China | Beijing: October 24-27, 2008

October 24th, 2008

No one here speaks English! We landed late last night and could barely communicate to the cab driver where our hotel was. He had to call our hotel to find out indeed where it was and we somehow made it there. We’re staying at the Holiday Inn Express near the Olympic Park north of the main city. For the price we’re paying, the hotel is really modern and has all the amenities, including free Internet! We’re thrilled about that. They also have a Laundromat on our floor and we got some tokens to use them later. Man! Only in China!

Today, however we just rested since we were up late last night making calls on Skype and we’re just so beat from all the travelling and walking in KL and HK. We just want our bodies to recover before we explore another huge city. So we’re catching up on some sleep, some work, and some shows.

We tried some Kung Pao chicken at the hotel restaurant, but Penny had a strange reaction to one of the ingredients and it certainly wasn’t too edible after a few bites. Karthik later walked around to get some take-out from a local Chinese fast-food restaurant not too far away. However, the chicken seemed alien-like and hardly edible and we barely managed to keep down the rest of the vegetables. It’s decided we’re not eating local food here!

October 25th, 2008

Today was our first day out and about in Beijing. We were initially going to check out the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, however as it was getting late by the time we left our hotel, we decided to hit the markets instead. We took a cab into the city (cheap, by the way!) to check out the Yashow Clothing Market. It’s quite cold here in Beijing, with temperatures not exceeding the low teens, so we need something warm to wear. The market was a huge building filled with many stalls selling all sorts of clothing. Our first buy was disappointing since we found out we didn’t bargain enough, however we did get a good quality and comfortably warm sweatshirt for Penny. We also got one for Karthik and not finding any other major deals or bargains; we left for the next market on our list. We headed out towards the subway near the Yashow Market, but of course, didn’t figure that what looked close by on the map would be really far away in reality. However, on the way, we encountered some really friendly young folk that were only too happy to give us directions and converse in English. We felt good about that, especially hearing their cute “bye-bye’s!”

So we ended up taking another cab to the Silk Street market and on the way, noticed the crazy, modern Chinese buildings with funky designs and ultra-modern architecture. These guys are completely going all the way in everything they did. Also, nothing is walk-able since the streets and avenue were super huge and the city is completely spread out over miles and miles. They do have a great subway system we intend on using sometime. At the Silk Street market, a famous Beijing landmark, we were in yet another large building with row upon row of vendors selling everything the previous market did, but also silk-related items. We bought our moms some cool silk stuff that we were satisfied with, in terms of both quality and price. With nothing much else to warrant spending more time here, we took the subway this time to head over to the Temple of Heaven, a major attraction from China’s past. We wanted to get there before the sun went down. We’d had a big breakfast, so we weren’t too hungry for food and knew our options here were limited to fast-food.

The 'trendy' open space in our hotel
The 'trendy' open space in our hotel
Entering the Yashow Clothing market
Entering the Yashow Clothing market
A friendly Beijing little 'un
A friendly Beijing little 'un
Row upon row of stalls at Silk Street
Row upon row of stalls at Silk Street
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At the Temple of Heaven, which is right next to another market we’d visit – the Pearl market, we explored a bit of China’s rich heritage. This was a sprawling complex of gardens, pavilion, pagodas, palaces, gates, and walls. We were entering from the Eastern gate of the Temple and walked towards the main pavilion – the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. On the way there, we walked along the ‘Long Corridor,’ literally a long covered corridor filled with people having a good time. It was a Saturday afternoon and old and young people alike were gathered around, singing Chinese songs, playing instruments, playing cards, performing dances, kicking around ‘hackey-sacks,’ and generally having a great time. It was a good vibe and the surroundings were quite beautiful – manicured trees and gardens, ornate roofs and walls decorated with age-old dynastic art and calligraphy.

