CHINA – Beijing
peking duck and awkward hotel bathrooms
Before we disembark in Beijing, health inspectors come onto the plane in space suits and shoot us with infrared guns to make sure no one’s entering the country with a fever. The airport is beautiful. Triangular openings in the roof reveal slivers of sky, and light flows across the curved metal screen like a flock of white birds.
On our bus ride to the hotel, we pass an insurmountable amount of high rises. Row upon row of tall buildings explore every geometric shape you can imagine. It’s like watching an endless loop of skyline through the bus window.
Under a pedestrian bridge marked with “e=mc²,” our bus stops at the Beijing Tailong Plaza Hotel. I meet my roommate, Dan, for the first time in the lobby. When we enter our room, we discover the bathroom is separated from the bedroom by a clear glass wall. Toilet, shower, all completely visible. So if you’re lying on the bed watching TV, and you look to your right, you can see your roommate peeing. Even if we hadn’t just met downstairs, this would be awkward. We spend the next several minutes building a makeshift screen. We stack some end tables and hang up bathrobes we find in the closet. It looks like a fort, but it blocks the important parts.
Dinner is Peking Duck at Bianyifang Roast Duck Shop, which = amazing. Andrea, Dan, Erik, (our TA) Fei, Kaitlin, Dr. Wang, and I share a large round table. It might be because I’ve only eaten airplane food the last 36 hours, but this duck is holy shit amazing. The lady shows us how to roll the duck, and we all follow along. She takes a thin crepe in one hand and then with her chopsticks picks up the duck and dips it lightly in the plum sauce. Then she takes a few sticks of cucumber (there’s carrot and green onion too) and rolls it like an egg roll using her chopsticks. I look over at Andrea as the lady presents the perfect crepe. We’re not as adept with chopsticks, so we fake the rolling part and shove it into our mouths before it falls apart.
After everyone takes a picture with the official duck carvers, we stop at the park. Sitting in the grass you almost forget you’re in a huge city. People gawk at us as they walk their tiny dogs. When our teachers release us for the night, we explore the neighborhood behind the park. We see old Chinese men with their shirts off, playing what looks like checkers in the street while little kids play around them. We comment about the contrast between the new, towering developments and these old, simple structures.
When we circle back to the park, we join in a game of feather-and-coin hacky sack for a while before stopping at the convenient store across from our hotel for snacks. I get a yogurt that comes with a straw and is served in a ceramic grey pot (delicious) and a black egg candy (opposite of delicious). I was excepting a Cadbury egg or maybe a licorice egg because it’s squishy. There’s nothing worse than biting into something thinking it’s sweet only to discover it’s something savory. It turns out to be a 100-year egg, which I learn, too late, is an egg that’s been preserved in ash, clay, salt, and lime (not the fruit). No joke. I immediately spit out the salty, nasty bite into my hand. I try to get someone else to try it, but they just laugh.
DAY 1 May 19-09
tiananmen square, forbidden city, and swearing rickshaw drivers
I wasn’t expecting to actually see Mao’s face in the Mausoleum at Tiananmen Square. I thought it was going to be like the Lincoln Memorial, some giant marble statue or something. But no, it’s actually Mao, preserved in a glass coffin and glowing orange. The space is quiet. We hear only a light jingling of metal from two women behind us in elaborate dresses made of hanging silver coins. Most of the tourists are Chinese. It’s like they’re on a pilgrimage of sorts, presenting their former chairman with flowers and gifts.
At the end of the square, is the entrance to the Forbidden City. Tourists rub the worn, gold hemispheres on the giant doors for good luck as they pass through the many thresholds into a series of courtyards and rooms. The City appears endless. Only the palaces, where the emperor or high elite resided, are on the central axis.
I talk to one of our student guides from Renmin University, Penny, who tells me about how she volunteered for the Olympics. She’s from Chongqing, southwest of Beijing. She hopes to get a job back home after she graduates maybe in a museum. Penny misses home, especially her family and her spicier local cuisine. She also suggests politely that I should be taking more pictures on the tour.
