Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Day 2: The Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and more!

OK, Day 2!

We figured the best way to see as much as possible in our limited time was to go on a guided tour. While Alex and I both like the freedom of being on our own schedule (like we did in Ireland last year), we also liked the idea of being able to ask a guide to give us the inside information on the places we were visiting...especially since it wouldn't have been easy to find someone else who spoke English! So we signed up for two guided tours: one that would take us to the Forbidden City (a.k.a., the Imperial Palace), the Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven, and another that would take us to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs.

Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into! Our guide for both tours was Allen (Chinese name Yun least, I think that's what it was). He was a short, Chinese 20-something. He wore a black business coat (long) and carried a briefcase (which I never saw him open). He did NOT carry a flag or wear a colorful hat or do anything else that would distinguish him from the other 10 million short Chinese people wearing black. And he was on a mission: to get us herded through the cool sights in as little time as possible so that we would have more time to spend in the tourist traps (a.k.a., the Pearl and Silk factories). So he walked really fast. When we stopped to take pictures, finding him again was like trying to find Waldo...only Allen wasn't wearing a striped shirt. So it was like a Where's Waldo where Waldo looks just like everyone else.

Aside from the ever-elusive guide issues, both our tours were great. The weather was gorgeous both days, and even though we did have to go a lot faster than we would have liked, it really was the only way we could have gotten in everything that we did.

Our first stop on Tour Day 1 was the Imperial Palace, otherwise known as the Forbidden City. It is called this because until about 60 years ago, only members of the imperial family were allowed to see/be inside it. It was completely forbidden, upon pain of death, for any commoners to not only go inside but also to simply look inside! The grounds were massive. The complex was divided into three different sections: the front section was the business offices, the middle section was the residential part, and the back section was the gardens. There were 9,999 rooms! This is because 9 is an important number in Chinese lore, and because only gods were allowed to do anything with 10,000 of anything. Allen explained that if a person was born in the FC and visited a different room every day, he or she wouldn't repeat a room until they were 27 years old!!

Here's Alex in the first courtyard of the palace. It was SO big!

This is the beginning of the residential part of the palace. Over to the left of the picture, you can see two golden lions. These represented the Emperor and Empress. The Emperor lion held the world (a sphere) under his paw, and the Empress held a baby lion under her paw.

This was the "honeymoon suite" of the palace. After getting married, the Emperor and his new wife would spend two days in this room. It couldn't be an extended honeymoon because the Emperor got married every 2 to 3 weeks! Emperors typically had more than 2,000 wives!

Click here to see the Day 2 photo album with lots of other shots of the grounds and the gardens.

After the Forbidden City we went to the Temple of Heaven. This was the temple where the emperors went to pray for a good harvest. It was a gorgeous area--very wide open!

This is a shot of the steps leading up to the front of the temple. The dragon-carved stone in front of Alex was the part that the Emperor walked on. No one else was allowed to step on that part!

Click here to see the Day 2 photo album and more pictures of the Temple of Heaven.

After the Temple of Heaven we went to the Summer Palace. This was perhaps the area that we did the least justice. It's not actually a palace--it's a summer resort for the imperial family. It was massive--7 times the size of the entire Forbidden City. We easily could have spent the entire day there, but we went in, went straight to the lake, took a boat ride across the lake, and left. We did get some nice shots of the grounds, though, and learned some very interesting things!

This was the entrance to the Summer Palace. The entire grounds is heavily wooded to help the imperial family escape the heat of summer. As you can see, Alex and I were in China right at the beginning of spring, so we were able to catch some beautiful blooming trees. Check out that white!

This is the famous marble boat. No, it doesn't float. It's marble. The story goes, the Summer Palace was built in the time of the infamous Dragon Lady, the mother of a 4-year-old emperor. She would sit behind a curtain behind her son and basically tell him what to do to rule the country. She was cruel and just a *bit* eccentric. She was the driving force behind the construction of the resort grounds. She had the lake dug, and the earth removed from that was piled next to the lake to create a man-made hill on which the residential buildings sat. She also had a lot of money to spend on building the first Chinese navy, but she spent a great deal of that on building this marble boat instead. And she stayed young-looking by drinking breast milk. From the source. Yeah.

Here's a shot of the residential buildings of resort. We got to ride across the lake on really cool dragon boats. But that meant that we didn't walk around the buildings at all. So you'll just have to imagine their opulence. It had to have been a pretty sweet view, though!

Click here to see the Day 2 photo album, including more pictures of the grounds, the dragon boats, and a Chinese Bevo!

After the Summer Palace, we went to the Pearl and Silk factories. They were both very interesting--we learned and witnessed how pearls are harvested from fresh-water oysters (and we got a couple of small ones as souvenirs!), and we learned and witnessed how silk worms' cocoons are stacked and stretched into luxurious silk blankets. Both of the demonstrations lasted about 5 minutes. We then had about 45 minutes in each of the factories' show rooms/gift stores. It was the only time on our tour Allen wasn't in a hurry to get us to the next place! We *almost* bought a beautiful blue silk duvet, but we came to our senses in the nick of time and walked away.

So, our second day in China was full of perfect weather, interesting factoids, and great sights! We went down to the Wanfujing shopping area that night to walk around and discovered the Donghuamen Night Market. Those are pictures you won't want to miss! I'll post those, along with our trip to the Great Wall, next!

Thanks for visiting,

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