Thursday, January 13, 2011

Middle Kingdom 2010, Part I: Beijing

Note: All photos are gone, thanks to time, Facebook, and probably my own decision to adjust FB privacy settings. Have fun guessing what I'm talking about while you're read on (i.e. use your imagination).

This one is going to take some time to mash out, especially since it’s my longest trip overseas so far (almost one month), and since I flunked one paper and will have to study for a referral in addition to normal classes, which begin early in September. Better not waste time on this intro, then- on with the travelogue:

Update: It's now 2011, heh. So much for not wasting time. I'm done with my referral (I passed, for the record), but this site has been down since... I don't know. Virus attack, that's all I can say for sure. Anyway, back on point: this post will be long. Much too long. As such, be prepared for future installments, though I can't say for sure when they'll pop up...

Left for the airport early in the morning- flight was sometime around 8am. Had a sad-looking and expensive bowl of noodles before- whatcha’ call it- checking in? As usual, any form of liquid is treated as satanic spit, and I decided to drink up my bottle of water rather than dump it all- a fatal decision which would end up causing considerable stress later on.

There was a slight drizzle on the way to the plane- in hindsight, perhaps a forewarning of worse to come. Everyone was provided with red umbrellas, which made for quite a charming sight, although we had to return them before boarding.

Here’s where the trouble started. Before reaching a suitable altitude, an aircraft’s washrooms are always locked. Obviously, ‘parked on the tarmac’ is not a suitable altitude. I badly needed to go, but had to wait in pain for everyone to board, load their stuff, belt themselves down, and for the flight crew to demonstrate the usual dull safety procedures, before the plane took off, after which it seemed to take forever to reach cruising altitude.

The aircraft itself caused some trouble for me. Well, trouble might be a little too harsh a word, but anyway, the seats were arranged in a 3 by 3 by 3 format (by the way, I flew economy class on a budget airline- I don’t remember how seats are laid out on regular airlines), which perhaps led to the aisles being a little narrow, the consequence of which being that my shoulder (on the left) became a sort of… butt magnet. Wait, that doesn’t sound very nice- oshiri magnet. Hmm. Definitely sounds better in Jap. I had everyone from plump tai tais to svelte stewardesses bump their derrieres into me (and I couldn’t help but think that some of them did it on purpose).

After a flight of about 6 hours, we landed at Tianjin airport, in the city of Tianjin- not where I wanted to go, but I didn’t have much of a choice- either Beijing doesn’t have an international airport, or the airline I flew just didn’t have landing permission there. I was (pretty much) immediately accosted by a travel agent- we had a short chat, and I left him shell-shocked by telling him that my hotel (I had no idea how to say hostel in Mandarin) cost no more than some 4 Euros a night- about 30 Yuan.

I took a bus to Beijing- which probably wasn’t a good decision. According to Google Maps, it should have taken about 1-2 hours, but it seemed like forever with the jam inside Beijing itself. I had another surprise waiting for me at the bus terminal: an X-ray scan. These guys really are paranoid…

Took the subway to the Yonghegong Lama Temple- my hostel was in the vicinity. It was in one of those hutongs, in fact- those old jumble of streets so highly recommended by the Lonely Planet. By the way, I stayed in Beijing for 5 days, but didn’t bother with the temple, being for one disinterested in temples, and for the simple reason that when I woke up every morning it wasn’t open yet, and when I got back to the area it was closed. We kept our distance throughout.

It was quite late by then, and I didn’t feel like taking a long journey elsewhere, so I just wandered around that area, and actually got lost (partly on purpose). Oh, I forgot to mention this: throughout the flight I’d had a nagging feeling that I’d forgotten to pack something. I found out what it was when I unpacked: toothpaste. Got a small tube for just 2 Yuan, and a bottle of fruit juice to keep myself from fainting from dehydration and an ever-growing hunger.

