John and I are back from our three days in Beijing. Awesome city. And unexpectedly different from Shanghai. Wide roads, people of all shapes and sizes, clean, generally very well mannered. Guess it helps to have a bunch of Red Guards to keep things in check. Anyhow, the journey begin with an incredibly affordable bus trip. According to all my research, the bus trip was half the cost of the train (but same duration) and a quarter the cost of the plane ticket. Since it was an overnight, it seemed reasonable to try the sleeper bus. Well it was quite a mistake, though the situation certainly could have been worse. Honestly, the sleepers were quite comfortable. Basically, there were three rows of 2-ft. wide, double-level sleepers running the length of the bus. There was A/C, tv’s, booklights… the trip started off not bad. Then we realized the booklights didn’t work, the sound system and volume had only one setting for the entire bus (blasting from 5-11 pm), and the toilet didn’t flush. People started smoking on the bus (even though smoking is prohibited) and soon the air carried the odor of smoke, urine, and feces. Besides that, the sleeping arrangements were quite comfortable. The bus made all kinds of undesignated stops–once at a gas station to load up a bunch of cargo, another time to drop off people on the roadside, another few at smaller township busstops. Around Shandong, there was road construction. According to the bus ticket seller, the bus was scheduled to arrive in Beijing at 8 am Friday morning. When we loaded onto the bus, the driver said 9:20 am was more likely due to road construction. Well, we didn’t arrive in Beijing until 1 pm. So the 14-hour journey dragged into a 20-hour journey. But John and I stayed in good spirits. No sick poopies, no nausea. What more could you ask for, right?
When we arrived, the sun was incredibly strong. Within minutes, my face felt tanned. We got into a taxi (all red here and noticably smaller than those in SH) and boy did the Beijing dialect hit me like a ton of rocks. Couldn’t understand what the hell the driver was asking. All I could do is repeat the address and point to the hotel location on the map.
We stayed at the Fangyuan Hotel, listed in Lonely Planet. Excellent location, but a bit shabby. Reminded me of my summer dwellings while in college. We washed up and then headed out for the Forbidden City, only a 10-minute walk away. The place was huge. I mean, the scale, the detail is mind-blowing. Makes you feel like a total lazy, stupid ass to think that people so long ago accomplished such a grand feat. And this was just the beginning of our state of awe. I mean, we did all the touristy Beijing things… but they are all must-see. It’s really a shame that the Cultural Revolution blasted away so much of China’s history… some of it is just gone forever. Still, those of you who can, you have to experience the greatness of what remains (or has been rebuilt/restored). Really.
John and I befriended the owner of the travel agency in the hotel. A 40-something man named Mr. Yang. I’m not sure what he liked about us… I think maybe he was fascinated with me being Chinese American. Anyway, this guy was awesome. He drove us around all day Saturday and Sunday and he was like an encyclopedia of Chinese history. He was very open and inquisitive and so strongly opinionated. It was really cool. A total history buff. As we toured the city, he pointed out all kinds of tidbits about different districts and places where things used to be but are now gone. A fierce opponent of the Commies, he talked about his own transformation from being a staunch supporter to being a demonstrator in Tiananmen. He talked about the government’s lies, hypocrisy, and corruption. It was really fascinating talking to someone so knowlegeable about Chinese history. It’s weird because I think my grandparents know a lot, but they are still of the generation where you don’t talk about things openly. My parents know some, but are mostly unconcerned. And according to Mr. Yang and from my own observations, the current generation of Chinese are mostly indifferent. But communicating with Mr. Yang was very challenging. Not only did I have trouble understanding him through the Beijing accent, I couldn’t get him to dumb his vocab down enough to fully grasp his thoughts. It’s really weird. Admittedly, I was getting a little complacent, feeling like my level was pretty good for getting around in daily life. But after talking to Mr. Yang, I was reminded that to discuss anything deeply, I really need to know more.
Our second day in Beijing, Mr. Yang took us to the Mitianyu section of the Great Wall. We drove through the countryside towards the mountains. The Great Wall was magnificent. We rode the skycable up the mountain then got out and walked the Wall. We walked up to the highest point accessible (we are so out of shape!) and nearly died. The sun was hot as hell but fortuantely, there was a cool breeze. For lunch, Mr. Yang took us to a mountainside hotel/restaurant where he and his friends stay when they go hiking nearby. Had excellent food including a moutain wildgrass, handpicked by the owner’s mother (there’s always a nai working behind the scenes!). John also tasted a shot of liquor (white wine fermented with dates and Chinese herbs).
Next stop was the Ming tombs–burial site of 13 Ming dynasty emperors. Years ago, one tomb was opened by accident, so the government turned it into a tourist stop. I thought of this site as the Chinese version of the Eqyptian pyramids.
On Sunday, Mr. Yang drove us to the Summer Palace, about 40 minutes outside of the city. This was where the royal family escaped the unbearable heat of Beijing and the Forbidden City. Nestled in the mountains along Kunming Lake, this was another massive estate, complete with several palaces, a performance stage, a buddhist temples, celebration halls, gardens, a marble boat on the lake, etc. All of these edifices are so impressive; yet, visiting them kind of made me sad. I mean, the books say 100,000 laborers were used to deepen and widen Kunming Lake. And seeing the materials used to build all these things without machinery– marble, stone, bricks– the opulence of royals is frankly quite sickening. I wonder what they did all day… I mean, they didn’t even have to walk. Their servants carried them all over! And how much of the country’s affairs were they really managing when they were directing construction of palaces and tombs and marble boats.
Returning into the city, we went to TianTan, the place where emperor’s went to pray every year for good harvests. A lot of stone and marble surrounded by a beautiful park full of lavender fields and old junipers and cypresses. By day’s end, John and I were beat. Mr. Yang was kind enough to treat us to dinner and then he dropped us off at the train station. He didn’t even charge us for all his driving on Sunday. A very nice guy. We’ll surely look him up next time we’re in Beijing.
The train, I have to say, was so cushy… especially compared to the bus. And actually, our train was making its debut so everything was new. There was a dining car in the back that had a bar and seating area– like a small restaurant. I slept really well on the train. John didn’t because it got too hot, but the ride was so smooth and by 7:30 am Monday morning, we were back in Shanghai.