Sunday, April 2, 2017

Beijing Trip Day 4 - Beijing Underground, Lama Temple (outside), Hutongs, WangFuJing, Din Tai Fung

We have reached Day 4 of our wonderful trip to Beijing.  To recap, we are here for a short couple holiday (without the kids), and we had tremendously enjoyed Day 1 (SQ Flight and Hotel), Day 2 (Mutianyu Great Wall) and Day 3 (Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City).

Today, we will get around the city ourselves, using the Beijing Subway! Now, the Beijing Subway is quite a subway to be reckoned with.  According to Wiki, the massive network has 19 lines, 345 stations, and 574km (or 357 miles) of track. The subway is the world's largest in terms of ridership, with 3.66 billion trips delivered in 2016, averaging almost 10 million trips a day, this is more than double of London Underground's ridership of almost 5 million a day.


The Renaissance Beijing Capital Hotel is across the road from the Viva Plaza (富力広場), and the Shuang Jing (双井) Underground Station is connected to the Plaza.  Of course, you could enter the Shuang Jing (双井)  from the road.

Now, where were we going?  Here is an extract of the Beijing Subway map.  ShuangJing station sits on a Line 7 and Line 10 intersection, and we were headed to YongHeGong (Lama Temple).  In the image below, I circled both stations in black.

"You are here" - Exit A for the Viva Plaza.  That was the entrance we used.  Very cool.

Buying Tickets and Security Checks
Alright, we got to the station.  It was time to buy tickets.  In the video below, you will see us fiddling around with the self-service machine.  Click on the English option.  It was straightforward to use - locate the station that you wanted to go to, select the number of tickets you wanted, confirm and pay.  You'll get the tickets (which is a contactless card) plus change.  Pretty simple.  Now what gets very interesting is the security checks.  I soon realised that in every station, they X-rayed the bags of every passenger before they let you enter.  They also asked you to take a sip of your water.  Security is tight in Beijing, no doubt about that.


Somebody told me to be very careful with the X-ray machines, as sometimes, theft does occur.  The below video is an example.  The chap just behind the lady was planning to steal her bag all along.  He puts his hand into the X-ray machine, fishes her handbag out, and leaves. Scary.


We reached YongHeGong station and found our way to the Lama Temple.  The place was crowded! This was the line for tickets.

And the entrance to the temple after you have bought tickets.  The gate looked good in the bright sunlight.

Anyway, we decided not to enter.  This video shows you the ticketing area and the crowds.  Also something on Beijing Bicycle share.


HuTong Opposite Lama Temple
We realised that opposite the Lama temple, there was a Hu Tong.  What is a Hu Tong?  From wiki, these are narrow streets or alleys, commonly associated with Beijing. Hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan (or courtyard houses). In recent times, a large number of hutongs have been demolished, to make way for modern developments. Nowadays, the remaining hutongs are protected.

In this video, we take a walk around the Hutongs.  Check out the juxtaposition of old and new, especially the new cars!


See the Hutong conversion, to modern shops.  Just keep the shell of the place. Fascinating stuff.  Also plenty of locals walking around, enjoying the place.

A word of caution about Hutong toilets.  Not exactly first world.  No doors, mostly squatting, no sink to wash your hands.  My wife told me the female toilet was like this too.  Welcome to China! Check out the video below.


Heading to WangFuJing
Well, that's China.  Anyway, after the Hutong, it was time to go to WangFuJing.  Again, we took the Beijing underground. It was very easy.  To get to WangFuJing, we took the underground from YongHengGong to WangFuJing station. I circle the two stations below.  It was an easy ride, with one change at DongDan.

WangFuJing, Beijing, is one of the most famous shopping streets in China.  We weren't here to shop, but more to check the place out. Until the late 1990s, traffic could go through, but it is now largely pedestrianized, making it easy to walk. It was a bright and sunny early afternoon when we got there.

This video shows you our leisurely walk along WangFuJing, as we headed towards the APM Mall.


What we were looking for in the Mall? Lunch!  Our plan was to have lunch at this place called Din Tai Fung, which is a rather famous eatery, well known for her Xiao Long Baos (Pork Dumplings).

Xiao Long Bao Controversy
Time Out caused a controversy by likening Xiao Long Bao dumplings to popping zits.  I've watched the Time Out video, which isn't very flattering.  Basically making fun of the awesome Xiao Long Bao.  Anyway, here is how you should eat Xiao Long Bao. We had a share of delicious Xiao Long Bao at Din Tai Fung, at Beijing APM Mall.  The food was good, though I must say that I couldn't taste much of a difference between the normal Xiao Long Bao and the Crab Meat Xiao Long Bao, though the latter was twice the price of the former!

