December 27, 2007

Happy new year, friends! :)


Hi everyone! I know I said I'd try and finish my Beijing posts before the year ends but it doesn't look like it's gonna happen. I have about 3 more posts to go but I'll be away from the computer from today until the 30th. I'm leaving in a couple of hours for the city of Xiamen in China with a girl friend of mine. I'm really excited about this trip because we're venturing slightly off the beaten path, by choosing this city over HongKong, Singapore and Laos - some of our options. I don't know very much about it, only know maybe two people who have been there, and that just makes it all the more intriguing to me.

One of my friends who has not only been there recently, but also spent some time studying there some years ago, was kind enough to send me an envelope of maps and guides to Xiamen. She even thoughtfully added her own tips and comments on sticky notes, how sweet is she? :) Thanks so much, M! These will definitely come in handy for sure. :)

On another note; I am truly blessed and grateful for the family and friends that I have and for the time I was given to spend with almost all of them this Christmas. All those dinner parties and get-together made my holidays that much more special.

I hope everyone's holidays has been filled with warmth and lots of love, laughter and good food. I'm sending each of you a wish that the new year brings with it even more blessings for you and your family, and that it be your grandest year yet!. :)

December 23, 2007

Takin' it to the streets

Rickshaws at rest

Prior to my trip to Beijing, I imagined the city to be somewhat small and more laid-back compared to the rapidly developing and booming Shanghai in the south. But while this may be an accurate comparison, I haven't been to Shanghai so I can't tell you for sure, there is nothing small about Beijing and it it not quite so laid-back. Like a dart board with the Forbidden city as bull's eye, Beijing is circled by ring roads. I never expected to see 12-lane expressways (the outer lanes on each side for bicycles) such as the 2nd ring rd. that runs through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

You can't help feel that the city is in a breathless race to the 21st century, making up for lost time. There seems to be construction everywhere changing the city's lanscape forever. But tucked away from the sound of jackhammers and blaring car horns are little pockets of the past, charming remnants of the old way of life, threaded together by narrow lanes called hutongs. Some of the hutongs are so narrow (Qianshi Hutong, 40 cms wide) that only a thin person could walk though it, sideways.


a typical hutong

The word hutong was originally the Mongolian word for 'well' which were found on practically every street and in every square. They were central to the local's lives, being the major source of water supply which gave the locals the rare opportunity to socialise with one another. Like a honeycomb with many cells, residential complexes called siheyuan are scattered along these hutongs. The sihueyan best represent China's traditional housing architecture; familes and even whole communities live around a central open-air courtyard, in homes which were handed down the generations as gifts of historical importance. Depending on the family's social status, the designs ranged from simple and small-scale to large courtyards with carefully landscaped gardens and ornate roof beams.

The best way to navigate this charming tangled mess of alleys and doorways is on foot. Walking makes it easy to stop whenever you feel like to peek into courtyards through open doorways, to exchange nods and smiles with the locals that are going about their usual business, to take pictures of interesting things like street signs, purveyors of street food, charming windows and doorways. But if walking is not your thing or you are pressed for time, there are rickshaws for hire and you can even request for an English-speaking guide to show you around, which is what we did.

Beijing bicycle 2

the bicycle is still the preferred way to get around

We climbed into our rickshaws at the junction of the Bell and Drum Towers and hired a nice lady guide. It was a very pleasant and leisurely journey, a far cry from the usual sounds of traffic, being taken around in bicycle-powered rickshaws. Pedaling her own bicycle alongside us, our guide engaged us in stories about this hutong or that one, and which prominent person, minister, mother of which empress, lived by that courtyard, and what drama went on beind the walls of that sihueyan.

We rode past children rushing home from school, their backpacks bouncing with each step; men and women and chidren and elderly alike rode past us in bicycles of their own, jingling their bells in greeting or warning, depending on the situation; old men sat outside in the shade large trees playing checkers; we passed a butcher shop, a fishmonger, countless fruit stands, doorways adorned with Chinese characters, grey brick walls decorated with ornamental tiling, windows lined with old bent leather shoes, a clothesline with underwear in varying shapes and sizes.

We were invited for a short visit inside one of the homes that was tucked away at the end of narrow passageway through which we had to walk single-file. We stepped into a tiny courtyard shaded by a mandarin orange tree decorated with red Chinese lanters and strings of red and green crepe paper. Chili plants lined the window sills, strings of garlic hung on the walls outside the kitchen and a caged owl perched above goldfish swimming inside a big blue and white vase. We were led by the lady of the house into one of the rooms (from which I took a photo of the courtyard below) which doubled as a guest room and living area. With the help of our guide who translated for both parties, we chatted with her while we sat around a simple wooden table munching on plum candies. We asked questions about her family and her life in the hutongs which she seemed only too happy to answer.