We take an extra tour to see a clock collection, which is my favorite part of the City. There in this enormous complex is a tiny, winged bug clock, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. The level of craft and detail is perfect. The clocks vary widely. One is beautifully engraved with Chinese characters while another depicts monkeys handing out peaches.
For lunch, we have dumplings. Carrot dumplings, celery dumplings, pork and cucumber, and tomato and egg to name a few. They are excellent and the mini glass of beer is refreshing. We finish with pea and red bean popsicles on the bus. The pea pop is kind of chalky, but the red bean is nice, albeit with a distinct beany taste.
To explore the hutong, or old neighborhood, near Houhai, we hop on rickshaws. Halfway through, the rickshaw drivers get into a traffic jam and swear at each other for a good ten minutes. It’s a bumpy ride, but a lot of fun. They peddle us through the narrow gray streets and finish at Houhai Lake where you can rent boats. Most of the old buildings have been converted into small bars with colorful, comfy couches arranged outside, so you can look out onto the lakes while you sip your Tsingtao.
We’re given some free time to check out the touristy shops that are wedged between the bars. I casually glance at a chess set, and the next second a shop lady pulls me by the shirt and shoves a calculator into my hand, inputting a price. I motion that I’m not interested, but she continues to chase me around the shop until we leave for the acrobatic show.
At the Heaven and Earth Theatre, we watch a man juggling 10 balls at once and a woman toss parasols in the air with her feet. Little kids balance on each other, and for the finale, a dozen women ride one normal sized bicycle by progressively linking limbs, which gives the effect of the bike blooming like a flower. Ridiculous.
I’m exhausted by the end of the day. I still haven’t adjusted to the time difference.
DAY 2 May 20
beijing universities and american fast food
At Tsinghua University, we wander around the beautiful campus under the canopy of pine and other large trees before attending a lecture. I scribble some notes about the division between rural and urban, and the widening gap between rich and poor.
We eat lunch at a cool restaurant on campus. Donkey is served first. It’s sliced thinly, and although it looks dry, is actually quite tender because of the vinegary sauce it’s soaked in. The anise-flavored pork dish is the best.
From Tsinghua, we go to Peking University. In the school union, we talk about fast food in China, and Penny says she thinks KFC and McDonald’s are hard to tell apart. That blew our minds. Fried chicken and burgers are pretty different to us, but I guess when you think about it, would we really be able to differentiate between two different Chinese fast food restaurants? Or would we just call it “Chinese”?
We finish the night at 16mm Bar, a funky little bar that feels like you’ve walked into someone’s eclectically decorated living room. We all cram together on a low couch below a wall-size Marilyn Monroe pop art mural and American movie posters. We drink Tsingtao along with a pitcher of this coconut milk and rum drink, which is served with a fruit platter. I wish bars like this existed in Tempe. It’s super laid back. Just a great place to hang out with new friends.
DAY 3 May 21
olympic park and the summer palace
I really got into the ’08 Olympics, cheering on Phelps (especially that come-from-behind relay), the American gymnastics’ run for gold, and who could forget Bolt? Today we get to visit the Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest. Walking down onto the pitch, you can picture the stadium full of spectators, cameras flashing, and everyone screaming as Bolt, open-armed, crosses the finish line of the 100m.
An Olympic mascot gets frisky with some girls in our group as we take pictures with him outside the Water Cube. Inside, water streams down the glass walls of the lobby. We sit in the stands and check out the quiet practice pool that was active just a year ago.
At lunch, we encounter the chewy cartilage of a pig’s ear. Penny, Nick, and I simultaneously take a bite of these spicy grey noodles, and nearly die, it’s so hot. Penny, who says she’s used to spicy Sichuan food, even thinks it’s too hot. Then they bring out this tomato broth soup and a whole fish. And I mean whole fish, like they made one cut down the middle of the fish and called it good. The best part is the crispy lamb leg, though. You take this half circle piece of soft, puffy steamed bun, open it up, and stuff it with pieces of lamb dipped in a brown sauce with cucumber and spring onion. Penny, Guby, and Isa teach us some Chinese words between dishes:
Ni Hao (knee how)= hello
Xie Xie (shay shay) = thanks
Sui (shway) = water
The Summer Palace is sort of like China’s Versailles. It was a retreat outside the city for the Emperor. At the entrance, a street photographer comes up to us with costumes, and before we know what’s happened, we’re all dressed up in traditional clothing doing a photoshoot as a Chinese emperor and a bunch of empresses…
A series of temples buried into the rocks ascend a more natural side of the mountain while a series of ornate buildings cascades down the other. There are little caves like at Delphi and killer panoramas of Beijing. Isa offers to take some pictures, “Ready, set, go!” she says, instead of, you know, the usual “1-2-3.”
