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Kevin In China, part 15 – Beijing

Kevin leaves the countryside for a little vacation in the capital.

Beijing

1 August

It’s August, absolutely the best month to be in the sandhills – I’m quite envious of Stateside people. We arrived in Beijing around 3pm today. We had taken the hard sleeper, so there were six of us in one room. When Dr. Li and I came in May we had the soft sleeper, which slept four people to a room. This was my second time on a train and I kind of prefer them. They are very calm, relaxing, there’s nothing to do but read, write, or listen to music.

When we got out of the train station we hailed a cab. We had to meet Vanessa’s cousin Cynthia to pick up the keys to Nick’s apartment. Cynthia is a Chinese-American from California who is working in Shanghai where she buys companies – her newest assignment has her spending three days in Beijing, today being the first. Vanessa went to pick up the keys while I waited with the cab, and then we headed to Nick’s place. He lives very close to Ching Wa University, so there are many foreigners and western restaurants nearby. We dropped our things off in his apartment and turned on the a/c while we waited for Cynthia and Nick to get off work. Cynthia was done around 5pm, right when a torrential down pour hit. The three of us sat around the apartment while we waited for Nick, Cynthia and Vanessa had a lot of catching up to do.

Nick finally made it around 7pm or so. Nick is a Chinese-Australian. Bloodwise he is 100% Chinese but has an Australian accent, something I couldn’t mentally picture. Nick is also in the business world, but I forget details. He wanted to take us and a couple other friends out for Beijing Duck. His apartment is directly over a pizza place (which I never visited ), walking to the restaurant we passed McDonalds, the pizza place, and a subway. The duck place was quite fancy. They had a selection of blended fruit smoothies. Nick’s friends showed up after a few minutes. One a Japanese girls that spoke Chinese, Japanese, and English, and her friend, a Chinese girl that spoke Japanese, Chinese, English, and a bit of French.

In Muyu, the racism against the Japanese is very heavy. Often times when I meet someone new they will say that America and China are friends, but make a point to say that China and Japan are not friends. Most of the restaurant owners say they will not serve a Japanese person. We asked Nick about the racism in Beijing and he said it was about 50/50. The whole racism stems from the war crimes the Japanese committed against China in World War II. The Japanese occupied about 2/3rd’s of China during the war. They conducted many cruel and unusual experiments on Chinese civilians (stuff like giving pregnant women drugs and seeing how long it took to kill the baby and then the mother). Today, Japan refuses to admit to this and denies their history and this is what angers most of the Chinese people I have talked to.

Anyway, back to the meal; the duck was great, not quite as good as the place Dr. Li had taken me to that first night, but still very good. It was served with two extra ingredients that the first place lacked – sugar and garlic. You are suppose to dip the skin in the sugar and it really does just melt in your mouth. We also had a wonderful beef and onion dish, followed by a pork dish, and then finally a seafood and vegetable medley that went well with rice. After a long meal we retired to Nick’s place to help him pack – he was moving out in 2-3 days and had barely touched a think. His roommate Ang, also a Chinese-Australian had already gone to Australia for two months. According to Vanessa, Ang’s family owns a toilet paper empire in Australia and her first conversation with him had a lot to do with toilet paper. I was wanting to meet him, but no such luck.

Since Vanessa and Cynthia rarely got to see one another Vanessa wanted to spend the next day doing whatever Cynthia wanted to do. Cynthia reminds me of a my sister in a few ways, and this translated to shopping for the next day, which basically meant I was going shopping as well, but I figured it was a good chance to buy a few more gifts, so I didn’t complain too much.

2 August

Vanessa and Cynthia got up early as hell to have breakfast and check email and left me a note to call when I got up. I met them at the internet place and they had yet to get breakfast. Cynthia got a conference call and had to head back to the apartment for half an hour, so Vanessa and I went to get food. We went to Tous Les Jours – a French pastry/ bakery. There were loads of breads and pastries to choose from, from chocolate filled pastries, to chocolate covered doughnuts, to red-wine bread, various types of bagels and apple turnovers, cheesecake, etc, etc. I just got a garlic bagel. The French place was right next door to a Pizza Hut and I was really tempted to go over there, but a pizza isn’t a breakfast snake, it should be a long drawn out mean and we didn’t have time for that, so I went back to the bakery section and found what they call a pizza bagel. It had some sort of sauce, cheese, Italian ham, and green pepper – it made due for the time, but was definitely no pizza, it was barely a pizza bagel, it tasted more Mexican than it did Italian.

