05.10.2006 - 09.10.2006 20 °C
October is a very important month for Koreans.Chuseok -the second biggest holiday in Korea is here and we are off to China! Chuseok celebrations are mainly about remembering, paying respect and honouring the life of family ancestors and relatives who had passed away (idea that I could in some ways compare to All Saints /Souls Day although the rituals are different).During this time, apart from having a bit more time off,there isn't much to do for foreigners here. We decided to take advantage and make our first trip out of the country to see the first western neighbours.We picked a 5 day spin around Beijing, its surroundings and The Great Wall Of China. But just before we boarded the plane we decided to have a picture taken (we did not pay for this) in traditional Korean clothes -what do we look like?Go on have a laugh!!! Korean people continue wearing simplified versions of their traditional clothes for special occasions such us birthdays, weddings etc and you will find posed family photographs of people wearing those clothes in every house.
As 5 days isn't very long we went on a package tour thinking we'd try to see the maximum of places at the nice pace without the trip being too hectic for Maja. Once in the van with our Chinese guide Sophie we met our "group" - 2 other people -1 American guy (whose grandad was Polish) and a Korean American girl who lived in America for most of her life so wasn't very familiar with Korea. We were slightly suprised to see that however small our group was we all had different itineraries -including Maja who was going to see the Chinese Opera while we were to enjoy the famous Chinese acrobats! We quickly agreed what we did or did not want to do or see but it was a bit difficult to communicate to the guide who seemed a bit confused about everything even the question about when and why Peking had its name changed to Beijing . We soon found out that there wasn't much information we would get out of her so we dipped our noses in our bookguides to find out more about places we were seeing.
The drive from the airport to the hotel allowed us a quick overview of Beijing. The city gave an impression of a land of concrete filled with great monument like buidings with ribbons of neon lights mainly red streaming through. We were driving on one of the serpentine highroads that run through the city which led us nearly to our hotel door. After the evening drive Beijing seemed to me to be grand, overweight with colossal buidings and tired-just being there and trying to take it all with the same speed as the one of our driver, left goosebumps on my skin. Having arrived in the evening there wasn't much time for anything else but a bath and some time on the balcony looking at the city! If it wasn't for Maja I believe it would be a different story and we would be down there with the city lights!!! But we didn't mind -being able to float in the bath tub and stretch out in bed without falling out were attractions to us as well as we don't have these luxuries back at home , well back in Seoul.
When we woke up I made my move to the balcony to see the city in the daylight. To my suprise it was very foggy and felt like I needed glasses. It wasn't until later in the day,when I asked the guide whether it was often foggy like this and not understanding my question she kept saying it was typical autumn weather, that it occured to me and the others it wasn't the fog after all but the pollution. It seemed so bad to me and I felt relieved that we were only there for a few days, at the same time I felt sorry for the Chinese people who have no other choice but to breathe it all on daily basis and daft and thoughtless for asking the guide about it.
It seems so unfair that the country pays for its economical growth with fresh air!
Anyway apart from the "fog" it was totally different view to the one I still had from the night before. Although it was still very early in the morning the streets were lively and buzzying with noise of bicycles' rings.Thanks to hundreds of people cycling slowly on their bikes to work etc city lost its weight and felt somehow airier.
After a fully enjoyable breakfast of anything you wanted (eggs and bacon was Nick's first course -remember we came from Seoul, a variety of cereals and fruits for Maja and unfamiliar looking things for me) we were ready to go.
We met the others and headed to Tian'anmen Square. I'm not even starting to describe the size of the place but just so you know it's the size of 63 football pitches put all together!
It wasn't just in Korea that people had time off work, also here Chinese people were celebrating "Moon Holiday" -second only to the Chinese New Year in significance -the moon on this day is the fullest and largest to the eye,viewing it by the whole family while feasting on good wine, fruits and moon-cakes is the night's main event. There is also a beautiful story behind it. Children are told that there's a fairy on the moon living in a spacious but cold crystal palace with her sole companion, a jade rabbit. A heavenly general and friend would occasionally pay her a visit, bringing along his fragrant wine. She would then dance a beautiful dance. The shadows on the moon made the story all the more credible and fascinating to the young imaginative mind.
