As I fell asleep last night, a very appropriate song came up on my iPod’s shuffle: 北京欢迎你, or Beijing Welcomes You. It’s a cute song that was written, I think, for the 2008 Olympics, but felt very fitting. Happily assured of the warm welcome awaiting me, I drifted to sleep on my rocking berth.
The welcome wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, though. Our train arrived around 7:30 a.m. – although the distance was longer our previous trip, this was my shortest-ever Chinese train ride – and we were woken up around 6:30 to exchange our cabin passes for the tickets we need to exit the train station.
I couldn’t find mine. Call it payback for mocking my dad yesterday, but I looked everywhere and couldn’t find it. I was feeling really panicked as I checked every single bag and each pocket therein. The conductor just watched me, saying “If you can’t find your ticket, what will we do?” Envisioning my fate as Charlie on the MTA, I really wondered if they were going to let me off the train. Then, right before we arrived, the conductor mentioned that there’s a 5 yuan penalty for losing the cabin pass. Seriously? He had me all worked up when I could have just paid the 80 cent fine?!?
Safely out of the train station, I found a bus stop and we got a bus in the direction of our hotel. We came in at the Beijing West Station and were headed into DongCheng (the eastern part of the city) so we drove right through the middle – passing Tiananmen Square on the way. It was so weird to pass such a place while riding public transportation. I was straining to catch street signs and the like, and then bam! there’s Tiananmen Square. And then we just kept driving by. Tourism on the cheap!
It was also weird just being in Beijing. It’s the capital of China and I’ve technically been there 4 times, but the only familiar places to me are the airport and the KFC in one of the train stations.
When we got off the bus, we opted for a taxi ride to track down the exact location of our hotel – many experiences have taught us asking directions in China often includes switchbacks, and it was too cold and we had too much luggage to enjoy that sort of hunt. The taxi driver had a lisp and the heavy ‘er’-laden Beijing accent, which was almost too much for me to handle at 8 in the morning.
Then we got to the hotel where my travel agent had booked us a room. When we went up to look at it, we found two small beds in a tiny room. We told her that was unacceptable, but she replied that they were going to add a bed . . . and then, pretty much in the same breath, said that the room was too small to add a bed. So basically, they sold us a room that didn’t exist. Great.
There we were, in an unfamiliar city with no hotel, no map, carrying 3 suitcases, 3 backpacks, and about 200 kuai ($30). After looking at 4 rooms and swiping 3 credit cards, we finally found a mediocre room in a chain hotel for twice what we’ve been paying in other cities. I was not happy, but at least we could set our stuff down finally.
After a short rest, we went to the Forbidden City. It’s a short walk from our hotel, including part between the wall and a moat that was quite pretty.
The museum is pretty cheap, so we decided to splurge and get an English-speaking guide. I’m glad we did because she had some interesting stories to share. My favorite was when she told us about the 金砖, or ‘gold bricks’ in the emperor’s throne room. They’re not gold at all, but are called that for a few reasons. First of all, the stone used was very time-consuming to make and thus very expensive. Secondly, most Chinese never got to enter the Forbidden City (it ain’t called that for nothin’!) and figured that the emperor’s throne room would be paved in gold. My favorite reason was that the people who were transporting the bricks from the place of manufacturing (in Suzhou, near Shanghai) to Beijing were southerners, and so in their accented Mandarin they said jīn zhuān (金砖, or “golden bricks”) instead of jīng zhuān (京砖, or “capital bricks”). I have to put up with the southern accent all the time, so I really appreciated that story.
It was a beautiful day in Beijing (for real!) with sun, warmth, and blue sky. The palace, especially the parts repainted recently, were truly brilliant.
After our guide took us through the emperor’s palaces along the main axis of the City and showed us the residences of the Empress Dowager CiXi and the Last Emperor PuYi, we went through the artifacts exhibits by ourselves. There were some ridiculous pieces of jade, gold, and silver, even such mundane items as ear picks!
Coming out of the Forbidden City, we saw a line of taxis. What a welcome sight, we thought, after the trials of public transportation in Chengdu and Xi’An! We happily ran towards one . . . then another, then another, as each one waved us away. We’re still not exactly sure why, but apparently the taxis outside the City are not for taking people to other places. Obviously . . . sorry, that was a stupid mistake on my part.
By the time we got a taxi home, we were all pretty frustrated. I can take 麻烦 (hassle) from China up to a point, but then I get frustrated, angry, and extremely tired in quick succession. I felt like I had been in a physical struggle with Beijing – and lost.
We recouped at the hotel for a few hours, then met up with the Bisterbosches for dinner. Aleid is my good friend from XiaDa, and she had just arrived in Beijing with her parents (visiting from the Netherlands) as well. We managed to find each other on the streets of Beijing, and then walked together to 全聚德烤鸭店, a chain of restaurants well-known for their Peking roast duck.
It was great to see Aleid again; we compared travel stories and commiserated about our parents. Apparently hers are like children too – she told me, “I remember the first time my dad said to me: ‘Aleid, I need to go to the toilet.’!” They want to eat bread every day for lunch and are still mastering basic phrases in Chinese. I guess parents the world over are pretty much the same!
The dinner was excellent, too. After a whole day of wondering if this was what the song meant, I finally got a taste of Beijing’s welcome. We got a few side dishes, but the main course was a duck. It was carved right at the table and then placed before us for our dining pleasure.
We ate the crispy skin after dipping it in sugar, then started on the meat. To eat it properly (as we had to have a waitress demonstrate), you take a piece of meat with the attached fat and skin, dip it in the mystery (soy?) sauce, place it on a super-thin pancake thing, add a scallion, roll it up like a burrito, and eat.
Delicious! Afterwards we got a little certificate so that I can prove to everyone that we ate Duck #131410.
We split the check.
Back at the hotel, the kiddos went to bed (Dad’s sick and lost his voice) while I stayed up preparing for tomorrow. I still don’t have a decent map so trip-planning requires integrating Lonely Planet, Google Earth, and Beijing’s rather impressive public transportation site.