Beijing: I went for the postcards

Right, so Beijing. I would have had this post up sooner, but I wouldn’t dare go on and on about my awesome trip to China’s capital, and not have some photos to share. The thing is, I took so many, I didn’t want to do the conventional [insert photo here] system that I have been using. So, instead I’ve finally gotten around to creating a bit of a photo album system for my site – and the Beijing photos are the first to test it out. Lemme know what you think of the look and the functionality.

Beijing Photos

The Friday I was leaving to Beijing I decided I was at last going to break down and buy a mobile. I don’t have a huge social network here, but really I just want to walk around and pretend like I do. So, after donning my pack and saying so long to Emma, I went in to Dalian and spent the better part of an hour trying to negotiate a good price for a phone. The challenge – despite the girl at the shop’s desire for my cash – was that I had to do most of it in Chinese, and well… mime. I’m really borderline now on whether I want to come back to China to study Chinese or come back to study mime… perhaps I’d have to go to France for that… Chinese it is.

We eventually agreed on 600 RMB (about $90 CDN) for the phone, a SIM card and a charger. It’s second-hand, but it’s a colour flip phone. The girl’s soul-releasing sigh and utter colapse on the counter as I was leaving left me thinking I got an alright deal – or atleast did my best.

Now armed with a new toy, I found my train. From other foreigners-in-China blogs I had a bit of a nervous apprehension getting onboard, as I was really worried I’d be bunking with some noisy old ladies for the whole over-night journey. I, tragically, got stuck with two twenty-something Chinese girls who could speak great English. My poor luck ;-) . The trip wasn’t fantastic, but it wasn’t horrible either.

Arriving in Beijing at about 6:30 a.m., I said goodbye to the one girl who was off to visit family in Sichuwan. The other girl, Rose, had a bit of time before her aunt was picking her up, so she tried to help me find my complementary ride to the hostel. He was nowhere to be found, so she offered to take a cab with me and help me locate the place.

In the hostel I was met by a very apologetic staff member who said he looked everywhere for me (yet had beat me back to the hostel?). He showed me up to Martin’s room, where a very groggy UK accent grunted a ‘good morning, how was your trip, k… g’night.’

Day One: Tiananmen Sq.

After we both got a bit of well needed sleep we caught up and headed down to Tiananmen Sq. I don’t know really what I was expecting, but with the crowds of Chinese and Western tourists and people flying kites – it was hard to imagine that there had ever been any bloodshed there. The place is massive though.

It didn’t take us long to get swept up by an “art professor and his student” who had travelled from some far away province and were having an art exhibition at the museum across the road. I had read about this scam and knew what to expect, but as we didn’t have anything else to do, we went along with it. It was a nice crash course in Chinese art, and though the pressure to buy was present, it was not half as bad as the touts in the square.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the area. Around sunset we had two Chinese girls come up to us and start chatting. They said they were English teachers in the city and we talked about teaching, etc. Walking out through a bit of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Sq. they gave us a history lesson on the area. We started heading back towards the hostel and swung into a little market hutong (alley) which Martin and I had visited earlier. The girls asked us if we wanted to grab some tea before heading back to the hostel and we figured what the hell.

SCAM ALERT: Alright – to be fair, I am still not 100% on this, and Martin has more faith that it was legit than I do … but anyway. We went in, had this really cool tea ceremony where we learned all about different Chinese teas, how to drink from the little cups, etc., etc. After about an hour the bill came and it was 500 RMB (about $75). Our collective jaws dropped. We managed to negotiate it down to 400 RMB ($60) or 100 RMB each. So, we all coughed up the cash and left. We said zai jian to the ladies and headed back to the hostel. I am reasonably certain that at this point the girls went back to the tea shop, collected their money and a nice commission… but I’ll never know.

