For me, being in China was like being on another planet, but a vaguely familiar planet. China is a very complicated place; a lot like an episode of Star Trek Voyager where past, present and future are all tangled together in some sort of Delta Quadrant wormhole. For those of you who are not Trekkies, suffice it to say that Beijing was our first taste of China and there were a lot of flavors.
We spent our first evening in Beijing wandering around a mall and found great entertainment in the many T shirts with English sayings. We chuckled about T-shirt sightseeing for days…the sayings still make me happy, especially these two.
Even though China’s economy is experiencing a slowdown, the country has experienced phenomenal growth in the last 25 years and there are a lot of buildings in Beijing to prove it. There are strangely shaped buildings like the one with the Borg Cube attached to the top and then there are hundreds of the same building like someone has copied and pasted over and over.
Our hotel was located in the heart of Beijing where high rises are not allowed, but beyond the city center there are huge buildings every direction that you look. The pollution is horrible too as over 70% of domestic electricity is from coal and there are a lot of vehicles in Beijing as well. The sky is brown with a hint of blue on a good day.
Mao is everywhere in China and especially Beijing. This portrait on the walls of the Forbidden City is repainted every year and Scott couldn’t resist a selfie. This was our first full day and it was very hot, approaching 100 degrees mid morning and by lunchtime we were all literally melting. The Chinese use parasols to block the sun and so there are parasols everywhere. It’s a whole other level of touring when you are sweating, dodging umbrellas, people and cars and trying to stay together in the masses of people and so lunch breaks became very important, even more important than on our mega treks in New Zealand.
Even though I am not a fan of Chinese food at home, the food in Beijing is amazing. Kung Pao Chicken in addition to a table full of fried and spicy foods and the one size fits all (bigger than German beers!) of cold local beer will go a long way to restoring your energy or at least your good humor. The kids drank more water in Beijing than I have ever seen them drink. The pollution and fried food probably counteracted the benefits though.
We went to the Panjiayuan Market, the largest weekend market in China, originally called the “ghost market.” It was interesting to walk among the stalls and haggle with the vendors. Ashley liked a little container and so I offered $5, but I was told that it was from a certain dynasty and the vendor insisted it was worth at least $250. It must have been a popular item during its dynasty because I saw another just like it a few rows over. That particular vendor was a little annoyed with me, but Scott purchased door knockers from a very amiable fellow and I spied a little pig shaped tea pot at another place. This vendor punched in some numbers on his calculator, smiled at me and then pointed to the calculator and nodded his head. He wanted me to make my offer and so it went good naturedly until we were both happy.
It was the most fun haggling that I’ve ever had just because we both understood it was a game. He would start high, I would offer low and we would meet in the middle. He even let me think that I had won, which was very sweet. As an aside, allow me to point out the hiked up T-shirt style on the man in the above photo. We saw this everywhere we went in China when it was hot outside.
The market reminded me of looking through a kaleidoscope.
These little red books, titled Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, were for sale from many vendors. It is a book of snippets from Mao’s speeches and writings. Published between 1964 and 1976 and widely distributed during the Cultural Revolution, it is one of the most printed books in history. The Bible holds the record and this little jewel comes in second.
Speaking of jewels, we visited the Hongqiao Market, an indoor market especially famous for the 4th floor pearl shops. There are a gazillion pearls at least in more colors than I knew pearls came in and the quality is worthy of the many smiling and famous faces adorning the walls from all over the world, including some from our corner like Barbara Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Laura Bush, Jessica Alba, Nicolas Cage, and Bill Clinton. We wandered through showroom after showroom, Grant relentlessly asking the price of what he guessed would be the most expensive items and the salesladies laughing and teasing him about buying the expensive baubles for his girlfriend.
The pearls didn’t hold our attention for long and we headed downstairs to check out the electronics section. Definitely a different experience with counters full of watches and phones and cameras, all low quality knock-offs being hawked by high pressure sales tactics. If you even thought about looking in the direction of an item, the person behind the counter sensed it and started the sales pitch.
