After three weeks in glorious, clean and beautiful New Zealand, it was time to change things up again and see what was going on in China.
This would be the second communist country so far on our world tour, and the fourth country that required a tourist visa to be obtained in advance. It seems China is always in the news lately – so we were definitely anticipating an adventure.
We landed in Beijing having left Auckland twenty hours prior, and when we stepped off the plane we were like baby lambs, clean, blinky and a little shaky-legged. As such, we were wholloped by the pollution we knew would be waiting for us. We had heard about it, and we came prepared with masks, however, it hit us sooner and harder than we thought it would: while waiting for our luggage, our chests and throats began to burn.
So why did we choose to visit this country again? Oh ya, for the crazy experience!
We soon noticed there is very little spoken English going on in mainland China. Written English shows up here and there, however for the first time it seemed we might not be able to get our butts out of the airport!
Ultimately, we figured it out. Lucky for us our hotel was near the last stop of an airport transfer bus. So for a few bucks each we jumped on what we guesstimated would be “close enough”, and sure enough, it was (but just barely). After an hour of walking around a strange, bigger-than-life city, we made it to our hotel under our own power.
We didn’t have that much time to ourselves that day. After unpacking, taking a nap and a shower, and discovering that Facebook does not work in China!, we ran down to our lobby to meet our welcome wagon: our friends-in-law, Ada and William. While we were in Sydney with Peter and Gaye, Peter noted to us that he had good friends in Beijing who could host us and show us around the town (even though we had not met them before). Ada and William were very gracious and generous hosts: on our first night they took us for a traditional Chinese dinner. We had the most delicious BBQ pork, finished with Portuguese tarts (I know, not so traditional, eh?).
Overall, it was the perfect first-day introduction to Beijing and China.
So before we go any further we should send a special thanks to Ada and William! It is always a good idea to have a local, no matter where you go, and China is no exception. And who else but a local would be able to answer our crazy (and Steph’s inappropriate…) questions?
A few more observations about China: there is an abnormal amount of public expectorating going on here. Everywhere. Now, its understandable with high pollution you may find you the desire to clean your pipes from time to time – it’s actually quite reasonable -- however, it’s something else when everyone, including those you’d very least expect, will just out of the blue, churn out a loogie at top volume and launch it off.
Men, women, it don't matter.... it was just gross and happening everywhere. We started to count, and as of the time of writing were at 24 “instances”, after only 5 days.
(But since we are trying
to be culturally sensitive, we’ve since learned and should share with our
lovely readers that in traditional Chinese medicine it is considered unhealthy
to swallow phlegm. So there you go. I wonder if according to Chinese medicine it
is unhealthy to get hit with someone’s phlegm?
That question doesn’t translate so well, so we never ended up asking it.
Back to the blog! In China, much like India, we got a lot of attention. Except in India, the attention was on Steph. But this time the attention was on Vince, basically (so far as we can tell) because he’s currently sporting a beard. Oh and with a soldier’s hat on he looks like Che Guevara.
There are very few westerners here, and even fewer who have beards, so once again we have become the local freaks. People want Vince’s photo, as they did Steph’s in India.
On our first full day of sightseeing we ventured into the Forbidden City, which is the walled ancient “capital within a capital” from within which the most recent dynasties ruled China for many hundreds of years. It is filled with beautiful gardens, beautiful buildings and ancient artifacts.
We learned from our self guided audio tour that Emperors would have many concubines living in the Forbidden City with them and they would socialize with the wives as well...very strange...but we are guessing the Emperor's wife got the memo before she agreed on this arrangement and probably was relived she could share the duties of keeping her hubby happy. (We wondered aloud if “jade digger” would have been a term used hundreds of years ago. ;)
Following our tour of the Forbidden City, we walked directly south across the street into Tiananmen Square. This is basically the centre of Beijing, and it feels like the centre of the Chinese universe. It is flanked on all sides by monolithic buildings and is under the watchful eye of Chairman Mao himself. He’s also the only one who is allowed to sleep there (the only building in the square is his mausoleum). Otherwise it is simply massive, and is designed to make you feel small. The square can hold one million people, which, put into immediate perspective the enormity of the student protests that took place back in 1989.
Otherwise, this is a great area for people watching (and being watched, as there are both uniformed and plain clothes officers throughout the square).
We noted that florescent colours are this spring’s must-wear. Also, the usual hipster accouterments are making their way over here (hats, suspenders, and t-shirts so expressive they could be granted a degree in philosophy). Hipsterism is truly making its way around the world.
Also later that day we hit a very touristy narrow
snack street to see some of the crazy things they put on sticks to eat.
We were not disappointed. Bugs, fish, solid jellies – everything imaginable
was skewered (some still alive!) and was ready to be cooked on demand. BTW, Vince is so gross!
On our second day, which coincidentally landed on a Saturday, we booked an excursion with a hiking group called “Beijing Hikers”. They turned out to be a large group of expats that do this all the time. This would be no typical visit to the Great Wall. No, nine, neit, boo.
We woke up at 6:30 a.m. and met the group by 8 a.m. at Starbucks on the northern fringes of the city (we told you these were all expats, right?). We all piled onto a bus and drove two and a half hours to an obscure section of the Great Wall of China.
Since we are generally ambitious and reckless, we signed up for a “Level 5 hike”. There ain’t no Level 6. We figured we’d be up for it, and since we just finished the Tongariro ‘alpine’ crossing in New Zealand, this would be easy, right? That was a volcano. This was a wall, had stairs, etc -- piece of cake!
