Part one of my 2011 trip to China visiting Beijing
Day One, Feb 20, 2012
I’ve started my trip to China. First the taxi does not come, calling to say they will be 20 to 30 minutes late. Naturally. So I told them that was not acceptable, scrapped the frost from the windows of my car and drove to the Doraville MARTA station myself (the parking turned out to be $80!). A train leaves as I’m getting up the stairs to the platform, but I have time. I get to the Atlanta airport and as always I am selected for an extra security check. I’m convinced they choose me because I am the least likely looking terrorist. That way they have nothing to worry about. For them. But I find it annoying because they won’t even let me collect my items. Anyone can grab my bag as it just sits there. They won’t even let me hold onto my ticket and passport, I have to lay those down too. I honestly fly less because of the security measures. I wouldn’t mind them if I thought they kept us safer, but I simply don’t believe they do.
At JFK, I go to the Air China desk. It is obvious that something is wrong. The very young (where are the old women?) women talk among themselves, keep asking me to wait. FINALLY they say I need to go to the China Air desk. Air China AND China Air? Seriously?
I have more than 3 hours to wait. I met a young man, going back to China where he teaches English. We are the only two Westerners I see in our boarding area. He got asthma after only 16 months living near Beijing, the air quality is so poor. He recommends that if I teach in China I don’t stay in Beijing long. His father died of cancer and he got home just before his death in eastern Ohio. He has a fiancée who is Chinese and after she gets a green card they will come back to the USA. Her father is not happy with this arrangement.
The problem with Mandarin for me is that it always sounds harsh to my ear. Everyone always seems to be angry or yelling. If someone near me on the plane is speaking, I have a hard time sleeping. It’s not a pretty language. I brought three books with me for the trip there and back. I finish the first, which is good. The second is bad and I discard. Hope the third will get me home and not be bad.
The plane flight attendants ignore me. Not rude exactly, I just don’t exist to them. I have to get quite insistent if I want something, like water. It’s a 13.5 hour flight and you need water. Japan was like that too. (I was treated worse on AirFrance, however. That’s my low standard for airline treatment) The flight from NYC is north across the Arctic Circle, across the top of Canada, headed west. I guess I thought we’d travel East.
Land in Beijing. Customs is a snap—I’m practically waved through. Met my guide, Stone, who promises to give us each a Chinese name. There are only 13 in group, the smallest group I’ve ever traveled with. Just 3 came in on my flight and we are the last. I have lost an entire day, however! It is 8pm of the second day of my vacation. Those who flew out of LA have had all day free in Beijing. I feel cheated!
Our accommodations are state run, the Tian Tan Hotel, across street from Tiananmen Square. My bed is hard. No top sheet, just a comforter. At the front desk they barely speak English. I find quickly that even though I can get to the internet, I can’t access Google, Gmail, my personal website, Facebook, any news, Twitter…anything. It’s a reminder that this is a communist country. Our guide, Stone (I never lean his Chinese name, this is the name he chose for Americans), is newly married and very excited that they can have TWO children if they choose. They are only children and the product of parents who are only children. That gives them privileges. Stone has no idea about the riots in the Arab world. He thinks that the reason his tour company, Gate 1, has canceled tours to Egypt is because the tour leaders didn’t do a good job. He’s been threatened that China’s tours could be canceled if he is not well liked. Wow. Not only do they keep world events from the people, but they lie to them and use the circumstances to their advantage. The hotel has one channel in English, CNN.
First Full Day in China, Beijing, February 23, 2011
Breakfast is odd. There’s salad, soup, even kim chi and sushi. For breakfast. It’s cold and I’m glad for my silk long underwear. Today we meet the entire group, just 13 of us. We have to make final decisions on optional tours, then it’s a walking tour of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace)—it will be about 6 miles of walking today and we have an older man on the group who uses a cane. Not sure how he will do. The tour guide is a young Chinese man of 27 and his “American name” is Stone. He explains to us that we will be among lots of Chinese tourists, but very few westerners will be around. He is right. It’s a huge area and we will walk fast so he suggests we be “like sticky rice” to stay together. He suggests we do not take photos of guards, who will be in communist uniform.
Tiananmen Square is the largest public plaza in the world, erected in 1417 at the height of the Ming Dynasty. It is best known as the site of the 1989 student’s demonstration. (Days later, Stone admits that he saw YouTube videos of the event only 2 months ago, while he was out of the country on his honeymoon in Thailand. He said he had no idea what had really happened since his government had suppressed it.) He suggests we NOT mention the event since plain clothed “Chinese CIA” are everywhere and it is still an “uncomfortable” topic. He says we should not buy the “Rolex” watches on the street that are very cheap. He calls them “Pho-lex” since they are knock offs and usually last only a few days.
