“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Friday, September 19, 2014

Beijing Day 3: The Great Wall (and Rainstorm) of China

This trip was organized around the theme of Genghis and Kublai Kahn, to see the Mongol empire at its heart, and to see it from the other side of the Great Wall in Beijing, and points in between.  All the reports of the Great Wall excursion were those of a carnival-like atmosphere at the largest tourist access points, such as Badaling.  Gondolas, toboggans, vendors, souvenirs, food carts.  On top of it, I had read so much about signing up with a tour company and being brought to other vendor points in between or gently coerced into purchases at shopping stop-offs, so I was weary of how we'd get to the Great Wall and avoid any headaches.  I wanted to feel the essence of the Great Wall without all the hoopla.  So our plan was to find a driver, a guide, and get out to the wall headache-free.

Huanghuacheng Great Wall

Once again, TripAdvisor delivered and we found a guide and driver.  It was [again] drizzling in the morning but we hoped the weather would hold out at the wall for our hike.  Joe our guide met us at our hotel and we had a 2 hour drive ahead of us through some rush our traffic and more rain.  It was a comfortable ride, glad to have a private minivan to ourselves.  Fay and Carrie nodded off in the backseat and eventually I did, too.  It was an uneventful ride, and after another hour of winding through hairpin turns, our driver dropped us at the side of a road with some small signage above a path.  Our plan was to hike the Huanghuacheng section of the wall, which was reportedly away from any tourists.  This was indeed true.  The "entrance" to the wall was from the roadside path, up to someone's house, where we walked around to the back and up a small but steep path to the wall.

It was already beautiful as we stood at the top of a hill on the wall, looking down at a reservoir, dam, and small town.  We could see the wall stretching out before and behind us.  Aside from a couple of Chinese male tourists making their way down off the wall ("Take a picture with us!"), there was no one else in sight.  This was perfect.  Exactly what we wanted.  Us and the Wall.

The hike up to the wall was steep, no lie.  Carrie and I took our time going up and I took a preventative hit from my inhaler.  I haven't needed it yet in the Beijing smog (which was still present up here at Huanghuacheng), thank god.  Note, I had been pretty worried about the level of smog in the city and how my asthma would react to it.  The smog was just as bad what I'd heard and pictures I'd see.  My doctor advised me to wear a mask daily and take Prednisone when needed.  I didn't do either and was fine all week, so I hope this was because my daily inhaler was managing my condition well.

It is a steep wall.  I recommend hiking shoes.  The grip was necessary.  Heck, sometimes even walking backward up the wall was helpful, using other muscles.  We spent hours on the wall, 4 in total.  We anticipated a 3-4 hour walk so I was glad that we weren't slowing Joe down.  Between the 5 of us, we alternated rhythm and position, sometimes not consciously... at times I wanted to take my time and be in back, at times I would get into a hiking/breathing rhythm on inclines and didn't look down, choosing to stay in the rhythm in whatever position I was in.  For anyone that was taking more time to reach a rest point, it wasn't an issue because someone else would rest and take in a snack.  We were all moving at a perfectly fine pace and I'm glad we didn't feel rushed.  This was no place for a competition.

The wall was crumbling, at times we almost couldn't tell if we were even ON it.  Sections were overgrown with shrubbery and decades of silt.  Where we first entered the wall, it was generally restored, but deteriorated quickly once we were well off the road where we started.  At one point we had to climb off the wall and follow a path alongside it because it was too risky to remain on it.  Ancient stones were slippery from the smog/fog combo... there were few level places to walk, our legs were hit by branches, our footing uncertain, so a guard tower every few hundred feet was welcome.

I was fascinated by the construction of these parapets, built with random uncut stones placed as the inner fill wall, and finished stones with mortar creating the facade and inner walls.  Few keystones were used, only slivers of a keystone present in places with arches inside the towers.  Some towers had roofs that were accessible from inner stairwells.  Some were ruined nearly beyond recognition.  In many places, Chinese graffiti littered the walls.  The Ming dynasty section of this wall had a stone plaque mounted, written in ancient script, detailing the number of soldiers, length of time, and commanders in charge of building that section of wall.

