My Visit To The Land Of Scorpions And The Glorious Peking Duck

It’s 5:45am and I’m sitting at the gate, C23, waiting for my flight to Guilin that departs at 7:30am.  I’m a bit early.  In order to get onto the internet, you have to go to a ‘position of authentication’ and present your passport.  I doubt they’re open at this hour.  Who knows.  I can’t be bothered.

The taxi ride here took no longer than 30 minutes.  It was hard to sleep last night, relying on the alarm clock on my unreliable mobile phone.  I woke up every 20 minutes or half hour, afraid I would be late for my flight.  Eventually I got up at 3:50am and began packing.  The taxi arrived at the hostel at 4:50am.

The cab ride to the hostel three days ago cost ¥80.  I thought it’d be a good idea to have the hostel order a cab to the airport, as they warned that taxis are not regularly available in the early morning.  However, it was going to cost ¥120.  I should have just walked along the street and hailed my own.  They were everywhere.  Oh well, you live and you learn.

So where do I begin?  I developed a love hate relationship with Beijing over the past three days.  To be completely honest, I wasn’t in love with China’s northern capital at the beginning.  It was rather overwhelming, busting at the seams with people and no one spoke English or Cantonese.  Coming from Hong Kong where I was able to communicate and navigate in Cantonese, this was slightly frustrating.  However, I did come to love the city, the people and the food, and I’m quite sad to be leaving Beijing.

Here’s a recap of my stay in Beijing.

Following my arrival at the hostel, I settled into my 12-person dorm room, and made my way to the common area where I met Max.

The Florida native has been in China for the last 13 months, studying martial arts and calligraphy, and staying with a family in a small, remote village, two hours outside of Beijing.  Max was in Beijing for a three-day break.  We got acquainted and exchanged stories.  “Where are you from, what do you do and how long are you here for?”  Max was returning to the village in a few days and needed to purchase a train ticket.  I had nothing planned and agreed to accompany him.

The trip to the train station was my first exposure to Beijing’s notorious subway system.  And what an experience it was.  I had heard stories of how crowded and intense it gets, especially during rush hour, but never imagined the extent of the chaos.

For ¥2, you can travel as long as you want and as far as you want.  Their system has eight different subway lines, reaching the many far borders of the city.  We purchased our tickets, ran my bag through the security check (they have security checks everywhere!) and made our way to the platform.  Throngs of people were already there, waiting for the arrival of the next train.

When the train did arrive, instead of creating space for those exiting, everyone piled in front of the doors and ploughed through as soon as they slid open.  Having also been on the other side, inside the train waiting to get off, I can tell you that it makes it quite challenging and even creates a sense of anxiety around whether you’ll successfully get out before the doors close.  Apparently during rush hour, someone is hired to push people into the train.  Nonetheless, it’s all part of the adventure and what makes each culture so unique and fascinating.

The Beijing railway station is beautiful.  The exterior is at least.  It sort of reminded me of the one in Bombay.  Majestic and booming with character.  Hordes of people were sitting (or squatting) inside and outside the station.

The lady that randomly started and wouldn’t stop talking to Max.

Max purchased his ticket and we decided to do some shopping.  Up until that point, I didn’t really buy anything or much.  Can you believe it?  I was dying to employ my haggling skills though.  So here’s my sinful confession.  Our first stop was H&M, in some ginormous, multi-level shopping centre.  However, I did not buy a single thing.  I would have felt like a sell-out.  Plus, I didn’t want to carry the additional bulk around.  I still have two weeks to go.  Not that that has stopped me in the past.  I can’t guarantee that I won’t do some serious damage in Hong Kong though.  So many things fit me properly here – it’s a miracle.

Our next stop was one of Beijing’s infamous markets.  I don’t remember what it’s called.  However, it housed floors upon floors of knockoff items – shoes, purses, sweaters, jackets and more.  I couldn’t believe it.  Everything looked exactly like the real thing and was a fraction of the market price.  How does a place like this exist?  I was actually interested in a pair of shoes.  I don’t remember what the seller asked for at first, but Max was able to get it down to ¥100.

Max speaks Mandarin pretty well.  He’s been the one communicating with the locals everywhere we go.  From asking for directions and explanations of menu items to bargaining for cheaper prices.  It’s not the first time I’ve seen a ‘foreigner’ speak Mandarin or Cantonese, but every time I do come across someone who does, it baffles me.  And in these situations, I feel like an idiot.  Everyone looks at me and speaks to me in Mandarin expecting me to understand, but I don’t.  That’s part of frustration and my love hate relationship with Beijing.

I ended up passing on the shoes.

