Thursday, March 11, 2010

Beijing....Great Walls, Great Squares, Great Times

Feb 28 to March 6, 2010 (by Swiss)

Time in China has flown by. Beijing was scheduled to be our last destination in this country of 1.3+ billion people. Located in the north, Beijing is the capital of China. For you language buffs, in Chinese "Bei" means "North" and "Jing" means capital. Just like Nanjing is the south capital ("Nan" = "South".) We were slated to stay for five nights, prior to departing for Tokyo on Saturday, March 6. Conveniently, March 6 also marked the last valid day of our visa and served as a good motivator to move on.

Besides smog and it being the capital, Beijing is probably best known for the Tiananmen square, the Forbidden City, the 2008 Summer Olympic games, Peking duck, and its general proximity to the Great Wall of China. Needless to say, all these items would be on our agenda, among a few other activities.

Choo Choo Train to Beijing
Our train ride from Xi'An went off without a hitch. The soft sleeper cars were very comfortable, and the ride very smooth. The biggest downside was that the compartment lacked an electrical outlet and the family with whom we were sharing the small space had a young kid with a bit of a crying fit in the middle of the night. Before dozing off to sleep, Jason and I joined what seemed like every other passenger in the train to make ramen noodles. Great thing about China: hot water is available everywhere for free, so ramen noodles/soup is a defacto cheap hot meal option. I think I can speak for both of us in saying that we recommend train travel in China.

Given the overnight nature of our train, we arrived in chilly Beijing 20 minutes early or at about 7 am. We had made reservations at the Happy Dragon hostel, and prior email communication with said establishment recommended we take a cab from the station as public transport was limited at our arrival location. So we were off to find the taxi line, which was found packed full of people. Unsure if this was purely a function of holiday travel or just a day to day occurrence, we politely attached ourselves to the end of the line. Thankfully, our wait ended up being under 30 minutes and they had a fairly efficient system of getting people out.

What ended up being more challenging was actually finding a cab that would take us to the hostel. We were equipped with a flyer from the hostel giving location info and directions in Chinese, but the first 3-4 cab drivers flat out told us "no." Perplexed and wondering if this was an issue of distance, lack of knowledge, or us just plain being foreigners, we walked back up the line of taxis looking for help. That help came in the form of a lady who spoke almost no English but did manage, after a couple of attempts, to find a driver who would take us to the hostel. A somewhat disappointing intro to Beijing, but we were happy to be on our way. The ride took about 30 minutes, and the fare ended up being closer to 50 rmb than the 30 rmb quoted by the hostel.

We were greeted at check-in by Peach (later nicknamed "trouble"), one of the many very friendly staff members at Happy Dragon, and she promptly checked us into our room. The hostel itself was nice, although not quite as modern as the hostel we had in Xi'An. Our room was a tad on the colder side of things (it seemed like the heater was a bit overwhelmed/undersized), but had an en-suite bathroom and the room was very clean. More importantly, the staff and owner Lee were extremely helpful and friendly, with various "event nights" scheduled throughout the week. At 40 rmb/night, we got a bunk bed, hot water shower, a towel, free computer access, and free wifi. Lee also offered up his computer for us to burn a DVD of our pics. The hostel sports a cozy bar and restaurant for folks too lazy/cold to head out. Good spot if you're ever looking for a place to stay in Beijing, and I can't stress enough how nice the staff was.

The rest of the day was spent taking the subway for a quick visit to the Olympic park, planning some activities, grocery shopping, chatting with Joanne (our friend from Xi'An), and counting down the last hours of the Chinese new year celebration. The visit to the Olympic park was very nice, where we saw the two most famous stadiums: The National Stadium aka The Bird's Nest (Swiss design, btw), and The National Aquatics Centre aka The Water Cube. Besides strolling around, we also visited the "Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall", a free and very well done exhibition covering how Beijing prepared for the 2008 Summer games. Well worth a visit.

Chinese new year (Spring Festival) officially lasts for 15 days, and Sunday was the last day of the celebration. As such, it of course involved yet more fireworks late into the night. Dinner was had at nice little Chinese restaurant near our hostel, a spot that we found was being torn apart just two days later for what appeared to be renovations. But the food was good and the window seat allowed us to view some fireworks in the snowy sky. We were happy to have a picture menu for ordering, although some of it may have been lost in translation:

And credit to Mr. Lawton for the "shot of the day":

Awesome snowball picture!

The Usual Suspects
What would a visit to major city be without stopping by an embassy? For Beijing, that embassy was Brazil, which we found about a 10 minute walk from one of the subway stops.