We see long lines for chairman Mao Zedong’s mausoleum where the body is on display in a glass coffin and lifted up from the refrigerator every day! If I had time, I would visit, but there is no free time in Beijing. Across the street is the Great Hall of the People. I get my photo in front of the Monument to the Fallen Heroes, erected in 1952. They have a National celebration on the square on Oct 1.
On to the Forbidden City. Imperial Palace was built during the Ming dynasty. The original capital was in Xi’an, but the third emperor moved the seat of government to Beijing. The one we see in Beijing was built 1406 to 1420. It has 800 buildings and 9000 rooms (the story is that there are 999 buildings and 9999 rooms, lucky numbers). 25 emperors lived here. Last one lost power in 1924 and was driven out. Outer court is filled with political buildings; inner court was just for the emperor and his concubines and children. Most of the buildings look quite alike outside—wooden, ornate, with tile roofs. Impossible to heat. There are huge brass caldrons filled with water at every building, in case of fire. On the roof lines are figures of animals (real and mythical) to protect the building from fire, though now they also have lightening rods. This is an area with almost no tornadoes, but they do have some hail and lots of lightening. All the buildings merge into one in my head since they look so much alike.
We go to the Summer Palace for lunch. We have lunch in the Hall of Listening to Oriels. It is lovely. We learn that all the plates at our seats are small because the Chinese like to eat continuously. We have a bowl for rice or soup. At every dinner we have all the hot tea we want and one small glass of something else is included. We can have Coke, Sprite, Beer, or Bottled Water. Diet coke not included and frankly hard to find. Plates of food keep coming. We think we are done and then more food will arrive! You know they are done when they bring slices of fruit, usually watermelon. There are 3 Wal-marts in Beijing. One IKEA too.
We walk through the gardens of the Summer Palace. 800 acres in size. At the center of the gardens is a peach shaped lake. Along its edge is a covered walkway that is more than a mile long. It is a bat shaped walk way, along one side of the lake. Bat is “fu,” the same as the word happiness, so it is a very lucky animal. But I cannot see how anyone could know the shapes, since everything is on a grand scale. There is no vantage point to see the bat or the peach.
Several of us are stopped by Chinese who ask to take a photo with us. I lost count of how many times I posed with someone I didn’t know for photos. It strikes me as odd that my photo could be in the living room of a family I do not know.
Next is the Beijing zoo. Open for free, except for the pandas, which is an extra cost. I saw 4 panda, but there are supposed to be dozens somewhere. It’s quite cold and perhaps they are indoors. Not a modern zoo at all. It reminds me on something from the 1950’s. Needs cleaning—the animal cages are filthy and two buildings I went into were so smelly I had to leave. The animals pace with boredom and are kept mostly on concrete floors.
On bus ride back, a car cut us off and the police are called. It is a very minor accident and there is no damage to our bus. I didn’t feel much of an impact, just the driver hitting the breaks suddenly and hard. Lots of yelling in Mandarin. The other car is clearly at fault and we have many witnesses, but the officer is nervous because the other driver is a state official of some kind and he has his young mistress with him. The state official insists that he was in the right. It is obvious from his demeanor that he is used to giving orders. Three police are called in succession, each of higher rank than the last, and it takes over an hour and a half to settle the matter in the bus driver’s favor. No one wants to talk to the tourists, however, even though those in the front seats saw the whole thing.
It is too late to walk around the city this evening by the time we get back. I’ve had no free time in the city and am very disappointed. I try to go into a nearby restaurant, but I can’t find one that has English, or even photos that I can point at. I end up buying something off the street—meat on a stick that I watch being grilled–chuanr, the only Chinese symbol I can recognize. I know people say I should not eat street food, but if I can see it being cooked and it is hot and well done, I will give it a try. The city is much cleaner than I expected and the air quality better, though not great. It is not long after the Olympics so I suspect this is the reason. All my photos are gray from mist, fog, and smog. I saw no homeless or beggars. The temperature is in the 20’s at night and the 40’s through the day. Of course I only drink bottled water, but was surprised to find that even the locals don’t drink the water without at least boiling it—it is simply not safe for anyone to drink. I wish I had a free day here to see more.
