Intimidation. The first feeling I felt coming into the Beijing International Airport. Lot's of, "God, I hope I can get around" and "I know 1 word of Chinese, let's hope that it's good enough" were going through my head on a fairly regular basis. Figuring out the train system really wasn't that difficult, it was the street crossings that I had the most trouble with. To go, or not to Go. When I did go, let's just say that here wasn't much room for me and the cars on the crosswalk.
I stayed in a hostel that was situated in a traditional hutong. My directions to get to the hostel from the subway stop were as follows: "When your leaving the subway turn left until you reach a small electronics shop. Turn left and go down the street until you pass a huge tree across from the corner liquor shop. We are the bright red door on the left hand side". Needless to say, there weren't a lot of street names anywhere for me to use, exactly how I always end up playing the "Let's get Lost" game that my father taught me well when I was a kid.
Chinese Box Hostel was the perfect place to stay in Beijing. While yes, the price is a little higher than some backpackers are wanting to pay, it is, by far, the best hostel I have ever stayed at. Joe, the manager, is hilarious and keeps a large stock of beer and rice whiskey around for the long family dinners the hostel will host a couple nights a week. The rest of the staff with book you kung-fu shows, Great Wall tours, and, if you ask nicely, they will even take you to the markets.The cooks also make a mean tomato, egg, and rice dinner. Trust me on this.
Smog. It's rather hard to miss in Beijing. No matter where you go, it's there. I just decided to ignore it as much as possible. My first day out I tackled the biggest thing in Beijing with 2 of the friends I made at the hostel, The Forbidden City.
It sounds intimidating. It looks intimidating. It is intimidating. Everything about the Forbidden City is big. The crowds, the buildings, the space, everything. There was so much to explore, just like on the Discovery Channel told me when I was in
elementary school. There were rooms upon rooms upon rooms. Throne rooms, official rooms, concubine rooms, ceremonial rooms. Wide open spaces for the Emperors to indulge, it really was like a sealed village. I wasn't even bothered that much by the crowds that we had to fight to get closer views. It's so easy to spend at least 4 hours in the Forbidden City, if only we hadn't gotten there so close to closing time. That's one thing you never think of when your in China, is closing time.
Getting up at 6 AM to catch a bus to the Great Wall was pretty difficult , but by far, the best thing I have ever done. I could have done without the 2 hour bus ride, and I could have done without the really bad breakfast that the tour offered, but the 10 km of unreconstructed Wall will never leave me. 4 solid hours on the Great Wall will have to be some of the most important 4 hours I will ever live. Out there, there was nothing but crumbling wall and some way to many "helpful" farmers trying to get you to feel indebted to them and buy their
souvenirs. Once you get half way through the Wall, they leave and then you can find drinks, beer, and I even saw champagne, for, I assume, in case you want to propose to your girlfriend on the Great Wall. My future husband should keep that in mind.
That trip to the Great Wall took the whole day, 4 hours on the Wall and 4 hours getting there and back, and by God it was so worth it. The trip has got to be the most worth it tour I have ever taken. I found out later that the same tour company that I had taken to the Wall had decided that it needed to be refaced like the more touristy part of the Wall. I can't help but think that the Chinese government made a huge misstep here. I went on this tour BECAUSE it was on a crumbling and hadn't been touched. I had read so many articles about the "Wild Wall" and I felt that this tour was going to get me a close as I could get for the amount of time that I was in Beijing. Can't help but feel that refacing the Wall takes
away part of the charm and the fantasy of the wall.
That night, my hostel put on this wonderful Chinese dinner party and everybody was around the outside table drinking the fire water the Chinese call whiskey, stuffing themselves with delicious Chinese food. There was conversation, laughter, and a lot of people coming together over a table of food. Perfect evening to end an almost perfect day.
After a rather late start the next day, I joined the huge group from my hostel and went out to the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace. like almost everything else in China, is big. There are canals, temples, and a giant man made lake. We spend a good couple hours walking around and seeing everything that there was to see, like the longest case walk in the world. I also saw, I kid you not, a t-shirt that depicted President Obama in full Mao dress. I nearly bought it, but decided against having my patriotism questioned. But it was really hard.
The Summer Palace has this really crazy stone show bost. It's like a Mississippi River steamer made of stone. From what I understand, one of the Chinese Empresses used
to entertain on it many years ago and now it is permanently docked in the Summer Palace Lake.
The Temple of Heaven. The most important place in ancient China. With a long temple complex that leads you through the chain of the most sacred places in ancient China, where the Son of Heaven communicated with the heavens to bring a good harvest to the people. The Emperor would make the ceremonial walk down the temples and pray as he moved. This foreigner, on the other hand, does it backwards.
I got off the subway and didn't really see anyplace to enter the complex, so I followed the outside wall, found an entrance, got my cute map, and headed in. Parks in China are big, beautiful and full of people. People exercising, reading, practicing characters with water on the sidewalks, families having picnics, massive amounts of people. I make my way into the complex walk into the first raised platform and discover that I've gone the back way into the complex. Way to go foreigner.
As I walked the complex backwards, I was reminded about how big everything was. When people say everything's big in the US, they
need to add China into the saying. I felt like I was walking the length of 2 football fields. My advice to anybody going to China is to bring some serious walking shoes. You'll need them.
My last day in China was actually pretty fun. I started the day with Meishel, the hostel assistent and a group of other guests heading out to the Antiques Market. Now, I'm not usually one for markets. I feel like I see a lot of stuff that's a little dubious and a lot of pushy shop keepers. The Antiques Market was really nice. I mean, sure, there was a lot of fakes going around, but it wasn't nearly as in my face as other markets. I bought some good art, some of it fake, and enjoyed some really good food at the restaurant on the outskirts of the market. We all had a really great time.
After the market I went out with a couple of fashion designers from Australia to the Birds Nest. That stadium is a beautiful statement to modern architecture. All that steel wrapping around itself. All the round lines just moving around this colossal stadium. I didn't need
to go in it to feel the power that it holds. The modern swimming cube was crazy and I have to say, I am very glad that China took the risk with those modern stadiums. Most Olympic stadiums that I've seen were these huge horseshoe sized concrete monstrosities that can be pretty lack-luster, but the Chinese stadiums were beautiful. A true statement to modern architecture.
I can't tell you why I was intimidated by China. Probably by the language barrier, the size, and a little influence by the government. Beijing was super easy to get around. Yeah, I had some problems in restaurants, but it was just easier to smile, point, and try not to be too much trouble. A place I wouldn't mind heading to again.
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