Monthly Archives: June 2017

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City was located just east of Tiananmen Square. And believe it or not the square it can fit 1, 000, 000 people.  When we had first arrived at the Tiananmen Square we had seen the first gate to the the forbidden city which looked like everything else we would see in Beijing, but the paint looked cool and colorful.

It was a longer walk than I had anticipated because I had no idea what the other gates looked like. But I was told what the first visible one looked like (besides the one behind me) As we walked across the square I noticed that all these buildings were a symbol of power. I remembered that Beijing had been the capital of China, so i assumed that the president’s current palace was there. With our tour guide we had stopped AND TO THE RIGHT I SAW THE Beijing Museum.

And on the left there was a building that somewhat resembled the White House. Just after I noted the the two enormous buildings, our tour guide, Jessie, told us that the building on the left was the Chinese version of the white house. And did you know that the first foreign president/ruler/person in charge was Richard Nixon.

When we resting and socializing about the buildings we made a slow, but progressive walk to the second gate of the Forbidden city. We noticed that there was a painting of  man on the front gate. We were told by Jessie that his name was Chairman Mao, and he was the first non-dictator ruler who was fair. He made one of his first speeches on the top of the second gate.

Once we were “officially” inside the Forbidden City we first arrived in a patio. My little brothers started to get tired so I sat down and looked around, and I could not help but to notice all the people rubbing the golden knobs on the big red doors. Apparently JJ had noticed the same thing, and as usual took no hesitation to ask Jessie what they were doing. We found out they were rubbing the knobs for good luck… guess what… we started to do that too.

It was a long walk through the crowded gate number three. It should’ve taken shorter if it hadn’t been for all the people visiting pushing and shoving. Once we got outside the gate we regrouped and saw the most amount of gold in our lives. I was shocked by all of the symbolic power. Then we started going up the stairs to get atop of the marvelous bridge three. That is where I got the beautiful view of the gold.

When we got to the top there was an unexpected exhibit, of the silk-road. there was all sorts of stuff from the west. I guess it was for the chinese to see what things from the west looked like. Though I even hadn’t looked at any of this stuff. It still looked beautiful. Funny how most of this stuff is made of gold, or things painted gold.

When we were done with the Silk Road exhibit we went to our designated destination (which was the top of the third gate) we got a great view of gate 2, and other cool buildings.

When we all took our pictures we were satisfied with our photos we headed to the other set of stairs, but before we reached them we saw another unexpected exhibit. it was a jewelry exhibit, most of it was obviously not from China.

After we were done all the unexpected detours, we got to the main patio where we crossed over to the side corridor. it was a long walk and a painful one because my pupils kept dilating because of all the glints and glares from the reflective gold paint on the roofs and the uneven shade. I really enjoyed the little sacred animals and the small sculptures. I wish I could have bought one at any sort of store. Another thing I really am starting to like is the jade items. I really like the look of it, and the thing I really like is the combination of bright green jade and black obsidian.

Once we got past the gate I was disappointed because it looked like the exact same as the patio of the gate I had just been in… except for a few bridges in the middle, at first I was dumbfounded. Then I remembered that in ancient times people believed in all sorts absurd superstitions. I asked Jessie if we could walk over the bridge and she said yes. It turns out that the bridge was over water.

This was the view of the last gate from the bridge.

The best thing about the fourth gate patio was the fact it was the second to last before the actual palace. Again we decided to detour to the side corridors. We walked along the corridor again and then we took a left and went up the stairs. Along the stairs there were stone dragons that spat out water.

After the fifth gate we took another break and we were told how to tell how important the building is by how many little figures there are on the corners of the roof. The front and the back do not count. For example you can tell it is rated 5. The most I’ve seen is 10.

Now I get to talk about the two major buildings, The throne room, and the emperor’s room. Both rooms were pretty spacious and beautiful.

 Throne Room.

 Emperor’s Room.

The throne room was really nice, because the ruler could have anything he wanted, with no questions asked. Also back then gold was a symbol of power, and if you were not a high ranking official or the emperor and you were wearing gold you would be killed. Another amazing thing is that most of the room were made of wood.