It was also the 57th anniversary of the creation of People's Republic of China[/b] and Tian'anmen Square was packed with local, domestic and international tourists. It was a great time to visit as we could see it at its best - in full glory with flowers, flags and unity of Chinese people -some well dressed looking like they just popped out of the office, the others a bit tired and "worn" seemed like they had travelled from far away provencies to be there on that day. The place overwhelmed us not just with its size but also with the dignity and importance it had to people. Until 1949 even looking in its direction was strictly prohibited!
We read that it was a tradition to fly a kite on the square so we bought 1 for Maja to fly which was a bit of a mission amongst the crowds but she did it! Nick and the American guy bought "Mao waving watches" after the long bargain with the guy! We also wanted to visit Mao's Mausoleum but the queue was far too loooooooooooooooong.
After that we went to visit The Forbidden City - a place isolated for over 500 years and first opened for the general public in 1949 allowing others to step into somewhere what used to be the secret world of emperors, eunuchs, ceremonies and splendour although we found major parts of it in restoration.
Again words that keep flooding my mind are the ones to describe the size of it. It is massive. Thinking of it now I suppose the size of it strikes you first simply because it was never designed to be walked through in a couple of hours as we did. It was a city just like any others (???) where different aspects of life had to be accomodated -from daily pleasures and routines of the Emperor within its palaces walls to the army presentations outside the palaces but still within the city walls. To cut it short I'll put it in a few words -vast, spacious, red, exceptionally well preserved, lots of roofs to look at and so so different to the world outside it!
Having marched the length of the Tian'anmen Square and wandered from wall to wall in Forbidden City it was time to have lunch. As we were in Beijing we had to try the famous Peking duck. She arrived in one piece on a big plate,all shining brown, richly glazed with white paper cuffs around its legs and apparently very tasty.
Here is how to do it if you want to have a go at home no need to buy the whole bird though :http://www.videojug.com/film/how-to-make-peking-duck
I had to do with spring onions and other vegetables (yammy chinese mushrooms)wrapped in rice pancakes and dipped in different sauces.
After lunch we continued exploring and toured my favourite place The Summer Palace and its surrounding grounds with beautiful gardens and the lake. It just had a wonderful feel to it and would serve me just fine as a summer residence - while in my dreamland I forgot to take any pictures of it except for
the snakeskin beast at the front gate and some by the lake.
My fondness of it began while walking through its different halls and reading up their names (here is a little taste: Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, Hall of Virtue and Harmony, Hall of Jade Ripples, Hall of Joyful Longevity, Hall of Dispelling Clouds (!!!!), Hall of the Sea of Wisdom...and so it continues....just imagine saying "I shall have my cup of leaf tea in the Hall of Dispelling Clouds today"). And then there view of the lake that suddenly opened in front of us with its boats and the reproduction of The Marco Polo Bridge.We just had to have a ride....and what a ride it was -on the dragon boat,in the gleam of the setting sun and to the gongs striking for a prayer in the temple that was rising on the hill as we were passing by...........
After the palace we had dinner and went to see An Acrobats Show in Chaoyang Theatre. The show was truely amazing-death defying and at times ridiculous-picture 4 girls riding around the stage on one bicycle and another 8 joining in one by one as the bicycle passes by, jumping on the frame or colleague's knee and keeping the bicycle going and if that wasn't enough juggling the plates and what have you!!! Maja was captivated, during the intervals entertained the crowd with her own balancing display and clapped her hands forever at the end of the show.
Once it had finished we went back to the hotel and sunk in the bathtub!
We got up "with the birds" next morning to start another exciting day and visit one of the 7 wonders of the world (Middle Ages) ,the world's longest man made structure (over 6000 kms long), the only structure that can be seen from the Moon (which had now been proved untrue) or less popular name "world' longest cemetry" or "the long graveyard" due to amount of people that died or were buried alive while buiding it - The Great Wall of China.Built to defend borders and withstand the enemy attacks the wall continues to impress. It is suprisingly narrow and steep in places and it takes time to climb some parts of it due to popularity amongst other travellers but while on your way you're being rewarded by fantastic views stretching at 360 degrees and a feeling of being somewhere you -for some unexplained reason- always wanted to visit.
