Day 5: Just Follow Uncle Joe

Today is another day I have been excited for ever since we were given our itinerary. We were going to the Forbidden City, going on a Hutong Tour, and going to the Temple of Heaven and having a tai chi class at the temple. It’s a busy day, but it was absolutely incredible.

After waking up and having a quick breakfast, we went on the bus for a quick ride to the Forbidden City. Uncle Joe was back with us for the day and was telling us more jokes as we drove to the city. The city is central to Beijing, and our hotel isn’t too far away from the center. Once we got to the city, I noticed an immediate increase in people in one area. There were so many tour groups all with matching hats (which I think the kids going on Plus 3 should get next year). This is the amount of people I expected to see in Beijing on the daily throughout the city just because it has such a large population and I haven’t been able to grasp that there are 23 million people in this city yet. Today changed that though once we got to the Forbidden City. The entrance of the Forbidden City can only be described as impressive. The first building was very large and had a huge picture of Mao on the front. There were water fountains everywhere, and it was all very elegant, especially with the traditional Chinese architecture.

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We went through the first building and walked through the gates. The doors had these huge knobs on them and apparently, if you touch them as you walk through, it’s good luck. I need all the luck I can get, so I touched all the knobs. We continued walking and we ran into more buildings that looked similar to the first, but not as large. Uncle Joe was telling us that we were walking through the political part of the city, and the city is in fact 180 acres, and there is no way we would be able to go through the entire city. I originally thought the city was a few buildings with his palace in the center, but that is not the case.

These buildings in the political part of the city had their own individual purpose to serve the emperor. On the sides, there were the living quarters for his many servants. If you wanted to stay in all the quarters for one night each night, it would take you a little over 27 years to do so. The size of the city kept impressing me more and more.

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We eventually got to the Imperial Gardens, which were stunning. There were several rock sculptures within the garden as well as trees that were curvy and dragon statues. Again, everything was stunning, impressive, and elegant. I could have spent hours in the garden alone, but Uncle Joe only gave us 15 minutes before we were moving on to the next place. We passed a few more of the buildings similar to the first before we reached the end of the political section of the city and were facing the imperial directly in front of us on top of a hill. We did not go up to the palace, but even from afar, it was clearly built for an emperor and was very incredible. Our bus was waiting for us, and it whisked us away to our next activity – the Hutong Tour.

The Hutong Tour was a tour of a small village for lack of a better term within the city of Beijing. “Hutong” is actually a Mongolian word that means “alley.” This area is composed of many different alleyways that each lead to different houses. Alleys typically lead to a courtyard shared by about 6 families. Each family has their own living space, but they share the courtyard (which also includes with bathroom) with each other. Some of the buildings were built during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, so they are very old and represent a unique part of Chinese history. These buildings appear to be home to a poorer section of the population, but actually their age, cultural representation, and central location in the city cause these homes to be actually very expensive and home to a richer population. The reason the homes appear to be in disarray is because the government doesn’t want that history to be changed and want the buildings to remain the way they are.

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Our tour of this area was given partly on a rickshaw. A rickshaw is made of a bike that has a cart in the back that two people sit in and the biker pulls around. It was a cool experience to be on one, but kind of scary when a car tried driving down these narrow streets and we were in the way. Our driver let us out at the entrance of one of the resident’s houses. Her house was built during the Ming Dynasty, and she had many relics from that time period, including a chair unknowingly sat in. This is the type of stuff that belongs in museums, but she just casually has them in her house for tourists to touch and see. It’s crazy. We also had another lady come in and play a Chinese harp for us. This harp had its strings laid horizontally across a wooden plank. The woman played it by putting these metal guitar pics on each of her fingers and plucked the strings. It was truly elegant and sounded beautiful. As we left, we were given Chinese knots that symbolized good luck (again I need all the luck I can get). Overall, it was a really unique way to experience a part of Chinese culture and history that I don’t think I would have sought out on my own if I was not on this program. Just another reason why I’m so happy to be here. After our Hutong Tour, we went to lunch at a local place that served the meal again family-style. Like always, everything was delicious, and they had the beans again, so everyone was very excited.

From lunch, we traveled to our next destination – the Temple of Heaven. This temple was utilized once a year when the emperor would pray to the god of heaven and ask for good fortune the next year while also completing animal sacrifices. All of the animals were bred in one area, and oddly enough, we had a tai chi class in the area that these animals lived. Despite the morbid history of its location, the tai chi class was really fun. I have never done tai chi before, so this was a totally new experience that I really enjoyed. None of us were very good and I bet our teacher did not like us at the end of the class, but it was a good time nonetheless. After the class, we went to the temple itself.

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The structure of the temple was circles stacked on top of one another and completely hollow on the inside, so there were no stairs. The temple was gorgeous and was decorated very similarly to other buildings we have seen like the Forbidden City. Lots of red and gold on the outside, and all the beams were painted a vibrant blue and green. I feel like I keep describing everything as beautiful and impressive, but that’s because everything is. Everything is absolutely gorgeous and incredible, and I would stay in each location for hours if I could, but Uncle Joe was strict with his 15-minute time limits. I really loved this temple because it was the first one we have seen that was circular which made it very unique. From the Temple of Heaven, we drove back to the hotel to have the rest of the night free.

I’m ashamed of myself to say that dinner this night was not Chinese food… We ate Domino’s instead… I just needed a break from Chinese food and I knew we would be having dumplings tomorrow night, so I didn’t want to overdue the Chinese food. We’ve been having a lot of the same stuff recently, so I wanted to shake things up. It wasn’t ideal, but I will be having only Chinese food for the rest of the trip. Nonetheless, it was really good pizza.

A friend and I wanted to go downtown to the 798 Art Zone. I heard that this place was a central area that art museums were at and that there were many different sculptures and paintings outside to also view. It sounded really cool, so we took the subway to get there which took two transfers, but it wasn’t that difficult. We were following a map to get there and the map said that we were there, but it looked like a bunch of apartment buildings. There was a sign that said 798 out front, so we were definitely in the right area. However, there looked like no art was around. We were confused, so we walked around the block a bit more and still didn’t find anything. We decided to enter the apartment-looking area and found a 7/11 instead. It’s been about an hour at this point since we’ve gotten here, so we decided to call it quits. We each bought an ice cream instead (mine was shaped like a fish), sat on the steps of a closed restaurant, and just watched the people walk by. It was by no means the night I was expecting or wanted, but it was still a cool way to get out and explore the city.

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Instead of the subway this time, we wanted to take a taxi to get back to the hotel. We got denied by 3 taxis in the course of 45 minutes. We were getting very frustrated until we ran into a few other people who also went to the Art Zone that night. We all stuck together and finally got a taxi. When I got back, I kept hearing people were going to the hospital because they were throwing up and having stomach problems. In the morning, I would hear that 7 people went to the hospital because of a stomach bug. I felt fine, so I was very lucky. Once I finished packing up my stuff, I went to bed because we leave for Xi’an the next day. I feel like I’m dragging bricks on my feet at the end of every day, but it’s definitely worth it considering what we’re able to do each day.

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