Author: Judith A.
Date of Trip: June 2005
We landed in Beijing after 24 grueling hours of travel. As soon as we walked outside, we could see and smell the pollution. We walked over with our luggage to the taxi line, which was a little depressing because it was incredibly long and I was very tired. But it moved very fast. I think we only waited about 5 minutes. And as soon as we got up near the front, we could see why. They had this really good system set up for 6 taxis at a time to drive up into these lanes they could pull right back out into traffic from. Then 6 passengers would go over to their assigned taxi, and the taxi guy would tell their driver where they wanted to go, they would load up and take off, then 6 more taxis would drive up. It was really efficient. So soon enough we were in a taxi driving at breakneck speed to our first hotel in Beijing, the LuSong Yuan.
We arrived there about 10:30pm and checked in. The staff was extremely nice and helpful. Our room was pretty tiny, with worn carpet, but clean. Our room was furnished in Ming Dynasty reproduction furniture. Which is why I think the bed was so uncomfortable for us. It had a headboard and a footboard (preventing our feet from hanging off the edge of the bed) and this was a bed made for short Chinese people. So we both had to sleep with our legs scrunched up. And it’s not as if Robb and I are really tall!
Anyway. We were both really tired and went to bed almost immediately upon arrival. The next morning we got up, showered and went out to explore our hutong neighborhood. Hutongs are part of “old” Beijing…it’s a layout of 3 houses with a courtyard in the middle, surrounded by a wall. The doors leading into the courtyards can be pretty dramatic looking. Usually 2-3 families will live in one courtyard. The hutongs are being torn down at a rapid rate, to make way for “new” Beijing. So, armed with a map of the city provided by our hotel, we set out. We started walking towards Wangfujing Street, the main shopping/pedestrian area in the city. It was about two miles away, and a very interesting walk. Robb laughed when he saw the babies wearing pants that split in the rear, with their little baby bottoms hanging out for all to see (no diapers!).
The flow of people everywhere was amazing. Cars, bikes, little trucks, scooters and buses just everywhere, going in all directions with no one paying any attention to traffic laws, all jostling for position. We passed a little restaurant that looked like it was serving Chinese breakfast, so we popped in. Of course, we had no idea what the food was, or how to eat it. The employees were all young kids, and they mimed to us how to pay and select what we wanted. We got a large piece of fried dough, with a bowl of pickled onions and rice porridge. We weren’t really sure how to eat it — we amused the employees greatly by just tearing off a bit of the dough and dipping it in the rice porridge. (Neither of us wanted the pickled onions). It actually wasn’t bad. One of the laughing kids came over to give us some napkins and tried to show us how to eat it with chopsticks, but it was beyond me.
So after breakfast, we continued on our way to Wangfujing Street, just looking around at everything. Beijing is really a busy, fast-paced city that has really taken to capitalism.
We found Wangfujing Street and walked down it, but didn’t buy anything except a bottle of coke. Before Robb was even done with it, someone came up to him and asked him for his plastic bottle. We surmised that there must be some kind of rebate on turning those plastic bottles in, because people wanted them every time we had one in our hand, and we continually saw people digging through the trash cans and pulling them out.
So after our excursion down Wangfujing Street, we decided to take a cab back to the hotel to have lunch. Our hotel had a gorgeous courtyard where they served meals. It was really special and I took a good picture of it. (This hotel had originally been built as a Ming Palace). We had a very nice lunch, and then decided to go explore the Back Lakes area. There are two lakes connected by a very old bridge, with park on either side. Very serene (except for all the people). Lots of bars and restaurants overlooking the lake, so after walking around for a bit we picked one with tables on the rooftop for a good view and had a couple Chinese beers. Chinese beer is very good. (Chinese wine is not).
That night for dinner we just randomly chose a restaurant that was on the way back to the hotel. It was Sezchuan food (spicy). The menu was quite odd, with weird stuff like donkey skin and other disgusting stuff available. I don’t remember what I ended up ordering (nothing weird, that’s for sure). Robb got this shrimp dish that was so spicy it was incredible. I took a teensy, tiny bite of one corner of a crouton from his plate and about had my mouth set on fire. Robb (who likes spicy) managed to eat a few more bites, sweat broke out on his brow and soon enough even he had to give up eating the rest of it.
