Day 12: Beijing
Waking up to yet another rainstorm, we decided to make it an “inside day” and check out some of Beijing’s indoor shopping markets. For lunch, we wanted to try a restaurant called Noodle Loft that we had seen on TV; one branch was located near a train stop, so we took our first trip on Beijing’s Metro. Beijing’s train system is excellent; though it’s quite crowded all hours of the day, it’s reliable, easy to figure out, and fast.
After a couple wrong turns in search of the restaurant, we found it only to discover – for the second time this trip – that it was closed. Too hungry to search for another restaurant, we found a bakery on the corner and bought an assortment of snacks instead. We ate our delicious lunch standing out on the sidewalk and ran back to the train as the rain started again.
We were planning to take the bus to the Great Wall the next day, so following some advice I’d read online, we rode the train to the bus transfer depot to find the bus stop and make sure we knew where to go. By this point, the rain had stopped and the weather was clearing, so we decided to skip the shopping and walk a few blocks over to Tiananmen Square instead.
We were just north of Tiananmen Square, standing in front of Tiananmen Gate and its gigantic portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong. The gate connects the square to the Forbidden City, but it was after closing time and we couldn’t pass through, so we took pictures and people-watched instead.
Across the street, we could see people starting to gather around the national flag for the evening’s flag-lowering ceremony (held every evening at dusk; there is a ceremony to raise the flag every morning, too). With only about a half-hour until dusk, we had “accidentally” arrived at just the right time, and we headed over to find a spot to watch. Crossing the street via an underground passway, we followed a group of Chinese national guardsmen as they marched up to the flag podium.
While waiting, we noted the vastness of Tiananmen Square, its massive police presence, and its lack of trees and benches. It’s just a huge open expanse of concrete, bordered by Mao’s mausoleum and a few buildings. There were lots of people walking around, but as it got closer to sunset most of them made their way over to the flag podium.
At sunset, guards stopped traffic between Tiananmen Square and Gate and soon lines of perfectly synchronized soldiers marched out of the gate, crossed the street, and made their way over to the flag podium. After the flag was lowered, the soldiers marched with it back through the gate and the ceremony was over. The size of the crowd was enormous; this ceremony happens twice a day, every day, and is one of the most popular things to see in Beijing.
The concierge at the Peninsula told us the Olympic buildings were lit up at night, so we decided to find dinner at a mall nearby and then take the train out to the Olympic complex. The food court at the Oriental Plaza mall was huge, and we chose a Benihana-style restaurant where we enjoyed a great meal of steak, shrimp, and salmon.
The Olympic Green area was pretty empty; only a few souvenir vendors and tourists were walking around. As promised, the Bird’s Nest (Indoor Stadium) and Water Cube were beautifully lit; we wandered around taking pictures until the lights went off promptly at 10 PM. Visitors can go inside the stadium but not the pool complex; apparently there are plans to allow public swimming sometime this summer.
We ran back to the Metro to catch the last train of the night and headed back to the hotel. It was a great day; we were happy the weather had cleared and we were able to see a few more sights. Next up: Great Wall!