After three days of meetings, 1:1’s, whiteboarding, catching up with my mentor, and amazing team lunches and dinners, I was on my own, for a day, in Beijing.
My hotel was in the “Silicon Valley” district of Beijing, in and of that the area is populated with many of the tech offices; Microsoft has two buildings there joined by a skybridge (which announces “Hi, I’m Cortana”). As I can easily get lost when I haven’t done my proper research and got my bearings, I elected for a day-tour on my one day off.
The night before I left I got a call at 10pm:
Her: “Hello, this is your Tour Guide. You need to be outside your hotel at 6:30am for your tour bus, okay?”
Her: “What time are you going to sleep? I will call you later with your bus number.”
Me: “I was asleep when you called.”
Her: “What time are you going to sleep?”
Me: “I was already asleep.”
Her: (Pause) “Oh. I will call you at 6am tomorrow to tell you your buss number.”
Her: (Demanding) “Why do you not want to go to the Great Wall?”
Me: (Nonplussed) “What??”
Her: (Demanding & Impatient) “You signed up for Forbidden City and Summer Palace. Why do you not want to go to the Great Wall?”
Me: (Defensively) “It’s not that I don’t want to go, it’s that I only have one day, and my friends told me to do this.
Her: (Warning) “Are you sure you don’t want to go to the Great Wall?”
Me: (Too tired to care…)“Maybe next time.”
Her: “Okay” (hangs up)
Thanks to the aforementioned jetlag/insomnia I was up at 4am, answering emails and toddling around. Breakfast is not available at the hotel before 6:30am so I walked over to the 7-11 and purchased Mystery Breakfast and orange juice, both of which were decent. At 6:30 I got on the bus. I was the first person on it.
After 3 more stops the bus was half full, including a woman behind me who appeared to be retching into a plastic back (based on sound). I was relieved when the tour bus stopped just outside the Forbidden City and Linda, my Tour Guide (from the phonecall the night before), got on and said “You’re from the Crowne Plaza, right? Come with me.”
It wasn’t hard to tell, I was the only non-Asian person on the bus.
With Linda I joined up with two other gents, both from Singapore, and realized that we were on the “English Tour Guide” tour. We walked to the Forbidden City, along one side, and then along the moat (it’s about 50 meters wide). Linda pointed out the four gates into the City (North/South/East/West) with their ritual uses (West is for dead people to go out, only the Emperor could use the South—except on her wedding day the Empress could, too), the four watchtowers in each corner, and the large gate doors with 81 metal studs in them (9×9, because 9 is the highest single-digit number and the Emperor is the highest person, aside from their deity). We walked through the South Gate (neaner, neaner Emperor) and into the first part of the Forbidden City.
(Side note: as our Guide returned from purchasing tickets a young Chinese couple approached her and asked her something. She turned to me: “They want to take your picture.” Me: “Wha…why??” Her: “They haven’t seen a white person not on TV before”. Me: “Um.. okay…” Somewhere in China I’m on an iPhone.
The Guide explained to me that they were not from Beijing, and that no one from Beijing or Shanghai would even care. But they were tourists, too, and apparently white people are on the list of things to look at.)
The Forbidden City is both larger and smaller than you’d expect. The first piece we walked into can best be described as a large courtyard, with buildings on each side. Beyond those buildings are other areas/courtyards, with more buildings, of varying significance.
“You see that building?” she said, pointing to a single-story building (don’t let the description fool you, a single-story building in the Forbidden City is about 3 standard US stories). “That building is NOT important.” That building had ornate lacquer, multiple pillars, gold-leaf dragons embedded in the top around it, and impressive marble stairs leading up to it. (Then again, so did every other building in the complex).
“It is NOT important because it only has 1 level. In Ming and Qing dynasty, you have 1 level for ‘regular building’. Two levels for ‘Emperor building’. And three or more levels for Temple. Emperor needed more levels than regular but could not have as many as God.”
We walked from one building to the next, marveling at the ornate carvings and the excellent restoration work that had been done. “See that building? Not important. Emperor would stop there to change his robes.” This would become a recurring theme: “That building? Not important.” I have many, many pictures of these buidings (both non-and-important ones).
After walking all over the Forbidden City we went to the Temple of Heaven (“See? Three level. Very Important.”) where I discovered that the architecture was indeed beautiful but I didn’t want a picture of the inside bad enough to withstand the jostling that was clearly de rigeur. I walked around the perimeter instead, taking pictures from the hilltop that the Temple sits on.
After this we headed to the Pearl Market, a government-run facility that aims to expand China’s burgeoning cultured freshwater pearl market. These are not the “Rice Krispy” pearls of my memory, but beautiful, round pearls that come in five colors: white (everyday/purity), black(indpenedence), purple (for romantic love), pink(friendship), and gold (dragon lady/super fancy). Be warned: you walk in and you get to help them open up an oyster and see the cultured pearls within, but you also are then followed by your very own salesperson for the rest of your time in the shop. Even if you’re just looking. The variety is impressive and I bought something (hey, I was in China!), including my first (and only) Chinese Diet Coke.
Chinese Diet Coke tastes exactly like American Diet Coke, which is surprising. As the male person remarked, “Diet Coke doesn’t even taste the same in Canada!”
After this we had lunch that was right next door to a fish market. Most of the items for sale there were what you’d see in any decent fish market in the US, with one notable exception.
We then went to the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace was about 40 minutes away and the van got quiet with sleepy tourists, which was good. When we arrived we were refreshed and the guide explained that the lake which bordered the Summer Palace was artificially made—or partially so. “Half was here. Half was made. They took the dirt from the half that was made and made that hill there,” she said, gesturing to a hill with a temple atop. “This was a present from the Emperor to his mother.” It’s pretty impressive when you take into account the size of the lake and the size of the hill, never mind the actual building architecture. As with any tourist attraction, the buildings were laced with gift shops and gift stands, and crowded with people much as the last two spots. “All the children are out of school for summer,” she said. “Now is the time when all of the tourists are here.”
Our final destination for the day was Mr. Tea, a teashop. We were treated to tea service and learned how to properly drink tea (it depends, apparently, on what kind of tea, if you are going to slurp it or “chew” it or sip it). We learned how to hold the teacups (ladies: thumb and forefinger at the top, middle finger to the bottom, ring and pinky finger extended; gents: thumb and forefinger at the top, middle finger to the bottom, ring and pinky finger curled in under the cup. If men do it the “ladies’” way, they are considered “girly”. If ladies do it the men’s way, they are considered to be “dragon lady”). One variety of local tea is called Pu-er tea, and it’s very good; as with our other shop-stop this one meant we had a shopping assistant at our very elbow, coaching us on what else to buy. I noticed in both places there was no real dickering but they really emphasized the upgrade (“Don’t you want a necklace with that? What about when you go to a party? You need to be dressed up!”) (Trying to explain to this very delicate, feminine creature that I do not go to parties, and that I spend the majority of my time either at a computer or in equally unglamorous events seemed moot.)
I got back to the hotel at about 4pm, tired but happy. There are other tours available at the hotel and of course a ton more to see, which I will do on my next trip.