Against the Wall

I first posted this photo to my blog ten years ago, when there were probably only a handful of readers, so I thought it would be OK to bring it back around.

One afternoon I grabbed my camera and headed downtown on my new bike to run some errands and take pictures. I ended up at the Forbidden City, one of my favorite spots in town. At the time I was taking an on-line Digital SLR photography course, and had a shooting assignment.

This wall/tower section was my destination, but I got lucky with this old man sitting against the wall soaking up the warm sunshine.

forbidden city wall

The Forbidden City was the home of Chinese emperors for 600 years, and was, in traditional  Chinese thinking the center of the Middle Kingdom—the point around which all the universe rotates. Not just figuratively, but literally. The emperor was the earthly representative of Heaven (God). These massive high walls were what separated the emperor from his subjects, and were designed to remind the masses of the gulf that existed between ruler and ruled.

The man sitting against the wall captures that distance, and the smallness of the commoner in relation to the emperor. And if he’s more than 80 years old, he can remember the day when an emperor (albeit a young boy) was in residence behind those big red walls.

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Getting Out and About — Beijing and Las Vegas

A few weeks back travel expert Kendra Thornton contacted me about doing a joint post on our favorite places to visit. It sounded like a fun collaboration, and this post is the result. I write about a few fun things to see and do in Beijing, and Kendra writes about one of her favorite destinations, Las Vegas. Given the fact that I live in Minnesota, ground zero of the “polar vortex,” reading her suggestions makes me want to jump on a plane right now!

Joann: Getting Out and Enjoying Beijing

It’s kind of strange for me to think of Beijing as one of my favorite places “to visit,” given the fact that I lived there for 15 years! Prior to moving there in 1998 I lived in other (less developed) parts of China, so it definitely was my favorite destination in China, not because of the history or culture, but because it had western food! During my time living in Beijing I had the opportunity to host tons of friends (old and new) and I came to absolutely love showing folks around my adopted hometown. Here are my suggestions on a few things to see and do in Beijing.


1.  “The Big Three” – Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven.

These are arguably Beijing’s most famous historical/cultural sites. Built in 1959 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Tiananmen Square is the closest thing that a secular state has to a ‘sacred’ space. Situated in the direct center of the city, Tiananmen Square is home to the Chairman Mao Mausoleum and the Monument to the Martyrs. It’s also a favorite spot for Chinese tourists who are not accustomed to seeing ‘foreigners’ so don’t be surprised if people ask you to pose in their photos with them. Just smile and agree; it will make their day.

The Forbidden City is on the north end of the Square, on the other side of the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), from which the Square derives its name. The Forbidden City, as its name implies, is a vast complex of ceremonial and residential buildings that used to be the home of the emperor and his courtesans. Rent the wireless audio tour and give yourself several hours; otherwise the red buildings with yellow roofs will start to run together in your mind.

The Temple of Heaven, in the southern part of the old city, is where the emperor went once a year to offer prayers for a good harvest. In addition to the gorgeous Ming buildings, you’ll see local senior citizens playing cards, singing, dancing, and just hanging out. Much less crowded than the Forbidden City, it is one of my favorite parks in Beijing.


2. The “Hutongs”

Another fun activity in Beijing is touring the old section of town, often referred to as the “hutongs” (lanes). Even though it is a bit touristy, it’s a nice break from the oversized buildings and highways that make up Beijing. The pace in the hutongs is much more relaxed and will give you a bit of a feel for what Beijing used to be like. Stroll around the two lakes or take a rickshaw tour. And be sure to visit the ancient drum and bell towers nearby.


3. The Great Wall of China

No trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to The Great Wall of China, which runs through the mountains to the north of the city. The two most famous tourist spots for visiting the Wall are Badaling (northwest of town) and Mutianyu (northeast of town). I prefer Mutianyu because it tends to be MUCH less crowded. Don’t forget to take the alpine slide down off the Wall; it’s great fun! The best way to get to Mutianyu is hire a car and driver to take you from your hotel. Go early and give yourself plenty of time to hike to the top.


4. Wangfujing “Snack Street”

A fun evening activity is visiting the Wangfujing “Snack Street” where you can sample everything from starfish to scorpions on a stick! Even if you’re not brave enough to sample the food, it’s fun to see what’s available and watch OTHER people eat.


5. Chuandixia Ming Village

It’s always fun to get out of the city and see a bit of the countryside. I would recommend hiring a car and driver to take to the ancient Ming village of Chuandixia, in the mountains to the west of town. Built and settled in the Ming Dynasty (1300-1600’s), Chuandixia has somehow survived relatively intact. Very few people live there permanently now, but it has been preserved as an example of traditional life and culture. Be sure to take your hiking boots, because there are lots of trails in the mountains surrounding the village.

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6. Beijing Duck

Finally, no one can visit Beijing without eating its most famous food, Beijing Duck (Peking Duck). The dish is served in most restaurants, but it’s good to go to a place that specializes in duck. The most famous (and oldest) Beijing Duck restaurant is Quanjude. However, its fame means it’s the most expensive. I would suggest Da Dong Beijing Duck.

