Enter the Forbidden City

My calf muscles are killing me. I don’t know how many stairs Noah, Justin, and I climbed yesterday, but I swear my calves have never received such a workout in their existences. And now they’re taking their revenge on me. Even small stairs hurt … a lot. They’re rocks attached to the backs of my legs. They don’t flex, they pulse. Forget the Stairmaster, folks! If you want a great workout, spend the money on a trip to China, then visit three different sections and walk as much of it as you can. Your legs will be cut out of stone in days.

The first thing we had to do this morning was change hotels. Due to a change in plans (namely, deciding we needed more time in Beijing, and no availability in the New World Beijing Courtyard), we had to madly scramble for a new hotel that wouldn’t put us out by the airport. The best we could end up with — and I do mean this figuratively — was The Peninsula Palace. For the record, I would like to state that I originally thought this to be a fancy name for a half-ways decent hotel in Beijing. I didn’t realize that this is also one of the top hotels in the country. I’m very thankful that the dollar goes much further here than it does at home. This hotel is not much more expensive than a decent place in Calgary. I still feel uncomfortable staying here.

The Peninsula Palace Hotel in Beijing

Checked in, we headed out in search of a quick bite for lunch (we were actually hungry for a change). Pork dumplings packed away, we headed towards the Forbidden City.

For the record, this place is big. Really big. Insanely big. It’s hard to imagine how big it is until you’re inside and walking up the middle of it. I’ve never seen anything so big. It’s a seemingly endless stream of courtyards, halls of Harmony (most of them were “bla bla of Harmony”), and scaffolding. Yes, scaffolding. We knew about this back in St. Petersburg. Beijing, in preparations for 2008, is dusting off the old China and polishing up the silverwear. Where there were probably at least 103 items on the audio tour menu, there are now a mere 17. Only the middle sections of the City are open — the wings and sides are all closed, undergoing a massive overhaul in preparation for a flood of tourists.

Oh, as a side note, there are a number of people who warned us about the bathrooms here. And the chaotic lines, and the spitting … the list was quite lengthy, I assure you. While I can’t speak for Amy, I’m sure she’ll agree that so far, we can’t understand what all the problems are. Bathrooms are mostly clean (the squat ones, anyway — I haven’t been in the western side to know for sure), the crowds are more than manageable, and spitting has been minimal. We still have a few cities to go, mind you, so that might yet change.

We picked up the audio tour. The English version is voiced by none other than Roger Moore. Assumedly, the recording is a few years old, now, but 007 still sounds as cool now as he did in The Man With the Golden Gun — my favourite Bond film with Moore. Even if you’re here before the palace completely reopens, I highly recommend the audio tour. Although there are nice signs put up by American Express and some audio explanations piped over speakers, there’s nothing quite like velvet pouring into your ear as you walk around (although bring your own headphones — the ear piece they supply is a tad painful).

Inside the Forbidden City in Beijing

Barely halfway into the tour, thunder rumbled. We’d had a thunderstorm last night, and it looked like we hadn’t seen the end of it. Sure enough, just as we reached the end of the tour, the smattering of rain we had been receiving turned into a deluge. When it finally let up a bit, Amy and I darted out from our shelter under one of the many covered patios and made a break for the exit and a taxi. Not wanting to get stuck with some schmuck trying to rip us off, we decided to walk down the block a bit. We had vendor after vendor offer us umbrellas and carts and bicycle-rickshaws try to pick us up and get us out of the rain. We pressed on. It started to hail, but we pressed on.

Some strange signs

Finally taking shelter under an eaves down a road on the east side of the City, we comtemplated the fact that we were soaked. Our bags, thankfully, are built well enough to prevent leakage. Our clothes, not so much. When the rain finally let up, we headed back to the hotel to rest up a bit. A dip in the pool, a shower, and we went in search of the nearby mall for dinner. We found a bakery and the illusive BBQ pork buns. It took us until today to find these tasty little morsels. But when we tried to leave to go home — more rain. Torrents of us. We holed up in the Grand Hyatt’s lobby lounge (the hotel is attached to the mall) until it passed.