And of course we were so proud of Maja who kept climbing the Great Wall with lots of enthusiasm but also wanted to get to the top and back to the bottom as fast as she could for her ice cream and "I climbed The Great Wall" T-shirt - promised to her in difficult moments of her "climb" and so well deserved ! Well done Maja!!!
After our adventure with the wall we went to see just recently excavated Ming Tombs but didn't have a lot of time there as the guide kept rushing us in order to go and visit some "emporiums" selling traditional Chinese souvenirs. We wanted to skip that part of the itinerary but the guide told us she had to take us there and get her book stamped to show to the agency she was employed by and if we didn't go she would be in trouble ...well...
There were few issues in between sightseeing : the driver not wanting to drive unless we tipped him,the guide complaining about not being paid for doing her job, the driver and the guide undoubtedly not getting on,not enough food for all of us while it was all supposed to be included in the package and so on but we won't go into details as we still had a great time.
We had one afternoon free and decided to go and visit hutongs - very old alley ways where people continue to live in very basic conditions. Although you are free to walk anywhere as they are just small streets and the life goes on ,we felt like we were intruding in someones backyard although noone seemed to be bothered by us.
We also visited The Temple of Heaven -known to be the largest sacrificial complex in the world, architecturely representing Chinese thought of the times that the Earth was square and Heaven round. We were not very lucky with the weather on this day as it kept raining but we still manage to see a fair bit.
We also visited nearby park and observed how wonderfully the local people went about their day
We could also see some signs of China's preparations towards 2008 Olympics as well as many buiding sites around the city and many attractions being worked on and restored.
This month we liked:
"Walking ten thousand miles of world is better than reading ten thousand scrolls of books."
http://www.videojug.com -brilliant for Asian cooking recipes and more!!!! Am I getting old?
"Kite Rider"-by Geraldine McCaughrean
"The river at the centre of the world - a journey up the Yangtze, and back in Chinese time"- Simon Winchester
"The art of travel"- Alain De Botton
documentary about Yinzheng and his visions
"The Last Emperor" -great for viewing the Forbidden City
"Curse of the Golden Flower" -as above
While reading up about traditional holidays in China I was astonished to find out that there are few official holidays celebrated same in China as well as in Poland. I guess they were established by communist party in both countries and whatever opinions of them we have now (in Poland many people don't like them simply because they were labelled 'communist' but remembering it through my child eyes I seem to have very fond memories of them)
International Women's Day (March 8)
China -"interestingly, women employees will get a whole or an half paid day-off on the day while the men are at the mercy of their employers"
Poland -celebrations vary, but from what I remember women used to receive pair of tights or chocolates at the entries to their work places, men would usually buy flowers for their female family members and friends (there is also a song "Marzec, marzec pieknie sie wystroil....."
International Labor Day (May 1)
China -"no less celebrated than the New Year's Day. Employees will enjoy a paid day-off. Celebration parties in parks took the place of parades today."
Poland- paid day off and celebrations, parades around the coutry, speeches, live shows and entertainment with communist or labour related themes-often performed by school kids etc -that's what it used to be like when I was a child. I think it is still a day off but there are no celebrations as such.
Children's Day (June 1)
China -"It is the most memorable day of Chinese kids all over the country. Almost all entertainment places such as cinemas, parks and children museums and palaces are open free to them. Elementary schools throw celebration parties while parents shower them with presents."
Poland - same as in China although called International Children's Day which made us think -that we were celebrating the day with all the children of the world! I can still remember the taste of the ice creams my mum and dad treated us to on that day! It is not that they would not buy as ice creams on other occasions but this was a special day out to "kawiarnia" - where the word "ice cream" took on totally different meaning -Polish guys will know exactly what I mean