Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Day 6: Good morning, Beijing! (Tiananmen 天安门, Forbidden City 紫禁城)

We reached Beijing at 7.20am. 

The first place (within the airport) we went to - for breakfast 
 How to place order:
1) Queue up, place your order and pay at the cashier's
2) Get a number tag
3) Find a table
 Our breakfast. We liked the doughstick. It is different from Singapore's version. Singapore's is limp and soft. Beijing's is slightly crisp on the outside and soft and fresh on the inside.
 We were amused that their morning egg is a fried one. We were expecting a half-boiled.
 We queued up at the taxi stand. The stand itself was a very, very long one.
In Beijing, their taxi meter starts at RMB 10, plus RMB 2 for petrol. And unlike their Shanghai counterparts,  a plastic shield is not in place to protect the driver.

The cab fare from the train station to our hotel was RMB 37.
After we rested for a while at the hotel, we walked to Tiananmen. At 10.30am, there were hordes and hordes of people thronging Tiananmen to go into The Forbidden City. 
We walked past Tiananmen to see many stalls paddling their ware. I was stupid enough to buy a RMB 60 pack of AA sized batteries.

We opted for the Automatic Guide - a sensory device that automatically explains or relates a tale about the various architecture in The Forbidden City the moment you walk on the ground. Amazing huh? The whole Forbidden City was sensored.
Each automatic guide cost RMB 40 to rent with a deposit of RMB 100 per guide.
A woman selling maps and explanations of The Forbidden City for RMB 5 at the ticketing queue. She kept repeating,"Buy a map and the explanation booklet so that you won't enter the City for nothing. Even if you don't use it, you can bring it home to educate your kids about The Forbidden City!" I was so intrigued by her that I stared at her at one or two-step distance. She saw me staring at her but continued to speak as though I was not. I bought one set from her, of course.
Ticketing information:
RMB 60 per pax
RMB 20 for children below 1.5m

Each time we went to an architecture, which was always a throne room of some kind, we saw crowds like this ...
 all fighting to see a throne like this

There were also quite a few magnificent pieces of stone carvings like this, even at the Temple of Heaven

There were exhibitions on the lifestyles of the royal family. The above exhibition was about the marriage of the Emperor. The auspicious hour for an emperor's wedding was from 11pm to 1am, so many candles and lamps were required.
The Palace Garden 御花园 - the only place in The Forbidden City that has plants

As I am typing this, an idea struck me: is this symbolical of the state of The Forbidden City? The Forbidden City saw many deaths. The only place in the City, The Palace Garden, that has plants - a symbol of life is incidentally a place with no death occurrence. Is it a coincidence or was it destined?

 The intricate structure of the architecture
 Two trees hugging each other - Couple Tree (夫妻树)
A palace Empress Cixi lived in
 It is difficult for me to imagine how grand and beautiful the place was, ever
 An exhibition about the concubines. They were ranked and even the daily utensils were differentiated.

This was where Empress Cixi made the young emperor repeated her instructions from behind the yellow curtain (垂帘听政)
 The Palace is huge. Very, very huge.
 Behind the red bricked wall were many lives lost
Treasure Gallery 珍宝馆
RMB 10 per pax was required to enter to view some other exhibits like Concubine Zhen's well (珍妃井)
 An impressive carving of nine dragons at the entrance of Treasure Gallery
 Wood carvings of dragons on the doors of the structures
 Even the roofs were adorned with intricate carvings of legendary animals - the sons of Dragon
Concubine Zhen was pushed into the well by the order of Empress Cixi as Concubine Zhen found favour with Emperor Guangxu.

It is difficult to imagine how a 25-year-old woman could be pushed into a well that small.
It was 5pm when I made my way out. Coco and my parents apparently had went some other way and after waiting for them for more than half an hour, I decided to walk out, hoping to see them outside.
As I was walking out, I could not help but marvel at the magnificence, yet sigh at the great sense of loneliness, of The Forbidden City. So many power struggles, resulting in the loss of lives after lives, many of which were young lives. Many others were innocent. So many only wanted to get by and survive in the Palace, yet were forbidden to. It was truly The Forbidden City.

When the teenage girls first entered the Palace as consorts, did they realise what they were in for? Did they somewhat forsee what they could end up as?

Dynasties after dynasties - to us commoners, they were victories of a new generation or era. But behind every victory, there was great bloodshed - the deaths of emperors and princesses. I could imagine the great fear and hopelessness that seized the royal families when the enemies came charging into the palace.

A sense of sadness and melancholy came over me as I walked around the Palace. Almost for every place I went to, there was a sad tale to tell. I did not expect The Forbidden City to be such a depressing place. I wanted to treat it as a Palace Museum (故宫) which is its very current name, but it was The Forbidden City. No other name is as apt as it.

