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November 18, 2009

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US president gets grand tour

PLAYING tourist on his first visit to China, US President Barack Obama drew a chilly comparison between the Chinese capital and his Illinois hometown.

"I have to say I didn't realize that Beijing gets as cold as my hometown of Chicago," the US president said yesterday just before sitting down for a one-on-one meeting with Wu Bangguo, chairman of China's Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.

Earlier in the day, Obama spent nearly an hour touring the Forbidden City's maze of red buildings and cobblestone courtyards.

With snow dotting the roofs and patches of ice lining courtyards, Obama bundled up against the frigid weather in a sweater and brown shearling jacket. He kept his hands in his pockets to ward off the chill.

Built in the 1400s, the Forbidden City once was home to 24 Chinese emperors who ruled the country for nearly 500 years, between 1420 and 1911. The former imperial palace is now known as the Palace Museum and is open to Beijing's visitors.

"It's a testament to the greatness of Chinese history," Obama said while on tour.

He pronounced it "a magnificent place to visit" and said he wanted to come back with his wife, first lady Michelle Obama, and their two daughters, Malia and Sasha. Mrs Obama did not accompany the US president on the trip.

Dinner is served

The visit, he said later, was a beautiful "reminder of the incredible traditions and heritage of the Chinese people."

Before leaving, Obama wrote at length in the VIP visitor's book. The White House did not immediately disclose what he wrote. Obama's sightseeing was to continue today with a tour of the Great Wall.

Last night, a large, circular table draped in yellow was the setting for a state dinner China held in Obama's honor in the Golden Room of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Women in white served guests at the head table, including Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Women in pink served guests at a dozen smaller tables arranged around the larger one, making for about 150 guests in all.

The guests dined on chicken soup with bean curd, Chinese-style beef steak, stir-fried wild rice stem and asparagus, and roast grouper - all washed down with red and white Chinese wine.

The playlist for a Chinese army band providing the entertainment included a curious mix of US and Chinese songs.

Among them: "America the Beautiful," "We Are the World," "I Just Called to Say I Love You," "In the Mood" and the Chinese folk song, "Embroidering a Pouch."


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