April 26, 2018. Beijing

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We have an early start in the Summer Palace.  Even at 7 AM there are tours lining up and people exercising, dancing, and walking throughout the grounds.  The air is cool and it is noteably quieter without the crowds.  We head over to the long corridor and the marble boat.  Then we hike up the back of the hill to take in the view of the lake.

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As we wander back, we discover a small lake and tea area that abuts the Aman grounds.  Tucked away, one has to wander in that direction in order to discover it.

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Late morning, we head out to the 798 ArtZone.  As it has been some 12 years since Jon has visited it, needless to say it has grown tremendously.  It is a very interesting use of an old warehouse district.  Although it originally was occupied by working artists, it has now morphed into gallery’s, coffee shops, more coffee shops, retail and car (Audi) offices.  Gone are the working artisans per se.

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After spending the afternoon there, we returned to the hotel to read until our Chinese dinner.  The Aman manager has been enlighting us on the hotel history, food, etc.

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April 25, 2018. Beijing

Destination is the Forbidden City – the seat of power for the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

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Our morning is driven by our 10:30 ticket into the Shufanghai Palace within the city.  Unfortunately,  our guide didn’t allow enough travel time including her own delay in arriving to pick us up. The entire trip into the city consisted of her drama calling the ticket agent to change the ticket time, to enter the back way,  and a number of others schemes.  We made it to the outer walls around 10 and hurried from the entrance doors to the gardens located on the back walls in order to make our appointment. It was no easy feat with masses of people and a lot of ground to cover.

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Shufanghai Palace  is a limited access area for the Emperior Qianlong’s personal study and reception for visiting guests.  We had a local professor speak to us regarding the historical context of the palace and point out highlights of the garden as well.  The furnishings dateback to the Qing dynasty with sandalwood heavily carved tables, chairs, frames, etc.  The main hall is set up for guests to eat and watch a small production on the interior stage.  Outside the courtyard has a 2 story  grand stage for a larger audience and performance of operas.

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Leaving the Palace, we are like lemmings swimming upstream since the sea of people are moving toward the back. We spend time again in the private and public/business areas of the City.  The vast entry to the City is a scale that is difficult to comprehend today.  We move back through the giant tea and banquet hall toward the concubine section and through the gardens before leaving the grounds.

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We follow this visit with a more subdued walk in the Dong Joao Min Xiang or Foreign Legation Quarter that housed many of the western embassies and consulates  during the late 19th and early 20th Century.  Today, many of the building have been converted back to the Chinese government with shops, hotels, and cafes infilling.

In the former site of the US Embassy near Tianamin Square we spot a modern Chinese  restaurant, Lost Heaven.  Yunnan folk cuisine with Shanghai roots.

In the evening we stepped out of the Aman walls and took a cab to Najia Xiao Guan, a Chinese restaurant in the financial district.  Lots of young professionals having dinner.  Our cab drivers did not seem to excited to see us but we gave them business.

 

 

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April 24, 2018. Beijing

Off the beaten path and on to the Great Wall.     The wall was originally built as a series of disparate ramparts that were eventually united around 1500s.  It was breached by the Mongols in the 13 th Century and the Manchus in the 17th.  On a previous trip, we visited the Badaling section (44 miles outside of Beijing) and one of the most popular sites due to its proximity to the city.  Detail has been given to its serving of the many tourists who come there and want a look at the real deal without too much effort.

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For us, it was a 2 hour car ride out to Jinshanling, located in Hebei Province.  This section was build during 1567-1582 during the famous Ming Dynasty.  Although it seemed quite sleepy, we drive into an area where a new 2-story concrete car-park awaits us, hop on to a tram to take us further up the road passing the construction of a new luxury hotel, and are dumped off  so that we must walk through the resort plaza “to be” with its designer coffee and tea shop, wine store, illuminated water feature for water performances  and sweet store.  We arrive at the “Gate” of the cable car to take us up to the wall.  We wondered if we came in the wrong time and should have waited for the ski season since the whole place had that kind of characterization.

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Oh- the cable car house is awkwardly camouflaged by fake green leaves that are far brighter than any thing else in the surrounding landscape.  But even with the high canyon winds, we slowly made our way up the hill in a Chinese made cable car- not the usual Swiss engineering we are accustomed to in ski resorts.

