It was an incredible trip. The Great Wall, the ancient palaces, the street markets, the Hong Kong skyline at night? All absolutely unforgettable, jaw dropping experiences. Nothing I describe here can do justice to many of the things we saw. Not everything about the trip was lovely, though. Some parts in fact really sucked. But I never expected China to be a pleasure cruise. It was dirty, it was raw, it was old, it was loud. It had its own kind of charm, I suppose. Despite its rough edges, though, I loved Beijing.
We flew to Beijing on a flight from Hiroshima with a stop along the way in Dalian, a city whose name I already knew for only one reason. The spring before I came to Japan, working as a newspaper reporter, I covered a horrific car accident just down the road from my parents' house. Three Chinese international students from a local university were killed in the crash. Another driver who had just been through the Wendy's drive-thru came unhinged when he saw he got mayonnaise on his sandwich even though he ordered no mayo. He reacted by blazing down the road at close to 100 miles per hour. His SUV collided with another car, went airborne and crushed the Chinese students' car stopped at a light, killing them. One of those students was from Dalian. I drove by that spot everyday in the following months until we left for Japan, and I always thought of them.
So it was an odd coincidence, I guess, that Dalian was our first glimpse of China.
It was immediately clear that China would be nothing like Japan. Coming in for landing, we saw rows upon rows of buildings (maybe apartments), all exactly alike, crammed extremely close together and extremely close to the runway. Inside the airport, the workers we saw wore militaristic uniforms and helmets. No one smiled. A totally different vibe from Japan.
We were there just long enough to get off the plane, file through immigration and get back on to continue the trip to Beijing. Beijing itself was enveloped in a thick cloud when we arrived. I thought some rain had probably just rolled through. The following day I realized it was pollution.
I expected Beijing to be polluted. I just had NO IDEA it would be as bad as it was. It was by far the worst smog I've ever experienced. It's like living in a fog. You look across the street, and it's foggy. Less than 24 hours after we'd landed in Beijing, I was blowing black snot out of my nose. After a few days, I started feeling asthmatic symptoms that I usually only struggle with when I exercise really hard. Really kinda scary, and made me wonder how people could live their whole lives in that kind of environment. Chinese people were constantly hocking up huge loogies and spitting them into the street, which was pretty nasty. Often on the trip I gaped in wonder at the ancient marvels we were seeing — and that was while seeing everything sitting in smog. My head spun at the thought of how mind blowing it would all be if the air were actually clear.
I can say, at least, that our hostel was beautiful and extremely clean; in fact it was the nicest hostel I've ever stayed in. We stayed at the Peking Yard Hostel. The place was pristine, overflowing with flowers inside, and located in a quiet hutong, a traditional old Chinese neighborhood with narrow streets and alleys. During the day we could see other Chinese going about their business without a bunch of other tourists around. Down the street we found a little Chinese restaurant with a huge menu with pictures. The staff didn't know a lick of English, but we ended up eating several meals there because the food was so good, and cheap. Somehow we managed to communicate with the staff through pointing and miming, and I guess they liked us, since they always smiled and laughed a little when we came in. I think they don't see many tourists. My favorite dish was made with chicken and peanuts and red peppers and spicy sauce. The sweet and sour chicken was tasty too — and much to my surprise tasted exactly the same as the stuff back home. The desk attendant at our hostel was nice enough to write in Chinese "Go easy on the spice" on a scrap of paper for us before we went there the first time, and we made sure to show it to them every time. They always nodded and smiled, and our food was always just about as spicy as I could stand it. So I imagine that I wouldn't have been able to eat it if it were prepared as usual.
We hit most of the main tourist sites while we were in Beijing: The Great Wall, the Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square, the Summer Palace, a few markets and a couple significant temples.
I'll start with our first destination: the Forbidden City.
Tienanmen Square, at the entrance to the Forbidden City. Say hello to Chairman Mao!
The Forbidden City is in the middle of Beijing. It is a walled city that was built in the early 1400s and served as home to 24 of China's emperors over the course of 500 years. It took more than a million workers 15 years to build the palace complex, with some 980 buildings remaining today. According to the brochure we got, "It is the most magnificent ancient architectural complex we have in our country, and the biggest and most intact architectural complex of palaces in the world."
Our view of the Forbidden City from a nearby hilltop. Amazing (and yes, draped in smog).
As you can imagine, it was crowded. Going on a Saturday morning didn't help matters. Generally speaking the crowd was not so troublesome, except when we were trying to get a glimpse inside certain significant buildings — then the mob just crushed against the entrance. It reminded me exactly of being uptown at Ohio University during Halloween, where everyone is pushing together so hard you start to worry you might actually be crushed or trampled. And thus I learned: Chinese people do not like to queue.
These palace buildings are definitely more detailed than the structures we've seen in Japan. The temples we saw in Korea looked similar.
We spent half the day wandering around admiring the buildings and exploring a few exhibits filled with precious jewelry, intricately carved jade and ornate clocks. The Hall of Clocks and Watches was a real treasure, filled with elaborate clocks given to emperors over the years.
The Nine Dragon Screen (Photo by Joe)
The dragon was the symbol of the emperor in ancient China. The story goes that this wall is made up of 270 glazed tiles. Shortly before the wall was to be complete, one of the tiles fell and broke. This meant that the project couldn't be completed on time, which would have led to the beheading of the craftsmen involved. Luckily a carpenter managed to make a replacement tile out of wood that looked like the original. The emperor never noticed the difference, and the craftsmen kept their heads.
Wandering between the city walls (Photo by Joe)
Perhaps the biggest shock of the trip for Joe began while at the Forbidden City. Joe saw a baby whose pants looked to have split in the behind. He pointed the baby out and commented about how unfortunate that was, and how his poor mother must be trying to cover him up. Later, I spotted another baby's butt hanging out a split in the seat of his pants, and that's when we realized this was a deliberate style. Before long we saw one mother let her young child squat down in a corner by one of the buildings, pull the split in her pants apart, and urinate right there. We were stunned. This place was once considered to be the emperor's palace for hundreds of years. Now kids are pissing on it. The same episode repeated itself later right in front of us on the sidewalk outside the Summer Palace. I thought Joe might have a heart attack from the look of shock on his face. No question we ain't in Kansas anymore, Todo... this was like some total opposite Bizarro world from Japan. (Though... now that I think about it... Japanese men seem to have no quibbles about peeing in public sometimes, too...)
Joe felt too creepy photographing it, so here's a picture from Flickr Creative Commons so you can get an idea what I'm talking about:
What exactly's the point of pants, then? (Photo by Kongharald)
Talking to the workers in our hostel later, we learned that this is a pretty common thing in China for kids who aren't 100 percent potty trained yet. Makes it easier to go without having to wrangle with your clothes while you're squatting and all that. And it saves on the expense of diapers.
As I said: China... A charm all its own...
(To be continued...)