FYI, the subway in Beijing is extensive and, at a flat rate of 2 rmb (30 US cents), very cheap. Be prepared, however, to find yourself in a very crowded car. We had a couple of instances where we were pushed/squeezed into a car to accommodate everybody. If there is one thing that you just have to "experience to believe", it's how many people live in this country. Overwhelming is probably an understatement. On the up side, you don't have to worry about toppling over. But I digress.

Jason's mission at the embassy was to get his Brazilian visa squared away. Although it took a multiple visits to the embassy, I am happy to report that the embassy eventually processed his visa that same day.

Oh, and for those of you who think travel is all just fun and games, let me chronicle the five visits required to get Jason's Brazilian visa:

1) Show up in AM to drop off application with staff member who speaks very little English, main guy is tied up in meeting. Leave paperwork with request to check back in the following day.
 2) Just before getting on subway, get called on cell phone requesting we return back to embassy since the main guy is back. Upon returning, he informs Jason that he needs proof of sufficient funds due to Jason's unemployed status. The staff recommends a print shop located inside a bank about 10 minutes from embassy to save time.
3) Return with bank savings account statement after printing it at the random print shop. Leave with slip from embassy to deposit the USD 160 visa fee into embassy bank account - bank to re-open post lunch at 14:00, so we take a lunch break and visit the Apple store.
 4) After visit to bank, return to consulate with deposit confirmation. Told to return in 90 minutes while they process the request, coffee shop is visited to kill time.
 5) Back to embassy to pick up completed visa.

It should be noted that the folks at the embassy, while strict, were also very friendly. I excused myself after lunch to stroll around town and then head back to the hostel, while Jason continued on his visa quest. He emerged victoriously around 4:30 pm with a 5 year (!!) multiple entry visa in hand. During my stroll I managed to walk by the workers stadium, yet another remnant of the '08 games.

The weather was fairly crappy that day, so we decided to hang around the hostel in the eve. It is also where we had dinner and enjoyed the slightly overpriced beer (15 rmb for draft vs the 5-6 rmb bottles we had in Shanghai/Xi'An.) Beer specials offered later in the week brought prices to a more reasonable 10 rmb.

The Great Wall
Like most folks visiting Beijing, a visit to the Great Wall of China was an absolute "must" for us. We picked Tuesday as weather forecasts for that day were the best. The hostel was happy to book us on the same tour Joanne had done on Sunday (she really liked it), and so we got up bright and early for a 7am breakfast followed by a 7:40 departure to the Mutianyu section of the wall. There were a couple of tour options from which to choose, including the closer and ever popular Badaling, but we heard that it can get quite crowded. Plus the endorsement of Mutianyu by Joanne basically sealed the deal. As luck would have it, the weather was absolutely gorgeous. We were picked up by mini-van for the roughly 60 minute ride to the wall.

The great wall is a series of stone and earthen fortifications built, maintained, and re-built between the 5th century BC and the 16th century to protect the northern borders of the Chinese empire. The great wall, as we know it, is actually a series of walls built by different emperors during different time periods (source: wiki.) The entire wall stretches just over 5,500 miles (8,851 km), and has sections with conditions ranging from excellent to ruined. Hundreds of thousands of laborers were used to construct these massive walls, and it's of course a must see if you ever have a chance to visit China.

Our tour was led by Monica, a flirty 25 year old woman with a very good sense of humor. I'm a hopeless flirt at times, which made the trip there and back a lot of fun. Besides teasing Monica, we spent most of the day talking with Jasper, a German guy we had met during breakfast at the hostel. We also met a guy from Sweden on the tour who teamed up with Jasper, Jason, and I to walk the entire 4 km stretch, culminating at lookout #23 after a very steep ascent. The views, however, were worth conquering the murderous stairs. So, without further ado, enjoy the pictures below.

Our tour guide, Monica, showing this portion of the wall

Harry's on the Great Wall of China

When we first arrived at the wall, we had a couple ascent/descent options, including an option to take a chair lift up and a cruise on a tobaggon back down the hill. Since time on the wall was to be maximized, we opted for the lift/luge combo. As 12:30 drew near, we hopped on our respective sleds and rode back down to the base for lunch. Although a tad out of place, it was very much fun.

Needless to say, the whole experience was absolutely awesome. And combined with the clear skies made for one of the top highlights of our trip.
We arrived back at the hostel in the late afternoon to learn that they were running a 10 rmb/beer special. Exhausted, thirsty, and a tad sore, we had a couple of beers while chatting away with Jasper and other folks at the hostel.

