Friday, September 11, 2015

Beijing Travelblog

I usually like to post a daily update to this blog while I'm travelling. However, Blogger is not accessible from Beijing, so I journaled our daily experiences and am posting them here now that we have returned. The upside is the whole journal appears in one top to bottom post. The down side is it's a bit of a long read.

Beijing Trip Day 1

We left for Beijing Friday afternoon. We had a few traveling mishaps our first day. Each had the potential for a serious outcome but fortunately none turned out that way. 

We parked our car in long term parking at O'Hare and took the airport train from the parking lot to the terminal. Shortly after boarding the train and riding along towards the first terminal stop, we realized I had left our large suitcase on the train platform. We got off at the first stop and had to catch the next train back to parking to retrieve our luggage. We always allow plenty of time for the airport so it didn't impact making our 1 pm flight. 

Our flight boarded and took off on time and we settled in for the 13.5 hour flight to China. Janet had the aisle seat and somewhere around mid-flight a flight attendant walking by dropped a container of water that splashed all over Janet's feet, pants, and backpack. Everything was quite wet, and took a while to clean up and dry. At least it was water and not a hot or sticky beverage.

Shortly before landing I returned our backpacks to the overhead storage. I had trouble reaching to get Janet's in far enough to stay in place and it kept wanting to slide out. I finally got it stable but warned her that we needed to be careful when we opened the compartment after landing. In the meantime the person behind us also opened the compartment and then re-closed it, so I figured we were good. As the plane decelerated at landing the compartment popped open and Janet's backpack fell out onto her head and shoulder. It hurt her quite a bit and her neck and shoulder were sore for a while but by the next day she felt OK.

We pre-arranged for our hotel to pick us up at the airport, and this service included a person that meets you at the gate and escorts you through passport control, baggage claim, and customs. Our escort accompanied us all the way to the car that drove us to the hotel. There was a lot of traffic and the ride to the hotel took about an hour. The driver executed some interesting maneuvers to make his way through the traffic. Mainly by making use of the shoulder lanes to bypass slow or stopped traffic, but also occasionally squeezing the car between merging vehicles in spaces that clearly were not intended to be traffic lanes. I was playing with my phone to pass the time. After we arrived at the hotel and checked in, I couldn't find my phone and realized it must be in the car. I called the concierge and they were able to contact the driver and recover my phone.

We have a very nice room in the Valley Wing of the Beijing Shangri-La. The hotel has a spacious Chinese garden that we walked around before dinner. For dinner we went to the Horizon Club lounge for a light snack of canap├ęs and complimentary cocktails. It was a long day, and we went to bed early at about 8:00 am Chicago time.
Hotel Lobby
Hotel Lobby

Hotel Garden

Hotel Garden

Beijing Trip Day 2

We slept well, but with the time zone difference we found ourselves wide awake by 3:30 am Beijing time. I hope we can adjust our internal clocks over our short stay here in China.

We had breakfast in the Horizon club where you could order a la carte eggs, waffles or pancakes, and also partake of an ample buffet that included some interesting Chinese delicacies like the century egg, which I have so far declined to try. The day was forecast to be warm and sunny and there was no visible pollution hanging over the city like the day we arrived.

Century Egg
We met our tour guide Sophie in the hotel lobby at 9 am and all climbed into a small van for our 1st day of touring. Our first stop was Tiananmen Square, one of the largest public open squares in the world. It is bordered on the east and west by the Chinese National Museum and Chinese Parliament buildings and on the north by the Tiananmen Gate leading to the Forbidden City. The Monument to the People's Heroes and Mao Zedong's mausoleum occupy its center. Sophie explained to us that there is a north-south line through the center of Beijing known as the "Dragon Line". It runs through the center of Tiananmen Square and the monument and mausoleum are centered on this line, as well as the major buildings in the Forbidden City and the buildings of the Olympic Park.
Tiananmen Square with
Mao's Mausoleum and Monmument to the People's Heroes
Tiananmen Gate
From Tiananmen Square we walked to the Forbidden City and toured the inside. It is larger than you can imagine and our guide Sophie was very knowledgeable about it and gave us an excellent tour, pointing out many interesting features and explaining how the concepts of Feng Shui are integrated everywhere.