This was the entrance to the Din Tai Fung at Bejing APM Mall.  I recall it was on level 5.

WangFuJing Snack Street
After a good lunch, as we were heading back to the underground station, we passed by the snack street (almost by chance) and decided to head in to take a look.  Oh wow, this place was crowded, and sold all types of exotic food.  Grilled tiny lobsters caught my attention.  Check out the video - the tiny lobsters were still alive, but skewered on a stick, ready to be roasted.  Seeing is believing!


Alright, our last stop before heading back to the hotel was the Silk Street.  We took the Underground there, but really, this place is more like a tourist trap.  Many shops, but very few people.  Didn't want to haggle, so decided not to buy anything.  Saw posters like these, and felt that they were trying too hard.

So, after all that walking and taking of the underground, it was time to go back to the hotel to chill out. We were too early for dinner in the Club Lounge, but we parked ourselves at the lounge anyway, helping ourselves to some drinks and light snacks.  Made this video during tea time.


It was good fun watching the staff set up the place for dinner.  Many staff, all very busy.  Wonderful place to chill, and watch our dinner being laid out.


And soon, it was time for dinner!  Plenty to eat, as usual.  Plenty to drink as well!  Tonight, the speciality was Panini. Rest of the food was pretty good too.


Pandas Bei Bei & Jing Jing showing you the Studio Suite
And, the final video of this post?  A rather silly one done by my two toy pandas, Jing Jing and Bei Bei.  They will show you our studio suite again!  Take it away, Panda!


Thanks for watching!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Saint Joseph's Institution (SJI) Open House 2017

Attended the SJI Open House at Malcolm Road today.  Decided not to drive, as the school had warned that parking was very limited and there would be congestion. So we took the MRT, which was a good thing because now I know for certain how far the School is from the nearest MRT station, which was Stevens MRT station on the Downtown Line.  The walk from MRT station to school didn't take more than 5 minutes.  Very manageable.


SJI, founded in 1852, is the 3rd oldest school in Singapore.  The school had recently been renovated (and in some places rebuilt), and they moved back to the Malcolm Road campus earlier this year.  The sight that greeted us going into the school.


School field, and the new Indoor Multipurpose Hall (which incidentally is huge inside - 8 badminton courts)

Very nice field.

SJI Open House 2017

The whole process was very well organized.  When we arrived, we headed to the registration foyer, and the students found my son's name (we had pre-registered), and we quickly joined a tour of the school.  Well, the tour was a private one because we were the only tour participants!  The school got many of their Sec 3 Uniformed Group students to lead tours, and our tour guide was from the NCC Cadet Air.  He gave us a tour of the school, including the library, science labs, humanities room, indoor sports hall and many more areas.  It was a big school.

Glass paneling at the library.

Secondary 1 Talk
We were registered for the 12:30pm Sec 1 talk, and we got there early.  See the empty lecture theatre!  But not to worry, it filled up completely very soon.  There was large interest.

Father Adrian (SJI Principal) Speech
The talk started with a Sec 1 boy giving the opening prayer. Prayer is an integral part of school life. After that, the Principal, Father Adrian, gave a speech, which was very interesting because he quoted from two of his favourite poems.  He told us that he was an English major.  I managed to record the entire speech, and here it is.


The two poems cited were Days by Philip Larkin, and the Summer Day, by Mary Oliver.  Fascinating stuff.  Father Adrian cited the closing line from 'Summer Day' - "Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?"  Worth pondering over.

The main segment of the Sec 1 Talk was conducted by the Secondary 1 Level head, who gave us very insightful information.  I will just highlight a few points here.  SJI offers both the O-level and the Integrated Programme Route.  In terms of numbers, about 220 boys for O-level, and 120 for the IP route accepted in previous years.

The Integrated Programme is different from most schools because SJI offers the IB, or International Baccalaureate.   Most IP schools offer the A levels.

Cut-Off Points
In terms of cut-off points (a very important question), the parents were shown this slide.  You can see that the Cut-Off Points were high.  For O0level route, non-affiliate schools was 246 in 2016 and for Integrated Programme (IP), it was a hefty 253 in 206.  Take note - no affiliation for IP programme.  Even the Cut-off for affiliated schools (for the O-level track) was rather high at 238.  In short, if you want to get into SJI, your PSLE score must be pretty good.