I’d come across a brightly lit street called Dongzhimen Dajie, otherwise known as ‘Ghost Street’.  Almost all of the shops were restaurants, but most seemed to serve the same type of food- a variety of roast meat, most notably king prawns, or some other variety of the crustacean. One restaurant offered dog meat- no pictures, but I walked away feeling queasy. I’m not a dog-person, but dog meat isn’t something I’d like on my menu.

I’d somehow managed to walk one gigantic circle around the area, and came back to the Lama Temple. Starving by then, I hopped into the first reasonably safe looking restaurant I saw, which happened to be a noodle shop. I had a bowl of Guilin Rice Noodles with fish balls, which inexplicably contained minced beef (inside the fish balls). Typical of most of China, it was a huge bowl, and I was stuffed. Back home, I’d still have space for one or two more.

5th July 2010:

First thing I did was to head for Beijing South Station, where I tried to get a train ticket for my journey to Shanghai. I had a bit of a shock as one counter told me that tickets were sold out on that date- got a little scared there. I tried another counter on another floor, and the guy there told me that there were still tickets- albeit without seats. I had to get a ticket for that day even if I’d have to cling to the roof of the train, so I jumped for it. The cashier was a little surprised that a foreigner would go for a no-seat ticket, and actually asked me a few times if I really wanted it. It cost 327 Yuan, which gave me a fright- the price was as high as that quoted by the hostel for a regular seat, and higher than the estimate given by an online china rail travel guide.

I must confess that this led to me getting a little paranoid that I’d have to recalculate my budget- I thought that I wouldn’t have enough money to last me if rail travel prices had skyrocketed. I found out much later that no-seat tickets do indeed cost as much as seat tickets, and that it was only the Beijing-Shanghai line that had gotten a price-hike, probably due to the number of people entering Shanghai for the World Expo. No matter- the damage was done.

While my subconscious was still worriedly juggling numbers, I headed for Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City beyond it. The first thing I did was to walk the perimeter of the Forbidden City, which was quite a walk in itself- around 3.5km, I think.

Grabbed a strange meat bun-like thing for brunch- what looked like Lebanese bread stuffed with (most likely) pork and spring onions. Quite salty.  Continued walking, trying my best to stay in the shade- I don’t remember when and how I found this out, but the temperature on one of my days in Beijing was 40 degrees Celsius- far hotter than Summer back in the Mediterranean. People were selling bottles of chilled drinking water they advertised as bing sui- ice water in English. They weren't kidding: each bottle had a block of ice in it.

Took shelter in a nearby park for a few minutes. Or to be precise, I walked through it on my way back to Tiananmen Gate.

Went in the wrong direction- ended up at the staff gate at another end and had to backtrack, but at least I found this river- a pleasant 5 second view, if nothing else.

The main gate at last. I couldn't get a student ticket, which was rather disappointing, since I’d brought my student card along in hope of getting discounts like back in Europe two years ago. No luck here. Paid 60 Yuan for a basic entrance ticket, which leaves out certain minor attractions within the Forbidden City. Passing through Tiananmen Gate is free- the ticket office is beyond it, anyway- but not to go up into the Gate to see Uncle Mao’s pickled body. Wasn't really interested in dropping by on the stuffy (stuffed) chap, so on I went.

Just past the first gate after the ticket counter. There wasn’t a tree in sight. Asian readers- particularly those from Malaysia and Singapore, do you notice anyone who looks like a certain chubby fella named King Kong from the Singaporean TV show Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd? -sniggers-

The largest ‘hall’ in the City. While taking in the view, I overheard a tour guide’s reasons for the architectural style. In his words (more or less): “No trees, no grass: so look grander. Assembly area every morning. Nothing else allowed to be higher. To stop assassinations.”

A weird turtle-like creature. I’ve no idea what it’s supposed to be.

A cauldron for boiling traitors or delectable holy monks whose flesh is said to prolong one’s lifespan, or… an outdoor bath-tub for emperors with exhibitionistic tendencies?

One of the courtyards on the side- quite pretty despite the lack of greenery.