Kaitlin, Sarah, Susie, Brianna, Michael, and I take a paddle boat on the enormous lake that comes to the south side of the palace. The mountains are beautiful layers in the distance and the sun glistens off the lake. We circle around the island and under the 17 Arch Stone Bridge. We almost play bumper boats with another group on the trip, and say things like, “I’m on a boat” (because that was cool then).
Seeing all the people out there, I think how much this place has changed from being an exclusive palace for the emperor to a public place, open to people from all around the world.
DAY 4 May 22
the great wall, ktv, and chinese drinking games
The Great Wall is not so much a wall as a million teeny, steep steps. It gets kind of sketchy going down some parts, but it’s fun climbing the wall and exploring the little watch towers even if it’s like a hundred degrees out. At the base is a street full of vendors, shouting, “Lookie Lookie!” and a camel ride.
Hot pot is for dinner tonight at Little Sheep. You toss thinly rolled meat and raw vegetables into a yin-yang shaped pot with two simmering broths. A spicy broth is in one side and a milder one in the other. We try “blood tofu” aka congealed pig’s blood. It’s relatively tasteless, kind of like normal tofu. It acts like a sponge, absorbing the flavors of the broth. Little Sheep makes their own microbrew, too. It’s a great meal. Dessert is deceiving, though. What looks like a banana milkshake is in fact corn juice. Jordan and I gag on our first sips.
We stop by the lit up Olympic Park on our way home. Patty teaches me more Chinese like peejuo for beer, and Isa tells me about the “fun week” of military training freshman must do in China. She transitions into movies and the difference she’s noticed about American superheros saving the world versus Chinese characters just saving China.
Karaoke is also different in China. It’s a weekly source of entertainment Isa tells me. Chinese call it KTV, and it’s done in these private rooms with a group of your friends, and not in a corner of a bar with random obnoxious drunk people.
Zach, who works at Party World, shows us inside, and then pours himself a drink and sings a song. There’s a small stage on one side of the room, and a long booth that runs against the back wall with circular tables. A few songs in, “Hey Jude” plays and I join in with Andrew. We go crazy with the Na Na Nas. Tim does a funny rendition of “We do it like they do on the Discovery channel” as an awkward video plays in the background. LC does a good “Hey Ya” and all the girls get together for a Britney Spears song. Meanwhile, we learn Dave is an excellent dancer.
On the other side of the room, there are some friends of Zach and Fei playing Chinese Liar’s Dice. I read about shaizi (shy-zuh) in China Road, but I don’t know how to play. One of the guys teaches me, and then sets me up with a pretty Chinese girl. She sits in the booth opposite me, wearing a light blue and white dress. She rattles the dice in her cup and we start. We each have five dice hidden in our overturned cups. You only get to see your dice. We make guesses about the amount of a specific number of a dice (1’s are wild) between our two cups. You start low like “two threes,” meaning there are at least two dice with three dots showing. Each guess must get bigger, either “three threes” or your change it to fours. When you think it’s a lie you say “chuīniú” (chway-neoh), or “bullshit.”
The girl doesn’t speak English that well, and I don’t speak Chinese at all, so we use hand signals to play. “Fo(ur) fo(ur)” she says, flashing four fingers twice. I uses the “hang loose” symbol for “six,” which Patty had just taught me on the bus ride over. She thinks it’s funny that I know it. Did I mention it’s a drinking game? There’s a small glass of beer that sits between us. The loser drinks. It’s a pretty fast-paced game. We go back and forth a couple times before someone says “BS” and the loser drinks. It’s usual me that drinks. I’m not very good. And I only get worse as the game goes on.
