It has been several weeks since we were in China, land of deadened skies. It has been thusly named in contrast to the slogan of the place from which we come. Saskatchewan – Land of Living Skies.
In China, we never once saw the sun. Our photos are witness to the fact that the sky remained a smoggy, humid, grey colour, not unlike used bathwater, but without the ring around the edges.
In lieu of a ring of petrified solids ringing the outer edge, China has the Great Wall. And no amount of scrubbing with the latest descaler or CLR will remove it. It is the product of 2,000 years of history and untold millions of man-hours of labour and sweat. But more on that later.
Our time in Beijing was enjoyable, within limits. We would not recommend going in July unless you like wet saunas and grey skies. October or May sound like promising months, when the skies are clear and the temperatures moderate.
Our flight to Beijing was uneventful. Leaving Regina at 8:45 am on the direct flight to Vancouver, we made it in plenty of time to cruise YVR, buy some pizza and subs, and find the gate, oddly placed approximately 2 days’ walk from the closest toilets.
About half of the people getting on the Air Canada plane for Beijing had Canadian passports. The rest were a mishmash of other places, with an emphasis on the USA and China. We had chosen Air Canada over the slightly less expensive Air China option later the same day for several reasons:
- Online reviews said the Air Canada in-flight entertainment system was better (and our kids had expectations after last year’s flight to Frankfurt on Lufthansa);
- It was said that the seat pitch on Air China’s planes is one inch less than on Air Canada. If you are me (Brad), this is important. Seat pitch is code for leg room.
- The rumour mill also stated that Air Canada’s in-flight food was slightly more predictable than Air China’s. While we didn’t expect Air China to be handing out deep-fried scorpions like you can actually get in Beijing, we knew the kids would appreciate something normal in the last few hours during which normal might be available.
After an uneventful flight across the International Date Line (the plane didn’t even have to slow down to pay a toll or anything), we landed in Beijing a few minutes later than the scheduled time. We didn’t actually know we were landing until seconds before actually doing so, because the visibility was so poor.
Taxiing up to the terminal, it was obvious that Beijing’s airport is massive, a theory which is also confirmed by observing the airport from the inside. Massive and mostly empty translates into a long walk to a short line through immigration. At each immigration officer’s desk, they had a small electronic device facing the incoming passengers. It displayed the badge number of the officer and requested that you use one of four buttons to indicate your level of customer service satisfaction with your immigration officer. Impression so far – pretty impressive. A communist country was interested in real time customer satisfaction feedback, a concept which would be instantly rejected by any (immigration officers’/city workers’/teachers’) union back home.
From immigration, you go down an escalator and board a train, which takes you several kilometers to a different building where your luggage has already arrived. With nothing to declare except “Wow, these Chinese guys built a nice airport” we zipped through customs and into a throng of placard waving locals. It turned out they weren’t on strike or cheering the arrival of the national ping pong team – they were tour guides waving the names of their customers in the hopes of collecting them quickly and retiring to the air conditioned comfort of their buses and minivans.
We had previously been emailed a photo of our guide, so it was easily to find Tony in the crowd. His sign displaying a misspelled “Farquhar” confirmed it. Tony led us to the elevators.
Now one would think that an airport serving a capital region of something like 30 million would have more than two elevators. And one would think that such elevators would be large enough to carry more than one or two luggage carts at once. But one’s thinking would reveal one’s roots in the Western World.
Downstairs, we found our driver and van (some kind of Mercedes minivan, unless it has a knock-off hood ornament), and away we went.
They took us to our hotel, the Guxiang 20 Hotel, which was described as a “courtyard boutique hotel” in a hutong, which is a traditional Beijing neighbourhood. This was correct. The hotel was indeed in a hutong, albeit a slightly touristified one containing the Beijing Backpackers’ Hostel and the requisite number of surrounding coffee houses and hookah pipe establishments. And t-shirt shops selling “Oba Mao” t-shirts featuring the US President wearing a Mao jacket and cap. The alley was very crowded, and sometime hard to navigate. Anyone on a business trip looking for easy taxi access to and from their hotel should be warned off.
However, the hotel was good. By good, I mean air conditioned. Nothing else matters in Beijing in July except A/C. We had two nice rooms with all the usual amenities, comfortable beds, nice bathrooms, in-room safe (albeit not attached to anything, so an intruder could just carry the whole thing off if he were sufficiently convinced of the value of doing so).