One of the exhibits in one of the little museums dotting the City grounds. I don’t really remember whether it served any purpose besides looking weird, but being an elephant with a dragon-ringed tower embedded on its back, what purpose could it possibly need?

Finally, some trees. There was this little park near the rear end of the City, with some little pavilions and a ridiculously named rock formation.

The innards of one of the aforementioned pavilions. Pretty internal dome, but nothing compared to the skinned-dry but still amazing Pantheon in Rome…

Dui Xiu Shan, the ‘Hill of Accumulated Elegance’ (Wikimapia Location). A pretty rock pile unfortunate enough to have been given a most ignominious name. Just leave the poor over-sized ant hill alone already.

Along the way, I had some sort of Peach-flavored ice-cream that everyone else was having (it was also the cheapest). It was more ice than cream, really. There was a dollop of what might have been peach paste inside it, though. For an idea of how offensively sweet it was, take a look at the guy wearing white on the right side of the photo…

By 2pm I’d gone full circle and was drained of energy. Took a short break at a relatively deserted corner of the City, near the entrance. That’s the Meridian Gate (Wumen) and the Inner Golden Water Bridge you see there. I was sitting under the Xiehe Gate (Wikimapia Location), facing what looked to be a forest park (it most definitely isn’t- more like the emperor’s playground, with stables, an archery ground, and some villas).

But enough of all that. 1900+ words so far and not a single photo with me in it? We can’t have that now, can we? Here, feed my ego.

Having had enough of the City, I went off to Wangfujing (Wikimapia Location), famous for its high-end malls, snack street (overpriced nibbles) and tourist market (tourist trap, really- bargain hard). Something about the malls: almost none of them have benches for tired shoppers. I get that with the huge population they can’t possibly provide enough benches and still sell anything, but that’s beside the point- just stick some in. As a result, in one mall, people were sitting around at the main entrance (inside the mall, directly under the AC vent to boot).

I got myself a bottle of mineral water, but was shocked at the price of 5 Yuan, and further befuddled by the taste- it turned out to be an isotonic drink (Pocari). I checked out some of the bookstores highlighted by Lonely Planet, only to find that their names are nothing short of misleading and their contents disappointing.

There’s the Beijing Foreign Languages Bookstore- criminal naming there, for by ‘Foreign Languages’ they mean English books, various Chinese-Other Language dictionaries, and ‘teach yourself xxx language’ books. One interesting thing happened when I entered, though- I passed by a gaggle of young girls (locals, I think), who suddenly squealed, all fan-girly: “Agatha Christie!” Um. Right…

A short distance away from Wangfujing (no more than 5 minutes away) is Donghuamen ‘Night Market’. It’s not what it says it is. Night Markets are a huge mass of stalls (organized or disorganized), selling everything from food and drinks to clothes, to pirated porn DVDs. This was just a street of stalls selling, in pretty much this order- weird meat on sticks (from silkworm to starfish to scorpion), bubble tea, gyoza, and noodles- in cycles. Overpriced and overhyped.

This bunch of tourists were debating amongst themselves (like many other tourists) whether or not to take the plunge by indulging on the abnormal kebabs. I overheard one girl in another group challenging a guy to try scorpion. As for me, I’d already made up my mind: to ignore all of it. In any case, I’d already imagined how some of them might taste: Starfish, chewy. Silkworm, pasty, like prawns? Scorpion, crunch like cockroaches (not that I’ve ate one before)?

On the way back outside Wangfujing station, I came across another of Beijiing’s scams… the “I’m studying English- would you like to grab a cup of coffee and have a chat” scam. Or did she say she was a tourist? I declined, saying I was heading back.

Inside the mall (on the way to the subway) I passed by a group of girls, of whom one of them started calling out (presumably at me) “Hello! Hello!” I looked straight ahead and walked on without deviating in the slightest like an ICBM intent on nuking its target- which, come to think of it, is pretty much how I walk most of the time. I could have dropped a gold bar and she was just trying to bring my attention to it, or she could have been some college girl with a distorted impression of European ‘free love’- I’ll never know now- not that I care, anyway.

