Special Six: Beijing Experiences

During my travel around China with half my APLP cohort, I had the opportunity to explore a little of Beijing in-between our meetings and discussions. So, in addition to the must visit Forbidden City and some of the places in our Discover Beijing challenge, I highly recommend the following special six Beijing experiences which I enjoyed most.

1. Relax at the Summer Palace

We had a free morning on the day of my birthday so some of us decided to visit the Summer palace. After a delicious breakfast of steamed dumplings at a local specialty breakfast place, we took two cabs to the palace ensuring that one of the two Chinese speaking people in our group was in each of the two cabs. After getting our tickets, we walked around the summer palace.

The summer palace, a World Heritage site, has its origins dating back to the 12th century Jin dynasty though subsequent dynasties have added to the original structures and landscape designs of the 2.9 square kilometres palace area.

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

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After wandering around the temple and going up to the summit of the Longevity hill, we walked down to the lake area, where the boats were. A few of us decided to go for a boat ride on a self-paddling boat,instead of waiting in the long queues for the large dragon boats.

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

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Despite the heavy smog, I enjoyed my visit to the Summer Palace. The palace had a very pleasant and tranquil vibe and I would recommend walking around the palace and taking the boat trip on Kunming lake.

2. Visit Peking University 

Peking University in Haidian district is considered China’s leading university and it has a very interesting history. It is China’s first modern national university founded in 1898. It replaced the ancient Imperial Academy, as part of the hundred days’ reform. Therefore, the university campus area has an interesting mix of ancient structures and modern buildings which make it a very fascinating place to visit.

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I was most intrigued by the beautiful lake, as you can see from my photos above.

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I was also fascinated by the pretty buildings with their intricate roofing and creepers weaving themselves along the walls and the green trees besides them.

3. Enjoy a special dining experience at the Red Capital Club

The Red Capital Club at 66 Dongsi Jiutiao Dongcheng district is an interesting dining venue in a historical Hutong neighbourhood. Said to have been the former home of a Manchu princess, the club has been restored and designed to preserve the lovely architecture as well as create a museum dedicated foremost to the Communist party of the 1950s as well as a tribute to the Qing dynasty. The club is a kind of living museum and one can choose to stay at the place or just enjoy a meal and explore the club’s public rooms.

According to Lawrence Brahm, the founder of the red capital heritage foundation, who also founded the NGO Himalayan Consensus Institute in 2005 and the Shambala Serai Group of social enterprises in 2011, the foundation established in 1999 is the first social enterprise in Beijing. The Foundation restored a few homes, including the club venue, in the Dongsi neighbourhood and converted them to sustainable businesses, which has led to the heritage protection order being given for the neighbourhood.

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Photo credit: Michelle Taminato

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

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Photo credit: Michelle Taminato

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Photo credit: Michelle Taminato

The restaurant menu is in line with the theme and boasts of using recipes that were favourites of Chinese leaders across the centuries.

4. Browse through the collection at Bookworm, a delightful bookstore

Bookworm at Nan Sanlitun Road, Chaoyang district, is a place with a lovely vibe. It is a coffee shop/ English bookstore/ library/ event space all rolled into one store. We were there on the afternoon of my birthday, for a little gathering held at the event space of the store. While waiting for the event to start, I enjoyed browsing through the books as well as enjoying my coffee and tiramisu treat.

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5. Walk around an old Hutong 

During our time in Beijing, we stayed in an old Hutong neighbourhood. While hutongs are considered to have been introduced in the 13th century, they obtained a distinctive flavour during the Ming dynasty when neighbourhoods were planned in concentric circles with the Forbidden city at the center and the aristocrats and high ranking officials closer to the Forbidden city and the merchants and artisans in the furthermost circles.

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

While many hutongs have now given way to modernization and been replaced by modern buildings, there are still some old Hutong neighbourhoods and if you decide to stay in a guesthouse in such a neighbourhood, you are in for a special treat as you walk around the old neighbourhood.

6. Enjoy a traditional tea experience

We had our final morning in Beijing free for doing anything we left for the last minute. Our group broke up into smaller groups to go for some sightseeing or shopping, as per their interest. I was not in the mood for sightseeing or shopping but I was interested in visiting a traditional tea house, before we left China. My room-mate decided to join me in this little trip to Lao She tea house, near Tiananmen square. The tea house is named after the Chinese novelist, Lao She, who was famous for his 1957 play ‘Teahouse’.

The tea house was an interesting experience and I enjoyed the jasmine green tea, which was in the form of a dried ball that blossomed as hot water was poured over it.