The bedroom was really simple layout, but the sides of the wall and the wall designs were flawless and complex. Also tapestries looked really cool. I could say the exact things about the bedroom as the throne room, in fact I could switch out the furniture in both rooms without anyone noticing the difference. (besides the locations of the buildings).

I really enjoyed my time in Beijing, but I loved the Forbidden City and the Great Wall more than other experiences. I will include some excruciating detail about my favorite lunch there. Don’t read if you are faint hearted. We ordered in for dinner, and I had the same breakfast every morning

When we first arrived at the lunch place I knew it was a traditional chinese food place. From the first few minutes there we knew that Jessie was a regular there. The menu was partly in English, and of course all the food we ordered was drenched in soy sauce. All we could eat was fried rice and sugar snap peas. We all were still super hungry so Jessie asked about any meat without soy sauce, and then they just left… and minutes they returned with fried chicken. It looked normal for a few minutes. Then Jessie and Archer asked,”Do you want some chicken brain?” And I replied……… YES. I got a bit of the little front lobe. IT WAS AMAZING!!! With my primordial spirit awakening as I ask if I can eat the eye, and it was edible. With a flurry of  assorted bites and chomps, I leave no trace of of the socket just a gaping hole. I feel my mouth start to foam and i see the neck, weirdly solid and putrid in some places and in others beautifully crispy in others. Then we had to leave, so I said,”I need to eat some rice.” and that Rice was never seen again.

Now for the brief editorial: None of my primordial senses were awakened or any of my body parts foaming.

Thank you

Day 1 Beijing

The boys settling in for the 5 hour high speed train ride to Tianjin, our less than 24 hour pit stop on the way to Beijing. Mike had some meetings here. It was a lovely city, but the boys and I did not leave the hotel. We hung out at the indoor pool all morning and were back on the train to Beijing in the afternoon.

Friday was our first day in Beijing and we had a great day of sightseeing. Beijing is so different than Shanghai. Shanghai is all high rises, more like New York. Beijing has almost as many people (22 million), but because city center is considered to be so historical, tall buildings are not allowed. Only in the CBD (Central Business District) are high rises allowed. You can sort of see behind the goofballs the low skyline of the city…

Mike spent the day in meetings and we toured The Forbidden City:

Tiananmen Square:

Beijing hutongs:

And The Temple of Heaven:  At the Temple of Heaven, the boys stood on the spot that the emperors prayed on as it was believed to be a direct line of communication to the god. Not sure these kids were talking to any god, but more than one Chinese visitor snapped photos of them on that stone. Some bold ones even hopped in and took a photo with the boys…. 


Knowing better than to try to navigate Beijing myself with 4 boys- we hired a tour guide for the two days. Jessie came highly recommended and it was the best money ever spent! The boys had a lot of fun with her. 

We would never have been able to cover so much in one day without Jessie. A driver picked us up at the hotel and shuttled us around to all the sights. She knew where to go, where to start, how to get tickets. More importantly, she knew what to skip and guided us toward things that would be interesting to the kids. She shared interesting facts and the history of things so the kids knew what they were looking at. It was also interesting, and good for them, to hear a Chinese person speak about China. It provided a sense of how they see their country and their place in the world. How their history has shaped their feelings on their government and even a little peek at how the Chinese are taught about their country’s history.

Some unexpected highlights were :

  1. How excited the kids were over a jewelry exhibit in one of the gates of The Forbidden City. I could not drag them out of there! Very unexpected. Here is one of a thousand pictures they took, Archer actually took this one. I’ll let them post more…

  1. Lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. We could have NEVER navigated this without Jessie. There is literally not one Chinese dish made without soy sauce (aka gluten). Jessie managed to get the kitchen to cook us some dishes that were gluten free. The boys had fun with the deep fried whole chicken, and I mean WHOLE CHICKEN. I’ll let the boys go into detail…

Below is the very humble mausoleum where Chairman Mao is preserved. Not buried or entombed, but preserved and on display in a crystal case.  It was closed while we were in Beijing. After 40 years, they have to do some work on his body. Apparently the skin needs some refreshing. Perhaps it was for the best we missed it?!?

