Sunday, September 30, 2012

Tiananmen [天安門] & Tian An Men Square [天安門廣場] @ Beijing (北京), China

A trip to Beijing is never complete if you don't visit three main attractions; namely the Forbidden Palace, the Great Wall of China and Tiananmen Square. 

And the latter was exactly what we did on the very first day of our inaugural visit to the grand capital of China. 

Note that there is a difference between Tiananmen and Tiananmen Square; Tianamen is the gate to the Imperial City (known as Inner City) while the Square borrowed its name from Tiananmen which is located directly North, separated by a major road known as Chang'an Avenue. 

The coach dropped us at the western side of the Square so that we could take in the sights and leisurely stroll towards Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace).

It was a foggy day (and it remained so for the next few days) and please be prepared for pictures that could not fully reflect the splendor and beauty of the place. 

Walked past the Great Hall of the People (人民大會堂); the building where the National People's Congress meets for discussion on national policies and legislation. 

Renovation was ongoing for this public toilet although i am not exactly loving that facade of blue sky and lush greenery. Barricades were on standby maybe because of the upcoming China's national day. 

Guess there would be some kind of show to commemorate the founding of the People's Republic of China! 

1 October also marks the start of the National Day Golden Week and that was the main reason why i had to plan my visit in September to avoid the peak period. 

Tiananmen Square - 3rd largest city square in the world that could accommodate 600,000 persons! The building is the picture was Mao's Mausoleum, the final resting place of Mao Zedong. 

Flag rising ceremony is scheduled twice a day; at dawn and at dusk. Notice the fire extinguisher on the right side of the picture? It would come in handy should there be any self-immolation incidents. 

Guarding the flagpole - security is tight in this politically sensitive arena. Many people might still remember the horrifying Tiananmen Incident in 1989 where student protesters were massacred in large numbers.

Coming back to happier moments; food and drinks were available in this van! I would have enjoyed this kind of mobile business operation - driving to East Coast park on weekends to sell hotdogs and cola etc.

Tiananmen - no one would miss that huge portrait of Mao Zedong even though the original building dated from 1420 during the Ming dynasty. 

One of our tour mates trying to get the best shot of Tiananmen. 

Forgot your camera or you have no trust in your photography skills? Fret not. There were a number of on-site photographers who would take your picture in front of Tiananmen and print it out within a few minutes for a nominal fee.

A final look before we crossed over to Tiananmen. 

Via an underpass that is. Beijing is actually very modernised and i would strongly recommend able travellers to go for free and easy. There is a subway network that connects to major attractions like Beijing Zoo, Summer Palace, Forbidden City etc.

Arriving right opposite Mao's portrait! His eyes follow you from whichever angle you look at him! 

Visitors, both locals and foreigners, were clamouring to take pictures of themselves in front of the portrait. As the tour guide commented, it was an honourable must for every family in China to have a picture of themselves at Tiananmen.

Many times, i have noticed guys in non-uniform standing together with uniformed guards. Are they plain clothes policemen? By the way, the passageway right below the portrait was reserved only for the emperor in dynastic times! 

Our itinerary included a walk up to the main building atop of Tiananmen! 

At a length of only 66 meters, it was not as big as one would expect when viewed from Tiananmen square. 

Light bulbs adorning the roof. According to wikipedia, Tiananmen was rebuilt in 1970 so what we are seeing is not really its original state although the external outlook remained the same.

Netting was noticed somewhere near the roof. Let me guess what it is for - hm..... to prevent birds from nesting within the crevices? 

The highly anticipated imperial city right behind Tiananmen!

A souvenir shop - some of the items could be purchased from touts outside the attraction at a much lower price, so long you bargain. 

Interior of the building. 

There was some information on the history of this building, mainly concentrated during the period after 1951. Given the time limitation of the tour (you are going to see this sentence very often), i could not digest much for sharing in this blog.

A miniature replica of Tiananmen and its surroundings (including Forbidden City) in ancient times. I would like to take more photographs but there was an announcement that no photo-taking is allowed in the gallery.

View of Tiananmen Square!

I took the picture on purpose just to show you the person guarding the perimeter! Here's another picture. Oh, in case i forget, please remember that lighters are not allowed in many attractions! Smokers, you have been warned. 

Panoramic view of the Square. To the left is China National Museum and to your right is the Great Hall of the People. 

Visitors enjoying the view of the Square. 

The mid-day sun above Tiananmen. This is a photoshopped version and the original picture looks nothing like it. However, i thought the effect was quite stunning and deserved to be posted! 

Side view of the building. 

Leaving for our next destination; the Forbidden City! 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Commissioned 'Factory Shopping Tours' in China - My Take as Part of Hong Thai [康泰旅行社] 8D Beijing/Tianjin/Chengde Tour Package

As far as the country China is concerned, factory shopping is a definite add-on for any tour package unless you prefer to pay a much higher price (per person).

The travel agent in Singapore had actually notified me that there would be roughly four of such agent-commissioned 'shopping' tours and i was expecting to visit a few in my recent trip to Beijing.

A 'better' deal was given though; i counted no less than six and a few other 'pleasant' surprises that should otherwise be counted as time wasting visits for you to spend more Renminbi (RMB) [5 RMB is roughly equivalent to S$1].

Do read below for the list i compiled, from this tour package purchased from Hong Thai Travel Agency.

