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My Trip to Beijing

  • Submitted by: Jim Chambers, United States
  • Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005



In September 1998, Northwest Airlines announced some really incredible deals for several Asian cities. One of the cities was Beijing, China. Although I had never really thought much about going to China, the price was irresistible. For $699, you got a package deal which included airfare, hotel transfers, four nights at a four-star hotel, full American breakfast, a tour of the city (including the Forbidden City), and a trip to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. I added three nights to the basic package, and even with a single-room supplement, the total cost was just barely over $1,000.

With the trip set for December 2-10, I got busy trying to learn a bit about Beijing before I left. I went to the bookstore and bought two guidebooks: the Lonely Planet 'Beijing' and the Insight Guides 'Beijing,' both of which were fairly up-to-date (that's important!) and had good pictures as well as text. I also bought a map of Beijing which was labeled in both English and Chinese, and the Lonely Planet 'Mandarin Phrasebook,' a small pocket-size book that proved to be very useful.

I also started researching Beijing on the Internet. There are many helpful sights on the Web, and the Usenet group 'rec.travel.asia' is a treasure trove of information. I posted a lot of questions, and invariably, several folks answered with great advice. Some of the most useful information came from Cheryl Probst, who has actually lived and worked in China. Her Web page (http://www.webbworks.com/users/cheryl/) is very good, and she publishes a small but very helpful 'Do it Yourself Beijing' which has lots of practical information, much of which isn't covered in the other guidebooks. I got the most help from a very nice lady in Australia who loves China and has traveled with her husband to Beijing several times. I'm not going to mention her name, because I don't want her to be swamped with email, but if you post questions on the rec.travel.asia newsgroup, she may be one of the ones who responds to you. Over the two months that we corresponded, she was a veritable fountain of information. Even more valuable than information, however, she arranged for me to meet a young Chinese lady in Beijing who would accompany me as guide and interpreter. My Australian friend had met Carla (her real Chinese name is difficult for westerners to pronounce, so she uses the name 'Carla' for English-speaking friends) on a trip to Beijing in 1997, and has seen her since then on more recent trips. Carla works as an English interpreter in a traditional Chinese medicine clinic. Her English is good, but she very much wants to improve, so she likes to meet English-speaking people to practice her English. She can only get off work for three days each month, so she arranged to take her three days in December during my visit. I didn't know at the time just how valuable she would be, or how memorable the trip would be because of her.

Finally December 2, the departure day arrived. I flew a Northwest Airlines connecting flight from Atlanta to Detroit, then made a dash through the airport to catch the 747 nonstop from Detroit to Beijing. It's a fourteen-hour flight, but Northwest does a good job of making the hours pass reasonably quickly (however, after about the tenth hour, I think we went through some kind of space-time warp, where time slows down to a crawl). There were several movies, and they were always feeding us a meal or a snack. It was my first time to fly Northwest, and I was impressed with the service as well as the on-time performance. On the long flight over, I was fortunate enough to be sitting next to Delores and Mona, a mother and her daughter from Milwaukee. I immediately dubbed them 'Laverne and Shirley,' after the old TV show about two whacky girls in Milwaukee. At first I assumed that Delores was Mona's older sister, and I was amazed to find out later that they were mother and daughter. Mona is engaged to be married next Spring, and Delores was taking her to Beijing as a wedding present.

We arrived in Beijing at about 6:30 PM on December 3. A guide from China Merchants International Travel Company (CMITC) met us at the Beijing airport after we cleared immigration and customs, which was amazingly quick and simple. Our guide, a Chinese girl named 'Judy,' led us to the bus for the half-hour drive to the hotel. Most of us were staying at the Jinglun Hotel (also known by its original name, the Beijing-Toronto Hotel), but a few people were staying at the Grand View Garden Hotel. Judy had already checked us into the hotel, and she passed out the room keys and breakfast vouchers on the bus, so we could go directly to our rooms when we arrived. Our luggage was brought to our rooms a few minutes later. There are a lot of tourist companies operating in Beijing now, and I think that CMITC must be one of the better ones, because throughout the trip, they consistently handled matters and kept the confusion factor to a minimum. The basic package deal included two days of tours, but they arranged several other optional tours which typically cost $30-35 and were generally very good. It is possible to do these tours on your own for considerably less money, but all things considered, they were worth the extra money.

