China 2012- Day 4 – NCPA, Lama Temple, The Hutongs

Originally, Day 4 was to be our day to see The Great Wall, but since the forecast was for rain, we opted to keep our site-seeing to some of the lesser venues within the city.

Our tour began with the National Centre for the Performing Arts a gorgeous glass and titanium egg which is made to appear as if it is floating upon the moat/lake which surrounds it. (photos)  In actual fact, the lake is only inches deep. The NCPA rests on the back side of the Great Hall of the People, adjacent to Tienanmen Square on the west. Visitors descend underground to enter the building and walk a long, wide corridor with glass ceilings which dance with the ripples on the “lake” above.

The building houses an Opera House, Theatre, and Concert Hall, which, in total can seat 5,452 people.  Unfortunately, we were only able to see the Theatre. The other two halls were being preparted for performances, but the building was impressive nonetheless, mostly for its interesting architecture.

From the NCPS, we went on to tour the Lama Temple, a 17th Century Buddhist temple originally built as a residence for Emperor Yongzheng when he was still a prince.  (photos) Later, when he became Emperor, it was re-purposed as a monastery/lamasery.  Like most Imperial structures, it is not a single building, but an entire complex.

This is not the place to visit for those sensitive to perfumes and smells.  Every Chinese tourist who enters buys a large bundle of incense to lay three sticks at the feet of each god/Buddha statue in the complex – and there are many.  Fortunately, there is no incense burning allowed within the halls or temples themselves, but there are huge drums outside the halls for doing so.

The crowning feature of the temple complex is the statue of Maitreya (Buddha of the Future) in the Wanfu Pavilion (Pavilion of 10,000 Happinesses). 8m wide, 18m high and extending 8 M below ground, it is most impressive because it is carved from a single log. Pictures were not allowed within the pavilion, so I tried to honour that, although I may have been the only one who did so.

After the Lama Temple, we moved on to the Drum Tower.  Drum Towers and Bell Towers were used in Imperial China as public time-telling devices much in the same way that clock towers were used in the West. (photo).

After the Drum Tower came lunch, which was scheduled for The Hutongs, crowded, ancient courtyard neighbourhoods lining the narrow alleyways which served as their streets.  The government has acted to protect some of these traditional neighbourhoods, so these areas can no longer be bulldozed for modern development. When we first saw that we were scheduled to “have lunch with a hutong family” we were a bit apprehensive, thinking that it would be some awkwardly staged attempt to make us feel like we were getting to know some “real” common folk.  In fact, it turned out to be a very relaxed enjoyable experience. After taking a pedal rickshaw ride to our hutong destination, we were led to a small room, about 9′ x 9′ where the family served us a very tasty meal. It was much more like being taken to a small, private restaurant than what we had anticipated.

We learned from Jennie (our guide) that, surprisingly, hutong real estate can be very expensive because of its desirable location in central Beijing. A hutong home can go for as much as 100,000 rmb /m2. That translates to $16,000 per square meter in Canadian dollars.

By the time lunch was over the rain that had been predicted in the forecasts began to make itself known. We spent some time walking through a local park, which we had actually visited on our first free day.  Since we had seen much of what was there, and since the rain was steadily picking up, we decided to cut the day short and returned to our hotel to catch up on some rest.

Our hotel location was ideal in many ways, one of the most important being that we didn’t need to walk long distances to get away from tourist-trap restaurants. This night, we stumbled across the street and into a smoke-filled Hot Pot restaurant. We also stumbled a bit with menu choices, but the waitress did her best to steer us in the right direction. Chinese hotpot consist of a large vessel divided into two compartments filled with boiling liquid. Once side contains a mild soup base, and the other a spicy broth/sauce. Patrons pay a base fee for the hotpot and then order various raw vegetable and meat dishes to put in the hotpot to cook. It’s a bit expensive for two people because of the base cost of the hotpot itself, but it was a neat experience nevertheless.

I mentioned smoke in the previous paragraph, so I guess now is as good a time as any to deal with the Chinese penchant for smoking. The Mr. Poopypants in my wants to interject to say that if Chinese smog won’t get ya, the second-hand cigarette smoke will. My positive spin on it was to view it as becoming immersed in the culture. Essentially, you can expect people to smoke just about everywhere, including restaurants and public spaces. Hotels have smoke-free rooms and smoke-free floors. The habit seems to be less prevalent among the younger generation, but many – if not most – middle-aged men smoke.

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