China - Beijing and Away
Last Updated: 13-May-03
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Back to Beijing For an airline with a bad rep, China Airlines has done very well. Again flying on a Boeing 777, the service and flight was quite smooth. OK, except for the unexplained 1-hour delay. It is well known that Air China's initials, CAAC, stands for China Air Always Cancelled. I retrieved my big bag which I'd stored at Beijing Airport, and took a taxi to my hotel, the Bamboo Garden Hotel in Beijing's West side. Or, at least I hoped that I had - I gave the driver the written instructions, and he ended up circling around quite a bit, in tightening circles. He had to stop and ask for directions 3 times. It's actually not surprising; the hotel is a Ming Dynasty hutong in the warren of hutongs North of the Forbidden City, in the shadow of the Drum Tower. Hutongs date back to the Tang Dynasty, and are one-story court-yarded house groups. People have been living in them continuously for more than 700 years, and many of them look the worse for wear. This one, however, was owned by a courtier, and later by a eunuch of the Qing dynasty, so it has been kept up. It sprawls around three courtyards, including a garden and a separate tea house. It is decorated with Ming-era calligraphy, art, and furniture. At the same time, it is very modern, and even has broadband connections. It just happens to be nondescript from the outside, and hard as hell to find.
In the morning (after a breakfast buffet, but a non-Western one), I strolled around the hutong (2) (3) (4) area, much to the surprise of the residents. Although Beijing is laid out on a pretty good grid, this neighborhood has twists, turns, and dead-ends where I realized that I was standing in someone's courtyard. While I did get many stares and quite a bit of indifference (and even a little retreating and hiding), quite a few people did give a friendly Hello or Ni Hao. As I wandered, I noticed that there was a large number of public toilets (signposted for men on one side, and women on the other). These seemed to be used heavily. I also noticed that people often popped out of the houses to dump water or whatever into the street drains. From this, I conclude that while they have running water (and electricity and satellite TV), they do not have sewers into many of the homes.
I eventually found my way to the Bell and Drum towers. Among the oldest buildings in Beijing, these were used in the days before clocks to mark time during the night, telling people what time it was. First built in 1272 (during the reign of Kublai Khan), Both towers have burned down and been restored several times (most recently in 1745 for the Drum Tower), and soar over the one-story neighborhood. However, they are well integrated; there are parks and markets surrounding them, and many pedicabs sit by to offer visitors tours through the hutong area. Rather than do this, I decided to climb the drum tower and listen to a drum concert, which happens every hour (I think…). While it appears as a touristy exhibit, (but only playing to 4 people) the playing is a continuation of the time-keeping which has gone back many centuries. Young men dressed in traditional clothes (note the absence of the quote marks) beat out three different pieces, marking the afternoon, the Autumn (on the special four Autumn drums), and a time-keeping demonstration. Most of the drums are relatively new, but they have one on display which dates back to when it was destroyed by British/French forces in 1900. Needless to say, the tower also gave a great view over the low houses. The base of the drum tower houses a "Tibetan Culture" exhibit, which shows and sells artifacts from Tibet. Some are claimed to be quite old, while others are clearly new, and said to be such. The only deception was the unstated fact that they seemed to be selling off some of Tibet's heritage at discounted prices. While I cannot condone it, I did find one (new) mask which I could not resist…
Since I could not get a second night in the Bamboo Garden, I called around to various hotels, and took a look at the 2-star associated with the BG. I had more trouble than I expected, but finally found a reasonably-priced room at the Kempinski. I walked across the street to the A & W for a cheeseburger. Oddly enough, they were out of Root Beer (!) and I had to settle for a Fanta.
I decided to finish off my stay in Beijing's Sanlitun Lu, which is also known as bar street. Right in the middle of the Embassy district, it is crammed with noisy bars, many with live bands or dance shows. Military Police were not only common, but they seemed to be going out of their way to be conspicuous. A few bars serve pub food, but I sought out a Thai Restaurant called Serve the People. It was packed with Chinese and Foreigners. I had vegetarian eggrolls and vegetarian red curry (rated 2 chiles, but I asked them to make it five). As I ate, a woman lugged a box around, selling bootleg DVDs, but I never asked the price. The food was excellent (but, sorry, no photos). Afterwards, I walked down the street, pelted by constant invitations to go into this bar or that, or to see a girlie show or get a massage, probably about 300 times within the 300 meters of the block. I went into a quieter pub for a beer, and eventually had a fun chat with a Mongolian guy with a Russian accent (which is apparently normal). Most of my questions did not get through, however, so I did not get much information about Mongolia (Ulan Bator is small) or whether they really do Mongolian BBQ there.
So, what did I learn on this trip? What's the moral?
Group touring shows you the sights, but not necessarily the country.
Group touring feeds you well, but does not accurately reflect the cuisine.
Not all Chinese people chase you yelling "Hello" and "One Dollar" - many are quite friendly
"Factory tours" on group tours are about 2x to 3x the price of real stores and markets, even after negotiation
A tall, white, graying foreigner does not disappear in a crowd
Pinyin (the transliteration of Chinese) does not intuitively reflect the pronunciation
I have a hard time keeping track of all the dynasties, but I think I've got the Qin, Ming, and Qing down. Just don't ask me the exact dates.
MSG is alive and well
Sichuan food is not as hot as they think
Chinese breakfasts are nowhere near as disgusting as Japanese breakfasts
Communism may be the political ideology, but everyone has a capitalistic heart
Yangshuo is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and the residents seem to understand and cherish that
Between excessively disgusting bathrooms, rampant spitting, coal smoke, and various vermin, your shoes become rather repulsive things
China is safe, as long as you don't know about the things that they try to keep from foreign devils
Question everything and everyone's motives, just not out loud
There is much more to see and explore, and people to meet and talk to
Although Xi'an is cool, I'd recommend waiting until they open the Qin Emperor's tomb
Even though the "standard" electrical strip looks like that below, I still had problems with adaptors
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