs were bent, I had to agree.
Chinese Acrobats- did not dare take a snap during show in case they blew a vertabrae

Crashed immediately after the show, super-psyched for tomorrow’s main event- climbing the Great Wall!
Chinese Bloodmobile, Beijing