It was truly beautiful, standing atop the wall, greenery blanketing the mountains around us, the wall stretching out and tracing the ridge tops in two directions.  We were alone with the Wall... then save the four European travelers we encountered in another section... they climbed ahead of us, then stopped where we finally did, and followed us and Joe down the mountain.  Having a guide wasn't a bad idea, and they used ours for a bit.  They were taking a bus or taxi back to Beijing, so we were thankful once again for hiring a car that would be waiting for us at the bottom of the wall.

The four hour hike came to an end where the wall jaggedly wound down a very steep mountainside and fell off into another lake and dam.  From here, we walked down the mountainside along another pebble-ridden path that had a few of us on our rear ends at least once.  Walking down mountains always seems to be just as difficult walking up them, as experience told us from Huayna Picchu.  It was like holding a squat for 40 minutes.  What propelled us along was the prospect of lunch at the end.

It was a small village, a roadside restaurant with just the owners inside.  We collapsed into chairs on
Best meal of the trip.
the patio outside, under an umbrella, when the rain started again.  We didn't care.  The hike was over and the rain held off until we were done.  And lunch... lunch was... This was my favorite meal of the trip.  Joe ordered for the table, dishes arrived, and were placed on the lazy susan in the middle.  Fried potato slices inside spicy boiling oil, cabbage with sesame oil with a side of red bean dipping sauce, sweet and sour pork, stewed tomatoes with egg, another pork dish, green beans with spicy red pepper chilis (my favorite), steamed rice, hot tea, and cold Coke.  I was famished.  It was 3pm and we hadn't eaten since breakfast, and I hadn't really eaten much in quantity since this entire trip started.  This time, I couldn't keep my chopsticks out of the plates.  I had seconds of rice to finish off one of the pork dishes.  The spicy red chilis with the green beans were like candy.  I used to be a spicy wuss years ago, but Thailand started to adjust me to a spicy meal, and this time I wasn't disappointed, nor did I find the food outrageously spicy.  Just happily spicy enough.

...Aaand.... it kept raining.  A formidable deluge once we made it back to the city.  Central Beijing doesn't have any drainage system, so the streets turn into rivers.  There's no real way to fight it.  If you can't beat it, join it.  One woman had.  We saw her riding down the street on her bike in a bathing suit... complete with swim cap.

China certainly has its share of quirkiness to the Western eye.  I'll delve more into that in a future entry, but note that it includes squirrels on leashes and tridents.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Beijing Day 2: The Forbidden City and Tienamen Square

We went halfway around the world to find out.. we were the tourist attraction.  Many a time we found people taking pictures of us, next to us, and even WITH us.  As a traveler who prefers to blend in, this made me very uncomfortable to stand out.  I didn't feel this amount of attention in Mongolia, Thailand, or Cambodia, so I wonder why in China... It took about a day until I noticed it, when it became obvious in The Forbidden City.

The tourist capital of China.  The seat of government.  Forbidden City, Great Wall.  I imagine it's like the Washington DC of the East, with citizens making a pilgrimage from far and wide to see their nation's capital.  At first I was tentative of walking around with my camera out, but soon realized that 1) I cannot blend in here, and 2) Everyone else also had their cameras out.  We were all tourists together.

The day began with The Forbidden City, on which we went on a Sunday.  We entered from the east Tienamen entrance with four metal detectors and bag scanners.  It was the only way to get into the Forbidden City and Tienamen, and I would hope there would also be an entrance on the west side opposite us, as well.  Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds it was, about 10am on a Sunday morning, a weekend, so it was thick, crammed into a barrier corridor.  Don't get anxious of impatient, the shoving and tightness of the crowd is normal, so just go with the flow and don't worry about apologies.

Also known as the Imperial Palace, it is vast.  Once inside, perhaps veer to the left or right to get around the
crowds, then double back at the end of the day when crowds are thinner to see some of the marvelous central buildings.  The day was almost sunny.  That is, we saw apparitions of the sun through some thinning fog.  Perhaps it was the rain that had started to part the blurring smog.  The level of smog was just as I had seen the pictures, but seeing it for my own eyes was almost beyond belief.  I thought I could just come to accept it, but after the next few days of seeing peeks of the sun and clear skies, within only days I could fully appreciate clearer air.

