Thursday, November 24, 2011

Beijing: A Trip Done Right

Reasons I wasn't looking forward to Beijing:
- It is cold.
- The pollution is terrible. Black mucus comes out of people's noses when they sneeze.
- There's a much greater sense of the government's presence.
- I don't like Beijing people's accents. 
- To get there, I have to take the high-speed rail or a Chinese airline. I don't fully trust either.

I visited Beijing mainly because I felt it was my duty to see the Great Wall while I am in China. What I expected to be a mediocre three-day weekend characterized by complaints about terrible pollution and demanding travel ended up being my favorite trip yet. Beijing must have known we were visiting because for nearly our entire stay, we were greeted with nothing but bright blue skies. At a leisurely pace, we saw everything we had hoped to see and more – the Forbidden City, Great Wall, Old Beijing, the Summer Palace, the Bird’s Nest (Olympic Stadium), Xiùshuǐjiē (a famous indoor market known for carrying fake products), Pānjiāyuán (a lesser known antique market), and Peking University.

Our nights were equally as active, as we benefited from having friends studying in Beijing. In three nights, we went out with Kehoe’s friend from home, a fraternity brother from school, and another friend from Cornell. We ate well (mostly opting for American cuisine like burgers and pizza) and got a good taste of what Beijing’s nightlife has to offer. Yes, Beijing was indeed cold, but it gave me a friendly reminder of New York’s autumn chill to which I’ve grown so accustomed. And when I returned to Shanghai, I was that much more grateful for its much more tolerable weather.

My travel companions were my friends Justin and Kehoe. Here's a picture of us touring Beijing's hutongs, alley neighborhoods that thrived in the old days of Beijing.

On our first full day, we went to see the Forbidden City. It was alright, but as far as palaces go, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. It probably would have been cool had I just arrived in China, but I’ve been in Asia for three months now. China has to step up its game at this point. Unless I start seeing some juggling pandas or monks on jet packs, I’m really not going to be that impressed.

Outside the Forbidden City.

Our hutong tour guide set us up with a personal driver (his son) to take us to see the Great Wall, Bird’s Nest (Olympic Stadium), and Summer Palace all in one day. We agreed to pay Rmb100 (about $15) for gas at the beginning and then Rmb500 (about $80) when everything was finished.

He drove us about two hours outside the city to see the Great Wall. He said he’d wait at the entrance for us and demanded that we spend no more than two hours on the Wall and return at precisely 12:55p, so as to make sure we’d have enough time for the rest of our sight-seeing.

At 12:58 pm, we arrived back at the entrance, expecting to find an anxiously awaiting driver. At first glance, he was nowhere to found.  We looked around for a little.

“Ah, there he is!” Kehoe shouted.

I looked over in the direction he was pointing and saw a group of old Chinese men gambling away in a heated game of cards.  Among the men was a skinny, younger-looking guy. Our driver. 
We approached him.

Shí fēn zhōng, shí fēn zhōng! [Ten minutes, ten minutes!] he said.

Hah, and I thought we were on a tight schedule.

Realizing we were now on his time, we idled for a little, bought some dried kiwi and mango, and watched a few minutes of animated Chinese poker.

Soon enough, we were back on the road, made a quick stop to see the Bird’s Nest, and then arrived at the Summer Palace.

Like before, we planned to spend two hours at the tourist site. This time, we agreed with our driver that at 5pm we’d reconvene. 5pm came around, and, once again, we couldn’t find our driver.
“Do you guys see anyone playing cards?” I asked.

Suddenly, from the distance, we saw our driver running towards us.
In Chinese, he said:
Do you have 100 yuan? I really need 100 yuan. I know you are supposed to pay 500 at the end, but just give 100 now and 400 later. I really need 100 yuan.

I handed him a 100 yuan bill.

I’ll be right back. I just need to go to the bathroom.

Playing cards were blatantly sticking out of his right hand.

We watched him sprint off into the distance. When he got to what I guessed was about halfway to his intended destination, undoubtedly a poker table, he had a change of heart and, all of a sudden, starting running full speed back in our direction.

Kuài, kuài, kuài! [Quick, quick, quick!]

Following him, we dashed towards the parking lot and hurriedly jumped into his shabby Volkswagen. Slamming on the pedal, he sped away from the scene, asking Justin, who was sitting in the front seat, to move his head forward to keep the driver’s face out of sight. When we reached a traffic light a good half-mile or so from the Summer Palace, the driver lowered his window. He tossed the cards out of the car.

[sigh] Sank you, sank you,” he said, patting Justin on the shoulder.

I looked up at our grateful driver. So… did you win?

Here's me on the Great Wall in a banana suit. As the Chinese would say dúyīwú'èr (unique and unmatched). Well, at least I hope they'd say that.
The Great Wall and surrounding area was absolutely breathtaking. It really made me want to thank the Mongolians. If they weren't so damn annoying, the Chinese would never have gone to such an extreme to build such a large and beautiful structure for us all to enjoy.
Between Seoul and Beijing, I really have come to master the art of trip planning. To plan a good trip, well, you don’t want to do much planning at all. The way I see it is you go on a vacation to relax and have fun. Why spend hours tirelessly researching a place when you can just ask a few people where to go, get a general idea of where everything is located, and allow some room for spontaneity?

My realization about how little planning I had done for Beijing came with our visit to the Summer Palace. The only thing I know about the Summer Palace was its Chinese name (Yíhéyuán), which I had remembered from an old Chinese lesson about tourism. Other than that, I knew nothing. I just assumed the Summer Palace was some building, maybe with some nice chairs and flower pots.

We walked through the main entrance of the Summer Palace, took a few steps forward, and just stopped dead in our tracks.

“Holyyy $#!%, this is beautiful…”

Take-away: Don’t stress over planning trips. Know the essential places to go and ask past travelers about their trip highlights. If you know too much about every little tourist site, you’re bound to be disappointed, and your travel mates will probably be annoyed by your intensity. If you do very little planning then yes, you will feel extremely ignorant, but you will also experience an exhilarating sensation when you discover that the Summer Palace is not a building with some nice chairs and flower pots, but, in fact, a palace on a 60 meter high hill in a prepossessing imperial garden that expands 2.9 square kilometers, three quarters of which is water.

Peking University outdoor track.
Běijīng kǎoyā (Peking duck)

Pānjiāyuán, an outdoor antique market.

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