The Wall.  Steep and stony paths east and west interspersed with watchtowers, gatehouses, all sorts of communication devices: smoke, flares, drums, bells to warn of invaders, canons in places, and, beacon towers.   Near the entry points, there has been significant restoration of the paving and steps. However, after reaching the first watchtower, the smooth new paving gives way to hundreds of years of weathering and wearing down by the elements and humans.

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The views are spectacular, the air is clear, it is quiet except for the tour groups. Here we see  more Europeans  and Australians, then domestic Chinese.  After a couple of hours, we give our legs a rest and return following our same path in return as in entry.

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As it is mid afternoon, time for lunch.  Our guide, Lilly, has not been in this area for awhile – new garage, old hotel torn down for new one, etc.  So she is a little discombobulated when she had to find a safe house (clean kitchen for foreigners like us. Remembering a family name from the previous hotel, we ended up in a small family run inn and restaurant in which Lilly referred to as serving “country” food. Yeh,  she ordered a little –a lot – of everything: Sichuan shredded pork, sweet and sour pork, dumplings, fried rice, noodles, greens and mushrooms, fried potatoes stix, chicken and peanuts, …….  The food was perfect – better than any fancy restaurant meal.  We were in food comma for the 2 hour return trip.

Needless to say – no dinner for us.

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April 23, 2018. Beijing, China

This was a half day of touring.  We start walking in the Shichahai neighborhood, northern part of the Grand Canal, dating back to the Jin Dynasty.  Today shops, restaurants, and boat tours are part of the area’s activities.  We turn into one of the old hutong neighbors.  Many of these districts have been removed- literally bulldozed – but a few still exist for the tourists.  They are very old with modern amenities such as electricity and water added sometimes in a very sketchy manner.  There is some obvious economic movement in the neighborhoods as the properties have become quite expensive.  The alternative is the owner who sells rooms from within his property, thereby creating a rat’s nest of wiring and egress.  We must watch our step as rickshaws parade non-stop now through these small alleyways competing with cars, people, bikes, et.

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Not all of the hutong buildings remain residential.  The Nanluoguixing area maintains the face and scale of the hutong street but has turned a long street of houses into shops and businesses.  Along the way, we observe fast food walk-ins beside clothing stores, trinket shops, etc.

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We move on to the nearby Drum and Bell Towers. The Drum Tower overlooks the Bell and was constructed in 1420.  Both were once used to mark the time of day with ringing and drumming every 2 hours.

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Following the towers, we move toward the 2008 Olympics site.  The National Olympic Stadium with its iconic architecture was designed by Ai Weiwei, and seats 91,000 people,  It is referred to as the “Bird’s Nest” since its outer bands of structural steel resemble the woven sticks of a nest.   Viewing the other building to be reused in the upcoming Winter Olympics is the National Aquatics Center or “Water Cube”.

 

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We return to the hotel for lunch and the afternoon in the Summer Palace.  The Aman has a secret gate that allows us to pass through directly into the grounds.  This is particularly valuable since the crowds including countless tour groups were everywhere.  We spend time walking around Kunming lake since the masses of people in the buildings and around the northern gate make it impossible to observe anything.

The Summer Palace’s patron was Empress Cixi, since she had it rebuilt twice: 1860 and 1902 (Boxer Rebellion).  It is over 290 hectares, built originally in 1750, and used as a cooling destination from the inner city with its parklike environment abutting the lake.  While it was made a public park int 1924, it is now on the World Heritage list by the United Nations.

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April 22, 2018. Lhasa to Beijing

Early morning start in order to catch the plane to Beijing.  Unfortunately, the city closed the road in front of the hotel with no prior notice.  Our driver had to park a block away and we hitched our luggage for the hike down the street.  Not very convenient but we made it to the airport with time to spare.

The 4 hour flight was uneventful and we landed in Beijing around 1 pm.  It seems the city folks like to get away on the weekend and return Sunday afternoon/night.  Traffic was slow getting to our hotel on the north west side.  We are staying adjacent to the Summer Palace at the Aman.  Some of the rooms were part of the original Summer Palace.  All have had a remodel in order to add electrical, water, and HVAC.

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April 21, 2018. Lhasa, Tibet

We spend the day in central Lhasa and start at the Jokhang Temple which is the most revered religious structure in Tibet.  It was initially constructed in mid-7th Century with the site selected by the King’s Chinese wife and situated over a river.  Over time the buildings have undergone numerous renovations, however, the most dramatic were done by the 5th Dalai Lama in 17 Century.  Weathering the destruction of the Cultural Revolution, it was restored again in 1980.  It still exhumes the dark, mysterious corridors filled with butter lamps and burning incense.

