Golden Buddha, gleaming dragon - May 2016
Steve at the Great Wall
Forbidden City garden
Processional Way, Forbidden City
Dragon Boat on the Summer Palace lake
Arriving in Beijing from the airport along a wide tree lined highway, Jo and I were surprised to see such a Westernised city, replete with Starbucks, Prada and Gap... yet if you looked more closely you could already catch tempting glimpses of old Beijing, with its small grey roofed hutong dwellings lining narrow streets, lions guarding colourful buildings and gateways with rooftops curling upwards towards the heavens.
We spent most of our time with American pal Jack Beermann who showed us around with his son Adam. Our first trip was to Tiananmen Square. This enormous space easily brought to mind those vast gatherings of Mao's China.
Once through the gateway of Tiananmen Tower from which Mao's portrait still watches the square, we walked on into the Forbidden City, home to the emperors from 14th to early 20th centuries. We wove through impressive ornate buildings interspersed by huge open spaces with a straight pathway running through the middle for the Emperor to be transported via sedan chair. The final part was the labyrinthine residential area for Emperor, wives, captive concubines and eunuchs. I was struck by the strange but beautiful lush gardens with painted pavilions and weird shaped rocks.
From the Imperial palace of the living to the underworld palace of departed Emperors, we visited the Ming tombs, just outside Beijing at the foot of Dragon Mountain, entered via the sacred way through gates and in part lined by statues.
The Temple of Heaven in Beijing was particularly fascinating. This was also largely built along a processional pathway for the Emperor, here through a series of temple buildings, mostly cylindrical in shape representing the heavenly sphere. The main impressive structure has three tiers of beautiful blue roof tiles. Inside at the top of the cupola in a circle is a golden dragon, symbol of ultimate power. The sense of extraordinary beauty blended with disturbing stories of old was equally matched in the Summer Palace, where the 'Dragon Lady' (Empress Dowager Cixi) risen from concubine status had control over China for many years, literally killing off the opposition and then imprisoning her emperor nephew to disempower him. But this place with its gloriously beautiful garden beside a large lake is breathtaking and a total joy to visit. Sailing across the water via dragon boat you see temples, pagodas, pavilions and an ornate old bridge. It's a Chinese fairytale place...
We also enjoyed exploring the Tibetan / Chinese Buddhist Lama temple, with its magical buildings and extraordinary golden Buddhas culminating with a huge statue three storeys high. Jo and I loved the mystical feel amidst the devotees within clouds of incense. This was followed by the tranquility of the Confucian temple and Imperial College gardens.
Jack's Chinese friends who had been his law students were very friendly and hospitable. Jessica and Travis treated us to both the Forbidden City tour and a fabulous evening at the Lao She Tea House with both meal and show, involving dancers, singers, jugglers, flying Kung Fu and morphing masks. We met several of Jack's pals as well in the Great Leap Brewery deep within a hutong labyrinth...
From the inner sanctum of Beijing to the rugged land beyond, we travelled to see one of the seven wonders of the world... The Great Wall of China, which covers an area of over 5000 miles and dates back many hundreds of years. Climbing its steep slopes and steps between imposing watchtowers, our eyes followed its serpentine path, snaking around and over the mountains. It was overwhelming. This massive structure is more than just a wall. You can feel the pulse of its turbulent history throbbing through that wild landscape.
We were overawed with impressions of the most incredible places and experiences we will never forget. I'm already haunted by musical echoes of this fabulous place. I recommend Beijing to everyone, and hope one day to return.
Steve and Jo in the Forbidden City
Golden Buddha at the Lama Temple
Steve with dragon wall, Forbidden City
Jessica, Adam, Jack, Steve and Travis outside the Lao She Tea House
Steve at the Summer Palace
Steve at the Ming Tombs
The Temple of Heaven
Kung Fu at the Tea House show