Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Beijing, China, Part 1: China is a Different Planet

I just realized that I went the wrong way in Asia.  Japan -> Korea -> China was probably not the route to take, as the facilities, cleanliness level, amenities, and atmosphere slowly devolved into a big ol' hot mess. Here I was getting used to beautifully clean toilets with heated seats and a plethora of fancy hand soaps and lovely smells, and now I have to adjust myself to just a hole in the ground. Ok, I'm being dramatic. China's toilets aren't just a hole in the ground.


Fine, I'm being dramatic again maybe. But seriously, what are you supposed to do in the above bathroom?? Chat with the other women awkwardly squatting around you??

Anyhow!  I was excited to add China to my itinerary since it's the motherland of my motherland. Like OG.  Not to mention the fact that it's so fast-changing, and I'm sure that there are still so, so many undiscovered (by the average backpacker) gems tucked around the country.  Plus, I'll take any excuse to brush up on my jenky Chinese skills.  I just wanted to see it all.  

I've been to China twice before - once on a tour group with my family and a bunch of family friends when I was 16, and once when I was 18 and my dad took me on our first (and only) father-daughter trip during the SARS outbreak because "everything is so cheap there right now!!"  Considering it's been 13 years since I'd last been to Mainland China, I had zero idea what to expect.  First stop, Beijing!

What It's All About:
Beijing is obvs the capital of China, and everyone always talks about how smoggy and dirty and drab it is. Not to mention it's got like, 6 zillion people crammed into it (Ok that number is more accurately ~>20 million).  Seriously, the last time I was in Beijing (IN 2001 LEAVE ME ALONE), the sky was a lovely smoggy yellow-gray every day.

Narrow hutong alleys of Beijing

But Beijing surprised me this time.  There are definitely some parts you could never conceivably call "lovely," and it definitely has its rough edges (as does all of China), but there are some absolutely uniquely charming, interesting, and fascinating corners of this city that I am so glad I got to experience. Beijing today is constantly changing, and involves such a blend of old and new - you'll find so many glimpses of the old world in the narrow hutong alleys, where old men in wife beaters still sit outside their homes on stoops and raucously chat with their neighbors - but a block down the road, you'll find gleaming new mega-malls with all the latest designer brands.  Getting to see how much the city has morphed was one of the most interesting things I've gotten to experience.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Arrived in Beijing from Seoul and met up with one of my previously-featured blog co-stars - Jesse!  You know, Aussie Jesse from Africa -  we volunteered in the villages of Uganda, road-tripped through the sand dunes of Namibia, drank wine in South African wine country, hitchhiked across Botswana, and swam in the pools above Victoria Falls in Zambia together. And now we're meeting in China! How crazy is this world, when you think about it.

It's Jesse!
Post our African adventures, Jesse had moved to Beijing to take up a teaching job - and was kind enough to show me around the city and let me crash with him for a couple days.

He lives in a super-traditional hutong neighborhood, but there's super-trendy spots tucked in here and there - such as this video game bar with all the old school video games you could ever want. A lot of the original Super Mario cheats came back to me, weirdly enough (I shudder to think what else this brain space could have been used for over the years).

And the sunset was still super-lovely from the top of the bar (smog??)

We went out for a drink later that evening in an area called Houhai - lots of bars and nightlife framed by a big lake, and crammed to the gills with people.

  • The next day, we went sightseeing at the Summer Palace - the former royal summer home of Chinese emperors and empresses and concubines, and their retreat from the oppressive summer heat in the Forbidden City.  It was originally built in 1750, reconstructed in 1886 after it was destroyed, and is now a huge preserved park, where you can wander the vast (read: VAST) oasis-like grounds filled with leafy retreats, temples, former castles, lakes, monuments, etc. 

You know what you have to prep for in China? HUGE CHINESE TOUR GROUPS everywhere. Especially on weekends, when they increase tenfold. It's like the Great Serengeti Migration. 


A good thing about the Summer Palace though, is that it is so HUGE that there are plenty of areas that are far less congested and, one might even say, peaceful-ish.

A pretty pagoda

One of my absolute favorite parts was these tranquility gardens called the Gardens of Harmonious Interests (all the sights in the Summer Palace had ridiculous names, like "Peaceful Harmony of the Three Perfect Essences Temple", or something like that)

This would def be my hangout spot if I was a concubine

So many water lilies!

Seriously, who would have known that 5 months later, we'd be in China together?

And this is the most famous pagoda in the entire complex, called the Tower of Buddhist Incense. The lady before me posed exactly like this (you can still see her behind me in the black and white), and I was inspired.

3/4 of the Summer Palace grounds is this huge lake - view is courtesy of the top of the pagoda.

Little waterways and shops in the grounds

I like waterside things

  • We spent an entire day at the Summer Palace, and I'd say we maybe only saw about....20% of the entire thing?  This place is insane. It was also balls hot, so that may have contributed to a slower speed.

For dinner, we went to a super local beef noodle joint near Jesse's apartment. I love places like that - super tiny, local places with only stools and folding tables.  The noodles were hand-cut, the soup was delicious, the beer was cold, and the entire thing was only $2.
Also, the menu on the wall was only in Chinese - luckily, "beef" and "noodles" are two of the words I'm very proficient at reading.

And then out for a drink with some of Jesse's fellow teacher friends in an area called Sanlintun. All I can say about Sanlintun is that it is an interesting combo of super-fancy mega malls, upscale expat bars, and seedy strip clubs. 

