No one seemed terribly happy in the car from the driver to Donald to Julie who could understand the complaints made between Donald and the driver in Chinese. I could sense the momentary tension and it was apparent that we shared in a moment of disharmony – something that wasn’t what the CCP wants these days (they’d rather have a “harmonious” society)…
Day 32: TOLD YOU SO
We arrived in the Beijing International Airport at 11am. There, we met up with our guide Donald. Just under an hour later, we went straight into the city center of Beijing where we checked into a charming small hutong (a traditional Chinese accommodation) that was hidden in some back alleyway.
After getting settled, we walked with Donald to the Wangfujian pedestrian street. It was quite a bit of a walk in the already 30+ degree Celsius weather. But Donald offered to show us where Quanjude Roast Duck restaurant was since we wanted to try the “best” roast duck and he was headed to a neighboring bookstore anyways.
Now, we’re no strangers to Peking (or more accurately Beijing) Roast Duck. Lots of joints sell the stuff back at home in Los Angeles.
But our parents warned us that the duck in Beijing isn’t any better than the stuff back at home.
And deep down, I felt they were probably right. But how can you go to Beijing and not try the very dish that put Beijing on the culinary map?
So Julie and I had our Quanjude Roast Duck meal with a vegetable dish and a pot of oolong tea. And even though we thought we were getting a half duck, it seemed like our order was far less than that as it was mostly duck skin (no surprise there) but little else in the way of meat.
Our bill (including a 10% service charge) came out to be like 220 RMB (over $30USD at the current exchange rates), which was pretty ridiculous considering what we were getting. It was especially ridiculous considering how much we paid for just about every other meal in the country on our own. But perhaps it was because Wangfujian’s pedestrian street was a bit touristy, and the restauranteurs knew that and took advantage of it.
Nonetheless, we came, we tried the duck, we weren’t impressed, and I’m sure this is one of those moments where the parents can say, “I told you so.”
Afterwards, we stumbled into some kind of food market area of Wangfujian. In our brief visit, we noticed some scorpions on skewers and some were still twitching! They even had their pinchers still on! Even though I once saw Survivorman eat a raw scorpion, we’re not in survival mode so I don’t think we need to try this.
At 2:30pm, we took the Metro (only 2RMB one-way including transfers) to the Temple of Heaven.
There, we walked around the crowded complex taking photos of many of the buildings. At first, we saw a long line of people in the long corridor leading to the entrance of the complex, but then we realized that most of them were just playing cards.
Some of those photos in the brochure that we wished to duplicate were practically impossible due to the quantity of people here. This was especially true of the sacrificial altar shot backed by some of the fancy buildings in the background.
At 4:15pm, we left the Temple of Heaven for the Silk Street Market. And some 45 minutes later, we found ourselves browsing this much larger knockoff mall than the one in Shanghai we were at earlier in this trip.
Fortunately (at least in my mind), Julie didn’t buy anything. And so we headed back to our hutong near the Dongdan Station to figure out where to have dinner as well as to buy some meds for my persistent cold and cough symptoms.
After discussing with the manager of the hutong we stayed at, she recommended this place back near the Temple of Heaven that specialized in traditional authentic old Beijing food.
It was worth a try so back into the Metro we went and by around 7:30pm, we got to that restaurant.
The restaurant was pretty bright and big. Sure it was a little smokey, but we were up to try some local stuff anyways.
What we ended up getting after having the waiter introduce some of the more famous dishes they served was some kind of bean curd that was like the Chinese version of hummus.
We also had some kind of fried “sausage” of something non-meaty that went real well with garlic sauce.
The food was quite different but pretty good. And after paying the bill, we noticed on the way out a tank with a boa constrictor with a rat on the opposite side of the tank. But no one was moving, but it seemed like that mouse’s fate is sealed.
At 8:20pm, just as we left the restaurant and crossed the road over a pedestrian footbridge, we noticed some lights pretty high up in the sky. Some of these lights had a red color, green color, some were blinking, and the rest were white.
The way some of these dots danced, it was easy to think they were UFOs. But we eventually came to the realization that perhaps these lights are kites with fire-induced lamps attached to really long strings.
Finally at 9pm, we were back at the hutong. It was a very long day and we were quite glad to get cleaned up and straight to bed.
Day 33: DISHARMONY
Today was going to be a busy day, and we were told as such by our guide yesterday.
So after a quick 7:30am breakfast, we left at 8am.