All that shopping worked up an appetite.  It was time to grab dinner.  I couldn’t visit Beijing and not have Peking duck.  Thankfully Max is a huge fan of the delicacyas well.  So he took me to this restaurant where we had an entire duck that cost only ¥80, served with mini ‘pancakes’, scallions, sliced cucumber and hoisin sauce, and some snow pea leaves too.  Delicious.  Or ‘glorious’ as Max would say.  The dishes were complimented with some Tsing Tao beer and plum juice.

That was day one in a nutshell.

The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square were at the top of my agenda the following day.  Home to the Ming and Qing emperors many centuries ago, it took more than five hours to navigate the historic site.  I’m sure I could have easily spent more time there.  However, after the first two hours, all the structures started to look the same.  It felt like I was in a maze, rammed with mostly local, Mandarin-speaking tourists, none that I could speak to.  Because it was a holiday, mid-autumn festival, it was even busier than usual.  Bad combo.  I was overwhelmed, so overwhelmed that I decided to skip Tiananmen Square and head back to the hostel to rest.  Nevertheless, the Forbidden City was pretty impressive.  Massive.

Lining up to get into the Forbidden City.On guard.Locals celebrate mid-autumn festival at the Forbidden City.Don’t forget your umbrealla for shade, of course.Happy mid-autumn festival!One of the many grand entrances.

On the way home, I had one of those sausages on a stick.  I saw them everywhere and finally caved in.  I’m a sucker for street meat, but try to practice caution when away from home.  It was delicious.  The meat basically melts in your mouth.  However, given my weak stomach, the sausage might have been the reason to the joyful bowel movements I experienced in the evening.

Later that day, I made my way down to Wanfujing Street, home to many hotels, big shops and restaurants.  There was no intention of buying anything.  I just wanted to see.  I was told it was worth a stroll.  En route, I passed by many street side restaurants that appeared to be local and authentic.  Many men and women were sitting at tables setup by the street curbs, wolfing down noodles and rice.

My mid-afternoon snack was enjoyed at a Japanese restaurant in the Oriental Centre on Wanfujing Street.  Udon noodle soup with beef.  I had been craving noodle soup.  It’s comfort food for me.  The udon noodles were so fresh and tender.  Yum.

Oodles of yumminess!

After lunch, I continued to randomly wander up and down the streets in the Wanfujing area.  Eventually I met up with Max back at the hostel to have another meal.  Hot pot.

Max recommended an all-you-can-eat hot pot restaurant, but it was over an hour away.  Instead, we did some research and consulted the hostel staff.  Apparently there was one at the Oriental Centre.  To make a long story short, it was a complete disappointment.  We didn’t even finish our food.  To begin, the hot pot itself was not a typical one – a pot segmented for the option of different broths.  That threw us both off.  Perhaps it was a ‘traditional’ hot pot?  Neither of us knew.  Second, the soup base was beyond bland.  Flavourless.  It was basically boiling water with ginger.  Finally, the food was not spectacular either.  We ordered a basket of local greens, sliced chicken, vermicelli noodles and sliced prawns, and opted out of the sheep testicles.  Ha.  They had all sorts of ‘different’ meats and animal parts.  The prawns were too fishy.  We eventually gave up and settled on getting more snacks at the infamous night market on the way home.

The Donghuamen night market is definitely a must-see, but not necessarily a must-eat.  Depends what you’re into.  A huge row of vendors stretched far along the street, peppered with red and yellow lanterns, served some interesting fare.  Scorpions, centipedes, grasshoppers, snakes, chicken hearts, worms… in addition to some more common selections like squid, lamb, beef, chicken, corn, shrimp and candied fruit.  Unfortunately I’m not that adventurous when it comes to food.  I have had some unique items, but wasn’t up for any of the above.  So I settled on bean curd wraps.  They didn’t have the same filling or tasted as good as the ones back home.

Creeeeeepy crawlers!Kidneys and hearts anyone?

Behind the food market was a massage parlour.  It’s quite common for women on the streets to offer you a ‘massagey’.  We thought it would be fun and possibly interesting to check one out.  Upon descending the stairs and reaching the bottom, there was a dimly lit hallway of rooms.  Just as we walked by the first one, a lady scantily dressed in booty shorts and a t-shirt greeted us.  The vibe was indicative that these massages included happy endings.  So we left.

Max and I enjoyed some beers back at the hostel and later met up with some former Beijing classmates for more drinks.  I bailed and called it a night as I had a big day at the Great Wall ahead of me.

Eek – it’s boarding time.  I’ll have to get to the Great Wall in another post.  Hope you guys are enjoying the posts!