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April 17, 2001

I awoke at a normal time and worked on my journal before breakfast. I went down to breakfast and was pleased to see Melissa Fregosi there. Melissa is a UVM graduate who had been a debater (very successful, I might add) and then took time off from debating to major in Asian Studies and learn Chinese. During her time at UVM she had spent an exchange semester in China and now was teaching English in a middle school here in Beijing and seemed to be doing quite well. Her online journal is very interesting and can be found at (URL). We caught up on news of acquaintances and her experiences in China, although I have been following her adventures online.

Li Ardong, Wang Juefei, Melissa Fregosi

I went back to my room and started packing. Our luggage was being shipped to Qufu by truck so that we didn't have to carry our bags onto the train and also because since we were four to a cabin it might get kind of tight given how much luggage we had all brought along. We needed to pack light for the night train trip to Qufu. We also were encouraged to leave as much as we could behind in Beijing because most of the party would be flying back to Beijing from Qufu and there are strict weight limits (20 kilos, 44 pounds) on bags coming back. This created a problem for others but not for me because I would be taking the train back to Beijing with Juefei before I flew to Inner Mongolia.

We checked our bags onto the vehicle ferrying them to Qufu and piled into our own bus, but only after Jim passed out toilet paper to everyone in the lobby for our overnight train ride. We took off on our way to our first adventure of the day, a visit to the Temple of Heaven. This is a huge complex which served special official functions, mostly for the emperor to come on specific days and pray to the gods and goddesses for good harvests and good fortune. The first section of the complex was a large walkway leading to the complex surrounded by gardens. There were a number of people who were practicing calligraphy on the flagstones with large brushes and water. There seemed to be a master teacher and a number of students watching him and asking questions.

A grove of ancient cypress tress dominated the immediate interior of the Temple of Heaven, with many of them being over 800 years old. Their girth and twisted forms were magnificent and evocative.

Sidewalk Calligraphy at the Temple of Heaven | Looking from the temple mound back top the entrance

This walkway led to a circular temple mound which was an impressive sight. On top of this mound were a number of stone circles. The important number seems to be nine, with nine circles with nine stones in the middle and 81 stones in the outer circle. In the exact center was a spot where the emperor would stand and make supplications to heaven. I stood on that spot, and Ardong showed me how to stamp my feet and how you could hear the echo from the sound reflected off the edge of the stone circle, and he said that when it was quiet you would hear the echo of your foot stomping three times. On one side was a huge pole from which the emperor would have a giant lantern hung so that the people could see that he was on the job communing with heaven for their benefit.

The Center Stone at the Temple of Heaven (Bonnie Ayer at sign)

Leaving the stone circle mound I went through a gate which took us to the first of the temples themselves. This one contained special tablets which signified the sun, planets and stars. Some tablets were kept in buildings to the side of the temple while others were kept in the main temple itself. This took us through another gateway which led to the Temple of Heaven proper, an imposing structure within which the emperor would pray for the benefit of the people. This was an imposing structure with three levels of roof, and I instantly recognized it as an image I had seen many times, and specifically one J. Connell had used as the graphic on his World Debate Institute argument packet about China some years earlier when we were debating the Southeast Asia topic. Funny how things seem to go around and come around.

Tablets of Heaven | Temple of heaven

I was amazed by the beautiful blue porcelain which served as the tiles covering the buildings and the walls. It was incredibly smooth and with a deep blue luster like I had never seen before. Ardong informed me that the process for making these tiles has been lost, and that efforts to recapture this lost method had failed. Some things, it seems, are lost with the passage of time.

Black dragon Tree | The Echo Wall

We met up with our bus and trooped off for lunch. Lunch was a splendid meal of excellent Chinese food, especially featuring amazing spicy tofu dishes and an unusual combination of corn and peas which had a flavor and a texture I had never experienced before. The group was jolly and all in all it was another wonderful meal. This was probably the best lunch we had been offered yet.

Our next agenda item was shopping. People wanted to do some but our schedule was tight, so we were taken to a huge complex [Hongquing Market] of small shops and given about 75 minutes to shop to our hearts content. Not wanting to spend my money so early in the trip I held back. It was a large three story "mall" filled with shop[s which were about 10 feet by 15 feet, and grouped together by type of product. It was an amazing scene of Chinese capitalism, with incredible products from all over China and the world. I am sure some of the products were knock-offs (Rolex watches for under $10 US, for example) but other products were clearly authentic or brands I did not recognize. The electronic gear and cell phone accessories were very impressive, with palmtops and other items galore. The place was jammed with people and heavy bargaining was taking place. When you ask for a price you can assume you can get it for about half that if you work at it, and your final move is to simply walk away. If you price the same item at several stalls you can begin to get an idea of what it actually cost the merchant. I did make a purchase to use as gifts. I bought five handsome Mao Zedong lighters which play the Chinese national anthem when opened, and they each cost be 5 yuan ($1.20). I liked them because they were so tacky and they represent a contradiction between Mao's thought and the current wave of capitalism in China.

We all gathered back to the bus and headed off to the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is the traditional palace complex of the emperor, and common people (and even many aristocrats) were denied entrance into it. We gathered in front of the huge main gate and were on our way in. Since it was the end of the day on a weekday it wasn't all that crowded and so this looked to be an excellent visit.