Tomorrow, we’re going to check out Dead Mao, and possibly the Summer Palace. One more full day, and then we’re off to Shanghai!

Hiking the Great Wall of China

Amy’s feet self-destructed yesterday. And as you’ve already read, the state of her feet prevented her from coming to the Wall today. So why did I go without her? We’d already made plans with Noah and Justin, and this was their last suitable day for the trip. Amy effectively told me to get lost and have fun without her. I didn’t particularly like this arrangement, but I couldn’t argue with her logic, either. It was entirely possible if I didn’t go today, neither one of us might get to go.

Noah and Justin were in the lobby waiting for us. After explaining that Amy would not be joining us for the hike, we sat down to the task of deciding where were going. There are several sections of the Wall in close proximity to Beijing, and the key is to find the “right” one. The reason for the quotes is because some parts of the Wall are in their untouched state — effectively, falling apart. But they’re authentic. Other parts of the wall, such as Badaling, might as well have a pair of mouse ears slapped on ’em with “It’s a Small, Small World” playing for all the authenticity there might be.

But we wouldn’t leave from the New World Beijing Courtyard, our hotel. The concierge there, although nice, doesn’t have a good enough grasp of English to answer the questions we generally pose to him. As such, Justin, Noah, and I hopped a subway to return to the Grand Hyatt.

First rule of North Americans travelling abroad to places where they don’t speak the language: Find the finest American chain hotel you can. Find the concierge. Dress as nicely as you can, look clean, always act polite. You’ll get exactly the same service as you would if you were staying at the hotel. Especially here in China, the process works pretty darn well. Not only did Thomas arrange for our car (not even a taxi — this was pretty fancy), but even gave us three umbrellas in case in rained. I really wonder how many umbrellas Hyatt loses because of things like this?

We were going to the Mutianyu Great Wall. We’d wanted to go to the Huanghua (Huanghuacheng) Great Wall, but we were told it was “closed”. (This meant, as we would figure out later, that it’s not ideal for “normal” tourists — the Wall has received no restoration there.) Simatai would have been a fine alternative, but the distance away from Beijing proved to be the killer for that destination.

The drive out took a little over an hour, passing through all sorts of interesting places, even passing through the Beijing airport. (They have strange highways here.) As the driver didn’t speak English, we babbled amongst the three of us. When we arrived at the No. 1 Parking Lot of Mutianyu, we realized very quickly that this wasn’t what we’d been looking for. There were a lot of souvenir stalls, there were large signs in English and Chinese … there were cable car rides to the top. Disheartened, but not defeated, we negotiated with our driver for a bit of extra time — we somehow knew we’d need it.

We soon found out there were two companies offering rides to the top of the wall — a chair lift company competed with the cable car. We chose the chair lift for no reason other than it was the first in the line. It also put us face-to-face with some guy dressed in an “authentic” ancient Great Wall Guard uniform, wanting a photo with him. We offered to get it on our way back down. (We planned to walk.)

At the top, we ran into the first of a string of “Hello! Cold water! Cold Coke! Cold beer!” vendors. The experience was getting worse by the second. These guys were almost as pushy as the vendors at Silk Street, the day we’d met Justin and Noah! We pushed past and walked up a short set of stairs (which we presume to be on the “inside” of the Wall) to climb out onto the causeway.

It took a moment to sink in. Ever watch water soak up into a paper towel when you lay it on a spill? Nothing happens at first. Then you see a slight mark, which expands — slowly at first, then quickly — to fully absorb what it was placed on? That’s what it was like for me. It actually took me a moment to realize that after 16 years of dreaming about it, I was now walking on top of the Great Wall of China. I actually jumped for joy. I then immediately felt bad that Amy couldn’t be there to experience it with me.

You have no idea how guilty I feel about today. I know Amy says she had a pretty decent day, all things considered, but this was part of the plan from when we started planning this well over a year ago. We were going to be on that wall. We were going to experience this. Amy, as it turns out, was sound asleep (having gone back to get) as we pranced around the 500 year-old construction.

