A Fortnight in Beijing
Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
195Trip End Feb 28, 2013
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Where I stayed
Beijing population is 19,612,368 as of 2010 with an annual disposable income per capita of 26,738 yuan and growing rapidly! ($4100US)
Qianmen is the "front gate" of the old Beijing city walls (since demolished) and also the neighborhood south of Tiananmen Square. In fact, the real gate was demolished in the 1950's and the landmark gate we see today is a newly constructed concrete look-alike.
The most famous hutong is on the west side of Qianmen Dajie and is called Dazhalan. Dazhalan shops are said to have 'history’ to when this area supplied goods to the Forbidden City royalty. The story goes that our hutong was built during the Ming Dynasty as service workers quarters for the palace, They were the craftsmen who made the items needed for the Emperor and the court. The area developed into a rich shopping area as craftsmen opened stores to offer their wares to the public.
Our routine for the next fortnight consisted of American or Suisse breakfast at our hostel (great coffee with so-so everything else), stopping into the shops in Dazhalan, and then hopping onto the subway or bus to explore other places in Beijing.
One of our first missions was to get tickets for the 30 hour train ride from Beijing to Ulaanbataar Mongolia. Booking well in advance is recommended. Matthew told us the international tickets are sold in a CITS office located in the Beijing International Hotel north of the train station and a few km east of the Forbidden City. We took the subway then walked the rest of the way. We needed to ask directions once and ended up in the business tower next door before finding our way to the hotel.
We walked past a printer on our way back to the subway. Their sign was in English so we popped our heads in to see about having new name cards made. We found some excellent samples of their work on the out-shelf of the office and decided to put together a new card and bring in a jpg for printing. They are happy to design the cards for customers but we were afraid of English mistakes and decided to do it ourselves. We ordered all the upgrades, 2-sided photo, water-proof, heavy card stock, etc. The results again exceeded our expectations.
Saturday is the day we went to see the giant Panjiayuan, Beijing's infamous weekend ‘dirt’ or what we know as a flea market. It was two subway changes and a 15 minute walk from our hotel but we found it. People have things for sale and laid out on the sidewalks leading up to Panjiayuan. The market itself takes up a city block and is enclosed behind walls. About half the market is in permanent buildings and half outside but under roof structure that protected us from the sun. You can find anything from Mao pins to 15 ton stone elephants to put on your lawn. We still need to travel light so can’t really buy anything. Michelle found a tiny charm, a wood carving in the shape of a fish and some embroidered pouches. Dave got a kick out of the sign: "Articles Left from So-Called Cultural Revolution." Those articles turned out to be propaganda posters from the 60’s communist era. His favorite was uniformed Zhou and Mao presenting bulging sacks of wheat to the smiling and grateful subservient peasants. It remains difficult to comprehend why many Chinese still venerate those maniacal bastards. They must because it is not the government making people buy the Mao statures and other paraphernalia. And it is not all bought up by misguided foreign tourists either.
We planned a day outing to Temple of Heaven and to a Costume Factory. Bus 129 stops near our hostel goes to the Temple of Heaven's south entrance for 1 yuan. We liked the bus because we could see Beijing out the windows which you don't on the subway. They told us to get off at the final stop. We stepped off along the river front where they have stone pillars decorating the wide walk way.
The temple complex was constructed from 1406 to 1420 during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, who was also responsible for the construction of the Forbidden City. It was expanded in the 16th century and parts have been damaged and rebuilt over the centuries.
After a few hours in the sun at the Temple, we were hot and parched. But we had a factory and another market area on our agenda. Right off, we decided to skip another market for now and just find the State Owned Costume factory. We walked and walked trying to locate a small factory on a side road. We knew we were close but the smaller alleys did not have street signs. Then we looked north and saw Qianmen Daijie, the rebuilt historical outdoor pedestrian shopping street with Qing style buildings that leads to our hotel. Michelle disappeared while Dave continued to look for the factory alley. Ten minutes later, Dave found Michelle cooling off in McDonald’s airco licking an ice cream sundae. Exploring for this day was over! Michelle later wrote to her sister ..." We went to the Temple of heaven today and walked so much that my shoes need to be resoled. Easy day tomorrow."
