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Published: September 24th 2005
Saturday, September 3, 2005. Weather: Sunny. Temperature: High 80's.
First, a few additional words about our arrival. Having done our air independently we did not have the benefit of being met at the airport. Our first concern was communication since we do not speak Chinese. Not to worry! Everything is well signed with both Chinese characters and English translation. Capital City Airport is quite modern and the entry is no different than any other international arrival. It took us no more than 10 minutes to present our documents to immigration and be on our way to collecting our baggage from the carousel and locating the "green lane" for those with nothing to declare. We emerged into the usual sea of people awaiting those arriving. Immediately outside of the customs area we located an ATM, slid in the plastic and were rewarded with our request for 2,000 Chinese Yuan, sometimes referred to as Reminbi. Prices may be shown as a number followed by a "Y" or by "RMB." We have not yet seen the dollar cost of the transaction but expect it to be around $250 U.S. plus bank charges as the conversion rate on our date of arrival was 8.09Y=$1. More later about the need, or lack thereof, for Chinese currency.
Following a good night's sleep we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast buffet then took the Sino-Swiss Hotel's complimentary shuttle into Beijing. This shuttle has designated stops and our new hotel was not among them so we exited at the last stop and hailed one of the millions of taxis to take us to the Beijing Hotel at the modest cost of 14 yuan (about $2 US).
The Beijing Hotel is a century old complex very near Tiananmen Square having 1,000 guest rooms in three buildings. Check in was fast and uncomplicated and our room for the next three nights is delightful. The hotel consists of three connected buildings labeled in creative Chinese fashion as A, B and C. Over the years they have been remodeled and currently are rated as Five Star which is richly deserved. The rooms are large and superbly appointed. For those of us who are news junkies the television includes CNN. As I write this we have not yet made contact with our tour director for details of tomorrow but feel sure that he will find us or vice-versa!
Ethel has been in contact with a friend from the German Forum who lives in Beijing. This afternoon Laura came to visit with us and took us on a foot tour of WangFuJing Street, the pedestrian shopping area immediately adjacent to our hotel. Much conversation and little buying occurred. This evening we are going to dinner with Laura and some of her friends to get our first taste of Peking Duck.
Tomorrow the serious touring begins. The schedule indicates that there is little time that is not put to good use. We will spend Sunday, Monday and Tuesday morning touring Beijing and then on Tuesday afternoon fly to our next city, Xi'an - home of the Terra Cotta Warriors.
I last left off with our plans for dinner on Saturday evening. After an energetic afternoon of window shopping we returned to the hotel. Laura and Ethel spent some time talking about their common interests in the German Forum while I returned to the room for a brief rest. We then began our dinner adventure under Laura's direction. We traveled by taxi part of the way to meet with three of Laura's friends who were to join us for dinner. One was an ex-pat from Belgium who has been living in Beijing for over a year along with his Chinese girlfriend and another young man from London who has been in Beijing for a shorter time. After leaving the taxi and meeting up the adventure began! We were led through numerous small back streets in the older section of town known as a "Hutong" until we finally arrived at a very busy restaurant where our table was being held for us. I am quite certain that four of us were the only non-Chinese there! We were offered a menu with pictures and only a Chinese description of the numerous items available. Being the guests, we asked our hosts to order for us having no idea of what we were in store for. We did know that the principle reason for selecting this restaurant was to give us the opportunity to taste the "best Peking Duck dinner in town" so that was sure to come.
Then the dishes began to appear. There must have been 10-12 plates of fascinating items brought to the table before the duck appeared. There were so many plates that they were being stacked upon each other as there was far more food than even 6 people could consume. Then came the Peking Duck, presented in freshly cut slices from an obviously large bird. We could see the chef cutting the birds in the center of the room. The duck was presented with warm pancakes and thinly sliced onions and cucumbers with a dark sauce that was put together and rolled something like a fajita. It was most delicious. Even though we all left the table completely full there was enough food left over to feed six more people but apparently that is the custom. Our hosts indicated that a dinner such as our was quite inexpensive with the "appetizers" costing only the equivalent of $1-2US each. I did notice on the menu that the Peking Duck cost 40Y=$5US each (we had two to serve the six of us). With several beers and sodas I would guess that the entire dinner for six cost about $25US. Truly a bargain and a great time!
Upon leaving it was suggested that we utilize a pedicab (what was known as a "rickshaw" when it was pulled by hand) to take us out of the Hutong to a place where we could find a taxi to take us back to our hotel. Another first for the visiting Americans! Since we were still fighting jet-lag we said goodnight to Laura who still had a one hour bus ride to her home and returned to our room where we found a letter from our tour guide giving us meeting information for the following day's activities. Lights were out early in preparation for the beginning of our formal tour early the next day.
Next: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.
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