Western Food Day and Camera Dust Biting
If you've been following our blog, you may remember our "western food day" we had with Carl Jiggens back in Hanoi. Wednesday would be our China version of said day. That is, Pizza Hut for lunch, Beard Papa's for desert, and Hooters for dinner. Sprinkled between patronizing those eating establishments was a visit to Tiananmen Square and the surrounding areas.

Pizza Hut actually came recommended to us by Anna, the girl we had met in Laos and again later in Hong Kong. Neither of us had anything resembling an American pizza in a while, so we figured we would give it a shot. Now here's the gig with Pizza Hut in China: It is nice. As in, we both felt under-dressed nice. And packed. And the menu selection was extensive while quite reasonably priced. I hate to promote an American chain restaurant in a country full of its own unique cuisine, but I will say that if you're in the mood for a broad variety of western food, Pizza Hut in China is actually a pretty good option. On top of that, our pizza was quite tasty. Whodda thunk?

"Bacon" and tomato pizza with a stuffed crust

Swiss is hungry!

Our next "adventure" was a visit to Beard Papa's, which serves custard/cream filled pastry puffs. I first had one in Shanghai, and have been hooked ever since. Jason, with his mad research skills, managed to locate a Beard Papa's near the Pizza hut, so we lugged our cheese and carb-filled bodies to the Oriental Plaza mall. As happens quite often in China, there was a bit of a communication problem when we tried to order our puffs. Their setup is much like many fast food restaurants, with a counter containing cash registers and service staff set in front of cooking equipment and a large menu overhead. Ergo, it was hard to point at a specific item from a distance. I decided to take a picture of the menu and then point to it on my screen when it happened: My camera died. The screen went black, as if the shutter wasn't open or the imaging chip was broken. The LCD still worked (I could look at previous pictures), but the sensor recognized absolutely nothing.

I'm not sure if we mentioned this in any of our other posts, but my camera had been acting up prior to this fatal moment. Most notably the internal accelerometer, which allows the camera to store the orientation of the camera (portrait/landscape) to the picture file, had been giving bad signals causing our computers to show rotated or even upside-down images. Very annoying, especially when blogging. In fact, I nerded out to the point that I found some shell scripts (think simple computer program) for use on my computer to easily batch rotate pictures in my file manager. For you *nix nerds, they can be found here.

Apparently the accelerometer acting up was just the beginning, as at this point my camera had officially bitten the dust. We managed to order our cream-puffs, which were delicious as always, and pondered camera options.

As luck would have it, we were in sort of a "camera shop capital" of Beijing, and quickly found a camera repair shop. I had little hope that they could fix the thing for a reasonable price. After they took it apart, they found the cable from what I think is the CCD (Charge Coupled Device) to the circuit board on the camera had snapped, requiring a new CCD. The shop, after 2 days and USD 70 of my money, returned my now fully functioning camera. Added bonus: the accelerometer was again working properly as well (I think it was part of the CCD assembly.) Although I was not happy that I had to shell out 70 bucks, it was nice to again have a working camera without having to spend too much for a brand new camera.

One camera lighter after dropping mine off the camera shop, we moved on for a visit to Tiananmen square. We quickly noted a heavy police and military presence, which turns out was there due to the National People's Congress going on at the time. On top of that, the square was off limits to the public. So we got to enjoy the square from a distance, and instead spent time witnessing police randomly requesting ID cards and searching bags of pedestrians in the area (Chinese only, they didn't seem to bother westerners.) It was quite strange, and culminated by us witnessing what looked like an arrest of a woman who was not happy at all about her treatment by the police. It was a vivid reminder that, "western food day" and all, we were in a country with laws and people's rights that at times are much different from the US.


Swiss "getting pictures" since his camera was in for repair

The Chairman and me

Tian'anmen Square, empty due to the start of CPPCC

The Limit Line

Upon arrival at the hostel, we learned that Lee (the owner) was considering ordering Peking duck for the guests staying at Happy Dragon. Lee has this thing about "theme nights", and this night was to be Peking duck night. So Hooters was postponed to the next day, and western food day turned into "half western food day." With Jason and I in, Lee went ahead with his plan and all guests got to enjoy FREE duck while being instructed on how to properly eat it. The staff, guests, and us enjoyed the excellent duck; and as the night before, beer specials were kept at 10 rmb per beer. Needless to say, it turned into a fun filled late night at the hostel :)

Swiss is surprised while making some Peking Duck

Enjoying the Peking Duck

With Lee, the owner of our hostel

Tourist Day and Western Food Day - part 2
Late nights, unfortunately, rarely translate into early mornings (unless, of course, you don't go to bed.) So we spent Thursday sleeping in, getting up late, learning that my camera wasn't going to be ready until the following day, and then heading off to the Forbidden City. According to wikipedia, the forbidden city (built 1406 to 1420) served as the imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to end of the Qing Dynasty. It served as the home for the Emperor and his household, as well as the ceremonial and political center of China for almost 5 centuries. We spent a good 2-3 cold hours walking around the massive (720,000 m2/7,800,000 sq ft) attraction, taking pictures along the way. More time could easily be spent there, but the cold and hunger eventually made us move on.

