Friday, June 24, 2011

Drum and Bell Towers

Before getting on the bus to Datong, we spent a little time in the morning exploring the Drum and Bell Towers in Beijing.

Drum Tower:

Bell Tower:

These towers were used to keep time in ancient times. The Drum tower houses a few devices for measuring the passage of time including this thing...

The containers are filled with water, and each contains a hole of a specific size where the water flows out. They measure the passage of time by the amount of water that flows out of the hole. When a specified quantity of water flowed out of the device, they knew a certain amount of time has passed.

These large drums are also located in the drum tower. The drums used to be played every 2 hours, 24 hours per day, to signal the passage of time to the Bell tower:

The Bell Tower is about a block away from the Drum Tower, within hearing distance of the drums. The bell in the Bell Tower is rung after the drums are sounded, and the bell is loud enough to transmit the sound throughout the city. The tower itself is also designed to amplify the sound.

They no longer sound the drums and bell every 2 hours, but they do a very cool drum performance with 5 drummers about 6 times per day. It was incredibly loud but pretty amazing. The guide in the Bell Tower told us they only ring the bell a couple times per year now to preserve it, it is the second largest bell in the world. He also very proudly told us he got to ring the bell for Chinese New Years one year. On a side note, the Chinese people seem to be obsessed with measurements, every time we have a guide or read an informative sign, the first and sometimes only thing they tell you is how large or heavy something is. It's very odd.

After the drum and bell towers, we stopped in at a local espresso shop that is recommended in our Beijing guidebook. To this point, we had subsisted solely on jasmine green tea provided at our B&B, with an occasional Coke, for our caffeine needs. (On another side note, we have seen a Starbucks but did not try it.) Prices are comparable if not a little more expensive than in the USA. The barista said that he caters primarily to western tourists, that coffee is very slowly gaining popularity among Chinese, and that the Chinese favor sweeter drinks and/or tea. Well we bit, and I have to say, we were quite pleasantly surprised by the quality of our lattes - better I think than many US espresso joints, including Starbucks.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


We are now wrapping up our third full day in Beijing. It has felt like a whirlwind tour at times and we could spend much longer here. Beijing is a great city to visit with tons of interesting things to do and see. But it is time to move on, for now, to other destinations.

In Beijing, we stayed in a fabulous bed and breakfast called Mao Er Hutong bed and breakfast. It is run by a very nice chinese woman named angela, whose aunt owns the place. We have had a fabulous, authentic Chinese breakfast every morning which has been some of the best food we have eaten. Our breakfast foods always include some sort of starch including fried rice, scallion pancake, or homemade roll with egg as well as a fresh vegetable marinated in a light vinegar based sauce. This morning we had a cucumber and carrot salad as well as a spicy green bean salad. I must say, i feel very healthy eating vegetables with my breakfast every morning.

The bed & breakfast is located in a 'hutong', or alley, near Qianhai Lake north of the forbidden city. The hutong are networks of narrow streets between the major arterials and we have found them to contain some of the more interesting culture in the city. One of the hutong adjacent to ours has recently been given a facelift and is now home to some very trendy bars, restaurants and shops.

To the west of our B&B as well as the forbidden city are a series of linear lakes ringed by greenspaces and parks which provide a pleasant backdrop and refuge from the urban environment. We started out our first day in Beijing exploring a couple of large urban parks including Beihai park. This park has a large lake and some old temples. There were lots of Chinese people out in the park hanging out, dancing in large groups, dancing in small groups, singing in bands with harmonicas and drums, doing tai chi, playing badminton, hackey sacking, and doing a dance that involved twirling a scarf on a stick with particular wrist motions. It was quite entertaining. It seems to be common in Beijing to exercise outside in parks in groups. We think this might be because there are very few yards in Beijing. Most houses we have seen have walls that front directly onto the street and have a central courtyard open to the sky, including the b and b we are staying in.

In the afternoon, we visited Tiananmen Square, and then the forbidden city. The forbidden city was built in the Ming dynasty and was the home and court of the emperors and their families. It is a huge place with many amazing buildings and a fabulous garden.

The next day, Angela arranged a private van for us and 4 other guests to go to the Great Wall about 2.5 hours outside Beijing. This was probably my (Amy) favorite thing we have done so far. We hiked for about 4 hours on the Jingshanling section, which including both restored and unrestored segments. It was amazing, the wall is located along the very crest of a mountain ridge, and follows every steep up and down of the ridge. There were multiple sections where I was hanging on or pushing off with my hands. Also, it was a gorgeous sunny day, and you get a fabulous view of the surrounding hillsides from the top of the wall.

We have had highly variable food experiences thus far. I think this is partly due to the language
barrier. We are so totally clueless in restaurants, especially when the menu is written in Chinese characters with no pictures. Sometimes the pictures are not helpful either as nothing seems to be what you expected when you ordered based on the picture. After a horrible lunch today, we were rewarded this evening with an excellent meal of dumplings at a local eatery that specializes in this northern Chinese staple.

Today we also had the pleasant experience of working out on the public exercise equipment we found in multiple locations through the city.

Well, tomorrow we are off to Datong to see a hanging temple and some caves!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Travel Day

I (David) am writing this on the plane from YVR to PEK.

Our day started relatively early and hectic after a late night packing and prepping. I had a major freak-out with only a few minutes until time to leave for the airport when I couldn't find my wallet. I never lose my wallet. Not that I really needed it since my passport and cash (lots of it!) were safe and sound and Amy has duplicates of our credit and cash cards. But it was still a BAD THING, a major hassle, not a good way to start a trip, and I would have to spend my airport time calling to cancel the cards and begin the replacement process...ugh!

Anyway, as I loaded the car, I noticed a little lump in the side mesh pocket of my small bag and, sure enough, found it. [sigh of relief.] Apparently I had the foresight to pre-pack it the night before but had forgotten - I'll blame that on a couple of glasses of wine and a scotch earlier in the evening.

We hopped a short flight up to Vancouver from Sea-Tac on a regional prop plane. Interestingly, I had another minor heart attack when I snapped a photo of Amy out on the tarmac and a security personnel demanded to confiscate my phone because he might be in the image. In retrospect, it seems kind of suspicious of him to make such a demand. He didn't mention security concerns (which is the interpretation I had immediately) but rather was concerned about his image on my camera. I don't recall seeing any signs restricting photography but, honestly, I wasn't paying that close attention to the routine trivia of boarding/security. Luckily, he was satisfied to watch me delete the photos in front of him and we were on our way with all our belongings.

As if it couldn't get any worse, Air Canada employees were on strike by the time we landed in Vancouver. As a result, our flight was delayed by 4 hours, extending our three hour layover to seven. (At least they were still flying!) What fun! All day in an airport terminal. By the time we were getting close to boarding, it was starting to feel like that Tom Hanks movie...

11 hour redeye that arrives the following evening (it's a time zone/date line thing) - good thing we rented a couple of movies for the flight.