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My recommendation is that you do go through the tea menu carefully and ask for recommendations from the tea guide as the tea sold here is very expensive and several are along the USD 500 price range. I personally preferred to focus on the tea as it is an experience in itself and forego the food or snacks or the theatre performance, which can add to your hefty bill. After trying out this special flower tea, I simply had to splurge on a small gift box for home.

Have you tried any of these six special experiences? Which experience was your favourite or which would you like to try out?

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An afternoon in the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City, a World heritage site since 1987, was the site of the Chinese Imperial Palace from the 15th century Ming Dynasty to early 20th century Qing dynasty. The Forbidden City houses the Palace museum, one of the most visited museums in the world. As the Forbidden City contains around 1000 buildings, one would need to visit the place over a few days to visit them all. My friends and I simply walked along the central axis from the south gate to the north gate taking in the structures along the way.

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Close up view of the city wall and its intricate roofing

Walking into the outer city through the Meridian Gate, one has a a lovely view of the Gate of Supreme Harmony. During the Ming Dynasty, the Emperor held morning court sessions with his Ministers here while in the later Qing dynasty, it was used for ceremonial functions only.

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view of the Gate of Supreme Harmony from the courtyard of the outer city

I saw the movie ‘The Last Emperor’ after my visit but I would recommend your seeing it before your visit to the Forbidden City, if you haven’t seen it yet. The movie, filmed mostly at the Forbidden City, provides an interesting glimpse into the life of the last Emperor of China, who abdicated in 1912.

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Bridge over the Inner Golder Water river

Crossing the little bridge, we entered the Gate of Supreme Harmony to come across the center of the complex, three halls on a marble terrace. The largest, the Hall of the Supreme Harmony was the venue of important official ceremonies.

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Sun dial on the terrace of the Hall of Supreme Harmony

Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the smaller Hall of Central Harmony, where the Emperor used to rest before or between ceremonies. The third of the halls in this square is the Hall of Preserving Harmony, which was used for rehearsing ceremonies.

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Throne at the Hall for Preserving Harmony

Beyond the Hall for Preserving Harmony is the inner city, the home of the Emperor and his family. The center of the inner city had another set of three halls – the Palace of Heavenly Purity which was the official residence of the Emperor, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, the official residence of the Empress and between the two halls was the Hall of Union.

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Palace of Heavenly Purity

Walking beyond the inner city halls, we came across the Imperial Garden. A key hall within this garden is the Hall of Imperial Peace.

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I found that I liked the Imperial Garden best because it not only seemed tranquil, but also had the atmosphere that people had been happier here than they had been in the ceremonial halls in the outer and inner courts.

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My friends, Michelle and Emma, were happy to reach the end of our walk through the Forbidden City and eager to find some place to eat as they had skipped lunch and were very hungry.

Exiting the Forbidden City at the north end, we came across a major bus stop as there were many numbers marked on the road and different buses would stop at the number corresponding to its bus number. Intrigued, we decided to take a bus to ‘Wangfujing’, as I recollected it was a shopping area nearby and bound to have restaurants.  After talking to other commuters, we found that the bus to Wangfujing was 103 so we waited at the stop, which had the number marked on the road. However, when a bus which was not 103 came by, some of the people we had asked earlier indicated that we should get in. To make sure that that bus went to Wangfujing, I asked the driver, “Wangfujing?” and he nodded but didn’t take the money I gave for our three tickets. He pointed to the back so we went in. There was a person shouting at the back, which was presumably the conductor of the bus. It was not really different from the crowded Sri Lankan public buses, where the ticket conductor would keep shouting for people to move so that more people could be fit in yet remember with ease if each passenger had paid for their tickets and not. So, the experience was not a culture shock to me as it was for my two friends.

We were not sure which stop we had to get down and we knew it was not so far away from the Forbidden City stop so we kept asking if it was the stop for Wangfujing at intervals. When we came past an area, where we saw a sign on one of the stores that said in English ‘Wangfujing road’, we immediately got out of the bus at the next stop and and walked along the main road till we came across a restaurant. We walked into it and found that the staff were undergoing a briefing and prep talk by their manager before the restaurant opened for the evening but they were courteous and asked us to come and sit inside and gave us the menu. Fortunately, there were English names printed under the Chinese names and we were able to order our dinner without problems.

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After dinner, when we emerged from the restaurant, we saw the pedestrian street across the restaurant was lined with lighted stalls and crowded with people. We decided to walk across the street, which I later learnt was the Wangfujing snack street located in Dongcheng district. A place where commercial activity has taken place since Ming dynasty. Though we did not feel like eating, as we had just had a full dinner, we decided to try out one of the candied fruits.