Jade Products (玉器)
Chinese craftwork is prevalent in many jade products and as usual, the assigned employee would run through with you the history of jade, the making and especially on its purported health benefits. After which, you would be brought to a huge showroom for you to make your purchases.

Tong Ren Tang (同仁堂)
Once again, a supposedly senior professor of Chinese medicine would tell you the advantages of taking Chinese medicine to prevent any health ailment. To enhance the experience, a few physicians were on duty to take your pulse and advise you on the Chinese prescription you need.

All the required medications are available in their main medicinal hall. That's how convenient it was! Just be prepared to have cash or credit card in your wallet.

Bao Shu Tang (宝树堂)
We were pleased to pay this a visit. Like Tong Ren Tang, Bao Shu Tang was famous for some of its herbal products, specifically Bao Fu Ling, a marvel cream to be used on the skin (we bought 4 bottles on behalf of friends and relatives).

A salesperson was on hand to promote some of its notable products and it wasn't hard to see that she was concentrating on this particular mineral rich stone that was made into mugs, combs etc; items that you would use on a daily basis.

Silk (丝绸) Products 
Having travelled to mainland China as a member of a tour package three times, i have listened to the same story on how silk came about.

As many of us in the tour had been to China countless times, no one was buying despite the irritating hard selling by many of the sales people. Sales must be bad as the final price for a silk quilt, cover and two pillow cases, originally quoted at 3800 RMB, was eventually reduced to 1200 RMB!

No wonder there was a newspaper article a while ago featuring Singaporeans as one of the most gullible country-specific visitors in China.

Jade and Pearl Shop
The first promoter shared some interesting information on pearls (like a freshwater oyster can produce over 20 pearls etc) while the second one would enlighten us on jade. 

However, it was the son of the big boss who would eventually turn up; on the excuse that all the jade experts were busy sharing their expertise (we didn't see many people along the long hallway by the way).

An old school sales tactic to make you feel important and the second one i experienced in China (the first was in Hunan when the wife of the boss came to 'help' out). 

Always keep in mind that as the son or wife of the boss, massive discounts were in place to entice you to buy a piece or two at still astronomical prices.

Tea Products
My family loves to drink tea although i wasn't that keen to spend 500 RMB for a cake of pu-er tea. Eventually, the bargaining bitch in me managed to secure three types of tea that initially cost over 1500 RMB for only 600 RMB.

Frankly, i could have bargained for a lower price if not for our poor tour mates who were waiting for us in the bus to complete our purchase!

The above were the official 'shopping tours' listed on the itinerary, except for Bao Shu Tang. Following are others that should have made the list, regardless of whether the tour guide is getting commission or not.

I was deliberating whether to include this as it was fun picking dates (limited to twenty) fresh from the trees and this was included in our packed itinerary.

'Shopping' was obvious when you can buy other fruits, including dried dates, for a seemingly higher local price right outside the farm even though they were still significantly lower than Singapore prices.

Free Foot Massage
That's what i read from the itinerary! And free it was even though the tour guide did mention that we could give 20 RMB (roughly S$4) to our masseur if we are happy with his/her service.

But it didn't take long for the masseurs to comment that the base of my feet was too thick and recommend i take up a 10-minute scrapping service that cost 60 RMB. From what i heard, the whole group had the same thick calluses on their feet! Such a coincidence!

To top it all, one of the tour members passed only 10 RMB to her masseur and was immediately retorted that the minimum is 20 RMB. So was 20 RMB a tip or was it not?

Deer Antler / Drum Crystal Products
This was in Chengde and we were 'helpfully advised' (you can't blame me for my skepticism) by the local agent that the antlers (鹿茸), used for traditional Chinese medicine, were fresh as it was the right season and that the salesperson would likely give us a high price (duhz) for the drum crystal and you should settle it at a specified amount with a free necklace thrown in. 

Mum bought the drum crystal, which was honestly, quite pretty. The antlers? No way! 

Pi Xiu (貔貅)
Given the ancient outlook, i was expecting a deluge of historical facts and information about this tower. In the beginning, it indeed was until the narrator started to delve more and more about fengshui and the importance of this mystical Chinese animal (known as pi xiu) that supposedly has the powers to ward off evil. 

My parents bought a few when they were in Taiwan and we were absolutely not interested to listen further! Time could be better spent taking pictures outside the gallery! 

Temple Praying
Despite being Buddhist, i am not really religious and solely believe that you reap what you sow and retribution is definite whenever you perform a bad deed. But what i take issue is when unscrupulous people take advantage of religion for profit making purposes. 

The tour guide highlighted an event organised every 600 years that was held outside Tibet for the very first time in Chengde and that the high priest from Tibet (obviously) blessed some prayer beads so that worshippers can purchase for the repair of the Mini Potala palace in Chengde. 

We were asked to pray to the nine Buddha statues in a room and make a nominal donation. For donation above 300 RMB, you would get a bracelet of blessed prayer beads and immense blessings for your family! 

From my calculation, the high priest must have blessed quite a few thousands of these prayer beads! I would share more bullocks in another blog posting

Local Food Street
We were brought to a street alright; albeit a street that was alike to the air conditioned streets in Bugis Junction. 

That would not be too bad if not for the local Tianjin guide who pulled us directly into one shop to make our local food stuff purchases!

Add in a grouchy looking salesperson who made no effort to smile or answer our questions and you would have a group who was simply put, not that eager to buy more! 

I was going to explore the rest of the street to make happier purchases when the guide told us we have to leave. Time spent in the local food street? 

Less than 10 minutes!