The essential Beijing day trip (Beijing pt. 3)

It’s early in the morning. The sun seems to rise earlier than back home. I blame a huge country running on only one time zone. Anyway, outside my window someone is shovelling. Not dirt, it sounds like brick, clay or cement – you can tell by that grating scratching sound it makes on the shovel again and again.

This started around four and doesn’t quit until just before my scheduled wake-up time at six. Yaawn.

It’s ok. Today will be a good day.

Breakfast arrives at seven: eggs, bacon, sausage and stale bread. I eat it all except for the eggs because I’m going to need the energy.

Our driver arrives in an old, white Volkswagen blaring classical music. He asks if we want it off. No way.

The drive is less than two hours – fairly scenic with plenty of hills and trees. When we arrive at Mutianyu it’s 845. The parking lot is near empty save a couple tourist buses. A brief bathroom break, quick consideration of the cable car, then up the stairs we trudge.

By the time we reach the Great Wall, Sara and I are huffing and puffing as we’re greeted by two Mongolian women selling snacks at high prices. We buy Oreos at 20Y. They are worth every Chinese penny.

The Great Wall has sat on my bucket list for quite some time. We decided to go to the section at Mutianyu because we heard the typical tourist section at Badaling was always crawling with tour groups.

We were not disappointed with our choice. We walked the Great Wall nearly alone for a good hour. We kept pinching ourselves, trying to believe we were actually here looking at the beautiful green hills covered in mist as a jagged wall seemed to cut the cliffs in half.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu.

By 11 many more tourists had arrived, but we had nearly had our fill of the Wall. And so we took the long hike down, passing others huffing and puffing their way up (making us feel better about our level of fitness).

Oh the crazy tourist sellers. We had a flight of stairs left and we could see a man at the bottom holding out a t-shirt saying “I climbed the Great Wall” and through the gauntlet we went. Finally, we found a stairway in the shade and sat and waited for our driver who suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Attached to his keychain was a Canadian flag, which we hadn’t noticed earlier. He told us China and Canada were friends. Good to hear.

Off in the Volkswagen from the now packed parking lot. No more classical music, just Asian pop, which our driver sings the occasional note.

Dinner at Yang’s Restaurant about 20 minutes away. We gorge on chicken, peanuts, peppers and rice. Our hike made us extremely hungry and we eat every last morsel.

I sleep most of the car ride home, nap, then clean up and ready to go. We went to a Chnese acrobat show, something Sara has long wanted to see. It was pretty amazing, a good reminder of the talents I lack.

We then walked (in the wrong direction briefly) to a restaurant for stewed beef and tomatoes, translucent noodles and celery.

The waitress can’t speak English and she’s embarrassed. Her face goes red, she giggles and fans herself with the bill when she doesn’t understand what we’re saying, making me feel much worse about my non-existent Chinese. She writes a note in English on our bill, “I’m very, very sorry about my English,” and asks us to settle because her shift is coming to an end, followed by a second “I’m sorry.”

Oh China, so friendly.

Recapping the Chinese Capital (pt. 2)

Tiananmen Square, Beijing

In continuing from my last post, more notes from Beijing:

9:30 a.m. Arrive in Beijing and follow the masses out of Beijing central station. Go to a ticket office to see about buying tickets for our next train to Pingyao. All the booths have Chinese signs, hoping for a “Foreigners” window. No lucky break. In China, the trains sell out quick, so you’re best advised to buy your tickets as soon as possible – unless you want a “Standing seat” for 10+ hours.

To hell with this, on to the hostel, Red Lantern House. Directions say to take the metro to a stop (name escapes) and walk south for 15 minutes until you see the McDonald’s on the left, then turn at the nearby Dairy Queen (which seem quite popular in Beijing and Shanghai). Turn around a couple times (my fault), but eventually find our courtyard hostel in the middle of an old neighbourhood or “hutong” as they call them here.

Exhausted, a little grumpy. Food arrives – French toast and watermelon – life flows again. Shower, clean, new Darcy in somewhat clean clothes. Tomorrow will be laundry, today is Tiannanmen Square.

Take the subway to the city centre and approach the square. Security everywhere. Bag detectors, cops, badges, soldiers, rows of riot shields to the side, and every lightpost has camers in every direction. Wow.

Walking, walking, walking and there he is: The Chairman. There’s so many tourists around taking photos of him, of us. It’s a super impressive square – so large, very symbolic.

We walk past Mao’s gaze near the entrance of the Forbidden City. It’s getting later in the afternoon and Chinese tourists are everywhere because it’s a national holiday. The Forbidden City will have to wait. Instead, we walk outside its walls along the moat.

I know there’s a night market nearby that opens at 3, according to my good friends at Lonely Planet. We search and search, walk down gross alleys that smell of garbage and old meat. Yuck. Give up, find some sort of street fair. Stop for a beer. Keep walking. Enter a mall that looks like it just opened yesterday – so shiny and new.

