Flash forward six or seven years: here I am in Korea, with a good college friend working in China—fluent in Chinese, no less! Would I ever have a better chance to fulfill the idle daydreams of my sixteen-year-old self? Probably not.
My flight to Beijing wasn't until the evening, so I had plenty of time on Saturday morning to laze around, clean, and pack some last-minute things. The ride on the airport "limousine" and flight to Beijing were both quiet and uneventful, aside from my worrywart tendencies: "Did I forget to pack anything? Let me check and make sure I have my passport. what if my visa is fucked up? What if they don't let me on the plane? What if they don't let me in the country?" (As an aside, the one thing I should have worried about—the bottle of Bert's Bees Aloe Vera Creamin my toiletries bag, which I had forgotten entirely about, that was well over the three ounces of liquid allowances—was a complete non-issue as well.)
Beijing, eight in the evening on the eve of the Lunar New Year: war zone. Aaron picked me up at the subway station and we emerged into an urban landscape under a constant barrage of fireworks and noisemakers. We could barely hear ourselves over the racket.
"Welcome to Beijing!"
We dropped my bag off at the hostel and went off in search of dinner. This proved to be a difficult task, as every restaurant we found was closed on account of the holiday. Eventually, we found one that looked open, though perhaps reserved for a private party. Aaron looked indecisive. "Should I ask if they're open?"
Inside, we were at first greeted with gentle nudges out the door, then Aaron explained (in Chinese) that I had just gotten to Beijing less than an hour ago and that I hadn't had a chance to eat dinner yet. Blue eyes and fluency in Mandarin is deadly in China. It will get you things. Things like: free dinners.
Upon hearing that I hadn't eaten yet, the restaurateurs changed their tune and ushered us in to a few empty seats at one of the tables. It turned out that it was a company party, and that everyone there was a chef or a waitress or a busboy or something to that effect—the manager and CEO (didn't know restaurants ahd those) were there, even. It seemed like the party had been going on for a while, as everyone there was pretty sloshed. Our table was full of mostly chefs who kept passing us dishes they had prepared themselves, insistent that we try. And try we did. We stuffed ourselves on spring rolls, fruit, dumplings, and a delicious fish done up by the woman sitting next to me. And Tsingtao.
None of them really spoke any English, so Aaron provided a Cliff's Notes translation as needed. He explained to them that I was teaching in Seoul, so I didn't speak any Chinese, but that I knew some Korean (which is, more or less, a bald-faced lie, depending on your definition of "some"). "Annyeonghaseyo?" one of the chefs slurred at me.
"Annyeonghaseyo!" I replied, much to their amusement.
Then he asked if I was Aaron's noona—sister—and I shook my head. "I'm a friend," I tried to say (that's about the limit of my Korean, and probably his as well). Not that it mattered; two seconds later he asked the same question to Aaron, who repeated it to me in English, which confirmed what I thought he had asked in the first place. Aaron answered him in Chinese, looks of understanding abounded, and everyone drank some more.
Once we had our fill (which the manager was insistent on making sure we had: were we having a good time? were we enjoying the food?), we got up and danced with the rest of the staff until the party was over.
My head reeled as we stepped back into the frigid New Year's night. "That was insane!" I cried. "That was fucking awesome!"
"That kind of stuff happens all the time in China," Aaron assured me. "I fucking love it."
But the night was young, and so were we, so we couldn't just leave the night at that. We hopped a cab to Hohai to see the sights and maybe check out the hutongs (alleys).
Unfortunately, Hohai was as big a war zone as everything else. We couldn't push through the fireworks to get to the hutongs proper, so we ended up at a table along the water, watching the fireworks, drinking baijou to stay warm and eating Skittles to take the edge off the baijou.
A word or two about baijou ("white liquor"): I'm sure good baijou exists, just like good soju exists (eg, Andong), but I've never had it. But it's cheap, it's portable (available in small bottles with just two or three shots), it's potent, and it's everywhere. The soju of China. I had a bad experience with baijou back at Hamilton and can barely get it down without the gag reflex kicking in. Drinking it is fine, it's the lingering aftertaste that does you in. Seriously, it's worse even than tequila.
Hence the Skittles to take the edge off.