We walked towards the #20 tower (the towers are numbered, assumedly to make it easier to figure out where you’re going), finding the walk quite easy. The tour buses hadn’t arrived yet, and the sun was still trying to burn through the intense haze and pollution that keeps this area of China under a heavy blanket. The walls here are restored — the look like they probably did 500 years ago, when the Wall was still in use. The tiles are neat and clean, the towers mostly intact — some don’t have stairs to the upper decks, but have restored roofs. We weren’t sure how “authentic” all of this was, until we entered onto an unrestored section past tower #1 — it would appear that the Walls mostly needed only a cleaning: removing trees and shrubs, and reconstructing collapsed towers.

The Wall is anything but flat and straight in this area, and follows the contour of the mountains. This means slight slopes and rises, along with steep climbs and falls. We were at Tower #17 or so (where the cable car connects with the Wall) before we stopped to turn back. This is where we met Dave, another Calgarian who’s taking travelling to another level. Dave left Calgary in February. He won’t be back until July. There’s no way I could stay away that long — these few weeks are killing me from being apart from Alex. (I definitely won’t be doing this ever again!) Dave started in Thailand and has been going overland since then. The night before, Dave had slept at Tower #22 in the “non-tourist” section of the wall.

Dave also taught us a new saying: “bow shur”, which effectively means “not interested”. Saying “no” or “no, thanks” doesn’t get vendors to leave you alone. They keep after you until you’re quite a distance away, at which point we’ve heard them swear at us a few times. Saying “bow shur” (I assume the correct pinyin is something like “bao xur”) usually gets them to back down almost instantly. Dave was telling us his stories of travelling around, and I started to feel like a complete poseur.

Justin, Noah, Dave, and Geoff

Sure, Amy and I have done something most others have not. But amongst many of the other people we’ve met, we’re barely scratching the surface. We don’t go to the deep, unexplored parts of the cities we visit (camping in Mongolia being an exception); we don’t try the unusual experiences (Dave went to Thailand to learn how to box); and we don’t really live on the edge — we’re at a business hotel! I guess I have to resign to the fact that we’re doing something interesting, and that I’m truly comfortable with it. Because, really, I am.

Dave departed down the mountain at tower 8, with the rest of us continuing towards tower 4, which is castle-like. But once there, we kept going, and climbed up an insanely steep section until we were at tower 1. Beyond that are the non-tourist sections. You’re technically not supposed to go there, but there’s nothing preventing you from going. So we did.

Signs are funny on the Wall

The non-tourist sections look pretty much the same as the tourist-friendly sections. The walls are effectively the same — the notched walls at the side of the causeway are the same, the tiles are the same, and even the towers look the same. The major difference (collapsed towers aside) is the fact that you have to walk a narrow pathway, weaving around shrubs and plants that have overgrown large parts of the causeway. Here, plants grow fast. We walked out to the collapsed tower beyond tower 1 for what I can only describe as the most amazing view. I hope the pictures turn out.

Pretty funny going down the hill, too

We walked down the mountain via about 900 stairs. The vendors were on us in a blink. We pushed past to a small cafe to get bottles of water. The heat there was terrific. We were roasting alive on the wall, especially with the physical exersion. We downed our water in mere moments. Finding our trusty driver, we returned to Beijing, but went to the Courtyard instead of the Hyatt. Amy was waiting in the lounge.

We had hoped to meet up with Dan and Colin, two Canucks we’d met on the train into Beijing, but had pretty lousy luck getting a hold of them. Eventually, we decided to forego with the meet, so the four of us headed out for dinner and a movie. (We wanted to sit in an air conditioned room.) The food: Chinese, of course. The movie? “Star Wars: Episode 3”.

I figured that after all these years of watching Chinese movies with English subtitles, I had to watch an English movie with Chinese subtitles. The jury’s still out on the movie, though.

Justin and Noah are off to Shanghai tomorrow. If we’re lucky, we may cross paths with them in the future. If not, we’ll always have the memory of a strange dinner of salted peanuts, beef tripe, and something that resembled kung pow chicken.