We headed back to the apartment to check on Cynthia who was just wrapping things up. She wanted to go shopping at the Silk Market but we had to take the subway to get there. At first the subway is kind of intimidating, but eventually it got to be pretty simple. There are three lines and only two tickets to choose from, a 3 yuan ticket and a 5 yuan ticket. Following Vanessa, we finally arrived at the Silk Market. This was an interesting place. Loaded with foreigners from India, Germany, Australia, just all over the place, and then of course plenty of locals. All the sales representatives knew English and as you walk down the rows they will yell out “hey pretty lady” or “hey sir” and try to get you to stop in their shop and take a look and that they will offer you a cheap price. The sales representatives are like car salesmen on steroids and Cynthia told us here you have to haggle the price. The first four floors are jeans, shirts, jackets, purses, luggage, shoes, and belts.

I told Cynthia all I wanted was a pair of shorts (my Dickie pants had three or four holes in them by this time with plenty of stains, and were far too heavy for China). Cynthia was a master at getting a cheap price. There was a sweater she was wanting that was listed as 2,600 Yuan ($250) and she haggled the lady down to 200 Yuan. Prada, Chloe, Gucci, and Armani could also be found but the cheapest Cynthia could haggle them down to was $300. The floor above the clothes had electronics where I looked for an MP4 and had a set price of 400 Yuan but no one would dip below 475 – probably for the best. The floor above this had jewelry, pottery, art, and the like. By the end of the day I had bought my sister a shirt that was originally priced at 5,000 Yuan, my mom a set of earrings originally priced at 1,500 Yuan, my dad a hand-made coffee cup, and myself a pair of shorts and a jade necklace, so now the gift portion of my China trip was easily out of the way.

I think if my sister ever came to China and knew how to get to this place she would set up camp (or find a hotel next door) and spend the entire time in the market. Vanessa, Cynthia, and I ended up being there for about 5 hours while Cynthia went to nearly every jacket stand. After the girls finally drew the line we had to think about dinner. Nick called and asked what we were in the mood for – my choice was obvious and no one had to ask. Cynthia told Nick that we had one person here who wanted pizza and two people that could eat anything. “Pizza it is then.” The pizza place, The Tree, which I had read about in an English magazine at Nick’s apartment called That’s Beijing had reviewed The Tree and for 2005 and 2006 it had won “best pizza.” I copied the write-up:

“Pizza is one of those dishes that’s relatively easy to do, but difficult to do well. Beijing certainly has no shortage, but the real deal is still a rarity indeed. The fine oven baked pizzas at The Tree, therefore, make this Belgian-themed pub a recurring favorite for our readers. “I would recommend the quattro formaggi although any of their pizza are worth trying,” says one reader, who explains that the “wood oven really makes the difference, and the dough is perfect – I have yet to find a pizza like the one served at Piazza San Cosimato in Trastevere, Rome, but The Tree is the closest I’ve had in Beijing so far.”

Since it was close to where we were he said we should wait on that side of town and he’d meet us around 7 or 8 at some street (forget the name). We still had time to kill, so Vanessa said we could see the Forbidden City, which was one of my main Beijing goals. We took a short ride on the subway and got out at Tiananmen Square, which is right across from the Forbidden City. Cynthia said she would just sit and wait in the flower garden while we went in. Walking to the main gate, it was like the Silk Market all over again, people offering deals on postcards, or guides , or trying to get you to go to some other place. It was getting pretty annoying and I was thinking about telling them “no hablo Ingles” but figured there was a slight chance they’d break out the Spanish – then I thought about saying “jivon nieka nia ma do braga protsa nieka” (phonically spelled, not grammatically) which is Polish and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t know that, but alas I didn’t – maybe next time. By the time we walked through the long courtyard to the main gate, we learned that it was closed, we were 15 minutes late. Oh well, we knew the times now. We headed back out to meet Cynthia and to head to the rendezvous street.

