The flight to Beijing was supposed to leave at 7:45 Friday evening, but we ended up being delayed a couple hours. On the one hand, we knew we were going to be landing late and that meant getting to the hostel late, but on the other hand Shenzhen has what may be the nicest looking airport in the world. It’s new and modern and has more in common with an upscale shopping mall than it does a place like La Guardia or Philly. Including the overpriced food, but the free wifi made up for it.
We touched down in Beijing around 1:00 and the first thing I noticed was the cloud of orange smog. It was so thick I could barely see the planes 200 meters away. Then the smell hit me. An acrid, industrial stench, part jet fuel and part diesel fumes. The wretched stink of it snaked its fingers into my nose and into my lungs, and I was sure I would be breathing fire for two days. American cities have smog that wears tacky pants and makes you mutter about kids these days. Beijing has smog that doubles you over with a fist to the gut, takes your lunch money and leaves you with a wedgie.
Getting from the airport to the hostel turned into a bit of an adventure. The metro was closed, so our plan of taking the train to the subway and the subway to the hostel wasn’t going to work. And there were no cabs. First we tried getting a ride from one of the “private taxis.” The guy assured us he could fit five people, so away we went, following him through a parking garage and out to the street on the other side. It was dubious enough that we were going to let a tout take us, but when the lights flashed on his Maxima, we collectively decided to find something else. This turned out to be a really nice van with an older, grumpy Chinese guy driving. It wasn’t cheap (well, it was super cheap, but not by Chinese standards), but it took us to the hostel.
The hostel. I had never stayed at a hostel before. It’s located down the sketchiest alley in Beijing. Actually, it’s probably a very pleasant alley, but I come from a part of America where we don’t do alleys so much as we do giant fields full of cows. The alley was narrow and dark with buildings on either side that were older than my country. I have never seen so many rusty bicycles and scooters. The hostel itself was clean and simple and smelled like Shenzhen. Also it was cheap. And full of nice people. On the balance it wasn’t bad. Definitely an experience worth having, though not one I’m in a hurry to repeat. (Ten years ago sure, but I’m growing softer as I grow older.)
Saturday morning dawned bright and clear and I slept right through it until about 10:00 since we didn’t reach the hostel until around 3:00 AM. By the time I did go outside, it was still bright, still clear and if I hadn’t known I was in Beijing, I wouldn’t have believed it. There are only so many perfect spring days that a person gets to experience in a lifetime. A few dozen, maybe. The kind of day where you don’t have responsibility, the weather is clear and 75 degrees and the whole world is just a short hike over the nearest hill. The weather for my two days in Beijing qualifies as two of the most gorgeous days in the history of days. And there’s a lot of history in Beijing.
I know because I saw some of it.
Our plan was originally to go to the Great Wall on Saturday. It involved taking the subway to a train station and an overland train to the wall. It was already pushing noon when we made it to the station, and we realized (with the help of some friendly Americans we ran into), that we weren’t going to have much time at the wall by the time we got there. Their advice was to go to the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City instead.
And so we did.
The Summer Palace is a combination of nature garden, Buddhist temple, and tourist trap. We did the tourist part first, but quickly found the garden part. Hilly trails wander amongst the blooming cherry trees, and a lake sprawls behind it all. It’s the kind of place a body could go to spend a day and wake up a hundred years later. Excuse me, this is China. A thousand years later.
Shenzhen is undeniably Chinese, but it doesn’t have the sense of history that Beijing does. Shenzhen has only been around for about 30 years as a real city, but every building and every street and every alley in Beijing carries a weight of history upon its back. The demographics in Beijing skew much older than Shenzhen, and even the bicycles look like they’ve been around for 50 or 60 years. The saying is that America has space, but Europe has history. Europe has nothing on China. The English and the Germans were just tribesmen throwing rocks at the Italians while the Chinese were building a civilization.
We made it to the Forbidden City around 4:00, and learned that it closed at 3:30. Because of course you close your cultural attractions in the middle of the afternoon. I’m shaking my fist at you, China. I know you’re old and have an early bed time, but this is ridiculous. On the plus side, Tiananmen Square was magnificent. I saw the giant picture of Mao, but the whole time all I could think of was the image of the rubber ducky stopping tanks in the middle of the square.
Tiananmen and the area around the Forbidden City is chock full of people selling things. Hats and postcards and green cans of Tsingtao. I’m not very good at bargaining with vendors. My idea of shopping is to either order it online (after hours of careful research) or let my wife buy it for me. So when the little old lady told me 30 yuan for a snazzy green army hat, I did the quick math and decided it was worth five bucks. No big deal. A few minutes (and a few vendors) later, one of my American coworkers starts negotiating with a vendor. The bastard got his hat for 15 yuan. And then the other American guy got one, too. Two hats for the price of my one! I’m still bitter. That’s two whole dollars and fifty cents I’ll never get back.
We wandered past Wangfujing (I think; we literally just wandered past it) and saw the stalls full of scorpions and spiders and centipedes. No one was brave enough to try them, though I was kind of tempted by the octopus. I’ve had grilled octopus in NYC and it was heavenly, but something about trying it from a random vendor in Beijing made me hold off. Well, that and the Americans at the train station telling us that when they’ve had food there it’s made them sick. (Thanks again random Americans! Even if you are Cubs fans.)
Dinner was at Da Dong, the same place Michelle Obama ate a week before us. And it was good. Amazingly good. So good that all other duck is forever ruined for me. Thanks, Obama!
And then there was Sunday. And Sunday was Mutianyu. (Following in First Lady Obama’s footsteps again.) The Great Wall of China. More like the Great Staircase of China. I don’t know how the other sections of the wall are, but Mutianyu is in the mountains. Big, jagged peaks. And the wall just climbs right up them. The cherry trees were in bloom, and the air was clear and crisp and cool. We took the cable car to the top and a giant freaking toboggan back down. (Seriously. A toboggan. I even fell out and skinned my knee like a kid.)
The wall is worth seeing. Go once. I’m not sure there are words for it. It’s long and it’s steep and it’s a testament to the willpower of a civilization to not just build it, but to keep rebuilding it over the centuries. Stone upon stone, kilometer upon kilometer.
It reminds me of Times Square more than anything. Just jaw dropping. There only a few places I’ve been that have just left me in awe, and standing at the top of a guard tower on top of a mountain and seeing the wall snaking away into the distance is definitely one of them.
I’m 1500 words into this and I feel like I’ve spent longer typing it than I actually spent in Beijing. China is a different world, and Beijing is so very different than Shenzhen. One of the folks I met at the hostel told me that he’s been here a year and a half, and he felt like it took a year to really get a feel for the country. I can believe it, though I wonder what he’d say a decade from now.