The most interesting thing about this restaurant was they had a performer do this mask-changing dance while we were there.
The next day, we took a cab to the Temple of Heaven complex, just to discover that the main building we were there to see (the Temple of Heaven itself) was closed for one whole year for repairs (getting ready for the 2008 Olympics, we assumed). So….that was kind of disappointing, but we went in to the complex anyway. It had some beautiful old Chinese buildings, surrounded by park and we had fun walking around looking at stuff. There were people singing and dancing in the park. We got up to the Temple of Heaven, and could sort of see it’s shape, although it was completely surrounded by bamboo scaffolding. (Pretty much everywhere we go, there is scaffolding on the structure we came to see. It’s been our curse ever since our very first trip, when we went to the Parthenon and it was covered with scaffolding. It was an omen of things to come).
We came out the opposite entrance from the complex that we had gone in, and we thought we were pretty close to the start of Wangfujing Street (but we weren’t). A pedi-cab driver (basically a rickshaw pulled by bike) came by and solicited his services to us, so we accepted (since we were way farther than we thought, and it was a really boring walk along a highway). We squeezed in to the seat, and let him bike us to Wangfujing Street. He really had to work hard to pull us both, and when we crossed this huge intersection, he (typical of all Beijing residents, apparently) ignored all oncoming traffic and just pedaled us across. I was a little white-knuckled and said to Robb: “Good thing my mother can’t see me now!” and Robb agreed: “She’d have a fit”.
When (thankfully) we reached the end of our pedi-cab ride and he dropped us off, and we paid him the agreed-upon fee, I found it very amusing that one of the only English words he managed to learn was “tip”! and “big guy”! (pointing at Robb). He said that twice, actually: “Big guy! Tip! Big guy! Tip!” So we gave him 2 Yuan extra. (8 Yuan equal a dollar) and he was very happy with that (We Americans are such suckers).
We were both hot and hungry after our Temple of Heaven expedition, so we went into the first air-conditioned mall we saw. We wanted to eat at the food court inside. Boy was that an experience in itself. It was HUGE and set up like a cafeteria, with long rectangular tables and benches for people to eat at. And it was crowded to the gills with Chinese people everywhere, all talking and eating. There were many different kinds of Chinese (and Japanese) food to choose from. It all smelled so good, and the food was grilled for you right then when you ordered. We looked it all over first, and I decided to try the beef noodles. So first we had to buy some kind of card. Then you went to the food vendor to tell him what food you wanted, and he subtracted the amount from your pre-paid card. (Figuring this out wasn’t as easy as I make it sound. Luckily, there was a girl who spoke English behind us in line that told us what was what). So after we got our pre-paid card, we bought some beef noodles, some grilled corn on the cob (without butter, so I didn’t have any of that) and a coke. It was such a fun atmosphere in there, that we wanted to go back and eat there again, but we didn’t get the chance.
After lunch we decided to go to Jing Shan park. It is directly North of the Forbidden City, and has a great overlook of it. The Chinese gardens in the park are beautiful. We walked up many stairs to the big pagoda at the top of the big hill so we could see the Forbidden City, and there it was! Very exotic and mysterious looking. It was a little hazy out, so we couldn’t really get good pictures of it, though.
When we got back to our hotel, we opened some wine and had some crackers. The wine (and jet lag) made me sleepy, and I decided to take a nap. So Robb went out to have a massage. (In which the very petite Chinese girl actually did walk on his back). When he got back from his massage and woke me up from my nap, I didn’t want to go out for dinner anymore, so Robb went out by himself to a fusion restaurant in our hutong area. He got the Kung Pao Chicken and raved about it as the best meal he had in China the rest of the trip.
The next day was our Great Wall Hike day. We had arranged to hire a car and driver to take us out to the Jin Shan Ling section of the wall. About 2 ½ hours outside Beijing. It was a long, long drive. And not really that interesting until we got into the countryside. When we pulled up to the entrance to Jin Shan Ling, it started to pour down rain. Not just a light drizzle, either! There was hail involved. We got very cold and wet. I started to balk at hiking six miles in that weather, but Robb kept saying that it would pass over soon enough, so we continued and and (luckily for him!) it did clear up soon enough. After about an hour, the sun even came out and it was a beautiful day! I was so glad he had talked me into going after all.
