For two of my free days in Beijing, i hired an agency to give me two “day tours.” This was surprisingly affordable, even for me by myself. (It gets cheaper per person the more people in your party.) For me alone, it cost $142 per day, and i took two customized tours. This included a) an english-speaking guide to take me through the sites and give me all the information, b) an air-conditioned car with a driver to take us door-to-door for each attraction, c) all entry fees to the temples and various attractions, and d) lunch. Our days started at 9 and lasted until about 3 pm each day. If i had lingered longer at the sites or shopped more, they would have babysat me until 5 pm per the contract. Definitely worth the cost, in my opinion, especially in a city that is not particularly English-friendly.
My guide was Ani and she was perfectly pleasant. The driver was introduced to me as Mr. Wong, so that’s what i called him, despite him being younger than me, dressed in jeans and having sunglasses glued to his face. He was quite capable as a driver, scaring me only a few times and only once scraping his side mirror lightly against a bus.
On Sunday, the highlight was the Summer Palace. This was the emporer’s equivalent of a Florida beach house. He and his wife and concubines would retire here during the summer months, because the breeze off the water was cooler. It was quite nice. The day was smoggy, though. This picture is taken from out in the lake. We aren’t even that far from shore, but the palace is behind a slight haze. The air quality in Beijing is very bad. I was lucky to have some nice days for my first week, but the last three have been terrible, ranking in the “very unhealthy” category according to the Beijing Air Quality Index that is reported by the American Embassy.
I got to ride in a boat – a dragon boat!
The second day had a bit more excitement. First we went to see the pandas. This guy is kicking back in an easy chair and chomping on some breakfast.
Another stop during the day was the Confucious Temple. I thought he was just a wise old guy that they revered, but he has some divine tablets and everything. So he has at least some god-like qualities for the Chinese.
The Buddhist Temple was pretty cool. It smelled great, because there were a bunch of people there burning incense and making offerings to Buddha. There were over 1000 Buddhas in and around the temple. I was a little surprised to see that most of them did not have big fat bellies. The “smiling Buddha” did have a big belly, but the rest of them seemed to be serene normal-sized men. In the back of the temple was the biggest damn Buddha you’ll ever see.
We ended the day with some hutongs. “Hutong” means “side street” and these are special because they are kind of old fashioned. We strolled down one hutong that had just a ton of cute little shops and food vendors. Then we hitched a ride on a rickshaw to take us through a bunch more hutongs and to drive us past Honhai Lake. It was a nice little jaunt, though the brakes on those things were loud and screechy and made you want to cover your ears. The hutongs were by far one of the coolest things i’ve done while i was here.