Broiling in Beijing, China

August 14-21, 2009

The Beijing subway is amazingly crowded mid-day on a Tuesday. We pack like sardines into the train, and can only imagine what it must be like during rush hour!




It has been just about two years since we returned from our last international travel adventure. Finally, after a marathon burnout of checking off items from the exponentially growing master to-do list, we have packed up all our stuff, rented the house, loaded up the backpacks, dropped off our car at our dear friend's house (thanks A&M!!), and we are on the road again with a non-stop frequent flier flight from San Francisco to Beijing!






Swine flu scare in China! Did I hear someone sneeze? As we emerge from the plane, our temperatures are automatically taken by a line of infrared sensors. Lucky for us, everyone on board our flight is healthy, or we would have spent our first week quarantined in a Beijing hospital...


Beijing Saga hostel.

We emerge from the ultra-modern Beijing airport after a 12+ hour flight from San Francisco, then easily figure out how to take the airport bus to the Beijing central train station. We know it is a short drive from the station to our hostel, hidden down one of the many hutongs (narrow streets) that crisscross Beijing. But the taxi drivers don't speak any English and our jet-lagged pantomime and pointing to the kanji in the guidebook only elicits angry tirades as they wave us away. Now what? After three or four of these exchanges, our first angel appears -- a guy who spent time living in Texas comes to our aid. A short time later we are dropped off at the door of our hostel.

Sunday at the Catholic church, wedding couples are photographed in idyllic poses.

Round the corner from our hostel, we find modern, chic Beijing, with capitalist consumerism at its highest frenzy. Down another foggy, smoggy tree-lined canal, life moves slowly, frozen in an ancient and traditional time. Beijing is upbeat and exciting, the people warm and welcoming, life a study of contrasts.

Ticket line at the Forbidden City.

On our first afternoon in Beijing we innocently wander over to the Forbidden City, thinking it might be a good time to have a look at the ancient palace of the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors in the heart of the city. Yikes -- the ticket line is immense! Apparently all of China is on summer holiday and a trip to the capitol is a popular destination. Kind of reminds me of summers in DC, with crowds of tourists in the sweltering heat and humidity. We return early the next morning and enter with throngs of Chinese tour groups. We opt for the audio guide that triggers automatically as we enter each region, relating stories of conquest and intrigue from China's long and fascinating history.
Everyone has a digital camera. We spend hours wandering around the vast spaces of the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and Olympic Park, soaked in sweat, snapping photos of the incredible architecture, enormous spaces, and mobs of Chinese tourists. We are shy at first, hesitant to point our huge cameras at others, but we quickly realize that folks are ready to pose and most of all, they want to take photos of us, posing with their family. So they take our pictures, we take their pictures, we all laugh, then shake hands and disappear into the crowds.
Daily performance of drummers in the ancient drum tower. Sounds from these massive instruments (1.6 meters in diameter) at the top of a tall tower broadcast the time across the city much like clock towers in Europe.
Beijing food is divine! We cannot speak the language -- even when we try, the response is invariably a confused look or outright alarm -- so we point to the Chinese characters for "vegetarian, noodles, spicy, dumplings, eggplant" in our Lonely Planet phrase book, and hope for the best. In a tiny, family run noodle and dumpling hole-in-the-wall, just around the corner from our hostel, the wife helps us order, laughing as she attempts to teach us words. Miraculously, platters of steaming food and two bottles of Tsingtao soon crowd our table. We devour a huge platter of piping hot fried dumplings, then slowly savor delicately spiced bok choy, salty, vinegary boiled peanuts, and a wonderful tofu dish. We promise to return, pay 40 yuan ($6) and wander -- totally satisfied -- back into the bustling hubbub.

Another evening, another incredibly delicious meal: Spicy, melt-in-your-mouth eggplant, mustard greens and stems steamed with soybeans and peanuts, two kinds of freshly made rice noodles (gelatinous slabs, floating in vinegar and sesame oil, and hand cut long strings, soaked in hot chili sauce). All for $10 ... delightful!

We're finally brave enough to join the line at the crowded street stalls, where we order vegetarian steamed dumplings and amazing crepes made with egg, sesame seeds, spread with hot sauce, sprinkled with fresh green onions, then wrapped around a crispy honeycomb something. 3 yuan (50 cents) ... fantastic!





We carefully obey all notices and heed the good advice.





Mandatory on any tourist program is a visit to the Great Wall. In the mountainous countryside north of Beijing, there are are many sections of wall open to the public. We choose one that is recently opened called Huanghua, built by Lord Cai from the Ming dynasty. It's about a two hour drive from the city, and as of yet has no hawkers, snack, T-shirt, or souvenir stalls.Our group of five from the hostel has the whole place to ourselves. The first section is restored with the top surface of concrete pavers made to resemble the original rock. The really steep stairs and smooth inclined ramps take us quickly up from the road to sweeping views over the forested hills and villages below.

After about an hour up and over one ridge, we reach the second section that has not been restored. This part is covered in dense brush and trees, with the wall stones slowly tumbling away into the surrounding forest. With the loud buzzing of the cicadas ringing in our ears from the neighboring tree canopy, we sweat our way up the steep path, through several intact guard towers, to a high ridge overlooking the entire region. This place fires the imagination and really is a great wall!


Despite the sticky heat and polluted air, Beijing was a suprisingly delightful six-day stopover on our way to Mongolia.