Visit to the Imperial City

Trip Start Aug 03, 2010
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Friday, April 27, 2012

Spring is a busy time for teachers, and it has been especially busy for us this year in Zhuhai. It took us two weeks to even look at our pictures from our last vacation to Beijing, and even longer to sit down and write this blog, but we're leaving on another jet plane tomorrow, so I thought we'd better get this done.

For this year's Ching Ming Holiday (ancestors holiday) we finally took our long-awaited trip to Beijing to see one of the greatest sights in the world - the Great Wall of China. Beijing is a lot farther north than Zhuhai, so it's still a bit cold this time of year, but we were grateful for a break from the humid weather that is slowly turning our whole apartment into a mold farm. As we stepped onto the wall for the first time on that hazy, sunny Sunday, it was a little bit of a surreal experience. Many things we have seen and done in Asia give us that Disneyland sort of vibe, it's so perfectly picturesque that it feels fake (and many times it probably is...), and the Great Wall was no exception. We've seen so many photos and heard so many first-hand accounts of trips to the wall, that we almost felt as if we'd already seen it. On the other hand, it's just incredible to stand there and stare across the dry, rolling hills and see the wall snaking off into the distance as it disappears into the hazy sky and think about how many hundreds of years it has been there. We visited the Jinshanling section of the wall, which is a relatively unpopular stretch and free of most tourist groups (as well as the toboggan ride), and there were only 2 or 3 other groups besides our own that we saw on the 12km hike that took us by 30 watchtowers.

After the trip to the wall we had 3 days to kill in Beijing, yet we didn't feel like we were regular tourists. Of course we saw the Forbidden City and Tiennamen Square, but, other than that, we were just excited to spend a long weekend in a big city. Now, you may remember, that our city is over 1.5 million, but it really does feel small! And it's certainly not modern. In Beijing we could eat at restaurants with cuisines from around the world, shop for anything we liked, and take the subway to get around. Compared to Zhuhai it feels....civilized. I think we've been in China so long that things have become normal to us. It was hard for us to see Beijing with the eyes of an American. From what we can tell, foreigners think of China in two ways: big cities and rural rice paddies. This is true, but what people don't realize is that most of those big cities have sprung up so fast and become so large that they are lacking the essential infrastructure that people need. Even though Zhuhai has more than a million people in it and skyscrapers tower over everything, we feel like we're in a third world country most of the time when we step outside of our apartment or work place.

One of the best parts of Beijing was the food. We could eat a whole meal of baozi (steamed meat buns), bought right off the street for only a dollar or so, but eating in a courtyard restaurant was the most fun. In old Peking, the city was divided into hutongs, or neighborhoods, and each hutong specialized in a different trade or wholesale item. People lived and worked in the hutongs, sharing common kitchens and bathrooms, and some of the hutongs still exist today. Foreigners might think that Bejing is especially tourist friendly because of all the bathrooms located throughout the city, but most of those were originally put in to be shared by the inhabitants of the hutongs, and many people still have to use them because of a lack of plumbing. In the center of a block was the courtyard, shared by people of the hutong, and many of Beijing's popular restaurants are decorated after these courtyards. It is possible to eat under a skylight, or even open air, surrounded by green plants and cages of birds. For us, this was a huge treat, because all of the restaurants in Zhuhai are decorated like a standard Chinese restaurant: large square room, paper tablecloths, VERY bright lights, lots of smoke, and lots of noise.

We tasted the famous Peking duck one afternoon for lunch, and the typical style it's served in may surprise you. We opted for the half duck, which they wheeled out on a tray and carved next to our table. The golden, crispy skin is served first, to be dipped in white sugar and eaten right away. Then the rest of the bird is carved up and you prepare it the way you like with a variety of condiments. Fermented soy bean sauce or spicy mustard are the most common, so you select a piece of duck, dip it in one of the sauces, then lay it in a flat Chinese pancake to be rolled up with thinly sliced cucumber and spring onions - all done with chopsticks, don't forget. It's pretty darn yummy!

The last thing that I must tell you about is our brush with another scamming rickshaw driver. We had quite a time trying to get into The Forbidden City, and after ending up at the wrong end of the very large complex we relented and agreed to go with one of the men who had been following at our heels. There was a bus that would take you to the other side, and it only cost 1 yuan, and this guy said he would do it for 3. We were a little skeptical. Rickshaws in a tourist city are never the cheapest way to travel, and they always have an angle, but we asked him repeatedly and he assured us that the price was only 3. Well, after about a 3 minute ride through back alleys, headed in the general direction of the south gate that we needed, he pulled to a stop in a deserted area and said we were there. We clearly weren't, but figured we were close enough so we started to pull out the 3 yuan and the guy laughs and he's like, no, no no. He pulls this crumpled brochure out of his pocket to show us that the price for a rickshaw tour is 180 yuan, per person!! He says 3, meaning 300, like he's giving us a deal! There was no way we were having that. A taxi would have only cost 10 or 15 yuan, but 300, that's more than a ride to the airport. We started talking to him in Chinese for the first time, and that really surprised him, and were telling him we know the difference between 3 and 300 and he was crazy. He wouldn't take our money, so finally, after much arguing, we threw 6 yuan on the bike and walked away quickly. I don't know if he picked that deserted spot so that he could physically stop us if we refused, but I think more likely he didn't want to get caught by the police because what he was doing was clearly illegal. We just walked fast, without looking back, and he let us go. Clearly, this must work for him on a regular day, but we aren't your regular tourists any more.

Despite that close encounter, we had a good time and found the people of Beijing to be really nice. They are definitely city folk, not like all of the immigrants in Zhuhai who grew up in rural villages. Even the language is different there, and apparently people are desperate to be raised with the sophisticated Beijing accent. If we had to recommend one spot to see in China, we'd pick the rural rice paddies and villages over the big cities any day.

With Love,
M & P

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Comments

Lindsey on

Looking at the pictures makes me feel like I am there with you. ha ha I wonder why???

Dean on

Great pix. Brings back some great memories of our trip!

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