What to do when NOT hiking the Great Wall

My feet have decided that I’m much happier and healthier taking it easy for the day, so I opted out of the Great Wall excursion.

I’ve seen it from the train, and quite nice views at that, so if I can’t actually hike on the thing, I’d rather just save that for next time. Plus, there’s the possibility of visiting a different section on Wednesday if the foot situation improves any!

So, what does a girl do?

Napping, shopping, and eating.

Here’s the cool tank I picked up in Tianjin. (Sorry for the bad photo, my camera’s not good in low light conditions.)

RI&G tank

And here are my storm troopers!

Stormtroopers

Incidentally, it turns out that the Star Wars movie IS in English at the theater across the road. Think I can talk Geoff into it?

My shopping score for today is this quirky little tee…

Attack Kitten!

Yes, another green shirt. But to be honest, the colour palette hasn’t been all that great here. A lot of pastel blues and pinks, plus white. And white does not work with a black bra. At least, not for me.

After a teeny bit of retail therapy I went back to RBT. I love this place. I was craving a smoothie, so I ordered the kumquat honey one from yesterday, plus the spicy chicken stirfry. Not that adventurous, but it did come with a tea-soaked egg that I tried and actually enjoyed.

Now I am back at the hotel catching up on email and trying to find a hotel for May 31 and June 1. We’re not leaving for Shanghai until June 2, so we need to book two more nights somewhere, and the Courtyard is full.

Bummer.
Another meal at RBT

Searching for the Tianjin Antique Market

Lonely Planet recommends going to Tianjin, especially to see the antique market there. It is said that a lot of the materials there were confiscated during the Cultural Revolution, and are now being sold to the dealers, who in turn sell it at the market. Theoretically, neat stuff, right?

This brought Amy and I to hop on the first Beijing – Tianjen express train this morning. A jaunty 90-minute trip on a fairly zippy (and comfy) train that deposited us at a rather chaotic train station. We walked from there roughly south-west (“roughly” because the street grid is slightly skewed, and got us turned around more than once) when we stumbled across a rather large and bustling pedestrian mall.

As Amy so aptly put it, this distracted us a while.

Also as Amy so aptly put it, the heat and humidity took their toll. On me, it’s my right hip. It’s been bugging me for a few years, but only when it’s hot and humid — it rather is an issue in Calgary. It was almost throbbing last night; today it was just a nuisiance. Enough to make me want to sit down for a little while, at any rate. This led us to the RBT restaurant in one of the large malls along the road. We went there on our first night in Beijing for a bite to eat. The food is great, the drinks are amazing (a kumquat and honey smoothie, which I sadly did not have), and the view was pretty neat, too.

The view from the RBT restaurant

Amy’s feet, however, put her out of commission, so she encouraged me to continue the search for the antiques market. Given the state of road signs in Tianjen (which is mostly non-existent along the pedestrian streets), it wasn’t the easiest find. But sure enough, right where #7 lies on the Lonely Planet Map B of Tianjen, there was the market.

Not exactly a let-down, but let’s just say that my expectations were a tad higher.

There are essentially two streets that intersect. Fairly quiet, with stores along one road, some along on the other mixed in with blankets on the side of the road. There were a few Mao bits of memorabilia, but if this stuff was antique, I’ve got a nice acre patch of land in downtown Toronto for sale… There were some nice-looking lamps, some old records (nothing you’d find interesting, Schill), more “jade” than you could use to tile your house, an so forth. A few stalls had some legit stuff, pocket watches for example, but the pickings were slim.

If you’re going to China, and you have your heart set on hitting the antiques market, think hard about it. Tianjen is a nice little city, but if you’re going out of the way just for the market, you might be disappointed.

As we’d had a 14:00 regroup time at the Starbucks, I went searching around for other things in the area. I found a little park, a nice little shopping arcade, an outdoor cafeteria so full of wood smoke (from the meat skewers) it was actually hard to see, and countless little alleyways. Amy was resting with her mango drink. I acquired a vanilla frappuccino (not sure if that’s spelled right, but I ain’t gonna check). It was too hot to even think.

