Thursday, February 11, 2010

I love Beijing more than ever

I bought a T shirt from the Great Wall that says: “I *heart* Beijing” and then below that: “I love Beijing more than ever!” I thought it was pretty funny at the time, but ever since then I’ve realized that it very appropriately sums up my feelings over the past few days. I do love Hong Kong, but I think that Beijing will always be my Chinese home.

Our hotel in Beijing is called Joy Inn and it did, indeed, bring us much joy after our Hong Kong hostel adventure. After excitedly checking out the real, glass walled shower and flushing toilet, we headed out to the school where I studied abroad in fall of 2007 and went to my favorite restaurant (dong bei yi er san) for some delicious egg plant, chicken, and veggie dishes. The road outside had been completely fixed up and redone, and some of my favorite hole-in-the-wall, street food places were gone, but it looked much cleaner. After that we hit up my favorite shopping destination – the Silk Street market – for some bargaining practice. Carly and Tara loved the jewelry floor so we spent most of our time there picking up pretty beaded necklaces. Later that night I took them to our old weekend night scene area called San Li Tun and showed them some of my favorite bars like Bar Blu and Smugglers. It was pretty crazy to be back, and so nice to feel comfortable and know where to go and what to expect. Everything seems much cleaner and more organized since the Olympics, but luckily the people are still so sweet and fun and not hardened big city style. You can make friends with almost anyone you start a conversation with and people are very rarely creepy or aggressive.
The next day we jumped on the subway and headed into the heart of town to see Tiananmen Square. It had snowed the day before, so we were pretty bundled up and still freezing. As we walked through the square, I explained what I knew about the Tiananmen Square incident, and some other things about China. We saw a couple walking near us holding a very chubby baby, bundled with so many clothes that its whole body was literally a sphere. As I started saying how some parents don’t put diapers on their babies, but dress them in pants with large slits down the butt instead, we noticed that two very pink butt cheeks were quickly approaching us. The parents of the spherical child came up timidly and asked if we could take a picture. I reached for the camera, ready to take a nice family photo for them, but instead received the large baby. Carly, Tara and I were arranged in a line with the baby, and stood there (rather confused) as the father took tons of pictures and the mother chirped happily at the baby to look at the camera. Someday that poor child will wonder why he has 50 pictures of himself with three random foreign girls. Luckily we got our own copy of the photo, so at least we can appreciate it.

After Tiananmen, we went over to the Forbidden City, which was home to the emperors of the last two dynasties (Ming and Qing). It’s a huge complex with all sorts of beautiful Chinese wooden architecture. Unfortunately, the fact that it seems to go on forever is not as awe-inspiring when it’s below freezing outside, and we spent most of the last half hour on a search for the legendary Starbucks that had been so protested against. We didn’t find it, but we did find some awesome hot chocolate. For dinner we met up with my friend Sammy who worked at the gym I used to go to, and his new wife. They took us to an amazing Beijing duck feast. It was really fun to see them, and (as always) the duck was to die for. Sammy went to intense Chinese athletic school since elementary school and ended up being the national wrestling champion multiple years in a row. It’s crazy how different the school systems are here.

On the third day we had signed up for a tour of some Ming dynasty tombs and the Great Wall. We were picked up by a small bus with an English-speaking tour guide named Eric (Yuan Ming) and an Argentinian couple. Eric was extremely enthusiastic and explained China’s whole history to us on the way to the Ming tombs. He was also pretty excited that I could speak Chinese, and called me Mei Mei (which means little sister) and announced to every Chinese person we encountered that my father is Chinese and I am mixed blood. He spoke a lot of Chinese to me, telling me his views about Google and Obama and Americans in general, which made the Argentinians kind of frustrated. At the Ming tombs, we were looking at the jade that had been excavated and Eric tried to explain about how jade bracelets were passed down as Heirlooms by taking Tara’s hand and saying: “The mother-in-law will take the daughter- in-law’s hand like this.. and then say ‘SOON!.... I will be died.’ And then she will move the bracelet over to the daughter.” - after which he dramatically acted out his death and almost completely fell over a banister.
After the Ming Tombs we went to a jade factory, where we watched the whole process of carving jade and then were shown a huge store with every jade thing imaginable (very strategically place gift shop..). Finally, after a very nice lunch, we got to the Ba Da Ling section of the Great Wall. Eric talked us into taking the Gondolas up since it was so icy and cold. The sky was kind of cloudy, so you couldn’t see as far as you usually can, but it was very pretty to see it in the snow. The Great Wall is really shockingly impressive no matter how you see it.

After that we headed back into town and made a last stop at a silk factory. They showed us the whole cycle of silk production in great detail, from the bugs, to the worms, to the cocoons, to the silk threads. What a surprise! - that tour ended in a large store also. It was really cool to see, though. Each worm creates a silk thread that’s about one kilometer long, and then it must be killed inside the cocoon in order to preserve the thread with no breaks. Each silk garment takes thousands and thousands of threads. Next time you wear silk, think about how many worms died for you. Poor worms.