We nursed our slight loss of faith in humanity with a nice meal and a trip down to a bar that was designed to look like a proper English pub, complete with football (ah, soccer). Not having a clue about the sport, Martin gave me a crash course, and with a little figuring we sorted out that I was either a Chelsea or a Palace supporter (due to my time in S. Kensington and Morden respectively). As luck would have it the two teams were playing each other and I decided to base my support on whomever won the match. Now, anyone that knows anything about football is going to immediately laugh at this. See, Chelsea is top of the Premiership right now, whereas Palace is … not. So, now I’m stuck with a team that is cleaning up, but I’ve got no cred because I just look like a bit of a glory-hunting wanker. Sigh. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll be spending the next 6 months gathering random historical figures and statistics about this team just so when I say, “yeah, I support Chelsea” I can seem like I know what the hell I’m talking about.

Day Two: The Great Wall

We rose early the next morning and met the rest of our Great Wall tour group in the hostel’s common room. This was actually my first full-on glimps of the people who would play such an integral part of my good time in Beijing. The group consisted of two ESL teachers from Japan, Maria and Suzie; an adorable (but more on that later) British girl, Sam; and two German guys.

The 2 1/2 hour van ride north of Beijing was full of, “Oh! Is that the Great Wall? No, that’s just the mediocre wall” jokes and just generally getting to know each other. Maria’s from Tasmania, which instantly endeared her to me, and the fact that she’s a riot made it simple as well. Suzie is from Canada, and at the risk of offending (you choose who), could easily pull off “American”. Sam had spent the previous month in Shandong Province teaching English and was hitting up Beijing before flying back to England, her boyfriend and a job at a bank (again, more on that later).

There are a number of places to visit the Great Wall – it is, after all, about the length of Canada. Leo Hostel has a couple different tours, but we chose to go to one of the less touristy areas and less restored areas. The Wall was … well … great. I had sort of thought it is just going to be flat and that walking on it would be boring, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was mostly all up hill and a heck of a workout. It proved too much for Suzie, and she headed back the way we had come (the planned route was a sort of circle).

Now, Martin’s not just your average guy. He’s special. Ya see, Martin has this thing whereby he eats famous landmarks. He’s eaten bits of the Berlin Wall, Sahara Desert, the Grand Canyon, Ankor Wat, and most recently The Great Wall of China. I first learned of this last year in Thailand when he told me that he was the only person he knew that had eaten something from outerspace. He had gotten these little limited edition filings from a meteorite as a promo in a cereal box. I just thought it was the neatest thing and as a parting gift he gave me one. Upon returning to Canada and drinking a load of Canuck ale, I brought the number of people who had eaten things from space up to at least six (and you know who you are!). So, now officially inducted into this strange society, I too have officially eaten a bit of the Great Wall – it wasn’t that great.

After getting all trekked out, and filling up on more than some rock at a local restaurant, we went back to the hostel with just enough time to take a quick breather and head to a Beijing Acrobats show. Now, I’ve seen some amazing feats by human beings, hell, I am a card-carrying member of the Reality TV Generation, but the things these folks could do with their bodies… it’s just not right. I’ve never seen anyone balance a collection of fine crystal on each limb and manage to turn themselves completly over (from stomach to back, and back again).

After a bit of dinner (honestly, the Wall wasn’t as filling as you’d think) we called it a night and agreed to meet the next morning to do the Forbidden City. I hadn’t heard a positive thing about the Forbidden City, and was told that the mini-Forbidden City in Shenyang was just as interesting and much more comfortable to walk (if not a bit colder).

Day Three: The Forbidden City

For what it’s worth, it was good to see it, but the reality of it is that it was nearly just as gutted as the one in Shenyang. It’s a bit like castles in England or temples in S.E. Asia. At first they’re really interesting, but you quickly get to a point where you lose all purpose for being there. Sure it’s historic, but years of sacking has pretty much assured that there aren’t many old or interesting on-site artefacts. However, the Forbidden City’s one redeeming feature was the fact that our tour guide was double-oh seven himself… Roger Moore. No joke. Well, loads of “this must be his cover for a spy mission in China” jokes… but he seriously was the audio tour guide.

