My Chinese friend, Ya Xi (David), warned me that China would be hot as hell and crowded in August, but that did not deter me! It’s hot in New York and Bangkok in August, so what’s the difference? The opportunity to check so many places off my Bucket List was just too tempting. So you walk a little slower and drink a little more water!
The flight on Thai Airways from Bangkok was uneventful and took only 4 and a half hours. When we arrived, I saw all the Chinese running for the exit! A familiar knot formed in my stomach, and it wasn’t from the dinner the night before or the dreadful meal served on the flight. Well, maybe not totally It reminded me of a flight to Kuala Lumpur several years ago. The reason then was the incredible long lines that formed at Immigration. It took well in access of an hour to get through. It took so long they had taken my bag off the baggage claim and put it in a small storage room! Welcome to Kuala Lumpur! Well, I learned fast that China is an endurance test sometimes as well. Not like India, but not UNlike India, either! When you got off the plane, you had to walk about 15 minutes to get to a long line at Immigration. But unlike Kuala Lumpur, the line here moved rather efficiently, at least given its length! Then you have to get on the shuttle train to get to baggage claim. Fortunately, my bag was there this time! I managed to exit and find Ya Xi patiently waiting my arrival. What I think I loved most was the fact that going with a Chinese national, you really get the sense of what it is like to travel in China. No tour bus or hotel van service for us! We boarded the bus that eventually found its way through heavy late afternoon traffic to a stop where we switched to a subway and made our way to the Line 4 and Gomedian station near Ya Xi’s parent’s condo. It’s hard to tell where his family members actually live! Even though they have their own residences, many actually stay here too. They also have a place in a city called Luoyang (next entry) in central China where a lot of the family was now residing. So Ya Xi and I had the place to ourselves. Not sure whose room I was staying in. That seems to be a very fluid concept in China as well!
Before going to the condo, we decided to eat at a restaurant in the neighborhood. Well, this was the beginning of my reawakening to the fact that there is Chinese AMERICAN food and there is the real thing. What a perfect way to start this journey with a serving of Beijing Duck (the only way I ever eat duck) and Beijing Noodles, a thick noodle with oodles of vegetables and served with a delicious soy paste with marinated chips of beef in it. Addicting!
It was a mercifully short hop to the condo from there. The condo is in one of many highrises in the area. Despite that, the Zhang family has manage to put their own stamp on it. It is a three bedroom place with small livingroom, kitchen and dining areas. But that said, it was very comfortable. I took a shower and we decided to get to bed as we were both exhausted.
I was up at 6:00, the usual time. It was so nice to just have that quiet time there to read and write. About 7:00, I heard what sounded like an elderly Chinese male voice singing an old Chinese song somewhere in the courtyard below. It sounded so sad, like a lament for lost love or perhaps times gone by. It was my morning meditation to just stand there at the bathroom window in the pale morning light with my eyes closed imagining sitting on a misty mountain top as the song washed over me. Welcome to China!
Ya Xi got up at 8:00. I think with his new son, this was the first uninterrupted night’s sleep he’s had in a while! Not that he doesn’t have a lot of help with the family hovering over every sound the baby makes! But they were all in Luoyang.
The first thing we had to do was to take care of business first. If you stay in China in a residence, you are required to check in with the local police station. Local meaning one or two subway stops away! I needed no translation for anything that happened there. Bureaucrats are the same everywhere. Ya Xi, ever the experienced one, had a flash drive loaded with everything they could possibly ask from him! And, of course, they did! It still took an hour for 5 officials to complete the paperwork, three of whom were working their cell phone games or texting friends rather than contributing anything. No wonder most visitors don’t even bother. And in the future, neither will I. We recuperated at a local shop for a breakfast of steamed buns, bean soup and shumai. Need I say, delicious?
Fortified, we headed by subway to Tienamen Square and the Imperial Palace. The subway system is crowded and transfers require a lot of walking to the next connection, but it is all part of the experience! And it is worth it! We came out of the subway and you have to take a second or ten to take in the massive size of the Square itself to the south. Like most people, we opted to forgo that side with cold, utilitarian, somber buildings with titles like “Hall of the People, ” “Heroes’ Monument” and even Mao Tze Tung’s Mausoleum. With only three days scheduled for Beijing, it’s the Forbidden City, as the West knows it, we came to see. There are thousands of Chinese tourists here as well. We love anything “forbidden!” You enter the ornate gate that was once the reserve of only the emperor and walk into a huge courtyard, anyone who’s watched Chinese period movies will have seen this spot! It could very well be it’s own city. This is where the emperor would review his army. It is so large, I’m sure that is true. You could fit an army in that space! We started out at one end at 12:30 and did not get to the other side of the complex till 3:30. We took breaks as everything is exposed to the oppressive sun. I don’t think I’ve ever craved water so much as I did in China. Huge courts and gardens, buildings of every administrative type, residences, throne rooms for this event or that. It’s endless, but fascinating. You can imagine it bustling with activity back in the day, messages arriving from everywhere in the empire. It’s own little world! Sadly, you are not allowed into many of the buildings for security reasons. The buildings are of a style and lack the variety of other places, but the sheer size of it all is awesome enough!