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We entered the Hall of Prayer and saw a huge pagoda that was too beautiful for words. A large structure covered in blue, green, and red colors and dragon motifs, it seemed like it was climbing up to the heavens for good luck and prosperity. There was a huge crowd here and we explored the main square in front of the pagoda, going inside one of the pavilions that had a miniature replica of the pagoda and detailed its interior. We took plenty of pics, but the sun was setting soon so we started walking south towards the other parts of the complex. We passed by few other pavilions with ornate gates, columns, and roofs, and also stopped by a garden that had some ancient cypress and juniper trees left over from the dynastic periods. We even hugged a tree since it was apparently a good thing to do! There was yet another interesting structure – the Circular Mound Altar – which was a series of graduating levels with stone facades at the top of which was the Heaven stone. People were clamouring to stand on it as it represented the journey to heaven, since this was, after all, the Temple of Heaven. We managed to stand on it together and hoped for our souls to unite one day in heaven.

The sun had finally set and we walked onwards to the Southern gate, and we took a cab to the nearby Pearl Market, another major market in Beijing. Here, they sold all sorts of souvenirs, antiques, clothing, electronics, jewellery and anything else that comes to mind. We explored the many stalls and got ourselves some cool Buddha statues. We looked hard to find some ‘square, red’ decorative stuff for Nik’s apartment, but everything here was circular! Every souvenir shop seemed similar and nothing else really lept to catch out attention, so headed off to check out some cheap electronics. We saw rows and rows of counters selling cameras, watches, I-pods, phones, accessories, and other electronics. We’d always wanted to get a cool phone and a good deal for a camera, so we tried our luck at one of the counters. We saw that they were selling a lot of ‘knock-offs,’ locally made Chinese products passed off as major brands like Apple or Sony. We couldn’t really get a good deal on a camera and phone at the counter manned by a couple of girls being difficult in their haggling. So we went over to another counter to try our luck there. We’d seen a iPhone knock-off that was a touchphone that interested us, so we bargained for half an hour with a couple of equally difficult guys there. Another gentleman who’d bought these phones in bulk yesterday said you couldn’t go wrong with them or the price. We finally used his influence a bit and brought the price low enough for us to afford it and got ourselves an iPhone knock-off, with a case and a memory card! Not bad for our efforts. The shops were closing down and we wanted to make it to a Kung-Fu show that was starting a less than half an hour, so we rushed out of there, but not before we bought a cheap watch to keep track of time.

We took a cab to the Red Theatre, where the “Legend of Kung Fu” show was playing. This was apparently one of the premier martial arts shows in Beijing and we were able to get some cheap seats in the very front row. The show was spectacular, with moving music, amazing kung fu feats, a neat storyline, and some interesting special effects. It was the story of a boy who left his mother to enter the world of Kung Fu and later became a great warrior-monk after many trials and tribulations. The musical score was especially an emotional one and fit the story perfectly. We enjoyed ourselves immensely and then it was time to head back. We grabbed a cab and somehow communicated to him we wanted to go to a nearby McDonald’s (pronounced My-Dun-Lo here in Chinese) and have him wait while we ordered some take-out and then proceed to our hotel.

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The McDonald’s was filling and satisfying enough, given we really can’t eat much else here – the food is just too bizarre and inedible for us to experiment with! Tomorrow we check out the Forbidden City.

October 26th, 2008

We woke up with time enough to catch the subway to the main Tiananmen Square – one of the symbols of Beijing with the face of Chairman Mao gracing the Hall of Heroes and looking out towards the largest open square in the world. At the main square, we saw the major government buildings encircling the square as well as the Hall of Heroes with the emblematic face of Mao on the red walls. However, as we were walking around, we noticed a middle-aged Chinese woman lying on the ground and crying loudly. By this time, a large crowd had gathered around and a policeman had approached her. We couldn’t understand what was going on and why she was upset. She then lightly kicked the policeman’s feet with her leg upon which he became quite angry and started beating her more violently than was deserved. Other policemen arrived and calmed the situation down a bit, but the poor woman kept crying. The crowds dispersed, but we were left shaken up and confused over the whole situation. It’s things like this that reveal a bit about the ‘oppressive’ nature of the Communist regime. Aside from the splendour of the capitalism run rampant in this country and the resulting fine structures and buildings etc., it’s still a communist nation that oppresses free speech and expression.

