Jan Leow's Press Blog

Beijing revisited

It was a step up from my company previous sponsored holiday trip. Though in comparison with my company other branches, our company holiday trip was short in comparison. But I have no complaints. It was a four days and four nights tour with a tight schedule of sight seeing some of the popular and historical significant location of Beijing, China in the hot summer of August.

To maximize our time, my colleague arranged it in such a way that we flew by night thus saving the 7 hours flight that would have been wasted for sight seeing were we to fly by day. However, it was a tiring affair; my boss and colleagues could not really sleep in the cramp economy seats of Air China and with their lack luster air host service and unappetizing onboard meals didn’t strike me off with a good impression. Though I did manage to catch a couple of winks but it wasn’t sufficient for a good night rest.

Forbidden City, Beijing, China.After going through the usual immigration process we were greeted by the local ‘dau yu’ (Tour Guide). She was pretty lass though she could only communicate in Mandarin only which left the English speaking entourage like my boss, and half pass six Mandarin speakers like me and some of my colleague struggling with the language. Mandarin is mandarin but the way it was used and spoken in China is different from Malaysia. Though basically we could communicate without too much difficulty. However we do tend to mix up our language when we speak, with sprinklings of English and Malay and any other dialects like Cantonese or Hokkien thrown in. Does create a mélange way of speaking which throw off pure language listeners leaving them wondering what we are trying say. To us Malaysian, no problem-lah!

First things first, breakfast! Air China didn’t serve any, and left us really hungry. They really need to improve on their service. In comparison with many of the airlines that I have experience save for the low cost airlines, Air China service was really poor. In addition, they didn’t know English and they were struggling to explain how to fill in the Malaysian immigration form to China passengers during our return flight. If not for some Mandarin educated Malaysian who help to translate the form to Chinese, they would be at a total loss!

The tour was short in comparison, 4 nights/4 days tour for about RM2000 per pax but company rules are company rules. For that same cost, I could go for a one week tour. So for this company trip, I didn’t bring along my wife because it wasn’t worth it if I have to pay out from my own pocket. Besides, we have already been to Beijing, China some years back.

Peaceful shrine. The route to Ming Tomb.The first sight was Temple of Heaven, which was near the Hong Ciao Pearl Market. I still remember the shopping market where my wife bought many items from there and shopped for several hours. I was too bored and took a walk towards the Temple of Heaven, though I didn’t enter the grounds, I got the chance now with this trip.

The crowds were many! Ah, summer is the time to travel for most temperate countries. I could see the various tour groups bringing people from all over the world. Local people too joined in the throng. It was unlike my first trip during autumn where it was a shoulder period. It was very cold then, freezing cold that me and my wife had to wear double layers of clothing with gloves and a cap or hat to keep out the cold wind. Nothing of that sort during this trip, it was hot like Malaysia!

It was more crowded at the Summer Palace and there was no way I could get a decent photo shot without included some people in it. Well there more than one way to skin a cat. Sometimes it is good to include people in the photos to show the scale of things or even bring life to a photo. I was a little too tired to think how to capture the best scenery or landscape photo shot and just simply took photos and hope for the best. Besides the hazy weather didn’t help either for taking beautiful outdoor photography.

He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man. – Chairman Mao

Great Wall of China - Made it to the top!After a really good night’s sleep, the next day was to accent the Great Wall of China. We headed to the Juyong Guan section of the Great Wall. I remembered my previous trip was to the Badaling section which was 10 kilometers further down the road. We had cable car to bring us almost to the top section. How lazy could we get? However, it was very cold then, and my wife and I were quite tired from all the walking as we didn’t use any tour guide services. So this time I will have to climb up all the way, no cable car service to help. My boss remarked that it was like climbing the Batu Caves stairs in Malaysia. So off we go! With the hot summer weather, we trudge slowly and rest very often to regain our strength and to admire the beautiful scenery. The panorama view became more breath-taking as we got ever higher, so was our breaths as we took more gasp of air to climb ever higher. Boy, do I really need to get back in shape, having lain off running for a while due to my plantar fasciitis and heel pain injury. After reaching the forth fort I decided to quit, though my boss continued on to the next fort before quitting.

Reassembling at the Great Wall base, we are off to the next sight which was the Ming Tomb, the underground burial site for the Ming Dynasty Emperor. The Ming Tomb Park was really soothing with the many trees and idyllic settings. We didn’t have to go into the underground path, which I heard there wasn’t really any interesting things to see anyway. It suited my just fine walking above ground. The tomb itself was uninteresting. Just a big giant hillock which we couldn’t see anything but nice beautiful trees and plants. It was just like a stroll in the park.

One thing about taking tours from China, you always ended up with some sales pitch promoting China made products. I think nowadays it is the trend of tourism whether it is in China, Vietnam, Thailand and elsewhere. It is just a way to get visitors to spend more so as to boost the economy. But what I don’t like is that China tours are taking it a little too much. It seems like for every visit to a sight, we will visit one factory who will promote their wares. Though the products offered are usually the typically traditional items of China, for example during this trip alone they took us to factory and shops to introduce their Jade, Chinese Tea, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Chinese Silk, Jewelry, Cloisonne etc.

And as usual we get caught up in their sales pitch and ended up buying at least something; in this case I ended up buying the Chinese Tea. And it was not cheap too though the quantity provided was quite a lot. And so did my colleagues who also bought some teas, jade, and traditional Chinese medicine. Mind you, they weren’t really at all cheap!