Into the Forbidden City | Chinese way of saying "Hands Off"

As usual Prof. Li Ardong was our guide and again did an excellent job. The first courtyard has a river running through it with many beautiful bridges over it. I especially liked the sign urging Chinese people to respect and protect cultural heritage. The buildings were mostly in red brick with lovely ceramic tiles on the rooftops. Numerous beautiful statues were located at crucial locations, including one of the "turtle monster of burden" bixi, which I particularly liked. There were also gigantic braziers from which incense was burned (apparently in enormous quantities) to give the large courtyards a sweet and fragrant smell. There were also giant brass vats which often contained water to use in case a fire broke out.

Steps inside the Forbidden City | Bixi, the turtle monster of longevity and heavy loads

Each courtyard seemed to lead to a gate and a building with a special function, such as meeting place for the emperor and the ministers or foreign dignitaries, living quarters for the emperor, living quarters for the concubines and the empress, and a main throne room for the emperor.

Two Different Throne Rooms in the Forbidden City

As we went further into the Forbidden City the magnitude of it all began to catch up with us. The scale was cyclopean and impressive, but the small touches made it all the more impressive -- such as each stone post alongside the walkways being elaborately carved but unique among all the posts, the metal work on the windows and doors depicting imperial dragons and other figures, the impressive ceramic figures of lions and other animals on the spines of the rooftops, and of course the interiors -- the thrones, pillars, and ceiling decorations on the magnificent chambers. I am pleased with my pictures but they cannot begin to convey the true enormity and detail of the Forbidden City.

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Our last stop in the Forbidden City was the emperor's grove, which features some very beautiful trees and garden plots. Immediately at its entrance were two incredibly twisted trees, one separated in half and then rejoining higher up. I would have spent longer there but the entire complex was about to close, so we had to hurry out. We were also on our way to Tiananmen Square to watch the lowering of the flag ceremony held each day at sunrise and sunset.

Returning the way we came through the Forbidden City, we walked through a huge gate and suddenly emerged out from under the huge visage of Mao Zedong into Tiananmen Square. As I arrived I had mixed feelings, because the events of June, 1989 weigh heavily on my mind to this day. Although shattered, hurt and inspired at that time, I feel that China is, today, on the right path and that change for the better will come at a pace and in a direction dictated by China itself.

We joined a growing crowd in the square waiting for the flag lowering ceremony to mark the end of another day. Soldiers stood at attention waiting for the ceremony to begin. I took this opportunity to walk around the square and mostly observe the people there -- the mostly Chinese tourists who were there to see a ceremony very much like the one which takes place in Washington, DC at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

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As the ceremony ended we headed off to meet with our bus and to have dinner. We walked out of the square and into a nearby business district where we met up with Juefei and others who had not been with us that day. I got to see the McDonalds and KFC Tiananmen Square locations I had heard about. We had dinner at a place specializing in Beijing Hotpot meals, a style of meal where we each had a boiling pot in front of us and we picked from many ingredients to add to our personal pot and prepare our own meal. It was good, but it was clear that we had all had a very difficult and tiring day, very full of experiences we would remember for the rest of our lives.

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We found our bus and said goodbye to some of our hosts, students of Prof. Lee who had accompanied us during the day and taught us so much. I said goodbye to Melissa and boarded the bus. We headed off into the night and soon arrived at the train station.

The Beijing train station is huge and modern, far better than any train station I have seen in the USA. The waiting areas were large and comfortable, with gigantic television screens. We were all provided with a small towel to have during the overnight train trip to Qufu. Our train was announced and we went to board. We had been allocated a certain number of bunks in what are called "soft sleepers," or rooms which had four bunks in them with soft cushions to sleep on. Each bunk room had a small table with a vase of flowers, towels for all of us, two pillows for each bunk, a blanket for each bunk, as well as sheets. The bunks themselves were long and wide enough even for a bulky guy like me, although I did seem to be able to claim a lower bunk because my size. My three American roomies were friendly and jolly. Others in our party had purchased some Great Wall wine and some cans of beer to celebrate our departure from Beijing, but I stuck with cool bottled water. The train pulled out of the station smoothly and we were on our way. Originally our cabin had been fairly warm, but as the train picked up speed the air conditioning kicked in and soon it was very comfortable.

KFC near Tiananmen Square | Author aboard the night train to Qufu

Before hitting my bunk I took some time to assay the rocks I had collected. I had managed to collect a small stone from critical locations I had visited. I would try and take a stone that was either directly at that site which I found on the ground or a stone which had obviously fallen off of a specific structure. I want to make it clear that I never damaged anything in this process of collection. I have long loved to touch ancient stones (although Tom Mays, a member of our party, reminded me that all stones are ancient), and I decided to collect "memory stones" from various sites. I had a small piece of granite which I found had flaked off of the Great Wall. I had a small stone I located at the Temple of Heaven. I had a small piece of rock which I found at the base of a wall in the Forbidden City. Finally, I had located a small stone which was lying in the middle of Tiananmen Square, which had been difficult because that space is kept immaculate by a constantly working group of sweepers who pick up every loose item they can find. I have cataloged these stones and will continue to try and gather them.

As the night train for Qufu rocked on down the track, I fell asleep, astounded at the day I had experienced -- from the Temple of Heaven to the Forbidden City to Tiananmen Square to the Beijing train station, and now on my way to the first work stop on this trip, Qufu, the home of Confucius!