The Summer Palace

We woke up to another beautiful Beijing morning. We had been warned that we might experience a lot of smog in the city, but we had clear skies the whole time we were there.

We didn’t have to leave the hotel until 8:30 so we had a nice leisurely breakfast. Brad had time to send an e-mail to the kids before we left … he’s become the resident tech expert, helping people solve problems when they couldn’t get to their gmail accounts because of the government’s firewall.

We had another traffic-clogged drive to the Summer Palace. I certainly wouldn’t want to drive the busy streets in Beijing. It’s just a bit too different from the way we drive at home.

Along the way we stopped at a Freshwater Pearl Factory. They showed us the different type of pearls available in the world and how they are harvested. They also showed us how to tell if a pearl is real or not. We weren’t swayed by the smooth sales pitch, but did enjoy wandering through the showroom admiring the beautiful jewelry. A few people did buy something to bring home including a beautiful gold pearl pendant (before this visit I had no idea there were gold pearls!)


We finally got to the grounds of the Summer Palace just before noon. It was gorgeous! We entered through the west gate to a beautiful view of Kunming Lake. Boats of all sizes dotted the lake with people obviously enjoying the cooler breezes out on the water.


Walking past a few shops we headed to the Court area where the Emperor and the Empress Dowager conducted state business and entertained. A beautiful fan-shaped rock separated the visiting area from the living quarters.


We wandered along the Long Corridor (728 meters to be exact) mostly with our necks craned to look at the hundreds of unique traditional paintings on the ceiling. Built to provide shelter from the rain and snow for those who wanted to enjoy the grounds, we certainly appreciated the shade it provided from the hot midday sun.


Looking north up Longevity Hill from the pavilion at the middle of the Long Corridor we could see the beautiful Tower of Buddhist built on the mountainside. We could see people in it, but try as we did, we couldn’t find a path that got us up there.


We continued along the Long Corridor to the Marble Boat. Built only for decoration, it is really just a carved pier that has never been navigable. It is now a tea room where visitors can sit and enjoy the view of Kunming Lake.


While a few of us would have loved to continue our walk around the lake, we boarded a small ferry that took us across to the east side of the lake. We passed a number of other boats along the way, many decorated with dragons on their bow.


We passed the Seventeen-Arch Bridge and landed right near a huge bronze ox that looked out over the lake. It was put there to forever protect the palace from flooding.


Leaving through the east gate, Kathy bartered with a hat seller to get four reversible paper hats to take home to some kids in her neighbourhood. They cost 10 Yuan and she paid with a 50. Fran was sure she’d been given bogus money back, and sure enough, she had. The money was real, just not Yuan and worth much less than the change she was due. So buyers beware! If you’re going to buy from hawkers on the street, make sure you have small bills!



A Night at the Beijing Opera

The topic of conversation at dinner seemed to be how far we’d walked today. We were certainly getting our exercise and you had to be prepared to do a lot of walking! We figured that it was at least 10 km (6 miles) and the day wasn’t over yet. Our last activity was a visit to the Peking Opera at Beijing’s Liyuan Theatre.


It was a melodramatic hour long show that reminded me of the old black-and-white movies that had music setting the mood for whatever was happening on stage. In this one there were four very colourfully dressed actors in three scenes.


The first kung fu style scene, called The Crossroads, involved three men, one who was on his way to exile for killing a wicked government official, his friend who had secretly followed him to protect him, and the owner of the guest house where the action occurs. The owner thought the friend was trying to kill the exiled man and they fought until the exiled man cleared up the misunderstanding. This all happened in the “dark of the night” with no dialog or music. It was really quite amazing to watch the athleticism of these three actors. This was my favourite of the three scenes.

DSC02535 (cropped)

The second scene, Drunken Beauty, was about a concubine who was left waiting by her emperor … he never did show up, deciding to visit one of his many others. We never really could figure out if the actor was male or female, but she had a very high and piercing voice, something that we North Americans are not used to hearing. It was almost a mix between speech and song, and was done in a sliding scale, not the half-tone intervals that we use.


The last scene was called Farewell My Concubine. The woman, played by the same actor as the drunken beauty, was with her king when he was tricked into believing that he had been beaten in a war. She didn’t want to be a burden to him, so committed suicide.


It was certainly a new adventure and an interesting experience for all of us. After another long day out and about Beijing, we all appreciated the comfortable beds back at the hotel!