After a while, the fireworks diminished—a bit—and we decided it was time to find a cab back to the hostel. That proved to be tricky, but we prevailed in the end. Cold and happy and tired, we retired.
I woke up late the next day, a pattern that would continue throughout my vacation. I don't know why, but I fell into a pattern of: fall asleep after trying to get comfortable on the rock-like bed for an hour or two, wake up at 7.30, fall asleep again until 11.30 or so. Aaron did his kung fu and, since I had the room to myself for the moment, I did my yoga. Then it was off for my first full day in Beijing.
Breakfast was a Chinese affair: Little Dragon Bag dumplings. We gorged ourselves at a nearby hole-in-the-wall and then it was off to the Altar of Earth to see the New Year festivities. And what festivities there were!
The whole place was packed with food vendors, boardwalk-type games (see above), toy vendors, and people. Above all, people. It was noisy and festive and happy and just plain celebratory, something I've never really seen in Korea. Don't get me wrong, I've seen Koreans get plenty giddy and excitable and carefree (especially when soju or Cass is involved), but it rarely seems to happen en masse out in public. Rather, it's usually restricted to selected company (eg, a company dinner in a restaurant) or to certain peer groups (eg, students celebrating the last day of finals), and almost always accompanied by excessive drinking. It just doesn't seem to happen for the sake of it; Korean adults seem much less inclined than Chinese adults to get a bit silly. I don't think I'd see any fairs spring up around the nearby temples to celebrate Seollal, but maybe (hopefully?) I'm wrong.
The highlight of the Temple of Earth was the shadow puppet show on the big pavilion at the main temple site. A adorable little woman, probably in her twenties or thirties but it's hard to tell with Asians, introduced the stories and emceed the whole affair. We stuck around for two of them, but it seemed like it was a show that would run for hours.
The first story was a love story, I guess. There was some dialog blaring over the speakers that seemed connected to the two puppets on the screen (a man, his horse, and a woman) but obviously I couldn't understand it. The second story had no dialog, instead being pretty easily puzzled out just from watching the puppets: a turtle (the villain), a frog couple (the victims), and a crane (the good guy):
Shadow puppets are made from cow or deer skin, in case you were wondering. And apparently the puppets we saw that day were upwards of forty years old, relics that managed to survive the Cultural Revolution. Surprisingly well-preserved, at that. So naturally, the best people in the world to trust with priceless cultural relics are...children.
Also obligatory joke about child labor. (The MC is the woman on the left, don't you want to pick her up and put her in your pocket?)
I also want to pick up the little girl there and take her home, too.
You could buy lots of silly, festive-like things at the temple: noise makers, food, balloons...and awesome hats. Hats you can also buy in Korea, granted, but nonetheless I indulged:
After we got tired of the temple fair, we retired back to the hostel to plan our next course of action. After a quick dinner, we decided to brave the FRIGID COLD (did I mention yet that it was freezing cold out?) and go to the night market so I could expand my list of "Weird Things I've Put in My Mouth." So far in Korea it's been squid, octopus, and dog. "That's nothing," Aaron scoffed. "Let's get you some bugs."
Mission accomplished, we retired again to the hostel. After a few cocktails and some Lindt chocolate, we called it a day—Sunday, specifically.
Much as I enjoyed the Little Dragon Bag dumplings the previous day, I told Aaron that I still preferred to get a Western breakfast in me in the mornings. I can eat Korean food at any other time of day, but I still can't start my day with kimchi and gimbap. It's a cheese omelette and an apple all the way, for me. Aaron agreed, and so Day 2 started with a hearty Western breakfast at the hostel.
Our agenda for Day 2 was: The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and a visit to the Chairman. Unfortunately, Mao's body wasn't available to visit, but two out of three ain't bad.
The Forbidden City. Holy shit. Holy. Shit. I can't really adequately convey my impression of the Forbidden City. We went in through the "rear" entrance, as per Aaron's suggestion, so that we started with the smaller buildings and gardens and worked our way up to the big stuff.
Me with the mama lion at one of the gates. You can tell she's the mama because she's nursing a cub under her paw.
Me and the Chairman.