This picture is on the Great Wall of China. Ashley was mortified that I would ask this girl to take a photo with us, but since arriving in China we had been in quite a few strangers’ pictures so I knew that a photo request probably wouldn’t offend. We had been seeing younger people (I don’t know what that means, but not as old as me) in all colors of caps and gowns posing at important historical sites like the Forbidden City. I asked Helen (our guide) and she said it’s a fad, people rent these outfits and do a photo shoot. Who knows…maybe this girl truly was a graduate.
The day we visited The Great Wall we drove through some beautiful villages and farmland, an area often used for rural scenes in movies because it is so picturesque, to visit a Cloisonné enamelware factory. The technique of Cloisonné has been around since the 14th century in China and is very interesting. We were shown the different steps that are taken to create all kind of things like vases, bowls, plates, animals and jewelry.
Making enamelware is a lot like China, a long process and incredibly complicated. First tiny shapes are fashioned out of wire, stacked up and then glued to bowls, vases or whatever needs decorating.
These women cut, shape and glue wire all day long.
The wire designs are then filled with colored minerals…
…fired and polished. The process is repeated over and over until the design is perfect and then the piece is sold in the gift shop. We saw only a few people making things but there were thousands of items displayed in the gift shop. Scott chose a vase and I haggled for a better price. We didn’t get a discount, but I did get a “small gift” thrown in for “free.” I felt victorious because the salesgirl offered a “free gift” worth 60 Yuan and I bargained for a enamelware pig priced at 200 Yuan!
Beijing is a disorganized behemoth of past, present and future all muddled together and I found this sentiment well represented in the various ways the Chinese people transport themselves. We were in the car a lot because even though it’s not that far between the major tourist attractions, the traffic is horrendous (we were actually advised to visit Beijing on a weekend to avoid the worst traffic) and so I spent my time watching the people of Beijing move around.
I saw a man drive his motorbike and trailer through the intersection in front of us. He turned left and I was able to see that he drove with one hand on the handlebars and the other hand protectively on the leg of a beautiful little girl in a red and white summer dress laying on top of all of the stuff in the trailer. She was looking up at the sky and smiling, the man was looking fondly back at her. I thought how happy they both looked and how his steadying hand couldn’t have stopped a fall. I didn’t get a picture but I thought of her often, especially when I saw this little girl (picture above) in the yellow shirt engrossed in her book on the back of the bicycle moving through a busy intersection.
There are people everywhere and all kinds of transportation including mopeds and bikes stacked with multiple people, often whole families with the babies and small children stuffed in between adults. The crosswalks are only marginally helpful as turning traffic will not yield to pedestrians. People walk out into traffic and weave through it all of the time.
There are a lot of mopeds fitted with apron and oven mitt looking contraptions. Helen said it’s sun protection. I think it’s just plain protection, like body armor…but no one wears helmets on mopeds because they are considered bicycles. Only motorcycles require helmets.
We saw some tiny cars and some tiny wind-up cars (see the little purple wind up key on the back of the white car? Humor!).
This sign was posted at an on ramp to the highway and here we watched a woman get out of a vehicle that looked like the truck in the lower right corner of the sign and help the driver back up amid complete traffic chaos. It looked so dangerous.
After two scorching days in Beijing the forecast for our third and final day was clouds and rain. The cloud cover felt luxurious after melting for two days. It was even drizzling as we walked the streets of Liulichang District, an arts and crafts area that seemed to be lived in by real people.
We peeked in some shops selling art and antiques…
…and wandered through the local market.
Scenes from the market
A residential street in the area.
More views of the neighborhood and a great example of the contrasts that we saw all over Beijing. It is a cacophony of sights, sounds and messages.
There are mysterious alleys leading away from the main street. Often you can find little shops tucked away in corners and on this day the shopkeepers were staying out of the rain so all of their wares were out of sight and the street looked especially empty.