I have to wholly agree with Amy — the dumplings were great, the beer was below sub-standard (sorry Greg, but Bud sucks), and the girl making the dumplings was a blur. It was like watching kung fu movies where the action is sped up.

Dumpling Fists of Lightning!

We’re relaxing tonight. Hopefully, Amy’s feet can handle the Wall tomorrow. We’d made arrangements with Noah and Justin, and I’d hate to put them out. Our plans can change — theirs can’t. We shall see…

Is anyone out there?

Is anyone actually reading this stuff? Aside from my sister, mother, and a couple of Amy’s friends? We had so many people who said they were interested in this, yet we’re attracting so few hits, makes me wonder if we’re truly wasting our time (and money) sitting in internet cafes…

Limping in Tianjin

Sundays are apparantly the day to go to Tianjin, a city about an hour and a half from Beijing, for the “fantastic” antique market.

I didn’t make it to the antique market.

I got distracted.

The main shopping street

What you can’t tell from this photograph is that this street was probably 1.5km long and lined with various shops, glitzy malls, enticing food stalls and even a Starbucks.

We didn’t really intend to start of with some window shopping, but we missed the turn and ended up in this neon heaven. Less than an hour later, I realized that I was limping with every step.

Although I wore my Teva’s pretty much through Mongolia and a bit before in Russia without a problem, the combination of humidity, heat, and bare skin has done a number on my feet. It’s not so much where my feet rub against the sandal straps, it’s where my toes rub up against each other.

I would post a photo, but to be honest, no one wants to see that, not even you Mom.

So, I said “see ya” to Geoff, he went off in search of antiques, and I hobbled my way around, taking long breaks and even grabbing a Mango Citrus Frappucino. I was mainly looking for more shirts to wear, since a girl cannot exist with only one decent shirt. I think my minimum wardrobe is 2 shirts plus something to sleep in.

(Side note: funny how this wardrobe has shrunk since the beginning of the trip, eh?)

Anyhow, I stumbled across a cool section of one of the larger department stores, selling men’s and women’s casual clothes. The neat thing is, a lot of their summer line is actually formed by sewing together bits and pieces of silk screened fabric, and attaching random buckles and straps. It sounds weird, but I know at least Mandy will have a good picture in mind.

(If I can remember, I’ll take a photo tomorrow!)

The tank top I purchased is mostly t-shirt material, but has an assymmetrical printed cotton panel on the front. It’s silkscreened with nonsensical English, and has a small D-ring buckle just hanging off one shoulder for no reason.

At home, something like this would go for probably $200CAD at Holt Renfrew or $300USD at Sak’s. What did I pay?

49 RMB… less than $10CAD.

Proving that, without a doubt, I got entirely ripped off by the knock-off Gap tank at the Silk Market. But then, I knew that walking away.

After the shopping and the sitting and the sipping, I met up with Geoff and we again hobbled our way back to the main train station to catch our 16:40 train back to Beijing.

The Lonely Planet had suggested a certain 24 hour dumpling restaurant in the train station. Dumplings – who can resist them! So, we partook in a rather large plate and two Budweisers.

I should add here that Bud is not my beer of choice. (The original Czech Budweiser from Budvar is an entirely different story.) I prefer microbrews, any IPA from the Pacific Northwest, and nice nutty ales from Britain.

But what do you do? I know how to ask for a beer in Mandarin – “pijou” – that phrasebook was finally helpful! And then the waitress shows me the menu and points to something that costs 16RMB. Figuring it’s probably a local beer, I nod my head.

Just imagine Geoff’s disgust when the two American Budweiser beers show up at the table.

But the dumplings were amazing.

duuuuummmmmplings

We eventually finished off the plate.

The more amazing part of all this is that the huge plate of dumplings cost 3 RMB.

But the MOST amazing thing was actually watching the chefs prepare the dumplings through the big glass window separating the dining room from the kitchen.

One girl, in particular, could flatten dough, fill with stuffing, and pinch the tops together quite artfully, faster than I could pop one in my mouth, chew, and swallow.

Seriously, words can’t describe.

