A visit to fabulous Beijing

| March 30, 2011
Drum Tower at a city gate.

Drum Tower at a city gate.

Our days on the Regent Voyager had come to an end. We said our goodbyes to friends but smiled because we knew we would sail with them again, God willing.

It was time to leave the ship at the new port complex of Tianjin, located three hours inland from our destination – Beijing. The port area is amazing as it is all reclaimed sea and landfill. Mile upon mile of reclaimed land greeted us, with virtually nothing built except the roads and basic infrastructure.

More amazing are the people doing the landscaping; each side of the road is being planted with thousands of trees and sod – all by hand. China is planting one million trees each year. The holes are dug by hand, the trees carried in and then trimmed to a uniform height. The wooden braces are put around each tree and then an army of people carry water from a pipe to water each tree.

Those passengers who were going to Beijing went in a convoy of buses. It was a fascinating trip. We were almost the only traffic on a new four lane highway. The time passed quickly as we were fascinated by the roadside activity.

A typical Hutong street.

A typical Hutong street.

Beijing, also known as Peking, is simply Chinese for “northern capital.” It is the cultural, political and educational center of China. It has a population of 20 million and is growing by leaps and bounds.

We checked into the elegant Regent Hotel. Mercy! On the left side of the grand and spacious lobby was the Rolls-Royce dealership and on the right side was the Bentley dealership!

Our bedroom was as large as the one at home. We had two double beds, a huge desk, an enormous entertainment center and sofa. The wall between the bathroom and the bedroom was glass with automatic venetian blinds.

In the lobby has antique wood root carvings that are spectacular. What looks like glass walls between rooms in the restaurants are actually 2-inch-thick glass rods with etched bands on them. Everywhere you look there is a fountain or some other beautiful thing.

The making of a very expensive silk rug.

The making of a very expensive silk rug.

The city is filled with wide streets and sidewalks, closed streets made into plazas and luxury stores by the dozens.

Our guide, Amanda, and driver, Mr. Kong, took us to the “must see” on Brad’s list, the National Grand Theatre. It was under construction the last time we were in Beijing, and it promised to be fascinating. It took five years to build. It is on Tiananmen Square.

It looks like a giant glass and titanium egg floating in a square pool of water. You enter by descending steps into a hall under the water. The ceiling of the hall is glass, and you are very aware of the movement of the water overhead. Then you enter the bubble. The Opera House seats 2,416 people! The walls are wood for the sound. It is truly spectacular inside and out. The building has two other theatres, and the lobby space is enormous.

Next we went to the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall. It tells the history of the city and showcases the great achievements of Beijing urban planning construction.

There is an incredible 302-square-meter scale model of old Beijing surrounded by a 1,000-square-meter illuminated tile glass floor made of aerial photos of the city of today. You can walk on the tiles and find each building and street and alley. They are the same scale as the three-dimensional model. It is wonderful.

The Olympic Bird’s Nest.

The Olympic Bird’s Nest.

They also have great displays of antique works of art.

That evening we went to the China World Hotel, another grand place, for dinner with our friends from Oregon, Andrea and Bruce, who were going back to the ship the next day.

The next morning, breakfast was incredible. There was an enormous area of Dim Sum, and I looked no further, even though there were three more rooms of other breakfast buffet items.

After stuffing ourselves, Amanda and our driver Mr. Kong picked us up and we went off to see the Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest made famous at the Olympics. Now they are used constantly for other events.

Then we went to see the ancient Lama temple, which was full of Asians. The only tourists were from Singapore. The ladies were all giggling and taking pictures of each other. Brad went over and with sign language said he would take a picture of all of them. Well, they were surprised and loved it but insisted I be in the picture with them. They were so happy and it was contagious.

I have always said that when you have seen one tropical island you have seen them all. Add to that, temples! They are so big and dusty and smell of incense. All temples look alike and this was my last one!

A crowd of mostly Thai tourists. Can you tell which one isn’t from Bangkok?