When we finally made it to the end and exited the gate, before us was the hill of Jingshan Park with its impressive view of the area. I was exhausted, but like I would be constantly saying over the next two weeks, “You’re here! Do it!” As we climbed the steep stairs, I kept having the feeling that there must be an easier climb somewhere here. I discovered that the hard way at the Acropolis in Athens! Sure enough near the top we saw the gentle sloped walkway that ribbons the hillside! Why don’t I read my guidebooks more carefully! It’s all worth it though. Beautiful view of the entire Palace grounds and a refreshing cool breeze.
We descended the hill and finally started by bus on the way back. It was that misnamed time of the day, “rush hour.” Nothing was rushing. We were on an overcrowded, hot bus when I had another needs-no-translation moment. We were stopped dead in traffic and a gruff older guy starts yelling to the driver to open the doors to let him out. “It would be faster to walk!” I imagined him saying. The driver accommodated him, and about 15 others, including the two of us, joined him!By the look on the driver’s face, he would have been with us too if he could have! This ended up being an interesting turn of events as right up the road was a walking street that wound its way through some remnants of the old city. Well, not quite the charm of the actual old city as the structures now house overpriced shops. There is just so much yogurt and coffee one can consume! We ended up at a lake that is as kitchy as it is touristy. Ya Xi was determined to have hot pot, but every place here was totally booked for at least an hour’s wait time. As the hour drew late, we decided to go back to Ya Xi’s neighborhood. No hot pot, but we found the coolest make-your-own-soup place! Loved it! Lots of veggies to choose from! Like a salad bar for soup lovers! Kind of a hot pot, come to think of it!
The next day we were up early to take the subway clear across town to catch the bus to a section of the Great Wall known as Badaling. There are many different parts to the wall, and they are different in terrain, too. When we arrived at the old north wall of the city at the bus terminal, there was a line a kilometer long (no kidding) of people waiting to get on the buses. Next to it was a much shorter line for people willing to stand in the aisle during the trip. We were told the trip would be a little more than an hour. The Chinese evidently have as much sense of time-distance as the Cambodians! It took 2 1/2 hours. It was crowded and torturous, but I kept to my mantra, “It’s an experience and these are the situations you remember best and most fondly!” By the time we got there, about 2:30, we looked at the steepness of the climb up to the wall and the number of people on line again and decided to find a cheap hotel room and stay the night. We ate some noodles and Ya Xi was sacked out at 6:30! I lasted till 9:30 and woke up at 3:00. Spent the next 3 hours dozing, too excited to really sleep at all.
We were up and ready to go at 7:00. We checked out and saw that at that early hour there were a lot of people arriving, so we had a quick breakfast of wanton soup and Chinese donuts and opted for the cable car that took us to near the highest part of the wall. I was a little leery of this, but it’s only a 5 minute ride, so on we went. When the car reached each post that supported the cable, it would lurch and swing the car. Not what I wanted to experience! I just concentrated on the amazing view and focused on my breathing! When we got out, it ended up that we were only a short walk to the high point. We took a lot of photos and decided to walk back down to the town on the wall. Now, walking “down” is a relative term here. Walking down also means steep walkways and steeper climbs up on the many flights of stairs! It didn’t take long for me to look like something far removed from the happy, carefree Westerners I saw on line as they walked the Wall! I don’t know what section they were at, not here I’ll bet! You can get about 4-5 people abreast on the wall. As we walked down (or up and down) I tried to imagine the imperial soldiers running from section to section in their armor, even in ice and snow! The shape they must have been in! The floor of the walkway was at times smooth and a little treacherous as we started out in a fine misty rain which made it quite slippery. Other areas are rough stone, so you get more traction.
About half way down, the sun came out and it was suddenly a warm, sunny, humid day. After about two hours, we reached the last steep stairway. Ya Xi made it to the top, but I “really needed a few minutes.” As I sat there contemplating my untimely death, sitting in a cool restaurant enjoying a cold drink, or even calling in a med-evac helicopter for a dramatic “rescue,” a girl of about 10 years old in a party dress, no less, flit by me and ambled effortlessly up the stairs! I thought maybe I was hallucinating! She wasn’t even wearing proper shoes! And I know this because I was at shoe-level when she went by! So after meditating a minute on whether it is worse to GET older or actually BE older, I decided instead to climb those stairs! The former is a constant life revelation. The latter, well, I wouldn’t have even been ON that wall in the first place! Not giving up yet!
I felt like Sir Edmund Hillary as I walked, no strutted, through the crowd, faces elated, screaming at me in Chinese as we went through the gate that reentered town, humbly receiving their admiration and adulation for an incredible feat performed well. But then I realized they were just a sea of hawkers wanting to sell me junk I could readily find on Canal Street in Chinatown, NYC! It must have been the sunstroke. However, I felt entitled to a moment, at least, of self-delusion after what I had been through! Well, I’m sure I can say, with not a little certainty, that Sir Edmund himself would have gorged himself sick on watermelon slices as we did at first opportunity! As the great man said himself, “Aim high! There is little virtue in easy victory.”
It was now about noon, so we found our way to a bus for the return to Beijing, SITTING in a seat this time! We decided to get back and take the night train to Luoyang. Despite all the sleep the night before, we were both conked out in about 10 minutes after the bus left the Wall.