 Chairman Mao looked lonely up there on the Gate
Many were still taking pictures at The Gate

Despite walking for about 6 hours, we only managed to cover half of the huge place!

To truly enjoy the Palace - if the Chinese history so intrigues or mersmerises you despite all its melancholy and sorrows, go there early like 8.30am to beat the crowd. To cover the ground entirely, one day certainly is not enough. I don't know how those tour groups do it, to conquer The Forbidden City and a few other areas within a day. It is advised to have two days allocated for The Forbidden City - only if you enjoy Chinese history. If you don't give a heck about it, you would feel that The Forbidden City is a dread, and a drag.

Some after-thoughts ...

I honestly surprised myself. I thought I'd hate the place. Despite studying Chinese history at 'A' levels, I was apathetic towards the happenings in the actual history. I just thought the Boxers were a silly bunch of xenophobics and Empress Cixi was ridiculously ignorant and stupid, except that emotions and feelings were often conveniently left out in the history notes and books. Perhaps if the written history had been more literature-like, I would not have been so averse towards it.

Looking at the discoloured pillars and structures, and the very many similar architecture in the Palace, I could not help but wonder if emperors really did exist. How could emperors be living in structures so dilapidated looking? But when I saw some intricately refurbished doors, I could imagine that the paint was once always new and good. The faded fabrics and curtains which dorn the rooms must have once been luxurious-looking.

Power corrupts - the tale Empress Cixi had lived to tell. From a simple consort, she rose to become a Dowager and was so obsessed with power that she wanted to rule all the time. And she did - for 47 years. A strong-willed girl who turned absolutely ruthless and self-serving, destroying anyone who stood in her way or at risk of threatening her position.

For all the splendour of the many dynasties, the evils of Empress Cixi remain the most mind-etching.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Day 5: Yunnan Road Snack Street 云南路美食街 (Xiao Jin Ling 小金陵, Yan Yun Lou 燕云楼,Xiao Shao Xing 小绍兴), D Train to Beijing动车

Day 5 was our last day in Shanghai. By then, we (at least my mother and I) felt that we should have left for Beijing as 5 days in Shanghai seemed to be a little too much for us. We were running out of things to do especially when it kept raining - 3 out of 5 days were rainy days.
Sick and tired of all the awful food, either by own find or forummers' recommendation, I asked the hotel staff where we could find good food to eat. He well-meaningly recommended Yunnan Road (云南路美食街)which was away from the hotel by RMB 12 to 15.

We went into a shop, Xiao Jin Ling 小金陵, with an obvious number of locals lining up outside the shop, waiting for their takeaways.

Good choice it was!
We were one of the earlier customers. By the time we left, the shop was packed with patrons.
The cashier's recommendation: Vermicelli with duck broth 老鸭粉丝汤 RMB 10

Very delicious although I suspect it was on the salty side, but it got thumbs up from all of us. The pieces of add-ons were duck blood and duck intestines. I rarely eat intestines, but the duck blood was soft and jelly-like.

One bowl was big enough for two persons. The Shanghainese seem to have huge appetite. Their bowls are huge.
The interesting curly texture of their vermicelli
Jin Ling Dumplings 金陵汤包 RMB 5

Equally good as, if not better than, Jia Jia Tang Bao!
Salted water duck (big portion)  盐水鸭 (大盆)RMB 20

I had a tough time trying to decide how much to order as the dish came with a few options. I'd asked the cashier how much she'd suggest, and she said,"RMB 120." I am glad I abided by the 'Make the decision yourself or others will make it for you." I asked for one portion first and decided that we would ask for more if we liked it. This portion was already quite sufficient for us, coupled with the dumplings and vermicelli.

The duck was enjoyable as well, but all of us loved the vermicelli best. The best meal we had in Shanghai, after so many days! Cheap too - just RMB 35 (S$7)!
It was drizzling.We popped over to the opposite shop, Yan Yun Lou 燕云楼 to borrow their loo. Apparently, the people who work here do not need the toilets. Whoever we approached said that there was no loo around.
Being too shy to just ask for the toilet, we felt compelled to eat something from the restaurant. Okay, we chose the Peking Duck.
The condiments and accompaniments of Peking Duck
Half of Peking Duck 烤北京填鸭 RMB 44 (S$9)

My father was all praises for it, although I thought it was ordinary.

In China, most places slice the meat off together with the skin, a practice different from Singapore's. I can't decide which method I prefer. I love the fatty and crispy skin when eaten alone, but I dislike the "how do you want the meat cooked?" part because I honestly don't fancy eating the meat separately without the tasty skin.
The restaurant

We walked to Middle Tibet Road 西藏中路 to shop for local products as it was not too much of a challenge. It was walkable from Yunnan Road to Middle Tibet Road.
We chanced upon one of the digital camera companies doing promotion at Raffles City Shopping Centre. They offered to take two polaroid pictures for whoever wished to free of charge. Coco lined up for it and she got a prize ...
Two photo frames for her polaroid pictures!