We had Eric drop us off at the Lao Shi Cha Guan (Lao Shi Tea House) where we drank tea and watched short performances of Beijing Opera, Sound imitation, Chinese Comedy, Martial Arts, and some other fun Chinese-style stunts.

Afterwards, we walked down the new Front Gate Ancient Street, which is supposed to be modeled on a traditional-style Beijing street, but looks a lot more like a Chinese-style modern shopping street. Most of the stores were closed already, though, so it was pretty quiet and relaxing.
On the fourth day, we started out at my favorite Western-style breakfast place. It seems silly, but it was comfort food for when I missed home in China and therefore worth revisiting. This place is called Grandma’s Kitchen and has amazing skillets. It also happens to be very close to where I lived in the summer of 2008, so I took Carly and Tara over to see one of the most interesting Beijing sites I’ve discovered: Walmart. Walmart in China is hilariously different from America, with cases of Chinese buns, men hacking meat with cleavers, hanging dried fish and roasted ducks, live turtles for sale to be cooked, and so much more. That particular Walmart is 4 stories of that sort of magic. They may be the Evil Empire, but at least we know they’re good at regionalizing. After Walmart we headed over to my old apartment building to visit the couple who work in the little store on the first floor. They have a beautiful fluffy dog named Hei Mei (Black Beauty). They remembered me and gave me two bottles of water and let us play with Hei Mei for a while. They’re so sweet. I’m really glad I got to see them again.
Next we went to the Summer Palace, which is also much harder to get through in the freezing cold even though it is very beautiful. It covers a large hill and a lake with beautiful architecture and pretty little bridges and long covered walkways. The whole lake was frozen over and people had jumped the fences to go walk on it. The site itself is amazing, but we apparently added bonus scenery because hordes of school children swarmed Carly, eager to see the foreigner and practice their English: “Hello! What is your name? Goodbye!”

That night we went to probably my (real) favorite undiscovered attraction in Beijing – a Tibetan Restaurant near the Silk Market that Sammy showed me. It has delicious authentic food, warm and inviting Tibetan décor, and best of all, a free Tibetan song and dance show every night around 8. The Tibetan boys who were singing made us all get up and do the last dance with them around the restaurant and left us giggling like school girls. Carly claimed a very dashing Tibetan singer with a cool faux-hawk as her next boyfriend. I think the feeling was mutual and he probably would have come back to America with us, except we decided he wouldn’t be as cute if he didn’t keep his Tibetan garb on all the time. It’s amazing that they do the same thing every night - they always seem to enjoy it so much. It’s nice to see a performance that feels like it’s more about sharing culture than making money.

After dinner we went to meet up with my roommate from study abroad, Wendy. She’s been studying Chinese in Beijing at a university for a year now. We met her and two of her friends at a little bar in Hou Hai, which is a bar and restaurant district around a beautiful man-made lake. It was really fun to see her and catch up.
The next morning, our beloved Tara left us for home. She will be dearly missed. Carly and I slept in that morning, and then headed over to see the last big Beijing site: the Temple of Heaven. It was very cold, but we got some good pictures. While we were there, a Chinese man came up to Carly and did some very odd sign language. I thought at first that he might not be able to hear, so I wasn’t sure whether or not I should try to speak Chinese to him. After far too many minutes of this going on, however, we established that he could speak Chinese and just wanted to have a picture taken with her. I have no idea what message he thought he was getting across before. Carly will now be in the long-term memories and photo albums of many Chinese tourists.

Next we headed over to 798, which is the art district, and met up with Wendy and my friend from home, Alisa. Alisa is teaching English in Kunming, but happened to be visiting and overlap with our time in Beijing. Most of the galleries and museums were closed already for the holidays (Chinese New Year), but Alisa came along with us to check out the Silk Market again and have dinner. The Silk Market was kind of crowded and stressful, but we got in our last-minute cheap souvenir shopping and then went to one of my favorite restaurants – Bellagio. Bellagio is kind of a stylish Chinese restaurant, with most of the normal dishes, but presented much more artistically. All of the waitresses are forced to have extremely short, boy haircuts. What makes it my favorite, though, is that it boasts a huge, separate dessert menu, with something called the “Mango Supreme.” This amazing concoction is composed of a scoop of coconut ice cream, a scoop of mango ice cream, some mango pudding, and mango chunks, all swimming in mango shaved ice. I dream about that dessert. It’s unreal. The food was good, and so was the company. It was really nice to catch up with Alisa. We grew up spending our breaks together, but sadly I haven’t seen her much for the last few years. She said she’s biking down to Vietnam with some friends after she leaves Beijing. Awesome. I’m jealous.

Well that just about brings us up to date! We’re actually in Xi’an now. I’ve been running a bit behind on these but it’s harder now that blogger’s blocked in China. Facebook, too. Blast. Hope there are still people reading! Haha. Anyway, we’ll only be in Xi’an for two days so the next one will for sure be shorter. Talk soon!


  1. Incredible, Emily! I love reading about your experiences- makes me want to travel again soon. Keep on having fun and making memories :)

  2. So jealous!! I'm glad you didn't have the awkward experience of being pulled on stage at the Lao Shi Teahouse to help the magician with his magic trick like I did.