I had a complimentary bottle of beer (a large one, no less) at the hostel’s pub. I was a little woozy on the way back to my room- either from fatigue or the alcohol, I don’t know, heh.

6th July 2010:

Woke up early today, around 7am. Took the subway to Jishuitan, from where I planned to take a bus to the Badaling section of the Great Wall. Breakfast was a pack of hard red bean paste buns which I never finished, and more ice water. I bought two bottles just in case, having heard that food and drinks at the wall would be ridiculously expensive (quite true, as it turned out).

I came across yet another Beijing scam- while passing by the numerous bus stops near the subway station, trying to figure out which was mine, a man came over and asked me if I was going to the Wall. I said yes, and he directed me to a bus stop. I asked him how much it would cost and he said “100 Yuan”, which gave me a fright as I’d read that it should cost no more than 20 Yuan. As I stood there for a few minutes thinking over this curious turn of events, someone came up to me and nonchalantly mentioned that the bus to the Wall shouldn’t cost that much.

I walked a little further ahead and saw another bus stop- this one turned out to be mine. Even better, it cost only 12 Yuan for a one-way trip. The bus was air-conditioned and quite comfortable, and even came with a charming (my gender biased view) tour guide who pointed out the sights during the one hour or so journey to the Wall, and took charge of explaining how and where to buy tickets for the cable car, which area to start and return to, etc. I left them and went off on my own.

From the bus terminal, you have to walk uphill to reach the entrance, and once on the wall, there are two directions to choose from. I think I must have (unwittingly) chosen the steeper path as opposed to the longer one. I somehow managed to get a student ticket at 25 Yuan- despite knowing that most heritage sites seemed to only offer student discounts to “留学生” (I can’t think of a direct equivalent besides ‘students studying abroad’- ‘foreign student’ just doesn't cut it). Got lucky, I guess.

The view was nice, but climbing up was bloody torture. At some points the incline must have been more than 60 degrees.

That’s the long end over there. If I’d taken that route, I’d probably have died from being crushed in the mass of people- or run out of oxygen after taking in all the body heat and carbon dioxide. On the other hand, I was climbing an increasingly steep slope and had to take breaks every now and then to keep going. The weather wasn't helping either- for all I know it could have been hotter than yesterday’s high of 40 degrees.

The view from the top. Other climbers giving up. I was to join them soon.

Just get a load of this. Bloody murder, I tell you.

Me again. Skin’s starting to burn from the heat- I didn't bring any sun-lotion. With my water supply coming to its end, I finally gave up, after many stops. Nearly nodded off several times on the bus back to Beijing.

Half-dead by then, I had no idea what to do or where to go- the steep Wall and the horrendous heat had drained me of not just energy but imagination. I finally decided on the Olympic ‘Bird’s Nest’ Stadium. Big mistake. There was barely a single tree to take shelter under. Again, the heat was oppressive. In any case, there wasn’t much point in looking at the stadium. I found a bench, sat there, and stared at it. Pure bliss.

Meanwhile, I’ve come to the conclusion that Imperial Chinese and Communist Party architecture are similar and can be summarized as such: calculated to impress with little thought for comfort for the people. Along with this epiphany came the decision to forego the vaunted Temple of Heaven.

I came across this interesting statue near the stadium. Looking at her with her head held up high, she looked a little snobbish, or considering the weather, just a little bit mad, staring at the sky like that.

I headed back to Wangfujing for dinner, and found a supermarket (at long last)- I’d thought that Beijing malls didn’t have any of them. Fruits were surprisingly expensive- because of the drought, I suppose.

Back in the hostel- here’s my room, which I shared with 7 other people. Mine’s the one with the bags on top- there was more than enough space for me to cower under my quilt. That's one good thing about China- there's so much space...

