Hello, all! I got back from China and North Korea 5 days ago… still alive, as my students gleefully exclaimed on Monday. WHAT a trip! Unlike when I went to Europe, I couldn’t post each day as it happened, seeing as there’s that little problem of North Korea not having the internet. I’ve had my first digital detox in decades! Fortunately, the old technology of pen and paper still works, so I took this gorgeous leather-bound notebook with me and did the old-fashioned travel diary, just like travellers from times of yore who went to the mysterious ‘Far East’. I’m putting it out there that in these times, going to North Korea is equally as exotic, judging by the eye=popping reaction of most people when they register that you said NORTH, as opposed to SOUTH Korea.
As I was racing out the door, I realised that I didn’t have an identifying decoration on my suitcase. I was driving to Helen and Rick’s place and going in with them, so I didn’t want to be late. In a burst of inspiration, I grabbed a Chux and tied it on. No way anyone else will have one like this! Plus I’ll be ready for any cleaning emergencies that might arise. It may not have been elegant, but it was (somewhat) practical.
Ok, that last sentence was a complete rationalisation.
We got into Beijing pretty late, found our hotel after a slightly unnerving taxi ride. They drive on the wrong side of the road with a gung-ho mentality that leaves your toes curling in your shoes. We agreed that we’d meet in the morning and go to Tiananmen Square. This would have worked perfectly. I changed my watch and my phone’s timezone back 2 hours to Beijing time and climbed into bed. However, I forgot my iPad, which I cleverly placed beside the bed in case I woke up in the middle of the night and wanted to read a book. When I sleepily grabbed it next morning, I thought I was 2 hours ahead of when I really was. I jumped in the shower, wrestled with the stupid controls for getting the water through the shower tap instead of the bath tap – thank goodness for my trip to Europe or I would never have worked it out – and dashed back into the bedroom where I picked up my watch. Ok then. With the adrenalin rush there was no way I was going to go back to sleep. So I was more than ready when Helen and Rick emerged and we were ready to go.
We stopped on the street for a quick breakfast of pork buns. The stall had a huge line of people outside it so we thought we were onto a good thing. We soon discovered that pork buns without the pork filling are a doughy mass that tastes a bit like concrete. Fortified by our concrete, we walked down the street and onto the subway.
Beijing’s subway is even easier and more efficient than London’s Underground and Paris’s Metro. We loved it. Our only difficulty was knowing which station to get off at Tiananmen Square East or West. We chose one, emerged into the chilly morning and discovered a line.
We joined it. We weren’t sure what we were queuing for but it had to be for something touristy. We asked a couple of German people and it turns out we were waiting for the Forbidden City. Ok then.
The queue stretched off into the distance. It wasn’t just tourists – everyone who wanted to walk through the Square had to go through security. The Chinese had to show identity cards, tourists had to show passports and every bag went through a scanner. Fortunate Frogdancer’s luck kicked in early on this one – Helen was only here 6 months ago and she mentioned that we need our passports with us, otherwise I would’ve naturally left mine in the safe in my room. That would’ve put a damper on the day, particularly as my ticket into the Forbidden City was also my passport.
Speaking of Helen and Rick, here they are. I’ve worked with Helen for about 14 years, but we’ve never really been more than friendly sometimes-lunch friends, which in a school where there are over 150 teachers on staff isn’t that uncommon. If you’re not in the same faculty or in the same staff room, it’s really hard to catch up. Last year we were working in the hall while the school’s massive Winter Music Concert was going on and she mentioned that her son works as a tour guide in North Korea and she was about to join him on a tour. I honestly thought she was crazy. Why would you voluntarily put yourself into a country where everyone knows you stand a better-than-average chance of being jailed or blown up in a nuclear accident?
But when she emerged safely, she said a couple of things that piqued my interest. “It’s like stepping back in time to the 1960’s.” When I asked if she was able to take any photos, she laughed and said, “I’ve got over 600 photos on my phone”, before showing me pictures of a candy-coloured city. Then she said, “If you ever want to go, I’ll go back with you.”
How could I nock this one back? It was the sound of opportunity knocking.
She also brought Rick, her husband, while her son Matt was our tour guide. I became ‘Auntie Frogdancer’ as a result.
To be honest, I expected the Forbidden City to be a lot more lush and impressive. There was an awful lot of grey paving and concrete going on. However, inside some of the buildings there was more to see, while the details of painting and gold on the exteriors were very intricate and pretty.