For the knitters out there, think of the fastest knitter/crocheter you know and then imagine her hands moving twice as fast.

I took some video footage and am just hoping it turns out!

So, we’re back in Beijing now and I’m heading upstairs to soak my poor feet in the tub and try to figure out what to do about tomorrow. The thing is, I really am quite desperate to do this 3 hour hike on the wall. It sounds absolutely incredible. And I know I might be back here someday (ahem… Sandra…)… but you can’t always count on that.

So the other question is, if I’m not able to do any of the hike, is it still worth going all that way to sit and wait for the guys? I’m thinking no. I saw the wall from the train quite a bit, but I know it’s not the same. But I also don’t want to just see it from a parking lot.

Argh. Silly feet. Why are you failing me now? I expected blisters and problems weeks ago, not a month into the trip.

A wee bit of shopping

The really nice, comfortable thing about staying in a single city for 6 blissful nights is the ability to take a day “off” from major site-seeing and just hang out. That is how I would describe today… hanging out.

We started off the morning by sleeping in, another almost-unheard-of concept. For me, this means NOT setting an alarm, and not worrying about what time to get off. We had decided in advance that today was to be an errand day, a day to buy train tickets, pick up a new shirt or two, walk through some interesting neighborhoods. In other words, nothing that would require a schedule.

After a breakfast of delectible dim sum in the hotel restaurant, we headed out to the Tiananmen Square area to walk through some old alleys. We got a bit distracted, as Geoff mentioned, and ended up heading north to the Grand Hyatt instead.

Having worked rather closely with the Hyatt team, I can say that without question, you will find a high level of service in their top-end properties. And so, like Team Cha-cha-cha on The Amazing Race, we headed towards that mecca of service to get some questions answered.

And also, to use their spotless facilities.

Ahem.

However, on the way, I spotted two dudes with canadian patches on their backpacks. I said, “Hey, there are Canadians up there” and they turned around to introduce themselves. Justin and Noah are two brothers, originally from the Toronto area, who have 2 weeks to tour China. Unfortunately, they are already near the end of their trip. Fortunately, they are hilarious and great fun to run around with.

The four of us went together to the Grand Hyatt to figure out train tickets and a Great Wall tour, and within half an hour, decided to catch a shared taxi to the Great Wall together, this Monday. According to the very helpful (see above re: great service) concierge, we should spend about 800 RMB for a taxi for the entire day. So, split that four ways and we’re each out about $40 CAD. Not bad, considering it’s 2 hours drive.

We settled the plans, I bought 3 (three!!!!) English-language paperbacks at a bookstore that would put Border’s to shame, and we took the subway two stops down to the Silk Market.

“Silk Market” sounds all exotic and enticing, but it’s really a 5 story indoor shopping mall, with individual vendors occupying tiny booth after tiny booth. If you’re in the market for a knock-off Columbia jacket, this is the place to go. But be prepared to BARGAIN HARD.

Geoff inquired about a nice women’s style (no, not for himself), and the saleslady responded with 380. We walked away and she instantly lowered her price to 100… around $20 CAD.

I walked out with a pair of pants that convert not only to shorts but to the ever-useful capri length and a “Gap” tank top. The pants fit fantastically and were an ok deal at $13. The tank is another measure. First of all, the thing is pretty badly put together. (I only paid $8 so it’s not much of a loss.) Although I tried to estimate whether or not it would fit, it’s about 5 inches too short. And the armholes are about 2 inches too small.

Now, I left on this trip with a certain packing strategy.

You may remember that I brought 4 layerable Gap t-shirts. Well, these super-light shirts have no completely stretched out of any semblance of shape to the point that even Geoff is telling me they are unwearable.

Time to ditch them.

You have to understand, Geoff is the sort of guy who saves everything. If there is one crumbled cookie left in 5 pieces at the bottom of the bag, he will save it to eat later.

So if he’s saying it’s time for them to go, then I really need to do some serious shopping.

At least I’m not in London where a shirt would set me back $40.

Anyhow.

I got this new pair of pants/capris/shorts, and I also scored a sweet green STAR WARS tee for 39 RMB, around $8. And it fits perfectly. PERFECTLY.