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I would recommend eating at Wangfujing snack street so you will need to time your visit there as it seems to come alive only after 6pm.

We decided to take the cab back to our hutong. This was the first time that we were taking a cab without a Chinese speaking friend in the cab with us but we felt ok as we did have the hotel card, written in Chinese, with us. We did find it difficult to get a cab to stop for us though and several of the cabs quoted an inflated price of 100 yuan for the ride back to our Hutong. After refusing a few cabs, we finally managed to negotiate the price down to 60 yuan. We were quite proud that we had managed to negotiate with a cab driver, who didn’t know English, using some basic Chinese words mainly numbers and short phrases that we had learnt during our stay.

This little half-day trip during our stay in Beijing was a memorable one.

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A hike across the Great Wall of China

Sometimes one knows when to push oneself beyond one’s limits and sometimes not. Ever since my 2005 road traffic accident, I have found that I am reluctant to push myself beyond my perceived limits in walking as it has always ended in a lot of pain. As this adversely affects travel experiences and that of my travel companions, I tend to avoid pushing at my limits especially when I am in a group. I also have a fear of re-injuring my leg, in a difficult to access region or a place, without facilities to treat me in case of another accident.

So by the time the end of our group’s three week travel around China was in sight and I ended up with not only a fever and nasty sore throat but also fatigue and leg pain, I decided that I would not exert myself the last couple of days. However, I was hoping to do one last walk on the trip – a hike across the Great Wall.

We took the bus from Beijing to Dongpo village, where we were accommodated in a simple home stay/ guesthouse.

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Stacked corn at the village

When we reached the village at the foot of the Great Wall in the afternoon, we found it was colder there than it had been in Beijing. After some coffee, the group decided to go for a sunset hike. I initially tried to go on that short hike but just a few minutes after we started, I was finding it more and more painful to walk so I took a photo of my friends continuing the hike and returned to the guesthouse.

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Hiking around Dongpo village

I enjoyed sitting in the courtyard resting my leg, while attempting to make friends with the little dog under the chair, and watching the sun set over the hills.

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When the others returned from their sunset hike, we had a lovely sumptuous dinner following which the hosts started a bonfire outside.

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Our sleeping space was in tiny rooms where six mattresses had been placed on a concrete platform in each room. The platform had smoldering coals underneath them to warm up the sleeping space. We had to sleep like packed sardines so it made for an uncomfortable night.

I woke up very sick and with a lot of pain in my leg and I knew that I would not be able to keep up with the others on a hike across the Great Wall. I told myself that I did experience a lovely home stay at a village at the foot of the Great Wall and had experienced lovely views of the wall in the distance. After everyone had left on the hike, I completed my packing and waited for the cars that would leave with our bags to the meeting point with the hikers. I was enjoying my coffee when three of my friends, including a staff, returned. In some ways, it is nice to have company rather than being alone when you are feeling a little down. We decided to play a game of cards till our departure time, which was a lot of fun.

When it was time to leave the guesthouse, the hosts offered us some ‘baijiu’ (Chinese beer) and the others encouraged me to try a sip as well, suggesting that it would be better for my throat. I tried a sip of the bitter, pungent concoction which was my first introduction to beer. I did feel slightly better as the drink burned my throat but the taste put me off beer that I didn’t attempt a second taste till several years had passed.

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Gretchen’s reaction to baijiu

We went with the hosts in their car to the point where our bus was parked and transferred to the bus. The bus took us to one of the entrances of the Great wall. I initially assumed we would be waiting at a restaurant at the entrance, and the others would join us for lunch after their hike, but I found myself following the others on a walk to the base of some steps leading upward to the Great wall. One of our mini-group members decided to go up the steps and meet up with the rest of the group. When walking back to the restaurant area, we passed the cable car ticket counter and the staff with us suggested we take the cable car up the mountain, since we had come all the way to the great wall and it would be a pity if we at least didn’t take a photo on top of the wall. Tempted, we agreed and took the cable car up.

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As we were in the cable car going up the mountain, we learnt that the rest of the group had begun their descent down the steps. We took some photos at the viewpoint at the top. I was happy that we had made it to a tiny portion of the Great Wall and it was amazing seeing the wall winding its way into the distance.

Given the context of today’s world, it was easy to imagine the fear that provided the impetus for the Chinese empire to start building its walls to control migration as well as prevent attacks by nomadic tribes along its borders. Some fears of humans seem to remain the same despite a couple of millennia of evolution.

