Beijing is not a city you would want to squeeze over a weekend. For lack of time, however, we were forced to do just that. We again booked a tour via chinatour.net (http://chinatour.net/2-days-beijing-tour-package-without-hotel.html). We paid around RMB650 per person including pick-up from the train station and drop off at the airport, an English-speaking guide, set lunch for two days and admission fees.
We decided to book a train to go to Beijing, leaving from Shanghai around 7PM for a 13-hour sleeper train ride to Beijing railway station. (check out http://chinatour.net/train/ to get an idea of fares and timings for trains in China–the list may not be updated regularly though.)
The Z express soft-sleeper was pretty comfortable as far as trains go. There’s a food cart, a TV by your feet, blankets and a bottle of complimentary water by the double bunks. The restrooms are also cleaned after every use.
Once we got to Beijing we had to wait close to a quarter of an hour for our guide, Nicola, who told us she was late because her boss only told her about us that morning. (Striiike one.) To help us spot her in the crowd, she identified herself simply as “the big girl in grey”–and she was exactly that. Nicola started off the tour by having us play a game: she would ask us several questions (e.g. “of the 16 Ming emperors, only 13 are buried at the Ming tombs. Where are the other 3 buried?”) and receive a “special prize” if we managed to answer all she asked. I didn’t blame her for the kiddie-ish approach: we had introduced ourselves as students thinking we would get discounts.
She started to tell us about the history of the tombs, and one of my friends started asking a bajillion questions, which is how he just is. For instance, if Nicola mentions something about an emperor dying, my friend would ask how he died. Then he asks something else once that’s answered. And so on and so forth.
I guess she was just short of patience or ran out of things to appease my friend’s thirst for trivial knowledge, but Nicola suddenly started screaming “one by one okay! I tell you first then you follow me!” in the van–which set the tone for that day and the next.
I guess as “students,” she was just expecting us to listen and follow, but each of us had a mind of his/her own and sometimes wandered off to take pictures, or walked ahead than the others. Nicola didn’t like that. She also didn’t like us asking too many questions, which my friends were wont to do. Needless to say, we never got that “special prize.”
Nicola spiced up the trip though, with endless jokes all around (Nicola aka “the dragon lady”) and my Indian friends calling her “Nicola auntie” behind her back. She wasn’t half bad as a guide, and she provided a good topic for conversation when we had nothing else to talk about during the long drives.
At the Ming tombs, we were taken straight to Changling: the biggest mausoleum and one built for the yongle emperor, Zhu Di. Zhu Di was the emperor who built the Forbidden City and commissioned the great dictionary of Yongle, among others. The tomb itself is now home to a lot of artifacts, jewelry and clothes found in the imperial coffins at the Dingling tomb.
To get to Minglou (or the Soul Tower), one had to pass around the Ghost Gate. Nicola the tour guide was extraordinarily insistent about having us do this; she said it had something to do with contracting bad feng shui if you got it wrong.
Going back from the Soul Tower, one had to pass through the Ghost Gate, dust oneself and say “I’m back!” with complete conviction and gusto. This was needed to reclaim your mortal body back after being transformed into a spirit.
Inside the Soul Tower is a sacred stele or tombstone engraved with the posthumous title of the Emperor Chengzu. Tombstones of royal officials usually had elaborate descriptions extolling the life and works of the person engraved at the back of the stone, but you’ll notice the back of this particular stele is blank. That’s because people believe there are no words fit to describe the greatness of the emperor. You can look out and try to spot the emperor’s actual burial spot in the mound behind the tower, but will probably see squat since the whole thing is covered with trees.
Upon descending the tower there is a small hole (it kind of looks like a small sewer, with steel bars) that you must only look at for 1 second max (another thing Nicola was insistent about). It’s supposed to be bad luck to look at it for longer. This was where the emperor’s royal court–the empress, concubines, favorite pets, whatever included–would pass and be buried alive upon the emperor’s death.
We had already visited our first shop of the day, a jade market, before visiting the tombs. For lunch we visited the second: Yulong Friendship Store, which also housed a cloissone factory. Set lunch was slightly poorer than average because of the small servings and so-so taste of the food. My vegetarian friends weren’t too pleased because there was just one veggie dish and it wasn’t that great.
After that we drove to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. If you got a private tour you’d be given the option to customize it, and we wanted to avoid the huge crowds at the Badaling section which was more popular with the tourists.
The drive took longer than expected because the driver took a wrong turn and ended up somewhere at least an hour away from Mutianyu. However I found out all this afterward since I spent most of the drive over to the Great Wall sleeping.
Next post: our Beijing dinner (I think it deserves a space of its own, as you shall see.)