Tiananmen Square and the Imperial Palace

We had another dim sum meal as we prepared for a visit to Tiananmen Square and the Imperial Palace. Carol told us that Mao’s body was frozen and kept somewhere under Tiananmen Square. Supposedly it is raised up daily for people to view. With talk of how it/he might wave at and greet visitors, all of us at table 1 were in stitches. Some of us were laughing so hard we were crying.


We piled back on the bus for a short ride to the Imperial Palace and Tiananmen Square. We went to the Square first. I was a bit underwhelmed. There wasn’t much to see other than a huge paved area surrounded by government buildings, one of which was the building where Mao announce the formation of The People’s Republic of China. The place where Mao’s tomb was also there, but he wasn’t “available” for viewing.


While we were in the Square the skies darkened and we were sure that we were going to get drenched. It turns out that we got a sandstorm instead. It was only a very small one, but I can understand how a big one would or could be devastating.


From there we walked under the “most important road in Beijing” … a five lane thoroughfare that runs the east-west width of Beijing. We were now in front of the Imperial Palace.


As are most important buildings in China, the Imperial Palace, also known as the Forbidden City, is built in the north facing south. We walked through courtyard upon courtyard with the buildings becoming functionally less formal and more familial the farther in you got. It really made me want to go home and watch “The Last Emperor” again.


Every time we stopped for a group information session we found ourselves being photographed either blatantly as a group …


or more secretly as the backdrop for a local’s selfie. I guess there are Chinese people who have not seen too many Westerners, so we were a bit of a novelty.


I loved the painting and patterns that were used to decorate the eaves of all the buildings. Each colour has a specific significance and therefore was to only be used in certain spots. For example, only nobility and powerful people could have yellow roofs.


I also loved the Imperial Garden… outcroppings of rocks, beautiful peonies in full flower, water features, and so much more. I wish we could have spent longer there.


As we walked back to the bus we were bombarded by street vendors plying their wares… books, postcards, coasters, paper hats, and face masks … you name it, they were selling it.


A long day already, there was still more to come!

Temple of Heaven

Even though we got to sleep in today, most of us were awake by 5 or 6. Some unfortunate souls were still feeling the effects of jet lag and hardly slept!

Brad and I watched from our window as they put up a celebratory balloon arch over the entrance to the kindergarten across the street from our room. There must have been some special event for the little ones that day.


After breakfast we braved the Beijing streets and crossed over to see what was going on at the school. Lots of little chairs were lined up in the yard, and lots of excited little kids were pulling their parents toward the area. I hope the fun they had matched their early morning enthusiasm. While we were doing that, Barb and Carol were off in the little park beside the hotel doing morning exercises with the neighbourhood women. Many of the men, apparently not into the exercises, brought along their caged birds and gathered for some morning conversation.

Photo 2015-04-23, 8 44 40 AM

We boarded the bus at 8:45 and headed to the Temple of Heaven where the ancient Chinese emperors used to pray for a good harvest.


We entered through the south gate and headed toward the Circular Mound Altar where ancient emperors held sacrificial ceremonies to the Heavens during the winter solstice. Surrounded by three levels of open-air terraces representing hell, earth, and the heavens, the alter itself sits at the centre of the top tier and is called the Heavenly Centre Stone. It is said that if you whisper something while standing on this stone, only you will hear a response. A lot of people, thinking it was a sacred energy (or maybe just a photo-op) spot, stood and/or prayed on it.


From there we headed north up through another gate and along the marble path at the centre of the huge concourse leading toward the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. The concourse itself was bustling with tourists and school groups.


It was nice to see the locals using the temple grounds as their neighbourhood park. We spotted games of hackey-sack and chess, tai chi, and even a few low flying kites.


Before we visited the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest we headed off to the garden area on the west side of the grounds. We watched a group of woman enjoying a dance class in the shade beside the walkway. A few passers-by (big and small) stopped to join in before continuing on their way.


We visited a small art gallery in the Hall of Abstinence (Fasting Palace) with works by the students and professors from the Ancient Chinese Art Academy. We thought at first it might be a high pressure place like the Turkish rug showrooms where we were ushered in, told to sit down, offered some tea, and “strongly encouraged” to buy one of many very expensive rugs. Quite the opposite. One of the profs explained the symbolism of the ancient art forms … two cranes for an everlasting relationship, bamboo for a strong but good-hearted man, and plum blossoms for a woman who is beautiful but internally strong (since plum trees blossom in the winter). It was definitely worth the time to hear about the meaning of the traditional artwork. All of the works were available for sale, and a few people couldn’t resist taking home some silk paintings for their homes.