DAY 5 May 23
cuandixia village and the night market
We take an early, 3 hour bus drive west to Cuandixia, a Ming Dynasty era village burrowed into the mountains.
The village is made up of these traditional courtyard dwellings, which mostly cater to tourists now. We enter one courtyard for lunch. A pair of chickens cluck around in their cage as we take our seats under a canopy at some folding tables. A couple serves us local items like tree leaves and fresh chicken (we notice a lack of chickens when we leave).
Isa and I pick up some dried kiwis and mangoes for dessert. By the time we pay, the group has disappeared into the narrow stone passageways, so we explore the village the two of us. Isa translates phrases like “Long Live Mao” on a wall where dried ears of corn hang like lanterns. She demonstrates how they used to grind flour using a mortar and pestle type contraption. I wonder how she knows so much. I couldn’t come close to giving as good of a tour of Phoenix as she can about this village she’s not even from.
Back in Beijing, we hang out at a park before dinner. There are toddlers running around in butt-less pants – I think the lack of fabric is so they can go in the grass instead of a diaper. The babies don’t seem to mind. Other people are singing and doing a group exercise class. The university campuses are like this at night, too. It’s cool. People play badminton in the streets and bring their boom boxes out to dance. Everyone’s out at night. No one’s in their dorm room watching TV. We don’t even see TVs in their rooms. I wish ASU’s campus was like this.
Uyghur cuisine, which is predominately found in Northwest China, is served for dinner. There’s sweet peppers, noodles, and pilaf dishes. Guby, a Chinese student from the Xinjiang region, teaches us a traditional Uyghur dance. Dr. Pickus gets really into it. You take 3 steps and then crisscross your feet. Then you wrap your arm around your body and then stretch it out towards the other side. There’s a funny head move with your hands under your chin. None of us actually get it, but we try.
We get ice cream as we board the bus. Milk products aren’t really a specialty in China. “It tastes like Cool Whip,” Sarah comments. We’re about to try some far stranger things than Chinese ice cream though tonight at the night market…
We’re outside the hotel waiting for cabs when some rickshaws pull up. We hear the night market closes at 10 and it’s past 9:30pm, so we decide not to wait and go via rickshaw. We don’t know how to say “night market,” so we try different words, “eat,” “market,” “food,” and do some miming. The driver nods his head, and we get in. It’s a motorized rickshaw unlike the ones we took a few days ago. As we cruise off, Kaitlin and I turn around to see Andrea, Logan, and Sarah taking off behind us, in the opposite direction. Uh oh.
We drive down the wide, empty Beijing streets, the wind blowing in our hair. The driver weaves through a hutong, and shouts the name over the hum of the engine. It starts with a G sound, but I don’t really catch it. Then our driver takes a hard right down a deserted alley. He stops suddenly next to a trash bin, and turns back to us with his palm up. My first thought is that we’ve sucked at miming, and he thinks for some reason we wanted to be taken to this shady dark alley, but then I quickly realize he’s interested in our money. We try to explain we’ll pay when we get there, but he refuses to keep going. He hands us a laminated card like a ransom note. I wonder how many tourists he’s handed this to. It says, “300Y per person.”
I misread it as 30Y, at first, which is what we’d typically pay for a long cab ride. 300Y is ridiculous. We contemplate our choices. We attempt to mime “night market” again, thinking our first priority should probably to be somewhere in public, so in the event we are mugged at least there’ll be witnesses. But then we also don’t want to be sitting in this rickshaw much longer. The rickshaw nudges up a little farther and we notice some activity at the end of a tiny street to our left. We decide to pay him what we think is fair and pretend like that’s all we have. He seems a little angry, but accepts it and pulls off as soon as we hop out. We hurry down the tiny side street, and by some crazy miracle, we’re actually at the night market. He’d just taken us as close to it as he could drive. I feel a little bad, but 300Y/person is still ridiculous. It’d be like one of those bicycle taxis charging you $100 to drive you from the parking lot to the football game.
