Beijing: Snow at the Forbidden City
By James Shillinglaw
It wasn’t quite the sight I would have expected. Heavy wet snow was falling on Beijing as we walked along Chang’An Avenue, the main boulevard that leads to the famed Tiananmen Square and the entrance gate to the Forbidden City. This ancient complex of palaces, courtyards, gates and gardens, perhaps Beijing’s greatest attraction, was turned into a winter wonderland that seemed to surprise even the city’s residents.
After nearly 20 years in travel, this is my first time to China. For me, the country has always been a fascinating place and one that I’ve wanted to visit for some time. My father was briefly stationed here just after the Second World War as a very young officer in the U.S. Navy. As a child in the 1960s, I grew up hearing about “Red” China and Mao’s “Little Red Book.”
I watched as Nixon visited China back in 1972, an event I remember as being almost as awe-inspiring as the moon landings. I saw television coverage of the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Over the past two decades I’ve absorbed all the news about the tremendous growth of China’s economy and the vast modernization in its major cities. And last year, like everyone else, I watched coverage of the Beijing Olympics, a showcase for China and its accomplishments.
That’s why I took advantage of an invitation to join an agent fam from Nancy Kim and Guy Rubin, owners of Imperial Tours (www.imperialtours.net), the high-end tour operator that offers private and small group programs to China. I’ve been in the country nearly 10 days now, so in a series of columns over the next couple of weeks I’m going to offer my impressions of this incredible country – which is so ancient and yet so very modern at the same time.
I arrived at the Beijing Capital International Airport after a 13-hour non-stop flight from Newark that seemed surprisingly short and comfortable considering the distance and the route (directly over the pole). I took off from Newark around noon and arrived in Beijing around 3:30 p.m. local time. As those who attended the Olympics can attest, Beijing’s airport is a complex of giant, very modern terminals. I was met at the gate by an airport greeter who took me on the tram to immigration and on to baggage claim. While it took some time for my bag to arrive, I was soon out in the arrivals area being greeted by my Imperial Tours China Host, Todd Pang, an American from Hawaii who is fluent in Mandarin and resides in Beijing.
For this particular trip, a travel agent fam with just six participants, we also had a China Host in training, Gwen Besrechel, a French woman who is also fluent in Mandarin and English. Todd and Gwen have served as our hosts throughout the trip, making all arrangements for transportation, luggage, dining shopping and accommodations, though experienced local guides have shown us the sights in each destination.
Imperial Tours had prepared me well for my journey, with a full packet of information on my destinations – Beijing, Xian, Guilin and Shanghai – including information on history, art, cuisine and culture in China. The company even provides a full reading list of books (I tried to put as much as possible on my Kindle) as well as movies to watch before you arrive.
In less than an hour, Todd and Gwen took me by bus to our hotel, the Raffles Beijing (www.raffles.beijing.com), located on Chang’An Avenue just a short walk from Tiananmen Square (they’d already met other members of our party separately). The 171-room Raffles Beijing was originally known as the Beijing Hotel, the first official hotel in the city dating from 1900. It has a long and colorful history (Mao reportedly enjoyed taking tea and dancing in the ballroom at one time).
Under Raffles' management, the property has been transformed into a well-appointed luxury hotel with very traditional décor but modern conveniences. The old building flows into a newer addition which houses restaurants, spas and shops. But its proximity to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, as well as other popular attractions, makes it a favorite for upscale guests. We got a quick tour of the rooms and suites, including a duplex Presidential Suite, and then had dinner. With the jet lag, that was about all I was able to do that evening.
We began our first full day in Beijing by taking an 18-seat mini-bus to visit the Temple of Heaven (first built circa 1420 during the Qing Dynasty), the most famous of the four main temples in the city. We drove on large boulevards past mostly modern buildings housing either companies or government departments. Our local guide Carl (many Chinese adopt Western first names) explained that the Temple of Heaven, a complex of courtyards and buildings for worship, all surrounded by trees and gardens, is a popular gather place for local residents seeking to socialize, exercise (Tai Chi), dance, and play music and games. Even on a snowy day in Beijing, there were crowds gathered in the covered passageways engaging in all sorts of activities. More than the impressive temple buildings, I found this to be the most interesting aspect of our brief visit to the complex.
From the Temple of Heaven we drove to Beijing’s antique market, a large outdoor emporium of statutes, furniture, china, old phonographs and Chinese military uniforms. Fortunately, most of the stalls were covered, but if your clients are into Chinese antiques, this is the place to send them. We moved on for a visit to the Park Hyatt Beijing (http://beijing.park.hyatt.com), which opened in 2008 as the tallest hotel in Beijing with 63 floors (the hotel’s 237 room take up only floors 27-49 while the lobby, spa, pool and restaurant are located on other floors). During lunch at the China Grill restaurant at the top of the structure, we had great views of the city, even in the bad winter weather. The Park Hyatt was a very modern hotel, which contrasted with the Raffles Beijing’s more classic accommodations.
We then drove to near Tiananmen Square and walked along the wide Chang’An Avenue past massive government buildings, including the Great Hall of the People, where the annual National Party Congress meeting had just finished up. Our guide told us stories about how he looked on from a distance during the protests at Tiananmen Square back in 1989. The snow was heavier but we pressed on through the massive gate, adorned with a large portrait of Mao Zedong, in front of the Forbidden City, where some 24 Chinese emperors resided over the centuries, and where Mao himself stood during the massive rallies of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.
We walked through courtyards and through more gates to Chong Jing Dian (Hall of Adoration), the throne reception room of the emperors. We also walked past areas where the movie the “The Last Emperor” was filmed, as pointed out by our local guide. But the highlight of our visit, especially arranged by Imperial Tours, was a private viewing of one of the many small, intimate palaces where emperors actually resided. The Chong Hua Gong (the Palace of Double Brilliance) featured exquisite sitting rooms and sleeping chambers that we luckily had all to ourselves. We then walked through the entire complex, exiting in the rear, past an inner Chinese garden filled with ancient trees and teahouses. The Forbidden City remains one of those essential world attractions that actually meets and exceeds expectations. For me, it was awe-inspiring and I struggled to take it all in during our short visit.
After a couple of hours rest at the Raffles Beijing, we boarded the bus once again for a quick trip to another, very modern side of Beijing – a trendy restaurant called the LAN Club Beijing. Located on the fourth floor of the LG Twin Towers on Jianguomenwai Avenue, the LAN Club is playfully designed by Philip Starck. Framed paintings hang upside down from the ceiling and different kinds of chandeliers light the large dining area. Diners sit on an incredibly diverse collection of chairs, couches and tables. There are also many private rooms for two, four, six and eight concealed by long curtains in the deep recesses of the restaurant. Fortunately the food – a sort of new wave Chinese cuisine – is pretty good, too!
For me, our visit to the LAN Club just illustrated the stark contrasts that Beijing offers visitors today. In just a short drive, you move from such iconic attractions as the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City to take in hotels housed in skyscrapers and restaurants that amaze even a cynical New Yorker like me. Tomorrow I’ll write about the remainder of our visit to Beijing (including the Great Wall). Next week I’ll detail our stops in Xian, Guilin and Shanghai.
James Shillinglaw is editor in chief and editorial director of Performance Media Group, LLC, parent of TravelPulse.com, Agent @ Home magazine, Vacation Agent magazine and Virtual Travel Events.
© 2010 Performance Media Group, LLC.
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