Beijing Roast Duck & Opera

After a few hours of walking we went for the much more rewarding Beijing Roast Duck (Beijing Kao Ya). I remember seeing a restaurant in St. Catharines that advertised Peking Duck, and never gave it much thought – a mistake I’ll not make again. It was great. It’s served in courses, they bring you slices of the roasted skin first, which you dip in sugar. Next is the breast meat, which is combined with cucumbers and spring onions and rolled in a thin pancake thing with some sauce. Third was a soup that none of us had much to do with. Last were basically the left-over bits. Just random chunks of the duck all soaked in this great sauce.

We finished up the meal, asked for the bill (man, that never gets old) and rushed back to the hostel to join the group going to see the Beijing Opera. I am exactly 50/50 on this. The first half of the opera had me falling asleep despite the dying cat like wailing (”Just pick up the damn bracelet already!”), and the second half was like something right out of House Of The Flying Daggers with this woman surrounded by men throwing staffs at her as she deftly kicked them away (no, no symbolism there).

With a bit of instruction from the hostel’s resident Englishman, Simon, we headed to a bar just off of Sanlitun Lu (aka Jiu Ba Lu – or Bar Street) called Kai Bar. The place was well cool with a very chill atmosphere. The 5 kuai shots before midnight didn’t hurt either. Maria and Suzie left, but Martin, Sam and I all stayed on and continued drinking until they closed up shop. It was a bit annoying when Maria and Suzie decided to leave and Suzie very directly told Sam that she should not stay with us two guys. I mean, I understand what she was saying – and had we not all just spent the last two full days together, she’d have a point. But as it was, it was just damn insulting, first to Sam. I mean she’s young, but she has been in China alone for a month – I think she can handle herself. And secondly, to me and Martin, we certainly wouldn’t let anything bad happen to her. Alright, alright… as it turns out, maybe Suzie had a bit of forsight. Nothing happened that I wouldn’t tell my mother about, but I’m sure it’s a different story for Sam’s (incidently, now ex) boyfriend.

After the bar Sam, Martin and I took a cab back to the hostel, and I had the filthiest conversation I’ve ever had with a Chinese person, completely in Chinese. I admit, I was a bit at fault for starting it. Sam and Martin were chatting away in the backseat, and I get ambitious with Chinese when I’ve been drinking, so I struck up a conversation by asking if the cab driver thought Sam was pretty. I don’t know exactly how it escalated into him using hand-jestures to mime verbs no one has been brave enough to teach me in Chinese… but I nearly had tears in my eyes from laughing by the end of the ride. We woke up the staff at the 24 shop (it’s a funny thing walking into a store and having like 3-4 people randomly sleeping around the shop) to grabbed some more beer to finish off the night at the hostel.

Day Four: Beijing Silk Market

The next morning I woke up with a major hangover. Maria and Suzie headed out on their own for the day, so Sam, Martin and I headed down to the train station where I, completely in Chinese, ordered my ticket back to Dalian. I was bursting with pride in my abilities for the rest of the day — it wasn’t until later that night that it hit me that I got my ticket for Friday, and I needed a ticket for the Thursday night train. All that superbia, gone.

The three of us spent the day wandering around a bit of a posh, business area of Beijing where the newly covered Silk Street is located. I had heard all kinds of neat things about the Silk Street… lots of knock-offs, etc., etc. And I was expecting a real seedy, backwater, Bangkok-esque experience. I wasn’t let down with the knock-offs… there was every fake thing you could think to copy, and then some. However, it was all well glossed over. The whole place looks more like a mall.

Later, we met up with Maria and Suzie, a new guy named Tom, as well as those German blokes from the Great Wall trip and headed down to a restaurant. The food wasn’t great, but I really enjoy eating out with a bunch of people. Much to the death-like gazes from Suzie, most of my attention was given to Sam … as she was taking it on herself to see how much glare she could attract from Suzie. I’m not sure why it irritated Suzie so much that Sam and I got on well… but whatever it was made it quite uncomfortable and did nothing to help my already somewhat tested tolerance of her. I mean, Suzie’s a nice enough girl – but everything she says just drips with pretentiousness. It’s embarassing when it’s directed to a Chinese person and I’m present, but it was a real piss-off when it was to the rest of us.

