On 21 December 2018, my colleagues, my friends and my partner traveled to Beijing, China on a tour package.
Our flight back to Manila was on the 24th of December, with high hopes of making it for the noche buena or the midnight Christmas meal on our respective homes.
The original expected time of arrival was 10:50 pm. More or less, all of us would be home by midnight. But this did not happen.
Our flight was rerouted due to heavy traffic at the Manila airport. Our carrier landed safely at exactly 11:40 pm.
But we had to wait for some more minutes due to . . . runway traffic.
By midnight, we were still inside the airplane. We were all tired but the spirit of Christmas was really with us, the Filipino passengers of the carrier. Everyone greeted each other “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas.” Later, someone led the singing of some popular Philippine Christmas songs. Everyone was just so happy and gay. People knew how to celebrate Christmas, the Filipino way!
It was already twenty minutes past midnight when our plane finally docked. For the first time, I spent the first few minutes of Christmas inside an airplane.
And the waiting did not end there. The queue at the immigration was really long. It was also a first time for me to see such a long line. A lot of returning Filipinos and foreigners as well are queued to enter the Manila. By 12:40 AM, I came out of the carrier. I only passed through the immigration gate by 1:20 AM.
Going back to the trip, it was not my first time to travel to China. I have been in Beijing in 2007 on official business.
For several times, I have been traveling to Hong Kong and Macao on either official or personal reasons.
The 2018 trip was different. As stated earlier, it was the first time I participated in a tour package. Thirteen of us joined a group of forty.
I was hesitant at first because of some horror stories about group tours such as bad accommodation, lousy meals, and heavily controlled sight-seeing. While the last one was partially true due to significant reasons, which perhaps would come out later in this post or in the other posts about this four-day trip. Besides the package was meant for tourism and not for “academic” and “cultural” intentions. Having said this, the limited time is understandable. However, I could say that the assigned accommodation (Ease Cloud Hotel) and the complimentary meals were not really bad and lousy.
The tour was provided by Royal Kites Travels and Tours. It was June 2018, when a colleague saw the announcement from Facebook regarding the tour package, which was advertised at a lower price. We called the travel agency to confirm the listed itinerary and other inclusions of the package. For the price of Php 20,000.00 plus travel tax, the following are included: airfare, the itinerary for four days (including transportation and hotel/airport transfer), hotel accommodation and breakfast, lunch for four days, dinner for two nights, and group visa application.
Honestly, we were still very skeptical about the package. As a traveler, I know very well that Php 20,000.00 for ordinary travel is not enough for airfare, accommodation, transportation, meals, and other incidental expenses. For instance, when my friends and I traveled to Cambodia (Seam Reap) via budget airline in 2010, our airfare was about Php 9,000.00 (including 15kg luggage each). Our accommodation for two nights was Php 3,600.00 per night. So since there were two of us in a room, we shared the room expenses. So my roommate and I paid Php 3,600 each, tax was not included, by the way. While breakfast was included in the room, lunch (a total of two) and dinner (a total of three) were not. Each of us spent around Php 4,500.00 each for all the meals we had to share. Transportation cost was about Php 4,000.00 each (including elephant ride, travel from airport to hotel, airport to Angkor Wat, Angkor Wat to restaurant, Angkor Wat to performance venue, to hotel, etc.). The total amount spent on entrance fees to sites of interests (i.e. Angkor Wat, tickets to performances and other parks) was about Php 3,000.00.
In contrast, the Php 20,000.00 payment included the following details: (1) MNL-PEK-MNL (21 – 24 December 2018) via Air China, the flag carrier of the People’s Republic of China with 23kg luggage and a hot meal provision (versus the budget airlines we flew on in 2010, we even had to pay for our luggage at 15kg and no meal provision) ; (2) three nights accommodation at a 3-star hotel (versus a budget/2-star hotel in Seam Reap); (3) detailed itinerary with tour guide including four world heritage sites, a zoo, some specialty stores (versus non-guided tour in 2010); (4) airport-hotel transfer (versus the transportation expenses spent in 2010. By the way, we even got lost along the way); (5) set-meal lunch on the first to the last day of the tour and set-meal dinners on the first and second day of the tour.
After thorough checking at Facebook and other social media sites (LOL), we finally decided to reserve 13 slots.
And when the tour finally came – it did not disappoint.
We arrived in Beijing at 11:20 AM. It was . . . freezing! Well, for someone from a tropical country, 3 degrees is freakingly freezing.