But in Sanlintun, the strippers dance in the windows! What is the incentive to go inside and pay for a drink when you can just enjoy a free show outside....?

  • Next day, I managed to get dragged on a run.  Jesse is part of a group in Beijing called the Hash House Harriers (it's a worldwide org that does these social runs that combine running and drinking; their cutesy cult tagline is that they are a "drinking group with a running problem"). Their runs (called "hashes") are done weekly by their various member clubs around the world (strangely enough, I've randomly heard about the NYC one when I lived there), and involve a kind of scavenger hunt to find the trail, with various beer stops along the way. The group was doing a big run for charity on the Sunday I was in town called the "Red Dress Run," which is exactly what it sounds like.  

Group shot of the Red Dress Run!  Running 10k in 100 degree weather is something else, let me tell you.

  • After the run, I headed back to my hotel - which I'd checked into that day because I was meeting up with a friend from home.

This is Parker! To the left, that is.  The other one is obviously Jess.
Parker went to my high school in CO, but now lives in LA doing fancy lawyer things - he came to China to join me on my trip for 2 weeks!

Jess, Parker and I went to a nearby restaurant for Peking duck. Which this chef is artfully preparing for us. Or the table next to us. We maybe took these photos thinking it was our duck, and then he served it to the table next to us.

And then our duck arrived!

And then we maybe ate a bunch of the duck before they actually brought out the duck wrappers. Oops.

  • The next day, Jess had to go to work (noob), so Parker and I traipsed out to the Forbidden City/Tianamen Square.

Here is Tianamen Square! So much history here (much of it very sad) - from where Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of China in 1949, to the events in 1989 when the government violently put down student protests and established their control.

This is Mao's Mausoleum (...the Mao-soleum?) - every day, they put his preserved body on display for a couple hours for people to come see. As you can see, the gates were closed the day we went because apparently everything is closed on Mondays. No Mao-body to see :(

Two Parkers in Tianamen Square, presenting the Forbidden City.
On an unrelated note, not sure if you can see it, but there are TONS of video cameras on the light pole behind right Parker. There were so many cameras EVERYwhere in Tianamen Square that it was disconcerting.

And then we made our way over to the Forbidden City

It was ridiculously hot and sunny, so I bought myself an umbrella hat. Don't be jelly.

This super-famous painting of Mao was damaged during the student protests, but was miraculously replaced by the next day in pristine condition.

Soldiers marching. It looks hot. They need umbrella hats.

Note to self and others: nothing official is open on Mondays in China.

We recovered by heading into and wandering a busy pedestrian section of the hutongs called South Luogu Lane, filled with adorable shops and stores and cafes and bars. 

Fancy Starbucks: First installment of tons

Fancy fruit popsicles, which I purchased everywhere we went

Parker found my next dream car. I do love good gas mileage.

Then Jess (not pictured) met up with us after he got off from work, and we grabbed a drink at a neighborhood rooftop bar.

Then headed into a part of town that has tons of street snacks

Skewers of questionable things

We topped off the night having dinner at a street BBQ place near our hotel. Love these skewers

And here it begins, where everyone in China assumes I'm the dutiful little Chinese translator for the white men.  The waitress at this resty kept serving Parker, then Jess, then back to Parker, then Jess again - until Jess asked her why she kept skipping over me. 

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • Many of the rumors you hear about China are true: there is a definite lack of what we consider public decorum. It sounds terrible - but honestly, it's just a part of the society and it's something you have to adjust to. It's actually slightly amusing a lot of the time.
    • People are hawking loogies and spitting everywhere you go (even indoors on the floor!), 
    • They love to wait in lines but I'm not exactly sure why, as all the rules of lines go out the window because they blatantly line-cut and shove (you have to protect your space!)
    • If you don't understand Chinese, you have no idea if people are talking to each other or yelling angrily at each other, because the decibel level starts at a minimum of "very high" and their normal voices seem to have a natural "full of anger" tone to them.
    • Kids pee/sometimes poo in the street. And to make this convenient for them, many of them have huge crotch holes in their pants, so you see a lot of naked butts running around.
  • A specific Beijing phenomenon is when a lot of the men get hot, they roll up their shirt, exposing their stomachs, and roll out and about in public like that - which is jokingly referred to as the "Beijing bikini."
Parker and Jess are modeling the Beijing bikini

    • There are tons of people in China, and you will see tourists wherever you go - but there is a definite, noticeable lack of white tourists, as most of the tourists you see will be Chinese. Even in a big city like Beijing, both Jess and Parker had people very blatantly take photos of them. 
    • I think this might be partly the reason for the above bullet point, but it's also pretty hard to get around here if you don't speak Chinese. Like, even more than I thought it would be.  Even in hotels where they claim to speak English, or on tours - they will be able to speak "tourist English" or "hotel English" or "Starbucks English," but not really be fluent and able to converse otherwise. Dear Mom and Dad - thank you so, so, so much for my (shoddy, yet surprisingly capable) Chinese language skills. I owe you guys a million.


    1. Funny of all the photos I found the posing one and the head umbrella the funniest. Nice Mao punt as well. Glad you're seeing so much of China and sharing all of it. I've been there enough so that I'm almost jaded to a lot of the things now but it's definitely an awesome country. Also, I work in Thailand now so let me know if you're making a quick stop here by chance.

      1. Haha, glad you enjoyed :) It really is a great place, once you get used to all the "special issues."

        I can't believe you work in Thailand now! That is so exciting, congrats!! I will def let you know if I ever swing by for a visit!