School Fees
There was also the issue of fees.  SJI is an independent school, and the fees are not insignificant. This was the chart shown below.  For O level track, it was $340 per month, for IP Track, it was $380 per month. MOE provides a means-tested Independent School Bursary (for Singapore students only). Finally, the Level head assured all parents that if any kid had financial difficulties, please talk to the school.  They would find ways to help the kid.

Distinguished Alumni - parents were also shown several slides on the distinguished alumni of SJI. This is one such slide. Bottom right is Dick Lee, who infamously caused a controversy  by saying that everyone 'did drugs' at SJI.  Oh well, maybe during this time!

Conclusion
I have no affiliation with SJI, but decided to visit SJI because I had read that SJI was achieving very good IB results.  My impression of the school was generally good.  I think the focus on values and character is important, yet there is also an increasing pursuit of academic excellence.

After all, SJI must the one of the few mission schools with such a high cut-off point for its affiliated schools.  Also, there is no affiliation for their IP programme, and hence the student quality (as measured by PSLE score) would be high.

Definitely gave us a lot of food for thought.

For those kids taking PSLE this year (2017), good luck and God Bless!

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Beijing Trip Day 3 - Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven & Summer Palace

Day 3!  After a good night's sleep, it was time to head out again on the third day of our holiday in Beijing!  Recap, Day 2, we visited the Mutianyu Great Wall and Ming Tombs.  Today, we focus on the sights within Beijing capital itself.  Again, we decided to go with Simon, our trusty driver.

Breakfast in the Exec Lounge
But before we set off, breakfast was needed!  We woke up a bit later and decided to take breakfast in the Exec Lounge, since we had breakfast at the main cafe on the 4th floor the day before.

The Egg's Benedict was good.  There was a live noodle station, but I didn't get any noodles this morning.   See the video for the spread and what I ate.


Tiananmen Square 天安门广场 - Passports Required 
Driver Simon picked us up at the appointed time and our first stop would be Tiananmen Square.  There was plenty of security and barricades and he could only drop us at a junction which was a short walk to the security screening tent.  So we joined the queue, which moved fairly quickly, but I hit a snag.  They X-rayed my backpack, and took a look at my Sony Handycam, and the supervisor declared that I could NOT bring this piece of equipment into the Tiananmen area.  Goodness, I was stuck!  Obviously, I wasn't about to argue with the Chinese police.  This was when I was very grateful that we had booked a private tour with Simon.  We quickly called him, using the mobile phone that he provided us, and asked him to come back to the same point where he dropped us off so that he could safekeep my video camera.  Simon duly obliged and turned up within 10 minutes or so.  Thankfully, we had no issues with entering after this.

Tiananmen Square is indeed large.  As this was low season, it didn't feel like there were that many people around.  Tiananmen Square is very famous, for many reasons.  Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China on this square, on Oct 1, 1949.  More information on Wiki -  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiananmen_Square

Another picture.  Most of the visitors were locals.  I saw very few foreigners. In 1860, during the Second Opium War, when British and French troops invaded Beijing, they pitched camp near the gate and briefly considered burning down the gate and the entire Forbidden City. They decided ultimately to spare the Forbidden City and instead burn down the Old Summer Palace.

Make no mistake, the British and French have invaded China several times, and marched all the way to Beijing, and did all sorts of nasty things to the Chinese.  Frankly, any modern Chinese citizen, reading up on this history, will come to the realisation that the hundred years of humiliation of China by the Western Imperialists power was only possible because the then Government of China (a monarchy, Qing Dynasty) was pretty much incompetent. Faced with internal revolts, they couldn't even stop the British from capturing Canton, a city of more than 1 million people, with fewer than 6,000 troops!

Tiananmen Square 天安门广场 Video
And here is a video of our experience in the Tiananmen Square.  We didn't spend too long here.  Just took some photos and moved on.  Our main objective was to visit the Forbidden City.  To get there, from the Tiananmen Square, we had to cross a major road via an underpass.


Underpass, which was very nicely decorated too.  I did notice very tight security all around, not just manpower, but plenty of CCTV cameras all over the place (typically on lamp posts).  I felt very safe.

Forbidden City
Once we crossed the road, it was time go get into the Forbidden City.  We just followed the flow of human traffic, couldn't go wrong.  The way this place was designed, it was a one-way street.  You would need to enter the Forbidden City from this side, and exit at the other North side.  So in the picture below, as well as the video that follows, you will see us entering the Forbidden City like every other tourist that day.  You can see Chairman Mao's portrait on Tiananmen "Gate of Heavenly Peace" Gate.