The Jinglun Hotel, which is owned by Nikko, a Japanese hotel chain, was absolutely first rate in every way. My $200 a day room was discounted to $39 a day due to the lack of tourists (caused in part by the poor Asian economy these days) and the winter season. The $39 rate included a scrumptious $15 full American breakfast buffet, so the room actually only cost $24 a day, an incredible bargain.

The following is an account of my stay in Beijing:

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 4. We boarded the bus for the city tour, then headed for the Grand View Garden Hotel to pick up the other folks. We went first to the north end of Tiananmen Square. Unfortunately, the Chinese government had closed Tiananmen Square around the first of November for several months of renovations. There was a screen all the way around the square, and all you could see was big construction equipment and piles of the old concrete paving which is being replaced with granite pavers. The renovations are scheduled to be completed in time for the October 1, 1999, commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Communist victory in China. I guess I'll have to come back to Beijing again to see Tiananmen Square. After seeing what little we could of the square, we crossed the street (Dongchang'an Jie) through a pedestrian underpass and were in front of the famous Tiananmen Gate of the Forbidden City (you can't miss it - it's huge and has a big portrait of Mao on it). For the next two hours we toured the Forbidden City. This tour just hits the highlights. You could easily spend a few days here if you really want to see everything. I had seen pictures of this place when every inch was jam packed with tourists, but today there are only a few tourists (mostly Japanese), a real plus for us. There are a lot of steps and ramps, and many of them are still coated with ice from two recent snows. If you want a preview of the Forbidden City, you should rent a video of 'The Last Emperor,' a historical film about China's last emperor which was filmed on location in the Forbidden City. While we were there, we had a group photograph made. For $7, it's a great souvenir (the photographs were put into nice picture booklets and delivered to the hotel later in the day). We exited the Forbidden City through the Gate of Martial Prowess on the north end and waded through a sea of vendors. Unfortunately, on our first day in Beijing, these were the most aggressive vendors we encountered during the entire trip. I found myself desperately looking up the Chinese words for '@#$%& you, leave me the hell alone,' but my phrasebook failed me. We then boarded the bus and headed for the Friendship Hotel, where we had a terrific lunch. They brought out a huge variety of dishes, and we pigged out. There was so much food that we couldn't eat it all. They had Chinese beer, soft drinks, and mineral water to drink. You could use chopsticks if you were daring, or western silverware if you weren't. Some people tried the chopsticks and made a real mess, but it was fun trying. During the morning tour, Judy had been pushing an optional Summer Palace tour for $32, and almost everyone signed up, so after lunch, we drove to the entrance of the Summer Palace. This is one of the 'must see' sights of Beijing. It's a walking tour, but like most places in Beijing, it's flat as a pancake. The Summer Palace is beside Lake Kunming, which was frozen over with ice, as were all the lakes that we saw in Beijing. When we exited the Summer Palace, we again ran into the ubiquitous vendors, but they weren't too aggressive, and we had a good time browsing and buying some souvenirs. That night, back at the hotel, Carla, the young Chinese lady who was going to guide and interpret for me, telephoned. We arranged to meet the following night in the hotel.