Anyway. Tom, Martin, the German guys, Sam and I all ended up back at Kai Bar ordering numerous 5 kuai shots and Tsing Tao beer. The boys were settling in for a solid night of drinking, so still recovering from the night before, Sam and I decided to call it in and headed back to the hostel at about 12:30 or so. We were in the cab for ages when we just sorta looked at each other and were like, “shouldn’t we be here by now?” I’m still not certain if the cab driver was just driving around in circles. We got out of the car and in the most politely British way Sam appologized, stepped away, threw up, and stepped back, apologizing again – but never losing stride. Cool girl, that one.

The morning came far too quickly as I had to get up and say goodbye to Sam. Sadly she had to leave at about 8 a.m. to catch her flight back home. Sigh. Ah, but all is not lost. The Orient proved too much lure for this young lass, and her adventure is not over yet. She got home, dumped her (somewhat of a jerk) of a boyfriend (her words, not mine…) and is already thinking about quitting her job to travel more – possibly scheduling a stop in Dalian … just because it’s a lovely city, of course.

Day Five: Summer Palace

After our short goodbye, I got an hour or so more sleep and then headed to The Summer Palace with the remains of the crew (now down a Sam and up a Tom). After an hour and a half on the city bus, we reached the gates of the Summer Palace – a huge park in the northwest side of the city where the Emperor would go to escape the city’s summer heat. We had no such luck with hot weather though, and for the first time since I got to Beijing, I needed more than a sweater – and sadly was without my jacket. Approaching the gates we were hit up by some vendors selling things from plastic bags. The one guy had these Russian-esque type hats and we all sort of just laughed, until Martin bought one for 20 kuai. I figured what the hell for 20 kuai… and before we knew it, we all (except Tom, tragically the guy sold out) were looking very ridiculous, but feeling slightly warmer in our new style.

The day was mostly just us running around the park making goofs of ourselves – as you’ll see from the photos. At one point I got swept up in getting my photo taken with Chinese people. One guy asked for a photo, and then suddenly it became THE thing to do… I considered charging. See Martin’s photos on my photo page for the pics.

We got back and Tom, Martin and I went to try and fix my ticket. After nearly an hour of trying… we gave up and went for some hotpot… mmmmm hotpot. Sorry, I’ve been writing this for like 2 hours and am starving. Tragically, it’s after 3 a.m. and I’ve no food in my apartment.

Thursday morning Martin and I returned to the train station, and with very little trouble at all (thanks to a note from the hostel and a helpful, if not glum, police man) got my ticket switched for that night. Yay, I wasn’t going to lose my job.

Last Day: Mao and More

My last day in Beijing was basically just a chance to clear up a few last things I wanted to see. First and foremost was the Mao Mausoleum (or Maosoleum) where a very waxen Mao Zedong lies in eternal greatness. We stocked up on Mao souvenirs and then headed to the Temple of Heaven – a park with more Chinese buildings. It was alright, but by this point, I just couldn’t have cared less about it all. We headed to the market where I released the rest of my money into the economy.

A quick dinner with more Peking/Beijing Duck and I was off to the station, back on a train, asleep, awake, and home.

Geesus… I think I’ve lost all my “keep-it-trim” journalism training. I think I’ll have to go back through this and see about inserting some bookmarks so anyone who can’t read it all in one go can just click and return to it at any time…

In other interesting news, I’m getting a visitor. It looks almost for sure that my friend Sarah from Hamilton (I don’t think she goes by any other name, it’s always Sarah From Hamilton) is coming out in a couple weeks to visit me. I’m hyped. We’d been talking a while back about how with me living here it’s a good opportunity for my friends to come and see the strange and backwards world of China, and she took the conversation seriously I guess. For a girl that’s never been on an airplane before, it’s a hell of a first trip, but once here she’s got me to hold her and and make sure she’s not sold as a bride in the countryside. Hmm… I am running low on cash.

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  1. Pingback: Summertime and the livin’s easy | A China Blog on Suzhou Expat Life

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