October 24/25, 2018 – Beijing, China
Our ship docked at Tianjin Port, the largest man-made sea port in mainland China. The distance is 160 km to Beijing. A short 1.5 hour drive right? Wrong! We have to plan for a 3 hour drive each way. As a result, we opted for an overnight tour provided by the ship. This includes return transfers from the port, the entrance fees for the sights, meals and overnight accommodation. The cost is $900USD each. Yikes! We only decided to bite the bullet on this after our guide spoke on Beijing and the difficulties of going to Beijing on your own. The bottom line was with the frightful traffic in Beijing, we did not want to risk the possibility of missing the ship on our second day.
The mistake we made was leaving this for the last minute and I would urge people to discuss an independent escorted shore excursion with your travel agent, which I know you can get for a lot less money and still have a great experience. I should know better!
When someone says Beijing, what do you imagine? A dirty, rundown city full of bicycles that is 50 years behind the times? Not at all. Beijing is a fully modernized city with beautiful new buildings and all the amenities. Large shopping malls with all the high end stores. The streets are clogged, not with bicycles, but with high end cars like Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Jaguars, etc. The more common cars were VW, Buicks and Hyundai. Not a lot of Japanese cars perhaps an indication of the relationship between the 2 countries. This is Communist China? It is a dichotomy of the old and the new.
Our first stop is the Temple of Heaven. It originally served as a vast stage for solemn rites performed by the Emperor of the time (known as the Son of Heaven) who prayed here for good harvests and sought divine clearance and atonement. It’s really an altar rather than a temple.
Seen from above, the temple hall is round and the base square, in accordance with the notion “Heaven is Round, Earth is Square”. The northern rim of the park is semicircular, while the southern end is square.
The highlight of the park is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, an astonishing structure with a triple-eaved purplish-blue umbrella roof mounted on a three tiered marble terrace. The wooden pillars (made with fir) support the ceiling without nails or cement. For a building 38m high and 30m in diameter, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Embedded in the ceiling is a carved dragon, a symbol of the Emperor. Built in 1420, the hall was struck by lightening and burned to the ground in 1889. A faithful reproduction based on Ming architectural methods was erected the following year.
Stretching out runs a long corridor, where locals sit and deal cards or just hang out.
After a lovely lunch, Chinese of course, we headed off to the Forbidden City…a place I have always wanted to see. I would highly recommend watching The Last Emperor to get a good idea of the enormity of the Forbidden City.
This is China’s largest and best preserved collection of ancient buildings and the largest palace complex in the world. This was the reclusive home to two dynasties of imperial rule, sharing 900+ buildings with retinue of eunuchs, servants and concubines, until the Republic overthrew the last Qing emperor in 1911.
In former ages, the penalty for uninvited admission was severe, although commoners wouldn’t have gotten even close. Today, tourists enter through the Meridian Gate, which in former times was reserved for the use of the emperor. Gongs and bells would sound imperial comings and goings, while lesser mortals used lesser gates. The Emperor reviewed armies from here, passed judgement on prisoners, announced the new year’s calendar and oversaw the flogging of troublesome ministers.
Through the Meridian Gate, you pass into a vast courtyard to the Gate of Supreme Harmony. This space could hold an imperial audience of 100,000. I’m glad there weren’t that many tourists there at the time. As it was, there were enough!
Raised on a three-tier marble terrace are the Three Great Halls, the glorious heart of the Forbidden City. The recently restored Hall of Supreme Harmony is the most important and largest structure in the Forbidden City. Built in the 15th century and restored first in the 17th century, it was used for ceremonial occasions, such as the Emperor’s birthday. Inside is a richly decorated Dragon Throne from which the Emperor would preside over trembling officials. The entire court had to touch the floor nine times with their foreheads in the Emperor’s presence (kowtowing).
Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the smaller Hall of Central Harmony which was used as the Emperor’s transit lounge. Here he would make last-minute preparations, rehearse speeches and receive close ministers.
The third of the Great Halls is the Hall of Preserving Harmony, used for banquets and later imperial examinations. A string of halls flanks the Three Great Halls not open to the public when we were there but can be used for exhibitions.
The area of where the concubines lived was interesting. Apparently, the Emperor could have as many concubines as he wanted or needed.
Finally, we exit the Forbidden City through a beautiful garden area.
Our last stop before supper was supposed to be Tian’anmen Square. Unfortunately, the Japanese Prime Minister was visiting Beijing and the Square was blocked off. The closest we got was about ½ block away. By that time too, it was already quite dark. The traffic was horrendous and what was usually a 15 minute drive would take as much as an hour, so we were running late. So, here are some rather poor pictures of Tian’anmen Square and I’m sad to say that we were not able to walk around the square at all.
Off to supper for a Peking Duck special meal. Way too much food (very exceptional Chinese food) with the specialty being Peking Duck which the chef’s carved at the table.
Finally, checked into the Crowne Plaza Beijing Lido Hotel which was exceptional. After a very long and tiring day, it was an early night. Tomorrow, the Great Wall of China and Ming Tombs!