Here is the video.  The video starts with us walking into the Heavenly Gate.  We needed to find the ticket booths to buy tickets into the Forbidden City.  It was off-season, so we could get tickets that were slightly cheaper.  And there weren't any queues at the ticket booth!  Cool.  During peak, be prepared to wait in the long lines.  We proceeded in quickly, and the rest, they say is history.  I did feel like an Emperor, walking into the Forbidden City.  It was quite something, given that it was completed in 1420, almost 600 years ago!


Many tour groups, almost all were domestic tourists.  Already, we were there during low season, and the number of visitors during peak is way more than what we saw.  So, get ready to face the big squeeze of China, when you visit the Forbidden City during the peak season!

After we completed the Forbidden City, we exited by the North Gate (only one gate to exit anyway), crossed the road, and walked to the first junction to wait for our driver Simon.  There were many people waiting at the junction, since all the tour groups had to find a place to gather too.  We didn't have to wait too long and soon, we were on our way to the next destination, which was the Temple of Heaven.  But before that, I spotted this vehicle, which I thought was rather quaint.

But seriously, there were many more big continental cars and SUVs than the modified scooter you see above.  Cars like the Audi below were common.

Temple of Heaven  (天壇)
Our next stop was the Temple of Heaven, which wasn't very far from the Forbidden City.  This is an imperial complex of religious buildings, visited by the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for ritualistic ceremonies of prayer to the heavens for good harvests.  The temple complex was constructed from 1406 to 1420, during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, and extended under later Emperors.

The place was rather large and there were several different entrances to the compound.  We entered via the North Gate, after buying our combined ticket to see several sights within the compound.

No doubt, the most famous building to take a look in this complex is the one below.  Pretty cool, with distinctive architecture.  This was the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.

And here is a video of what we saw in the Temple of Heaven complex.  You couldn't actually go into that unique structure.  But you could peek in from the outside.  We also visited the Circular Mound Altar, a place which was also built for religious purposes, and use for animal sacrifices.  And then, we took a look at the Imperial Vault, of which the Echo wall was nearby.


This was the Imperial Vault.  There were more sights within the Temple of Heaven compound, but we didn't visit all.

It was lunch time, and we would be meeting Simon at East Gate. Simon drove us a short distance to a rather famous restaurant called Brown Door.  What was so interesting about this place?

Brown Door Restaurant - Beijing 
When we stepped into the non-descript restaurant, which Simon told us serve fairly authentic Beijing cuisine at a reasonable price, we were taken aback that almost all the entire restaurant was patronized by foreigners!  Wow.  Did our driver kid us?  Was this a tourist trap?  Not at all.  Indeed, there were many foreign tourists, but the food was pretty decent and the prices reasonable.  This video shows you what we ate.  I recall paying no more than 110RMB (or 16 USD).  The cooking standard was decent and we ate a very full lunch, to get all that energy to walk some more!


SUMMER PALACE
After a satisfying lunch, it was time for the final stop of the day, the Summer Palace.  Another UNESCO World Heritage site, this was a vast ensemble of lakes, gardens and palaces.  This place was huge!  And full of domestic tourists too.  Here is my video.  After entering, we first crossed a bridge to an island. .  What bridge?  It was the Seventeen-Arch bridge built during Emperor Qian Long's reign (Qing Dynasty).  Then we walked back to the mainland, and walked one big round, passing the Long Corridor, passing some Marble Boat and finally to the North gate to meet our driver Simon.  It was a long and interesting walk.


On the burning of the Summer Palace controversy, this BBC article gives an interesting perspective - http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30810596; to quote,

"There is a deep, unhealed historical wound in the UK's relations with China - a wound that most British people know nothing about, but which causes China great pain. It stems from the destruction in 1860 of the country's most beautiful palace."

And with all the looting of the Summer Palace, it has also left a controversial legacy in British art collections - royal, military, private - full of looted objects.  Oh well, let's hope and pray that we live in peace.  Waging war in the modern era between powerful countries would almost certainly mean nuclear annihilation.

Travelling back to the Hotel
On our way back to the hotel, I was again doing some car watching.  And again, I saw many nice cars. I called this video BMW, Audi, Lexus and many other nice cars.  