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 5. This is the day I have been waiting for. We're going to the Great Wall of China! The bus leaves at 8:00 AM, and since Judy has already picked up the three people staying at the Grand View Garden Hotel, we drove directly to the Badaling Expressway and headed for the Great Wall. On the way, we stopped at a freshwater pearl factory and saw how the pearl oysters are processed and watched the workers sorting, grading, and drilling the pearls. The freshwater pearls are from the nearby Ming Reservoir. The pearl jewelry that the factory sells is beautiful, but as we learned later, you can buy the same stuff in the Beijing markets for much less (I bought a pair of pearl earrings for my wife for US$15 - I saw the same earrings later in Beijing for US$2.50!). When we left the factory, we then drove straight to the Great Wall at Badaling. I had read that the Great Wall at Badaling was unbelievably crowded during the warmer months, but today there are only a couple of hundred people at most. Apparently the goal for most people was to climb the wall to a tower high up the mountainside, several hundred feet above where we first stepped onto the wall. Some of our group made it. I got about halfway up, where the step risers were about two feet high, before my legs turned to rubber. I could lie and tell you that I gutted it out and fearlessly made for the summit, but frankly at this point the tower on top may as well have been Mount Everest. I had been having a serious problem recently with sciatica, so my legs were weak from lack of exercise, and I did well just to get halfway up. In any case, I have now walked on the Great Wall of China, and that's an incredible feeling. Returning to the parking lot, I bought a couple of 'I Climbed the Great Wall' T-shirts, one in English and one in Chinese. Unfortunately, the Chinese sizes are not even remotely the same as ours, and the XXL shirts that I bought would probably fit an average 8-year old kid. Well, for $2.50, I can't complain. While I was shopping, I met Ann, one of the ladies in the group I was with. While we were talking about what we were going to do in Beijing, I told Ann that I was going to meet a Chinese girl who would be my guide and interpreter. When I mentioned that the girl worked in a traditional Chinese medical clinic, she got real excited and told me that one of her reasons for coming to Beijing was to visit one of these clinics. I then invited her and her friend Roula to meet Carla when she came to the hotel that night. After we left the Great Wall, we went to a Friendship Store and had another great lunch. Afterwards, we shopped in the store, which, like the other Friendship Stores, had some really nice but pricey things. I bought a beautiful embroidery on silk for 400 yuan (about US$48). The design is embroidered on both sides, you have to see it to believe it. Some people bought some cloisonne, which was really expensive, but it was gorgeous stuff. We then left the Friendship Store and drove a few miles to the Ming Tombs. We went through the Ding Ling tomb, one of the tombs that has been excavated and is open to the public. It was okay, but it paled in comparison to the thrill of walking on the Great Wall. All in all, the Ming Tombs aren't that big a deal, but the Great Wall tours generally go here as well, since they are on the way. On the way back to Beijing, we stopped at a jade factory. It was really interesting seeing how jade is cut and polished into an incredible variety of shapes, but the merchandise was horribly expensive, and, as we learned later, was much cheaper in the Beijing markets. That evening, Carla came to the hotel. I called Ann and Roula (they both live in Toledo, Ohio, but Ann lived in New York for some time, and her accent gives her away), and they came to my room to meet Carla, too. Carla said that she could get off work for three days a month and that she would be able to be with me on Monday through Wednesday. Ann and Roula asked Carla endless questions about Chinese medicine, and she very patiently answered them all. Carla had a real workout on her English, with my southern drawl, Ann's New York accent, and Roula's Greek-American speech! We were so fascinated with Carla that we could have stayed up talking for hours, but finally I pointed out that it was getting late and that we should let Carla go home. Before leaving, Carla agreed to take Ann, Roula, and me to her clinic on Monday afternoon.

