After spending the past two days pretty much on our own, today marked the actual start of our formal tour through Uniworld. The first big surprise was that the tour group only consists of a total of 8 people (we had expected anywhere from 30-60), so it looks like this is basically a private tour! Our guide, Hubert is very well-spoken and well-travelled and seems to have lots of insights into both the culture of modern and ancient China.
The first stop today was the Temple of Heaven. Like the Summer Palace, it is a very large green space with ancient Chinese buildings (dating from 1421 during the Ming Dynasty). It is today used as a combination sight-seeing spot and all-purpose recreation space for the local people.
The first thing we saw were many local Chinese of all ages in various forms of exercise, playing games, dancing, playing instruments and more. Many are retired people who come here to stay fit.
The most curious thing we observed was a gathering of parents doing a kind of "speed dating" on behalf of their adult children. Apparently, young Chinese are so busy working they (at least in the eyes of their parents) don't have time to date and find a suitable mate, so the parents take over that job. They sit on various benches with a sheet of paper describing the childs vital statistics placed on the ground in front of them. Other parents walk around, and when they find an interesting prospect, begin a conversation, and if things go well set up a date for the kids, who presumably take it from there (think "Have I got a girl for you!).
The Temple of Heaven itself wasn't historically a temple for the people. It was a place the Emperor came 3 times a year to essentially pray for a plentiful harvest. These were momentous occasions with large celebrations.
Our next stop today was at the National Zoo, specifically to see the pandas - China's national animal. The panda house was built as a show place for the Olympics, and it was obvious that the animals have lots of space and are well cared for.
An unusual part of the trip was to a part of Beijing called the Hutongs -- this is a part of the old Beijing where average to lower-income people live. The houses are older lower gray brick and stucco buildings. Here we traveled by pedicab through a maze of alleys and met and had lunch with a local family. Sounds a bit hokey, but it actually was quite an interesting contrast to the Manhattan-like modern Beijing that is normally seen. We also wondered through this ancient part of Beijing and had a relaxing sampan ride across a lake.
The evening consisted of a superb meal at a restaurant named Bian YI Fang, dating from 1416 featuring a wonderfully presented delicious Peking duck.
A tasty end to a wonderful day!