We watched a lot of guards in this area in processions and walking in unison. There weren’t too many activists or people expressing their viewpoints as would be expected in many other similar city squares around the world. At this point, we just wanted to grab something to eat and make our way into the Forbidden City. We went through an entrance that we mistook as the one for the Forbidden City, however there was a small stall selling noodles and buns. So we sat down to eat some ready-to-eat noodles and had the shopkeeper pour the boiling water. As we ate, we heard the extremely loud slurping noises the people here make while eating – generally, we find that loud eating and other bodily noises aren’t frowned upon and indeed seemed like they’re celebrated! We were full enough so we entered along with the large crowds into the Hall of Heroes building that led into the Forbidden City and Palace museum.

This was the main seat of power for centuries of Chinese dynasties from the Ming to the Yuan and was a massive complex of palaces, large open squares, and other buildings. We entered the first square past the main gate and saw several stands and vendors selling the usual stuff. We finally found the ticket counter but discovered we were 14 yuan (about $2) short of the entrance fee. We asked around if anyone could exchange $2 for the needed local currency, but none of the locals understood us of course. We even asked some tourists but they just looked at us like we were trying to scam them! Finally, we walked out to the square and spotted an Indian couple, whom we stopped and explained our predicament. The ATMs were all the way out near the subway and that’d have meant another half-hour to go and return. The couple was friendly and understanding, however asked their local guide if it’d be OK to exchange the currency. Finally agreeing, we got our needed yuan and Karthik went to buy the tickets while Penny chatted with the couple. They were from England and apparently had booked an all-inclusive package to Beijing that included meals and a local guide with tours.

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With tickets in hand at last, we made it into the Palace Museum, and what we saw was just too awesome for words. It was literally a City, with palace upon palace separated by large open squares as you head north from the main gate entrance. The architecture resembled that of the Temple of Heaven, and was replete with ornate roofs, intricate stone facades, and ‘Chinese-looking’ reliefs. It was a treat for the eyes, but a curse for the feet. We kept walking for almost two hours, greeted with much of the same. It was just too massive to really explore and we weren’t even wandering off the main North-South axis – we were just walking through the palace going northwards. These emperors sure had some large Egos! Finally, we reached the northern part of the palace where we were in a large garden. This garden was hella interesting, with its strange trees, picturesque gazebos, cool stone sculptures, and felt very peaceful and calming in spite of the many tourists about.

We explored the gardens for a while and then finally were out of the Forbidden City. We had meant to walk up to Jingshang Park, where atop a hill, we’d get a view of the entire city but were too tired to force that experience out of us. So we were relaxing in the square at the Northern entrance when all these rickshaw drivers approached us offering us rides of the Hutong alleys north of the Forbidden City. These are the remnants of old Beijing from the dynastic periods where there were no cars allowed and you could take rickshaw tours to explore the narrow streets and small houses crowded together. We finally relented to one of the drivers and hopped on the rickshaw. He took us along some really small alleys, explaining that most of the houses are very small and have many families residing within, and that this area goes back almost 700 years. It was a relaxing ride that lasted around 20 minutes and the driver was a friendly chap that spoke some English. We were now in the Houhai Lake area that was a major tourist spot, since it was lined with many bars, cafes, and restaurants. As well, you could take boat rides along the pretty lake that was surrounded by cypress trees and stone bridges. We had no money to pay the rickshaw driver, however, so he led us to a bank where we got some money out.

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Beijing so far

At this point, we were really tired and Karthik had looked forward to find a foot massage joint for Penny to have a massage. He’d read this area had many; however we were unable to find even a single one! Disappointed, we just walked around the small streets and alleys of the Houhai area and as it was getting dark, all the bars, restaurants, and Chinese lanterns strung atop the streets lit up. It was a pretty sight. We managed to do some shopping at a couple of stores since they caught our eye, but our fatigue got the best of us. So we hopped into a cab and somehow communicated the same instructions as yesterday to the driver to get some McDee’s take-out and return to our hotel.

