Beijing--August 23, 2004--Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square
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We met our tour group after breakfast; in total, the group consisted of twelve individuals, all very experienced world travelers. Besides ourselves, six of the group were from Arizona, two from Minnesota and two from Michigan. Our national tour leader was a woman named Zhu who stayed with us throughout China, except for the ending days in Hong Kong. Along the way, we picked up a local guide in each city, who provided the local perspective and assisted Zhu on the tour. All guides were very good and Zhu was outstanding in all respects. The tour was arranged by Pacific Delight Tours.
Once introductions were over, we proceeded to the Forbidden City and Imperial Palace, a vast complex of about 80 acres containing a huge number of red-walled buildings and pavilions topped by glazed vermillion tile (8-43). Construction of the palace began in 1406 and it took an army of 200,000 workers 14 years to complete it. The entire complex is surrounded by a moat, 171 feet wide and 2 1/2 miles long. The palace was home to 24 emperors between 1420 and 1923. Most of the original construction was wood and the complex has experienced many fires over the years. Enormous water urns like those shown in photo 24 were used for fire protection. Today, most of the buildings date from the 18th century.
Because of the enormity of the complex (9,999 rooms), much of it has fallen into disrepair (30) but the government has launched a two phase renovation of the structures, the first phase to be completed by the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the remainder by 2020. Buildings with green netting are being renovated currently.
At the end of the Palace tour, we stopped in the gift shop and watched a young woman paint a scene on the inside of a glass ball--it seemed like very tedious work (39).
From the Forbidden City we proceeded to lunch (44) and experienced the gastronomy that would be the pattern for the next two and a half weeks. Every morning we had a Western-style breakfast at the hotel, all of which served huge buffets of both Western and Chinese food. The buffets were far larger than typical restaurant buffets in America. Later in the day at lunch and most dinners, the group was seated 4-12 at a table where 10-15 Chinese courses were delivered on family style platters and placed on a lazy susan in the center of the table. Each diner could sample from the wide assortment and one always found several dishes that were excellent. In spite of the Chinese cuisine present throughout the tour, it seemed like dishes never were repeated and all of the group acquired a new respect for Chinese food. Occasionally, the group had a Western dinner in the evening. All meals were either in hotels or local Chinese restaurants and the service was always outstanding with several waiters and waitresses serving every table.
After lunch, we bussed to the Summer Palace (45-64). Conceived in the 12th century, today most of the remaining buildings date from about 1900, having been destroyed a couple of times by invading armies. Originally used as a retreat (seven miles from the center of Beijing), it eventually became the full-time residence of the Empress Dowager Cixi.
The complex of 716 acres contains Kunming Lake, the Seventeen Arch Bridge (55-56) and the Long Corridor. The corridor is about a half mile long and each crossbeam, ceiling and pillar is painted with a scene from Chinese history (about 10,000 in the corridor shown at 59-60, 62). We had planned to take a ride on the dragon boats (56A) but the line waiting to do so was too long so we skipped it. During this week, sites were exceptionally crowded since it was the last week of vacation before all Chinese children returned to school on September 1.
Near the end of the visit, we saw the Marble Boat (63-64), an extravagance paid for by the Manchu court which was in irreversible decline due to corruption. Funds for the boat's construction were diverted from the naval fleet to create this plaything for the empress dowager.
Late in the afternoon, we visited Tiananmen Square (64A-72), a vast space, comparable to 90 American football fields. It is the world's largest square and can hold 300,000 persons. Memories are still vivid in China of the 1989 student uprising here and its violent suppression. A few of the guides on the tour mentioned that perhaps the suppression was not as extreme as portrayed by the Western press. Now the area functions as a huge park with couples taking evening strolls and many kites flying. Ringing the square are various public buildings including the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Other monuments commemorate Mao's Long March (70) about 5,000 miles across China which started with 85,000 men and ended with 6,000 troops in a political outpost, from which Mao rose 15 years later to power.
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