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When we returned to the cable car, we were told that the cable cars had stopped working and that we had to climb down the mountain. I felt dismay because I knew I was not fit to attempt an arduous climb down and worse, I had left my hiking stick in the bus thinking that we were only going to a restaurant to order lunch for everyone. We agreed that the less strenuous way would be to walk across the wall to the nearest steps that led down the mountain rather than attempt the souvenir sellers’ rough hiking route downhill. I steeled myself to face the inevitable. One of the souvenir sellers, who had been pointing out her walking route down the mountain, said that she would accompany us to ensure we found the stairway. She also found a stick for me which I could use as a temporary walking stick.

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There we were, the four of us, going so slowly across the great wall marking each tower we reached as an achievement and keeping our spirits up. The souvenir seller was a very kind woman and she helped me across the steep inclines and steps. She mentioned she was from the Mongolia side of the wall and I found it admirable that she made the hike up to the wall and back every day to sell her souvenirs.

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I am glad we went up the cable car and were forced to walk across the wall as it turned out into a special achievement of will and perseverance, besides actually experiencing the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of walking on top of the Great wall. I felt quite proud that despite my initial dismay, once I resolved myself to face the task, I undertook it without a murmur of complaint even at the tough sections of the wall which we had to cross.

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The unexpected kindness of the souvenir seller touched me and I felt that simply giving her some money, as if in payment for her services, would devalue her kindness. So, I bought a Tshirt for my mother from the souvenir seller, which my mother loves to wear on her short evening walks knowing the story behind it.

The travel lesson for me from my Great Wall experience is that sometimes when you find yourself in an unexpected and seemingly impossible situation, there is always some residual strength and determination left within you to go the remaining distance and often, where you least expect it, you come across unexpected human kindness and empathy.

Great Wall

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Discover Beijing

Walking out of the airport into the biting winter cold of Beijing, what greeted me was the thick grey skies. It was with relief that our group boarded the bus, out of the heavy smog and bitter cold, which took us to our Bed and Breakfast place in an old Hutong.

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After breakfast the next morning, our group made our way over to the Sun Temple in Chaoyang district. As we made our way to a central point of the park, the park seemed greener and brighter with its fresh coat of rain. Having always been a fan of Amazing Race, I was enthusiastic about the start of the Discover Beijing team exploration – the activity scheduled for the first day of our three week trip to China under the APLP program. We were soon divided into four sub-groups and each sub-group provided a mini package of essentials for the day – a bilingual map of Beijing, a mobile phone, subway cards and some sheets of papers with the challenge questions we were supposed to answer through our exploration.

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Walking around Sun Temple

Mami, Rachel and I were assigned South Beijing. We decided that the first thing we needed was some hot coffee and a few minutes to strategize our route. Exiting a gate, we came across a shopping mall.

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

Expecting to find a coffee shop inside, we went in, but as it was too early, the shops were not open. The shopping mall, and its immediate neighbourhood, seemed to have a Russian influence.

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We found another café near the park gate and went in for some caffeine boost. While enjoying our coffees, we pored through our maps marking locations that we would need to visit in order to answer our challenge questions. We soon realized that the area we had to cover was too large to do so, within the given time. The team quickly came to a decision. We were doing this challenge for fun and so we should have fun, instead of trying to rush from one place to another. Prioritizing the places we were interested in most, we mapped out a route that we would follow and the time we would stop, wherever we were, to check in with our challenge hub staff who would then provide us with the mystery end destination.

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Planning our route over coffee, photo credit: Mami Sato

We decided to go to the nearest subway station of Yong’anli, from where we could take the train to Jingsong, where the first stop for our challenge – the antique market was located. We passed a street that seemed to have many embassies on it. I have always found it interesting that embassies tend to cluster themselves around a few streets in every capital city. The section of Ritan street that we passed had the Bangladesh High Commission and Brazil embassy close to each other. Thinking it would be fun to send a photo of the respective flags for our APLP friends from those two countries, we took out our camera but the security guards barked out warnings so we quickly moved on. We had difficulty locating Yong’anli because passersby did not seem aware of that station and finally we simply asked for the nearest subway. As we went along the street where the nearest subway was, we passed a bank. Recollecting that one of the artefacts we had to collect for our Discover Beijing challenge was an application form for opening an account, we popped into the bank to change some dollars to renminbi and collect our first artefact.

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At a bank counter, photo credit: Mami Sato

Reaching Jingsong, we realized that it was quite a long walk from the station to the antique market even though it was the closest station to the place. My team agreed that after the antique market, we would take cabs where possible so that we did not overwork our legs on our first day itself. It seemed it was too early for the market as most of the stalls were empty. The few that were open only sold some cheap trinkets and souvenirs. There were some shops at the end of the stall, which seemed to have stuff that looked like antiques. We took our requisite photo souvenir and answered the question in our challenge.