We shopped a little at Raffles City.  I bought a dress from 'Only' boutique and a pair of earrings from a push-cart.

After that, we hung around Nanjing Road to shop - window shop mainly. We felt that the clothes in Shanghai were not more fashionable than Singapore's.

It was raining like crazy by the time we decided we were quite done with the shopping, which in fact was not much at all. We decided to go back to Yunnan Road to eat at one of the restaurants that was filled with patrons the previous day. The unfortunate thing about it was: we could not get a cab. What further made us think it possible to walk was because the locals told us it was a 'short walk'. Coco timed the walk - 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Xiao Shao Xing Restaurant 小绍兴

It specialises in steamed chicken. It has 3 storeys. The first obviously caters to the locals. The menu is simple and does not have pricey items. One item that is similar to the 3rd storey's menu, which is the tourist level, is their Shao Xing Chicken. We were also glad to find that the chicken was priced equally, after the meal.
We were directed to the third level. More posh and fewer patrons.
Shao Xing Chicken (500g) 绍兴鸡 (RMB 39) 
Having tasted many good chickens in Singapore, I didn't think the chicken was impressive as a specialty. It was okay, one of the better food in Shanghai I guess.
Cod fish 鳕鱼 (RMB 78)

This was good. Fresh and tasty. We had another serving of it despite it being the most expensive dish among the dinner.
Shrimps, cabbage and fish slices in rice wine 糟溜三白 (RMB 62)
Another of their signature dish. Not impressive either. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we could not taste the rice wine.

The meal cost us RMB 281 (S$56) in total, with 4 bowls of white rice and a few drinks.
 After the dinner, we went back to the hotel to get our luggage and took a cab to Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station to take a D train (动车)to Beijing. We reached the Station in about 30 minutes (RMB 69)! But fortunately we reached there early. The gate was opened at about 9pm.

When I bought the tickets in Shanghai, I knew that I had to buy D train tickets with 3 digits after the letter 'D' - an indication that it was a highspeed train and I had to let the cashier know my starting point and destination: Shanghai Hongqiao (上海虹桥)to Beijing South (北京南) as there were different train stations in Shanghai and Beijing. One difference or omission by a sheer character and you will get to a different destination.
D train 和谐号

We took the 9.25pm train. It was scheduled to reach Beijing South Station at 7.15am the following morning.
Soft sleeper 软卧. The locals call it '铺' (pu), meaning 'bed'.

Lower berth: RMB 730 per pax
Upper berth: RMB 655 per pax
Child below 1.5m gets RMB 60 off the upper berth. You will need to top up another RMB 60 if you want a lower berth for the child.

Luggage goes under the bed. The capacity of the luggage compartment is not unlimited, so it is not wise to bring too huge a luggage if you are going on the train.
Ear phones, clothes hanger, magazines, reading light, TV and remote control - all in one berth!

This ledge solves the mystery of 'how to get onto the upper berth?'

The ticket only indicates the bed number ie. 21, 22, 23 and 24, not the door number of your cabin.
The corridor
Sensory washing area
Two toilet cubicles for all to share
Hot water

Announcements would be made for the first few stops, after which an announcement would be made again to inform passengers that the next announcement would be the morning call for Beijing South Station. Passengers who were alighting at stations before Beijing South would have to set their own alarm.

Coco was so excited about the train that she exclaimed,"This is the coolest train ever!"

This train was also one of the reasons I opted for Free and Easy. Tour agencies would have done domestic flights instead. According to them, China's domestic flights are never on time, so it would mean a day wasted on flying.

The overnight train totally intrigued me. I am not too sure if it was really a 'very Chinese thing to do' - as said by some forummer, since most passengers I met on the train were not exactly locals, and the train tickets would be very pricey for them I would say. The locals usually buy Hard Sleeper (6-bedder, no door - no thanks!) or Seat tickets (ten hours of sitting on the train - no thanks either!) as they are cheaper by a big margin. I thought this ride would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I mean, how many times are you going to Shanghai and Beijing within a trip? Although I would very much prefer to take the 5-hour highspeed Shanghai-Beijing train which would be up and running by 30 June 2011, I had to settle for this as the next best thing on the list since we would not be able to coincide our trip with that new-experience train.


Xiao Jin Ling
No. 55 Yunnan South Road
Hours: 8.30am to 9pm

55 号,云南南路

Yan Yun Lou
No. 98, Yunnan South Road

98 号,云南南路

Xiao Shao Xing
No. 69 - 75, Yunnan South Road

69-75号, 云南南路