So if nothing else, I have Storm Troopers for the next 3.5 weeks.

I really need to find something else soon, though. Maybe tomorrow in Tianjin????

Hello, underwear!

Today was errand day. Today, we decided to get our train tickets sorted out, and make plans for an excursion to the Great Wall. Inadvertantly, some things happened along the way…

First off, we hopped the subway down to Qianmen station (which is Tiananmen Square, but we weren’t headed there) to search through the hutong neighbourhoods. After a little dive in, we were diverted due to biological reasons (namely self-preservation having not to use the toilets in the back alleys). Out back on the main street, the decision was made to skip ahead to the Grand Hyatt Hotel for two reasons: exchange traveller’s cheques and see if they can handle tour bookings a little more easily.

(Just as a side note: if you’re travelling to parts distant, such as Russia, England, China, Hong Kong, Japan, and so forth, don’t bother with travellers cheques. Yes, they’re safe. Yes, they can be replaced. But they are not accepted everywhere. It’s (pardon ma francais) f$!@*ing annoying. Everywhere we’ve been, it’s been “sorry, we don’t accept those”. I’ve exchanged them successfully once. If you’re going, just bring a bank card and a VISA card. That’s all you need. Trust me on this. Even in Mongolia, you can use them — they have no ATMs, but banks will do the withdrawal for you.)

We scooted up the sidewalk on the east side of the road of Tiananmen Square, in the hopes of an expedient passage. We were almost immediately hit with the Art Exhibit people.

The Art Exhibit people, in case you’re wondering, is a bit of a scam. The idea is to entice tourists (generally English-speaking, as they don’t seem to speak other languages) to see an “art exhibit” that will close “in five minutes”, and encourage you to purchase something. It’s all quite nice, starting with “hello”, then going to “where are you from” to “is this your first or second time”, to the shpeal about the art exhibition. We’d been warned about this not only from Lonely Planet (thanks, guys!) but also by others who’ve been here before. In the span of about seven minutes we were hit four times. The last time, we resorted to speaking French to throw them off.

About 10 seconds after that, we ran into Noah and Justin, two brothers originally from Montreal who were touring China. We immediately hit it off with them, recounting our mutual experiences with trying to shake the sharks after the tourists. (Noah has a particularly novel way of getting rid of them. He looks them in the face, and tells them “I don’t speak English” as clearly as if he were telling you his phone number. Noah seems to follow the philosophy that visiting China is almost a game. We like these guys.)

The four of us pretty much hit it off (partly because Amy and I have been dying for some home-grown company, and both of them had great senses of humour), and hung out for most of the afternoon. We all headed down to the Grand Hyatt where I failed (yet again) to change all my damned travellers cheques for renminbi. (I’m so never taking these things again!) Then we tried to book a tour to the Great Wall.

We’ve been told that going to the Great Wall might not be fun. It all depends. For starters, you don’t go to Badaling if you’re actually looking for the Wall. Badaling is a restored section of the Great Wall, done in the grand ol’ Disney style. We’re thinking of Simitai, which is a little more authentic (at least according to Lonely Planet). But getting there is a bit more difficult. The conceirge at the Grand Hyatt (exceedingly nice, and outstanding English) suggested a taxi, which should cost about 800 renminbi (a little over $120, divided amongst four people) — considerably cheaper than any of the tour prices.

Justin and Noah then went to purchase tickets for their trip back to Shanghai (they’re flying in and out of there through Air Canada, and have yet to take the train here), and Amy finally found replacement books (she’s been suffering through Dostoyevsky for weeks). A trip through the rather nice mall nearby followed.

One thing about Beijing that all of us noticed. They’ve got the whole communist thing sorted out (mostly, aside from the odd overzealous crackdown, anyway). The mall was better than almost any that I’ve seen in North America. There were even BMW, Audi, and Volkswagon dealerships! And a store that sold a whack of Star Wars and Astroboy shirts.