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We arrive to find extreme security surrounding the temple grounds both on the ground and the rooftops.  This is the most police we have seen – all in full riot gear.  The grounds are filled with people: Tibetans, Chinese, foreigners, pilgrims.  Some in traditional costumes, others in tee shirts with outrageous English sayings (which they probably have no clue of the real meaning), heavy wool sweaters and dresses, as well as short sleeved shirts and skirts.  Our guide has a friend so we cut the line shaving off a good 30-45 minutes of waiting. When we go inside it is a hive,  people moving everywhere, squished against one another.  We move to the 2nd floor in a very tight corridor, no windows, dim lighting, and unrecognized odors of all source.  It is a slice of Asian humanity.  It is hard to keep back a panic attack — if anything ever happened at this moment, there would be a stampede with no place to go.

There are a number of important images and chapels in the temple, the most important chapel being that of Jojo Sakyamuni.   Statutes, pictures and all types of artifacts are found in each sacred space.  The outdoor roof area permits better views of the building architecture and serves as a gathering place for the limited number of monks who remain.

Our lunch at Lhasa Place is nearby.  It too is another wanna be backpacker’s food haven.  The Barkhor shopping area is also in the area.

We move on to the Dali Lama’s summer palace, Norbulingka.  Although we walked outside the grounds, this time we were able to visit the interior buildings.  We toured the new Summer Palace from which the current Dalai Lama escaped.  Artifacts of his life remain in his meditation room, bedroom, receiving area, and teaching spot for tutors, etc.  It is interesting that this compound has been relatively untouched since the 14th Dalai Lama resided there.868D20D2-C861-4F35-9908-EBF4A8F3A8A6

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April 20, 2018. Lhasa, Tibet

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We start a little earlier for a day away from Lhasa and travel northeast along the Kyi Chu Valley to visit the Ganden Monastery.  Founded in 1409, it was the first monastery of Gelugpa teachings by Tsongkhapa, and is the seat of this order.  Of his students, one founded Sera Monastery and the other Drepung.  The monastery has been a target of the Red Guards since 1959 when there were 2000 monks there.  There has been rebuilding particularly for the police/government quarters.  Another round of violent protests took place here in 1996 when the government banned Dalai Lama photos.   The tomb of Tsongkhapa is in the red fortress structure.  Besides the Sukyamuni chapel, there is a protector chapel of the deity Chogyel where women are not allowed to enter.  Unusual for a Buddhist facility.  The Assembly Hall houses a Golden Throne Room  tomb for Tsongkhapa.

It is the amazing views of the valley that capture the site and beauty of the area.  Yaks owned by the monastary are found throughout the grounds.   We head down the mountain and reverse our direction on the opposite side of the Kyi Chu Valley on our way to the Drak Yerba caves.   Our plan is to picnic beside the mountain stream coming down the valley as we head up to the cave.  However,  there has not been enough melting or rain yet and it is still shy of full spring blooms.  So we head on up the mountain to site of the  destroyed 11th century Kadampa monastary, situated below the dark caves and grottos on the cliffs.  This sacred site is where Guru Rinpoche and Atisha, the Bengali Buddhist who spent 12 years proselytizing in Tibet visited.  Hiking up was a challenge with rewards of great views at the top.

It is said that the prayer flags displayed on this pass demonstrate the enduring power of Buddhism and prayer in Tibet.

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This evening we adventure out to a local dinner.  Our first obstacle is that there are no taxis or alternative ride vehicles because of the traffic blocking the road in front of the hotel.  We decide to try to catch a taxi going toward Barkhor area but we must walk several blocks and cross over the boulevard.  This we do and manage to hail a cab.  We give him directions to the Dunya Restaurant.  When he pulls up to the spot we don’t see the restaurant so he kicks us out since we aren’t communicating well with him.  We walk to the nearest main intersection where we think (Google says) is exists.  However we fail to find it or any other restaurant in which we might like to dine.  So failing after an hour, we try for a cab and settle for a rickshaw. We get half way down the first block and spy the restaurant.  We jumped out, paid for the overpriced ride, and went in for dinner.  A nice backpacker’s kitchen with nothing special.    Returning to the hotel was easy to get a cab – it was following the Tibetan rush.

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