A Travel Day, but First, the Forbidden City

Saturday brought a much welcomed weekend and a bit slower pace for our little delegation. We were due to board a plane for Xi’an around 6 p.m., which left us time to view one of the most impressive historical attractions in Beijing—the Forbidden City.

The imperial palace was first built in the 1400’s during the Ming Dynasty. Its grounds cover many acres and feature many important buildings, structures and gardens.

Our wait for tickets outside the main gate gave us the opportunity to watch hundreds of people from all over the world pouring into the Forbidden City.

A sea of people in the courtyard

When it was our turn to walk through the gate, we were struck by the enormity and symmetry of the first courtyard. We were greeted by five walking bridges followed by a large set of staircases into the first building (or “door” to the next courtyard). Past that, we walked through inner courtyard to ever more inner courtyard, catching glimpses through the crush of people of the emperor’s reception area, his building for thought and reflection, the throne room, the living quarters, the mother-in-law’s residence, and many other beautiful spaces. You can’t walk into these spaces but you can stand at the gated-off doorways and peek inside the various rooms, which meant a lot of jockeying for position (including little grandmothers who weren’t shy about elbowing past Ray and Tom). No matter; there was architecture all around us and the level of detail was awe-inspiring.

A turn to the right took us to a fascinating museum of Chinese watches and clocks created over the centuries, including clocks that had staircases in them and clocks that had flowers that would “bloom” on the hour. One of the loveliest spots on the palatial grounds was the private garden of the emperor. Carefully cultivated and shaped trees, several pagoda structures, and many walkways adorned the garden, and a feeling of luxuriousness, but also of absolute tranquility, was palpable.

All that walking left us more than ready for lunch. This time, we were able to experience a typical Chinese restaurant, “Fortune Long Beijing Bean Sauce Noodles,” buzzing with lunchtime activity. An offering at the door was a given and, despite the fact that this was a “regular” lunch, it still involved more dishes than we could possibly hope to eat—fish, shrimp, baby bok choy, yellow pea cubes, pork, sticky rice, date nut cakes; the list just went on and on.

Next stop: surviving a shopping experience in Beijing. Dr. Lu and his wife took us to a well-regarded pearl market, which included several floors of merchandise (iPhone cases and electronics to name brand handbags and clothing) and a whole floor dedicated to pearls. The hard part for us Westerners? The high pressure sales pitches at every turn and the fact that you’re expected to bargain over the price of everything, as the initial asking price for an item could be more than 80 percent higher than its actual worth. With Dr. Lu’s bargaining skills, though, we were able to enjoy some very good deals.

A surprise find in the shopping area was a Starbucks, so we popped in before our drive to the airport. Ray got an extra special treat when they announced that they were out of what he’d ordered and he got a green tea frappuccino with Chinese red beans on top. Probably one of his most unusual purchases ever from Starbucks, but he insisted it was good.Starbucks in Beijing

Two minor moments of panic at the airport. First, when we arrived and thought we only had 20 minutes to make our plane and still had to go through the very busy airport security. Luckily, we were an hour off and had plenty of time til our flight. Second, when we went through the bag check (which involved a scan of our luggage) and they found something “suspicious” in the President’s suitcase. Turned out to be a shoulder massager that looked kind of like a hair dryer and looked just vaguely enough like a gun to elicit concern. They ran the suitcase twice before they’d let us proceed, and then more bustling was underway when she decided to deal with the inconvenience by throwing it away in a trash can just before airport security. Let’s just say the security people were somewhat alarmed about the whole thing. Ultimately, with Dr. Lu’s help, a crisis was averted and we ALL made a note to NEVER bring anything in that particular shape with us to China.

Our flight was short and uneventful, and our new hosts from Siyuan University met us at the airport, drove us to our lovely hotel—Jianguo Hotel—and bid us a good night’s sleep ahead of our meetings the next day. With a full day of talks on the agenda for Sunday, thus ended our relaxing weekend.