After a bit of a sit-down, we headed back to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. One of the few buildings in China that has a blue roof (for the heavens). Its three top sections are beautifully tiled with blue, yellow, and green glazed tiles, representing the heaven, earth, and all creation. It is said that the temple itself is a feat in engineering with only 28 pillars supporting the whole structure.


Its internal architecture, which we were only allowed to view from behind a barricade, represents all things to do with a good harvest … the four seasons, the twelve months of the year, the 12 hours of the day, and the constellations that guided the ancients. The altar in the middle holds the Tablet of the God of Heaven to which an offerings like jade, silk, cows, and wine were made by the emperor during the sacrificial ceremonies.


There were lots of wedding pictures being taken while we were there. It seems the tradition in China is to take the pictures before the wedding so that they are ready on the big day. It is also customary to take pictures in both the traditional red dress, and a white dress.


We headed out to the bus along the Long Corridor which seems to have become a prime area for “street vendors”. Karen, who was our best haggler, managed to get 20 “silk” scarves for a really good price!


As we reached the East Gate we came across another group of dancers dressed everything from traditional dress to cowboy hats obviously having a great time twirling each other around.


One little guy took a real shine to Barb. Here he’s talking to his Mom. We think maybe she was encouraging him to hang onto Barb’s leg for a photo-op.


Next stop, lunch!

The Great Wall

We had a wake-up call for 6:30 but didn’t need it. I was up at 4 and Brad was awake not much later. We were dressed and heading down to the lobby to send an e-mail to the kids when we met Jon and Karen in the elevator. We decided to get breakfast first, but because it was only 6:20 and the dining room didn’t open until 6:30 they wouldn’t let us. The four of us wandered down the spiral staircase to the lobby, chatted a bit, and sent e-mails to our respective kids. Both retired teachers, they soon became honorary members of the Conestoga gang.

Breakfast was interesting, to say the least. Buffet style, they served everything from garlic-flavoured Chex (glad I didn’t put them in my yogurt!), “beef intestinal” something (sausage), noodles, spring rolls, eggs, shrimp, and many other things that rarely find their way onto the breakfast plate of a North American. The four of us all had pretty simple meals, although some of our travel mates were daring enough to sample some of the traditional Chinese options.

It was a beautiful day as we headed to the Great Wall.  We were supposed to visit the Imperial Palace and Tiananmen Square, but it turns out that museums are closed on Mondays, and since the Imperial Palace is classified as a museum the schedule had to be rearranged a bit. It seemed like a lot of other tour companies switched their schedules too, because the closer we got to the Badaling section of Great Wall the slower the traffic moved. After sitting in this roundabout for almost an hour, we all got off the bus and walked up the road a bit to a shuttle bus.


The traffic delay really limited our time to explore the Great Wall so we wasted no time once we got there.The wall itself is amazing. It went as far as we could see in both directions. We chose to do the less traveled path … a little less scenic, but steeper and much less crowded. The position of the late morning sun also made for better pictures from that side! As we started up, the incline combined with the unevenness of the rocks had a bit of a dizzying effect on a few of us. That quickly passed and up we headed.


Barb and Carol were with us, and after many pauses for picture taking and breathers, the four of us made it to the top. At one point Brad stopped to sit down for a few minutes and found himself surrounded by four teenage Chinese girls who wanted to take pictures with him. Who knows whose Facebook pages he’s on now with their memories of the Great Wall.


Jon and Karen joined us on the way down. The downward slope was a bit challenging, and we all appreciated that there were handrails and that we had shoes with good tread. We hadn’t realized the steepness of parts of the climb, although the need for frequent breathers on the way up should have been a clue!


Jon, with his Phys Ed background, reminded us that “knees bent and legs apart” would help keep us in control. It really did make a difference. Safely back at the bottom we can now say “We’ve climbed the Great Wall”!


Getting out of the area was much easier than getting in. All the traffic had dissipated and we were at our Dim Sum lunch in no time. This one was above a Cloisonné factory that makes the enameled pottery often associated with Chinese statues. We watched the young women working on various stages of the process … gluing on small copper wires, filling the spaces with enamel paint, smoothing the surface, and then adding the final finish. It was delicate work, very painstakingly done.


