My Awesome Trip Part 1: Beijing

3 Dec

As I excitedly pointed out last time, I was going to China. In the words of my mom, I’m “alive and well” (I think my family was scared I’d die there or something), and yes, I have many stories to tell you. I anticipate this to be pretty long, so I’m splitting the blog-y goodness into 3 parts. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 in the next couple days-weeks!

Why, thank you!

The purpose of going to Beijing was to meet and connect with other MCCers from around Northeast Asia. Us YALTers got to go in a day early, which meant we stayed in a separate hotel the first night. Known as the “7 Days Inn”, this place had the exact amount of comfort and warmth you’d expect from a typical “affordable” hotel.

Found under the table in our hotel...how very reassuring.

Found under the table in our hotel…how very reassuring.

Disconcert aside, I actually liked this place! They gave us a toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb and soap, items I learned are typical SWAG in many Chinese hotels – that’s a step above stealing as much mini-shampoo as you can off the maid’s cart when she’s not looking! (Not that I’ve ever done that…cough, cough.) We also got free breakfast, consisting of typical fare such as warmed soy milk, congee, a boiled egg and steamed red bean and meat buns. I’m gonna go off topic and on the record as saying I’m not the biggest fan of steamed breads. It kind of sticks to the backs of your teeth, and generally still tastes raw. The fillings, however, are delicious – enough so that, for the remainder of the trip, I braved the bun to get to the filling!

Cindy and Alex show me their brekky.

Cindy and Alex show me their brekky.

On our first morning there (Friday, November 23), we met Aijuan, or “AJ”, who acted as our tour guide for the day (usually she’s an MCC office assistant). AJ and the four of us YALTers visited the famous Tienanmen Square and Forbidden City.

In the minds of those we’ll call “North American People Around My Age” (NAPAMA), Tienanmen Square is probably only known for the protests of 1989 and the associated infamous “tank man” photograph. Historically, it has been a place for the people of China to seek justice from their rulers.

Picture pushers

The Great Hall of the People (a parliament building) is there , as well as the National Museum of China and the Monument to the People’s Heroes. What the tourist brochures won’t tell you is that there are also a lot of guards, video cameras, people, tourist groups, snack stands, and hawkers trying to take your photo for lots of money. It’s a happening place!

(On a more serious note, I kept noticing fire extinguishers just sitting in the middle of the Square, here and there. Later I was told it was because Tibetan monks have been setting themselves on fire. So the tradition of supplication and demonstration still lives on here – in a very aggressive way.)

After walking around a bit, we all stopped for a little refreshment. I was in dire need of a caffeine fix (since sleep at the beloved 7 Days was scarce), while the others decided to try instant hot bubble tea (reviews were mixed but we all got more a few days later, so it can’t have been all that bad).

Drinking my Nescafe in front of the Great Hall of the People (and trying and failing to look natural while blinking into the sun).

Drinking my Nescafe in front of the Great Hall of the People (and trying and failing to look natural while blinking into the sun).

Before breaking for lunch, we decided it was time to see one more thing that lives – er – lays in Tienanmen Square: the remains of Chairman Mao. Viewing ends each day at noon, so in a frenzied rush we checked our coats, bags and cameras into a private room, went through two security checkpoints, and ended up in a snaking but steadily moving line. Without stopping, we were ushered in eerie silence through a lushly decorated receiving room, where many people (mostly older generation) quickly stepped out of line to place white flowers before a statue of the seated (throned?) Chairman. Past that, we walked down a little hall and into a low-lit room with a glass cage. There, surrounded by a bed of flowers and looking as though he fell asleep ten minutes ago, lay Mao. Aside from looking a little waxy, it was impossible to tell this was a man who died 36 years ago.

With that image fresh on our minds, it was time for lunch! Traditional Beijing noodle soup was the order of the day, and I got a bowl with spare ribs, broccoli, and a tuft of kelpy-looking seaweed. Sound a little out there? IT WAS DIVINE. As I later told several others, it was culinary heaven. Truly. So good. A little FYI for all the NAPAMAs out there: whatever they’re peddling as “Chinese food” in North America ain’t the real deal.

