Wednesday, July 28, 2010
I have never gone on a trip without packing pants.
The weather forecast for Beijing promised to not get below the 80's, and I believed it. People warned me about going in the summer heat, but I shrugged them off. My vacation was for the end of July, and I had to go somewhere! Whether I stayed in Korea or went to Japan or China, it would be miserably hot. But I really had to fight my Washingtonian sensibilities for packing. Even in summer, I would always pack pants, a warm top layer, a rain jacket, socks, and tennis shoes if I was going overnight somewhere. This time, my backpack was barely half-full with tank tops, shorts, and sandals.
I spent a week in Beijing, and Facebook was blocked as well as blogspot! I wanted to write at the time, but now that I'm back in Korea, I don't know where to start. Overall it was a good trip, but definitely hot and humid, conditions which were compounded by the pollution. Here's some highs and lows...
GREAT WALL OF CHINA: I avoided the most touristy spots and did a hiking tour from Simatai to Jinshanling. This was probably my favorite day of all. I got to the meeting spot a little before 6am and had a breakfast of watermelon and fresh steamed dumplings with a French couple on the tea house porch. By the time we got the rest of our group and drove out to the wall, it was nearly 10:30. There were many Europeans and also some Americans; tourists as well as business students and English teachers. It was about a 30 minute hike up continual stairs just to get up to the wall.
Once on the Wall, it was pretty spectacular. It stretches and snakes away from you, dotted with watchtowers in various states of decay. Unfortunately, the visibility was not very good, and I couldn't see super far, and my camera could see even less. We walked 7 kilometers on the wall, passing maybe a few dozen other hikers coming from the other direction. It was pretty rough terrain between the uneven stone, steep crumbling staircases, and blazing sun. We descended to have lunch and followed by a content and sleepy ride back to Beijing.
SUMMER PALACE: This royal summer dwelling is more than a palace; it's a whole complex of buildings with temples, gardens, walkways, and a huge lake. I preferred it to the Forbidden City, which although impressive and beautiful, is very linear and manicured. (In the Forbidden City, you pretty much have to walk straight through and see things in a certain order, and it was extremely crowded. There is a Hall of Supreme Harmony, but it was so packed I couldn't get close enough to even see inside the hall without getting pushed and elbowed. Hah, not very harmonious. But it is beautiful with impressive architecture, you can see below.)
Anyway, I liked the wildness of the Summer Palace; the rocks to scramble on; the meandering pathways; the shade; the boats floating about; the dispersed crowds of people. But again, as you can see from the pictures, the visibility was not great. One guide referred to the "glistening lake", which I'm sure would be accurate when you can see it. Yeah, that's the lake through the gate in this picture. Yeah, all that white.
BIKE RIDING: I don't think I would have been as confident about riding a bicycle around Beijing if I hadn't already been riding a bike in Korea. I've had time to get used to the craziness. And actually, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy and logical 2-wheeled navigation was in this mega-city. Many people are on bicycles and scooters, and most major streets had huge separate bike lanes, as well as bike crossing lights. And when in doubt, I just crossed the street following closely behind Chinese cyclists. Wedged between the big 8-lane roads, there are still traditional alleys called hutongs, so I spent a day riding around hutongs, sort of following a route and sort of getting lost and found again.
FOOD: I ate some freakin delicious food. First of all there is the street food, which I'm a big fan of. Gastrointestinally risky, but so good and varied. I really liked these little yogurts, which they sell in reusable heavy ceramic cups, so you have to drink them at the shop you buy them at.
And all sorts of meat-on-sticks...
Including fried sea horses...
Then there was the night market. I love night markets in general- that people are out and walking around in a safe public space. It feels like Europe. It feels vibrant. The smells are strong and new and distinct. There were scorpions and all sort of unusual foods, but I stuck to tamer fare, like bean sprout burrito thing, and noodles and gyros and pear juice.
I had some really nice sit down meals too. The first night I met two French guys at my hostel and we went to this nearby hole in the wall and had a feast. Beef and onions, chicken, pork with peppers and mushrooms, dumplings, rice and beer all for about $5 each. Then of course I had to eat Peking Duck, which I did on my last night with my British friend, and was not disappointed. The very best part was that they make a stock of the leftover duck and bring it to you at the end of the meal. It was really simple, just duck and cabbage and I don't know what else, but it was AMAZING. Maybe in the top 5 most perfect-tasting soups of my life, and I can't remember the other 4.