The Chinese are quite superstitious. They are quite caught up into the ‘Feng Shui’ or what you call in English – Geomancy – the art of creating good luck, happiness and prosperity by way of carrying certain item or figurine with you, the construction of your home or building in accordance to a certain layout or location, the Yin and the Yang of things so to speak. We were ushered in to a ‘Feng Shui’ gallery where the ‘Si Fu’ or Feng Shui Master explained the layout of Beijing was constructed according to the precept of Feng Shui and how the five elements of earth, wood, water, fire and metal are arranged to maximized the goodwill of the hidden divine energy of geomancy and how each must be counter balanced and controlled with its corresponding elemental counterpart. Even the Beijing Olympics 2008 mascots were designed according to Feng Shui principles. Each of the five mascots represented according to each of the five elements. And what I didn’t know was that our Malaysian Twin Towers was also constructed according Feng Shui principles too and that the sky bridge between the two towers did not connect at the same floors. One side was at the 41st floor while the other was at the 42nd floor, just so that there is Yin Yang balance so to speak.

Many countries must be having their summer holidays because there were so many people at the Tiananmen Square. I still remember my previous visit where I was freezing away in the cold autumn night together with some friends. They were crazy enough to brave the cold and walked from Tiananmen Square all the way to Wang Fu Jing street where all the modern up market brands like G2000, Nike, Benetton can be found there.

Well, now it was the opposite climate, and we walked in the hot summer sun from Tiananmen Square, entering the Forbidden City gates with Chairman Mao portrait displayed prominently on the front palace wall, walked together with throngs of tourist through the Forbidden City palace grounds with our local ‘dau yu’ explaining about the history of the palace, though half the time I couldn’t catch up with what she was saying. Losing interest with her explanation I spend the time snapping photos. The main courtyard building was under reconstruction, no doubt to be spruced up ready for Beijing Olympics 2008, but I guess their progress will be very slow, considering the way hidden ancient artifacts kept being uncovered as the workers repaired the buildings. Work will have to be stopped and the archeological experts have to be called in to extract the hidden treasures carefully. Things like paper or leather manuscripts and scrolls having age over time were very fragile and easily disintegrate when mishandled.

T-Shirts for sale!After the palace visit, we were taken to the Ya Xiu Market for our shopping spree. Having been to China before, if you want to buy anything, you have to really haggle. If you are an expert in bargaining you should be able to get about 80% off the offered price. Otherwise be satisfied with about 60-70% discount. One of my colleagues was not aware that we could bargain so much and her first purchase she only managed a paltry 20% off the offered price. After showing them the ropes so to speak, they were like experts and got the desired target of 60-70% discount. So much so that the shop keepers said we were such good negotiators!

ShowgirlsWe wrap up the day with a cultural performance where the local acrobatic troupe showed off their acrobatic prowess. The stunts were quite dangerous, and were executed with much precision. Of course they were trained from young and finally achieving their level of skill to finally enthralled us with their abilities. They jumped, somersaulted, spun and rolled using ropes, poles, loops, it was really dizzying watching them do all their acrobatic tricks.

Finally our tour was over, but we were not satisfied as we want to see a little more of Beijing. We had some free time on Saturday morning before we need to check in to the evening flight. So we negotiated for some extra tour and paid accordingly.

This time we got to see the Beijing modern lifestyle as we were taken to Wang Fu Jing Street where the well-to-do go for their shopping. It was no point buying anything here as the branded goods could after all be found in Malaysia and Singapore too. We came here just to have a look see at their modern lifestyle. After the shopping hours closed – which was rather early by Malaysian standards – 9 o’clock at night, we were taken to Dong Hua Men Street where local treats and snacks were served. I could catch a whiff of that awful smelling tofu which I heard was really delicious, but only if you can overcome your nose rejection of that terrible pungent smell which actually smells like rotting garbage! And I thought durian was smelly, the smelly tofu really tops the list. Of course we didn’t have to eat the smelly tofu as there was many other variety of nose friendly stuff to try out.

Waiting for customers at the Hutong alleys of Beijing.The next day, we were taken to the old Hutong alleys where the working class people stayed. It has a nice flavour and charm to it as were taken by trishaws through the old alley ways of Beijing. Quite a contrast to the grandeur of palaces and imposing Great Wall as we were now taken to the street level life of olden days. The tour included a visit to one of the Hutong house which was open to tourist, and the Hutong guide explained yet again in Mandarin about the layout of the Hutong alleys and Hutong house and the old culture behind it. Though many of restrictive culture has been abandoned to a more modern way of living, such as an unmarried girl could not go in or out by the front door but must use the back door because that was her status. Some old culture just needed to be done away with while the better ones should be kept alive.

After the Hutong tour it was back to shopping again and this time it was the Hong Qiao Pearl Market. It was bigger than Ya Xiu and again we have to bargain like mad to get the desired discount. We were running low on cash so we could only selectively made our purchases. My colleagues were at a loss as to what souvenirs to buy as there were so many choices. But after walking about for awhile, they managed to select something for keepsakes and as gifts for their family back home.

By noon time we were hungry, and ‘dau yu’ took us to a really local shop to try their local food. It was a big difference in comparison with all the restaurant food which we were eating all this while. Now we get to try what the locals eat.

Finally it was time to go, and we were taken to the airport for our departure. Overall it was a nice to revisit good old Beijing and I could still remember some of the places and it brought back memories of my previous visit which I looked back fondly.

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