A crowd of mostly Thai tourists. Can you tell which one isn’t from Bangkok?

For lunch, Amanda took us to a popular neighborhood restaurant. We were the only “round eyes” in the place. Mr. Kong was surprised when we insisted he sit and eat with us. The waiters all yell at each other at the top of their voices, constantly.

Then we were off to the Pearl Market. We didn’t need pearls, but they had things we didn’t know we needed – scarves, a furry Mao hat, a panda bear hat, mechanical toys, rubber band watches, Mao waving watches, bangle bracelets, Bobbi Brown cosmetics, all at prices you couldn’t believe.

Amanda had access to the famous secret designer store I had heard about for years. It is unmarked and locked and on an upper floor and looks like a closet or bathroom.

Inside were shoes and handbags, all designer names and all inexpensive. Were they real? Were they knockoffs? Did they “fall off the truck”? Who knows?

Brad pooh-poohed the idea but graciously went along to keep an eye on me. Well, I fell for the red patent Ferragamo loafers. And guess who fell for the bright red Gucci high-top athletic shoes?

A temple entrance.

A temple entrance.

Fortunately, at the end of our day we found the luggage department and bought a suitcase.

When we got home, I sat and read and Brad went out investigating the neighborhood.

We were bushed and had drinks and dinner at the hotel. They put fried eggs on their club sandwiches. Ugh.

The next day we went to the countryside and on the way to the Great Wall, we made the obligatory stop at the cloisonné factory. Need I say more?

This was Brad’s day. He wanted to walk the Great Wall again. This time we went to a place that had a chair lift to take you up to the wall. Before I knew it, I was put in the lift and away we went. Brad went on the walk, and instead of using the lift to come down, he slid down the hill on a curving metal toboggan.

We came home and walked blocks to an outdoor souvenir market. There were as many Chinese shoppers as tourists. The main street in Beijing is six lanes in each direction and is 42 kilometers long!

We ate dinner at a restaurant next to the hotel. We were the only tourists. They did not take credit cards, and Brad was out of Chinese money. He left me sitting there and went back to the hotel to change money. I thought the food was so-so and didn’t eat mine. I had a burger that was divine back at the hotel.

The next day started off just fine with great Dim Sum. Amanda and Mr. Kong picked us up, and we headed to the New Capital Museum. It is architecturally interesting, and the exhibits are interesting also.

The soaring interior lobby of the National Grand Theater.

The soaring interior lobby of the National Grand Theater.

Then we went to the Hori Hai District. It was the site of the old electric company in multiple buildings and courtyards. It has now been turned into an artist’s enclave. There are all sorts of boutiques and galleries. It still looks old, only the interiors are modern.

Lunch was at a large Dim Sum restaurant. Mr. Kong was floored that we asked him to eat with us again. Do Americans not do this? How rude.

The staff wore earpieces and called in their orders on their cell phones. Amanda ordered all the things I like, plus chicken feet. I drew the limit on them!

Afterward we went to the Hutong area to see its early 20th century houses. We got in pedicabs and were driven through the narrow streets of the old area. We stopped at the home on an old artist and were invited in for tea. She painted the inside of snuff bottles. I always wondered how they did that and now I know. Her niece lives with her and her Bichon Frisee, and she paints the bottles now. She painted my name inside one with cats painted in it.

We also went to the silk rug factory and a tea company that was somewhat interesting. We saw the china that turns colors when hot tea is poured in it. It was interesting but we resisted.

Then it was time to go back to the hotel and pack and have a last Chinese dinner. We bid farewell to Amanda and Mr. Kong.

At 4 a.m. we rose and headed for the airport, which is spectacular. Fourteen hours later, we touched down in Chicago, changed planes and were in Louisville by 2 p.m. It had been gloomy and dreary when we departed five weeks before. The blooming trees and daffodils were a delightful welcome home.

photos by CARLA SUE BROECKER | contributing photographer

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Carla Sue
A fixture in Louisville society, Carla Sue Broecker has been writing her weekly column for more than two decades.

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