After spending a few days doing not much, Nova arrived and we have been into the sightseeing with a vengance. After a quick trip to the biggest airport terminal in the world we were off to our second preserved body of the trip - Mao. The Great Helmsman lies covered in a red hammer and sickle flag, looking very waxy. Not the same pomp as the Vietnamese experience which was surprising.
It was then off to where Mao is not and many argue he should be - underground. A huge underground city was built during the cold war to shelter from impending doom. Many dubious facts were bandied about by our guide, such as the tunnels being in total longer than the Great Wall, but nonetheless it was certainly massive. Not mentioned by the guide was that the road and rail tunnels are still in use and allow the pulitburo (if they call it that in China?) to move about in secret. Helen was not up to that level apparently as we saw her motorcade speeding through the middle of town.
Shopping was the next experience and we visited Silk Street, which is not a street but a mall filled with traders selling knockoffs for as much as they can get out of the tourist hordes. Very noisy with every stall you pass yelling at you to get you in the door, with calls such as "Hey handsome big man!" and "Looky looky pretty lady!". Grabing the arm was also a favourite tactic. Some major haggling was done and we walked away exhausted but with some worthy purchases among us, from silk (maybe) duvet covers, panda soft toys, jandals and a large string of 100 satin chilli peppers.
The next morning was the Forbidden City, so named as it was off limits to the hoi polloi for 500 years of imperial rule. It was teeming with tourists (mostly Chinese) but was truly staggering in terms of size and intricacy. It is a walled set of palaces, halls and gardens thousands of kilometers square but with every building honed down to the finest detail of ceramic, painted and cast iron decoration. We spent a good few hours and saw only a small amount of what was on offer. A favourite was the Hall of Clocks which contained clocks made by the imperial clock shop and others given as gifts from around the world. These were mechanical masterpieces, with one containing a model man who when the clock is running can write 8 Chinese characters with a caligraphy pen.
The rest of our time has largely been spent in the contrasting areas of Beijing - the tiny allyways of the traditional city dwellings called the Hutong, and the massive modern city of buildings that look like they are hewn from a single slab of granite the size of a mountain. Just back from a visit to the Olympic site where more massive buildings are growing by the second, including a hotel in the shape of the Olympic Flame and the 'Bird's Nest' stadium.
Off to Pingyao tomorrow for a change of scene.