There were 5 gates to get in, my apologies for the 5th one on the right being hidden behind a tourist’s fat head. The middle gate was only ever used by the Emperor, with the Empress using it only once when she entered the Forbidden City to be married. It was a bit haunting to think of these girls being brought into the city, all pomp and circumstance, knowing that they’d never be able to leave. Talk about a gilded prison! But when we were at the back of the palace complex, we saw a gate that said that the Empress used to go through this gate every 3 years to bless the harvest festivals.
(I think it said every 3 years, but surely they’d want a good harvest EVERY year? This is the downside of writing in a book at the end of the day – I should’ve taken a photo of the sign.)
I think this was taken inside the first or second wall. Although the 3 squares in front of the Forbidden City are huge and grey, the very size of the land used would have been incredibly impressive to anyone entering to deal with the emperor. Considering the size of the dwellings right outside the walls, this would have been a stark contrast. I can imagine that the past emperors would be spinning in their graves at the thought of commoners and foreigners swarming all over the city.
If you jostle for position in front of the doors to the buildings, you can see inside to things like the throne room, (below.)
There’s lots of little eateries and gift shops, including the place where we stopped for lunch. Helen ordered “Eggplant on eggplant”, which turned out to be scrambled eggs on a tomato-based sauce.
Here’s a sneaky snap of Helen and Rick looking for some products to maintain their youthful good looks. Actually, they were looking for a heated room. It was pretty darned cold, though I was wearing my neck-to-knee duck down coat so I was feeling pretty good. Helen and Rick were feeling it, though.
We went through another gate and suddenly there’s what I was expecting to see all along. A beautiful garden. It was formal, with an eye to longevity, with trees and shrubs selected for their long-term appearance, with some being sculpted in weird and unusual shapes. There was no way anyone could walk anywhere but on the paths; it was all very much nature being tamed.
But it wasn’t just the trees that were chosen for their interesting appearance.
They also had natural stone being used as art. I really love this idea.
I got wildly excited when I saw this sign:
Come on – you all saw the Chux on my suitcase. If anyone could benefit from a mountain of elegance, it HAS to be me!
… or maybe not…
As we made our way to the back, we climbed a bell tower and looked out over the city to Beijing beyond. I love how you can see over the ancient tiled roofs to the concrete towers of modern-day.
When we left, we walked around the perimeter to try and get back to Tiananmen Square to see Chairman Mao lying in state. The Forbidden City was surrounded by a moat. It would’ve been hard for anyone to get in (or out) unnoticed. As we walked, I mourned the loss of my Fitbit, which doesn’t work properly anymore. I’m going to miss out on some impressive step numbers!
We got back too late to see Mao, so we decided to cut our losses and go back to the hotel. When we emerged from the subway, Rick and I saw tiny flecks of snow falling. We exchanged a look of pure delight. I’ve only seen snow 3 times in my life, so those little flecks were special.
Fortunate Frogdancer has ended up travelling with people who like a nice alcoholic beverage as much as she does. Before dinner we went to a little bar that Helen’s son Matt recommended. It was lost in the midst of winding laneways which all looked identical, but Rick and his trusty Google Maps, (which only came online a month ago in Beijing, apparently), found the way. I followed behind like a duckling, which I think will be how I’ll spend most of this trip. Helen and Rick are fast walkers. $12 cocktails, here we come! I ordered a Smokey Negrito and a Gin Basil Smash, then we walked through the Hutong district to look for a restaurant.
We found one filled with Chinese people, always a good sign, and as we entered, I could hear Diana Krall playing on their sound system. I was rapt – I haven’t heard that album in ages. We stayed for a couple of hours and when we left we were greeted by SNOW!
See that scrape on the windscreen? Just after taking this shot, I was hit by a flying snowball, courtesy of Helen.
Snow was falling as we walked. I’ve only ever seen snow fall on the top of Mt Wellington in Tasmania and when I was in a car travelling to Ballarat to see friends. Never in a city, at night, with the snow lit by streetlights. It doesn’t fall hard, like rain. It floats down, lightly. Who knew?!?
It was pretty magical.
When we got back I tried my unreliable VPN and it worked. I found out that I won the blog competition!!!! I raced up the hall and banged on Rick and Helen’s door and we celebrated by drinking the complimentary Jasmine teabags in their room. I was stoked. What a great way to end the first day of our trip.