On our arrival day, there was actually nothing on the schedule, so in the interest of staying awake until an appropriate bedtime, we walked the streets to look around. We had supper at what turned out to be a wonton soup specialty place which had a plaque outside proclaiming the stamp of approval of the Central Committee. We pointed and waved and somehow ate some things like Cod Wonton Soup and Orange Fanta. Total cost: 71 rmb, or about $12.
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a Quik Mart, where we bought BBQ chips, Coke, Lemonade, and ice cream drumsticks. Total cost: $3.
The hotel included a buffet breakfast, which we ate by ourselves on 2 of 4 days there. It was not a big hotel (maybe 32 rooms), and for the most part, they seemed unoccupied. Which meant the staff were attentive, albeit in a language we did not understand. The breakfast included some things we recognized, some things we didn’t recognize, and some things whose names we recognized, but which we did not recognize upon further examination. After figuring out which ones were the octopus and the squid, we stuck to the things we did recognize and ate well. Who knew fried rice for breakfast could be so good?
On our table was a no-smoking sign placed there courtesy of the Beijing Patriotic Health Campaign Committee. The background music was Bryan Adams (Everything I Do).
Each morning, Tony and our driver would be ready at the appointed time to take us out into the sauna in search of adventure.
- Brad bought a Chairman Mao watch for $5 from a street vendor. It stopped 6 hours later and the stem fell out. Chairman Mao’s time is running out. At Tienanmen Square, there were massive lineups of Chinese tourists waiting to see Chairman Mao’s frozen body lying in state. Many of these were tourists from the countryside who had rarely seen Westerners in their lives. So our 3-child family of giants with blond-ish and/or curly hair got a lot of attention in this land of 1-child families of short-ish people with black hair. Many stopped us and asked (much using of hand motions and waving of cameras) to have their photos taken with us. We are probably featured more often in other people’s Facebook Beijing Trip Photo Albums than our own.
- Tienanmen Square is so big that even though there were probably hundreds of Western tourists there, you couldn’t find them and they represented less that 0.01% of the people present.
- There was a significant police presence.
- Big, and by the crowds present, no longer forbidden. The Chinese emperors knew how to put on a show.
Peking Duck Lunch
- Kung Pow (literal translation from menu – The Temple Explodes the Chicken)
- Peking Duck
- Basically a big mall full of small stands with people selling plastic do-dads with a life span slightly longer than it would take you to leave the building. However, I did find a new watch band to replace my broken one, and it really is real leather. At $6, I should have bought several – they always cost me more than $20 at The Bay.
Did I mention it was hot and humid?
- Thankfully indoors with A/C and expensive snacks. Background music prior to the show: Sarah McLaughlin. The only downside was that the theatre was designed by the same people who designed Tajikistan Airlines seating plans. This was a place for people with short femurs.
- We bought some Pringles at usurious prices at the Acrobat Show. They also had chips with some crazy flavours: Mexican Tomato Chicken, Italian Meat Sauce, French Chicken, Seaweed, Crab, etc.
- Before the Acrobat Show, the announcer asked people to “Please turn down your iPhone”. (Yeah, Dale.)
Supper was in a bar up the street from the hotel. The kids were falling asleep, but the bacon spaghetti with meat sauce was good, to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel.
- Like yesterday, but with a different group of unidentifiable items
- We drove to NW Beijing to the Summer Palace, which maintains all of its charms from the Imperial Era, right down to the parking lot full of tourist buses and a McDonald’s right across the street.
- We rented a pedal boat (big enough for all of us) and toured the man-made lake, wondering why we were pedaling in the heat. Although the Summer Palace was 1-2 degrees cooler than downtown, pedaling a boat for an hour in 45 degree temps (with humidex) was a sure way to completely drench yourself in your own sweat.
Hutong Cooking Lessons/Tour/Lunch
- We drove back to the Drum Tower area (actually near our hotel) and switched to rickshaws. At two people per rickshaw, it took 3 of them to carry us. Lynette and Annie’s rickshaw had brakes, but they only made noise rather than actually slowing them down. This was added to by the sound of them crashing into the back of Tommy & Brad’s rickshaw everytime we stopped.
- At one stop, we got out and went down a circuitous alley and through a door, where we were motioned to an empty table. The other table in the room was occupied by people speaking Spanish. We were served a great Chinese lunch, and then we were given dumpling making lessons along with a Dutch couple. Lynette and Annie shone at this, and then it was time to leave.
Hutong Tour on Rickshaw
- We had a fun ride through the hutong on the rickshaws, dodging chickens, children, and Toyota Camrys.