We look through a few stores and decide to head back. There it is! The market we looked for, alive and kicking. An exotic display to eat: beef, lamb, pork, squid, shrimp, scorpian, dog(?), cat(?), centipede, silkworm, shark, and other bugs. Sara went with the squid, none for me today. We are not adventurous travellers.

A long hike and busy subway back to our hostel where a feast awaits to celebrate the holiday – pork, beef, fish, and Peking duck of course. A fine end to our first day in Beijing.

*   *   *

Day Two

Up early and feel fresh, noodle and chicken soup and off to the Forbidden City. Pass the eyes of Mao once again and through the old city walls into the immense courtyard of this ancient sacred ground. We take some photos together and set a meeting point in case we get lost. I stroll down to the courtyard for more photos, turn around, and I’ve lost Sara for the next 45 minutes.

As I walked through the temples of different levels of harmony (supreme, middle, etc.), she found an art gallery of old calligraphy that she eagerly shows me once we meet at our meeting place.

The Forbidden City is an essential stop in Beijing for an obvious reason. It’s just amazing, but enormous. After a full morning touring, we leave with much undiscovered.

The Forbidden City, Beijing

From here we head due north to a hutong about 25 minute walk away. It’s full of trendy stores, teashops, restaurants. We rest our feet at a rooftop patio with peppercorn beef, onions, and rice.

After wandering these streets for an hour or so, back on the metro and off to Olympic glory or past glory I suppose at the Olympic centre. The Bird’s Nest and Water Cube were pretty neat to see especially since these games are what first got Sara and I talking about going to China.

Long busy subway back, rest, Internet trouble booking our next hostel, and the day finishes with meat skewers at a Muslim Chinese restaurant nearby.

*   *   *

Day Three

Sleep in until about nine and slowly start the day. Breakfast (more noodle soup) and off to the Summer Palace stopping briefly for an ice cream sundae at Dairy Queen.

The Summer Palace would have to be one of my favourite places in Beijing. Lakes, gardens, ponds, flowers, old Chinese buildings. I plan to build my own upon returning to Canada.

We both love it and spend a delightful afternoon here. Fantastic.

Riverside stores at the Summer Palace, Beijing

A long day of walking calls for more skewers of meat from the same restaurant as the previous night, but language poses difficulties ordering and comical confusion on both sides.

We rest up a bit and chat with our new roomate then off to find a cheap foot massage place listed in my friend Lonely Planet.

Rather than actually having a foot massage, we decide to punish our feet further by walking up and down the street in the dark looking for the place. The buildings do not seem to have any numbers, which complicates matters immensly. We ask at a fancy hotel with a parking lot full of dark tinted party official vehicles and luxury brands. They point us in a new unsuccessful direction and we give up. We find a restaurant with hilarious English translations for food items such as “fertilizing intestines,” “fungas,” “flesh” and “drunk fish of grandma.” Oh China.

Our short stroll for a foot massage place had turned out to be a long walk and we missed the last metro. Hail a cab. The driver looks at our hostel directions (written in Chinese), asks us something that we have no idea, and gives up and kicks us out.

Similar confusion from our next cab driver, but we stay in the car and he grumbles as he successfully drives us “home.”

We tread softly in our room with a flashlight so we don’t wake the two other people sleeping in the bunk across. Very nice people. One an Italian guy (name escapes) who just returned from a week in North Korea. He said it was a cool experience, spending five days of propaganda for 1000 euros. Showed us some of his propaganda material he was able to bring home full of smiling children and happy people. North Korea will be a future trip.

The other roomate was an art student from Poland who just arrived and was in Beijing for research. Very friendly.

Hopefully we didn’t wake them because an uncomfortable sleep lay ahead.

The city formerly known as Peking (pt. 1 The train)

I had no wifi and a sloppy computer at my last hostel, so I’m sorry for my absence. However, I’ve been keeping some notes along the way over my last few days in Beijing. This may be disjointed and my handwriting is a little dodgy…

Sunday, Sept. 11

We left breakfast early, pack and say goodbye to Motel 168, Shanghai. Check-out, minor kerfuffle over my deposit. Mental note to check credit card in very near future.

Head straight to the train station, never taken a train before in China and I’m a little concerned – especially since the night before a friend told me it can be a bit of a mad scramble.

So we sit in the train station lobby drinking beer at 1300, our bags are packed away with lockers that use face-recognition technology to determine the rightful owner. This is what the future looks like. My face.

The train leaves at 1830. With nothing to kill but time, we wander outside into a mall with four stories of stores that sell basically the same clothes – not even the hyper colour fashion of Shanghai, just drab sweaters, dress shirts, boring.

Move to the square outside, four hours to go, a book of suduko to help time pass. A girl walks by with bright redish orange hair. Sara and I discuss how it seems many of the girls in Shanghai must wear wigs. You can tell because of the hairline, says Sara. Girls know these things I suppose.