Forbidden City Entrance
Central court and main throne building
Emperor's Throne
North of the Forbidden City is Jingshan park which contains a large hill that was constructed from the earth removed by digging the moat around the Forbidden City. We climbed the long stone stairway (274 steps by our count) for a birds eye view of the Forbidden City. 
Hill in Jingshan Park

View of the Forbidden City from Jingshan hill
Our driver picked us up near Jingshan park to take us to our next tour in the Beijing hutongs. We were happy to sit and ride in an air conditioned van after all our walking and stair climbing. When we reached the hutongs district we transferred to bicycle rickshaws and were transported through the narrow hutong streets to a traditional Beijing courtyard house where we saw how the Chinese people lived when this was the main form of city residences. 

Hutong Rickshaws
After visiting the hutongs we boarded our van again and drove to the Temple of Heaven park which contains the Temple of Heaven structure at its center. This temple is where the Chinese emperor would go twice a year to pray for a good harvest. It is a large circular tower surrounded by four large rectangular halls.

Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven was our last stop for the tour and we followed it with a late lunch at a Chinese restaurant on the way back to the hotel. Traffic was heavy on the return trip, and it was nearly 6 pm by the time we returned to our room. We finished our day with hors d'oeuvres and cocktails in the Horizon club. 

Beijing Trip Day 3

We woke up before dawn again Monday morning. As the sun came up we could see that there was a slight haze hanging over the city but it looked like it was going to be another sunny and warm day for our trip to the Great Wall. We enjoyed another breakfast in the Horizon club. I had waffles and still haven't tried a hundred year egg. 

We met Sophie in the lobby at 9 am to start our touring. Today we are starting at the Summer Palace and then going to the Great Wall. We have a different car and different driver today.

The Summer Palace is only about 20 minutes away from our hotel. It was the residence of the Imperial Family during the summer months and was among a peaceful setting of lakes, trees and hills. The buildings are a style similar to the Forbidden City and the size is equally expansive. One of the interesting features is the Long Corridor. We walked through its nearly a half mile length and were amazed by the 14000 paintings on its cross beams and eaves.  At the other end of the corridor we saw the Marble Boat which is a white marble pavilion built to look like a boat on the water.
Longevity Hill at the Summer Palace
Long Corridor
White Marble Boat
After the Summer Palace we returned to the car for a 1.5 hour drive to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. Along the way we made a brief stop near the Olympic Park to admire and photograph the Bird's Nest stadium from the 2008 Olympics.

Beijing Olympic Stadium "Bird Nest"
We arrived at the Great Wall and boarded a shuttle bus that takes you part way up the mountain. Then you must walk up a long incline to reach the cable car that brings you to the wall on the crest of the mountain. From the cable car station there are still a lot of stairs to climb to get to the top of the wall. It is worth all the effort though. The views are breathtaking and it is astonishing to realize you are halfway around the world standing on a 300 year old Wonder of the World.

Great Wall at Mutianyu

Great Wall at Mutianyu

The accessible section of the wall extends for a long way in both directions from our access point, but we restricted our visit to just the section nearest the watchtower where we entered since it was the highest point and traveling very far down would mean a strenuous climb back up to leave. However it was a rewarding visit.

Great Wall

We returned to our car and driver via the cable car and shuttle bus, with the downhill walk being much easier. About a half hour away from the wall we stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant our guide said prepared meals similar to her home region. I had a beef stew and some pork meatballs. Janet stayed safe with steamed broccoli and white rice.

Traffic was not bad on the return trip. We arrived back to our hotel with time to relax in the room before having snacks and drinks in the Horizon club. 

Beijing Trip Day 4

This morning we slept in a little later and didn't get up until 5:30 am. :) We had our usual early breakfast. Today I requested pancakes. The young Chinese girl taking our order asked if I wanted 1 pancake. I asked for 2 and she brought 2 orders of 3 pancakes. A little communication problem. :)

We headed out at 9:00 am again for our final day of touring. Today we went to the Longqing gorge 53 miles northwest of Beijing. There we rode the dragon escalator to the top of the dam and boarded a boat for a peaceful cruise among the towering peaks that form the gorge. We disembarked at the other end and climbed stairs to visit an old Buddhist temple built among the peaks. After coming down from the temple we boarded the boat again and traveled to the base of the cableway that takes you to the top of the gorge for beautiful vistas. We enjoyed the views from above and then returned by cableway to the bottom.

