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.
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..
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..