Somewhere along the way, we aquired Chinese “guides”. Who kept following us. We assumed in hopes of being tipped at the end. They were actually very helpful to us, in that a few places it wasn’t well marked which way to go, and they told us some interesting facts about the wall. So we had fun with them, and did tip them (although not was much as they wanted). We hiked six miles from Jin Shan Ling to Simatai on the wall, going up and down from 30 watchtowers. What can I say about the wall? It was AMAZING. Really, really AMAZING. And beautiful. The scenery was all gorgeous rolling hills as far as the eye could see, with the wall and it’s watchtowers all along the ridges. One side of the wall was China, the other side was Mongolia. We stopped about halfway and had a little picnic. We took lots of pictures, (but none that I will ever show anyone with me in them, as my hair was a wreck from being rained on). This hike was really good exercise and I knew we would both have very sore legs the next few days (which we did). It was so spectacular, this was the best, most memorable thing we did on the whole trip.
After our hike, our driver dropped us off at our new hotel in Beijing, the Beijing Hotel (where Nixon stayed in 1978 on his famous trip to China). This hotel was the start of our Viking River Cruise Tour, and where we would meet up with our guide and Robb’s Mom (Carol) and her husband (Jack).
When we entered our room (as much as we enjoyed the experience of staying in our hotel in the hutong) we were both pleased to have such a nice, big room with CNN and a luxurious shower.
That night we met up with Robb’s parents and went out for dinner, (to which I luckily had brought some plastic forks). Our meal was very good, and we were all excited to start our tour with the Forbidden City the next day!
The first official day of our Viking River Cruise Tour started with a bus ride to Tian an Men Square. As soon as we got off the bus we were MOBBED and I mean literally, mobbed by people trying to sell us souvenirs. Each person on our tour was surrounded by two or three of them, trying to sell either postcards, t-shirts or hats. They would block your way, shoving stuff at you to buy. It was a little insane, and it was a taste of the harassment to come (this happened to us every time we got off the bus at any tourist destination until we got to Hong Kong). We walked to Tian an Men Square, the world’s largest public square, with enough standing room for almost half a million people. Other than that, it is honestly not all that interesting. It is flanked by big, important looking buildings on every side. Chairman Mao’s tomb is also there, which is a big attraction for the Chinese tourists. There is a very long line to get to see his embalmed body from a distance. So naturally, we skipped doing that. We eagerly took photos of the entrance gate to the Forbidden City (with Chairman Mao’s gigantic painting over the doorway). Seen this on TV countless times, it was exciting to really be there. When you get up close, you can see that Chairman Mao has a big mole on his face. It was kind of amusing to me, how there are pictures of this chubby, balding, middle-aged Chinese guy everywhere. (I guess the Chinese are not as concerned about looks as Americans are)!
Our guide told us that there is more than one Mao painting, to replace it quickly in case of damage of any kind. He also said the famous scene that we saw play out on our televisions over and over again with the guy in the white shirt standing in front of the tank, blocking it from proceeding further during the 1989 demonstration actually did not happen in Tian an Men Square, but miles away on the outskirts of the city.
So after giving us some time to take photos, we continued on our way into the Forbidden City. It was really packed with tourists. But still it was really an experience to be there. It was gorgeous and very interesting in it’s mystery. It’s hard to imagine all the power for such a gigantic country as China emanating from one place: a walled complex of beautiful buildings, which no one was allowed to enter in to for hundreds of years. (It made me want to see the movie “The Last Emperor” again). The most interesting part of the city is not the ceremonial buildings, but the rooms of the living quarters and the gardens.
After our tour of the Forbidden City, we took the bus to the Summer Palace. This was the royal palace set on a man-made lake that the royal family used to go to in the summer to keep cool. It was really beautiful and had a nice breeze. We had a little boat ride on the lake, which was very nice.
