CSMT Day 1, Beijing

Hutong,Tea House, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Silk Factory

This was the first “real” day of the tour – being a weekend, it was basically a sightseeing day. After a nice breakfast (included with the tour) we met with Simon, our guide and got onto the tour bus. The first stop was a rickshaw tour of Hutong, which is a very “authentic historical” area of Beijing, at least for one that is currently being lived in.

The area is famous for its very narrow streets (more like alleys or walkways) and 400 year old architecture. Since Hutong is in the heart of the city, this run down, dilapidated area boasts some very expensive real estate, and it was not unusual to see a new Audi parked outside of these houses, with boards leaned against their tires to stop dogs from peeing on them.

The name Hutong comes from the sound water makes when being pumped from a well – the place was established by invading Mongols (ala Genghis Khan) and, due to the fact that they were horsemen, the first job of settlement they did was to dig wells for both the horses and themselves. The homes are made in a square, courtyard fashion, with 4 living areas all pointing inwards towards a well.

After this, we went for lunch – which was perfect timing because the chill had suddenly turned into a pretty good snowfall, much to the shock of Beijingers, since it’s unusual at this time of the year. Unfortunately, I felt right at home.

Lunch was very tasty, with one surprise being that halfway through it a large fish (About 18 inches long) jumped out of a tank and began to flop across the floor. In China, the food is often VERY fresh – the tank was not ornamental – it was where you choose what you wanted to eat!

After lunch, we went for tea. By this time the snow had turned into a flurry, though it was still melting as fast as it hit the ground. The Spring Tea Art House (Chun Lai Cha Yi Guan) is a very nice place, though of course in typical fashion it manages to blend a nice tourist experience with the opportunity to spend your money. We did a nice tea ceremony, and tried several types of tea (including monkey tea – so named because often monkeys are used to collect it form the difficult to reach places it grows in), then did some shopping. The snow stopped and the sun came out just was we finished – with no traces it had ever happened.

The next stop was the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. I won’t go into all the details (anyone who has ever been there knows that it’s breathtaking), but there were a couple of interesting things that happened. First, it turns out that the Forbidden City is getting a facelift in time for the Beijing Olympics – to the annoyance of many residents, who feel that historic artifacts should look old, rather than fresh painted, no mater how skillful. Someone mentioned it’s starting to look like a movie set rather than a historical site. The restored buildings do look very nice, but I hope they at least leave a few unrestored to show people what it looked like before. Several buildings in and around Tiananmen were also undergoing restoration, and were covered in scaffolding.

On a more personal note, near the North Gate there is a high quality museum/shop with some very nice art for sale. Also there is a fellow who does calligraphy, and also happens to be Chinese royalty – he is the nephew of the last Emperor of China. I could not pass this up.

For the equivalent of $200, he wrote a note and signed a very nice scroll for me. While he was doing it, one of my companions on the tour mentioned that I was the nephew (actually great-nephew) of Norman Bethune, the most famous Canadian in China (Mao wrote a very nice essay about self sacrifice on Bethune that was required reading in China for many years) he shook my hand and asked for a picture of our encounter. Very cool. That’s an experience you don’t get everyday…

The other interesting point for me was my shadow – an undercover police officer (I assume) posing as a Biejinger that stuck up a conversation with me as I was walking in the underpass towards the square, the followed me for a while in the square until it was painfully obvious I was just a tourist playing with his new camera. He was very polite and unobtrusive, but it was an interesting experience none the less. A good portion of the “tourists” you see in the square are undercover police, making sure there was no trouble. The “Peoples Congress” is going on right now, and is the one time of the year where the representatives of the people approve the policies of the Communist Party. It’s basically a rubber stamp session, though there are some changes and suggestions made and implemented. I imagine that explains the more obvious presence of the undercover police – normally they are less noticeable.

By the way, the story about Starbucks being in the Forbidden City or Tiananmen Square is a myth – though we did spot both a McDonalds and a KFC a couple blocks away. Trust me, it was very cold and we all had the finely honed SEM “hot coffee” detectors on full alert – nothing.

Next, we went to a silk factory and got a tour on how silk is made. I asked for (and was given) a raw cocoon as a souvenir – kind of cool. I recommend the tour – silk making is fascinating. After the tour (and requisite shopping experience – I got a very nice handmade silk shirt) we went for supper, during which a fairly lively discussion on the nofollow tag and the idea of the SMA-NA certifying SEO training programs was discussed, then off to bed.


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