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 6. This morning I walked up the street a couple of blocks to the famous Silk Market, a long alley so narrow that it would be terribly claustrophobic when crowded with shoppers in the warmer months. If you want clothes, this is the place. They have many name brands, but some of it is possibly counterfeit. I bought a couple of really nice gold Rolex watches for US$14 each, which the vendor assured me were genuine. I guess it's the low overhead that explains why Rolexes that cost thousands of dollars in the US only cost a few dollars in China. I was also offered CD ROM software and music several times. I followed one of the shills to an alley, where her associate showed me everything that Microsoft makes for the low low price of only US$10. Discounts are available, however, and you can actually get this stuff for a mere US$5 with any sales resistance at all. I declined to buy any when I was informed that they did not give receipts or registration cards. I did give the girl US$2 to take a picture of the stack of CD ROMs, although she refused to pose with them. After leaving the Silk Market, I walked back toward the hotel and went on down another block to the China World Trade Center, a spectacular new high-rise building with a shopping mall on the lower floors that is as upscale and modern as any place I have ever seen. I went up to the second floor and found the Internet Café, one of several in Beijing. For about US$2, I got Internet access and sent several emails to friends back home. While I was there, I looked out a window and saw that it had started snowing heavily. When the snow stopped falling about an hour later, there was about an inch of the stuff on the ground. After lunch, I went on a hutong tour. The bus took us to a suburban neighborhood, where we got into pedicabs and went on a tour of the hutongs, which are like narrow alleys, where many Beijingers live. We actually visited one family (six people of three generations) in their tiny one-room home (plus a kitchen). Our first impression was that everything was pretty primitive, but they actually had a color TV, air conditioner, boombox, and a washing machine. We asked questions (the guide Judy interpreted), and they didn't mind if we took photographs. After that we went to a neighborhood community center, where several older men taught the younger people the art of painting and calligraphy. I bought a pretty water color on silk for about US$10. We also visited a beautiful garden that was formerly owned by a Chinese emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Unfortunately for us, it was Sunday, when kids are not in school, or we would have visited a local kindergarten. That evening, I went with Delores and Mona to the Beijing Hard Rock Café, where we dined and bought souvenir hats and shirts. The manager of the favorite restaurant of my wife and I had asked me to get a Beijing Hard Rock Café hat for his Hard Rock hat collection (he was absolutely thrilled when I gave it to him after returning home - apparently, Beijing is one of the toughest ones for a collector).

MONDAY, DECEMBER 7. Carla arrived at 9:00 AM, and we set off for the Yonghegong Buddhist Lamasery. This is a real working Buddhist Temple. You pass through a series of courtyards and buildings, with one or more Buddhas in each building. The highlight is a gigantic 18-meter-high Buddha. Outside of each building you can get incense sticks and burn them while gazing on Buddha inside the building. There were a number of Japanese tourists here, and many of them were apparently Buddhists, because they looked really serious about kneeling and burning the incense. In the gift shop, one of Carla's friends who works here demonstrated an ancient Chinese musical instrument called a xun. It looks like a clay pot which tapers to a small hole at the top, with small holes in the sides for your fingers. Carla's friend makes it sound like heavenly music when she blows across the top. I bought one for US$30 (I never could make it sound even remotely like the girl in the gift shop, but at least it looks cute on a stand). After leaving the lamasery, we walked a couple of blocks to the Confucius Temple, which was also very interesting. You can easily do both of these places in a couple of hours. Carla and I then returned to the hotel for a quick lunch, and we met Ann and Roula at 1:30 to go to Carla's clinic. We got to the clinic at about 2:00. Carla first showed us the pharmacy, where you can buy almost any of the herbs, pills, and other elements of Chinese medicine. They had exotic stuff like snake wine (it's a bottle of wine with a big snake in it), dried seahorses, and lots of other weird stuff. Then Carla took us into an examining room and showed us drawings of the human body and the accupressure points and the so-called meridians, and she explained the Qi energy principles. When she had finished, the doctor came in and began to examine Ann. He did this by putting his hands on her wrists and feeling her pulse for several minutes. During this time, he asked Ann several questions about her medical history and how she was feeling. Periodically, he would make comments about his findings. Carla was translating all this. When he was finished, he prescribed some Chinese herbs for Ann. These were pretty expensive, but Ann bought a month's supply to take home and try. The doctor then examined Roula, but she declined to buy the prescribed herbs. Afterward, Ann decided to have a Chinese accupressure massage. She got a full hour for about US$16. She said that it felt great and was a bargain for the price. After the clinic, we went to the Hongqiao Market, across the street from Tiantin Park. If you go shopping only one time in Beijing, this may be the best choice. It's a big building with three floors and a basement. There are hundreds of individual vendors inside. One entire floor is a pearl market, and the prices are stupendously low (this is where I found the same pearl earrings that I paid US$15 at the factory for only US$2.50). You can find just about everything here, including clothes, shoes, watches (more Rolexes!), electronics, cameras, and every kind of knickknack in the world. The best part by far, for me, was the meat and seafood market in the basement. I could have shot a whole roll of film here. If it walks, swims, flies, or slithers, they have it here, and a lot of the meat is still alive. Some of the stuff was so bizarre that even Carla didn't recognize it, but she asked the vendors and they told her, then she translated for me. I worried at first if the vendors might resent a 'lao wai' like me perusing their wares and taking a lot of photographs, but they were all very friendly and didn't seem to mind a bit. Suffice to say that if you really want to be grossed out, this is the place. It's also a great place for weight-watchers, because I certainly had no appetite the rest of the day! On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the main Beijing railway station and bought tickets for a train trip to Tianjin the next day.