Our ultimate destination, though, was Silk Street. This is the ultimate in (potential) bargains. It’s a massive four-floor store where you can find all sorts of brand-name clothing (whether or not it’s real depends on how good you are at mind-reading), and all of it for sale at a price you can attempt to get, if you’re good. This is where the good haggler comes into effect. So far, this isn’t me. You don’t get to browse here. You need to know what you’re looking for. You need to know what it is you want, and you need to be ready to wheel and deal. I figured this out after casually looking at a North Face jacket and deciding that it wasn’t anything I was interested in. I could have picked it up for about $10. Amy went after a Gap shirt (definitely fake) and a pair of zip-off pants. We’re thinking of going back to see if we can get some other bargoons.

Noah and Justin tried to get $25 Armani suits. They didn’t succeed … this time.

Walking through the place is hard. Not because it’s crowded, but because some of the vendors are fairly aggressive. (Noah swears that a couple of other places, such as Hong Kong, are worse.) You hear greetings shouted out often starting with “Mister” and “Lady”. One tried to tell my that my beloved Critical Mass sling pack is dirty. (A mark of pride, thank you very much!) Trying to leave the place through the somewhat-unmentionables area, we were treated to “Hellol, underwear!” and “Hello, socks!”. Very surreal.

Dinner was an interesting experience, with Amy and I (we’ll hook up with Justin and Noah for the Great Wall on Monday) walking into a restaurant near our hotel. I love the Chinese way of naming foods. It’s like trying to decipher the title of a Led Zeppelin tune to figure what it’s about. Such items included:

  • The asparagus fries the shelled shrimp (shrimp with asparagus)
  • The exquisite article livings purely (beer)
  • The thou is more the dragon mountain
  • Wrap the male fish (fish with vegetables, near as we can figure
  • The parsley mixs the hair belly (I don’t think I wanna know)
  • And my personal favourite, although we didn’t order it:

  • An article steams the big cabbage

The food, however, was pretty darn good, even if the start of one section read:

Japanese stab the body

That was for the seafood section. Go fig.

Fry the shelled shrimp

When in China, eat Chinese food!

For dinner tonight, we walked about 2 blocks from the hotel to this captivating restaurant. I’m not even sure what the name would translate to in English… probably something like “The dishes captivate the dragon purely.”

The menu was in Mandarin and English, although the subtitles, as I’m sure Geoff will elaborate on, left much to be desired. Somehow, I managed to order 2 beers, a Grouper sauteed in a soy sauce reduction, stir-fryed snow peas, and shrimp with asparagus.

Everything was amazing.

No really. There are no words.

Now, I’ve had Chinese food in San Francisco. I’ve had it in Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, San Jose and Vancouver. And of course, Chicago, Toronto and Calgary.

But really, nothing compares.

Each bite was like a little piece of heaven.

And the Grouper! Oh my. Well.

When we arrived, we noticed the tanks of aquariums on the walls. We didn’t really give it much thought. But shortly after ordering, the chef came out with a smallish Grouper, still flopping around on the floor in the net.

Gulp.

I’m one of those animal lovers. I would gladly be a vegetarian, on principal only. In fact, I was a vegeterian for about a year and a half when I lived in California. So actually seeing my meal, live, 15 minutes before consuming it, was a bit tough. Thankfully, the tiny bit of beer I’d already had helped with that.

And oh, was the fish good. Indescribable.

(This is why I am devoting an entire entry to just dinner.)

Yum.

Behind in Beijing!

Hi folks! I’m back online, finally! While Geoff was able to fire off a quick post our last night in Ulaan Baatar, I decided I was too fed up with the slower-than-dialup connection and cruddy keyboard.

I’m going to work on covering the past week and a half with back posts, so you may have to scroll down to read them all. But the new stuff should be fairly obvious.

Me and Mao

I’m in China!!!!!

Can you believe it? I am pinching myself. I am overjoyed. I love Asia, at least what I’ve seen of it. And this might be sacrilige, but Beijing reminds me of Japan. I know, I know it’s really very little like Japan, but it has neon, cool buildings, a weird juxtaposition of modern and traditional, cool soft drinks and amazing food. What more do you need?