NEW FRIENDS: I have friends in Korea of course, but while traveling in a different country, I was exposed to a wider variety of foreigners. It was just nice to have that change of pace. There were a lot of French staying at my hostel, and in all of Beijing in general. There were a handful of Spaniards and Argentinians as well, so I got to practice plenty of Spanish. I met 5 other Americans who were teaching English in Korea and just on a short vacation like me.
INGRISH: I am amused to no end by the funny English translations in Asia. Most of these are from menus.
NO XIAN: The biggest let-down was that I didn't get to go to Xian, the city with the Terracotta Soldiers. It's an overnight train ride from Beijing, and I booked my train tickets as soon as I got to China, and was barely able to find room. Usually you need train reservations about a week in advance. I was looking forward to going to a smaller city and seeing this infamous army. My mom has a set of small terracotta soldiers of different ranks in different positions, and those men and I have been staring each other down for about 15 years from their place on the shelf.
I took my first bus in Beijing to get to the train station with no problem. It was PACKED. You have to elbow your way just to get through the front door, and then go through security and push people to get your bag on the X-ray belt. Everything takes longer in crowds, but I had arrived an hour early which I thought was plenty of time. I asked at the Station Master's desk (after lots of waiting and then some elbowing) which platform I boarded on, and she just looked at my ticket and shook her head. "Ticket office downstairs" she said. I didn't know why. I got the ticket through my hostel, but maybe it wasn't the final version of the ticket?
Downstairs there were about a million ticket windows, each with a line of 20 people, and no help desk. So I waited in line, only to get to the front to be told "Window 17". So then I waited in that line, and suddenly my hour early didn't seem like so much time. They told me, "Ticket refund window, downstairs." I asked why, but the clerk just said, "refund window" while meanwhile 3 people are pushing me aside. I just wanted to know what was wrong with the ticket before I missed the train, which was looking likely. I started asking people if they spoke English, but no one did. I was so frustrated. One man I asked looked at me contemptuously, "English? No. China! CHHHIIIIINAAA!" On the verge of tears, I got in the long refund window line. I was holding my cursed ticket. Men were perusing the refund line waiters, trying to buy tickets off people before they got their official refund. "I don't want to sell you my ticket! I want to get on this train! But I don't know what the problem is!" I shouted at the man trying to grab my ticket. The woman in front of me turned around and looked. "Xian?" she asked. "Yes!" She showed me her ticket, also for Xian. "Uh, roon". I thought she meant there was no room, maybe the train was overbooked. "No," she said, "rooning cats and dogs!" Oh, raining! I finally figured out that massive summer rains and flooding had damaged parts of the track, and the train was cancelled. I got my refund, and the lady said most likely the train would be cancelled the next day too, and then I would be out of time.
LACK OF VISIBILITY: I've already mentioned this several times. But it was bad. One night coming back from the market I got off the subway at the Tiananmen West stop, but came out a different exit than I had entered. I was close to my hostel but literally had no orientation to where I was. I was one block from the massive Tiananmen Square, the biggest public square in the WORLD, and couldn't see what direction it was because visibility was so bad! No one was around to ask, so finally I had to take a rickshaw the 4 blocks home.
PRICES: Bargaining was sort of a joke. I just wasn't into it. My reference for comparison is Latin America, where at most markets they might quote about double of what they want you to pay for something. Then you bargain for a few minutes, find a middle ground that is reasonable to both parties, and you're happy. But in Beijing, most vendors would tell you a price that was literally 10-15 times what you wanted to pay... 10-15 times what you would pay in the U.S. for the same thing, AFTER it had been imported and marked up by the retailer. So then you haggle for 10 minutes just to get a somewhat expensive price, and finally 3 hours later you pay something cheapish, and wander away wondering if you even wanted that thing to begin with. It was just too exhausting for me.
INTERNET BLOCK: Also known as "The Great Firewall of China". There are many websites that are blocked from public view including Facebook, blogs, and information related to negative aspects of Chinese history, police brutality, free speech, the Taiwanese government, pornography, criminal activities, the Dalai Lama/Free Tibet movement, and some foreign news. Apparently there are ways around this, but in general you can expect a lot of censorship.