Tuesday, December 14, 2004

A fake-Scotsman in Beijing

When last we left our intrepid hero, he was hailing a taxi at the People's International Airport...

Here's how getting a taxi in China really works: 30 men of marginal hygiene surround you pushing, shoving, and shouting the only two words they know in English. "HELLO! TAXI!" Over the next 3 weeks you will come to hate the word "HELLO!" Finally, the alpha-taxi-male finally grabs your suitcase(s) and leads you away from the populated area into the parking garage where you are to be beaten, robbed, and perhaps murdered. You won't mind so much, as you've just come off 20 some-odd hours in coach so a bath, even a bloodbath, sounds pretty nice. But to your pleasant surprise you are neither beaten, robbed, nor murdered and away you go. The alpha-taxi-male is no longer with you, as you discover he was just the taxi-pimp. Your driver does not know the 2 English words the other men know, so you flip open your guidebook to point and grunt at the Chinese characters next to the English name of your hotel. Puzzled looks are truly international. Point and grunt again. Yes, yes, he's got it this time. Your pointing and grunting skills are going to get a good workout on this vacation.

A hutong is an alleyway that may or may not be paved, regardless of its proximity to the city center. Expect free-range chickens. Our hotel was down a paved hutong but it was really very lovely. Although the beds aren't comfortable by western standards (think plywood), we felt safe and well cared-for. I would highly recommend it. Wherever you stay, your hotel will have business cards with the hotel's name in Chinese characters so that any taxi driver can take you the long-way back to the hotel. Every hotel concierge will also happily write down the name of the place you're going, in Chinese characters of course, on the back of said business card so that any taxi driver can take you the long-way there. (aside: I'm kidding, actually.) Taxi is definitely the preferred mode of transportation in and around every city in China. I found drivers to be polite and usually took a direct-route. And they're pretty cheap; less than US$10 from one side of Beijing, a huge sprawling metropolis, to the other. Hopefully you'll get a good look at the city- Beijing is a modern world capital with skyscrapers, freeways, and most modern conveniences. The People's Freeways are beautifully lined with fresh flowers, lovingly tended by the People's Gardners. If you look carefully, you WILL see the stereotypical little old man with the pointed hat and dark, round sunglasses. Be sure to point and laugh so he knows you're American.

Having showered, slept, and showered again for good measure, we set off to find the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is only forbidden to those that don't have the 60 Yuan (~US$7.50) admission. If you can help it, don't go to Tiananmen Square to enter the Forbidden City, although that's the "traditional entrance". You will be bombarded by hawkers and lord knows what else, so use the "Celebrity Blogger" entrance (aside: It's unfortunately not marked as such) on the east side. In case you've made it to Beijing without knowing a thing about China, the Forbidden City was the Emperor's residence for about 500 years until PuYi abdicated the throne in 1912 and was finally evicted around 1915. Please watch your step, as each of the 9,999 rooms have a 1-foot high threshhold designed to trip marauding western tourists. I can't say enough about the enormity and the beauty of this place except that you will need to wear comfortable walking shoes. Given that Chinese museums and attractions are only open from roughly 10am - 4pm (even in summer) we spent the entire "day" here.

Day 2- The Great Wall at Mutianyu.
The Great Wall of China, contrary to popular myth, is not visible with the naked eye from space. Chinese astronauts and cosmonauts have confirmed this. The Great Wall is also not a continuous barrier around the border of China. Much of the Great Wall has fallen into disrepair, although the Chinese government has restored several sections that are easily accessible by car (guided tour, not rental) from Beijing. They've also restored the original 5th century ticket kiosks. If you are only planning to visit one section of the Great Wall, this is the one to go to. Your hotel will help you arrange a car and guide for roughly US$20 for the whole day. About 1.5 hours northwest of Beijing, Mutianyu is beautiful countryside, rolling hills, and t-shirt vendors. Yes, hawkers will bug the shit out of you, including standing directly in your path shouting "HELLO!" These hawkers know a little bit more English, including "I remember you!" if you try to explain that you'll buy something when you return from the Wall. You will also pass through dirt-poor stone-age villages that have never seen indoor plumbing, electricity, or western tourists for more than a split second. Built along the peaks of the hills, exploring the Wall is strenuous exercise. Some sections of the wall climb the hills at angles approaching 60-degrees. It's made of some sort of amazing stone though. If it happens to rain, the water soaks INTO the stone and isn't the slightest bit slippery. There's not a whole lot to eat here though, so if you didn't pack a lunch you can get dumplings and bottled water (aside: Repeat, BOTTLED water) at a little cafe.