Dragon Escalator
Dam Waterfall
Longqing Gorge
Longqing Gorge
Cableway
We stopped for lunch on the way out from the gorge area and enjoyed a Chinese chicken and cucumber dish as well as some kind of spicy shoestring potatoes.

Janet had asked if there were any Catholic churches in Beijing and Sophie offered to take us to see one so we stopped at one on the way back to the hotel.

Beijing Catholic Church
Beijing Catholic Church
Back at the hotel we enjoyed our nightly snacks and nightcaps before turning in for the night. 

Beijing Trip Day 5

Wednesday was our last day in Beijing. No touring, just breakfast in the Horizon club and then relaxing in the room until our noon checkout time. At breakfast, I decided to give the Century Egg a try. It was not as bad as it looked, but I didn't go back for seconds.

Century Egg
Chinese Delicacy

Our airport transfer arrangement with the hotel included a return ride to the airport and the car was ready and waiting for us after checkout. There was very little traffic and we arrived at the airport in less than an hour. The flight check in was also quick but the trip through security was slow. There's no TSA pre-check line, and they are very picky about making you remove items like cameras, computers, iPads, and even chargers from your carry on. However, we got through with enough time to go to the Air China airline lounge and relax until boarding time. There was a secondary bag inspection on the boarding ramp which was frustrating since we already had to unpack and repack our carry-ons at the security gate. The return flight was uneventful except that the cabin temperature was too cold for the entire flight. The pilot of our flight was making his final flight before retiring after 36 years. On our arrival at the gate in O'Hare, the plane was greeted by a water cannon salute from a pair of O'Hare fire trucks.

We had heard before our trip that Beijing suffers from a serious smog problem. On the day we arrived it was rainy and there appeared to be a haze over the city, but it might have been attributable to the rain and low clouds. On our first day of touring the skies were clear and sunny and there was very little evidence of pollution. However on each subsequent day we noticed the air to be hazier and hazier. The following pictures of the were taken on consecutive mornings from our hotel room. By the 3rd day we could no longer see the mountains.
Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4

Thursday, June 11, 2015

See Cruise

Thursday we went to the Tokyo SkyTree. We picked a good day. The crowds were thin. You could tell from the line control stanchions that they normally have big crowds but we got through the line in about ten minutes. The SkyTree experience starts with a high speed elevator to the 350m observation deck. After enjoying that view there is an optional elevator to the 450m level. On that level you walk through an enclosed sloping tube that wraps around the outside of the tower leading to the highest observation platform. We went for the full experience and admired spectacular views.

Observation deck
Sloping tube to higher level
After the SkyTree we took a short train ride to Asakusa and boarded a sightseeing cruise. This hour and a half round trip on the Sumida River passes under many bridges, each a different style or design. Several points of interest were observed including Tokyo tower and the Asahi beer building.
Asahi building
Bridge over the Sumida
We concluded our touring of Tokyo after the river cruise and returned to the hotel for dinner and repacking for our trip home Friday. We all look forward to being home again.

Roboto continued

I didn't have time to upload pictures of the Robot restaurant yesterday. Here's a short video that shows a little of what it was like.



When I made our online reservation for Robot Restaurant, the form asked if anyone was celebrating a birthday. Since our reservation was in fact on my birthday I said yes, expecting the typical restaurant cake after dinner. I also figured many guests would select that option. Wrong, and wrong. Near the end of the show, the MC singled me out and had the entire theater cheering while Happy Birthday displayed on the giant video wall. And apparently no other guest selected the birthday option. It was great fun if a little embarrassing.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Mr. Roboto

Wednesday was mostly a travel day. We checked out of the Okura in Kyoto and took a taxi to the train station. We bought tickets for the Nozomi Shinkansen which covers the 318 miles to Tokyo in 2 hours 20 minutes averaging 136 mph with top speeds of 178 mph. The ride is very smooth and the seats are comfortable. It was definitely a worthwhile experience.
On arrival we took a taxi to our hotel next to the Tokyo Dome baseball stadium. It's a modern 50 story hotel whose ambiance is a stark contrast to the classic elegance of the Okura. The rooms are  spacious but the wifi is poor. There is a Sizzler Steakhouse in the hotel with an unlimited salad bar. Elliott and I had lunch there and found it to be pretty good.