We got back to our hotel in good time.  Again, we went to the Executive Lounge to have our dinner and this evening, there was Won-Ton noodles!  Awesome.  Plenty of good food to eat, and plenty of history to ponder over. 

End of Day 3, and we move on to Day 4 where we take Beijing Subway.  Stay tuned for more!  Thanks for reading.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Beijing Trip Day 2 Mutianyu Great Wall Following Michelle Obama Tobbogan Ride and Ming Tombs

We were in Beijing!  We were staying at the Renaissance Beijing Capital Hotel, and flew up on Singapore Airlines (see page 1).  As we landed late and went to bed only in the wee hours of the morning, we decided on a later start on Day 2 of our holiday.

The alarm clock woke us up and we had breakfast at the 4th Storey cafeteria (too much to eat!).  After that, we went up to the 21st Floor Club Lounge to get some bottled water, and I was surprised at the buffet spread available for breakfast.  They even had a live noodle station. Impressive.  Here is a video.



The Plan
Today, we hired a private driver.  His name is Simon and he runs his own company - http://simon-service.com/photo-gallery/ My family had used his services before and all was good.  He met us at the driveway at 10AM (as agreed) and he would drive us to Mutianyu and Ming Tombs today.

The drive to Mutianyu Great Wall took a while, I think about 1.5 hours.  The distance was more than 70km.

Along the way, I was watching the cars.  Many nice cars on Beijing Roads.  I commented to Simon that many of the cars I observed on the roads were larger cars (i.e not compact), and many SUVs, Mercedes, BMW, Audi.  Simon confirmed that the Chinese (Beijingers) loved nice cars, especially the Audi.  He said many of these car manufacturers have set up factories in China and most of the cars I saw were made (or at least assembled) in China.  He also said that getting a license to own a Beijing car was like striking lottery.  There was some lottery system and when you got the right to own a car, people tended to splurge and buy the nicest car possible.  Still, given that so many nice cars were widespread here, I could only conclude that people in Beijing were getting rich.  Towards the end of this car watching video, I even spotted the new Tesla SUV.


Mutianyu Great Wall
The visitor center at Mutianyu Great Wall looked rather new.  Simon told us that far fewer coaches and large tour groups go to Mutianyu, as compared to Badaling.   Well, the latter is older and more established (having been opened since 1957) and the Wall was very well preserved.  However, as you will see in my following pictures and videos, Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is pretty awesome too!  Another important reason why almost all tour coaches go to Badaling was because there were plenty of these Chinese shops there.  Tour companies will often make it compulsory for the groups to visit some shops or shopping village.  They want you to spend money.  Simon said there were not that many large shops near the Mutianyu Great Wall, which in my opinion made for a much quieter and more pleasant visit.

We arrived and we were blessed with a brilliant day to visit the Great Wall.  Bright sunshine and good temperatures (around 15 deg). Very light winds. Awesome.

We bought the tickets and decided to have some food before we ascended up via cable car.  Reason was that it was close to lunch time, and even though we had a late breakfast, it was better to fill up on some food before we do the walk.   Since we were so full, we just shared a Whopper Junior Meal from Burger King, and changed the drink to hot milk tea (which was good!)

In this video, we arrive at the Mutianyu Visitor Center, buy our tickets and head to the Burger King nearby to have a light meal.  Then we take the shuttle bus from the visitor center area up to the area where there were cable cars.  In the latter area, you could either take a cable car up to Tower 14, or chair lift up to Tower 6, or walk.  Our route today was to take the Cable Car to Tower 14, walk downwards towards Tower 6, and take the Toboggan back down.


The cable car ride up was fast.  Not many passengers today.  This was the low-season, and also at Mutianyu, you don't get the huge hordes of people that you may see at Badaling, well at least not during low season! The views when we got up the Wall were breathtaking!  We even spotted a Chinese couple take wedding photos.  I can understand why.

In this picture, you can barely make out the Cable Car station in the distance.  Watchtower Tower 14 is at the top of the ridge, slightly to the right of the Cable Car station, followed by by more towers.  I think I was already near Tower 7 or 6 from this angle.  Trust me, it was breathtaking.

In this 5 minute video, you will see snippets of our walk from Tower 14 to Tower 6, which took us about an hour.  Stop to take plenty of photos and videos! Beware of the steep steps. You will see that the steps were very steep at times.  So, come to the Wall while you can still manage steep steps, up and down!  Otherwise, it could get challenging.  Mutianyu Wall is definitely NOT disabled friendly.