The tour gave us a glimpse into a unique culture that is slowly being paved away by modernisation. So while there are still a few thousand hutongs that have survived, it is imperative that all visitors to Beijing include this tour in their itinerary.

December 21, 2007

A violent past and a eunuch culture

Wow, I've had this post in draft for over a month! I can't believe how difficult it has been to squeeze in some blogging time lately. I also realized that since my trip to Beijing, I've gone on another trip (Dumaguete, which I'll be posting about later) and I'm getting ready for yet another next week, which will all add to my growing backlog of posts! Hayayay! So I have to work double time on updates. Thank you for being patient with me! :)

Tiananmen Square

The hotel we were staying in was centrally-located at Wangfujing Rd., walking distance to the two most prominent sites in the heart of Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. In fact, at the break of dawn every morning B & T would run a full lap around those famous red walls and log their miles into their iPod nanos. Man, I really admire their determination. I, on the other hand, was on pure vacation mode, wanting to get as much sleep as I could before tackling this big and wondrous city each day.

When we arrived at Tiananmen Square early one morning, there were already lots of people there. Most were tourists who wore buttons or bright colored caps that distinguished them from other groups. Tour guides were everywhere speaking in various foreign languages to visitors from around the world. The square was immaculate despite the crowd and the grass surrounding the Monument to the People's Heroes bore neatly mowed stripes. The weather was pleasant and there was not a cloud in the sky; only more of those dancing kites I'd seen at the Temple of Heaven. It was the picture of peace. I found it difficult to imagine that it had seen so much violence and bloodshed when several hundred (some say even thousands) people were killed when the military crushed a nationwide democratic protest that had been staged there for seven weeks, earning it the notorious nickname the Tiananmen Square Massacre and condemnation from around the world.

guard at heroes monument

The Great Hall of the People lies along the west side of the square and is the site of Congress meetings. Adjacent to that, on the southern side, is the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall where Chairman Mao's body lies in a crystal coffin. To the east is China's National Museum which houses both historical and revolutionary relics from China's long history. Today, on the museum's facade is a large digital countdown proclaiming 279 days, 9 hours, 28 minutes and 47 seconds to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

forbidden city entrance

At the north side, we crossed through an underground walkway and emerged at the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City. At this point my stomach started to turn, as it usually does when I'm about to experience something big or life-changing.

Here are a few facts about the Forbidden City: construction began in 1406 and lasted about fifteen years; it lies right in the center of ancient Beijing and is the world's largest surviving palace complex, covering an area of 720,000 square meters or 74 hectares; there are about 980 buildings and 9,999 rooms within those red walls; it was home to 24 emperors during the Ming & Qing dynasties; the walls are made with white lime and glutinous rice cemented together with glutinous rice and egg whites; red being the symbolic color of imperial power is dominant throughout. It served as residence of the Imperial family and their household staff and as offices of the ministers.


forbidden city 3

This universe within a universe is a massive complex of courtyards, bridges and halls guarded by watch towers on every corner, and with the Imperial throne at it's center. In the old days, eunuchs dominated the population in the hundreds of thousands followed by the Emperor's numerous concubines dressed in swishing silk and tottering on shoes mounted on eight inch platforms. The sexually-impotent eunuchs played an important role in ensuring the purity of the concubines; they played a dual role of guardian and pimp when each night the Emperor would choose which of the women would be paying him a visit in his bed chamber. It is also believed that eunuchs posed no threat to the Emperor as they would never covet his political power for he could never sire a son to pass it on to.

forbidden city 4

Suffice it to say I was awe-struck as we strolled through the grounds, and even more so as we passed through the Gate of Supreme Harmony, the main entrance to the central courtyard and found ourselves before the the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest of all halls. Roofs are adorned with glazed yellow tiles and dragon guardians; the imperial bridges are paved with single-piece marble slabs carved with intricate designs; and doors are lined with nine rows of nine nails, nine being the imperial lucky number. Much of what I remember about the Forbidden City are scene flashes from Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor where the Imperial Palace looked extra-massive around the diminutive emperor Pu Yi. But it was even more massive than I could have ever imagined.

Life within these walls was ruled by strict protocol and ceremony. Certain doorways and bridges were reserved solely for the Emperor's passage and no one but the Emperor was allowed to dress in purple. The boys were banished to the outside world upon reaching puberty and daughters upon marriage, leaving behind only castrated manservants, imprisoned virgin maids and concubines, and the priveleged imperial family. It was a secret world that revolved around the throne; operating on a system wrought by anguish, greed, corruption, bribery, intrigues, treachery... ironically within a labyrinth of halls with names so poetic as Hall of Earthly Peace, Hall of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Preserved Harmony, Palace of Tranquil Longevity, and Gate of Celestial Purity.


We wrapped up our tour with a visit to the Imperial Garden where man-made structures maintain harmony with ancient trees, flower beds and large boulders. Below is a lumpy old cypress tree by the Pavillion of Lasting Sunshine.