Swiss spilled plum sauce on himself the night before, his hoodie was drying and it was cold!

Posing with the metal statues

Beautiful, intricate work on the roofs

The Palace of Heavenly Purity in the Forbidden City

We don't know what they were staring at

Inside the Forbidden City

A large pot or urn?

North Gate of the Forbidden City

Next up was the Chairman Mao Mausoleum, which is located south of the forbidden city across from Tiananmen square. On this day the square was actually open to the public, so we took the opportunity to take pictures on this historic location.

FYI, if you try to bring up the wiki article on Tiananmen square while in China, you'll discover that it's blocked by the great Chinese firewall. Censorship at its best. After pictures, we unfortunately discovered that the Maosoleum [see what I did there? ;)] was closed for "equipment upgrades." So no dead body viewing for us.

Proof we finally made it into Tian'anmen Square

Monument to the People's Heroes

More monuments to the people

Instead, we headed to the camera shop in the off chance that the camera was done early. First, however, we had to swing by Beard Papa's for a cream puff for me:

Swiss and his favorite new food, a Beard Papa cream puff

As luck would have it, my camera was ready just a little later that afternoon and I was re-united with my toy. It's strange how helpless I felt without being able to properly document the last two days. Plus, Hooters was on the menu for tonight, and you know I wanted my camera for that :P

And so we worked our way to Hooters for dinner. I had wings and Budweiser draft beer, Jason had a chicken sandwich, and we both consumed our fair share of ranch dressing (a rarity here in Asia.) Oh, and there were Hooters girls, of course. I even got invited to "do the Macarena" around the restaurant, which Jason managed to dutifully document with my now functioning camera. Prices were very much inflated (read: basically same price as in the US), but it was a fun experience nonetheless.

Goodbye Beijing, Goodbye China
And so Friday, our last full day in China, had arrived. The morning was spent hanging around the hostel, me flirting with Flower, who works at the front desk (she's nice, totally cute, and I'm pretty sure I have a bit of a crush on her - plus you have to love her name.) Hanging in the lobby also offered me the chance to try on a "Public Security Volunteer" band, which we saw various employees throughout the city wear.

Swiss takes on a new job during the CPPCC Meeting

Unfortunately, the hostel did ask us to switch rooms on Friday. We had been staying in a four bed dorm, but actually had reserved a five bed. They needed the four bed room, so we got bumped to the five bed for one night. It was in this room where we met Justene, a French girl studying in China. She was very nice and our roomie for the night along with her friend Melodie. Lawton and I spent the rest of the day strolling around town, checking out some Hutongs, using my hand drawn picture dictionary to order food one last time, and seeking a post card for Jason's mother.

Speaking of food, as some of you may know, I was born Oct 31.  This makes me a Scorpio.  Couple that little fact with this offering near our hostel....

...and you get this:

It was actually pretty good.  Crunchy, but good.  We reserved the evening for one more visit to the Olympic park, this time at night.

The Bird's Nest at night...gorgeous!

Upon return from the park, we were invited by the hostel to participate in a free dumpling making party, the theme for the night. This involved the staff preparing dumpling ingredients, guests making dumplings, and then the staff cooking them.  The finished product was consumed by everybody. Fun, although I'm pretty sure I suck at making dumplings.

Jason also helped Justene and Melodie configure their computer to allow facebook access (the Chinese gov't blocks access to facebook, youtube, and whatever else it deems "inappropriate.") 

I spent the remainder of the evening chatting with a 12 year old Chinese girl (her father knew Lee), who wanted to practice her English. It would mark our two last good deeds in China prior to heading to bed for an early 5:45 am subway ride to the airport. It was also time to say good bye to everyone, including Peach (aka TROUBLE), Flower, Rain, Lee, Amanda, and the rest of the folks working there.

Next up: Japan!


Selah said...

There used to be a Beard Papa in Redwood City, but it went out of business. Don't know why-- those things are awesome!

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