At the Great Wall, I saw a photograph of Michelle Obama taking the Tobbogan, and coming back home I found it on the official White House website.  Here it is. (Official White House Photo, 2014)  The guy in black sunglasses following closely behind can't be the odd tourist!  (I am guessing USA Secret Service).

I quote from the First Lady's well written blog:

"Today we drove about an hour north of Beijing to a village called Mutianyu to visit a section of the Great Wall of China, which was simply breathtaking. The scenery on the way there was beautiful – a wide vista of mountains and trees – so the car ride alone was a treat. But then, running along the highest ridges of the mountains, you see it: The Great Wall – one of the great marvels of human history.

"In its entirety, the Great Wall stretches from east to west across more than 13,000 miles of Chinese countryside (that's about four times the length of the entire United States from Maine to Oregon!). It is not a single, uninterrupted wall, but rather a series of smaller walls which sometimes overlap and run parallel to each other.

"Certain sections of the Wall date back as far as the seventh century B.C., but the majority of the Great Wall we know today – including the section at Mutianyu – was built between the 1300s and the 1600s.

"To get to the Wall, we rode a cable car up a mountain (and we later rode back down on a long slide!). The section we visited is one of the more popular parts of the Wall for tourists, and it’s easy to see why. At Mutianyu, the Wall is roughly 20 to 25 feet tall and full of stairs, and there’s a watchtower every 100 yards or so. Those watchtowers serve as a reminder of why the Wall was built in the first place – to defend against attacks from armies descending from the north. Throughout its history, the Great Wall has gone through decades, even centuries, of ruin and disrepair. But it has always served as not only a physical barrier, but a psychological one to intimidate potential invaders.

"During our visit to the Wall, I couldn’t stop thinking about what a massive undertaking it must have been to build it. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and peasants were given the dangerous, painstaking – and often fatal – task of carrying ton after ton of granite, brick, dirt, and wood through the forests, up over the hills, and down through the valleys to create this incredible structure. They did this year after year, decade after decade – and it’s because of their hard work and sacrifice that the Great Wall remains standing today."

Upon reading Michelle Obama's blog (after I returned to Singapore), I realised that we had followed the same route to the Mutianyu Wall!  First, Cable Car up to an area near Tower 14, then walk down, reaching the Toboggan near Tower 6, and taking the Toboggan down.  Awesome.

So, if the First Lady of USA (obviously that makes her a VVIP) could take this ride, I figured it would be safe enough for mere mortals like myself to try.  So I decided to make sure I documented my Tobbogan experience.  Check out the following videos.  First, I arrive at the Tobbogan area.


The cost for a one way downward ride was 80RMB.  So be it.  And, here we go!  The ride was relatively long (almost 4 minutes) and at times, you could go quite fast, if you didn't want to apply the brakes.  They stationed men along the way, especially at the sharp turns, which was a good sign, though some of them were snoozing under the shade.  Fun ride and well worth it! Be warned though, no helmets provided.  If you are a speed devil and try to take the corners at 100MPH, mind your head.


That was fun!  After the ride, we took another short break at the same Burger King (shared some food), and it was time to make our way to the next destination - Ming Tombs! The ride took about an hour as it wasn't that near, and there wasn't a highway to get there.

The Ming Tombs are a collection of mausoleums built by the Emperors of the Ming Dynasty. The following write-up from Wikipedia.

"The first Ming emperor's tomb is located near his capital Nanjing. However, the majority of the Ming tombs are located in a cluster near Beijing and collectively known as the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty (Chinese: 明十三陵; pinyin: Míng Shísān Líng; literally: "Ming Thirteen Mausoleums"). They are within the suburban Changping District of Beijing Municipality, 42 kilometres (26 mi) north-northwest of Beijing city center. The site, on the southern slope of Tianshou Mountain (originally Huangtu Mountain), was chosen based on the principles of feng shui by the third Ming emperor, the Yongle Emperor. After the construction of the Imperial Palace (Forbidden City) in 1420, the Yongle Emperor selected his burial site and created his own mausoleum. The subsequent emperors placed their tombs in the same valley.

"From the Yongle Emperor onwards, 13 Ming dynasty emperors were buried in the same area. The Xiaoling tomb of the first Ming emperor, the Hongwu Emperor, is located near his capital Nanjing; the second emperor, the Jianwen Emperor, was overthrown by the Yongle Emperor and disappeared, without a known tomb. The "temporary" emperor, the Jingtai Emperor, was also not buried here, as the Tianshun Emperor had denied him an imperial burial; instead, the Jingtai Emperor was buried west of Beijing.[1] The last Ming emperor buried at the location was the Chongzhen Emperor, who committed suicide by hanging (on 25 April 1644), was buried in his concubine Consort Tian's tomb, which was later declared as an imperial mausoleum Si Ling by the emperor of the short-lived Shun dynasty, Li Zicheng, with a much smaller scale compared to the other imperial mausoleums built for Ming emperors."

So, what's the point of going to see Tombs?  Well, apparently this entire place was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003.  Why?  The grandeur of these 15th Century tombs is a symbolic reminder of how powerful and rich the Chinese were in that era of history.

Our first stop was the Chang Ling tombs, of Emperor Zhu Di (1360 to 1424), also known as Emperor Yongle.  Plenty to read about him online, so I shan't repeat that here.  Interesting that his ascension to the throne was not a given and he led  an internal rebellion against his own relatives and pretty much made himself Emperor.  This was the Jingnan Campaign, a civil war that lasted 3 years.

In this video, you will see the large numbers of Chinese domestic tourists.  People and more people! So many tour coaches in the parking lot!    

After Chang Ling, we headed over to the Ding Ling Tombs. Located in the southern foot of Tianshou Mountain in Changping County of Beijing, Dingling Tomb is the mausoleum of Emperor Zhu Yijun (1563 - 1620) of Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) and his two empresses, Empress Xiaoduan and Empress Xiaojing. Zhu Yijun was the thirteenth emperor and occupied the throne for 48 years, the longest among all of the emperors of the Ming Dynasty. Built over six years between 1584 and 1590, the tomb, which covers an area of 180,000 square meters (44 acres), is of great historical value, attracting millions of tourists from home and abroad every year.

At the Ding Ling tomb, you had to walk in a fairly long way and then you could literally walk down many floors (via steps) to the underground Palace.  A very interesting experience.   Check it out!


We stayed at the Ding Ling Tomb area museum until closing time, which was 5pm.  On the way back to the carpark area, we came across this steele on a turtle.


Drive back to Hotel
It was a rather long ride, primarily because the traffic got very heavy as we got closer to Beijing.  Did some more car watching along the way.  Spotted a couple of Trumpchi SUVs.  Didn't know what brand of car this was.  Only later did I find out that this was a local China brand (not to be confused with Donald Trump), and the car would be launching in the USA this year!


Once we reached our hotel (around 7pm), we headed to the 24F Executive Club lounge.  Since there was sufficient food, we decided to take our dinner there.  The lounge was pretty crowded though.  Check out the video I made . !

This concludes Day 2.  Check out Day 3 as we visit Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and others.  Thanks for reading!

Beijing Trip SQ Flight to Beijing and Renaissance Beijing Capital Hotel Day 1

China!  The most populous country in the world.  Beijing (formerly romanised as Peking), is the capital of the People's Republic of China, a megacity, with a population estimated at 21 million, or about 4 times the population of Singapore.

We did a short trip (4 nights) to Beijing, covering Mutianty Great Wall, Ming Tombs, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City amongst others.  In this and the next few blog posts, I will detail our trip.  Meanwhile, the number one takeaway for me was nicely summarized in this quotation on a cup:

Genesis of Trip
Our trip to Beijing came about almost by accident.  My wife and I were deliberating upon a short holiday (without the kids) and our initial search only focussed on vacation spots in South East Asia. Then, my wife spotted this compelling offer by Singapore Airlines which made us sit up and book almost immediately!  I recall the offer was over the Christmas period 2016.

Return Flight on SQ at $394 per pax
Return flight on Singapore Airlines (outbound SQ806 and returning on SQ801) at a very attractive $394.  For a 6 hour flight, this sounded like a very good deal on a full service Singapore flag carrier!

Researching Hotels
Well, after settling the flight, we researched hotels.  Since it was just the two of us, let's look for something nice.  The good thing with Beijing is that they have many 5-star hotels by all the major chains (presumably built for the 2008 Olympics and then continue to be used because Beijing is after all the capital of China).  The revamped Marriott app (which I downloaded on my iPhone) is very good for searching.  After searching the various properties (Marriot group has many properties in Beijing too), we settled on the Renaissance Beijing Capital Hotel:


We found that the room rates for this hotel, which was located in the CBD area, to be slightly below the other equivalent Marriott properties.  Tripadvisor reviews were all rather glowing, especially the 24F Club Executive Lounge.  So we took the plunge and decided to go with a studio suite because they had a 'Suite Dreams' package and the deal applied to us as you had to stay 2 consecutive nights and the rates for the suite over the weekend was lower than weekdays.  Overall, for a 4 nights stay, we paid less than 5,500RMB (SGD$1,120) for our stay (including taxes), and including the late check-out.