We were welcomed by our very friendly tour guide, Mr. Jayson (Chinese name, I do not remember) who took us first to the restaurant for our lunch (a taste of authentic Chinese food) before moving to the Beijing Zoo.
I am not exactly an animal person. More so, I am not exactly a fan of natural wonders. I remember how bored I was after seeing the underground river in Palawan in 2012. Actually, I wanted to ask the boatman back then to bring me out of the cave after seeing it for four minutes. The tour then was to traverse the river for about twenty minutes before finally going back to the shore.
Nonetheless, to see pandas, I guess is an exemption (of some sort). Honestly, I did not just want to see them – I wanted to touch them. In photos, they were like cute little toys (although they were not tiny at all). A lot of photographs (i.e. from National Geographic) also feature them as “harmless” creatures. But as per Jayson, looks may “always” deceive. They may be cute, but they are harmful. The Chinese characters of the panda is a combination of cat and bear. In this regard, the panda is a huge cat similar to the tiger and the lion (not harmless felines) and at the same time, it is a bear, similar to the wild bears in the cold regions of Alaska and other parts of North America.
Anyhow, it was not the first time for me to see pandas. When my partner visited me (I was a PhD student at the National University of Singapore from 2010 to 2014) in Singapore in 2013, we visited the then newly opened River Safari where two pandas were displayed. But the experience in the Beijing Zoo was different in a good way in the sense that the pandas on display were more playful than those at River Safari Singapore. Also, there were more pandas (six in total) in Beijing for the obvious reason that China is the home of these once-upon-a-time endangered species. And this is another important reason why the meeting with the Beijing pandas was extra special. The Beijing Zoo was not only a museum of animals but a conservation place with information about its animals – their whereabouts, their statuses, and of course efforts of the government on conservation.
With the various information on the display, I learned that the panda is a national icon but not to be confused with the dragon, which is considered as a national “animal.” As an icon, the panda is used as China’s official institutional “token” for diplomacy.
I was so happy to see pandas “on-the-go” and “on-the-move” – they happily rolled all over. They happily ate bamboos (which by the way were taken from Sichuan, a city inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Natural Site for it being a natural habitat and sanctuary of the pandas). And they happily posed for a photo! Yes, they did some posing as soon as people started flocking to take photos.
A few kilometers from the zoo is the Summer Palace, inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006 for being an exemplar of outstanding expression of the creative art of Chinese landscape garden design, incorporating the works of humankind and nature in a harmonious whole; epitomizing the philosophy and practice of Chinese garden design, which played a key role in the development of this cultural form throughout the east; and for being a potent symbol of one of the major world civilizations.
The Summer Palace is a complex composed of a man-made lake (220 hectares), a landscaped garden, a series of pavilions, a series of walkway bridges, pagodas, artificial islands, marble boats, and a temple.
It was built during the Qing dynasty with the intention of creating an official Summer residence of the emperor. As Jayson explained, the palace used to be the emperor’s escape space from the heavy load of empire-related works. In many instances, the emperor would dock from the Forbidden City then traversed the canal going finally to Kunming Lake. The Emperor’s official resting place was positioned at the Longevity Hill, another artificial hill where a Buddhist temple is emplaced on top of it. Below the temple was a series of apartments which housed the emperor and the empress during their summer visits.
Late fall and winter seasons are not the best seasons to see the palace. But seeing it in winter did not disappoint. It was still as marvelous as it is viewed in springtime and summer save some restrictions on mobility. The cold winter wind was bothersome.
The spectacle of the man-made lake is somehow lost because it is frozen. I learned from Jayson that in high winter (sometime in late January to the entire month of February), tourists and visitors are allowed to walk in the icy water – to skate on ice.
The cold really bothered me (channeling Elsa within!). It bothered us! The temperature was also dropping by the minute. One and a half hour of free time inside the complex plus the very, very chilly weather were really, really limiting. My friends and I were able to explore the Kunming Lake, the Arch Bridge, and the artificial hill after the arch briedge. The rest – we simply see them from afar: the Longevity Hill, the Opera House, the Buddhist Tower, the Pavilion of Precious Clouds, the corridors, etc.
I think not seeing the complex in its magnificent beauty is a sign that there’s a need for me to go back to Beijing (the third time around).
In the next post, I will talk about our second day in Beijing. Particularly, the exciting climb to the Great Wall via the Juyongguan Pass.