Visions of Peter O'Toole overseeing a tennis match between Puyi and his wives had flashed through my heads, references to The Last Emperor filling in the holes of my guidebook.  It was worth dashing into some of the side buildings that housed small museum collections, if not for the fine art, but for the air conditioning and a break from the throngs outside.  Through the alleys we roamed, taking more peeks around corners than we did covering every inch of the palace.  We had already been there two hours and had already started to feel the exhaustion of the walk to the City, the security line, ticket line, more gates and lines, and the heat.  Highly advised to tuck a snack into your bag with a bottle of two or water.  Thankfully there were plenty of tiny concession stands inside and we took a well-deserved ice cream break from a vendor.

A few important notes about The Forbidden City:

  • The gardens by the north gate are worth spending quality time
  • You cannot exit through the south gate
  • Once you have exited, you have to go back around to the south gate, back through the security line
  • The same security line is also necessary to enter Tienamen (so perhaps visit here first, then Forbidden City), or even to get back to the FC gift shop
  • The east gate doesn't exit through a gift shop.  And here I thought the Chinese government was embracing capitalism.

By the time we were done with the Forbidden City, it was well past lunch and we tucked into a small restaurant a good block south of the east gate.  We tended to look for places that appeared to have a picture menu so we could point at what we wanted.  The interesting part of this is that one of our party is a vegetarian, so we sure hoped that whatever she ordered was at least tofu and not mystery meat.  Lunch was cheap (about 25Y each), tasty, and even a little stray kitten wandered in and pranced about with discarded napkins and dangling shoelaces.

A couple of us had thoughts of tackling the Temple of Heaven after visiting Tienamen - after just leaving the Forbidden City - but as we nursed our aching feet under the lunch table, visions of a third sight to see started to drift away.  We had just enough energy in us to visit Tienamen... well, I don't think even all of us wanted to go that far.  But listen... we were already south.  It was just one last thing.  It was still the afternoon and a few hours until dinner.  We could just squeeze in the public square, walk home, and still be able to rest a while before figuring out dinner plans.  I know, it sounds like a long day by anyone's standards, and it was... but push on because lord only knows if/when we'd be back.  I felt I should see Tienamen for myself, a sort of personal responsibility to bear witness to a glance into the past.

To get into Tienamen, one has to go back through security then underground through tunnels to surface within the square.  Signage isn't entirely clear, so if you're heading to the square, don't follow the "Exit" signs.  Those are real exits, not exits from the tunnels.  If you exit, you have to back through security underground.

So, yeah, we learned that the hard way.

Frustrations behind us, we surfaced opposite the portrait of Mao across the street, standing in the infamous Tienamen Square.  And honestly, it was eerie.  Perhaps we all had our own pensive moments.  Thinking back of what happened here 25 years ago.  Quietly we spoke together about what did happen, in so few words, and contemplating that an entire generation of Chinese citizens exists right now that has no idea what took place those weeks in 1989.

On return to the hotel, Fay smartly hopped into bed for a nap as the rest of us propped our feet up on a small table while nursing some cold beers and updating Instagram.  The skies opened up again with rain.  Happily it held off through the day and we were safely back at the hotel - DRY - and exhausted as we were, decided to eat in the small restaurant on the premises.  It was acceptable, and inexpensive, and steps from the front door.  The next day ahead would be the hike on the Great Wall so I think we were all happy not to venture far and take it easy for the evening.  Perhaps the rain was a blessing in disguise.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Beijing Day 1: Jingshan Park and Night Market Food Tour

Hutong by our hotel
Part Two of the trip was about to begin, from Mongolia to China.  I was looking forward to Beijing after spending a week sleeping in tents or gers, at least we'd have a hotel room, bed, linens, and a shower.  Our hotel was tucked away in a hutong in a traditional Chinese courtyard-style setting by Jingshan Park.  After meeting Danielle and Carrie at the airport in Bejing, we rode together to the hotel and formulated a plan for the next day.  They would likely still be acclimating to the time change so we figured we'd go easy, get a feel for the neighborhood and take it easy before our night market food tour.
Jingshan Park pagoda

First stop was Jingshan Park since it was just across the street and only 2Y entry.  We initially had thought the day was overcast or that our contacts were dirty, but we soon discovered that it was smog.  It was a lovely warm day and a bit nice not to have the hot sun beating down on us, but a bit disconcerting to know that we were staring through smog and not fog, since the atmosphere lacked humidity yet was still hazy.