Since we couldn't see Mao, we took the subway to Aaron's old ACC stomping grounds, where hopefully he could find a restaurant or two. We found a place that had some Sichuan dish, which Aaron was keen on getting me to try. I would have to say it was my favorite food of the week, mostly because it reminded me a lot of Korean food.
Ever since the Olympics, restaurants have started shrinkwrapping table settings.
Mmm, tofu. This restaurant also had the best complimentary tea I had in China, being that it actually tasted like tea and not just dishwater.
Once we stuffed ourselves on tofu and eggplant, we consulted Aaron's shitty/city map to see what to do next. As luck would have it, there was a park rather close to us. We had considered going to Beihai, but decided to check out this one because Aaron had never been there.
It wasn't a long walk until we found a cab, but it felt like forever in the BITTER STINGING COLD. Plus we had already spent the better part of the day walking around the Forbidden City, or walking around Tiananmen Square, or walking to food...etc. It felt good to sit down.
Imagine our surprise when this park turned out not to be a "serene greenness" park, but a "games and rides" park. It was five or six in the afternoon, so most of the guests were leaving and some of the vendors were closing up. But it was only five yuan to go inside, so we figured, why not? Of course, by this time the batteries in my camera had died (that camera sucks the juice out of batteries like nothing else I've ever seen) so I didn't come away with many pictures from that, except creepy dolls in rickshaws:
We meandered around the park for another hour or so, then beat a retreat back to the hostel to plan our next move. Going back to the hostel was always a dangerous idea; it was so warm and cozy in there, and so cold and uncomfortable outside, that we ran the danger of being lazy and staying in. Plus, one of our roommates was an amiable fellow NESCAC alumna, so we often found ourselves caught up in conversation about small New England liberal arts colleges.
Our growling stomachs couldn't be ignored, though. We decided to see if the dumpling restaurant (with the party we had crashed on Saturday night) was open. It was indeed, and we had candied sweet potatoes and some more Beijing style food for dinner. We were on the lookout for anyone from Saturday night, and we espied a few faces back in the kitchen, but no looks of recognition passed between us. I was a bit miffed; I had been not-so-secretly hoping for a hero's welcome. But that's how it goes, I guess.
Our hostel was right next to the bar district of Beijing, so after dinner we went out with a Brazilian girl and friend of hers for some drinks and dancing. Since it was freezing cold and the bars had no coat checks, everyone danced and drank in their full winter attire, which quickly got rather uncomfortable. A few cheap cocktails later, we were in a cab back towards the hostel, tired but happy.
Worn out from the previous night, I slept in like whoa on Tuesday. Aaron was off practicing his kung fu when I woke up, so I rolled out of bed and hopped in the shower to wash off the grime from yesterday. We skipped breakfast—since I didn't get out of the shower until half past noon—and went straight out to try to see Mao again. Again, he was closed; he's only open until noon, apparently. So we went to the next place on Aaron's agenda for me, Baihei Park.
Not much to say, since the name itself is kind of self-explanatory. We spent most of our time on that island pictured in the middle of the lake, scaling all the way to the top of the hill to see...whatever big spire that was on the top.
There was also a nice view of Beijing from the top of the hill. Mountain?
There was a cave, too! But it was closed. :(
Once we finished at Baihei, we decided to go back to Hohei and do some (window) shopping. We picked up handmade leather notebooks, while I assessed the goods and tried to figure out what to buy for gifts. By the time we had given all of the shops a run for their money, it was dinner time. And since there was a restaurant right in the neighborhood, why not have some Peking Duck?
Om nom nom.
Making Peking duck is a freaking intense process. Mark told me a story about a girl he knew who couldn't shower for a week because her mom left the duck hanging in the shower stall, right by the fan, to soak in the spices. But the end result is worth it. Mm-mm, good.
The entire meal, by the way, I had nothing to drink. Having a beverage with food in China seems to be an afterthought more than an expectation. Maybe part of the reason is that no one trusts the tap water? No one trusts the tap water in Korea either, of course, but every store and restaurant has a gratis "water bank" which filters out the bad stuff to give you hot or cold dihydrogen oxide. No such thing in China. Sometimes restaurants gave you a complimentary pot of tea, but not always. You can order beverages, of course—the family across from us was drinking sodas and beer—but there was no complimentary pot of tea for us.