The small family restaurant we discovered on our first day became our home café for most our stay in Beijing. We must have gone there at least10 times and were never disappointed. Patty Xianghe is another tiny place we hit 4 or 5 times, usually when we wanted light meal. They serve a made to order pancake filled with fennel, onion or leek and a small amount of meat or egg, all for a buck to a buck and a quarter. Can’t beat that! The lamb, potato and onion filled Samsas grilled on the street in front of a Muslim restaurant across the alley were heavenly too. The other place that became a repeat for us, we are reluctant to admit, was Sizzler. Yes, it is the US salad bar chain with 5 locations in Beijing. When it was time for crispy greens and fruit, that's where we went. The scope of the selection is smaller (no ice cream station) but what is there is superior quality, is restocked and cleaned continually. They create ambiance by playing hip mood music.
THE DELECTABLE DUCK DIDN'T DISAPPOINT
One cannot go to "Peking" and not taste the renowned and decadent "Peking Duck" . The fist time we were in Beijing 20+ years ago we forked out a small ransom at the Bian Yi Fang Roast Duck Restaurant, which uses closed ovens, not open fire. The duck is carved by expert chef at the table. It takes less than 5 minutes for the duck to be expertly boned and sliced into up to 120 slices each with thin sliver of crunchy skin and delicate meat. This time we went to a less pricey option in one of many restaurants parallel to Qianmen Daijie. Instead of the expert slicing job at the table we received a plate with our duck hacked in chunks with a clever. Accompanied with the paper thin rice pancakes, sliced spring onions, cucumber and delicious plum sauce. It all tasted wonderful but the place definitively lacked ambiance and the staff's indifferent attitudes detracted from the dining experience too.
DA DISAPPOINTING DUD DINER
The worst attitude award for food service goes to the staff at a small place near the south gate of the Temple of Heaven. Nothing but scowls and frowns from all the staff. And not just for us but the other customers too. From across the room, I believe I saw one of the waitresses almost crack smile. But maybe it was just gas pains. We had overpriced bland food. It is definitely the low-light of Beijing dining (can't win them all)
Sadly, we couldn't get reservations for Kristen and Sue at our Hostel, even 10 days in advance. The hostel just received a booking for a large group arriving the day before them. We checked out some other options for them nearby and in the end, made a reservation for them at the popular Leo Hostel, about 2 minutes from us. Leo Hostel has a lively backpacker scene and great sounding tours and a travel service. In the early evening on the 15th, Kristen and Sue came through the door of our hostel like seasoned travelers carrying only small backpacks. It was great to see Kristen again and to meet Sue, her friend since 5th grade.
We let them check in at Leo and get cleaned up before taking them to our favorite little restaurant deep in the hutong. It was 7pm by now and both of them were struggling to stay awake. They also got caught up in the excitement of it all; the hustle and bustle of the hutongs, the pedestrians and eco cycles, pedicabs and scooters co-mingling in the narrow alleys. Sue is vegetarian and was happy with the veggie choices at our little restaurant. Kristen reached into her bag like Santa Claus and pulled out a new Ace knee brace, two Necta-sweet sacharine bottles, and Tom's toothpaste for Michelle. Before she left Canada, Kristen had asked if we needed anything. 'Sure, we have been looking all over China for a few things we lost or are running out of and can't find a replacement in China'. We told her not to go to too much trouble. She had to go across the US border to find the stuff! It was Christmas in July!
They only had 2 full days and made good use of them. First day they visited the Forbidden City. (You know, the royal palace grounds where uninvited visitors were put to death in the old days) While Sue and Kristen were submitting to a heavy dose of Chinese history, we went on shopping a expedition to Carrefour and got tickets for the 7:30pm Peking Opera at the lovely Huguang Guild Hall for that evening.