The street was lined with outdoors bars. We finally stopped at one that was still serving a happy hour, 10 Yuan for Tsaotsing beer. Cynthia ordered Vanessa a salty dog and a black Russian. I got a gin and tonic, but what they brought out was a full-size glass, so about 3 or 4 normal sized gin and tonics. I tried Vanessa’s black Russian and was impressed with that too. All the bars were lined with foreigners, German, English, American – some blonde Australian girls stopped to give me some flyers for some bar scene going on that night – “honey shot” of something like that. I’m a sucker for Australian girls. Nick finally showed up and we walked a short distance to The Tree. We bumped into two more of Nick’s friends – both Australian and asked them to join us. The Tree itself had maybe four or five Chinese people (minus the staff) – all the patrons were westerners, from the sounds mainly English or Australian. We ordered the Quattro Formaggi, which had four cheeses and black olives, Pomodere (might be spelled wrong), which was tomato, basil, and sea salt, Pepperoni, which other than the obvious had green peppers and onions, and a vegetarian pizza. I also ordered a Corona.

The pizza was baked in a brick oven and was awesome! It was better than any NC pizza I’ve had in a long time. In the quattro formaggi I could only ID three cheeses, parmesan, feta, and mozzarella. Each pizza was 60 Yuan, so about $7. Towards the end of the meal another friend walked into the place; Tossi, a Somoan that sounded Australian (married to one). Later Nick said he was the sportscaster for the English channel of CCTV (China Central TV), the station that is broadcasted throughout China (except Muyu), so that was kind of cool. The meal was soooooo incredibly satisfying and I was in heaven every bite of the way. My primary Beijing objective was now met. Of course I marked the location on my GPS and will return before heading to the States in September.

3 August

Cynthia wanted to go back to the Silk Market and buy more stuff. Vanessa and I were heading to the Square and then the Forbidden City. The Square is huge, far larger than I had thought it would be. There was also a line that stretched for miles along the entire length of the square and wrapped around itself in many locations – this was the line to see Mao’s body, which has apparently been preserved in wax and anyone in China can view his body free of charge. Vanessa was saying that it is kind of like proof that he is dead, because some people didn’t believe he really died, and this way they can see the body in person.

From the square we headed to the Palace, which is also gigantic. Unfortunately, much of it is under restoration. After walking around the city for a couple hours we headed north to walk through Beihai Park, from here we continued walking north to the subway. We had to get back to the apartment by 4pm to see Cynthia off and exchange keys. She was leaving for Shanghai that evening. After she left Nick called and asked if we had plans for dinner. Of course we didn’t. He said he was taking us out for dinner and a massage. He told us to take the subway up to near where he worked and he’d meet us there.

We got off the subway at the China World Trade Center shopping mall. The stores included Gucci, Prada, Chloe, Armani, and several other Italian names that I’m sure sell wallets or shirts for thousands of dollars. We found a Starbucks in the mall and got some drinks while we waited for Nick.

He showed up and said we’d go to a bar first while we waited for Lilly. Lilly was a Chinese-American from California and was a lawyer in Beijing, she is also Nick’s unofficial girlfriend. The mall connected to the China World Trade Center Hotel; by far the fanciest hotel I have ever set foot in, followed by the fanciest bar I have ever set foot in. There were these huge, incredibly soft couches. All the waiters and waitresses greeted us in perfect English. The doorman to the bar was a huge Aussie that immediately welcomed Nick. They set out some wasabi peanuts and some sort of dried rice cake wrapped in seaweed while we looked over the drink menu. I just kept it simple and ordered a Heineken. Nick said we should help ourselves to the hors d’oeuvres up at the bar. The hors d’oeuvres themselves looked expensive as hell. There was some sort of selection of Italian cheeses and dried fruit, a spiced beef, calamari, calmotta olives, and sushi. The bill for two beers and a fruit drink (Vanessa’s) was 100 Yuan. I asked Nick how much a room was at the hotel, he said the cheapest would be around $200/night (about 1,600 Yuan). After we finished our drinks we hailed a cab to go pick up Lilly.

