Up early to catch my flight, the hotel ordered a licensed taxi for me, and I was charged a reasonable fair for his services. It was about ¼ of what I paid on arrival, and a tenth of that was a highway toll. It brought to mind the U-turn my driver had made two days earlier, almost certainly an attempt to avoid the charge. It felt so good to be treated honestly and with respect, that for the first time on my trip I gave the driver a tip. It would not be long however until there was an opportunity for another lesson to be learned. Let’s call it Lesson #3: “always look exactly like you know what you are doing, even if you are completely clueless.”
Beijing’s Terminal 3 is a massive new facility. Wandering somewhat aimlessly through the check in area to find the right kiosk a young woman took me for what I am, and easy mark. Only this time I didn’t mind being taken for a ride. She took my flight information, passport and bag and cut to the front of the right check in line. What might have taken 30-40 minutes was over and done with inside of 3 minutes. Although I did feel a little miffed at being so easily picked out, $15CDN seemed like a reasonable fee to pay for such services. I was pleasantly surprised by the service on Air China, and as there were plenty of empty seats I was able to get a pair to myself with a view.
Chengdu like Beijing is a metropolis, with more than 14,000,000 in the city and surrounding areas. I had a few hours on arrival to explore the city, and I made the most of them. visiting the site of famed poet Du Fu’s thatched cottage and the Temple of Marquis Wu. The city of Chengdu is located at the heart of the fertile Chengdu plain in Sichuan province. The plain has been an economically and culturally significant zone for more than 4000 years. The city of Chengdu has been the principal center or capital of that region since the 4th Century BC.
The Temple of Marquis Wu pays homage to an even earlier local hero, Zhuge Liang, the 2nd Century AD Shu Dynasty Prime Minister. An able and loyal commander, strategist, administrator and general, the posthumously titled Marquis of Wu is even more renowned than the King he served. A shrine was built to him after his death in the outskirts modern Chengdu. Statues of Zhuge, his administrators, generals and successors, some of which were made in the 1600’s adorn one of the shrines with tales of their deeds. It is at this same time that the Temples were rebuilt.
Du Fu (712-770AD) is a famous Chinese Tang dynasty poet. He is known as the poet saint. and some 1500 of his poems have survived. Du Fu took refuge during some troubled years in a thatched cottage he famously wrote of. The Du Fu thatched cottage site today features a multi-story pagoda roofed temple, a replica of his cottage, archeological ruins, and displays of his work.
After a long day of travel and exploring I passed out on return to my hotel room and didn’t wake up until the morning.
My first and only full day in Beijing was a busy one. By the time it was over I must have put 30km on my feet, and was barely able to walk. A long but interesting day. I started the morning on the roof top patio of my hotel, The Emperor Beijing. It was a clear morning without a cloud in the sky or any trace of the previous day’s brown smog. These conditions held for the entire day, it was beautiful, and brutally hot!
I arrived at the entrance of the Forbidden City just after opening, and it was already swarming with people. Surrounded by 10m high walls nearly 3.5km long I knew the site was vast from walking around it the previous day, but truly had no idea what was in store. The complex is incomprehensively vast, the largest palatial complex it the world with more than 9000 buildings, bays, courtyards and rooms. Even with the thousands of flocking tourists the scale of the site becomes rapidly apparent. There are a number of ornate gates and entrances separating different tiers of the palace complex and five enormous courtyards. Early concerns over the large crowds ruining the experience quickly evapourated when I began exploring some of the twenty-odd smaller palaces within the complex. The large groups generally seemed to be avoiding these areas.
The level of detail with which the palaces and other buildings were constructed is impressive. Great care seems to be given to nearly every detail including individual roof tiles. It is hard to imagine what the cost would be to rebuild the palace today, even in China. There were many highlights, but the Imperial Gardens, Opera House and exploring the side palaces were the most enjoyable parts of the visit. After leaving the Forbidden City from the north gate I crossed the street and climbed the hill opposite the complex. A series of pagoda roofed temples climb the hill, with the uppermost nearly perfectly in line with the north-south access of the Forbidden City. Even from up there, hundreds of feet above it, it is hard to fully grasp its immense size.
In the afternoon I wandered south towards the Tiananmen Square area which is home to the National Museum, the Great Hall of the People and more. At the National Museum there were some great exhibits on China’s Ancient History. Most of the museum, not surprisingly was dedicated to the Communist Era. The security presence was intimidating with a permanently stationed bomb disposal unit on the street out front, baggage scanners and an army of guards both inside and out. Most of the museum’s elabourate approach was cordoned off by fancy crowd control devices which funnelled visitors through narrow passages. On the edge of the roof were nearly half a hundred security cameras most of them trained on Tiananmen Square.
The security checks didn’t stop there. There were security screenings to enter Tiananmen Square and the imposing old city gate at its south end. There were also imposing security measures around the Great Hall of the People which is unfortunately only open until noon. I will have to come back to see Mao’s tomb…
The last major item on my must see list this day were the city’s Hutongs, or alleyways. Narrow busy shopping streets they are a trait of the old Beijing which is rapidly disappearing as the country continues to modernize and develop. If Lesson #1 was yesterday’s don’t ride in unlicensed taxis, today’s Lesson #2 was learned on the way to the Hutongs, ‘always carry correct change…’ It is all fine and well to barter over the price for a service, it is another to get the change you are due when the driver is trying to sell you another service in a language you don’t understand. Beijing is a fascinating city and while I would love to explore it more the other part of me is ready to move on. It is a bustling metropolis with many of its residents trying the hustle their way to a better life. One can’t blame the people for that, but when you are a 6’2” naive looking foreigner, it’s hard not to feel constantly on edge!