Michelle had been to the Opera at the intimate Huguang Hall 6 years ago with Tante Agnes and knew that the cheap $25 seats were great. We just needed to be there 30 min before the show to have best choice of seats. In the afternoon, after the Forbidden City visit, Sue and Kristen had grabbed a little catnap and relaxed a bit and at 6:30pm we tried to hail a cab for the short ride to the theater. No proper taxies were to be found. But two open motor-scooter rickshaw drivers wanted to take us for 20 yuan per cab. Too much, a normal taxi that can hold us all would cost 20. A minute later, the necessary negotiations were done and... we got our money's worth! For 10 yuan per cab, we got a wild ride through narrow hutongs and busy main streets and finally a nail biting intersection-crossing to the finish line. We were all grins when we arrived (safely).
The next day Kristen and Sue went to the Great Wall with a group from the Leo Hostel. They said it was great. 8 people were in their van and they went to an almost empty part of the wall with both reconstructed and unreconstructed parts of the wall. Only a handful of tourists? That's like the good 'ol days. One big change we have noticed during this 2011 China trip has been the dramatic increase in the number of Chinese tourist. They are everywhere now. They crowd all the venues previously left to the foreign visitor. They take loads of pictures, film video, buy goofy hats, shop, eat ice cream; the works. It must be all that disposable income they have now. Good for them!
While Kristen and Sue were at the wall, we decided to hunt down that elusive State Owned Costume Factory. We went to the spot where we had given up before and started asking people. Each time we were pointed in the right direction. Four people later, we poked our heads into a tiny store; YES this was it. And Méi yǒu, we couldn't tour the factory now. The non-English speaking lady then dialed someone on the phone and handed Dave the receiver. The man on the other end was the factory manager and he would be happy to give us a tour when everyone returned from lunch. How about 2 o'clock? Great! Xièxie. (We hadn't had lunch so went to the KFC nearby for the first and last time; yuk!)
The bolt of fabric with the newly printed pattern is shipped north to another factory where they will hand embroider the design. The workers at the other factory are paid less for the labor intensive hand work. After, the embroidered fabric is returned to this factory, it is cut, pieced together and sewn into a new costume. It ends up taking six months to produce a new costume. We also saw a decorative hat being made and other items being glued, embroidered, ironed, and sewn. Two workers argued about how a pattern was suppose to go together. Pace at this State Owned factory was slow, steady, relaxed, and uncontrolled. Most workers have been there many years. Some are children of parents and grandparents who worked at the factory. The Manager told us the typical wage at this factory is 3000 RMB ($464) per month. It was a cool way to spend a few hours! We had gotten he idea to visit this factory from a Nat Geo Guidebook to Beijing that we had found in the hostel.
We met up with Kristen and Sue for a last supper. How about Peking Duck or a place with western food? No, they hadn't have enough of Chinese food yet and they wanted to go back to our favorite little place again. We filled the table with even more great dishes this time.
Their flight to Delhi was at 8PM so had most of Saturday see another side of Beijing. We took them to the Dirt Market and Silk markets for a dose of that craziness. Did they have fun? They made the most of the few days they were here and Kristen said she was going to see about getting another layover in Beijing on her way home from India. FOR SHOPPING!
Four Great Inventions of ancient China: paper making, the compass, gunpowder, and printing.
China is also believed to have invented chopsticks.
Chopsticks: the most ancient archaeological find of a pair of chopsticks, made of bronze, comes from Shang Tomb 1005 at Houjiazhuang, Anyang, dated roughly 1200 BC. By 600 BC, the use of chopsticks had spread to Yunnan. The earliest known textual reference to the use of chopsticks comes from the Han Feizi, a philosophical text written by Han Fei (c. 280–233 BC) in the 3rd century BC