Here We Go - Departure Day 
Thank God we could take leave and make suitable arrangements for in-laws to look after our kids when we were away.  Very grateful and blessed to have wonderful family support, without which my wife and I would not be able to take this trip.

Our SQ flight departs from Terminal 3.  We took a Grab Car from our place to the Airport.  Nice and easy.  Check-in was very quick and we parked ourselves at the Krisflyer Gold Lounge (thanks to my Star Alliance Gold status) to chill and get some food before our flight.  This was my first time in the Krisflyer Gold lounge.  While definitely not as upscale as the SilverKris Lounge, it was pretty much adequate for me.   The food selection wasn't very wide, but decent enough.  You will see in the video that I had enough to eat (including Pork Buns), and they even did a very nice made-to-order salad.


Made to Order Salad
Doesn't this look healthy?  It was.  Just plain Garden Salad with some dressing.  I liked it.

The live Orchid display in the lounge was a nice touch.  Very Singaporean.  The lounge wasn't crowded when we were there.  Plenty of seats.  We were early, so we had our lunch in the lounge, then went out for a walk around Terminal 3, before returning to the lounge again to get some coffee and snacks, and then we boarded the plane.

Singapore Airlines SQ 806 to Beijing (9V-SWR)
SQ has 21 weekly departures to Beijing, 3-flights daily.  By the time we got to the boarding gate, it was time to board.  The aircraft today was an older Boeing 777-312(ER) with a rather long rear portion?  Serial number 9V-SWR.

Boarding was quick and the flight was at most 2/3 full. Despite the lighter passenger load, the overhead compartments were completely full!  Wow.  Reason was that this profile of passengers (mainly PRC Chinese) loved to shop, and they also loved to stuff everything into the overhead compartment including their smaller backpacks and handbags. As a result, the cabin crew had a bit of difficulty re-arranging overhead cabin baggage.  I can't imagine, if the flight were full, we would have an even bigger challenge.

Fight review video of SQ 806, Singapore to Beijing
Service and food were good.  I had my usual Singapore sling for the post-take off drink, followed by the Asian-choice for the meal (dinner was served).  It was steamed rice with two large pork balls.  Ice-cream was served as a dessert, which provided for a sweet ending.


Speaking of Pork balls, here was what the main course looked like, with my disposable chopsticks stuck in. Of course, they provided fork and spoon too, in case you did not like to eat with chopsticks.

After dinner was cleared, there was almost 4 hours of the flight more to go.  So it was time for a nap (call it evening nap?).  We were scheduled to land in Beijing at 2300hrs local time.  There was no time zone change between Singapore and Beijing.  The IFE map display alternated between English and Mandarin.  Snapshot of the Mandarin version, with all the Chinese cities listed.  Beijing 北京  (PEK) was our destination.


Landing was smooth and we cleared immigration and customs relatively quickly.   I noticed that they x-rayed every bag as we left the Customs Control, but fortunately that didn't slow down the lines too much.  The taxi queue was rather long, but it moved.  Finally, we got onboard a metered taxi and were on our way to our hotel.   It was past midnight, but traffic was still very heavy, and even jammed at places . We took an hour, maybe more, to get to our hotel. Distance was about 30km, and the cost (by meter) was 110RMB.  We gave the lady driver a 10RMB tip, and she was very pleased. This was the route we took:

Hotel Check In
At the wee hours of the morning, the hotel reception was empty, and we could check in very quickly. The receptionist told us that they had received my message that we were here to celebrate my wife's birthday.  The Exec Lounge had prepared something special in our room - surprise!

Rose Petal Display on the bed.

A closer look - this was going to be an awesome stay! 

What was this?  A birthday cake made up of towels, rose petals and red ribbons.  Wow.  So sweet.

Time to Sleep
It was late (or very early to be exact).  By the time we washed up and slept, it was past 2am.  We had a hectic day tomorrow so it was time to sleep. Here is a video review I made of the studio suite.  Check it out and continue to my next page on Day 2 of our holiday! .


Continue to Page 2, we visit Mutianyu Great Wall and the Ming Tombs.

Thanks for reading.