It’s been a long time since I wrote in here. Too much going on in my other life as a fat-cat wanna be, getting my MBA while trying to keep up with my real time career. Through it all, I’ve still been traveling. This year: a trip to Dusseldorf during the week of Carnival, a trip to Ireland to witness a friends wedding and finally (so far) a trip to China.
China is amazing. I went there with my MBA program to visit several businesses to see how they do business in China and gain some insight on the culture through some excursions to the famous sights in and around Beijing and Shanghai. And, being astute travelers, we were all able to finagle other excursions, rending a party bus to do a pub crawl in Shanghai, extending the stay to take other trips in China and just walking out of our hotel rooms each evening to see what the city held.
My 11:00 PM arrival in Beijing was uneventful. I arrived a day early, outside of my travel group so I had to navigate immigration and customs alone. Breezing through those check points, I had to get a taxi. Outside the airport, the line for the taxis snaked under an overpass in the sweltering heat. It was about 85 degrees late that night, humid and the line was packed. It was just like the taxi lines at the Vegas airport, except for the humidity and the civility of the people waiting. I chatted with the person in front of me who double-checked my written instructions for the taxi, as we traded travel stories.
Seeing that my ability to speak Chinese is nil, every taxi ride would require a card telling the taxi driver where to take me. It generally works, but not all taxi drivers can read. The taxi driver will normally talk to whoever is putting you in the car to understand where it is you’re going and then, hopefully, you’ll end up there. I was thankful that my new friend wrote the word hotel on my taxi document, that was the first thing the taxi driver saw and we headed off into the night.
In Beijing, my hotel was in the Dongcheng district, within walking distance of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. I would be going to these sites with the group, so as I met up with classmates in the lobby, we decided to go to the Temple of Heaven on the drizzly Saturday morning as we waited for the entire group to arrive.
The Temple of Heaven, finished in 1420, was a short taxi drive from our hotel. It has many gates, all very unimpressive looking, so going in two different taxis left us separated and texting each other to figure out where exactly to meet once inside the grounds.
Once we found each other, we made our way to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, which is the highpoint of the Temple. Apparently, good harvests are kind of important in a country of 1 billion. Rebuilt after a fire in 1889, the building is wooden, using no nails. The entire building sis based on numerology, with the lower level supported by four pillars representing the four seasons, the second level by 12 pillars representing the months and the third level by another 12 pillars representing the hours of a day and night. Total number of pillars adds up to 18 representing the constellations in the sky, signifying the connection between earth and the heavens. Without Wikipeida, I would not have known this, since there is nothing provided in English that helps the western tourist know what they’re looking at provided at the Temple.
Moving to the next sight, the Imperial Vault of Heaven, I noticed how the decorations of all buildings mimic the Hall of Prayer. All building are adorned in a blue/green flower motif, making me believe that China invented stencils back before time began. It was beautiful and looked wonderful against the brown buildings. A curved wall called Echo Wall surrounds the Vault. Watch what you say here. The wall is designed to transmit sound over a long distance, not back at you. You won’t hear it, but some other visitor will.
The final must see sight of the Temple is the Circular Mound Altar. It is here that you will hear an echo, and a very loud echo at that, at the center of the altar knows as the Heart of Heaven. Designed for the Emperor to stand on the circular stone in the center to communicate with the heavens, the echo helps his voice to be heard.
The Temple is surrounded by gardens with paths taking us from one significant building to another and hidden gems along the way where you can just sit and reflect. And, of course, there is always a place to shop.
My guess is that the Chinese like to shop. Or they think tourists like to shop. No matter where we were, there were bobbles to buy, some representing the Temple and some that had nothing to do with anything, but there might be some undying need to buy a fedora.
As we walked out, we came upon people spending their Saturday out in the park. From playing mahjong to chess (though, surprisingly, no one was playing Chinese Checkers), to a group of people singing songs and finally the dancers, everyone used the Temple to enjoy their day and be outside, even if it was a little rainy and overcast (or is that smog?).
Outside the Temple and around the corner was a temple of another sort. The temple of shopping known as the Pearl Market. This place was a zoo. I’m not a fan of shopping, nor am I big on having people grab at my shirt as I walk away from what must have been some great offer. At one point, I rushed outside to just get my head straight as I was sick of hearing “hey lady, hey lady, you need iPhone case? You need Beats headphone? I’ve got Louis Vuitton, I give you good deal” at every booth and didn’t want to scream and get arrested for being loco in China.
The Pearl Market is a shopping experience that takes a little patience and a lot of haggling. And, no pictures are allowed to be taken inside, as 99% of the items sold are counterfeit. If you go, offer about 10% of what the price they quote to you and let it go from there. Negotiating is expected, just don’t be rude and soon you too can walk out with a bag of Channel and Louis Vuitton purses for a fraction of the cost of buying the real thing from a licensed vendor.
Of course, at the Pearl Market, they actually do sell pearls too. These are probably mid quality pearls, but they are real and they’re very inexpensive. After choosing the pearls in the size, color and quality that you want, you get to watch them be strung into a necklace or bracelet, which is pretty interesting to see how that is done. These too are a faction of the cost of buying here at home and are a nice reminder of a visit to China.
We left the Pearl Market and negotiated with a taxi driver to take the six of us back to the hotel. The traffic had heated up and our taxi ride back was about 50 Yuan, or about $9 for the 20 minute drive. Taxis are cheap here, but the rider must always be aware to not get taken advantage of when riding – either negotiate up front or make sure that meter is running.
From the Pearl Market, we met up with about 15 others and headed off to dinner at the mall. A bunch of jet-lagged people surrounding a table is an interesting sight. Some fell asleep, some telling big stories and we all drank; I’m sure after we emptied the restaurant’s fridge of beer, they thought we were nuts – well, that or pigs. All in all, a cheap dinner – our bill was 1,100 Yuan – or about $9 each when we decided to split the tab. It was beginning to dawn on me; I was going to go broke here because everything is so cheap.