The boys taking a break in the shade:

It was over 100 degrees and sunny in Beijing that day. They were troopers, it was HOT. Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden are huge expanses of hardscape with no trees and little shade. By mid afternoon we were desperate enough to walk around with umbrellas! While perhaps a little unlucky with the heat, we were so lucky with the air quality. The AQI was under 100. In a city that has been known to reach AQI 800 – that is amazing. No masks needed!

In true O’Brien fashion, the day ended at a restaurant with Archer passed out.

The Great Wall of CHINA

We went to the Great Wall Of China with our guide Jessie. It was so cool having a guide. It was way helpful because we not only actually knew where we were going, we actually learned a thing or two. When we walked there was a temple or a base for the soldiers. The Wall was built to keep the Mongolians away from stealing from China. The stairs were also really cool because the steps were staggered different heights so if any intruder got in the building they would be slower or potentially look down and not see any one coming. When we were done walking we didn’t want to take the lift down so we got to toboggan down, it was so cool. Except Grayson kept crashing into me. It was really cool and at the end of the day I got a stuffed animal panda aka Bobo.

JJ with Jessie

This week in Shanghai…

This is a deceptively calm photo of Qibao, an “ancient” settlement on the outskirts of Shanghai. It is an area that prospered during the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. There was some old and beautiful architecture, the canals you see here and tiny alleyways jam packed with food and merchants.  What you can’t see in the photo is the thrall behind me. It was the most crowded place we have been in China yet. Granted – we went on a Chinese holiday (not smart) but word has it that this spot is always crowded. It was hard to see past the mess and chaos to get a feel for the ancient settlement. These two pictures in no way represent what it was actually like!! Not sure how I pulled that off…

It was hot and smelly and I would call the overall outing a bust if not for this tea tasting the boys did. The whole scene literally made the day. The woman was so serious about her tea. She let the boys pick which tea they wanted to taste (fruit tea, of course) and invited them to sit while she brewed a fresh pot.  They loved the tea and the whole experience. Super cute.

The Chinese holiday this week was Dragon Boat Festival, everyone had Monday and Tuesday off. We did Qibao on Monday and decided to just lay low Tuesday, that was the day we took the chess boards to the coffee shop. Wednesday the air quality here tanked so we stayed home. Thursday the air quality was not much better, but we decided to venture out to find air masks since A) the air quality was horrible B) we are heading to Beijing next week and C) I decided the boys need to wear them when they play soccer. Grayson in particular is having a hard time with his lungs so, better safe than sorry. The trip was futile (shocker) and I ended up ordering them online. Nothing is Shanghai is where it is supposed to be and if it is, it doesn’t have what it is supposed to have…

This is the boys this morning at That’s Mandarin, a Mandarin school here in Shanghai.

Mike and I decided that it would be a tragic waste for the us to be immersed in a language and culture for 3+ months and not learn it, so we enrolled in Mandarin classes here (well, the boys and I did). They are so0oo thrilled. I am taking the classes with them, I think it will be fun once we get underway. We start Monday! We were playing with Grayson’s camera while waiting for the Didi (Shanghai Uber) after our visit to the Mandarin School. Didi is another awesome pain in the ass. We can’t live without it, as Shanghai taxis only fit 4 people and you can’t take the subway everywhere, but there’s always some problem with Didi. As you can tell from these photos, we were waiting and waiting and waiting…

This afternoon the air quality improved and the boys got to play soccer while I made dinner. I have come to appreciate how much easier the right tools make things in the kitchen. I finally caved and bought some measuring spoons and cup, a rubber spatula and a cast iron skillet. Next on my list is tongs and I am considering a blender. I know cooking the way I do for our diet is a challenge – but good lord it is much more difficult here. I think everything is more difficult here for six Americans, but so far its all worth it.