Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Land with 6 Rings

There is no greater adventure than traveling to another country where you get to meet its people, taste its food (as long as you are not picky and have a very adventurous palette), feel its climate, have a sense of its culture, and most of all, know its history. Well, thanks to budget flights, I have been fortunate to have visited the land with a very very long history that it even pre-dates America, most of the Western world and other civilizations by hundreds of years. A week ago, I have been to the heart of China we formerly called Peking, which we now know as Beijing.

Our trip to Beijing was the final leg of the tour of our visitors from Calgary, Canada, Leslie, a childhood friend of my wife, and her German-Canadian hubby, Gregor, who for the first time, visited our country in spite of the frightening stories told him by his peers at work like malaria, dengue and whatever danger one can possibly experience in another land. These plus the travel advisories the country has been getting from other countries which somehow put Philippine tourism at a standstill somehow making Gregor ill at ease about coming. But I'm sure he's glad he came based on his reactions especially when it was time for them to fly back to Canada. Anyway, after several days of visiting Cebu, Bohol, Boracay with my wife and Palawan to which I was fortunate to go,we all travelled with them to China which has been arranged by my wife and her very competent sister, Ate Lilia.

The travel was not without any glitch. First, the visa. Acquiring a visa for China is not that easy. They require an NBI clearance, among other things, which proved to be hard for me knowing how ordinary my name is. True enough, I share my name with another who has been charged with theft. The process was not easy. Then there was the issue of our passports, who our trusted agent had been told, did not have the necessary holes in our last passports,(which turned out was not only taken out as traces of the holes were discovered by my sister-in-law probing deeper into the status of the passports). The second glitch was when we were at the airport. My brother-in-law (husband of Ate Lilia), who is familiar with China as he travels there all the time, did not realize that his passport was to expire in May which is exactly six months from the time of our departure. Cebu Pacific has a policy that one cannot travel with a passport that shall expire in six months. This was not good as the hotel we were to spend the night was reserved to his name, etc... By some stroke of luck and quick thinking, he was able to get a ticket to HongKong, ride a train to the Mainland, catch a plane from there to join us in Beijing. The thing was he missed the tour of the Great Wall.

Anyway, we landed in Beijing at around 1 am with a -3 degree temperature. The biting cold was not as evident yet as we had to stay inside the airport till the tour guide, Helen Yan, picked us up at around 7 am. We were greeted with the utterly cold temperature as soon as we got out to a twenty-seater van that would be our ride throughout the stay. First stop was the Great Wall which was 45 minutes away from the airport. One cannot miss the magnificence of this structure especially knowing that it has been in existence since the 5th century BC. We were treading on centuries old stone which was built as a fortification to fend off nomads and other enemies of those inside the wall. The stones have begun to sink a few inches as based on how the cement used to put them together stuck out. We climbed it and it was no easy feat that reaching the top was like a milestone. Before climbing the wall, I had to buy a pair of gloves and a hat to keep myself from freezing.

Next stop was inside a store that sold enamel vases. There, we were shown how the vases are meticulously made by hand from its raw state till it is cleaned. The factory-cum store also housed the restaurant for our lunch. We had a wonderful meal of about seven courses and the ubiquitous house tea. Unfortunately, we found it impractical to purchase a vase.

Thereafter, we went to the Summer Palace which covers 2.9 square kilometers that contained the Kunming Lake which at this time is beginning to freeze. We could see the hardened water from afar.

Thereafter, we went to a silk factory where we were shown the worm that produces the cocoon from where the silk is harvested. We were in awe at how far the silk would stretch from that tiny cocoon. At the factory’s interior were the various products made out of silk.

After that was a hefty supper, again of several courses and eat-all-you-can rice. We stayed there for a while and headed for our next stop - the Olympic village. Again, one can only be in awe at the vastness of the area punctuated by the
Beijing National Stadium we know as the Bird’s Nest as it resembles just that, a bird’s nest illuminated by red interior lights. Just across it is the Beijing Aquatics Center more popularly called the Water Cube. This was illumined by blue lights. It could have been much more interesting had we gone inside but walking in a vast space at -2 degrees can be painful on your toes and fingers while your teeth chattered it can only be described as offensively cold! We just walked to the nearest spot we could to take a good picture and "suffered" walking our way back to the van with its heater.

WE checked in to Novotel, got three rooms and slept like there was no tomorrow. Day 1 was done!

The following morning, the telephone rang at 7 telling us that it was our morning call. The guide has told the front desk that we should be up and about by 8 am. We rushed to take a shower, had breakfast and we were on the road again. This time, we went to Tianammen Square another wide expanse of land reputedly to be the largest city square in the world. This square was witness to many historical events in China that includes the protests in 1989 where they tried to stop the military, notably tanks with their bodies, similar to what we have accomplished in 1986 we call people power. They failed.

Northside of the square opens up to yet another important landmark, the famous Forbidden City. Again, one cannot imagine how huge this was. It is a complex structure that contains seven huge gates that open up to yet another large interior wit a palace and several structures at the side. At this point, I could not make up my mind if I wanted to have been the emperor of the time knowing how powerful this man could have been, plus the 300 or so concubines (of course), and yet, being trapped in that huge environment with seven gigantic gates and nowhere to go? How much space does one man need? Also, we have been told that the emperor was always up on his toes at 4 in the morning, working, (with 300 concubines, I guess one should) and worry about his life which could be taken by a son or a relative for power. So, I like who I am, thank you.

Then we went to the Temple of Heaven composed of several Taoist buildings which was visited by emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties to pray to the gods for a good harvest.

As any typical tourists, what is traveling without shopping? The last stop we did was to go shopping to two malls. It was very interesting as it is expected for one to haggle the price of a commodity and nobody can beat my sister-in-law to that kind of game. She was so good that after doing business with a lady and she introduced the rest of the party as "my friends", the saleslady could only utter, "Oh no,your friends!"

What do I make of my tour of Beijing. It was a revelation of some sort. I have always known the People's Republic of China as the model for communism, second only to Russia and yet, when I got there, I noticed that it can even be more capitalistic than any other country based on the businesses. I, in my own naivety even asked Helen, although I don't think I expressed myself well, how come there are food vendors plying the streets, while there are others who seem to have a lucrative job. "Who dictates what kind of job one should do?" I asked? She just stared at me. My bewilderment was even escalated when right after our shopping and we were about to leave for the airport, a woman with a baby was begging for alms. That surprised me a lot as my own idea of communism is that of equal distribution of wealth, based on the principle of "each according to his need" as opposed to the capitalistic "each according to his ability." Further reading on the subject led me to understand that after Mao's death and the conviction of the Big Four, Deng Xiaoping instituted economic reforms. By the way I look at it, based on the surge in the economy of China, maybe they are doing the right thing. But then, I have barely scratched the surface of China. I have been looking for residential areas and did not find any, I think. Being on a guided tour might have meant being able to see only what I was allowed to see. Nevertheless, the two-day tour was, in my mind, a remarkable experience.