That evening for dinner, the Viking tour took us to a restaurant for Peking Duck dinner. I was a little reluctant to eat a duck (since they are cute), but it’s a famous dish, so I did have a few bites. What made it taste good wasn’t how they cooked the duck (which is supposed to be a lengthy and complicated process) but the delicious poisson sauce. I don’t even know how to describe what it tasted like, but it looked like and had the consistency of chocolate (but didn’t taste like it). It was very good. We had a really nice time at this dinner, chatting with Robb’s parents and other members of our tour.
The next day Viking took us out to the Great Wall at Ba Da Ling. This is the section of wall you always see on TV and in pictures. It’s where all the visiting dignitaries go. It is well preserved (restored) and very scenic. But there are people just crawling all over it. It was really a mob scene. We were so glad we had hiked that remote section, when we only saw 4 other people the whole time! What a completely different experience our two visits to the wall were.
Regardless, it was still magnificent , and we took more photos and climbed more stairs and enjoyed ourselves, and learned how to bargain at some of the souvenir stalls on the way back down to the bus.
After visiting the wall (again) we were taken out to the Ming Tombs. Where all but 2 of the Ming emperors are buried. But we didn’t go into the tombs, we just walked along the sacred way leading up to them. It is a long, straight walk and as you go along, on either side every few feet there are big statues of animals (real and imaginary) and warriors and priests. I think they are there to guard the tombs.
That night our tour company was going to take our group to dinner and then to see the Peking Opera. Robb and I had heard some bad reviews (long, screeching, boring) of this, so we decided to skip out on the group. Robb actually wasn’t feeling well, so he decided to take a nap. So I went shopping on Wangfujing (our new hotel was located right at the base of it, so I didn’t have to walk to get there). I went into a children’s toy store, saw some interesting Chinese toys (they don’t seem too concerned about choking hazards), and then went over to the English language bookstore and bought a book. Then I went to the street night market for dinner. This is a series of little stalls, each selling some different kind of food. I got: cold rice noodles (which were good, but I would have liked better hot), pineapple rice (good) and a fried cream cake (surprisingly boring), fried pork dumplings (good, but not enough pork in the middle) and a fried beef sandwich. That was the best thing. It was SOOOOOO good. Up til then, I’d just been buying whatever I wanted to try and eating a few bites and then throwing it away (things were cheap and I didn’t want to fill up on just one item). But the beef sandwich was delicious, and I was standing there thinking: “This is so good, I am going to eat the whole thing” when I saw some poor, filthy man digging through one of the trash cans and eat a few grains of rice that were still in a bowl. God. I felt so sorry for him. How awful to have to scrounge through filthy garbage cans for your dinner. And he was literally the filthiest human being I’ve ever set eyes on. So I walked over to him and gave him my delicious beef sandwich. I think he was a little surprised that someone was handing him food, but he took it and ate it. (I also later gave him the rest of my pork dumplings).
After filling up on various bites of different foods (all that food I bought still cost me under $10) I stopped at McDonald’s on the way back to the hotel to get Robb a cheeseburger. (He had wanted some comfort food, since he wasn’t feeling well). He enjoyed his cheeseburger very much, and then we watched TV for a while and went to bed.
The next morning Viking took us on a pedi-cab ride through the hutongs. Which we were already pretty familiar with, from our previous hotel stay there. The hutongs are interesting neighborhoods and we had enjoyed walking around in them, seeing the stores and the daily life of the people. So this hutong tour Viking offered would not have been that interesting to us, except we did get entry into one of the hutong courtyards, so we got to see how the 3 houses inside are laid out. One of the women who lived there got paid to hostess these tour groups. She was about 50 but looked like she was in her late 30’s. I wanted to ask her what moisturizer she used, but didn’t. She and her husband were already retired. She said because people in China retire early, as there is such a large population — so many young people joining the workforce. The old give way to the new.
Seeing her house was very interesting. There is no bathroom (hutongs have public toilets and showers for the residents to use). The house had been built around this ancient tree. She had gorgeous woodwork in her home, a microwave and a rice cooker. The homes in the hutongs are very difficult to heat, so they run the hot water pipes along the walls to help keep them warm. She said the two or three families that share one courtyard usually become quite close and care for each other.
After our visit to the hutong home was over, we swam our way upstream through the crowds of vendors to the bus, and headed towards the airport to leave for Xian, and the army of Terra Cotta Warriors!