We called it an early night; the next day was going to be an early one for us. Aaron was leaving that afternoon, so we needed to be up early to make the most of the day.
And up early we were. We were dressed and eating a light breakfast in the hostel by 7.30, where our only company was a freshly-arrived student of Chinese and two Brits having beer for breakfast (or maybe one more round after an intense all-nighter). Our destination today: The Altar of Heaven.
The Altar of Heaven is where the Emperor used to make sacrifices, I guess to gods and also ancestors. There was (is?) a road/path directly from the Forbidden City to the Altar of Heaven that he would walk while everyone crowded around and watched. I guess. You could still see remnants of it at the Altar of Heaven, slabs of granite raised a few centimeters above the ground (maybe to make the Emperor appear taller?).
We were approaching the heart of the altar when we encountered a crowd gathered around a roped-off area. Since it seemed like the last gate to go through was locked, we hung around to see whatever the spectacle was going to be. I was hoping for a kung fu show, myself. Instead, it turned out to be a historical reenactment, presumably of some kind of imperial procession. Kind of cool, but Chinese moms encouraging their kids to just push me out of the way made it a bit uncomfortable, too.
Once it was over, we skirted the locked gate (apparently the side entrances were open, which we hadn't noticed before) to get to the heart of the altar.
On the way out, people selling little knick-knacks of all kinds hawked their wares, trying to get our attention: "Hey lady! Hey mister!" We did see this guy, though, which was awesome:
We cabbed back to the hostel and went to the shaved noodle place across the street for lunch, where they were watching the Taiwanese version of Boys Over Flowers. THAT SHOW IS EVERYWHERE, I CAN'T ESCAPE IT. IT WILL HAUNT ME TO THE GRAVE.
Gu jun-pyooooo! Or rather, Dao Ming Siiiii!
We made a quick stop at a nearby DVD store, since I wanted to get my boyfriend the Infernal Affairs trilogy ("Do you want anything from China?" "Infernal Affairs, please!"), and then Aaron was all checked out. I was now in Beijing on my own.
I will admit it: I'm a bit of a lump. An ideal vacation for me is not running around and seeing things, but one where I can "be-ax" (as my four-year-old self would say) and just be mellow. So, after making reservations to see the Great Wall on Friday, I spent the rest of Wednesday reading. I finished the Agatha Christie novels I brought with me on the plane, and borrowed Twilight from the hostel's lending library. I had a short break for dinner (noodles with egg and tomato, with a vodka fruit smoothie) and South Park (from the hostel's own DVD collection, projected on the screen on the far wall of the lounge).
The sheer Americanness of South Park was enough to guilt me in to doing something, so I bundled up and trudged back into the cold to wander around the hostel neighborhood. Still hungry, I stopped at the dumpling restaurant Aaron and I had gone to for breakfast before and ordered more of the same. A gaunt old Chinese grandfather and his granddaughter? daughter? were also eating there. Clearly too deep into the Tsingtao, he started interrogating me in Chinese. When it was clear I didn't understand, he talked to the storekeeper instead. Pudgy and amiable and with a very basic knowledge of English, ("Sit down, come again, see you tomorrow") I assume he explained to the grandfather that I didn't speak Chinese, though I had a friend who did. Grandfather started talking to me again, pointing at the dumplings on his table and giving me an inquiring thumbs up. I smiled and gave a thumbs up back, and he looked pleased. Periodically the girl with him would look over at me and giggle.
I finished my dumplings and paid—thank God for the Sino-Korean numbers, as I could sort of feel my way through prices of things in China—and went on my Sanlitun walkabout. Not much happened—I bought some random necessities at the 7-11 and made another trip to the ATM—but it was nice just to wander in the city, without worrying about getting somewhere.
But it was also freezing cold, so my walkabout didn't last long. I bought a yogurt drink and some cookies at a nearby convenience store and retired back to my room, where I alternated between reading Twilight, writing, and browsing Facebook on my phone.
