Monday, April 14, 2008

Beijing: Past and Present

Today was full of incredible sights and fantastic firsts for our group. We started the day by visiting the Temple of Heaven. We learned that long ago, the Chinese emperor would go to the Temple of Heaven to pray for good weather to yield a good harvest. Well, we must have been lucky because we had the most amazing weather today—sunny and around 70 degrees all day. In present-day China, the Temple of Heaven is no longer for worship, but is a place where senior citizens can go to relax, exercise, and socialize. It was wonderful to see so many seniors doing tai chi, writing poems in calligraphy, playing a Chinese version of hackey-sack (a ball with feathers attached), dancing, and singing with musical accompaniment. It was such a different look at growing old that seemed to appreciate each person’s skills and interests, with a focus on good health. I think we were all struck by how serene the area was and just how active and engaged these seniors were in their day’s activities.

We then went to the Hong Qiao Market, where our group made a valiant first attempt at bargaining for goods with the little Chinese we have mastered (“no thank you—too expensive!). Many teachers enjoyed visiting the pearl market, where every size, shape, and color of pearl imaginable was on display. We watched as the staff hand tied strings of pearls at break-neck speed. Other teachers visited the other three floors of the market, bargaining for posters, scrolls, and Olympics gear.

At lunch, we visited the Yiwanju restaurant, which is well-known for its Beijing noodles. We watched as they cut, stretched, and “slapped” the noodles to the counter to make the most delicious and tender noodles, which we gobbled up. The showstopper of the meal (aside from the amazing main course dishes) was actually a side dish of sliced cucumbers (see photo). This cucumber was actually in one unbroken piece, carved into a spiral. We were all in awe—we couldn’t help but take a picture.

In the afternoon, we walked from Tiananmen Square to the Forbidden City, the home to many emperors in China’s history. We were most floored by the sheer size of this walled space—over 10 football fields in size with several “layers” or walls that led to different living areas. The first “layer” was the city for the government ministers, then the family of the ministers, then finally the third “layer” was the official Forbidden City, where only the emperor, his empress, and his 3,000 concubines would live. The Forbidden City includes 9,999 ½ rooms…yes, ½. We learned that the emperor, out of respect for the gods, decided to sacrifice ½ of his room. Therefore, only 9,999 and ½ rooms were reserved for the emperor.

After hours of walking, we headed to a restaurant that also housed performances of the Beijing Opera. This was probably the meal that most surprised teachers in our group. For the first time, we saw dishes that we had never seen in a Chinese restaurant in the States, including rice balls filled with pork, stir fried bamboo, and chicken feet and heads (this was the biggest challenge). After dinner, we enjoyed an amazing performance of the Beijing Opera. We saw the story of the Monkey King, complete with acrobatics, sword fights, singing, and rhythmic percussion. We all sunk into our seats on the bus, exhausted from a day full of amazing sights, sounds, and tastes.

Today’s interesting tidbit: If you wanted to sleep one night in each of the 9,999 and ½ rooms of the Forbidden City, it would take you 27 years. If you wanted to see every corner of the grounds of the Forbidden City, it would take you 3 years!

Tomorrow, we’re headed to the Great Wall—one of our most anticipated destinations. We’ll write more then.

Photos: 1. Group at Temple of Heaven, 2. Senior writing poems in calligraphy, 3. Cucumber flower, 4. Scene from the Forbidden City, 5. Monkey King at the Beijing Opera.

1 comment:

Robert said...

After my usual Monday lunch of Mar Poo Tofu from the Chinese catering truck near where I work, I found myself wondering if what you were eating was at all similar. I guess not!

By the way, the May National Geographic is devoted entirely to China.