That’s the bathroom there. I found it a little awkward as it’s just some sort of frosted fiberglass- when using it, I suppose one’s outline would be visible. Based on that fact alone, I’m definitely nowhere near ready for a solo trip to an onsen. Perhaps a private one, but it would be so much more worthwhile with female company… now I’m being delusional.

On a final note, I had a dream today- my first dream in China. It was about love in a secondary school (high school) environment, between an outcast girl and me. Indiscriminate discrimination. Oh bother- to bed.

7th July 2010:

Had some small meat pao for breakfast. Took the train to Bei Gong Men, close to the Summer Palace. I couldn’t get a student ticket, and had to pay the full price of 30 Yuan (which doesn’t include tickets for ‘side-attractions' within the park, like ‘Suzhou Street’).

I seem to have forgotten whether I’m supposed to use the present or past tense in this post- it’s been more than a month since my last edit. Ah well. Past tense it is from here onwards. Weather seemed fine today (for once), with a nice wind blowing.

While climbing up the many steps of the Summer Palace, I coincidentally learned another rule of fashion: if you’re going to wear cheap (presumably) clothes, be prepared for some embarrassing transparency. The sweating lady in front of me was wearing white pants, and her panties were clearly visible. It’s not like I had anywhere else to look… the only idiots who look anywhere else but directly ahead while climbing a rock staircase with no handrails are those who intend to do a Jack and Jill impression.

A pretty wall that I was rather taken by. One tourist was sketching the building, though not this wall. If I had to sketch some part of the Summer Palace, I’d sketch this one- how hard could it be to draw a wall with rectangular patterns on it?

The view from the top. We’re in a more remote corner of Beijing, on the fringes, I think.

More bits of the main building. It looks vaguely Buddhist- there’s a temple at the top, and I guess all this must be extensions of the main building.

The aforementioned rocky bits of the complex. The architects either decided to do something avant-garde and environmentally friendly by incorporating the mountain (or rather tall hill) itself into their plans, or they just got lazy.

That’s part of the temple at the top. It’s rather dark inside, with a little shop selling overpriced curios. Avoid at all costs. Or just go in to cool down.

Ah, the lake. I wondered for a while how to get there and whether it was part of the whole complex. It was. This place is huge, which somewhat offsets the annoyance at having to pay money to enter what is really just a big park. On a side note, the large lake, along with the nearby mountains and lush greenery, probably accounts for the cooler temperature here.

A better view of the lake, dotted by little white boats. At this point, I still hadn’t figured out how to get down there.

A covered walkway just before the lake; and snack shops with highly inflated prices somewhere in the vicinity.

Lotus flowers, a favorite of local photographers- I saw quite a few getting close up to them, sticking their cameras close in, like frozen statues.

One last look at the lake.

What used to be somebody’s house, converted into a mini-museum. It’s outside the park grounds, but free. Found myself lost, having exited from a different exit, far from the nearest Metro.

Zha Jiang Mian (Fried Sauce Noodle?) for lunch. It’s highly recommended by Lonely Planet. I’m starting to think that their taste buds function differently from the rest of the human race (i.e. if it’s something I've never seen before, and people eat it, it must be good).

Took the subway to Xidan, said to be Beijing’s premium shopping district. It’s rather dull, and none of the malls here could even compare to the malls back home. As I might have mentioned before, none of the malls have benches. The only supermarkets I found in the area were the expensive type, selling imported goods. So much for anti-capitalism.

Went back to my hostel, did some research, sent out some emails, and headed off for dinner. Headed for Dongzhimen Dajie once more, the brightly lit road that I stumbled upon on my first night in Beijing. I came across Traktirr Pushkin, the Russian restaurant featured in LP. Filed that bit of information away for future use, and looked for more… chinesey shops.

Finally found one which served what I had in mind, a rather fancy looking restaurant, although the interior design was rather plain. There was some confusion due to my messing up of Mandarin- I kept asking for ‘sao ya’ when it should have been ‘kao ya’ (roast duck). I still don’t get the difference.