At the massage parlor there was a wide selection of massages. Nick picked a normal body massage for all of us. We were lead into a room with a bunch of chairs where we would soak our feet in some sort of tea colored water while we got a back and neck massage for the next 30 minutes. Both were heavenly. This was my first time getting a “real” massage. After the back and neck massage we laid back in the chairs, while we got a foot massage for an hour. During the massage we were able to order food and drinks from a menu on the table next to us. I ordered a grilled pork sandwich that was incredible, despite not having any sort of sauce. It had other spices in it though. I got a cantaloupe lassi drink as well. That was weird, but great. All the foods and drinks were free and came with the massage, so towards the end I also ordered a peanut butter sandwich on French toast. They tell you that every part of your foot is connected to some other part of your body. The outside of the foot for example is connected to your heart, and if you hurt in any of the areas they massage, then that means you have something wrong in that area. Nick had many problems including liver, heart, head, and others. The foot massage gets worked up all the way to the thigh. When she was in my shin area I had one part that was sore and asked her what it was connected to. She said I had a problem with my appetite.

All in all, it was another awesome day and far from my normal routine.

4 August

The last day of my “vacation.” We had to get up early to exchange keys with the landlords. Nick was completely moved out now. Afterwards we thanked Nick for the incredible time and a place to stay.

We had a car lined up for us to take us to the Great Wall, but as part of the company’s “policy” we had to stop by a jade factory first. It was very nice. Some huge statues are made out of pure jade, the most expensive piece I saw was 1,600,000 Yuan, but the average expensive piece was around 300,000 Yuan. As part of the “tour” they showed us all the stages of jade carving, from what it looks like to begin with, then the carving process, cleaning process, polishing, etc, etc. We looked around for a few minutes. There were many beautiful things I would have loved to buy as more gifts but all were way too expensive. Vanessa and I were ready to go and our tour guide, Debbie, said that we had to spend 35 minutes there. I thought that was strange. The extra time had no impact on our desire to buy anything.

The drive to the wall was pretty far, maybe 45 minutes from town. We paid the fee and started our hike. We could either go left or right and for some reason the left side was covered with people and barely anyone in the other direction, so we opted for the right side. The wall is a lot steeper than I thought, the steps on the wall I mean. There were some places that were almost straight up and I was reminded of Dongxi. We wondered around the wall for about an hour and a half before returning to the car. We had the car for the day and they would take us to any number of tourist sights. The next stop was lunch and I was hoping they’d ask us where we wanted to go, but they already had a place in mind, so sort of Friendship Hotel. We ordered a Five Flavor Beef dish, some Kungpao chicken, and some other dish that I can’t even remember. The food was probably the worst I’ve had in China and reminded me very much of Chinese restaurants in America. Not only was it bad but it was also our most expensive meal, 130 Yuan.

When Debbie came to pick us up again it was about time to head home. We asked them to take us to a hotel that was close to the railroad station, since I had to catch the train the next day, and still had yet to purchase a ticket.
She dropped us off at a semi-decent hotel, 150 Yuan for the night. We walked to the train station and Debbie helped buy us a ticket. We stood in line for about an hour and when she got to the front and asked for a hard sleeper ticket the lady said they weren’t selling them yet and would sell them at 7pm (another hour). This made no sense to me. Debbie just stayed up at the front of the line and off to the side a bit. After about 15 minutes she asked “what about now” and got the same response. Finally I just said I would take a hard seat, I handed Debbie the 319 Yuan for the hard sleeper ticket and she gave it to the lady and she gave us a hard sleeper ticket. Very weird but I was happy. Cynthia had said earlier that almost anyone in China can do anything for you, just usually they don’t want to. This was one of those examples.

My last night in a place that has western culture; I was really wanting to get a final pizza meal in my gut before heading back to Muyu. I checked the GPS to see how far The Tree was and it was only 7 miles away. I suggested we walk but Vanessa didn’t share the same enthusiasm as I did for pizza, so we ended up eating at KFC instead, which wasn’t as great as McDonalds was. The KFC didn’t even have mashed potatoes. We went to bed semi-early that night. Vanessa was leaving at 9am to head to the airport. That thought was very depressing. My train was at 2:30pm. To make matters worse, I called Emma to see how she was doing in Muyu. I asked if she was bored and she said that was probably the understatement of the week. She gave me the scoop on the monkey situation. I told her I was getting on a train on the 5th and would be arriving in Yichang on the 6th and would be in Muyu that evening. She said she and Xue were leaving Muyu on the morning of the 6th and catching a train in Yichang at 6:30pm for Beijing. Great, so for the next month I am going to be the only English speaking person in Muyu again. This last month is going to be a slow and lonely last month.

