20 September 2011 – Beijing, China: By this point, we were pretty tired!
After all the crazy trekking and butt bumping bus rides, we made the two-day journey back to Lijiang with a view to then take the overnight train to Kunming in order to catch our flight to Beijing. But the ticketing agent just looked incredulously at us. How could we possibly think we’d secure seats a mere 24hrs in advance?! So, plan B — we’d have to fly to Kunming to catch our Beijing flight.
Enroute we spent 9hrs in the Kunming airport in Yunnan waiting for our connection flight. Sure we could have gone into the town – but I had yet another stomach bug and was feeling pretty weak and weepy. All in all, we’d been traveling for about 2.5 months by now.
Beijing seemed like a beacon of hope to me, and I was really looking forward to taking it easy and enjoying all the amenities that a big city brings: sleeping-in late in a comfy bug-free bed, shopping, and legit medical facilities.
Arriving at Fly By Knight Courtyard Hostel around midnight, we were welcomed with more hospitality that we’d thought possible. The young owner waited up for us, offering tea and custard pastries while we checked-in. The hostel was more like a bed & breakfast, and was brand-new…well sort of. It was situated in a quiet cul-de-sac in the Hutongs – narrow alleyways that are the last bastion of Old Beijing, having outlived development of any kind. Most were crumbling, but this one had been restored in keeping with the old style: a central courtyard with the living areas surrounding it. Quite charming, and lovely.
Next morning we were up early for my appointment at the International SOS clinic. It was a lovely modern place, with internet access in the waiting room. I was given three kinds of pills to kill every type of bacteria in my gut + another pill to take once those were over to replace the ‘good bacteria’. The doc seemed suspicious that I had an intestinal parasite, but as we had no time to do a proper test – we just covered all the bases. It worked tho, I’m happy to report. I felt saved at long last from my month of bad bowels !!
Back at the hostel, we walked through the Hutongs on our way to the Forbidden City. Daniel (the owner of Fly By Knight) had explained to us that most houses like his have been divided-up into tiny rooms and each room is rented by a family (for example, our hotel room would normally be home to 4-5 people!). The people who live there are usually migrant workers who come from the countryside looking for work and a better life. The landlords don’t do any maintenance; they just keep rents low but with enough people paying to make a nice profit. Most don’t have bathrooms, so the residents have to use the public toilets dotted around the neighbourhood. It’s a tough existence. But as a visitor – the nice side result is that Hutong life is lived largely out of doors. Walking around you can see people eating from small stands, playing cards or chatting to one another. There is a real community feel, helped in part by the fact that most families have and will continue to live here for generations.
We made our way to Tiananmen Square. But I have to say, I was underwhelmed. It’s pretty much a huge slab of cement. In the burning sun, I wasn’t even inclined to cross the street to visit it. Instead, we pressed on towards our ultimate destination – the Forbidden City. Huge posters of Chairman Mao hung along the entrance, looking down on all the visitors.
Inside, we mulled around among flocks of Chinese tourists. It’s an impressive place, and its scale and grandeur hit you immediately. You pass through gate after gate – ornately decorated, and each allotted a kind of hierarchy for use by different groups of people such as government, military or royal family members. There were huge stone turtles, from which incense would be lit when the emperor passed – creating a sense of other-worldliness surrounding his person. Enormous stone walkways (transported from afar along iced roads) carved a line from one end of the complex to the other. And these special walkways were only ever used by the emperor himself.
It was worthwhile forsure. But I have to say, they could take a small tip from American tourist attractions and provide tired travelers a spot to rest and recharge. Firstly, it’s a huge place, even over the 4 hours we spent there – we only saw half of it, and even then we felt rushed. Yet, with the exception of the garden at the far end – there are no trees for shade, no benches to sit and reflect, and only one very small and very bad café serving 3 items. And as activists all over America protest our extreme capitalist system of inequality – I can’t say the Communists have it right either. If they did, this place would be better meeting the needs of it’s visitors, and turning an extra buck or two as a result.