The Hutongs were lively and full of action with an astounding variety of street foods, some of it prepared in less than sanitary conditions. Much of my walk back was along a slow meandering waterway, which eventually feeds the Forbidden City moats and Golden River. Exhausted, hungry and a little weary at the prospect of wandering out again onto the city’s streets I settled into a comfy chair on my hotel’s roof top patio. While the sun went down behind the Forbidden City and skyscrapers in the distance I enjoyed a couple of cold beers and a quiet dinner.
For some reason I had it in my head that the flight from Vancouver to Beijing was only 8 hours, 12 hours after leaving we touched down in China. Even before leaving Vancouver the culture shock was beginning to set in. I have never been on such a noisy bustling plane. Even my seat mate, a Chinese born Canadian academic, who makes several trips a year to China was a little taken aback. Things got off to a bit of a rough start while leaving the airport. Very tired and disoriented I was fleeced by a presumably unregistered taxi driver. To be fair to the driver, he was open about the rate from the beginning and I was delivered approximately to where I wanted to go at probably twice the speed I would have in a regular taxi. The drive in felt a little like playing Grand Theft Auto. All the other vehicles obediently stayed in their lanes while my driver swerved, rocketed up the shoulders and generally drove like he had little concern for his vehicle, passenger and other drivers. My hotel though very modern, was a little shabbier than expected, but is even closer to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square than expected. Its roof top patio restaurant/bar overlooks the vast compound with its pagoda roofs poking just above the massive walls and lush trees. On arrival I went for a walk to the edge of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The presence of soldiers in dress uniforms was ubiquitous marching through the parks and other gardens around the Forbidden City complex. The biggest surprise to me was the number of dogs. Everyone seems to have a pet dog, and the walkways around the Forbidden City moat are a popular gathering point for dog owners. A little more unsettling was the number of fishermen fishing the moat. There was the odd dead fish floating in the water, I hope they don’t eat their catch.
My 3 week Asian tour begins next Sunday when I head to China to visit one of LVMH’s newest acquisitions in Sichuan province. On my way I have a stop planned in Beijing where I’ll hopelessly try to see all the important sites in a day and a half. From there I head to southwestern China near the border with Tibet, to the city of Chengdu. Moet Hennessey has bought a Chinese white spirits producer there, reputed to produce the world’s finest ‘Bai Jiu’. The Moet brand is named Wen Jun in honour of Zhou Wen Jun, the woman who first produced the spirit some 2000 years ago.
While in China I will also be visiting the pandas at their home base, will be checking out the relics of the long lost Shu culture at the San Xing Dui museum, and paying homage at the Thatched Cottage of the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu. In all my boots will have been on the ground just six days in China. On the 18th of May I head to Tokyo for the start of my first Asian whisky tour. I’ll be crisscrossing Japan and making a side tour to Taiwan, all in the name of whisky tourism. Keep checking my blog for updates and to follow my progress!
There was cloud and wind, but the weather generally good as we started our distillery tours on Islay, especially considering the gale we experienced the day before. After breakfast we made our way from Bowmore through the center of the island heading for the southern Kildalton coast. This is a rugged stretch of ocean front with sheltered bays which played home to the four distilleries which used to operate here. Only three of them still produce whisky, more on that in a coming post, while the forth–Port Ellen–has been silent for close to 30 years. At the town of Port Ellen we turned east and headed down the road past Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg distilleries to see the Kildalton Cross and Chapel.
The ruined Chapel though interesting, and the site of some ancient grave markers, is not nearly as impressive and important as the cross for which the site is famed. Believed to be around 1300 years old the Kildalton Cross is thought to have come from Iona, the spiritual home of Celtic Christianity in the medieval period. Iona is a 3×1 mile island off the coast of Mull and is the burial site of more European monarchs than any other place in the world. The name Kildalton may be translated to mean “Church of the Disciple”, and there is some speculation that a monastery may have once existed in the area. Although Islay’s populations is less the 4,000 people today, at one time it had more than 15,000 people and during the independent reign of the Lord of the Isles it was politically the most important place on the west coast of Scotland. The Kildalton Cross is rife with Biblical motifs such as Cain murdering Abel and the Sacrifice of Issac and is considered one of the finest early Christian crosses in Scotland. Some restoration work on the cross in the late 1800’s found another cross beneath the Kildalton one and beneath that the burial of a man and a woman. The bones of the man suggested he had suffered a particularly violent death. Copies of both crosses were made to preserve them for future generations, with the originals left on display.
The Chapel, or Kildalton Parish church is an interesting building. It is believed that it would have originally had a thatched roof, and dates from the 12th or 13th Century, meaning it to is of an impressive age. The church was part of an important parish from the middle of the 1400’s and was still in use well into the late 1700’s until it was abandoned as populations along this stretch of coast moved west towards Ardbeg.