I had half a duck, and it came with these thin popiah wraps. The waitress was nice enough to give me a crash course on how to go about eating it: you’re supposed to pick up the popiah wrap (it’s ok to use your hands, she said- most people find it too irritating to use their chopsticks); then dump bits of everything into the roll; before finally wrapping it up. Lovely meal. Just in case, the pretty usher in a cheongsam had no influence on my choosing the place…

p.s. Some Koreans joined the room last night. Two guys and one girl. To all the hallyu fans reading this- don’t faint on me.

8th July 2010

Had some pao for breakfast again, and headed off for the (in)famous Silk Market, which was still closed when I got there. There really wasn’t anything special about the place. It was just one large mall, selling all sorts of stuff from cheap t-shirts to electronics to pearls.

To cope with shop assistants who consistently attempted to pull me into their shops by verbal inducements or even actual physical pulling, I developed a ‘bugger off’ face: walking around with my tongue poking the front-left side of my mouth, or with both cheeks slightly puffed up. It worked wonders.

I wandered out, and I think I got lost in the Embassy District. It certainly didn’t look like the rest of Beijing- just look at the landscaping.

Somehow, the place looks a little more upscale compared to the rest of Beijing… or maybe it’s just newer than the rest of the city.

All those trees (i.e. shade)… I felt like just sitting down on a sidewalk and never exiting the place, maybe falling into a Rumplestiltskinean sleep.

Took the metro to Beijing University, in search of the ‘Book City’, a district which was supposed to have an unusually high concentration of bookshops.  I found it, but it was rather disappointing. The building above, which marketed itself as the largest bookshop in… I forget where, though it really doesn't matter, as it had closed down.

I wandered around aimlessly for the rest of the day, taking in the sights. Since this would be my last night in Beijing, I decided to pamper myself with a rather grand dinner- at Traktirr Pushkin, the Russian restaurant I must have mentioned earlier.  Got myself a set dinner for 68 RMB- pretty good value for money, all considered- too bad the waitress didn’t come with it.

First course… sort of. One large flagon (alright, mug) of local beer. I could have gone for coke, but why ruin the atmosphere, da, tovarishch?

Second course… not. Decided that I might as well take photos of various bits of the restaurant (besides the waitresses’ uniforms, which were quite enticing) , so here you have… pepper, soy sauce, and everything not-so-nice.

The real first course. Caesar salad was on the menu, but I decided that Russians had nothing to do with Caesar so they really shouldn't bother, and went with an Olvyla salad? Olivia? Oops. That’s Persian, silly.

Soup. Borscht soup. It looked scary at first- vaguely bloody, I thought- and poked at it squeamishly with my spoon. Luckily, it tasted quite good, in contrast to its unappetizing appearance. Some sort of vegetables and strips of beef in it.

The main course! Baked carp coated with cheese, with a generous dose of mushrooms. Anything with cheese is just lovely, and how could mushrooms ever harm a dish? The only problem was all the bones.

And finally, desert: cheese cake. I’d already reached my limit, but I just had to finish it- so what if my stomach had shrunk since coming to China- what fool would leave a slice of cheese cake uneaten?

…In retrospect, I probably should have. I guess beer and cheese over a light stomach really isn’t a good combination- I felt terrible after the meal, and I have to wonder if the waitress noticed- she gave me a mint along with the bill. I had a serious vomiting spell outside the restaurant, but you probably wouldn’t want to hear about that.

My last day in Beijing: Wandered around various parts of the city. The picture above was taken in one of those old hutongs- I had a jar of that white stuff, which they call ‘sour milk’ but is really just some form of yoghurt. You have to drink on the spot and leave the jar behind.

And that’s that. Boarded the train for the 10 hour train ride to Shanghai. If you still haven’t figured out this photo, it’s me lying down behind someone else’s seat. Before that I was sitting in the corridor, with a few other unlucky fellas. Neither situation was pleasant, but at least I managed to put my head down and sleep. The next morning, the train had reached Shanghai- my one week in hell was about to begin, but that’s another story altogether. Till then, adios…

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