Sunday, April 05, 2009

Asia Trip Week 1: Beijing, China

During the month of March, Christian and I took a three week vacation to Asia and the first stop was in Beijing, China. Rather than detailing everything we did since that can be found on Wikipedia, I'm just going to write my impressions of each place. In Beijing, we stayed with my friend Zach from college, which was really great since he was able to show us places where we wouldn't normally go and ordered very local dishes. The first thing he actually did was give us a roll of toilet paper, saying, "First rule of living in Beijing: Always have a roll of toilet paper with you. You're going to need it and you'll be grateful that you have it." This wound up being very, very true and we were thankful that he had given us the tip. Many of the public restrooms don't have toilet paper in them at all, even at some of the more touristy spots.

Our first day was mostly dealing with bureaucracy and getting the correct paperwork to register at the local police station, saying that we were residing with a friend for a week. All visitors to China are required to do it, but if you stay at a hotel, the hotel usually does it for you. Afterward, we walked around a little bit around his neighborhood where there are a lot of embassies, as well as Russian businesses. It was interesting because where he lives is almost like Little Russia; the Russians are the biggest minority in Beijing and all of their businesses have Cyrillic writing on them. We decided to take the first day easy since we were jet lagged, but it was also good just to get a sense of what the city is like.

The next day, we woke up early and went out to get breakfast with Zach. He got us these things called "jian bang," which was a crepe-like thing with (maybe) hoisin and a spicy sauce on it, a crunchy bread thing, an egg, some sort of seeds, and cilantro all freshly made and wrapped up for a mere 6 RMB for the two of us, about 0.60€. It was so delicious and cheap that we ate this almost every morning and realized that Zach was right: eating out in China is so cheap that it's not worth it to cook for yourself. The three of us could go out and eat a full, well-made meal for about 100 RMB (about 10.80€) and that would be considered on the expensive side. Most of the time when we ate with Zach, it definitely cost less than 100 kuai (that's like saying "bucks" or "quid" in China) and we of course had no qualms about it.

The highlight of being in Beijing was probably Wednesday when we went on a hiking tour with the Beijing Hikers to the Great Wall, Jiankou to Mutianyu. Zach works for the company and suggested we do it, even if the tour was rated a level 4 (more difficult). I had brought my running sneakers for the occasion, and man, was I glad! We started out in a small village, hiked up the side of a mountain (or extraordinarily steep hill) where we had some great views of the surrounding area, and finally reached the Great Wall that was about 1100 meters above sea level. The part of the Wall where we began was completely unrestored, overgrown, and wild with trees and grass poking up between the crumbling bricks. After taking a break at a lookout, we hiked along the Wall to a part called Ox Horn's Ridge that was super steep, almost a 90┬║ angle, then had to climb down the ridge. To say the least, it was good that we had hiking sticks from the Beijing Hikers, though they weren't much use on the way down because the steps were worn away and it was more helpful grabbing onto sides of the crumbling Wall (I slipped and fell on my butt). At some point, we finally reached a restored part of the Wall called Mutianyu which made things a lot easier, though there were still tons of stairs to climb down.

Along the restored parts, there were locals selling drinks to tourists, consistently asking, "Beer? Coke? You want drink?" One man stopped us, asking where we were from, and Zach, as tour guide, conversed with him. The old man asked specifically where Christian's from and laughed upon finding out he is German. He said that Christian looked too "stupid" ("saw" in Chinese) to be American like the rest of us there at the moment because he didn't look like he would vote for Bush. It turned out that the old man was a Bush supporter because he believed Bush did a lot of good things for China, whereas Obama wouldn't be good for the country. So to him, Christian didn't look smart enough to vote for Bush.

By the end of the 12 kilometer (8 mile) hike, our legs were tired and we were hungry for lunch. Everyone paid to take the tobaggan down the mountain, which was super fun. I tried to make a video of part of the way down, but at the same time, I didn't want to be so involved making the video that I would miss the ride. Afterwards, we took a short bus ride to a small restaurant still in the countryside where we had everything pre-ordered for us. Though the restaurant was outside and very unassuming, the food was great (not to mentioned included in the price of the tour). I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Beijing to do a hike with the Beijing Hikers because it was something we wouldn't do normally and we saw things we wouldn't have seen otherwise.

Other than that, Beijing is at times a modern time city where it's a free-for-all with traffic, but at the same time, still sort of backwards. Then again, "backwards" is a bit subjective. For example, I had been told that little kids run around with slits in their pants so that they can urinate and defecate easily in the street when necessary. I thought this couldn't be true, but we saw this in action at the Summer Palace when a little boy with said slit was allowed to pee on a tree in the middle of the path. Additionally, squat toilets are common, which I have no problem with. It's when there is no privacy between the holes in the ground that's problematic. Even worse is when there are stalls with doors on them and then women pay no regard to the doors, squatting down and going. I was appalled that this actually happened, but their attitude towards this sort of privacy is completely indifferent.

Beijing is also very polluted and we were lucky to have good weather while there. There were one or two days when we couldn't see buildings in front of us because of the smog, but when we looked directly up, the sky was blue. The day we went to the Forbidden City was incredibly windy, which made visibility very clear, but also the day was really, really cold. I got a bit of a sore throat from the air, as well as a rash from the undrinkable water. Though it sounds much worse than it really was, it's apparently normal when people move to Beijing and get a throat infection within the first month of living there. All in all, however, the city was definitely incredible to visit and there is so much cultural stuff to see. The food was great and cheap, the people friendly (though they tended to laugh once they figured out I couldn't speak Mandarin), the public transportation easy, and in general, the city was also cheap by western standards.

And, as I said earlier and because people often say that a picture is worth a thousand words, you can check out the 365 pictures from Beijing I took as a set on my Flickr account.


Tracie said...

sounds like you had a great time. The hiking tour definitely sounded worth it, especially the tobagganing part!

i'm assuming that no one spoke cantonese...?

Anonymous said...

I have one those wrapper things yesterday in Chinatown. All these years I've in Chinatown I never had one until yesterday. It has chive and egg and it was delicious.

when I go to China I will book the same tour; it sounded so much fun.

Remembered when the first time you encountered the squat toilet in Singarpore.

The pant with the slit is only made for boys. They do the same thing in Hong Kong when I was there. Also they spit anytime they feel like it too. That's just different culture and rules.

hope said...

sannie, that is so funny that you also wrote about TP! i was just telling jeremy that he needed to prepare himself to see some of the most disgusting public toilets in the world in beijing. at least, that's how it was when i was there in 2000. i bet a lot has changed since the olympics, though...