This evening we took the subway to the Shinjuku entertainment district to attend a performance at the Robot Restaurant. Walking from the train to the restaurant we were surprised by a life size Godzilla head and claw peering over the top of one of the skyscrapers complete with smoke shooting from his mouth and his classic roar. Robot Restaurant is more theater than restaurant although you can get food and drinks there. We started in the Robot lounge where we were entertained by a live band dressed as robots. Soon we were led down several fights of stairs to a cramped 2 sided theater with a runway type stage in the middle.

'robot' band
The show is like nothing I've seen before. It is loud music and drums, go go dancers, and r/c operated mechanical floats with neon and lasers. Oh yes, and robots. I'd absolutely recommend the show to anyone with an evening free in Tokyo.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Sukiyucky

Tuesday morning was raining, but forecast to improve before noon so we took our time getting going although we didn't sleep any later. We've all been falling asleep early and waking up early every day. When the weather cleared we walked to a nearby station to get an underground train to Sanjusangendo. Sanjusangendo is Japan's longest wooden structure and contains 1 large Buddha statue and 1000 human sized statues, 500 on each side.

Sanjusangendo 
Sanjusangendo 
After touring Sanjusangendo and the surrounding grounds we returned to our hotel and asked the concierge for advice on someplace to visit excepting temples and shrines. She suggested the Nishiki food market. It was only a ten minute walk from the hotel so we followed her recommendation. Before entering the market we stopped at a fast food restaurant where I got a burger with egg and potato salad on it, and Elliott tried some pancakes covered in chocolate syrup with custard drizzle.
Pancake lunch
We strolled through the narrow street of the food market and were amazed at the varieties of food available. Many kinds of vegetables and seafood were displayed, some on skewers that were intended to be purchased and eaten on the spot as a snack. It was an interesting cultural exposure.
Nishiki market
Octopuses 

Later we made plans to walk to the Gion district, famous for its charming buildings and restaurants, but mostly for the Maiko and Geiko that can be seen there. When they appear, tourists flock around them with cameras clicking, though they don't appear to enjoy their celebrity status.
Gion 
Maiko

A theater in Gion presents a nightly show of Japanese arts and culture. We attended a performance while we were there and enjoyed the condensed introduction to Japanese tea ceremony, music, dancing, and theater.
Tea ceremony 
Theater
We completed our evening with a walk back to the hotel and a very good buffet dinner. Elliott enjoyed the beef curry with rice and we all savored the chocolate fountain dessert. Tuesday was our last day in Kyoto. Wednesday we travel to Tokyo by Shinkansen (bullet train). I'm looking forward to the experience.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Palaces Restaurant

There are 3 breakfast options available here at the hotel: a western style buffet, a Chinese buffet, and a Japanese breakfast. We've already tried the Chinese and western buffets so Monday Elliott and I tried the Japanese breakfast. The Japanese breakfast is a tray of assorted items including meat, egg, fish, and vegetables accompanied by a choice of steamed rice or rice porridge. I selected the porridge side and Elliott stuck with the sticky rice. I sampled almost everything and finished most of it, but it didn't really consider it a satisfying breakfast. Elliott was adventurous and willing to experiment but didn't really enjoy his breakfast either. After leaving the restaurant we stopped at the bakery for some croissants. :)

Japanese Breakfast
Rain was forecast Monday but it was still dry after breakfast so we decided to try to take in some more sights in the morning then go to Arashiyama in the afternoon. We started with the Kyoto imperial palace. This former residence of the imperial family is in the center of a large city park. You can visit the park and  the residence area of some of the ancient noblemen, but the palace grounds are off limits without an advance reservation. So we enjoyed a stroll through the park but all we could see of the palace were some rooftops that rose above the palace walls.
Imperial Palace
We got back on the subway and got off at Nijo Castle, the residence of the first shogun Tokugawa. Here we were able to enter the building and tour all the interior rooms. One of the interesting features was the nightingale floors that intentionally squeaked when walked on to serve as a warning against intruders. We also toured the exterior grounds including the gardens.
Nijo Castle
When we finished at the castle the weather was still good so we continued to Arashiyama where we went for a ride on the scenic railway that runs along the Hozu river. When we got back we took a walk to the nearby bamboo forest. It started raining as we approached the bamboo groves but we had umbrellas so we were able to mostly keep dry. When we finished our bamboo walk it was time to return to the hotel.
Sagano Scenic Railway
Bamboo Forest