As I re-read what I've written so far, I feel I should probably stop here for the day and allow you to ask questions. As I get a lot of the basic stuff out of the way, I'll try to go a little faster. In case you hadn't noticed, click on the title of this entry to see pictures in the album entitled "Beijing".

[Next: What, Chinese food again?!]


At 4:40 AM, Blogger Badaunt said...

Whoa! $10 from one side of Beijing to the other? Prices have gone up since I was there, too! Not that I went to Beijing, but I took a 10-hour bus trip for 24 yuan, whatever that was then. Actually, half of that, because I'd changed my money on the black market and got twice the going rate. (The 10 hours didn't have all that much to do with the distance - we had three accidents, a very long lunch break, and a cockroach incident. It was supposed to be 6 hours.)

I want to go to Beijing, now. You've made me jealous. I didn't see anything famous while I was in China. The only other tourists I saw were (1) an Englishwoman in Xiamen, who, when I asked her what she was doing there told me that she'd taken the wrong bus, and (2) a Singaporean tour group at an international hotel in Shantou that my rickshaw driver took me to by mistake because he couldn't read. I wanted CIT, and the only kanji he understood was 'international'.

Does CIT still exist? Are they still outrageously rude and unhelpful? (Is it CITS? I forget. China International Travel - or Tourist - Service. Something like that.)

At 4:47 AM, Blogger Badaunt said...

BLOODY good photos, by the way.

At 9:00 AM, Blogger Zelda said...

Great photos, great story. Can't wait to hear more.

At 9:03 AM, Blogger Allie#3ga said...

ok 1. great pics - and i think it's cool you're sharing this story with us.

and b.even though the title is fake scotsman in beijing- i can't quit hearing "englishman in new york" in my head .. and how i'm having sting fantasies .... so thanks for that :)

At 9:50 AM, Blogger se7en said...

Cool story Mr Hands. gotta love it. I would like to read more.

Hat's off to the photographer (i don't think you said if it's you or not) Nicely framed, good depth of field, well lit and clear view of each subject. Casual photographers do not take that many great pics by "accident" Somebody knew what they were doing. =)

I couldn't get the hotel link to open, it crashed my IE6 when the page started to load, dunno why.

Bitchcakes said "fantasies"

At 10:21 AM, Blogger se7en said...

oops, almost forgot... I liked the reference to "It's a Wonderful Life" in the previous comments.

At 11:09 AM, Blogger tinyhands said...

Theic- I come from a city that doesn't use taxis (you'd wind up more lost) so $10 for all 3 people is a deal to me. CITS is there, but my research here didn't inspire much confidence in them. I believe it was a CITS office we went to in Beijing looking for a travel agent that would take credit cards. We were told buying intra-China flights would be cheaper if purchased IN China, and we were uncomfortable carrying around that much cash. In any case, they sent us directly to the airline's office, which didn't take credit cards. Fortunately there's an ATM on every corner.

Lucky 7- Their website attempts to install a Chinese characterset, that's probably the problem. I don't know what the answer is though. I never install the charactersets and it loads fine, so that's not the whole issue.

Re: Photos-
Before we left I bought a brand new Minolta Z2, high-capacity SD card, wide-angle lens, filters, and some high-capacity rechargeables. I've never had any photographic training, and with the exception of the pictures where you see me, I took them all. (Those including me were taken with/by Dad's 35mm film Nikon.) Granted, the beauty and grandeur of China makes it EASY to take a good picture. I've never been a picture-taker and didn't grow up in a family that captures everything on film, so I had to force myself to take pictures. I think I only shot the equivalent of ~15 rolls though. I love taking pictures now. Thanks for all the kind words.

At 11:28 AM, Blogger tinyhands said...

Oh yeah, and the audio tour at the Forbidden City is narrated by Roger Moore. Yes, a lesser Bond, but the connection is there.

At 8:07 PM, Blogger christ*el #3tx said...

i picture the great wall, a young sean connery, a kilt, and a STRONG breeze.

but then again, they say i have an active imagination.

At 1:05 AM, Blogger mellancollyeyes said...

i'm totally enthralled in this story and the photos are excellent. i'm so jealous of your celebrity status...did you get a lot of chicks on your trip, since they all recognized your star quality? Especially since you were with your parents?

You're my favorite.

At 1:44 AM, Blogger tinyhands said...

Christel- Thanks for the young.

Adrianne- Alas, it's kinda hard to eat Chinese with Mom & Dad in tow. I did get hit on in Shanghai (one guess) and people everywhere did want their picture taken with me. Based on the other tourists, namely blue-haired bus tours, I suspect they don't see a lot of young westerners.


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