The meal was much the same as last night, and our Table 1 companions were great. I didn’t tell anyone, but I swear that one of the ‘tidbits’ that I ate was a very crunchy cricket. I didn’t ask, so I’ll never know for sure! From that point on, any meat that we sampled but weren’t sure of its origin had to be “chicken”! It made it much easier for us to enjoy our dining experiences.

From there we went to the Ming Tombs. Jack our tour guide chatted on about more details than I was able to process at the moment. I guess the jet lag was finally catching up with me. We toured the tombs first and then were given a bit of time outside. The grounds were beautiful and I’d have much rather just wandered around the area and found a quiet spot in the shade to sit and take it all in.

IMG_3349The back of the bus people (Fran and Doug, Jon and Karen, and us) all decided to have a late afternoon ‘bus’ pejeho to help cool down after a hot afternoon in the sun. Imagine that … being allowed to drink a driver-sold beer at the back of the bus while your tour guide regales you with a sales pitch for little jade-handled Chinese zodiac ink stamps that we could take home to our families. (Jean told us later that this sales pitch has been a part of these tours for years … friends of hers experienced it three or four years ago.)


After another Dim Sum dinner, this one better than any of the others so far, we boarded Bus 1 for another traffic clogged ride back to the hotel. It had been a long day … about 12 hours that we were out and about. It turned out that most days once we left the hotel in the morning, we were not brought back until all the activities of the day were complete … no chance to shower and change before dinner. It made that late afternoon ‘back of the bus pejeho’ that much more tempting!

We stopped in at Jean and Kathy’s room for a nightcap. A bit of Drambuie and pleasant conversation is always a great way to end the day.

China Here we Come

Early flights are not my favourite! Too tired to stay awake, but too worried about missing the 4 a.m. alarm, we both had a very restless sleep. After a quick breakfast and a few farewell e-mails we were off. Barb and Carol were already in our pseudo-limo van when it picked us up at the front door. Nothing like door-to-door airport service!

We arrived at the airport about 6:45 and proceeded to the Air Canada area to print our baggage tags. Unfortunately the kiosks wouldn’t print them so a surprisingly pleasant Air Canada agent directed us to Customer Service. Even those agents were quite chatty and wished us well on our travels.

We got through security pretty quickly even though one of the x-ray scanning machines malfunctioned for a few minutes. This time we didn’t even have to take off our shoes, or take liquids out of our carry-on bags. Even better, none of us got pulled aside for the special ‘random’ inspections that Robert often experiences when we travel as a family.

We stopped for coffee at Tim’s (made famous by Brad and Robert a few years back) just inside the security check figuring it would be just as comfortable there as sitting in the seats at the gate. Finally we headed to the gate arriving about 10 minutes before boarding began. The rest of our college travel group was there, many of them playing canasta. Because they had all retired already, it had been a while since we’d seen some of them. Before long we had been introduced to their spouses and travel companions who soon became fast friends.


Air Canada has changed their method of boarding since the last time we flew with them. Instead of business class and economy they now board by “zone” … 1 for first class, 2 for business class, and 3, 4 and maybe 5 for the rest of us back in economy. When they called our zone (3) everyone rushed (as usual) to the line. Because people came at the line from two directions it ended up in a split line … no-one really knew which was the correct line so most of the people from our group scurried over and “merged” with the other line. Brad, Barb, Carol, and I stayed in the same place, which turned out to be a good thing!

As we waited, one of the Air Canada agents came over and asked if there were any zone 3 people still in line. I said that we were and he told the four of us to follow him. He took our boarding passes, fumbled a bit with them (talking to the computer as he did) and handed us new boarding passes. Turns out we were now travelling first class … the plane was overbooked and we were the lucky ones who got bumped up. What a wonderful way to travel!


Our brief experience travelling the way the 1%ers changed our view of airplane travel. We were called by name, served a multi-course breakfast on real china, and even given real cutlery. Then came the hot towels. Our wonderfully spacious seats reclined into beds made comfortable by the blankets and pillows. Oh how nice it would be to travel this way all the time!