Anyway, we closed the palace down and had to be corralled out. But we wanted to take another look, so headed across the street to Jingshan Park – it’s hill is the central feature. The hill was made from the dug-out earth from the moat surrounding the Forbidden City. Emperors for 500 years slowly covered the hill with all manner of beautiful trees and plant life. Two pagodas grace the top, and the view of the Forbidden City at dusk – with it’s golden rooftops at the centre of Beijing – is an incredibly humbling and beautiful sight.
After sunset, we jumped in a cab to meet-up with Chris’ friend Angie, who he knew from his TV work. She took us to a restaurant serving food from Northeast China, where she was from. It was great and our flaming fish dish made a spectacular table centerpiece! Speaking to Angie was really enjoyable. To me, she represents the best of new China – it’s potential and ambitious spirit – combined with a grounded sense of itself. She was articulate, bright, and savvy about the state of the world. Her parents immigrants from Korea themselves, she now lives with them in the Hutongs, working by day in media. Sharing her feelings about China with us in such a candid way, we learned even more about this interesting, contradictory and transitioning land.
Next day, Chris and I decided to do separate things. Chris ventured out on foot towards the south-east, to another Hutong neighbourhood and a park Angie recommended. A silent observer, he soaked-up the streetlife and parklife. People carrying goods to sell to neighbours or tucking into a rice dish at a local hole in the wall gave way to green grass with circles of people playing hacky-sack or dancing together.
I headed out to the nearest mall to replace my ripped yoga pants (a results of me sliding on my booty during the trek from Yubeng). I equally enjoyed myself in an American-style shopping experience, browsing H&M and an international supermarket where I stocked-up on granola bars and bought a gift of Heinz baked beans for Chris!
In the evening, we went on a wild goose chase looking for a new Mexican place I’d read about in TimeOut Beijing. After a lengthy search mission in another American-feeling shopping mall – we found the place graced with a sign that said it was temporarily closed! So we ended-up at the 1001 Arabian Nights restaurant that included a belly dancer performing to bad techno music with silent Tom & Jerry cartoons projected either side of the stage. It was a BIZARRE combo for sure, but I really loved seeing the cartoons of my youth (you don’t really need the sound anyway) and the food was really quite good.
The next day we spent the morning researching about India (our next stop), and Daniel at the hostel invited us for lunch with his team which was a special treat for us, feeling so welcomed by our host. We then ventured back to the mall to exchange one item I’d purchased. On our way out we browsed through an amazing bread shop, looking for a snack. They sold all kinds of crazy combinations in crazy shapes – some good, some bad. Chris was taken by their use of pork and chicken ‘floss’ on certain items.
Then that night we wandered to another part of town, stumbling across hundreds of people of all ages dancing en-masse in front of a Catholic Church. China is nothing if not surprising! But we were really headed to met-up with Angie again at a ‘hot pot’ restaurant called Hai Di Lao, known for it’s amazing service and good food. How it works is like this: each table has two metal pots where the staff poor in a kind of tomato soup (one hot, one not). Then you order whatever you want to cook in it. Veggies, meat, etc. It’s fun! It’s especially fun when they create noodles in front of you by spinning around with the dough like a circus performer!
Next day we left for New Delhi, India and had to say goodbye to China.
Ah, China. What can one say to sum-up such a place? One of our planet’s most ancient cultures, inventors of the amazing and the much-loved: from fireworks and the printing press – to doughnuts and noodles. From emperors and communists – to something in-between. Millions living life on the land as rural farms – while millions of others work in one of the ‘factories to the world.’ Thousands of protests each year against corrupt leaders – but you never hear about any of them. And as millions of ‘little emperors’ grow-up as an only-child, thinking they are the most important little person in the world – we are already witnessing an increase in suicide at the workplace, once faced with the reality of the opportunities actually available.
So what’s next for China? In spite of the political suppression facing the people there, they all still strive to live good lives. Family and friends are important to them, just like they are important to us. They are curious about the world, and their place in it. I hope that the changes to come in China benefit the majority, and that there is a way to preserve what is beautiful and precious about this country. If progress is comprised of a poisonous cloud of toxic fumes, inhumane working conditions, and broken promises – no amount of hollow rhetoric will be enough to hold-back a billion people’s hopes and dreams for their future.