During the drive, Donald pointed out various structures in Beijing as we tried to weave our way through the traffic and out of the city. Among the things we saw were the Drum and Bell Towers as well as one of the remaining old towers. I’m sure there were other things, but it’s hard to take photos of them let alone remember them as you’re whizzing along in the car.
To fill in other silent moments, Donald spoke about a story about spitting since we had complained to him about how much spitting we had seen throughout our time in China.
He said that spitting had been around since 990 A.D. when an Arab tradesman visited China looking to exchange goods. But he complained about the spitting saying that Chinese people lacked hygiene.
I chuckled at this because I thought the very same thing regarding our own experiences. I wasn’t sure if this story was real or not, but it’s funny that such complaints could span over a thousand years. Still, I was particularly annoyed about the spitting since I felt I had gotten sick perhaps twice due to this lack of hygiene. Come to think of it, I swear that I was sick for more than half the trip so far!
At 8:50am, we arrived at the Summer Palace. And immediately greeting us at the entranceway were huge tour groups and crowds as well as the increasing morning heat.
We walked around various parts of the complex looking at a bunch of fancy structures while going around half of a manmade lake drained from a neighboring reservoir. The Long Corridor provided welcome shade.
When we got to the exit at around 10:15am, I left with a sensation that there really wasn’t much going on here except for a bunch of fancy buildings. Perhaps I wasn’t that well versed in Ming or Qing Dynasty history so maybe it didn’t have the impact on me that it should have.
We also learned that he was big on American novels as well as American movies. That’d probably explain why his English was quite good (at least he seemed to understand a good deal of what we’re saying in English). He particularly seemed to know a lot of Al Pacino movies.
To be honest, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot to see here except for an exhibit showing Emperor Yongle and various treasures encased behind glass that seemed to really draw interest from Julie.
As we were leaving the Ming Tombs, we had to go back out the same way we came in. Since this involved a fair bit of going up and going down, we did notice some panoramic vistas of the complex that we previously didn’t notice before.
An hour later, we were done with the Ming Tombs and headed to the Friendship (i.e. government) Store where there was lunch. We knew it was a place to get the sell on, but at least they’re a little more slick about packing it together with a lunch stop much like the way they did it in Xi’an (so the sell wasn’t as blatant and distasteful).
After lunch, we headed straight for the Great Wall. The section in particular that Donald took us to was called Juyongguan. We weren’t sure if this was the Badaling section that appeared to be the most famous of all the Great Wall scenery.
In any case, we arrived at 1:50pm and proceeded to climb up to the top of this particular wall. It was a hot and tiring climb. Many of the steps were steep and uneven. We even noticed some dry barf stains on the stairs, a Caucasian guy with a bloody nose (I’m sure that’s dehydration since I had this in the past), and the smell of piss inside several of the towers serving as break spots.
Much of the scenery along the wall itself seemed restored. I could only recall one section past the 2nd tower that seemed to have a genuine old wall in which bricks weren’t discernible. But the graffiti on that section as well as on the restored sections kind of took away from the scene. Plus, the litter all over and around the wall were unsightly as well.
Indeed, it felt like we wasted our time and energy getting up here, and by this point, we could see that we didn’t get to see the Badaling part of the wall, which we were convinced at this point that that was the famous spot to take photos.
Donald contended it was overcommercialized and chose Juyongguan instead. Our itinerary didn’t specify which part of the wall to do so I guess he had to make a judgement call. But Julie insisted that you’re supposed to go to the famous part first and not substitute it for something else.
After a bit of tense back-and-forth discussions along with a phone call between Donald and the travel company, Donald eventually caved into Julie’s demands, and we were eventually on our way to Badaling.
No one seemed terribly happy in the car from the driver to Donald to Julie who could understand the complaints made between Donald and the driver in Chinese. I could sense the momentary tension and it was apparent that we shared in a moment of disharmony – something that wasn’t what the CCP wants these days (they’d rather have a “harmonious” society).
It wasn’t long before we got to the Badaling section, which sure enough was more commercialized but also was immediately grander than the Juyongguan section we had just climbed.
I was busy taking photos trying to reproduce that photo Julie had seen in the DK book. But it seemed that we had to go higher up to get that view and it was getting late in the day while our energy was already sapped from our climb up the wall earlier in the day.
In any case, we still got the photos we wanted, and in the end, we visited two sections of the Great Wall. So despite all the disharmony, it was harmonious in the end and hence we felt this day of touring was a success.