Jingshan Park
What was immediately noticeable was that it seemed Everyone in Beijing was out for the day.  It was Saturday, and the park was packed with revelers.  People dancing tango in one corner, others playing instruments while women danced.  Hackey sack, table tennis, singing, and other activities were taking place.  I've never seen a park so full of people just enjoying themselves and each other.  Even parks in Chicago people just walk around, lie in the sun, or picnic.  In Beijing, people were busy DOING things, active things.  No children running about yelling, but mostly adults recreating.  It was lovely.

We mounted steps to the top hill in the park that overlooked the Forbidden City and the whole of Beijing.  Again the smog was a presence, but it did give us our bearings on direction and distance.  Danielle and I would be the main wayfinders so we were glad to be up high to get a lay of the land.  As we left the park and walked north to explore more, we passed what appeared to be a playground, but was full of middle-aged and elder adults exercising on various machines, and every table tennis station was occupied.  This was a week-long trend, to see adults exercising every day.
Forbidden City view from Jingshan Park... and the smog.

Next on the list was lunch at Mr Shi's Dumplings, nestled in a hutong up north.  We finally found it, but the majority of patrons inside were Westerners.  The walls were drawn upon by other visitors from around the world.  I would like to think that in a city as large as Beijing we could find a perfectly fine dumpling shop that wasn't full of tourists, but the dumplings were good just the same.  I was a big fan of the fried mutton dumplings.  The smoked tofu salad I could do without.  As a matter of fact, I could do without any kind of tofu salad.  I don't mind it in miso soup or hot pot, but I have limits (foreshadowing: apparently sheep testicles are perfectly fine, but I had my fill of tofu).

The roads to and from the dumpling shop was full of small shops we so stopped in a few of them to see what piqued our interest... the silk shop was a hit, but as an American size 8, a Chinese 2XL was still too small for me.  I practically laughed myself out of the dressing room.  I had to come to the conclusion that shopping for clothes in Beijing was going to be a challenge, but I easily settled on a few pairs of shoes.  Also distracting us from our hunt for dumplings was my curiosity of street food, so we also made a stop at a shop front selling cheese-stuffed fried chicken (under-cooked, but I survived), and Danielle ordered fried squid balls.  These were delish.

Hutong shopping
We quickly passed by the Drum and Bell Towers but learned they were closed for renovation through October, so a peek through the gates sufficed.  We still had plenty of time before our evening food tour, so more shopping was at hand!  We didn't have a mapped plan of where we'd go, just in the direction of our hotel, when an archway into a very crowded hutong attracted our attention.  It was a pedestrian street full of shops of all sorts.  I was in haggling heaven.  As we roamed about, I remembered on the map that perhaps we were in the area of a lake and nightclub district.  An obligatory Starbucks stop was made when one was spotted, and we enjoyed a walk around Qianhai Lake, noting all the restaurants, bars, and nightclubs that lined the neighborhood with rooftop seating, karaoke, and hookah bars.  We made a mental note that we should come back one evening to enjoy a few cocktails... spoiler: it rained every other night and we never made it back.

Sure enough, down another side alley, a large lake made its presence known.  Throngs of people walked along the lakeside, took pictures, paddled boats, rode bikes, and snacked on food on sticks, enjoying the lovely Saturday afternoon.  Street food curiosity struck again when I ordered something from a stall, which turned out to be balls of chopped octopus in an egg batter, topped with eel sauce and fish flakes.  It wasn't half bad.  Better than the cheesy chicken.