I woke up late again on Thursday, luxuriating in my vacation. Not that I need to get up early for the hagwon business, but sometimes it's nice to let yourself sleep in. I had a big breakfast of toast, fried eggs, and Müsli with fruit to start my day, pausing in the lounge to read a one-shot volume from Neil Gaiman's Sandman someone had left in the library. Back to my room, where my two remaining roommates were both out, and I read some more while my phone charged.
Eventually, I worked up the gumption to go out and shop. I returned to Hohei to do the bulk of my gift-shopping. Since that only took a couple of hours, after I dropped off my things at the hostel, I decided to venture somewhere new and check out the flea market. (The hostel, very conveniently, had scraps of paper with the English and Chinese names of most of the notable sights in Beijing, so that you only had to point to tell the cab driver where you wanted to go.) I hadn't finished all of my gift shopping, maybe I could find something for the few remaining names on my list.
Unfortunately, it was getting on to dinner time when I arrived, so a few of the vendors were rolling in their goods. But many of them were still in business and eager to sell me stuff. I strolled up and down the aisles at a pace between brisk and leisurely—enough time to see things, but not slow enough to get sucked into a halting Engrishee conversation with a vendor. The trick wasn't to stop and stare at something unless I really, really wanted to buy it; if something intrigued me, I just walked up and down the aisle a few times. Sometimes I'd get a merchant pushing something on me, especially if they recognized me from one of my repeat walks, but mostly they left me alone in favor of other customers, almost all of whom were Chinese.
A lot of the blankets were selling the same stuff: jade bracelets and charms and carvings, teapots, shards of Ming pottery, assorted knick-knacks, wall scrolls, etc.
A couple of the vendors had musical instruments, and if I had more room in my luggage I might have bought one.
Next to the flea market proper was a more stationary-looking market, with proper buildings and real stores. Most of them were closing as well, but a few were still open. Nothing outside really caught my fancy, so I didn't go into any of them.
I left the flea market empty-handed, but still glad for the chance to look around. Never before had I seen so much jade in one place in my life, though the bead market at Dongdaemun would run a close second (Dongdaemun would win on pearls, though). But it mostly looked to be kind of crappy jade, and honestly jade is a rock I can live without. So the flea market didn't really have anything to appeal to me.
I cabbed back to the hostel, where I tried (and failed) to have shaved noodles for dinner. The language barrier in this case seemed to be insurmountable, so I retreated to the hostel for noodle, tomato, and egg—again. I finished Twilight and found some contemporary Chinese literature instead, to exercise "the little grey cells." Again, I alternated between reading, writing, and Facebook until I fell asleep early. Tomorrow was going to be an early day.
Great Wall day! This was one of the few times I can ever remember being awoken by an alarm. Usually my brain is awesome and, knowing that I have to be up in X amount of hours, nudges me out of the early, light cycle of sleep well before the alarm goes off. (I still always set one for important things, just in case.) But for the first time in years, the dulcet tones of Abba ("Ring, Ring") pulled me from my slumber at 7.00. The NESCAC alumna had changed rooms, apparently, so it was just me and a British girl I didn't really talk to in the four-sleeper room by this point. I killed the alarm, changed into my clothes for the Great Wall, and went downstairs for my free breakfast.
The ride to the Great Wall was about two hours. Many of the other tourists slept on the old dilapidated van; I read and listened to my mp3 player. A Chinese girl fluent in English gave us a bit of background history about the Great Wall, which I promptly forgot, and then we were there.
There's not much else to say about the Great Wall except that it's the Great Wall. Fortunately, Mutianyu didn't really have a lot of visitors so it was very easy to get lost in the scenery and the sheer oldness of it all. You had the option of walking up to the wall, or taking a "cable car" (which turned out to be a ski lift). You could also take an alpine slide (or toboggan, whatever) back down. Given my earlier points about being lazy, I of course opted for the cable car ticket. I would have tobogganed, but I had my camera and phone and book all with me; I didn't want to risk losing them. Anyway, since pictures are worth a thousand words:
View from the chair lift.
Parts of the Wall are incredibly steep. Check out the incline on these guys:
It was a bit of a trek. It was also warmer than it had been the previous days, so I soon began to get uncomfortably warm in my North Face. The leisurely stroll became a test of endurance: could I make it to the next tower without stopping? Up the next flight of stairs? Then I reminded myself that this was my vacation and if I wanted to stop and rest, why not?
