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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  



May 1. BEIJING "May Day"  It was May Day at last and Beijing was totally silent.   We went down to visit the Temple of Heaven early in the morning and found some people out and about in the park surrounding the temple.  It was actually pretty crowded with people doing all sorts of different things.  We found a number of people playing badminton, a group of people doing a fan dance, another older man creating calligraphy on the sidewalk with a big brush and water, an older man hitting a tennis ball that he had attached to the ground with an elastic cord, couples playing some sort of a racquet game that involved two racquets per person, people playing cards, people playing instruments, and people practicing ball room dancing.  All of these things went on not more than  10-15 feet apart and each individual, pair or group was totally engrossed in their activity and seemingly oblivious to all of the other activity around them.  It was a curious and entertaining sight.

The Temple of Heaven is one of the places in China that I always remember and enjoy seeing again and again.  It isn't as vast as the Forbidden City or Summer Palace but the round patterns of buildings and walls and blue tile-roofs make such a peaceful and memorable setting.  The acoustics of the Round Alter and the Echo Wall in the Imperial Vault of Heaven complex just add to the mystical feeling of the place.  Like all of the other tourist sites there were almost no other people inside the three walled temple areas.  The bustling menagerie of activity remained in the gardens outside.   The dominant feature, the serene but austere Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is a round three-tiered temple with glistening blue-tiled roofs that sits on top of three layers of marble terrace. In the hazy sky of Beijing is creates a very ethereal image.  I am always struck by it.  

After a leisurely look at the Temple of Heaven was went to pass through Tiananmen Square.  The city was silent but we wanted to see for ourselves that nothing was going on and... it wasn't.  The square was as calm as it had been all week. We saw a few people pass by with small flags in hand so perhaps people were still celebrating in their own small way but certainly not their usual grand scale.  

As quiet and crowd free as the city had been all week it now seemed even more so.  Since it was a holiday the streets even lacked the bit of commute traffic.  Still those that were out in Tiananmen Square were busy flying kites and snapping every possible angle of photo with them and the painting of Mao that hung on Tiananmen Gate.  We were struggling with what to do with the rest of our day and feeling little motivation to do much of anything in such a quiet city.  We couldn't even find a cab on Jianguomenmei Road.  

After walking several blocks we lucked out and finally found a cab to take us up to Hou Hai Park.  This turned out to be an unexpectedly lively area.  The small lake was full of people enjoying their day off and we quickly found ourselves a pair of comfortable lounge chairs in front of a cafe and did the same.  The cafes charge a nice sum to rest in their lounge chairs, in the form of high priced drinks, but it was well worth having such a perfect place to enjoy the afternoon.  It was a popular spot for families and the foreign community but no body seemed concerned with the SARS masks.  The families all consisted of mom and dad and their one child.  I supposed the middle of a lake was as SARS free of a place as you could take your only off spring and enjoy a Spring day. 

The Hou Hai lake is conveniently not far from the Pass By Bar, rapidly becoming our favorite spot to eat in the city. Eating western style food seemed like a bit of a copout but since it was housed in an old hutong neighborhood we couldn't forget we were in Beijing. It was a nice compromise and the food was really nice.    

May 2. BEIJING Our days in Beijing were starting to feel slow and we were beginning to look forward to moving on to a new destination.  We just had one more big day of sightseeing planned, to the Great Wall, and some errands to finish before we would be on our way to Pinayo in nearby Shanxi Province. 

We made a run to the main railway station to buy our tickets for Pinyao.  The station was still fairly busy with people coming and going but nothing like the masses we'd seen the weekend before.  It appeared that the panic had subsided.  It took us some time to figure out how to get into the station. All of the doors had been locked except for a the main entrance.  There were long queues of people waiting to get into the station with their luggage and we had to line up with everyone just to get into the station to buy a ticket.  Everyone entering the station had to have their luggage screened and their temperature taken.  Infrared guns had been installed above all of the doors and staff dressed in head-to-toe medical duds watched the guns flash a green light of approval before letting someone through.  It made us start to wonder what would happen if we showed up with a fever for some other reason.  Would we get shuttled off to some SARS hospital for further investigation?  That seemed to be a risky prospect and a good incentive to make sure we maintained good overall health while we were in China.  

We were a little worried that they might not sell us tickets since they had already prevented tourist groups from traveling outside Beijing but we had no difficulty getting soft sleepers to Pinyao.  A British women next to us in line had just been there the week before without any problems either.  But, they wouldn't sell us tickets for any destinations beyond Beijing as the guidebook said they would.

After getting our tickets settled we went in search of a tour for the Simatai Great Wall.  A tour operator in Beijing Station had tours to Badaling, the more touristed section of the Great Wall, for Y300/person (US$35), which was entirely too expensive and were set on seeing the un-refurbished and steep section of the wall at Simatai.  We headed south of the city center to a backpacker hotel that was said to have cheap tours to Simatai but after a taxi ride and long walk to find the place we discovered that the place was empty.  The hotel was dead and the travel agency was all closed up.  We were near the third ring of the city and out there we saw many more people and far fewer masks.  Perhaps it was in the suburbs of the city where the new cases of SARS were emerging.

CLASSIC CHINA Beijing April 23 April 24 April 25 April 26 April 27 April 28 April 29-30 May 1-2 May 3-4 May 5 Pinyao, Shanxi May 6 May 7 Xian, Shaanxi May 8 May 9-10

TIBETAN PLATEAU Xining, Qinghai May 11 May 12 Tongren, Qinghai May 13 May 14 Xiahe, Gansu May 15 May 16-17

THE SILK ROAD Lanzhou, Gansu May 18 Dunhuang, Gansu May 19-20 May 21-22 May 23 May 24-25 Turpan, Xinjiang May 26 May 27 Kashgar, Xinjiang May 28-29 May 30 May 31 June 1-2 June 3-6 Hotan, Xinjiang June 7 June 8-9 June 10-11 June 12-13 June 14-16 June 17-19

A LAST LOOK Shanghai June 20-29 Beijing June 30