We had no problem making our connection in Vancouver. Unfortunately we were back to the world of economy flight and ‘suffered’ the 11 hour flight to Beijing with the rest of our travel mates. We crossed the International Date Line about midway through the flight and most of us did our time adjustment forward 12 hours (of home time) to China time. If it’s 7 p.m. in China, it’s 7 a.m. the same day at home.

We arrived in China on schedule about 2:30 p.m. local time. We encountered our first squatting toilet in the airport … we were all so tired that Kathy was the only one daring enough to try it (we did get used to them as the trip progressed!) Fortunately there was a western-style toilet that the rest of us patiently waited in line for.

Getting through Immigration was smooth for all of us. We took a mini-train to the baggage claim area and arrived just as my suitcase swung around the carousel. Both of our bags (and everyone else’s) arrived safely!

For the first of many times we were herded onto Bus 1. We wove through traffic clogged streets to our first hotel, the Beijing Lijingwan International Hotel. We were assigned a very comfortable room on the 8th floor with a nice view of row upon row of ‘flights’ of apartments where the 23 million people of Beijing make their homes.


It seemed like each of the six million cars owned by ‘Beijingites’ were all on the road that Sunday afternoon! To us it looked like they drove wherever they wanted … buses, cars, tuk-tuks, bicycles, and pedestrians all seeming to get where they wanted in a very odd chaotic way. There was a lot of ‘speaking with horns’ although the honks appeared to be saying “I’m here” instead of “you’re in my way” like they would at home. Helene, our tour guide, said pedestrians beware … unlike what we are used to, walkers are lowest in the pecking order on these streets!


We took the time to take much needed showers before we headed off to the Welcome Dinner. A a short bus ride later, about three-quarters of our two busloads of travel companions piled out and took a short walk to our restaurant. We were served the first of many Dim Sum style meals … rice, a few meat dishes and a few veggie dishes. We can’t forget that we sampled our first taste of pejeho (Chinese beer) that was to become the drink of choice for Table 1!



Traffic has subsided a bit for our drive back through the now neon-lit city to our hotel … I guess most people were home getting ready for another work week.


This isn’t our hotel, but everything along the way was lit up like this!


After a long two days of travelling with very little sleep, we all headed to bed early

The Final Stretch

It wasn’t long after we left Buffalo that we started seeing signs for Wall Drug. There had to be 50 or so of them before we actually got to Wall, South Dakota where it is located. We remember seeing them first time we took this highway (going west on a trip back in 2002 maybe?) and we were so curious about what it was, that we stopped.


It is a wonderful roadside attraction that steps you back in time to an old watering hole on the trail west. It has since become a trading post of sorts, with all kinds of treasures to be found (including its freshly made old-fashioned donuts). If I remember correctly, this is where I got my little stuffed buffalo! This time though, we just drove by.

Source: SD Tourism

We stopped for the night in Mitchell, South Dakota, home of another roadside attraction, the only Corn Palace in the world. We also stopped in here on a previous trip, so didn’t go to discover that it is currently under “cornstruction”. (That’s their bad pun, not mine!)

Source: The World’s Only Corn Palace Website

Along the way we noticed a number of damaged silos and roadside signs. After the first few, we realized that they must have had some serious wind go through quite recently. It turns out that there had been a tornado in the county just south of Mitchell only two days before. We realized at that point that we seemed to be travelling in some sort of ‘good-weather bubble’ … other than the rain in Chicago on our way west, we’ve had gorgeous, albeit hot weather.

The next day was a long one. From South Dakota, into Minnesota. Down through the eastern side of Iowa and into Illinois. Got us to the southwest side of Chicago just before supper. We had decided that we’d rather drive across the bottom of Chicago after the evening rush hour instead of during the morning one, so we stopped for a quick meal before braving the crazy drivers on the racetrack stretch from Chicago through Indiana to the Michigan border. Between traffic and construction it was almost 13 hours on the road before we stopped for the night in Benton Harbor.

That extra long day meant the last of our six day cross-country marathon could be a bit more leisurely than the last five had been. We let ourselves sleep in and even stopped in a bookstore along the way (it wouldn’t be a vacation without visiting at least one bookstore!). We crossed the border just after 2 p.m. with only four cars ahead of us in line at customs!

After the last three weeks of driving anywhere from 65 mph to 80 mph, it seemed like we were just crawling along around the 100 kph limit! That aside, the last bit of driving never seems that long once home is ‘just down the road’!

It’s good to be home, but it makes me wonder … just where will our next adventure take us??