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 8. At 8:15 AM, Carla met Ann, Roula, Delores, Mona, and me at the hotel, and we headed off for the railroad station. With Carla leading the way, we boarded the right passenger car and found our reserved seats ('soft seat') on the 9:00 express train to Tianjin. I had really wanted to ride a Chinese train, but I have to tell you that unless you speak Chinese, this could be difficult. Although Beijing is gradually becoming easier for English-speaking foreigners (newer street signs are bilingual and public toilets are labeled 'WC'), I did not see any signs in English in the station. I have been told that there is a ticket window for foreigners, but I did not see one, and I don't know how you would find it. With Carla checking the schedule and buying the tickets, it was a snap. The train itself was as comfortable and modern as anything that I have ever seen, and we enjoyed the ninety-minute trip. The landscape on the north China plain was nothing spectacular, consisting mostly of farms, but the ride was smooth and hostesses went through the cars selling snacks and magazines, and each car had a western-style toilet (however, don't use the toilet in the station - you'll understand why when you see it). During the trip, Carla and I did English 101, which we both enjoyed tremendously. Tianjin is one of China's largest cities, with seven million people. Luckily for us, Carla had been to Tianjin for the first time only a month before, with my Australian Internet friends, so she knew where to take us. As soon as we arrived, we went to the ticket windows and Carla bought our return tickets to Beijing (for some reason, they don't sell round-trip tickets). We then exited to the large plaza in front of the station, where we got a couple of taxis to take us to one of the shopping streets. The street, which was really a pedestrian-only alley, was a shopper's paradise, with all kinds of antiques (probably as authentic as the Rolexes) and other stuff. I bought some Yin Yang balls for about US$1.50 - they make great little gifts, but they're heavy and you have to lug them around with you all day. It was pretty cold today, around 25 degrees F (-4 C) and poor Carla was shivering and stamping her feet, so after about an hour, we quit shopping and went by taxi to a food market inside a huge cross-shaped building. The lower floor was full of vendors selling every kind of food imaginable and then some. They had brightly colored dried fruits, nuts, candies and confections, pastries, plus meats and seafood. After buying some nuts and pastries, we went upstairs, which was a series of restaurants. Carla chose one and we went in and ordered several dishes, including sweet and sour shrimp, steamed shrimp and rice, and a small mountain of pork dumplings. It was all delicious, and the check was a miniscule US$11 for the six of us (actually, only four - Delores and Mona are vegetarians, and I think they were grossed out by some of the unmentionable stuff in the meat market on the lower floor - let's just say that we saw no stray dogs in China and let it go at that). The highlight of the meal was when someone at another table ordered snake and a fellow from the meat market on the lower level entered the restaurant with a very large live snake wrapped around his arm. Roula looked up and saw the snake hissing at her from about two feet away. I thought we were going to have to give her CPR, she was so terrified. Even now, I laugh when I think about the look on Roula's face when she saw that snake (sorry, Roula). After this gut-busting feast, we returned to the station and went back to Beijing on the train. Tianjin was a real treat. Unlike Beijing, where western tourists seem to be common enough nowadays, I don't think that Tianjin has many westerner tourists. Everywhere we went, people looked at us, and anyone who knew even a few words of English came up to us and spoke. Also, in the restaurant, they only had chopsticks and those ceramic Oriental spoons, a sure sign that western tourists don't come here very often. All in all, Tianjin is a great day trip from Beijing.