About 20 minutes later, we turn to a “Hello/Ni hao!” and she sits down beside us in awkward silence. Offers cigarettes (no thanks) and turns away the beggars that approach us.

Two hours to go still and we decide to head back to the station to wait. It’s a huge waiting room with people waiting for multiple trains. A giant screen shows images of beautiful China and happy children from CCTV. A Chinese voice blares across loudspeakers followed by the occasional English comment to get on your train.

I’m sitting straight, rigid, trying to get a handle on the scene. Finally, the people beside me grab their bags. Soon enough, we’re all standing in a cluster waiting for the green light. The gates open and we all move at once, not really a one-behind-the-other line, but more of clump squeezing through a bottleneck. I laugh outloud thinking how shocking this would be back home on the Via Train between Ottawa and Toronto. The pushing would be followed by angry, angry looks. Here, we’re all just doing what we can to get to our assigned seats on the train.

We’ve booked a “hard sleeper” – a pretty direct translation. We sleep on the top bunk (of three), nearly seven feet in the air. The bed is roughly 6 x 2 feet with not enough room to sit up. A mob of 10 girls set up shop below us, although they’re quickly dispirsed when the rightful owners of the beds arrive.

Instant noodles and a can of beer are supper for today. At 830 we crawl up the narrow ladder to our bed. Sara sleeps briefly then reads her book. I listen to Wilco and put a black mask over my eyes, drifting off. Lights off at 10 with the obvious exception of cellphones used as torches. Trip to the squat toliet, more Wilco, and rocked to sleep by the train until 2am. I wake consistently every hour until the morning light comes on at 630.

Three hours later, I get off the train in Beijing.

Shanghai old and new

Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai, China

Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai, China

Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to understand Shanghai. It’s a city with a glistening skyline that would not look out of place in a sci-fi movie. However, there’s also a nostalgic undercurrent yearning for the days when it was looked at as the “Paris of the East,” while traditional neighbourhoods, gardens, and museums seek to celebrate the traditional way of life.

Consider our day on Friday. We woke up bright and early and headed off to the Yuyuan Gardens in what is considered the old part of Shanghai. Although somewhat crowded with tourists, I would say this truly was the pearl of the city. This is what you picture when you think of old China. Quiet wooden buildings decorated with dragons and lit with lamps painted with birds and hanging red garnish stand on stilts over ponds filled with orange, white and black coy. Large, 400-year old trees, bamboo and palm trees add shade and a beautiful green. The garden’s walls nearly block all of the honking on the streets outside (and in Shanghai they honk all the time).

After walking through this garden, we browsed through a nearby bazaar selling all sorts of trinkets, bags, watches and jewellery. Although they do try to get you to buy, it wasn’t nearly as pushy as Turkey with most sellers giving up as soon as you say no.

We stopped at a store at 385 Fangbang Road. Inside, was a celebration of old Shanghai. Gramophones, typewriters, paintings and photos of the city a century ago alongside old propaganda from the early post-1949 period. Upstairs was more of the same, only here we were greeted by an older completely bald man wearing glasses and dressed in a black robe. We sat at a table and ordered tea, which he presented in a tiny tea pot to compliment the tiny white tea cups. Add some delicious pork dumplings, old scratchy music seeming to play through a gramophone, and it was a perfect way to spend a couple hours.

Outside the open windows of our teashop was a clear image of the change in Shanghai that I’ve read so much about. We could see an old street crowded with small shops in front of crammed old houses, small alleyways, gritty roofs and bicycles. Towering behind was a series of newish office and apartment buildings in bland grey.

Leaving the teashop we walked through the Old Town and saw more rough-looking narrow shops and homes and alleyways clustered together. Out in the street you could buy seafood, ducks, chickens, snakes and pigeons – live or butchered with the meat laying out without any form of cooling. We turned a corner and on one side more of the same on the other a massive gaping hole in the ground where a new major construction project was taking place.

Pudong, Shanghai, China

Pudong, Shanghai, China

That evening we took a strange lightshow tunnel under the Huangpu River across to Pudong (I can’t really describe this, but let me just say it’s super weird). This part of Shanghai is a celebration of new. A fog had descended over the city, making the skyscrapers seem endless, while bright pinks, yellows, blues and red sparkled amidst flashing signs and video screens.

The sights and shapes of Pudong seem super modern, it is clearly meant as an ambitious showcase of money and power, although I wonder if it will just seem garish and overdone 40 years from now.

We went to the Grand Hyatt in the Jin Mao Tower and took three elevators to get off at the 87th floor where we went to a bar appropriately named Cloud 9. If our noon tea seemed to pay homage to old Shanghai, this was a showcase of the new world metropolis. Unfortunately, the fog had made the cityscape somewhat hard to see, just blinking colours and a Pearl Tower that seemed to sparkle. But as I drank my Jameson’s whiskey surrounded by Western businessmen, I could certainly taste the contrast in this city.

The Pudong Skyline

The Pudong Skyline