5 August

Vanessa left around 8:45am this morning. Since my train wasn’t until 2:30pm I sat around the hotel for a bit watching some TV. I was watching the English channel and when they came to the sports section there was Tossi up on the screen. That was pretty cool actually seeing him up there.

I decided to head to the station early, just so I’d have time to figure things out if I ran into any problems. The west railroad station was far less chaotic than the central railroad station (where Dr. Li and I went the first time). I found my gate easily and just started reading until it was time to go.

Boarded the train around 2pm and at 2:30pm we were on our way. The train travels an average of 70 mph but has several stops along the way. I called Emma to see what her and Xue’s plan was. They were still heading for Beijing on the 6th. Emma heard back from Craig about her situation and basically she has funding for the 2 months while she is waiting to hear about the permits. Now that is a deal. She gets to live in Beijing, expenses paid. Provided money isn’t a problem, Beijing would be a great place to spend two months, especially if you live in the vicinity of The Tree, and not just because of the pizza, but since there’s so many foreigners in that area, it would be easy to strike up an English conversation and make a few friends. And of course she’ll have plenty of time to see all the sights. I think my stay in China would be more bearable if money wasn’t a concern and I had a few more R&R days. Those first 2.5 days in Beijing were pretty awesome, everything up to the Wall, and far from my typical routine if I were left to my own accord (aside from the pizza). Hopefully Emma will still be there in September when I get back and I’ll get to hang out with her for a few days before leaving (and I’ll have someone to go get pizza with).

6 August

Arrived in Yichang at 12:00pm. Xue and Emma ended up arriving around 12:15pm. I grabbed a quick bite at McDonalds and then met up with them. I wasn’t sure of my plans for the day and since a lunch with them wasn’t guaranteed I wanted to get a bite in for sure. Xue helped me arrange a car back to Muyu. The road into Muyu was going to be closed for the next 6 days, so if I didn’t get in that day, I wasn’t going to be getting in. The car cost 80 Yuan. Not terrible. A bus costs 45 but there weren’t any more buses going into Muyu.

The car ride back to Muyu was great. We took a different route and the scenery was fantastic. We were in the vicinity of the Three Gorges. The car left Yichang around 2:15pm and around 6pm we hit the base of the road that would take us into Muyu, but there was a road block and we ended up waiting two hours before it was opened. Once we got through there we ended up running into three other road blocks along the way. I finally arrived at Yuan Yuan around 11pm and of course the doors were locked. I had to get the driver to call Hi Yin, who was asleep, and get her to unlock the door. My phone has also expired and Vanessa had given me her Muyu card before she left, but her card has expired as well, so all I have left is my Beijing card. I really don’t want to buy another Muyu card when I going to be here for only a month more.

Pictures are on Photobucket

Previously in this series:

Snakes On The Plain: Kevin in China
Kevin in China, part 2: Three Kinds of Natural Beauty in Jiuchong
Kevin in China, part 3 – The First Westerner in Town
Kevin in China, part 4 – Snakebites as a Daily Hobby
Kevin in China, part 5 – His Legend Preceeds Him!
Kevin in China, part 6 – The Mystery Snake
Kevin in China, part 7 – Bit By Snakes? Get Used To It!
Kevin in China, part 8 – The Dance and The Snakes
Kevin in China, part 9 – What Really Happened That Night, or, The Night Of Too Many Toasts!
Kevin In China, part 10 – “the poison of that snake, is not dangerous to people?”
Kevin In China, part 11 – How to avoid getting married in China, or, women are more complex organisms than venomous snakes
Kevin In China, part 12 – Chinese Ebola, or, Getting the Taste of Chinese Medicine
Kevin In China, part 13 – Back To Herping
Kevin In China, part 14 – The Lure Of The West: McDonalds and Chinese-dubbed Tom Cruise