Eventually I made it from the chair lift to the cable car, the distance between which constituted the bulk of this section of the wall. I hopped a cable car back down and proceeded to muck about shopping. The merchants here were among the most aggressive I saw in China. "Lady, hello lady, buy postcard?" Even though I kept my eyes firmly on the ground in front of me, I was still barraged with entreaties to buy things from this or that tent. A long line of stalls and markets led from the parking lot all the way up to the exit (and entrance), so it was a while before I got back to where we were supposed to meet at 12.30. At one of the last stalls, the one with the least aggressive salespeople, I picked up the obligatory "I Climbed the Great Wall" t-shirt. The woman tried to sell it to me for forty yuan. I knew twenty was a fair price—probably even a bit generous—and forty was extravagant. She took the twenty, miffed that she didn't make as much money as she could have but pleased to still come out on top. Forty yuan, by the way, is $5.80 US. $6 for a new t-shirt at home would be a steal. $2.90 is just ridiculous.
Even with my new t-shirt in hand, other merchants still tried to get me to buy even more stuff. I ignored them and returned to the entrance, reading until the touring party reassembled. A few people were already there: an Canadian twenty-something and her mother; two German sisters and their mother; a Dutch couple. We compared our purchases and made idle chit-chat until our Chinese guide pointed the direction to lunch. She would stay behind to shepherd in the French family that was still missing.
Lunch was unimpressive and unfulfilling, the complimentary tea more akin to dishwater than anything else. But hey, free is free. The bus dropped off the French and German families at one hostel, then unloaded the rest of us at another. I had left Sanlitun hostel at 8 that morning. It was now 3.30 in the afternoon. The whole trip—not including the extra yuan for the t-shirt and cable-car ticket—cost me about $40 US, including transportation, two free meals, and the admission fee for the Wall itself. I felt like a high roller.
I spent some time reading and recovering from the Wall, then decided to see the Silk Market. A little bit more upscale than the flea market, the Silk Market is all inside, with multiple floors sorted by departments, including an Arts & Crafts department. Bingo!
I jumped the elevator to the fourth floor and immediately scoped out the bead selection. Again, like the flea market, a lot of jade and a lot of pearls were to be had. Everything else was standard gemstone stuff, in rather boring "smooth round" shapes. I kept my eye open for something that didn't look like I could pick up at the cave, and came home with a string of large, partially-polished agate nuggets for about $10 US. I spent an uncomfortable amount of time haggling with the vendor, but hey, I did bargain down from $20 so I guess it was worth it. Of course, I'm sure I'll show the strand to Bev and she'll price it as worth, like, $7 but so it goes.
Feeling accomplished, I cabbed to Hohei to pick up one more last-minute gift (with the angriest, most frustrated cabbie I've ever seen; maybe Hohei was too far out of his way? He eventually obliged, though) and then retired for a final evening at the hostel.
My flight wasn't until 7.00 pm, so I could have conceivably done something in the two or three hours I had between checking out of my room and leaving for the airport. But I played it safe and lounged in the hostel, reading and people-watching. A pair of British girls on the couch next to me giggled and went on about their wild night last night, the spitting contemporary image of Patsy and Eddy from Absolutely Fabulous. I had to work to restrain giggles the whole time.
My time in PEK was largely uneventful. I bought a bottle of duty-free whisky to take back to Jong-min, I spent far too long waiting for the check-in counter to open, I watched a pair of Korean brothers horse around by the check-in counter, I browsed Facebook while waiting at my utterly dull terminal devoid of any shops or eateries or bathrooms. The one annoying thing is that the plane we were to board wasn't actually at our terminal; instead, we were crammed on to an airport shuttle which drove around what seemed like the entire goddamn airport to get us to our plane. But otherwise, smooth sailing.
An hour or so later, I touched down in Korea again. Oh Korea, with your signage I can read! And language I can inadequately muddle through! And your delicious, delicious food. China ruled, absolutely, but coming to Korea was like coming home.
A bit sad and sobering, then, when I put on my arrival card for Korea: "Duration of stay: 10 days."