Another night of McDonald’s! Tomorrow we check out the Great Wall and the Olympic Park.

October 27th, 2008

We woke up earlier to get the most of our day, as the sun sets much earlier than we’re used to. We took a cab to the Olympic Park area, as we were eager to check out the Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube. After the cab dropped us off, we walked around the area and were totally stunned by the crazy architecture that surrounded us. It’s no secret that these guys went all out for the Olympics; you just had to check out the opening ceremony to know that. But the sheer artistry of the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube is too much for words. The Cube is this massive structure covered with what seem like large soap bubbles that you could poke off and the Bird’s Nest is this giant maze-covered structure of steel and concrete, totally covered in this mesh of beams and trusses. It’s an astounding feat to think the architects thought, “let’s build something that represents China. Hey! A bird’s nest. We love our bird’s nest soup. So let’s build a stadium that looks like it!” And that’s exactly what they did.

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There were lots of tourists wandering about, and there were an equally large number of food vendors and stalls selling treats for everyone. We were full on breakfast, so we were OK. Having had our fill with pictures and wandering around the area admiring cool statues and sculptures and strange-looking lampposts, we entered the subway to head off to the stop where we catch our bus to the Great Wall. The subway ride wasn’t too crowded since it was midday during the work week; usually there’s no room for even breathing. We had to switch stops three times since the subway system is a huge and sprawling one with at least five different lines. Finally, we made it to the station where we went off to look for the bus station. We needed to catch bus 919 which all the guidebooks and sites said would take us directly to the Great Wall – Badaling section. This was the section that is the best restored, most visited, and most picture-perfect representative of the Great Wall of China.

When we got there, the little we managed to communicate with the locals revealed to us that the 919 bus was done for the day – it no longer took anyone to the wall, but would go off to other destinations around Beijing. Surprised and disappointed, we figured we needed to take a taxi since this was our last day and only opportunity to check out the Wall. A guy came up to us and re-iterated that the bus was done for the day, however a taxi would cost upwards of $90 to go and return. He, however, happened to have a car nearby that could take us there and return for $70. We thought about it for a minute or so, but then agreed. While the bus would’ve been cheaper, this certainly would be more comfortable and convenient… and it’s the Great Wall we’re going to, after all! So we took the car up the main Badaling Expressway and off to some side roads (since he didn’t want to pay too much highway tolls!) and saw some picturesque scenery along the way. The terrain got increasingly mountainous and hilly, and finally, near another section of the Wall that is also visited, we caught a glimpse of it! It was just as we’d imagined; a long and winding wall snaking its way up and down the hills and interrupted by guard towers. It looked magical – this was actually the Great Wall of China! A minor section of the huge 7000km of it!

We were eagerly awaiting our arrival at the Badaling section now! Close to the location, row upon row of tour buses foreshadowed what would be expected at the site. Tons o’ tourists! But we didn’t care – we just wanted to find a corner of the wall to stand near and admire the rest of it. The driver walked us up to the ticket booth where we also got return tickets for a ‘cable car’ that was referred to as a ‘pulley.’ We knew our time was limited as the sun would set in a few hours so we didn’t want to walk all the way up and back down, hence the pulley tickets. We got on to the pulley which resembled a sort of go-kart strapped onto a pulley system that was part of a long row of little go-karts. Interesting! So we got on and up we went as the pulley did its thing. Immediately we got into a tunnel! So here we were strapped into a little go-kart being pulled up the mountain inside of a tunnel… crap! This made us nervous (especially since Penny didn’t like the idea of being trapped in enclosed spaces), but soon we saw the light at the end of the tunnel (literally).