We try an octopus skewer first. It’s chewy. Then we get snake, which honestly tastes like chicken. Now we get a little more adventurous. We order a skewer of fried honey bees. They taste like crispy puffs of air. The centipedes taste similar to the honey bees, but with a Windex aftertaste. And starfish tastes like a combination between seaweed and shrimp poop. As the vendors turn off their lights and shut down the stalls, they have a buy one get one free special and we grab two candied fruit kabobs. We spot a bench at the end of the market and wait to see if any of our friends show up, but no one ever comes, so we use a water bottle to wash off our sticky hands and head back. We notice we’re just a little east of Mao’s Tomb, which is only about a mile north of our hotel, so we decide to walk.
It turns out we were all dropped off at different night markets. We never thought there would be more than one.
DAY 6 May 24
dr. wang’s a capella karaoke
We arrive at Renmin University, where Penny, Isa, and Guby are waiting to give us a tour of their campus. Isa’s hands are full of Chinese cards, fruit, and drinks for us, which she passes out as we step off the bus. I can’t get over how generous our hosts are.
While they show us into the campus museum, which displays various artifacts dating back to 4000 B.C., I talk to Angie, who was a model UN student, and one of the first Chinese students I’ve talked to that’s been to the U.S. She tells me she got scared in JFK because they mispronounced “Shanghai” and she didn’t know if she was on the right flight. She says she really wanted to go to the sex museum in NYC because she thinks it’s a critical part of American culture. I really don’t know how to handle that one, so I change the subject.
On our walk to the gym, I open the fruit they gave us. There’s a golf ball-sized reddish berry with a bumpy skin that’s refreshing and sweet. I don’t know the name. “Bayberries,” Penny tells me after she thinks for a moment. As we open the gym door, we hear the distinguishable sound of sneakers squeaking on a polished wood floor. The students are whacking shuttlecocks over badminton nets. Shuttlecocks. I didn’t know they were called that. Why would you name them shuttlecocks? Anyways, we all want to play badminton, but we have to attend Dr. Pickus lecture on the Israeli/Palestine conflict.
I sit next to two Chinese guys in class. One of the guy’s English name is Tom. He tells me my teacher should give me a Chinese name like his teacher gave him an English name. I agree. That’d be cool. The other guy offers me a towel. I accept the strange gift, and then mimic the two of them as they simultaneously wipe the sweat off of their foreheads. It’s like some weird bonding ritual. I hope it’s alright that I’m not actually sweating.
A happy Chinese professor enters the room and leads us to dinner. I ask him where’s he from. “Southeast China,” he says. Like a lot of people I’ve met in Beijing, he came here for college and never went back home. He tells me he misses his family a lot.
We have 13 dishes for dinner including taro egg rolls. I’ve never heard of taro before, but it’s apparently a very delicious root.
While we’re still sitting at the big round tables, Isa goes up in front with a microphone and thanks us for coming to their university. We should be the one’s thanking her! She then starts what turns into an a cappella karaoke night. Students get up and sing songs without background music. Terrifying? I think so. Jim does “When I’m 64” and Sarah manages to get Dr. Wang up for a duet of MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This,” which brings down the house.
It’s sad saying goodbye to Penny, Isa, and Guby, our hosts and our friends that have showed us around all week. Penny tells me she’ll remember me whenever she watches “Friends” as we hug goodbye. I wish we could take them with us on the rest of our trip.
DAY 7 May 25
buddha and a chinese bakery
It’s our first free day of the trip. After packing our bags back up for Shanghai, Julia, Brianna, Dave, and I head over to a bakery. I go a little crazy because I really like bread and it’s not a staple of the Chinese diet.
I order a black sesame bun, a walnut loaf, an Arab (coffee flavored pastry), a “cream cheese” danish (cream cheese is in quotes for a reason), a strawberry jam filled pastry, these delicious bean-filled sesame rolls, and some cookies. I don’t eat it all myself…
We walk with our pastries to the Temple of Heaven Park where you can buy 1/2 a ticket and sit on a bench between some red columns to play games, read, or knit as one lady is doing. Then we taxi over to the Lama Temple and marvel at the 80ft tall Maitreya Buddha that smells heavily of incense. There’s a Guinness Book of World Records sign next to it. It’s the tallest Buddha statue in the world carved from a single piece of sandalwood.
DAY 8 May 26