Qianhai Lake
After a bit of rest at our hotel, our night market food tour was to begin.  One lesson we learned from Istanbul was to schedule a food tour at the start of vacation instead of at the end.  This way we can identify what we like immediately and have the rest of the trip to enjoy what we learn.  And this is exactly how it turned out, perfectly.  We were to meet in the Wangfujing shopping section of the city, which was less than an hour walk from Jingshan and pretty easy to find.  Tiny alleyway shops of the hutongs were replaced with the glittering neon signs of Chanel, Prada, and Hermes, with Zara and H&M thrown in.  Knock-off shops these were not, it was Times Square-esque in its flashiness.  And it felt a little bit like home.

I love me a good night market.  The Food!  Oh, the glorious food.  Such an adventure.  We met Mao, our guide, and he walked us through the Wangfujing Night Market and the Donghuamen Night Market.  The former was tucked away in some small alleys off to the side of the pedestrian Wangfujing stopping street.  We hadn't met a single Chinese person all week who had ever tried a scorpion on a stick; I'm convinced they're only there for the photo op and novelty.  First, to drink, which I loved, was a sort of plum juice in a short, stout bottle.  Then we moved on to the food: lamb skewers with red chilis, (a staple of the Muslim Uighur community from northwest China, now a popular street food item), grilled squid on a stick (yum!), dumplings, triple spicy meatballs (and fish balls, loved the spiciness but it wasn't overwhelming), stinky tofu (not as stinky and foul as I'd heard about on TV), cold spicy Sichuan noodles (my favorite), candied fruit, pineapple rice (reminded me of mango sticky rice), jackfruit, vodka made from sorghum, and sheep testicles.  Now, Carrie and I are adventurous eaters.  When Mao suggested these, she and I were completely on board, and he had to ask a couple times because he thought we were joking.  But really, they were good.  Not my favorite of the night, but perfectly acceptable.  They were a bit heavy on the iron flavor of other organ meats, but just fine.  
Scorpions on a stick

Lamb skewers

Wangfujing Night Market

Calling for patrons

Bubbly drink with dry ice

Soup with a tentacled creature that seemed a favorite

Donghuamen Night Market


More lovely food on a stick

Sheep testicles. A bit irony, but good.


Even the locals enjoying the night market

Extra spicy foodstuffs on a stick.  Delish.

Centipedes, snakes, silkworms, and other delicacies.

Pineapple rice

Carrie wrote more detail about our foods on her blog, so for more info...
The tour came to an end, and it was still a pleasant night, until we felt a drizzle.  Should we take a taxi home?  It wasn't a far walk.  But I was uncertain how taxis worked here and if we were easy marks for a scam (see also: Bangkok and Buenos Aires).  Eh, we'd walk.  I had a rain jacket, Fay had a poncho, and Danielle and Carrie shared an umbrella.


Until we needed an ark.  Oh how the skies opened up.  Just when we thought it couldn't get any worse, it did.  I was starting to get concerned for the camera in my bag, which was water resistant, but not waterproof.  Every shop we passed, I glanced into for umbrellas.  I finally found one and ducked inside to inquire.  45Y for an umbrella??  Phooey, we were already soaked.  I'd take 2 for 30Y and call it a night.  The lady agreed and I handed one over to Danielle.  We were already halfway back to the hotel.  But did we get washed.  Bathed.  Soaked.  There is no drainage in central Beijing, so the streets were flooded with at least 6" of water.  Down the water gushed out of the alleyways into the main streets.  Puddles with nowhere to flow to.  Fay and I had Crocs and flip-flops so walking through small seas wasn't an issue, but poor Carrie and Danielle were wearing legit shoes that I'm pretty sure took 3 days to dry out.  Fay struck gold with her Maid of the Mist poncho that I toted along from last year's visit to Niagara.  She was dry.  On the bright side (?), it was a warm night, the rain wasn't cold, there was no traffic and no people in our way, and we were safe.  Mao had said that Beijing was safe to walk around at night: the penalty for owning a gun was death, only police carried guns, and women should feel perfectly safe.  And in a practical monsoon, taking a dive off a curb into a makeshift river would be the most of our worries.

We can laugh about it now.  Little did we know that it would rain every night for the next 3 nights... but the rain always held off until we were done with our daily activities.  So, y'know, there's that.  A good first day in Beijing overall.  We'd need our beauty rest, for the next day we were headed for a long day of sightseeing at The Forbidden City and Tienamen Square.