21 July 2009
Travel: Beijing, from Bird's Nest to the Great Wall
After surviving the frigid Forbidden City, I was only too happy to be back in the car, out of the wind and chill, and my guide pointed us to some traditional Beijing (Peking) Duck (at my request). Bian Yi Fang is a traditional Peking restaurant, more than 140 years old, where the hostesses wear the beautiful qi pao, the traditional Chinese long dress, complemented with fur stoles to help keep out the chill. It was a perfect first meal for the holiday. And it gave me just enough energy to visit the Bird's Nest, the stunning Olympic Stadium. Beside it is the Water Cube, site of the aquarian events. These are both interesting architecturally (including this interesting hotel within walking distance of the two), but without being able to go inside, you don't spend too much time there. So, I was back to the hotel for my previously mentioned nap.
It was dark and cold outside when I awoke, but also still and quiet. Perfect for a stroll down Chang'an Avenue and a quick ride on the subway. It is a short ride between stops east and west of the Tian'anmen Gate, and I wanted to get a feel of the subway for the rest of my trip. When I emerged on the west entrance, I was greeted by the sight of the National Performing Arts Center, illuminated - chameleon-like - in colors changing from white to blue to purple. The walk back down the Avenue of Eternal Peace (more on that later) took me back by Tian'anmen Square, the Great Hall of the People, and the Imperial Palace, all alight for the holiday, with the dozens of red Chinese flags stiff in the night breeze. Quite a sight.
It was an early start the next morning - New Year's Eve - for a trip to the Great Wall. It was still frigid outside, but the trip up to Badaling was pleasant inside the heated car. It took a while to get out of the sprawling city. Beijing is circled by a series of "Ring Roads", indicating how much the city has grown in recent times. I was staying in the heart of the city, near the Imperial Palace, and we would travel past the Sixth Ring Road before we left Beijing proper (it is actually the fifth of the ring roads, and the farthest one out).
Once we were out of the city, we began climbing into the hills north of the capital, and soon we were to see the first ramparts of the Great Wall. As one of my guidebooks says, it is like a long serpent, seeking out the pinnacles of the hills as it winds over the countryside.
Badaling is one of the most accessible portions of the Wall, with a low-level entrance as well as a cable car that takes you towards one of the peaks of the nearby hills. We took the cable car up, through the freezing wind. The gap in the car's door did not quite keep out the wind, so we were fully acclimated to the outdoor temperature by the time we arrived. It was perhaps colder than the previous day, although at those temperatures, it really doesn't matter. Our early start had gotten us there before the crowds, so we had this entire section of the Wall nearly to ourselves. It was fantastic! From the exit of the cable car, it wasn't a far walk to the highest point, with a great vista. From there, we could walk back down the entrance at ground level, with a mixture of easy slopes and very steep stairways. Along the way, you pass through a number of towers and guard houses (the towers were placed two arrow shots from each other, so that enemies storming the Wall would always be in arrow shot range). As I was walking down, I had to think what kind of terrible assignment it would have been to have guard duty on the Great Wall during the dead of Winter. I thought I might never be warm again.
Of course, a Honey Orange Latte from Starbucks helped. I finally was able to feel my feet on the drive back into the city, and was warmed up by the time we were back to the hotel. I said goodbye to my driver and guide with a traditional New Year gift, hong bao, or little red packet. It had been a good start to my New Year's Eve.