Thursday, March 07, 2013

Ni Hao China - part 5 Beijing.

I think when I left you, I was walking nervously towards the giant new train station in Xi’an. My brother and his family were off to the airport to fly back to their home city away from home of Shanghai, back to work and school and their regular ex-pat lives. And I was off to Beijing on a really fast train. Thanks to this sweet ride, I would be walking through the Beijing train station in four and a half short hours.  No hard car overnight sleeper for me.

I looked forward to walking on the Great Wall and seeing the Forbidden City and all the other touristy sites Beijing had in store for me, but it was hard to not be anxious about all the challenges that it would take to get there. First off, finding my train and getting on it successfully within the ten minute window I would have from boarding call to push off from the gate. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I at least knew how to read my ticket.

My brother had instructed me to simply find the big board in the station and watch for my train to arrive and be called. Of course, it turned out there was no such board in this brand new station, but I was still able to find the gate with my train number on it. Phew. The train eventually arrived, my ticket worked in the turnstile, and I was able to find my car and seat without incident. Small victories.  I was on my way.

The Beijing station was a whole different scene. Dark and cold and chaotic, this place was the stuff of murder mysteries. I stayed focused, however, and made my way through the smoke from the smokers on the platform, through the station, dodging all the questionable Chinese men offering rides in their taxis, and into the half mile long legit taxi stand. Luckily, there were hundreds of China-issue taxis, so I was able to get in my own with only about a twenty minute wait. I handed the driver a copy of my hotel reservation, he mumbled something back in Chinese, and off we went.

Fifteen minutes of death defying driving chaos later, I was all checked-in and gleefully standing in my own little Crown Plaza Beijing nest.   It was good to see the minibar well stocked with all the important things.

Having used up all my adventurousness getting there, I decided the 7-11 next door would be as far as I would venture that night. A movie in the room and convenience store snacks worked just fine. I had two big days ahead and wanted to be well-rested.

The pastry looking thing to the immediate left of my tall can of Budweiser, (how do you say 'redneck' in Mandarin?) turned out to be, instead of a cheese danish, a hot dog with mayonnaise.   Not exactly what I had in mind for breakfast the next morning.   The item to the right, a stack of dust masks.   I must confess I actually didn't wear one outside the confines of my hotel room.   I just figured of all the things that might kill me, it probably wouldn't be two days of Beijing smog, as bad as it was.

I had booked a two day tour when I was back in Shanghai, so all I had to do was meet the driver in the lobby the next morning. Tours are usually for twenty to thirty people, which means you may spend the first hour or more of your day just picking everyone up from all the different hotels. As luck and winter would have it, tours on both days had only one other tourist besides me, so not only did we save a bunch of time in pickups, no clunky white van for us. We got our own car. Two tourists, a driver and an English-speaking guide, great for us the customers but much less profitable for the guides (seemed to be one of the few time tips were actually expected), I’m sure a lot less stressful for them to keep tabs on two as opposed to thirty.  It did seem hard for them to turn it off though.  I felt like a foreign spy on surveillance at times, but then again I felt like that in most places I visited in China.

My travel buddy for day one was gentleman from the Kingdom of Tonga, a tiny country consisting of 176 islands, only 50 of which are inhabited, about an hour and a half flight from Fiji in the South Pacific. He was on his way to Geneva, Switzerland to conduct a bible study with the World Council of Churches. Good guy, and nice to have an English-speaking travel buddy for the day.  Conversations on the way to the Great Wall ranged from his thoughts about who's actually to blame for Adam and Eve getting kicked out the Garden of Eden (he thinks Eve gets too much of the blame) to Michelangelo's risque use of nudity in his paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.   This is one of the things I really love about travel.   You just don't meet interesting characters like that at the local pub.   Sure, they may be colorful, but chances are they didn't grow up on a tiny island in the South Pacific and have a wife they met at a bible summit in India.

Our first stop, The Great Wall, Badaling or ‘North Pass’. It took about an hour to drive there, and since we didn’t have to pick up twenty-two other tourists, we got there nice and early. The smog had cleared, and although it was brisk, we couldn’t have asked for a better January day to walk on the Wall. I’ll let my photos do the talking here.. Suffice to say, walking on the Wall was bordering on spiritual - peaceful and awesome and humbling. The trail to get on it was steep and the stairs on the wall even steeper. It was hard not to think of all the slave labor it took to construct this nearly 4000 mile man-made wonder.

Walk with me for a little while..

As you can see, it was more like the Great Stairway of China..

It's said that over a million men worked on the many different portions of the Great Wall, with the most famous portions built around 200 BC by our friend from the Terracotta Soldiers, Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of China.  The wall was built in separate portions over many dynasties and were ultimately connected to form a continuous barrier from the nomads of the north.   Builders were peasants, criminals, and scholars with opinions that didn't quite match up with the regimes.   The work was brutal and hazardous.  Nearly one in three men worked on it, and if you were 'invited' to partake in the backbreaking work, you had only a three in ten chance of returning alive.  I tried not to think about the many bodies entombed in the wall underneath my feet.

And no, the Wall is not visible from the Moon.   I'm sure it shows up on Google Earth now, but then again so does the barbecue in my backyard.

The rest of the tour almost seems insignificant compared to that walk on the Wall, but here are a few shots to round out the day.

Next stop, a Jade Market.   Turns out Jade is a pretty big deal here.

I tried not to become prey to the many 'purchase optional' stops on our tours, but I just couldn't resist picking a souvenir 'Happiness Ball'.   It's crafted out of a single piece of jade and has two carved balls that move independently inside a fancy outer shell.  It's meant to represent happiness throughout the generations of a family.

We also stopped at the Ming Tombs.   Interesting, but as you might guess, I was starting to get a little pagoda fatigue at this point..

Tea tasting at a real Chinese tea room (exit through the gift shop of course)..

Since we were still running ahead of schedule, we got to end our first day tour at a Chinese alternative medicine hospital.   A local doctor explained a number of alternative methods such as acupuncture and healing herbs.   To prove these methods work, we were treated to free foot massages (the only other time I heard the word 'tip' used in China). 

Most of the rest of the day was spent exploring the local markets near my hotel and scaring up something tasty on a stick for dinner.

But you already know about the dinner part.

That was a pretty great day.

Well, it seems I won't be able to get my entire Beijing visit into one blog post.  Thanks for staying with me this far.     One more entry should do it.  Stay tuned.   

I'm hoping to include a little wrap-up along with my collection of China trivia I gathered like sea glass along this journey..

1 comment:

MaryAnn Amaru said...

Jim, thanks for sharing your travel blog with us. I have been reading along and find it fascinating especially, the Terracotta soldiers.
Amazing!! MaryAnn Kasper