By 5pm, we left Badaling. One of the surprising things about our Badaling visit was how empty it was. Donald thought it had to do with the H1N1 virus killing off travel to this area, but I found it strange that both the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven were more crowded than the Great Wall.
At 6:20pm, we were dropped off at the Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant upon our request (and our desire to try the “other” big time Beijing Roast Duck Restaurant). That was when we said our goodbyes to both the driver and Donald. We would be on our own for the rest of our time in China from here on out.
With the over hour-long wait, it had better be the best damned duck we ever had. The accolades and celebrities leaving comments encased in frames further raised the expectations of this restaurant.
When we were finally seated at 7:30pm, we had ourselves a “half” roast duck with one vegetable dish and a couple of Ginger Ales. In addition, they gave us all sorts of add-ons from a couple of crispy buns to several desserts as well as some fruits.
The bill came out to be slightly less (209RMB) than what we spent in Quanjude (220RMB), but this place had a far better experience. We also thought the duck was better but somehow not that much better than say a Sam Woo Restaurant back at home.
In the end, we got to try it and that was the end of our roast duck pursuit.
Fortunately, there was a metro station almost next door to the restaurant. So by 9:30pm, we made it back to our hutong.
Totally pooped from such a long day, we cleaned up and slept without much difficulty.
Day 34: LONG MARCH
We awoke at 7am. I was feeling a little bit better than yesterday and I felt that I didn’t need any more meds. Unfortunately, Julie was definitely feeling a temperature now. With tomorrow being our flight to Tokyo, this was not good.
So we kind of moped around for a couple hours in the morning having our breakfast and leaving the hutong a little later than I would have liked at 9:15am.
It was already hot in the morning when we took a quick Metro ride over to the eastern exit of the Tian’anmen Square station.
Indeed there was a lot of places to try to compose photographs of fancy buildings and giant walls. All the people crowding the courtyards made it a little tough to get the kind of photos we wanted and it also kept the experience from being as peaceful as we wanted. Though we did notice that whenever we left the center of the Forbidden City and heading to one of sides, it was much quieter.
The actual Forbidden City section required a ticket for the Royal Museum. Actually, that Royal Museum seemed like it applied to the whole Forbidden City complex. This association wasn’t immediately intuitive, but we eventually figured it out.
There was a massive crowd in front of the throne and there was plenty of pushing and shoving not only to hold your own ground but even to get in! This was one of the many moments where Chinese courtesy was totally lacking.
With the heat of the day, we saw courtyard after courtyard, building after building.
It seemed like this place was never ending!
It wasn’t until about 11:45am when we made it through the Imperial Garden and out to the northern gate. But we still wanted to see Tian’anmen Square a little bit so we walked back through the Forbidden City back to the Chairman Mao entrance at the south.
And by 12:40pm, we were finally back outside.
In ten minutes, we found the proper underground entrance to the massive Tian’anmen Square where we could look back at the entrance to the Forbidden City or to the south at some pillar fronted by a bunch of red flags.
We couldn’t help but notice a bunch of Brazilian flags with Chinese flags at the entrance to Forbidden City. But perhaps this had something to do with something we saw on CCTV regarding China and Brazil meeting about trade agreements.
It was really hot in the massive Tian’anmen Square. And compared to the Forbidden City, there really wasn’t a whole lot to see. Though it was interesting how many soldiers, cops, and cameras were found in both the Forbidden City south entrance and in Tian’anmen Square.
Finally by 3pm, we took the train and returned to our hutong. I think I had enough of seeing these black and white ads throughout the subways for some mobile phone company. But I swore the pictures they used could’ve easily been something out of a Japanese horror movie.
Anyhow, Julie wasted no time to sleep and try to rest off the onslaught of her apparent flu or cold. Hopefully, she recovers because with this H1N1 outbreak, we could ill afford a quarantine as our accommodation bookings in Japan were already arranged…
And so ended our sightseeing in Beijing as well as the rest of China.
It was indeed a trip that brought out the best of the country (the varied landscapes, the sense of heritage and history, and progressive moves at bettering their cities as evidenced by their subways) as well as the worst of the country (the lack of hygiene and courtesy of many people, the censorship and propaganda, and the mistiming of our visit in terms of seeing waterfalls and other Natural assets).
We don’t know when we’ll be back to see more of the country and perhaps have a 2nd take at some of the major attractions I feel like I’d like to redo. But we were certainly glad we got this chance to find out a little more about who we are while getting a taste of China’s often overlooked and deeply endangered Nature.