Going Solo in China: Days 2 and 3 – Exploring Beijing

When I returned to my hostel from my Great Wall adventure and making new friends, I had every intention of showering and catching up on some lost sleep. I ended up journaling for a couple of hours and then decided I needed to visit a bank to withdraw money, eat something for dinner, and maybe see how far Tiananmen Square really was.

Random Observation: The number pad I used at the ATM machine had its numbers flipped. Typing in any numerical information was a strange kind of challenge.

I had no intention of making a vigorous trip out into the neighborhood, but walking anywhere in Beijing will leave you sweating from the humidity. I should also mention that no matter where you go in the city, somehow you always end up covered in a layer of dirt and grime. You can literally feel it when you rub your hands together. On one level I find that disgusting, but on another (my archaeological side) I find that oddly exciting. In some way in my mind it screamed, “I LIVED TODAY!” It’s the kind of living that keeps you close to the earth and its people, a great kind of dirty.

Tiananmen Square

I meandered through a park on my way to the main square, where I ran into this young, Chinese woman. Apparently she had no problem calling me, “my friend” and talking my ear off. Honestly, I wasn’t in the mood for company, but I found myself answering her questions. Where was I from, What did I do, How long was I staying, etc. When I mentioned I had already been to school twice for two degrees, she literally gasped and asked how old I was. When I replied, her jaw was open and she proclaimed I looked 18 or 20. Why thank you strange, Chinese woman, I appreciate the random compliment. She intended to shepherd me toward her “art exhibit” before I flat out said I wasn’t interested. I don’t think I could walk away from her fast enough.

Scam Alert: All around Tiananmen Square, especially right in front of the Forbidden City, there are people, mostly women, who will say, “Hello! Where are you from?” They’re not just friendly people from Beijing, they’re talented scam artists. These ladies will do almost anything to strike up a conversation with you. They’ll suggest going to get coffee or some other drink and practice their English with you. They’ll go to the bathroom and never return. You’ll be stuck with an outrageous bill that covers more than just your drinks.

Since I’m blonde, it’s pretty easy to make the assumption that I speak English. I can’t count the number of times I was pestered about speaking English with people. Ignoring them and frowning does little to dissuade their pursuit. I was in the middle of taking some pictures when two women came up to me, one saying the required, “Hello. Where are you from?” Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. “How long have you been in Beijing?” I finally retorted with, “Je ne parle pas Anglais.” Her friend was apparently a translator and relayed what I had said in French to the other girl in English. The original speaker, “Oh! You speak so well, would you like to go for coffee?” I pretty much just gave up on the photography and walked away.

A Cultural Music Fest… or something.

I spent an hour or so walking around Tiananmen before heading back to the hostel. I spotted a glorious Subway on the way back and decided to break one of my 100 Yuans there. A bag full of trusted food and bottled water later, I was sitting in bed watching communist tv. I think some of the most cultural exposure I encountered on my trip was through that little box and its music festival channel. That’s probably one of the reasons I kind of fell in love with China while I was there.

The following day proved to be a pretty epic one. I was supposed to meet Rachel, a friend I met studying abroad in Wales back in 2007, and her family at their hotel and spend the day with them. The meet-up time was at noon. I woke up at a decent hour, had breakfast at my hostel (and unexpectedly had to pay for it), checked the city map in the internet room, and headed out. I thought I might as well go and check out the Temple of Heaven complex before meeting up with Rachel. Let me just start out by saying it was a longer walk than I had been anticipating. That’s generally the story of my solo-travel life.

Temple of Heaven

When I go to a new city, I tend not to use public transportation because I want to explore everything on foot. Plus, it’s free. Of course, any map I had seen while in Beijing was never very accurate or helpful. I ended up turning too soon (think a couple of miles too soon) for the Temple of Heaven and ended up walking by an open air market. That was quaint. I kept walking. Somehow I ended up in part of the slums of Beijing. This always happens to me. It happened in London, Paris, and San Francisco, pretty much any city I go to by myself. Thank goodness I have a decent sense of direction during the day and was able to maneuver my way out of the area fairly quickly. I spotted Rachel’s hotel after walking another block, had an interesting time crossing a number of streets, was parched from the heat and decided to try the subway. I was literally one stop away from the Temple of Heaven. A helpful British couple pointed me to the correct exit and off I went. Not realizing the Eastern entrance was right behind me, I walked a quarter of the circumference to the main entrance and paid my 35 RMB entry fee. Judging by the lamp post shadows, I had about an hour left until I needed to meet up with Rachel.

The gardens were beautiful, and there were so many people just leisurely playing instruments, dancing, or painting. Almost anything you could name, people were doing it. I ended up shelling out another 20 RMB for what I realized later was a duplicate of my first ticket. Oh well, live and learn and break those 100s. I could have easily spent a couple hours there, but that’s more for next time I suppose. I took the subway to the Novotel hotel and walked in right as Rachel’s group was checking in. Perfect timing for meeting them and for the air conditioning that followed!

She’s such a good sport. Lunching with Rachel at Mr. Lee’s.

We set off for the Forbidden City after lunch, in a chauffeured and air conditioned van! Honestly, it just made the day so much better being able to sit down and be taken to the places we wanted to go. “Oh it’s a ten to fifteen minute walk in that direction,” became a less than a five minute ride by a driving master who knew the roads. I was so incredibly thankful for her family’s generosity and good natured company. Honestly, they made my last day in Beijing amazing. We checked out the gate portion with Mao’s portrait hanging on the front. I wasn’t that impressed, but that may be because there weren’t any English translations of all the images and history. At least it had a nice breeze.

Mao and his gate.

I was more impressed with the Forbidden City and just how massive it was. The golden-yellow tiles were glorious, as were all the statues we ran across. Rachel’s mom was in charge of reading about the history, which was nice because I didn’t want the full tour guide bit. Short and simple tidbits were just fine. We had a little hiccup trying to find the Imperial Garden, but I was able to match the symbols from a sign to the map nearby. Considering all of these Asian languages look relatively the same to me (Korean has more circular/oval shapes though), I was rather impressed with myself. I would have loved to spend more time in the Garden, even as packed as it was. My favorite pictures of the day were taken in the Forbidden City, most of which I’ve included in the previously posted video. So instead of more of that, here’s a typical tourist shot of Rachel’s sister, Rachel, and me.

Tourist Shot!

Once our rounds of the city were complete, the driver picked us up and took us to Beihai park. The willow trees were beautiful, and clambering about the park was both fun and relaxing. I loved it. I did notice that if you wanted to do anything there it was going to cost you. It wasn’t going to cost very much, but it was still something. I was optimistic about the cave walk, but it was lame, rather pointless, and filled with creepy statues. Though, I did run across a sign that said, “Tish way, please.” Priceless.

Once we left Beihai it was time for the grand finale, Peking Duck. I cannot accurately describe the glorious deliciousness that dinner was. It’s pretty much impossible, and safe to say that just thinking about it makes my mouth water. While it wasn’t nearly as spicy as what I’m used to eating in Korea, it was incredibly tasty. After dinner, they were nice enough to lend me their driver to take me back to my hostel. Once again, I just want to express my sincere and deepest gratitude for making my last day in Beijing so amazing. Thank you Boeke Family! I’m so glad Rachel and I were able to reconnect after not having seen each other for four years. Of all places, we met in Wales, visited in Iowa, and reunited in China! It’s definitely a small world.

Beihai Park