I knew about the faux pas of sticking your chopsticks directly in your food, but I did it anyway. Stupid me.

I knew about the faux pas of sticking your chopsticks directly in your food, but I did it anyway. Stupid me.

Post-Best-Lunch-Ever, it was time to visit the Forbidden City! This place goes on and on for light-years, with original, traditional architecture throughout. It’s the place all the Chinese Emperors from the Qing through Ming dynasties (if you even know what that means) lived, among their families, concubines, and servants. Much of the original decor is still there and intact, which is quite amazing to behold, since the place has been around since the 1400s! It’s truly beautiful.

The next day, Saturday, was Great Wall Day! By now we’d transferred to the Traditional View hotel of Beijing, in the hutong area of Beijing (just picture the old-style houses you’d typically see in a historical movie about China!). There, we were with all the NE Asia MCCers, and many of us used our first full day together to spend the afternoon driving in a bus to the Wall. The bonus perk of that bus trip was that we had lunch in the bus. And do you know what it was? Subway sandwiches! Whoa, I didn’t realize how much I miss those. Okay, now too much talking about food…back to the Wall.

It is, well, GREAT! To walk along it is more of a hike than a leisure trip, since it’s built atop the mountains which (as mountains d0) dip up and down. The stairs along the whole thing are not even, either. In one place they’ll be shallow and long, in another extremely steep and short so you have to use your hands to stabilize. Perhaps the best part of the whole thing was the “toboggan” ride down the mountain! We took a gondola up, which was slow and scenic; but going down it was fast and fun! I can’t tell you how strange it felt to be in a place so historical, but to be enjoying something so like an amusement park ride – almost a living paradox!

On Sunday we ended the big-group festivities and said goodbye to new friends at – surprise! – a Korean restaurant. It was nice to be the expert for once, as Bibimbap is a dish I know very well.

That afternoon, us YALTers got to visit the beautiful Temple of Heaven. This is a place where, during the dynasty days, people would come every year to pray and make offerings in hopes of a good bumper crop. Like the Forbidden City, it’s a sprawling expanse of beautiful old building after beautiful old building. We took a good four hours to leaisurly walk through all of it, only stopping to refuel with a banana split and that hot bubble tea I was telling you about. The only downside was how terribly COLD it was that day (as all our days in Beijing, really). None of the flowers in the garden were in season, so we only had the structures to look at. I’m sure it would be even better in the summer, when the gardens are all in bloom. Wow!

Sunday night, the four of us went back to 7 Days, after another delicious and traditional Beijing dinner of dumplings, with the wonderful Rod and Kathi. Those guys were great hosts to us throughout our trip, even making lasagna for me, Alex and Jessica and nasi goreng for Cindy on our first night there – so thoughtful! (Plus, now I realize how delicious Indonesian food must be!) Kathi also took us to the grocery store, so we could buy Chinese snacks to take back to Korea with us. I always think it’s fun to walk through a grocery store in a new country; they are truly different everywhere you go.

The next morning I said goodbye to the girls, as they flew back to Korea. It was a little sad and a little scary to see them go, because that meant it was time for my solo adventures to begin. I slept in a bit, packed up, and walked to the subway, from where I found the train to Shanghai all my myself. I was a little nervous to travel alone for the first time, especially in a country where I only picked up but 3 words of the language (“Hello”, “Thank you”, and “Spicy”…not hugely useful). But I put a brave face on, told myself I could handle it, and I did. I didn’t even miss a single subway or train (thanks mostly to the helpful English signage everywhere; definitely the most useful language to know when travelling internationally – but that’s another thought for another time)! I did, however, do a lot of aimless wandering. More on that later.

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2 Responses to “My Awesome Trip Part 1: Beijing”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. My Awesome Trip Part 3: Hong Kong « Deborah in Korea - December 13, 2012

    […] and final installment of updates from my recent trip to China and Hong Kong. For part 1 (Beijing), click here. For part 2 (Shanghai), click […]

  2. My Awesome Trip Part 2: Shanghai « Deborah in Korea - December 8, 2012

    […] This is Part 2 of a trio. Click here to read Part 1 (Beijing). […]

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