Ni Hao from Beijing!!!
We made it! The flight was uneventful. Very little turbulence and we were fortunate that the plane wasn’t overly full so we were able to share 3 seats and got quite a bit of sleep. Left 12/1 at 12:40 am from LAX arrived about 13 hrs later at BJ airport at 5:30 am 12/2. I must say, the BJ airport is the cleanest airport I have ever been to in my life. Seriously, the floor was spotless and shiny in a way that was impossible not to notice. Anyway, our guide, Cecilia, met us. She is very sweet and speaks wonderful, clearly understood English. Not that I was really surprised but, wow, has BJ changed since the last time I was here 20 years ago. The city is filled with big modern buildings. Slick stores with names like Mona Lisa and La Vie selling beautiful high end clothing line the streets in the area of our hotel. The air quality is not nearly as bad as I thought it might be. Yes, there is a haze, but there’s a haze in Los Angeles too. The traffic is a jumble of buses, cabs, and other cars mixed with bold pedestrians and bicyclists and these funny little 3-wheeled motorcycle type vehicles that carry passengers all sort of lunging forward trying to make sure they don’t run into or over anyone or get t-boned by someone. I wasn’t too nervous on our two cab rides but it is amusing that street signals and lane lines in the road are not so much like laws as they are merely suggestions.
Anyway, Cecelia shuttled us over to the Novatel Peace Hotel which will be our home away from home for the next few days. Its a serviceable hotel. Very nice lobby, apparently with free Wifi in the lobby (I’ll let you know later) with somewhat average rooms. We’re not fancy so it works for us. Our tour program starts tomorrow with today being left as a “rest” day so we were kind of on our own. Not a big deal for us, just point us in the general direction and we’ll make our way there. And, we definitely were not going to be resting. I slept about 6 hrs and Bobby about 4-5 hrs on the plane so our plan was to stay awake today and go to sleep tonight on BJ time in hopes of acclimating as quickly as possible to the time change. Again, I’ll have to let you know tomorrow how that plan works out for us!
So, based on Cecilia’s suggestion, we decided to visit the Temple of Heaven. It was a 20 min cab ride away (cost = 17 yuan or just under $3). There are a lot of really neat, really old (try built in the 1400s) traditional style Chinese buildings there and there’s a good bit of history that goes along with that obviously. All the buildings have been recently refurbished and repainted as part of the Olympic clean up efforts. They have tons of detail work, gold and gawdy, and are quite beautiful. But, the best part IMO of the temple grounds was The Long Corridor. I’d have to go back and see exactly what it was historically (something about ceremonies requiring ritualistic sacrifice of animals if I recall correctly) but today, its used as a sort of hang out place for people to play cards, dance, sing, exercise, you name it. I could have spent quite awhile longer there just looking at all the very interesting people. There were tons of people, like hundreds. I expected that the locals would stare at us but, either we’re just not that interesting and/or in BJ they’re really used to lots of foreigners, hardly anyone even gave us a second glance. There was a really horrible band, think marching band including uniforms but standing still, playing music surrounded by hundreds of people who seemed like they were really enjoying it. We also saw some cute teenage girls singing karaoke of sorts, also truly horrible. But, you know what? They didn’t care. They were there enjoying themselves, getting fresh air and in many instances getting some exercise. It was great! On the shopping front, I picked up a pretty little cloisonne thimble depicting one of the temple buildings to add to my collection for only 5 yuan! Today’s conversion rate was about 6.8 yuan per dollar so that’s like 80 cents!
We decided to go with a real Chinese meal…. KFC… I know, I know. Its hard to believe we came all the way to BJ and ate chicken sandwiches from the Kentucky Fried place but it tasted really good and we didn’t have to think too much because we had a fairly good idea of what we’d be getting. Lunch for two, 45 yuan or $6.50 US. On the main drag her by the hotel there’s a KFC and a McD’s on every block!