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Antique market

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Souvenir stall at antique market, photo credit: Mami Sato

As we came back to the entrance, we saw a group playing Chinese checkers and we decided to take a photo with them for our ‘interaction with locals’ for our Discover Beijing photo collection. The group was friendly and allowed us to take a photo with them. I had no idea how the game was being played, even after watching for a few minutes, but it looked very interesting.

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Chinese checkers, photo credit: Mami Sato

Our next point for the day was the pearl market and after hailing many cabs, one finally stopped and we were dropped off right in front of the Hongqiao pearl market in Dongcheng district. We took the elevator to the pearl exhibition hall to find the answer for the question on black pearls and to take a photo for our collection. There was delicious smells of food wafting in the air and we realized it was lunch time and that we were very hungry so we quickly wrapped up our challenge question and followed our noses to the food.

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Pearl market, photo credit: Mami Sato

Our noses led us to a hotpot shop in the building. The other two were ecstatic and I was happy to try something I had never had before. It was quite a challenge for me though as it was the first time I was seriously trying to attempt using chopsticks, where there was no alternative cutlery provided. It was quite interesting to have to be patient, when you were very hungry, and try to pick your vegetable from the hotpot carefully.

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Trying out a hotpot lunch, photo credit: Mami Sato

After spending a lot of time enjoying our lunch, we decided to move on to our next location on our route – the Temple of Heaven, which was conveniently right across the road. The temple had been constructed in the early 15th century by the same emperor who was responsible for building the Forbidden city.

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View from the gardens of the Temple of Heaven, photo credit: Mami Sato

We walked around the lovely park area around the temple and came across a group of people clapping in unison over some chorus. I have seen groups undergoing laughing therapy but I had never seen group clapping therapy or whatever that was.

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Mami with the clapping group

We walked around the temple of heaven gardens, finding the answers to the different questions on our list. We decided not to enter the temple precinct to find the answer to one final question on the Temple of Heaven, as we found the entrance ticket we had bought only covered the park area and the queue lines were too long for the temple entry.

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Temple of Heaven entrance

Since we only had an hour or so before the end of our challenge, we decided we would try to cover only two more places. We took a cab to Niujie mosque. The mosque the driver dropped us off in the Niujie area was closed but a kind lady there mentioned it was closed to visitors due to ongoing renovations and posed for a photo for our challenge photo souvenir. I later found that the Niujie mosque in Xicheng district that we were supposed to have visited was not the modern one we visited but the oldest mosque in China, built in 996 AD during the Liao dynasty.

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Mosque in Niujie, photo credit: Mami Sato

We took another taxi to the Beijing south station, which looked like a small airport from the outside and inside. After our requisite photo souvenirs, we sent a text message to the staff member, who was the contact person for the challenge, and received a message to come to Tiananmen Square and to look for the angel in red wings under the flag.

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Beijing south railway station, photo credit: Mami Sato

We took the subway to Tiananmen west and found that we had to walk to the other end of the road to reach the flag. We were tired by this time and we found security blocks preventing us from getting into the area that would take us to the flag area. Apparently, you had to be within the Tiananmen Square area by a given time or wait till the flag ceremony is over before you are let in. So, we had to be content with watching the ceremony from a distance.

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View of Tiananmen Square with the road closed off to traffic

By the time the ceremony was over, we simply wanted to get to a warmer spot. We received a text message asking us to come to the Tiananmen West station. We realized we had to walk the entire way back to the station and I think that was the point in the entire day that our group felt grumpy as we were tired, cold with two of us limping due to having walked beyond our normal walking distances. We slowly made our way back and rejoined the rest of the group.

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View of Tiananmen Square (with our Hawaiian pineapple mascot) as the road was reopened to traffic, photo credit: Mami Sato

Tired and hungry, we made our way back to our Hutong for dinner in the neighbourhood restaurant. Looking back at the day, though we were perhaps not as efficient as we could have been, we had a lot of fun and the right spirit – not that of competition but more of a joint exploration as a team, enjoying each other’s company and our attempts at locating places and undertaking challenge tasks. It was also a fun introduction to Beijing.

[I am linking this post to:

*Wanderful Wednesday, hosted by Snow in Tromso, Lauren on Location, The Sunny Side of This and What a Wonderful World

**City Tripping #37, hosted by Wander Mum and Mummy Travels]
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Travel Notes & Beyond