Beijing – “How’s Your Mandarin?
We disembarked our final night train into the thick of Beijing. Our tour was coming to an end and we had only a few nights left with the group. Most of the group were sad, but Joseph and I were ecstatic. Jason, now retired, was flying in from Bali to join us on our China adventure. We spent the evening celebrating the birthday of one of the tour members, Jean. She was also the inspiration for the title of this blog. Xiao Wang’s Home restaurant was the first stop in the festivities. This was, hands down, the best meal we had in Beijing. By now you’ve probably realised my blogs are more and more about food and this one will be no exception. Chinese food is similar to the stuff at home, complete with lazy susan and all. As it was Jeans birthday, she was bestowed the honour of ordering the food for us all to share. No visit to Beijing is complete without Peking duck so we wasted no time chowing that down. Duck can go either way for me, really bad or really good, this one was the latter. After a few tasty ducky pancakes we moved onto a super spicy chilli chicken and some very tasty salt and pepper shrimp. The powder that the shrimp was served with contained some mystery magic ingredient that made our tongues tingle. We concluded it must be MSG. And I am a fan!
Next stop was Karaoke. It took a while to find the place so once we were there we made the most of it. Unfortunately this meant we got home at around 3:30am. There was a scheduled trip to the Great Wall at 6:30am which we of course missed. We didn’t mind though because we had a whole week and more importantly we had to meet Jason at his hotel. It was so nice to see Jason, a little tanned reminder of home. It also sunk in that our trip is very quickly coming to end. The afternoon was spent catching up over what we’ve missed over the last eight or so months. We had the last group activity, dinner and a show, that evening. The show was a little Beijing Chaoyang Acrobatics number. The acts were all impressive, my personal favourite was seeing 15 girls ride one bike whilst fanning themselves. The final group dinner was a bit subdued probably due to the wild crazy karaoke party the night before. We said our goodbyes to those that were leaving and made plans with some who were staying.
Joseph, Jason and I would be in Beijing for a week. This was so Joseph can study Mandarin at a local school. Whilst he was busy studying, Jason and I would spend our time planning the rest of our Chinese trip, taking in some sights and do a little shopping. Our first day we got a little sidetracked and had an amazing foot massage followed by a Chinese massage for two hours. We did manage to check out the forbidden city and Tiananmen square afterwards. We spent the evening in a local hutong. I think hutong means pokey little back streets in Chinese. After exploring the area we had another great dinner on the rooftop of a restaurant with Jason and our new Danish and Aussie friends.
The next day we planned some of our trip and researched hotels in all of the areas we will be visiting. This was also the last evening we would be seeing the Danish girls so of course we went to the night market and ate scorpions and silk worms deep fried on a stick. Nothing says farewell like some strange food on a skewer. The silk worms were my favourite.
I was concerned the Beijing would be a polluted, smoggy mess. Over the first few days the smog got progressively worse. At one point I couldn’t even see the surrounding buildings from our apartment window. One night, the heavens opened and the rains seem to wash the city. In the morning we were presented with a beautiful clear blue sky and views not previously seen. The buildings in Beijing are quite incredible too. The new CCTV building is impressive to name just one. There is lots of construction happening all around so she is definitely a city on the grow. The size of the city is also massive. There is a metro system that snakes through the metropolis so getting around is relatively easy and cheap at around 30 cents a ride. But if your destination is not near a metro station, be prepared to walk or take a taxi. Taxis are a frustrating experience. Even with the address of your destination in Chinese, most taxi drivers don’t know where they are going. We were told that most of the cab drivers are not from the city so do really know where they are going. Seems to be a universal problem in cities around the world. Another fun experience is taking ‘illegal’ taxis. Basically just somebody in their own car willing to drive you around. They charge about five times what the cost of the ride is but generally know where they are going. Our final night in Beijing we caught a ride home with Stella, a sixty something year old lady driving the world’s smallest van.
Wednesday was one of my favourite days in Beijing. Jason and I headed down to the Silk street market. It’s not as lame as the name suggests as they sell not only silk but clothes, shoes, sunglasses, electronics and generic handicrafts. This was also my first opportunity to witness Jason’s world famous negotiation skills. My god he is good! For example, Jason was in the market for some lovely polo tops. He was buying six so this meant he wanted rock bottom prices. The shop assistant, whose name was Moon, named the opening price, 480 CNY ($73) per shirt. Jason told the lady her prices were crazy and that me makes her cry. She replied only babies and girls cry. He then counter offered at 50 CNY ($7.70) per shirt. Then the tooing and frowing started. But I noticed Jason never upped his bid, Moon just kept reducing her price. Eventually it was still too high so we proceeded to do ‘the walk off’. To which Moon and her assistants grabbed Jason by both arms and held him so he wouldn’t leave. He broke free and even as we were leaving they yelled out lower prices. The final amount was 60 CNY ($9.20) per shirt. We still walked away, gave them some time to sweat and came back. Moon was not happy selling the shirts at that price and told Jason he was a very tough man. It was so much fun watching Jason do his thing and I was truly amazed at just how cheap things are. Shoes for $15, undies for $2, socks for 60 cents and even a wallet and sunglasses for free (free gifts with purchase I guess). We loved the market so much we returned on our final day for more bargains.
But Beijing wasn’t all massages and shopping. We spent one full day exploring the city. First stop was the Olympic centre to see the famous birds next stadium and aquacube swimming centre. Those two structures are pretty impressive up close. The summer palace was also on the sightseeing destination list as it was recommended by the Danes. We took a rickshaw from the subway to the palace. Had a little stroll around but secretly just wanted to get to the lake and paddle around on a paddle boat. This, like kayaking, seemed like a good idea at the time. Pedalling those little boats took and amazing amount of leg strength and as they were not the most aero dynamic vessels we were basically just being blown around the lake. Still it was fun and also gave me an opportunity to do a little Titanic boat shot. Our last stop was to Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. This is similar to Lenin’s mausoleum, his body lays there preserved for all to see. Unfortunately for us we didn’t get to see old Mao as it was closed. That night, based our Scottish pals recommendation, we saw “The Legend of Kungfu” show. The show was awesome. There were plenty more acrobatic tricks, kids doing backflips and landing on their heads and some metal bar smashing on heads. Kungfu monks have tough noggins.
Joseph ‘graduated’ on Friday night so we celebrated with more shopping and a lovely dinner at Xiao Wang’s. The night was topped off with a visit to Beijing’s only gay bar. We stuck out like Western sore thumbs.
Our time in Beijing was coming to an end and on Saturday we were flying out to Xi’an. We had an evening flight so we boo
ked a private car to take us to the Great Wall beforehand. There are many sections of the wall that are open to tourists, we went to Mutianyu. Our driver recommended it as it wasn’t as touristy as Badaling. The first thing I noticed when we arrived was the Subway sandwich shop. Badaling must have a Subway and a MacDonald’s. There was a chairlift we could have rode up, but as Mao said, “You haven’t visited China until you’ve climbed the wall”. So we did just that. Even Jason with his two dodgy hips and distaste for walking made it up albeit at a glacial pace. The weather was perfect and from the top we could see some pretty spectacular scenery. This part of the wall was pretty cool. Obviously the Chinese have rebuilt this section to resemble what it once was, but off in the distance there was still some of the original wall and towers. We wandered around along the wall for a while, mentally checked off this off the bucket list and of course had Subway for lunch. Our driver whisked us away to the airport where we boarded our flight west to the city of Xi’an.