Kung Fu Show
- After a one hour rest break back at the hotel at the request of the kids, we went to a Kung Fu Show at The Red Theatre. Fun was had by all, especially when the Kung Fu guys broke things on their heads.
- In the interest of normal(ish), we got dropped at the McDonalds near the Drum Tower for supper and then walked back to our hotel. The McDonalds was refreshing, but we were soaked in our own sweat again from just the short walk back to the hotel.
- We drove out of the city (or so we thought) to the Ming Tombs. We visited the Ding Ling tomb (40.29278, 116.22238), which is the only one which has been excavated. He was apparently one of the worst emperors ever, which is understandable when you look at his name. His punishment appears to be to have tourists come through his burial site.
- Then we went to a Chinese restaurant somewhere west of 40.22049, 116.26194.
- Then we drove toward the Great Wall, getting temporarily lost here: 40.28898, 116.58196. Our drive took us past endless construction and development, including car dealerships and fancy apartments.
- Eventually we arrived at the Wall, where we struggled against gravity and sweat and tiredness to walk up to the Wall, reaching the local high point at 40.67805, 117.22912 (alt: 450 m). Then we walked down and had supper on a road near some kids playing ping pong (you know the place, don’t you? It’s somewhere just up the road from 40.68457, 117.23707)
- Then once it was dark, we walked up a different road and paths and stairs to a different part of the wall, where we struggled against gravity and sweat and tiredness and darkness to the Wall. Then we walked along the Wall to the next tower, and upon climbing to the top of it, we reached our sleeping spot at 40.67632, 117.23962.
- Our guide unlocked the tower, handed out sleeping bags, pillows, and sleeping pads. Then he showed us the bathrooms (a blue bucket) and said he’d be back with breakfast at 5:30 am.
- We were all up by 5:00 am waiting for him to arrive. We’d been woken by some Chinese tourists in the next tower who were determined to photograph the sunrise. One never came due to the smog. The guide said that in July, they had only had a sunrise on July 8th. There was too much smog on the other days.
- After a quick breakfast of bananas and muesli, we set off on a hike of the Great Wall. The normal tour includes 30 towers, which is about 6 miles. Due to construction, we only did half of this. We are glad, because otherwise we would be dead.
- Once we reached “the end”, we had to walk down a path of a couple of miles to get to the road. During this walk, I (Brad) redefined the term “showerhead”, giving myself a shower from the sweat falling from my head. I have never been so wet in a t-shirt without being in a lake.
- Once we reached the road, we drove back to Beijing, and most of us (excluding the driver, thankfully) fell asleep. Upon reaching the city, we passed new dealerships for Jaguar, VW, Cadillac, Toyota & Rolls Royce (somewhere around 40.01833, 116.43821).
Olympic Venues (39.99235, 116.38582)
- We went straight to the Olympic stadium area and walked from the Water Cube to the other side of the Bird’s Nest stadium. By the time we got there, we were soaked again.
- Then our guide took us to a “normal Western buffet” called Golden Hans somewhere near the North 4th Ring Road (they have 6). It was a sort of German-Chinese brewpub with a buffet full of weirdness. And the AC wasn’t working. We struggled through and ran back to the van.
I dropped the family off at the hotel and had the guide take me to the China International Travel Service office to pick up our train tickets for the next day. I had ordered them online and paid for them via Paypal. Everything worked out fine.
For supper, no one wanted to leave the hotel. So in desperation, I remembered that I’d seen some McDonald’s delivery guys on bikes. After convincing the front desk staff that this was conceivably possible, they found a phone number, dialed, and gave me the phone. On the other end was a clear English speaker who took my order, including all the crazy customizing we have to do to Jack’s cheeseburgers. When they asked the address, I gave the phone back to the front desk girl who talked for a while. I was told it would cost $1 for delivery and that it would arrive in less than 30 minutes.
Only 10 minutes after hanging up the phone, there was a knock at our room door, and our food had arrived. I tried to tip the delivery guy, but he didn’t understand. Neither did the girl from the front desk. So I gave up and paid with the right change, and settled down to a hero’s welcome from my family as the best hunter/gatherer in the universe.
The next morning, Tony came for us at 6 am and delivered us to the train station. He helped us find the right gate, and we waited in line with a bunch of other Western (read European) tourists for our train. Once the gate opened, we carried our bags down a large flight of stairs, searched for Carriage #8, and then Berths #5-9, and installed ourselves for the 30 hour ride to Ulaanbaatar.