Ah, yes. It’s finally time to tell the story of the actual trip. Don’t worry; I won’t bore you with the details of the interminable flight over. Just know that Jacksonville is a loooooong way from China. The trip over took just over 30 hours, and we were fortunate enough to have in-flight internet for the domestic portion (JAX-SeaTac). Sadly, there was no such diversion on the leg from Seattle to Beijing, which kind of sucked since we needed something to take our minds off the fact that we were just days away from meeting our son. We made do, though, and I was unreasonably excited that we flew over Dutch Harbor and Kodiak, especially since King Crab season was underway. I waved down to SIg and the boys, and soon enough, we touched down in Beijing!
First, let me say that the approach to the Beijing airport takes FOREVER. Also, the city is ginormous, and absolutely gorgeous at night. We breezed through immigration and customs (Dude. SO easy! Miami should take notes) and were met by our guide, Jerry. He got us straight out to our waiting chariot, which was driven by a surly man with a clear death wish. I’m convinced you HAVE to have a death wish to drive in Beijing. One of the perks about arriving at midnight, however, is that traffic is only *slightly* terrifying, and we made it safely to the hotel where Jerry made sure we had everything we needed. We quickly crashed and slept like logs.
The next morning we got up, ate breakfast, and met Jerry down in the lobby (the other perk of a late arrival into China is the absence of jet lag. Seriously. We were both totally fine). We headed out for a full day of sightseeing. Our first stop was Tiananmen Square. Jerry gave us LOTS of history before we even made it over there, and we saw a LOT of soldiers. Not police, but soldiers. They march EVERYWHERE near the Square. I also couldn’t help but notice just how precisely the branches of each willow tree were trimmed. They were all exactly the same length, which I’m sure was a huge pain, but man, it’s pretty! We were treated to a lengthy dissertation on the monuments in the largest public square in the world, and Jerry spent a few more minutes extolling the virtues of Chairman Mao, and then we crossed the street into the throng. Thankfully, it was a weekday, so it wasn’t too crazy. The line to get into the Chairman’s mausoleum was only about 3 hours long (yeah, we skipped that part). There isn’t too much to say about Tiananmen Square. It’s big. It’s, well, square. There are a couple of monuments. It’s flanked by government buildings and The Forbidden City. Mostly, though, it’s just square. Very, very square.
One thing of note did happen, though, just as we were making our way to the gate of the Forbidden City. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a police car “caught fire”, and by “caught fire”, I mean somebody tossed a molotov cocktail through the car window. Jerry was a little horrified by it, but it didn’t stop him (or us) from getting as close as we could so we could see what was happening. As we approached the gates, however, there was a whole battalion of soldiers there pushing us back, and you could hear the whir of about 1,000 strategically placed cameras recording the scene.
As quickly as it had started, the fire was put out (seriously. NYC could take lessons from just how quickly the whole “incident” was squashed. By the time we walked to the other side of the street via an underground passage, it was totally cleared up and traffic was moving normally. The whole thing was done in under five minutes), and there was a whole lot of the Chinese version of “Move along, folks. Nothing to see here”. We found ourselves at the most well-known entrance to the Forbidden City, directly under the MASSIVE portrait of Chairman Mao (the thing weighs in at 1.5 tons). This is probably the picture that everyone has in their heads of both Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City itself. It is the Wumen Gate, also known as the Meridian Gate, so named because it is located on the central axis of Beijing. Also, note the complete and utter lack of people in the picture below. Holy evacuation, Batman!
I won’t go into too much detail (I could spend hours explaining the significance of the number of posts inserted above gates, or doors, and don ‘t even get me started on the significance of numbers) about the architecture (amazing), beauty (stunningly gorgeous), or the massive scale of the place (dude. It’s HUGE. There’s a reason why the refer to it as a city), but I will say that I’m so glad I got to experience it firsthand. Most of the jewels and treasures are now located in a museum in Taiwan, so there are mostly just empty halls, but the buildings themselves are spectacular and treasures in their own right. I will note that it was our first encounter with high thresholds; you REALLY have to make an effort to step over the 12 inch (or more) barriers in doorways. These are meant to keep ghosts from being able to enter rooms. Ghosts, it seems, can glide and even run, but they lack the ability to step over obstacles or jump. Good to know.
Also, I know there is one very important subject that I haven’t touched on yet. I know, I know, the question is burning. The answer is YES. I did, in fact, encounter my very first squatty potty. Luckily for us, Jerry steered us toward the Four Star-rated restrooms. I still had to bring my own paper, and I still had to squat, but it was clean, and I was VERY proud of myself for conquering that particular insecurity. It gave me all the confidence in the world, and by the time we boarded the plane for the US, I was the master of the squatty potty!
After the Forbidden City, we took a quick break for lunch and then headed to the Pearl Market. Kevin got to fish out his own oyster, and we got a crash course in pearls. We learned everything from the history to how to tell real pearls from fake ones. We (okay, I) did a little shopping, and then it was on to the Temple of Heaven. There’s definitely a reason that this is the symbol of Beijing; nothing I’ve ever seen comes close to the splendor of the grounds of the Temple. There are beautiful parks surrounding the central buildings, and we saw men doing water calligraphy, which I could have spent all day watching. It’s elegant and simple, and there’s a poetry in the motion.
One interesting tidbit about the temple (okay, two, and then I won’t bore you anymore): There are no nails used ANYWHERE in the construction of the Hall of Prayer For Good Harvests ( I LOVE the Chinese names for things; they’re so lyrical), and the central pillars were replaced after a fire in 1889 by massive trees shipped from Oregon. Really. Most importantly, though, I got to scratch another item off of my personal bucket list. We made an offering at the Temple of Heaven, and that was one of the highlights of my entire time in China.
We took a quick break for coffee (I ordered iced coffee and actually braved the ice against ALL advice. I was totally fine; in fact, I ordered drinks with ice for the remainder of the trip and never had a problem. I even–GASP–brushed my teeth with water straight from the tap. I know, I’m a rebel), and then we headed to the Kung Fu show. Kevin was super excited about it, but it turns out that I actually liked it more than he did. It wasn’t just a bunch of kung fu; it was an elaborate production that told the story of Chun Yi, a young warrior on the path to become a kung fu master. Read more about the show here. From there, we told Jerry that we were up for a traditional Beijing-style dinner, and he willingly obliged. He took us to a noodle house where we filled up on some pretty awesome homemade noodles. It was pretty cool to watch the cooks carrying HUGE trays of fresh noodles down to the woks. It was crowded and noisy, and *exactly* what China is all about. We loved it.
So there you have it: 1,250 words JUST about Day 1 in China. In typical Griswold–look kids! Big Ben! Parliament!– fashion (although my Mom would say that I was just being my normal Julie The Cruise Director self), we managed to see a little more than half of the good stuff in Beijing in a single day. We had one more full day to spend in the city, and we still had the Great Wall to check off the list. One more quick thing of note: I’m fairly certain that our days were purposely designed to wear us the hell out so we would be too tired to obsess over the fact that we were mere days away from meeting our precious boy. For that, I am eternally in Jerry’s debt.