w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
This is terribly un-PC of me, but I was sort of expecting to hate Beijing. Not just the smog and communism, but frankly, I thought I would hate the people. See? Very un-PC of me. Why the assumption? In the last few months we've encountered many fellow travelers, but none more boisterous, pushy and culturally insensitive, and as in as great a number!, as the Chinese. I'm not kidding. They are everywhere, walking around fancy restaurants with their shirt pulled up to reveal a bulging, naked belly. Indulging in the hotel breakfast buffet for all four hours. Pushing past you and your kids to fight to the front of the line. Putting their hands under the public bathroom sink while you're still washing yours. Straddling sacred sculptures and monuments for photo ops. And then there is the constant goober hocking and farmers' blows. You can read all about it in the paper – the woman who pulled down her son’s pants in a middle of a crowded restaurant to let him pee into the water bottle that she keeps in her purse for just this purpose. The sign outside the Louvre in Paris, stating in Mandarin only, that one must not defecate on the surrounding grounds. And during our time in Macau and Hong Kong we heard plenty of people talk smack about their neighbors.
But with so much expendable income, the Chinese are everywhere. Last year alone, 100 million Chinese traveled outbound, and in the next 5 years, their numbers are expected to double. In response, China's Ministry to Tourism has created a list of traveler do's and don'ts to improve the country's reputation abroad. Among the tips: flush the toliet, no pushing in lines, don't vandalize sacred objects, keep your socks on in public spaces. Oh boy.
Yet I really, really wanted to walk the Great Wall of China and after much scampering about trying to get a last minute visa, we discovered that if we kept our visit to under 72 hours, we'd be able to scooch in and out without one. Unfortunately, 72 hours is just not enough time. Beijing is gray, smoggy, sprawling, difficult, complicated, and completely and utterly fascinating. The city is fully aware of its economic super power status and one can't help but feel its blossoming potential and along with it, its arrogant authority. People in Beijing work hard, move fast and contrary to my expectations, can be extremely warm and friendly. Plus, the Great Wall of China is all (and more!) that it's cracked up to be.
Why did I think Beijing would be congested and squat? The city is wide, orderly and dare I say, sophisticated.
As soon as we checked into the hotel we dropped our bags and ran around the corner to the famous Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant. The huge restaurant takes its Peking duck seriously. Chefs, with stoic, surgical precision, carve super lean ducks table-side. Pricey, but when in China, a must-do.
While in Beijing we stayed at the comfortable Marriott Executive Apartments. The apartment was very spacious with fancy bathrooms, great work out facilities, pool, etc. But, lest you forget you are in China, the hot water was limited, so were the newspapers, and after spending an hour on the phone with IT, we realized the reason we could not access our gmail accounts, Google or Facebook was not because of a wonky internet connection, but because we were in COMMUNIST CHINA. Duh!
And as if the constant body searches weren't enough, every time we entered a public park, train station, museum, etc., all bags needed to be screened. This made for long lines at the subway.
Chris and I dragged ourselves out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to watch the honor guard of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) march at precisely 108 paces per minute, 75cm per pace to raise China's national flag. The ceremony, which takes place every single morning, is accompanied by a chorus singing the national anthem, dignitaries dressed in traditional garb and, of course, a throng of tour groups.
No trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to the Forbidden City, home to ancient imperial rulers and closed to the public for 500 years. Yes, it's a beautifully preserved piece of history, but my favorite were the looming, gnarled trees of the imperial Garden.
While we were wandering the Forbidden City, a man spied Oona and asked if she would mind being photographed with his son. Oona obliged, but after he took this shot, he said in Chinese, "Now take her hand and pretend she is your girlfriend!" Oona just laughed, but the mortified boy turned red, shouted "No!" and ran away.
The street food in Beijing is fantastic. Sold in little shops, carts and off the backs of bikes, you'll never go hungry walking the streets. We sat on tiny plastic chairs to nosh fantastic steamed pork buns and then finished snack time with candied crab apples and strawberries.
We spent three hours looking for a restaurant Sylvia had recommended in the aptly named Hidden City complex. We finally gave up and walked into the nearest spot. No one spoke English and we were the only tourists there, but the food was authentic and delicious. Being Korean, I'm not one to shy away from heat, but some of the food in Beijing was too hot to handle even for me. Twenty chopped peppers for like four shrimp.
Beijing used to be made up of hutongs, little warren-like alleyways that separate one neighborhood from the next. Most have been bulldozed to make room for wide roads and high rises, but a few, the most authentic ones located around the Forbidden City, remain. Life in the hutongs remain slow and secret with signs that keep out the curious eyes of tourists.
But one hutong that is decidedly not shy is Hutong Nanluoguxiang, a great little area for shopping, people watching and tea drinking. It's one of the few colorful places in otherwise somber Beijing.
How can you come to Beijing and not see acrobats? I took Chris and the kids to see the Golden Mask Dynasty show (think acrobats in Las Vegas produced on a big stage by Olympic director Zhang Yimou). Their jaws literally dropped when a waterfall raged down and around the sides of the stage. But my favorite was the peacock dance, when a dozen dainty women floated around the stage with giant birds perched atop their heads. As the last notes played, the peacocks alit and flew off the stage. Outstanding!
Beijing's contribution to China's culinary landscape is the ever important snack. Our hotel was across the street from Wangfujing Snack Street where you can get just about anything on a stick.
Name your poison (no pun intended): seahorse, baby cobra, scorpion, starfish or silk worm? Yum.
We took the train 70km to Badaling to climb the Great Wall of China. Normal tourists hire a car and driver, but cheapskates like us take public trans. Train seats were sold out so we spread out a map and popped a squat. The locals came better prepared boarding with floor cushions and picnic snacks.
We missed the train back so had to take a bus. It was crowded, hot and we had to stand for much of the nearly 2 hour long journey. The kids, especially Prince Isoo, were not happy. But many of the ladies on-board offered to sit the kids on their laps. The ticket taker finally yelled at a young man and made him give up his seat for the kids to share. No, the police will not give you directions and no one speaks a lick of English, but Beijingers are curious and friendly. It didn't matter that we couldn't speak Mandarin, they would gather around us, talking animatedly, patting the kids' heads or butts as we smiled and nodded dumbly. When they had had enough of their one-sided conversation, they would wave and move on. While Chinese tourists could use some practice in the art of cultural sensitivity, while on their home turf, they are absolutely lovely.
We made it! These pictures just do not do it justice. Constructed in the 7th century and over 5,500 miles long, it is an architectural wonder. Imagine, huge stones dragged up the steep incline, tamped down with mud, and snaking on the spine of a mountain wide enough to accommodate five horses abreast.
And bonus: We caught it just as the cherry blossoms were starting to bloom. Beijing, I'll be back, next time with stops in Taiwan and Shanghai.