Visiting the Great Wall, February 24
Exchange rate is 100RMB (called yuan, pronounced You Ann ) to $ 17US . No/little tipping at restaurant or taxi. No tipping for hotel cleaning. If I could manage it I would steal the bathroom scale in my hotel. According to it, I have dropped 30 pounds since coming to China. I love this country!
The hotel walls are very thin. The first night I could hear everything my next door neighbors were saying. Of course it was in Mandarin so I couldn’t understand a word. Then when they went to sleep I could hear him snoring. Last night they were even louder. The argument started at 9p and even earplugs weren’t enough. Called front desk at 11p and asked if they could get them to quiet down. I heard the phone ring in their room. He answered with a loud grunt, “WHA!” then a quieter, “oooo.”. And I didn’t hear another word.
Hate I missed first day–no free time in Beijing. And last night’s car accident meant too late to go out too. This is my second trip with Gate 1 and let’s face it, it’s a cheap travel company. If they say you will “view” something, they mean from a distance and you aren’t going inside. I’m not saying I won’t travel with them again, but I’ll pay more attention to flight arrangements, and ask for an extra day extension at the end to make up for what I missed. More cost, but it will be worth it. Most organized tour companies, like Gate 1, have designated sales stops. This one has one a day, which is toooooo much. Today we go to a Jade factory. I bought a Buddha necklace, which is supposed to balance my chi. Men should wear Guanyin (in Japan Kwan Yin). $33.
We drive to a section of the Great Wall, the longest man made structure on earth (but you cannot see it from space). It spans nearly 4000 miles and our guide tells us that it is possible to walk the entire wall, though it is in bad shape in many sections. This sounds like a good idea until we get there and I see how steep the steps are. It is in the Yan mountain range and though I walk only to the top on the next ridge, I’m exhausted. This is the Juwongguan Pass. The guide tells us we have a choice of going left or right up the mountain. He describes them as hard and harder. He’s not kidding. Honestly, heard a Chinese woman say “oi vey.” If I had had any breath, I might have laughed out loud. But it is striking, thrilling to see.
Today is February second in the lunar calendar. An auspicious holiday and the day you should get your hair cut. It is called Raising the Head of the Dragon Day. But since you can’t carry scissors on planes anymore, I don’t have any to cut my hair with.
Next we visit the Ming dynasty tombs, constructed in the 1420s. Only one tomb has been opened since the technology of archeology is still far behind what’s need to do so without destroying everything. All the silks that are inside the one tomb will instantly oxidize to ash (just like burning) when they hit oxygen. Those who went into the first tomb watched the treasures ruin as they entered. This is the last time that Gate 1 will take people to these tombs. I really enjoyed the visit, but it is rated low by travelers, I guess. The Scared Path was my favorite—statues of people and animals, all in pairs. The pair guard the walk and there are two so that half of them could “rest” while the other half stood watch. All the bodies of the emperors were carried down this path on the way to their tombs.
There is So much spitting! I’ve never been anywhere where everyone spits all the time. It’s disgusting. We ask our guide why, and he just says that it is because the Chinese language is all in the mouth and throat, nothing from the diaphragm. Spitting keeps the throat clear. I think he is slightly embarrassed.
Driving back we get a tour of the Olympics buildings, including the Birds Nest, Water Cube and the Dragon Complex. We stop at a park to take photos and there are so many street sellers, mostly selling kites. Huge long strings of kites. I didn’t get any, but almost everyone does.
At night I join an optional dinner of Peking Duck at a “famous” restaurant. These people know nothing of presentation. The duck is to be carved into 123 pieces, each having crispy skin, fat and meat. They didn’t make a big deal of it at all. And it is the worst dinner of my entire trip. Everything is attractive, but not tasty. The fish is carp and filled with so many bones I’m afraid to eat it. They have these amazing looking balls of chicken, but they taste greasy.
Back at hotel: OK, this is odd. Last night I was investigating the motel room. They have free condoms in the room and a “Happy Traveler” book. The only English words are “sex” and “pleasure.” Hum. Pretty sure I’m not the target audience for that. But to be fair they have condoms for men and women. Free. Also lubricant “only for woman” and the text reads “As the pure Chinese medicinal preparation. Privacy protected site. Use when necessary, so that the couple can live in a healthier, cleaner.” They also have these glass vials containing a liquid and mini q-tips to apply it. Separate items for men and women. “This product is the pure Chinese medicinal preparation, refined many times and exquisite productive. It’s for women only. Use when necessary, to maintain marital Passion, healthy and happy life, the good without dependence.”
I just don’t think I want to know more about that.
Some assorted photos: