Wednesday, August 22, 2007

China: Last day in Beijing

Yesterday was my last day in Beijing. In the morning, we had our closing ceremonies at the China National Institute of Cultural Property. I was asked to give a speech in behalf of all Asian countries present and blurted out a few Chinese lines I practiced the night before. They gave us our certificates and really nice tokens. A lunch banquet followed and it would not be complete without the traditional Chinese toast "Gan bei!" which means "Bottoms up!"

In the afternoon, I met up with my SSEAYP batchmates Pam and Edwin who were in Beijing for the 2nd China-ASEAN Youth Camp (I was a delegate during the 1st CAYC last year). What a coincidence that my schedule coincided with this year's camp.

We met at the Beijing Olypics Countdown Clock in Tian'anmen Square and proceeded to Houhai/Shichahai from there. Houhai is famous for its nightlife and chic bars and restaurants by the lake. I joined them back to their hotel because I wanted to meet Wu Wei of the All-China Youth Federation.

He invited me for drinks so we went back to Houhai. We took a cab since Wu Wei said he could not drink with me if he brought his car. Now that is being responsible!

Even on weekdays, the place is teeming with people. Nightlife is indeed alive in Houhai! And there were so many choices. We finally went to Lotus Blue Bar & Restaurant, downed half a case of Carlsberg there and played a dice game popular in bars to determine who drinks. It was all fun for my last night in Beijing! Photos are in Multiply.

So where's the apology?
While I was in China, an article by Malu Fernandez was e-mailed to me. When I got back, I realized the issue had been raging in the Internet for days. As a travel writer, I am unimpressed with her article. It does not give readers a sense of place of where she's been. Who cares if you used gold, open-toed sandals to climb the Acropolis? It's pathetic that the Hellenic attractions were only mentioned in passing. As a Filipino, I am appalled. How dare you call this country God-forsaken! You've even insulted your own countrymen.

If you want to read reactions to Malu's articles, simply type "Malu Fernandez" in Google. Trust me, they can get really nasty and I'm sure they'd give any reader a good laugh. I hope she learned her lesson. But everyone is waiting for her apology. And until she gives it, I don't think we will hear the last of this Malu Fernandez fiasco. I join the blogging community in expressing my indignation.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

Sunday, August 12, 2007

China: Cruise along the Lijiang River in Guilin

A trip to Guilin would not be complete without a cruise along the Lijiang River. We had a fantastic cruise along the Lijiang River today! The picturesque karst landscape was simply spectacular despite it being a cloudy day.

Our group left downtown Guilin at about 8:15 a.m. and was at the wharf 45 minutes later. I was surprised to see so many cruise ferries waiting. There were just so many tourists, both local and foreign! Cruise ferries in fact left almost every 5 to 10 minutes. The trip down the river would take about five hours. Buffet lunch is prepared and served on board.

It was drizzling when we left the wharf. But that did not hamper us from proceeding to the roof deck of the ferry to enjoy the great scenery. Indeed, this is a highly-recommended tour which one must include in a China itinerary. In fact, the Lijiang River Scenic Zone is in the China tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage inscription. I'm sure the scenes from the Lijiang River below which I uploaded in YouTube will definitely whet your travel appetite.

Despite the fact that I wanted to sit down and relax in the air-conditioned area below, I just could not leave the roof deck since every curve and turn along the river offered new surprises and better views. Observing the daily life along the river was a very enriching experience. And it was amusing seeing how vendors sold their wares on a higher level because they would try to catch the ferries, rowing their rafts towards us and hooking them to the cruise boats as soon as they made contact so that they could sell their wares to the passengers.

At the end of the cruise is Yangshuo County which has an old town that is well-preserved but has been transformed into a tourist trap. Souvenir shops and inns now occupy this old settlement along the Li River. There were so many people, I found it difficult to move around. But at least all the old buildings were preserved and have become economically viable. I have a lot of photos in Multiply.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Saturday, August 11, 2007

China: Guilin, forest of Sweet Osmanthus

The karst limestone landscape of Southern China are a recurring theme in many old Chinese paintings. And it was thus a pleasant surprise for me that the group was visiting Guilin, a city set amidst picturesque karst mountains, which is very famous in China for its fantastic natural and man-made scenery. Many Chinese say that Guilin's scenery is the "finest under heaven." The name of the city literally means "forest of Sweet Osmanthus" because of the large number of fragrant Sweet Osmanthus trees in the city. It’s a three hour flight from Beijing. There are also flights from other major cities such as Guangzhou and Shanghai.

As soon as we left the airport, the karst mountains greeted us. What is great about Guilin is despite the growth and urban development, they have managed to preserve most of the karst mountains as well as the old water system which linked the city together. It’s sad when I think about Baguio City since informal settlers have already occupied the once picturesque views; and there seems to nothing left of the natural environment. Same goes for the Pasig River and the esteros of Binondo and Sta. Cruz which I hope the City of Manila cleans and revives.

We arrived in time for lunch at the Shan Hu Hotel. The hotel is in downtown Guilin and it gave us a great view of the square in front of it. After lunch, we were given ample time to rest. But I decided to explore the vicinity. I visited Fir Lake beside the hotel which has two charming pagodas along the banks. After walking around, I rushed back to the hotel to catch our bus.

For the afternoon, we visited the Guihai Forest of Steles Museum. It’s a collection of over 200 steels carved around the karst mountains and its different caves. You could see that they come from different periods dating back to the Sui Dynasty since there are steles with the old Chinese calligraphy that is no longer in use.

In the evening, I went around the vicinity again. It was an incredible sight as the city's waterway areas were fantastically lit!

Today, we visited the Jing Jiang Palace, the seat of government of Guilin during imperial times. The Jing Jiang princes were generations of Ming princes dispatched by the emperor to govern Guilin.

At the back of the palace was an example of an Examination Hall where examinees sweated it out for three days and three nights answering the difficult examinations which were administered during imperial times.

In the afternoon, we went to the Jing Jiang Mausoleum, the burial grounds of the Ming princes. They are located five kilometers from the city center, at the foot of the grand Yao Mountain. Only one of the eleven tombs has been restored, namely the tomb of Zhuangjian. The setting of the tomb was panoramic as it was built amidst lush pine trees and surrounded by hills and mountains.

Ten figures can be found of each of the two side of the ceremonial way to the inner palace, which include animals such as elephants, unicorns, and pixiu. We had a forum with the local heritage managers in one of the halls of the tomb complex. Then it was back to downtown for dinner. Tomorrow we take a cruise along the Lijiang River!

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

China: One year countdown to the Beijing Olympics begins

On 8:08 p.m. of 08/08/08 (August 8, 2008), the 2008 Beijing Olympics will begin. It’s one big party in Beijing today as China and the world counts 365 days to the opening of the Games of the XXIXth Olympiad. I was planning to join the party in Tian’anmen Square but ended up watching the ceremonies on TV instead.

I was in the center of Beijing today for a change in routine. It took me quite a while to get there from my hotel which is along the North 4th Ring East Road near the construction area of the National Olympic Center (I should check that out one of these days). The hotel is about a kilometer from the nearest subway station.

First stop was the Philippine Embassy to meet up with my brod who is consul general in Beijing. We had lunch at Friday’s (after having Chinese food three times a day everyday for the past week, one craves for a change).

After lunch, I took a subway to Tian’anmen Square.
I had wanted to check out the countdown clock again but the whole square was cordoned off in preparation for the program in the evening. Oh well! There goes my revisit to Chairman Mao’s mausoleum.

Crowds were already waiting along the sides of Tian’anmen. There were even people passing the time in the pedestrian underpasses since it was so humid outside. I walked towards Qianmen and from there, took the subway to Liulichang Cultural Street.

Known for its cultural stores housed in restored old shop houses, Liulichang is a must-visit if you like the feel of old streets or like collecting antiques or art. You can find a lot of antique stores, calligraphy and art galleries, bookstores, tea houses and small shops selling miscellaneous cultural stuff (but no commercial souvenirs like those in Sichahai). Just like always, bargain hard. I got myself some really nice ceramic figurines for one-third the original price (I feel I could have gotten them even lower).

Exhausted by the humidity, I decided to make my way back to the hotel. Beijing is just so big, I’m getting so much exercise from the long walks. One more day of lectures before we fly to Guilin for the weekend. I heard it’s really nice.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , ,

Sunday, August 05, 2007

China: Around old Beijing

I wasn’t that excited today maybe because I was at the Forbidden City just last October. It was also a Sunday, and I was expecting a large crowd and I hate going around heritage sites when they are crowded.

My expectations were not unfounded. There were just too many people and you had to jostle your way to see the different areas of the Forbidden City. Add to the fact that many of the major buildings were undergoing restoration and still covered by scaffolding. I was hoping restoration works on the main palace was finished by now since it was also covered last year. But it was not yet completed. So I just made good use of my time and strolled around the palace complex.

Like yesterday, we had lunch in the bus. They took us to the Yashow Clothing Market in the afternoon but that did not interest me (as a general rule, if it’s something I can buy easily in the Philippines, I won’t buy it). So I asked permission from the organizers to separate from the group. Boris from Serbia joined me to Beihai (North Lake) Park which I had wanted to see during my trip last year. We took a taxi from the market to Beihai which was RMB20 (PHP140). Had I known it was a clothing market, I would have stayed behind at the Forbidden City since many of the historical sites are nearby. Entrance to the park is RMB20.

Beihai Park was part of the imperial gardens. If not for the large weekend crowd, the stroll around would have been very refreshing with its large picturesque lake full of lotus plants in full-bloom and hundreds of trees. As they say, the garden has the dignity of the northern style and the exquisiteness of the southern style. Maybe I could come back on a weekday to absorb the scenery.

In the middle of the lake is Qiong Island linked by two old bridges. The island has a hill with several temples and shrines, and an imposing white Tibetan-style dagoba on top. From the top, you could see the entire Forbidden City and other old structures in the vicinity. Sadly, the weather did not cooperate with us. Since it was foggy, visibility was low.

We walked several hundred meters towards the north gate of the park to get to Sichahai for a rickshaw tour of the hutongs. I was there last year but it was in the evening. So I was not able to appreciate the hutong tour that much. Hutongs are the alleyways which typified old Beijing.

Outside the palace, princes, civil servants, wealthy merchants and other common folk lived in these hutongs. There are just a few of them left as many of them were bulldozed to give way to new developments. But the Beijing government put a stop to the demolition and preserved a large part of the hutongs close to the Forbidden City as a reminder of life before. Sooner or later, cities realize that preserving heritage is vital for their growth and development. And I hope local officials in the Philippines realize it sooner while there is still something left to preserve.

One of the places we visited was the 300-year old Beijing courtyard style home of the Qi family (5 QianGan Hutong), which is one of a few well-preserved private courtyards open to the public (RMB20). One could see the development of the city’s hutongs by visiting these all-gray homes which are still in use. It amazes me how local and foreign tourists visited these alleyways in droves. And residents charge for entrance into their traditional homes. Imagine this happening in old Manila districts such as (Hidalgo Street) Quiapo, San Nicolas and San Miguel.

While in Sichahai, don’t forget to check out Yandai Byway to shop for souvenirs such as Mao memorabilia, silk and traditional clothing, tea (although prices are outrageous), Chinese cultural items, as well as the usual tourist stuff like magnets, key chains, trinkets, etc.

I didn’t buy anything since I wanted to reserve all my shopping towards the end of the seminar. But make sure you bargain hard since they overprice the items beyond comprehension. Don’t think an amount is too low because if you turn away, they might just say yes. I asked the price of a Buddha image and they said RMB260. I didn’t budge. Their asking price went lower but not that much. I said RMB50 and they laughed. When I left, they ran after me and said “Ok, ok, RMB50!” But I said I’m no longer interested and I’ll think about it. Who knows, I could have gone lower.

From Sichahai, we walked towards the Drum and Bell Towers. I had seen these towers last year but in the evening. So I wanted to see them up close while the sun was still out. From there, we walked towards the subway station and took a train back to our hotel in the northeastern area of Beijing, just in time for dinner.

Related articles
Finding heritage value
Three years after Unesco's World Heritage Center released a scathing report on the country's poor management of its cultural sites, boom-time China is starting to realize that preserving archaeological finds can be more lucrative than developing shopping malls.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Related Posts with Thumbnails