Or not. This walk was to be 18 kilometers of hiking and we were unsure what pace this group was going to keep.
It turns out the group were very serious and the pace was fast. The lead guy just ran, like, the whole day. The pace was so fast that there was little time to truly admire the scenery or take photos, except for a few 5-minute short water breaks.
You see, the Great Wall was not built for rollerblading. It was built to keep an army from crossing any further south. It just traces the top ridge of a mountain range and is therefore basically a series of steep hills and steep descents. It was definitely the hardest hike we had ever done. Six hours in total, mainly up or down and little in-between.
At one point though, after Vince had stopped to smell the roses and shoot some video, Steph hammered on and ended up leading the whole pack for a while, ahead of even the guide. She was pushed on by the crazy competitive nature of everyone else, and of course, her love of winning (yes!).
Vince later caught up holding a beer he bought from
a vendor on one of the towers. This was
followed by a t-shirt purchase, and later a bunch of postcards. Hey, it’s hard to say no when you’re weak!
All in all, it was a fabulous day, great exercise and mystical “wonder of the world” scenery. We also met some nice people along the way... several expat Canadians, and other tourists, too.
The only negative thing we can say is the soreness in our thighs which lasted for 4 full days afterwards, during which time we made noises like the Three Stooges anytime we’d climb or descend stairs.
Sunday rolled around and we were ready for a break, which was perfect as Ada (she’s back!) wanted to take us to see some not so touristy things of Beijing. We were happy that we could just stroll the city and speak English with her the whole day.
First stop – crazy alert! – Ada took us to a section of a famous Beijing park where for a few hours every weekend the parents and grandparents of unattached young men and women take over the place and establish a little love market. You think the NBA draft has drama? This is wackiest matchmaking we have ever seen. Parent set up chairs alongside one another and place a little poster on the ground in front of them, and on this poster, for lack of a better word, is their kid’s “stats” (most prominently: age, income, profession).
Imagine your parents finding you love...yikes! Would you hand them over your online dating profile, and just check in from time to time? I don’t think so!
It was like a garage sale for love, and the most
interesting (if not intrusive) people-watching hour in recent memory for us.
It takes reality TV to a whole other level.
We also hit a very touristed (hipsterized) huton, which is a collection of narrow
residential alleyways and streets for which Beijing is known. The secret is out about hutons, as they are
the most pedestrian friendly part of the city, so several of the more enterprising
ones have tourist attractions. This one was a crazy hipster hang out
(hostels, up and down the street), and also good if you needed to replace your
lost Che Guevra T-shirt, get some gelato, or, stinky tofu....you can see our
reaction to this “treat”.
But the day wasn't over, one last stop. We
had heard from another hiker the day prior that there was a coffee shop in town
that was a 100% replica of the “Central Perk”, the coffee shop in the
television show Friends. Since China is the country where trademark laws
come to die, we figured it must be true and we went to check it out. And there it was! There was also extra seating next door, and
it was laid out like Joey and Chandler's apartment. So fun! So American! And pretty good coffee as
We want to send a special thanks to our new friends Ada and William for showing us around and making us feel at home in Beijing. We hope to stay in touch and visit again in the future.
On our last day in Beijing, we managed to fit in a
Chinese Acrobatic Show and a “light dinner” that included Peking Duck (we were
curious and it was yummy!). That night we
boarded our sleeper train to Xi’an, the apex of what is known as the “Chinese
Xi'an is over three thousand years old, and as such is the historical capital of many of the prior dynasties to rule China. More recently, however, it is famous for the thousands of Terracotta Warriors nearby. We were very interested to see these things in real life.
Well were we shocked. Thousands of these clay warriors have been discovered and apparently they are still finding more. Rows and rows of these things including horses and chariots, all buried about five feet underground. It was unbelievable. The largest exhibit, “Pit 1”, was so large we felt like we were walking around the inside of an airplane hangar.
Now the history part is a bit foggy for us, as there was very little English, but what we gathered is that this army was built out of clay to be put in the mosuleum of one of the emporers to protect him in the afterlife, but it was buried and destroyed when the area was pillaged by enemies, hundreds of years ago. They only discovered this in 1974 when farmers digging a well, uncovered a piece of one warrior.
It was probably the most interesting exhibit we
have seen to date. Just WOW! We even got to dress us like the
warriors for pictures.... we are the corniest tourists ever, but hey for $5 how
can you say no.
We only scheduled ourselves for two days in Xi'an and with the first being completely taken over with the Terracotta Warriors, it only left the last day to explore the city. We decided to take it easy and see a couple of attractions called the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, as every tourist in Xi'an does. Meh. It was OK, but a bit boring.
To work off our lunch, we went to check out the Xi'an city wall. Looking back this was an even tie with the TC warriors for coolness. The city wall is massive and about 14 km in total length. We rented bikes on the top of the wall and did a loop in exactly 100 minutes (which by coincidence was exactly how long the rental permitted). What a great way to end out time in Xi'an... other than the pollution, it was great!
So, we write this blog entry from our soft sleeper berth bound for the last corner of this Chinese triangle...Shanghai!
We are looking forward to the second half of our crazy Chinese adventure, as this week approaching, will be our last in Asia before heading to Europe. We still can not believe our time on this side of the world is coming to an end and that four and a half months have blown by already. We are about half way through our trip and so excited to see what the second half has in store for us!