A word about transportation: In the past ten years, Beijing has built a very extensive subway system, making it very easy to get around the city. And thanks to the Olympics, all of the signage is in English!

Kendra: Getting Out and Enjoying Las Vegas

If you think of casinos and nothing more when you hear the name “Las Vegas,” it’s time for you to learn more about Sin City. This is one of my all-time favorite travel destinations. The amazing desert oasis features things for grownups to enjoy as well as activities that the kids can enjoy too.

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1. Eat, Drink and Be Merry

There’s no lack of food and drink in Las Vegas. I love trying new things to drink and fresh cuisine. My favorite pairing is a beautiful steak with a choice red wine. Selections at places like SW Steakhouse, Tom Colucchio’s Craftsteak and Fiamma Trattoria are difficult to rival. Wine lovers will find award-winning selections, and those who prefer hard liquor will find plenty quality beverages to savor as well.

2. Catch an Aerial View

You don’t have to be 21 to enjoy an aerial view of the Las Vegas Strip. Maverick Helicopters gives guests an unparalleled experience. Their professional pilots narrate each flight. Every guest gets the opportunity to participate in the interactive tour via headsets. This activity features a show where every seat has an amazing view.

3. Relax at a Spa

If you need some serious “R and R”, head to one of the city’s spas. My favorite is the spa at Aria Las Vegas. As an escape from the bitter cold of a Chicago winter, I enjoy relaxing on the warm Ganbanyoku beds. Massage options here include Thai Poultive massage and Ashiatsu massage. Regardless of the reason for your trip, time at a spa should make it onto your agenda.

4. Bum on the Beach

In Las Vegas, you can experience the desert heat while riding the waves. Personally, I enjoy just relaxing on the sandy beach at Mandalay Bay. They have plenty of activities for everyone to enjoy here. The kids love the wave pool. Cocktails and the lazy river are more my speed.

Don’t get locked into thinking that blackjack and poker are the only activities to enjoy in Las Vegas. Whether you spend your time on the strip or choose to experience other parts of the city and the surrounding area, you can take your pick of activities here. This city truly has something for everyone and certainly is not short on hotels. With so many useful sites including those like Gogobot allowing you to read user reviews, you will be a step a head of the game in knowing what to expect when you visit.

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Related Posts:

100 Fun Things to See and Do in Beijing

An Afternoon in the Square

A Nation Mourns

Temple of Heaven

Marxist Mama!

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Beijing Erhu Player

Back in the day (late 1990’s) I used to ride my bike downtown a lot.  From where I live out on the west side of Beijing ‘downtown’ meant the area around Tiananmen Squre and the Forbidden City — the center of the center of the universe, so to speak.

At that time there was still a community of houses tucked between the Forbidden City walls and the moat, and the wall outside the Meridian Gate was a favorite gathering place for retired musicians to practice their instruments and their singing).

I used to love riding down there, hopping off my bike and listening to them play and sing.

The homes between the wall and the moat are gone now and the area along the Meridian Gate wall has been covered over with grass and made inaccessible by a fence.

I don’t know where the musicians ended up, but I’m glad I have this photo of an erhu player practicing in the shadow of the Forbidden City.


National Museum of China

This afternoon a colleague and I slipped away to check out the newly-renovated National Museum of China, formerly known as the National Museum of Chinese History and the National Museum of the Chinese Revolution.


It was originally built in 1959 as one of the “Ten Great Architectural Projects” that were  constructed around Beijing to commemorate the Tenth Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It sits on the east side of Tiananmen Square, opposite it’s sister building The Great Hall of the People.


In 2007, the museum was closed for renovations– ‘renovations’ being a mild term, since the entire building, except for the outside walls facing Tiananmen Square and Chang An Avenues were completely torn down and a brand new structure was put up. In other words, from the outside, it looks exactly the same, but in fact it’s an entirely new building.  Pretty clever, if you ask me.


We were mainly interested in the permanant exhibit on China’s recent history (1800’s to the present), so spent all of our time in that section. It was OK — not enough English descriptions of the items and photos on display, and a little too heavy on the revolutionary jargon (much more than is used in the Beijing Capital Museum). And as is usually the case in historical presentations here, things move along swimmingly until 1966 and then — POOF! — it’s 1979 when China embarks on it’s Opening and Reform (they never say what they are reforming from…..).


To celebrate the achievements of the past30 years, there are displays which highlight China’s economic and technical developments.We thought it was interesting that out of all the various exhibits and displays we saw, the one that had the most people huddled around talking excitedly was the display of cell phones — old clunky ones from the early days (1990’s) to the iPhone 4!  That really got people’s attention!


What got my attention the most was the amazing view out the window of the museum, looking west, toward Tiananmen. It was a completly new perspective on the square and gate, and made even more spectacular by the fact that it was clear enough to see all the way to the Western Hills. I don’t think I have EVER seen the gate with the mountains in the background!