It was a beautiful and interesting area and a peaceful and relaxing hour.
Later that same day we took a pedicab ride through the Hutongs, a Manchurian term for a network of small winding alleyways formed by connecting traditional courtyard residences. We picked up a local guide and drove into the neighborhood for a calligraphy lesson.
The local guide told us that although the area looked poor, the land was very valuable because it lies between downtown Beijing and the Olympic area. It’s a very good place for older people to live because it is self contained and no policing is needed. People in this area have known each other’s families for three generations and take care of one another so if you’re having a problem all you have to do is tell your neighbor and it is taken care of. As we traveled through China we learned how truly rare it is to know your neighbors, let alone rely on them.
We had a calligraphy lesson from this kind gentleman in his home.
Grant was by far the best and Scott was by far the worst. Our pedicab drivers waited for us while we drank tea, visited and took our lesson and then we headed back out of the Hutong. What was a calm pedicab ride into the neighborhood, turned a bit wild as lightening flashed in the sky and thunder rumbled. The lightening got brighter, the thunder louder and ride wilder and by the time we were nearing the outer edge of the Hutong, it all felt dangerous. By the time we arrived back on the main street to our waiting van we only had time to watch the sky for a few minutes before rain poured down, the sky flashed, thunder boomed and the van shook. The storm was right over us.
Helen told us that is only rains a few times a year like that and it since we were there for the rain, it meant good luck for us for the rest of the year. We drove on to Shi Sha Hai Sports Training Institute where we watched all levels of athletes training for fencing, martial arts and boxing. There was also ping pong and badminton. The very talented athletes live and go to school there and are supported by the government, but Beijing professional and amateur teams train in the complex as well. There are also non resident classes for young beginners which parents pay about $5,000 a year with the hope that their children are talented enough to continue studying and become sponsored by the government. We were not allowed to take any pictures.
Along with the T-shirts there were other things that made me truly happy in Beijing. The four star rated toilet (Forbidden City) was great (nice and clean and lots of stalls) especially if you didn’t need to wait in line for the western toilet because there was a huge line to use the four star rated western toilet. Henceforth, some of my best advice for your next visit to China; get your quads in shape, carry toilet paper and drink only bottled water. You’ll thank me.
Don’t worry though, Beijing especially, is full of civilized sightseeing and safe travel (I actually did read, in my pre-China anxiety internet research binge, that China is one of the safest countries to travel solo for women).
Scott found this cool app that reads Mandarin off line.
The guardian lion lesson is Chinese Tourist 101…We learned it in Beijing and saw it throughout our travels in the country. Lions have been guarding important buildings like palaces, temples, tombs and significant residences with their mythical powers since the Han Dynasty ( 206 BC-220 AD). Lions guard even more but lowlier buildings today like hotels, shops and restaurants. The red ribbons are for luck because the business is newly opened. The question that you will be asked is, “How do you tell the male from the female?” The male has the a sphere under his paw representing power over the world and the female has her paw over a cub.
Beijing was not all crazy traffic jams and pollution as I envisioned. There are some beautiful parks like this one.
This is what I expected Beijing to look like. On our last night is Beijing we went back to the T-shirt mall which had a movie theater and watched Finding Dory with subtitles…Chinese subtitles that is. We learned that American movies are usually shown in English with Chinese subtitles, very convenient for us! Afterwards Scott and Ashley went out on the town which we had been too tired to explore after our tourist packed days.
And that is Beijing, at the least the Beijing that we saw in three days and our introduction to the complex creature that is China. Of all of the things in Beijing, the comments were what I remember the most. Chinese people are very open, looks matter a lot and so do your kids…people told us how very lucky we were to have a boy and a girl over and over and when we said good-bye to our wonderful guide Helen, she told that I must be a very happy lady with a smart boy, a beautiful girl and a good husband. I am by the way…but even more thankful that they are good and kind and love me.
Outside the train station
We left Beijing on the train headed for Ping Yao.