Afterward, we took a cab back from the hotel and then ended up walking some of the streets just to see what we would see. Where we were, there were no non-Chinese people at all. Still no stares. Unfortunately, the sales people in some of the few stores we visited were so in your face its quite off putting. I certainly don’t blame them for wanting to make a living but a few times when I would have liked to look and linger and more than likely buy something, I ended up leaving just to get away from the hard sell. I’m not exactly sure why they do this to foreigners, I expect it must often work in their favor or they wouldn’t continue the practice but its just not my thing. Oh well.
Came back to the room and completely against our will, fell asleep for about 2 hrs. Forced ourselves to get up, do a little dinner, McD’s (laziness won out again) and then we walked the street with all the meats on sticks vendors that I’d seen on the Travel Channel. It was a must see for sure. Little pathways lined with vendors selling every imaginable creature skewered on a stick and fried. We saw scorpions and squid, starfish and all kinds of other unknown items. Some of the smells are pretty offensive, sort of a mixture of boiling mystery meat and sewage. The sound is pretty interesting too. We’re going to go back on Friday and I’m going to get a corn on the cob, which seems fairly safe. Bobby says he’s going to ask for chicken and making a clucking noise to get his point across. We’ll see. He also wants to bring the camcorder to record the scene including the sounds which are very unusual. Imagine hundreds of voices, intermixed with the calls of the vendors, with a loud background of shrieking live Chinese opera. Like I said, it’s a pretty cool experience!
We also encountered the most aggressive of all the vendors we’ve come across so far. “Hey lady!” “Come see!” follow us wherever we go. I’m starting to get used to the hawking but really retreat when they try to literally pull me in. Personal space, people. They obviously know from experience who’s generally responsible for dropping the most RMB. They quite obviously focus their efforts in on the female Caucasian in the crowd--and I do mean crowd, we were literally bumping into and off of people like human version of bumper cars which was at first uncomfortable but quickly accepted as a fact of life. All the stuff looks about the same in each shop we’ve visited. Some of its worthy of a second look but its mostly just trinkets. We’re going to be visiting the silk market, the pearl market and a jade factory so I’m sure we’ll have no shortage of opportunity to buy stuff plus, we’ll be here for a few days and its just down the street, we’ll be going back I‘m sure. We did wander into a store called Foreign Language Bookstore” and I picked up a handful of bilingual (mandarin characters/pinyin/English) toddler board books for Georgiana, and me. They’re kind of fun and they were only about a buck each.
After another few hours and miles of walking we headed back to the hotel. Bobby and I both estimate that we walked at least 10 miles today and our dogs were barking. We’ve encountered quite a few beggars including a middle aged man in McD’s who showed us he was missing both hands at the wrists. He also hit up another customer, a Chinese man, who was eating nearby with his family who became pretty incensed and assertively told him (I’m assuming) “get lost” --the customer then clapped his hands loudly to call over an employee to complain about the man’s presence, which led to the manager being called and some more intense discussion. The manager then found the security guy and hollered at him. It was a process that probably took about 5 mins all together and by the time it was all dealt with the man with the missing hands was long gone.
So, highlight of the day? Definitely The Long Corridor. Lowlight? Today there are two. First, I cannot believe how many people we’ve seen, and heard, hack up a loogie and spit on the street. Ick! Second, we saw a man standing on the street next to bicycle that had little sparrow-type bird tied to the handle bar with a string around its neck. The little bird was dangling and struggling. For the life of me I could not figure out the purpose of having the bird tied up in such a manner . Very odd. I almost wanted to take a picture it was so strange but, of course, resisted the urge.
Observation: I only noticed one family today that had more than one child. They were at the Temple of Heaven, more than likely visitors as they were posing and taking photos, and actually had three children. A boy, a girl and another younger boy. Its quite possible that they’re not Chinese nationals and just visiting like we are. Otherwise its all been only children that I’ve seen.
One more thing… the most common of the beggars are woman carrying toddlers in their arms. We’ve never been ones to give money out to beggars but it is very difficult to say no to these woman. It would be impossible not to make the connection to Georgiana’s birth mother who, although we cannot know for sure, likely was unable to parent her due to poverty. Fodder for future thought I have no doubt.