Off to the Land of Dumplings - Beijing, China
China. In three days. Ready? Neither were we. We were very optimistic about planning our two week travel stint around Asia and all Joe wanted to see was the Great Wall. I, being the accommodating girlfriend I am, made it happen. However, there was a catch. Sure, we can go to China and see the wonder of the world but visas would be a problem. What to do, what to do? After talking to some friends I found a loophole that actually worked. Travel tip: if you are a US citizen looking to make a quick stop in China you can get a FREE, on arrival visa for 72 hours IF you are leaving to go to a third country. Your flight must be booked to leave the country and they will let you in. Excellent! Problem solved.
Since this was the trip of optimism, in our heads we would sleep on the flight to Beijing (4 hours) and hit the ground running when we landed at 7am. Go to the Forbidden City, a few palaces and historical sites, drink tons of coffee and then crash early. Our internal clocks (and recent medical issues) had other plans. Instead, we landed, checked in at our hostel around 9:30 and slept until 2:30pm. Oops. Day 1 - fail.
What we did manage to do with the rest of our afternoon was...that's right...eat! I won't lie, I was a bit nervous to eat real Chinese food. I've heard some horror stories but thankfully we encountered none. Our first meal was probably one of our best and included a spicy fried rice, basil and garlic beef, and sautéed broccoli and cauliflower. Yum!
While it may be an Asian stereotype to eat with chopsticks. That's not true in Thailand. We eat with a spoon and fork. So when we got to China I was confused when two small pieces of wood were placed next to my plate. Finally, my years of practice at Shiro's and Benihana's would get put to the test! I thought my technique was fair, but judging by the looks on the faces of the family seated next to us, I was a novice and might as well be spoon fed with a bib on. Live and learn.
We were able to walk around the outside of the Forbidden City and it's surrounding gardens for a bit. Since we snoozed a bit too long, the inside was now closed to the public for the day. We gathered this information not from any English/tourist signs laying around, because those don't exist...but rather, from the Chinese military guard standing at the gate who sternly shouted, "No!" as we tried to walk past him. Outside of the Forbidden City it is, then!
Over the last few months in Thailand I've gotten used to the stares, the whispers of "farang, farang..." and the pointing that casually ensues whenever I walk into a 7/11, restaurant, or while I sit on my bike at a traffic light. But I was not prepared for the paparazzi expedition I was about to go through. Naively, I thought Beijing + Great Wall + famous Wonder of the World = tourists of all nationalities. Not so much. Let's talk about an ego boost because man, if you are feeling rough one day, just walk out into the streets of Beijing. People will snap photos, ask to take pictures with you and video tape you breathing as if you were Whitney Houston alive and well...RIP.
It was interesting to be in such a military-run place. You could feel a bit of tension as you walked down the street. But we never felt uneasy which is good! Walking out of the Forbidden City we were overwhelmed by the crowds of people. It seems as though they had shut off all exits of the surrounding block - no subway, no street crossing for about a half a mile. We then realized that it was time to lower the flag for the day. We watched the ceremony unfold and listened to the cannons blare as we witnessed a gorgeous sunset on our first night.
A note from J. Lav:
"As if getting the most stern yet simple "No!" of all time, by a man in full military garb, wasn't enough to let us know we were in China, the sun set was. Leaving the Forbidden City area somewhat dejected (whatever we got to see the gardens and look over fences at some old buildings...big whoop) I looked up at the sun, since that was all we could really do having been quarantined to our section of the side-walk. They literally shut down EVERYTHING."
"So I'm looking at the sun and I'm thinking to myself. 'What? This is just weird.... is that the moon?!' I hadn't realized till then exactly how bad the pollution and "smog" was. I was looking directly at the sun with no problem; not even a squint. I was very excited about this. For me, being the moon and star-gazer I am, it was just cool to be able to look right at the sun for as long as I wanted for the first time ever. Was I burning my retinas with UV rays and breathing air that might as well be straight from a muffler? Maybe... But there, in that militaristic, polluted lock down, all the while having people gawk and literally take dozens of photos of us, I had a beautiful moment!"
One pale Irish Ferris isn't enough for Beijing...they needed two! Please, no photos... I was able to meet up with my cousin who teaches in the nearby area and some of his friends for drinks and food out on the town!
One of the "hip" night spots in Beijing was Houhai Lake. This lake was literally surrounded by dozens of bars and restaurants...98% of which had live music. Never in my life have I seen so many live singers in one place. It was like an American Idol scouting. But the food...mmmm!
Short ribs, vegetable soup, fried shrimp and DUMPLINGS! Since we planned this trip a few months prior, I had dreamed of dumplings. It's been months and I'll be the first to say...I have an addiction. As one of my recent posts stated - I ate so many dumplings that I almost changed my name to Baruka because I thought they were going to have to roll me out the front door...or airlift me through the ceiling.
After we walked around the beautifully lit up lake we stopped at a tea house for a nice spot of tea. We ordered a pot of jasmine tea which was served using a ceremonial pouring by our waitress. It was lovely to watch but we were served shot glass portions of tea at a time. Do we shoot them or sip them casually? Still a little unsure of how we were supposed to go about this ordeal, but...bottoms up.
Day three (no you didn't miss day 2, it will be in another post) consisted of the Summer Palace. We (again naively) thought that since this was a hot spot, there would be some places nearby serving food. Well, there weren't. Except the good 'ol Golden Arches. We made our way through the rubble into the most crowded Mickey D's I've ever been in, in my entire life. There was no wiggle room and it was chaos. Lines aren't really a "rule" in Asia, they're a suggestion...that no one follows. So while I elbowed my way through the crowds, drooling at the smell of hot french fries, Joe went on a search for a table. While I stood in a disorganized "line" that I can only describe as something resembling the scene in Titanic when everyone is pushing towards the lifeboats, I was confused at the menu. I'm sad to say I've been to a good amount of international McDonald's and for the most part the menu is the same give or take a few local dishes. But I had trouble finding three items I recognized. So, for the first time in my life, I had a Big Mac...while sitting in a pile of Big Macs, outside the home of Big Macs...in China. (I apologize for writing so much about McDonald's, but to two sleep deprived travelers this made us laugh).
The Summer Palace quickly became my favorite place in Beijing. The Great Wall, which I'll talk about in its own post was fascinating, but there was something about the Summer Palace I loved. It had been built to mirror Venice - built on the water with little canals and it was beautiful.
The structure of the palace and sheer size of it were amazing! It went on for ever. Every time we turned a corner, thinking we were finished a whole new area would open up to explore. We walked by a small river where locals were fishing, singing and just hanging out at. We walked through ornate temples and dressing rooms that the empress and royal families would use on a daily basis.
There were beautiful gardens with art and sculptures everywhere. It was a place I wished we had to ourselves and the other 398,129 people would leave so I could see everything without watching if I was crashing into someone.
From parts of the palace we had great views of the city and Kunming Lake. We also had the perfect weather for the day - clear skies and crisp weather. Although to this tropical beach baby it was the dead of winter and by the end of the day I had two scarves on along with my four layers.