China 2012 – Day 2 – Prince Gong’s Mansion

Our first full day in Beijing is a “free” day. The tour company has the good sense to allow a day to acclimatize to time change (10 or 14 hours difference depending on which way you imagine yourself moving around the globe). We slept well for as long as we could, but we were up very early anyway. We took the time to explore some possibilities for the day while we waited for breakfast at 6:30 a.m.

Breakfast at the hotel here is an interesting buffet mix of western and Chinese dishes. For the first time in my life, I find myself eating noodles and bok choy for breakfast – beside bacon and eggs, nonetheless.  I had thought that I would be spending three weeks going cold turkey on my coffee habit, but this hotel has coffee – not even bad coffee – so til now no headaches or DTs. And, I’m proud to say, I’m down to two cups a day. Baby steps.

After breakfast we took some time to check out the hotel courtyard and then wander around a few blocks near the hotel to get a feel for the neighbourhood. We are in south-central Beijing just blocks from Tienanmen Square, so it’s convenient for many of the sites we are scheduled to see, but it’s just outside the really “touristy” area, so rather quiet and perhaps a little less expensive.

There are plenty of restaurants in our area and lots of little snack/grocery shops as well as some larger markets and even a supermarket.  We stopped by one of the smaller markets to look at produce and prices. Sadly, produce here is far nicer than most produce at home, and cheaper. Much of the fruit is individually wrapped, and all of it looks fresh. We’ve had to fight off the urge to buy some of the apples and grapes; we’ve stuck to things that can be peeled, like bananas and oranges.  We want to try persimmons, but we haven’t got to those yet. We were relieved to learn that bartering is not very common when buying food, so that’s one less thing to worry about. Just point, indicate how many, and pay the price the vendor punches into his/her calculator. We bought two bananas and three oranges for 10 RMB ($1.50), so things are very reasonable.

On our first sojourn, we did try some baked goods from a small, hole-in-the-wall bakery. Irene had a cream puff, and I had a pastry horn filled with cocoanut cream. Both were good. We also bought a few small food items as gifts for folks back home

Probably the most common stores in the area are the dozens of tobacco and liquor stores. There has to be one at least every half-block.  We looked at liquor prices.  Hard liquor is quite cheap, but wine is rather expensive. We didn’t look at beer prices, but beer in the restaurant can vary from $2.50 to $3.50 for a giant, 600 ml bottle. One of the upsides of China’s colonial past, is that the Germans and the British brought brewing to the region, so the beer here is very good.  We’re most familiar with Tsingtao Beer, partly because Aaron visited Tsingtao when he did a work term in China, but also because it’s available in Canadian liquor stores. Since we’ve been here, we’ve also discovered that Yanjing Beer (brewed right here in Beijing) is pretty darn good as well.

After our walkabout, we settled on visiting Prince Gong’s Mansion, a historical site in the heart of Beijing which was not on our tour list. Originally built for a powerful official in the Qing Dynasty in 1777, it consists of a vast residence complex and beautiful gardens. After an abortive first attempt in which we thought the taxi driver was going the wrong direction, we successfully navigated the language barrier and arrived.

I’m rushing a bit to try to get the blog updated, so I’m foregoing embedding pictures in blog posts for the time being.  You can find the photos for Day 2 here.

I’m probably going to say this more than once in blog posts over the next few days, but the mind becomes rather numb to the level of detail and ornamentation of buildings of this period. Every surface of roofs and eaves is elaborately decorated with painted ornamentation. But while the buildings were impressive, we were most captivated by the gardens.  Both of us thought it would be a heavenly place to grow up as a child, with countless nooks and crannies and hiding place.  Certainly, the Chinese and Japanese have a sense of garden design that is so far above what we have in western culture. This garden is dominated by what can only be described as rock sculpture, large outcroppings, raised, winding paths. It’s very difficult to describe, and I’m not entirely sure that the pictures do it justice. Somehow, though, even though the place was teeming with people, it managed to seem peaceful.

We were lucky to tour the mansion before the bulk of the tour groups landed. As things began to get a bit more crowded, we left to walk around an adjoining park and lake.  By that time, it was lunch time, so we stopped at a lakeside restaurant and lunch by the shoreline.  It was a great fall day, with the sun shining as much as it ever does in Beijing. (more on that later).

After lunch we walked around the lake some more and took in a Taoist temple, but as time wore on, the lack of sleep began to catch up to us, so we hailed a taxi and headed back to the hotel.  Unfortunately, the taxi driver was a manic little narcoleptic fellow who had a disconcerting habit of nodding off at red lights and other long stops and then taking off with a lurch when he realized traffic was moving on without him.  I’ve decided that if there’s ever a chance that I could be reincarnated as an inanimate object, the last thing I want come back as is a clutch or transmission in Beijing.  The whole ride was amusing in a holy-shit kind of way, but we were glad to make it back to the hotel in one piece.

Just a note on taxis in Beijing.  Taking a taxi in Beijing is relatively easy, especially if you have a map to point to and you make sure that the taxi is legitimate and has a meter.  Meter rates are set and very reasonable, being governed mostly by distance, so you don’t pay a huge penalty for slow traffic (although there is a surcharge for traffic being under 12 km/hr for a certain period of time.)  So far taxi rides have been between 20 and 35 RMB ($3-$6). And taxi drivers don’t pull that “Sorry, no change” BS that was common among rickshaw drivers in India. We also always carried a hotel business card to make giving directions for the return ride easier.  All in