We started the day with a “Chinese Breakfast” which, as my tour guide said, is like any other meal of the day in China! They had noodles, dumplings, chicken and a few things to cater to Westerners like bacon & eggs. I decided to do as the locals do and have noodles and a fried bread stick. I could definitely get used to eating noodles for breakfast!
Then, we met our Beijing city tour guide, Lili, who will be with us for the next few days! This is one of the great things I love about with Contiki. We get local tour guides who are with you for the whole time in each city. It really gives you a chance to get to know them and their culture.
A few things I’ve already learned are:
The Chinese are very serious about their zodiac or the animal they are assigned based on the year they were born. It is one of the first questions that people ask on a first date. There may not be a second date if your animals are not compatible with each other! Also, there tends to be more babies born in years with good animals. For example, last year was the year of the horse and a lot of babies were born. This year is the year of the sheep / goat and the birth rate has declined sharply! (I’m a horse by the way!)
The traffic is so bad in Beijing that everyone is not allowed to drive their car one day of every work week (it rotates depending on your license plate number). Also, there is a lottery every month to determine who can get a license. Around 1 million apply every month & only 20 thousand are distributed!
You should always leave some food on your plate when you are a guest. If you do not, it means that your host did not provide you with enough food and they will keep bringing you out more food.
Now, onto our first full day of activities!
Our first stop of the day was the Jade Factory. China mandates that all tours make stops to visit factories or sites that they are proud of. They want people to see the China that does not get the same attention as some of their other sites. It is also one more place for tourists to spend their money!
The Jade Factory was actually really interesting. Jade is a very important stone to the Chinese and is very valuable. As a matter of fact, the only place you can mine it now is in Macau. On the outside, Jade looks like any other rock. Our tour guide said that they have auctions on uncut pieces of rocks that they believe contain Jade and people bet their whole life savings on it. If they are correct, their profits can be 500% of their initial investment. If they are wrong, they lose everything!
Many women in China receive Jade bracelets when they get married (similar to a wedding ring) and men have Jade pendants of their animal they wear at all times.
Jade is expertly carved and some of the artwork takes years to complete!
This ship took over 3 years to complete
I bought one of these as a souvenir. It is called a happiness ball and is carved from one piece of Jade. There are different layers in the ball that can all independently move. Some of the carvings are very intricate and have many layers.
Small animals for each zodiac sign are also carved out of Jade
Elephant carved out of Jade
Lion carved out of Jade
Our next stop was the “Main Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs“. It is a road that leads to a mountain and the Chinese believed that an Emperor’s spirit would come from heaven down the mountain before it was born. Then, when the body was buried in a tomb it would climb back up the mountain to heaven. Only one of the tombs has been excavated as the outside air destroys the bodies and artifacts as soon as it enters the tomb. The Chinese are waiting for technology to advance before excavating the other tombs.
The pathway that led to the mountain was lined with weeping willows and statues of different animals (most real, but some mythical) as well as statues of different people to guard the spirit and the tombs. Some animals were kneeling while others were standing – our tour guide said that this is because the Chinese realize that even animals need to rest.
Me in front of the gate that led to the Sacred Way
The gate had a turtle in it which symbolized long life.
Weeping Willows lined the Sacred Way
One of the animals that lined the sacred way
Another of the animals that lined the sacred way
We recreated the picture to the left
I mimicked one of the guards
After our visit to the Sacred Way, we stopped at another mandatory stop for all tour groups – a Cloisonné Factory. It is one of 3 left in China as the the younger people do not have the patience required to produce a final product to the same standards as their elders. The other issue is that cloisonné is made out of copper which is very expensive. Copper is also used in the many high rise buildings going up in all of China.
I had never heard the term “cloisonné” before, but knew the art as soon as I saw it. One of the most common pieces of artwork is a vase with very intricate paintings of a pattern on it. The first step is to create the shape of the vase using copper by hammering if. Then, they map out the pattern that will be painted onto the vase using thousands of individual wires and glue them to the copper mold. After, they paint the pattern onto the vase and fire it in the kiln. Then, they need to fill in any gaps with paint and re-fire it. This process is normally repeated 7-8 times. The final step is to polish the vase to make it smooth.
This vase is in the process of being hammered into shape
The worker is in the process of painting the vase
A finished vase
After our tour, we went upstairs for lunch. They definitely tried to cater to the Westerners by having everything from Kung Pao Chicken to Sweet & Sour Chicken to even French Fries & Quesadillas.
After lunch, we headed to the highlight of our day – the Great Wall of China. There is part of the wall in Beijing, but it is so packed with tourists you can’t move. Our group drove 2.5 hours outside of the city to a quieter part of the wall, the Mutianyu section, and it was worth every minute! We arrived and took a cable car to the top of the wall. It started to rain just as we were getting to the cable car and we were a bit nervous, but it passed as soon as we got to the top! Perfect timing!
The wall was everything I imagined and more. Once I climbed the somewhat challenging stairs to get on the wall, the view was amazing. To the north was a lush, wooded area – it was amazing to look down and imagine Genghis Khan attacking the wall 800 years ago. As I was imagining it, a huge clap of thunder rang nearby which, as you can imagine, only amplified the illusion I was creating in my head!
The only times the Great Wall was ever breached was when the soldiers guarding the wall allied with the attackers to overthrow the current government. That is absolutely staggering!
We had over an hour and a half on the wall, so we had ample time for reflection, exploration & picture taking. I walked 3-4 towers of the wall and got a decent workout. It was very steep in places and the stairs were very, very old and uneven.
Next to the Great Wall of China
Northern view from the Great Wall of China
View through a window in a guard tower
Climbing the Great Wall of China
The wall goes on & on!
One of the smaller watchtowers
The wall was not flat, it traversed tall mountains & low valleys!
Climbing down the stairs from one of the guard towers
The section of the wall we went to was pretty empty!
Great Wall of China
My trademark pose!
Before leaving the Great Wall of China, a few of us channeled our inner Rocky Balboa!
On the Great Wall, I met a group of Italian tourists and had a great conversation with them. They were impressed by my Italian and now I can say I’ve spoken Italian on 3 continents!
When we finished up at the Great Wall of China, we got back on the bus and headed back to Beijing for a traditional Peking Duck dinner at one of the three remaining restaurants that serve the meal in the traditional way due to government restrictions. The duck is supposed to be raised within the Beijing city limits and is fed a standard diet for two and a half months. Then, for the final two weeks of its life it is fed six meals a day. This is supposed to plump the duck up and make it tender. When the duck is cooked, it is cooked on a coal fire. The government is trying to minimize the use of coal to improve the smog that Beijing has become infamous for.
Carving the Peking Duck
Peking Duck is served in a similar way to moo shou pork
After a filling meal that lived up to expectations, we headed back to the hotel. Some of the group retired to their rooms, but the rest of us headed out to explore the area around our hotel. We found a lively square in front of a Catholic Church that had a group of older people dancing tango, another group was line dancing and a third group was dancing to hip hop. It was a really interesting sight!
Catholic Church near our hotel
Then, we walked to one of the main shopping areas and were fascinated by all the stores of the Western world that have a presence in China – Hermes, Zara, Forever21, McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, etc.
Main shopping area
After that, we returned to our hotel for a well deserved sleep before our third day in China!
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