Asia | China – 3 am, Beijing
I’ve been in Beijing about 12 hours and so far have had an extreme series of panic attacks? Why? No definitive answer to that. There are many reasons.
1. This is a difficult time to travel. Two days before my departure people kept giving me crap about going to China with the SARS virus. USA Today, in their ‘Money’ section, reports that this is a huge problem. Chinese newspapers say everything is fine – no mention of the Hong Kong outbreak. People are wearing masks in airports but not so much in Beijing. The day before I left a plane coming from Japan (with some HK passengers on it) was quarantined but later released. People who aren’t asking me obsessive questions about SARS asked me how I felt about flying 20 hours while the U.S. is at war with Iraq. Aren’t I scared of being hijacked? blah blah blah. What ever happened to simply wishing a traveler a polite bon voyage?
2. You can’t just step out of this hotel (novotel tsingdao) and explore Beijing on foot. At least it’s super-intimidating on one’s own. No food stalls with photos, no English menus. The hotel is located in what I guess is a ritzy area with not much for a commoner around it. Well, that’s not fair to say since I can’t read any signs.
I was met at the airport by one of the tour operators ground operators; Melody (but she seems to pronounced it Malady). And her husband. Our tour leader is Australian, not Chinese. I just missed her when she slipped some info under my door advising me to get a map and phrasebook. I wouldn’t never thought of that! I want to go to the Summer Palace tomorrow (aka, later today).
I did venture out a bit. Found a hutong-ish area with all sorts of odd looking meats and interesting looking breads but passed. The constant spitting and some of the offerings made me lose my already tenuous appetite. Passed on food at the hotel too. Bought 2 bottles of water using hand gestures. ATM at airport worked well.
Melody/Malady gave me some good bargaining tactics and also it seems that in China passengers sit in the front seat of the cab. I also keep haring about how awful Beijing traffic is but it didn’t seem bad compared to Manhattan. A lot of people ride bikes, not motorized ones, just bikes.
4/4/03 later in the day….
Ok, all better now. Even have my own room d/t SARS-related trip cancellations on this tour.
Had nice buffet breakfast at hotel. Then had front desk receptionist write Summer Palace and Lama Temple in Chinese for me on a piece of paper and off I went.
808 bus. Missed the first one because I didn’t understand that you don’t hand the $ to the driver, a ticket agent collects it. Bus ride a little over an hour. Had to stand a while. Watched some woman repeatedly spit into a plastic bag in her lap. Then got a ledge seat. Better view of spitting lady. Finally a real seat.
Summer Palace – The buildings themselves are the displays. You can’t go into them. The grounds are beautiful. I didn’t actually circumnavigate the whole lake. I wanted to save time for the Lama Temple. (As it turns out my timing on everything today was superb). Would’ve liked to check out the re-enactment of Suzhou Street but there was a separate entrance fee. Seems to be a popular concept at major tourist attractions – multiple entrance fees. Had a hard time finding my way off the grounds. Bought some steamed buns. I thought the portion size was just a few but the vendor handed me a whole huge bag.
The Lama Temple is amazing. It’s exquisite but not much explication about it. Nice that vendors around it aren’t that aggressive. But you cannot take photos in the Lama Temple. There’s an 18 meter Buddha carved from sandalwood and glazed in gold. It’s in the guinness book of world records. The only thing there’s a lot of explication in English about is how this particular Chinse emporer who established the Lamasery has always been a friend to Tibet (Inner Mongolia, wouldn’t you know!). He brought about the divine successions method of drawing straws from a particular chalice and ‘assisted’ with the ruling of Inner Mongolia, thereby proving the Chinese rule Tibet from a historical point of view.
There were a bunch of samll shops and restaurants near the Temple. Supposedly that’s a great place to shop – not Shanghai. A bit disappointed to hear that but we’ll see.
Decided to play menu roulette and didn’t fare too badly. Chicken wings fried in a rice bag with some salt and pepper on the side. Not how I pictured the ‘minced chicken in rice’ described on menu so even having the english there doesn’t really help. Not really my first choice but at least it didn’t a) move b) stare back at me. The waitress gave me a glove (!) to eat them with. She brought the glove out before the meal so I had no idea what I was in for.
Trafficky ride back to hotel and cab driver forgot to turn on meter immediately so I got a discounted price. No pedi-cabs. According to another guy in our group who’d been to Beijing 5 years ago, Beijing has gotten so built up (not!). What we see now is really modern compared to even 2 years ago.
Took a power nap. Met tour group and leader. Then we went to the Hutongs (atmospheric but creepy, no real plumbing, group bathrooms, not allowed to shit in them (!) Maybe that’s just to be polite ) for Beijing duck dinner. Very delicious though I passed on the heart and liver. Duck itself is shredded then wrapped in pancake with shallot and hoisin sauce. Other good appetizers, the best being the eggplant and peppers in garlic sauce.