When we got to the top after an interesting ride, we got our first ‘real’ glimpses of the Great Wall. Like some mutant python, it stretched from one corner of the horizon to the other before it vanished out of sight, traversing the hillside faithfully up and down and around. It was indeed a magnificent sight and truly a Wonder of the world. Deserves every letter in that word! There were a large number of tourists to navigate through, but we decided to ‘climb’ the wall for a fair bit of distance. This meant going up and down certain steep sections, while pausing to take views from the different vantage points and take snaps. The guard towers in-between were impressive, but stank of urine! Wonder how long the urine dates back in time. As we reached a good distance from our starting point, we relaxed and took in the atmosphere as the tourist population started to dwindle. It was getting closer to sunset and also getting breezier! We even got an engraving of our names and our ‘feat’ of having climbed the wall on a memento – being offered by a ‘wall-side’ peddler!

We couldn’t really get enough of the sight – it’s nothing like we’d ever seen and certainly not the usual ‘singular’ monument that stands on its own and occupies a certain space. This darn thing was everywhere and beyond! However, it was time to head back. As we got to the waiting area for the pulley to head back, we started to wonder if there’d be more tunnels in store for us up ahead. We got into the go-karts and as the whole ‘train’ of them started to pick up speed, it was more like being on a downhill rollercoaster than anything else. It was a good jolt of fun – unexpectedly at the Great Wall! We then walked back to our car and drove back to Beijing.

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We had already decided to visit a couple of markets on our last night in Beijing, however the driver wouldn’t take us beyond the subway station where he’d picked us up from… possibly due to the heavy rush-hour traffic we hit as we entered the city. So we hopped on to the subway at got off at the station near the Liulichang market, where they sold all sorts of authentic Chinese art, scrolls, and books. On the way there, we stopped by a roadside vendor who was making some interesting pancake/roti like thingies. The pancakes were first fried on a pan while a hole was made in the centre and egg was added. Then after being fried, they were ‘baked’ in a makeshift oven of hot coals underneath the pan. Intrigued, we bought couple and they were yummy, even though they probably soaked up a litre of oil each!

At Liulichang market, the shops were all closing up already so we went into the first one we saw that was still open. The shop was filled with beautiful scrolls and paintings with calligraphy and masterfully brush-stroked art. We explored a bit and found a painting on a scroll that was simply gorgeous! So we bargained it down to a good price and also got a scroll with some sweet calligraphy along with it. We were now headed to the Dong’hamen Night Market – an interesting place both of us wanted to check out in Beijing. We’d seen coverage of snack stalls during the Olympics that were selling all sorts of strange stuff best left unmentioned. We got to the market and immediately we could see a long row of brightly-lit stalls selling their ‘stuff.’ So we ventured forth and checked out what was cooking!

Squid. Octopus. Shrimp. Eel. Well… all good so far. Then we saw some stuff not as wholesome. Silkworms. Honeybees. Scorpions. Centipedes. Cockroaches. Beetles. Sheep stomach (and other unmentionable organs of reproduction!). Dog cakes. Yikes! Yowzaa! What the!!! It was like something out of a Biology lab, minus the formaldehyde. It was truly insane to see all this stuff up for sale on a stick. Vendors were shouting and gesturing us to try this or that, even sticking some of the nasty stuff in our face as we did our best cataloguing everything on camera. It was quite the experience! Karthik finally bought some of the ‘ordinary’ stuff also being sold – fried bananas. Although it was certainly fried, it didn’t quite taste like bananas. Happy to have been done with the experience, we found ourselves at the intersection of a ‘Times Square’ like area, with brightly-lit neon signs and massive animated displays.

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There was a long closed-off street that was had every major brand name on both sides. We walked along and found this to be a pleasant diversion from our recent experience. This was Beijing’s Wangfujing street – the major shopping street. We didn’t buy anything, of course, so we just got to the McDonald’s at the end of the street and took some take-out, caught a cab, and went back to the hotel. We told the taxi driver to pick us up early in the morning and take us to the airport. Tomorrow, we wake up early and head back to HK and then take the ferry to Macau!

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