- NOTE: This post is based on my original blog entry.
I didn’t actually know what to expect from my trip to Beijing. For one, China’s been on the ascendant for the last decade, and this was also my first solo trip (though I did have friends there). But I’ll be honest, there weren’t terribly high expectations. My opinion and the opinions offered by my family were, to say the least, colored by our nationality (Taiwanese).
First, the family history lesson. Unlike many modern Taiwanese who came in the 50’s to flee the civil war, my family has resided on the island since (by my estimation) the early 1900’s at the latest. We are fifth generation Taiwanese, possibly older since my parents readily admit that anything before that is unknown because their ancestors then were pretty much illiterate. Both sides of my family are thoroughly Taiwanese and have no familial ties to China whatsoever. It’s easy to see and feel the vast difference, socially and culturally, between someone from Taiwan and someone from China. But nevermind all that; it sounds way too serious for the purposes of this post. The point was to establish that China was just like any other country I wanted to visit, and that I wanted to see for myself what all the fuss was about.
Day 1 – Beijing
I landed at Beijing Airport mid-afternoon. I’m still deaf in one ear for half the day as they still hadn’t popped from the flight…ow. Beijing Airport is massive. Like, stupidly huge. There isn’t nearly as many people as where I came from (Newark Liberty), but the terminal is twice the size…wow.
I drop my things off at my hotel in Dongzhimen and head out to wander around. People can’t seem to drive; I spent the day dodging traffic. Not just cars; pedicabs, bikers, even other pedestrians. When cars have the right of way, it sucks being a pedestrian.
What’s up with all the hairballs floating in the air?
I met my friends later in the day at their architecture studio, but headed back out to let them finish up their work. I roamed the central business district, scoping out the CCTV Building and the burned-out shell of the adjacent hotel (which a friend’s roommate had worked on…then cried about when it went up in flames).
The skies are perpetually gray…weird.
We hit up Yunnan food for dinner with friends, then went to a live concert at the Austrian Culture thingy(?).
You know how to spot foreigners in the city? When it’s mid 70’s and they’re already wearing shorts. Beijingers don’t seem to fancy wearing shorts in this weather. I wait anxiously all year to break them out. I first headed to the train station to grab tickets to Shanghai. It took me 15 minutes of wandering aimlessly around Beijing Main Station to figure out that the ticket hall I needed was a completely separate building. The main station itself feels like a halfway house.
I walked towards the Forbidden City down the fancy-pants avenue leading towards Tianamen. Now I know where all their civic improvement money goes. I head into the Forbidden City, and it’s immediately apparent that they don’t take care of it as well as I wish they did. I get the impression they’re not much for cultural preservation yet; everything just seems like a potential commodity. Seriously, the Forbidden City! Hundreds of years of heritage? Hello?
I headed out the north entrance of the Forbidden City towards the hill to the north to get some landscape photos of Beijing and the Forbidden City. After coming back down the hill, I walked thru some of the local hutongs, then up Wangfujing, then along whatever that road is called adjacent to it. My feet are destroyed. I meet up with my friends again at their studio and we headed to dinner at 1488? 1467? Some year-sounding number. Whatever…beef noodle soup place near Sanlitun in a modern renovated hutong-ish area. We then hit up Sanlitun for drinks at Migas, then Kokomo til god knows when. Both were rooftop bars; if you ignored the buildings beyond, the English being spoken and the NYC drink prices could’ve led you to believe you were back in Manhattan.
I slept in late, because I don’t even know what time I got back to my hotel. We met for brunch at Vineyard in…some new-ish hutong area. I wandered around afterwards on my own, then met up with my friend Alice who’d just gotten in from Tianjin. We drove to the 798 Arts District and roamed for a good while, checking out the art galleries and still-derelict factory spaces. Even if they say it’s undergoing gentrification, I still think it’s a cool area to wander about.
We headed back into Beijing proper to the area just south of Tianamen (as you’re noticing, I don’t have the slightest clue what any of the areas are called). My friend dragged me through the alleyways to a small shop that served the best donkey sandwich. Donkey! I was a bit apprehensive about eating a donkey, but it tasted pretty good. We didn’t eat too much as my friend had another place in mind; Beijing pot stickers (all counted as ‘appetizers’ before dinner proper). Those were delicious also. We headed out of the hutong back to the newly demo’d and rebuilt area that looked like a China-fied Disney Main Street. There was even a ‘Taiwanland’ nearby that I’m told is not associated with Taiwan at all (as in a cultural-exchange thing that is). So weird. We took in some fancy drinks at Capital M with sweet views northward toward the Qianmen gate.
We met up with our other friends later for dinner…chuan’r? I think that’s what they’re called. Delicious skewers and a big spicy fish that wasn’t meant to be big and spicy, so they had to take it back, scrape off all the hot stuff, and reapply normal non-spicy accoutrements. Still delicious.
My friends had work on Sunday, so I strolled thru Sanlitun a bit on my own before having to duck out of the pouring rain. I headed back to the hotel when the rain didn’t let up and just spent the rest of the afternoon vegging in front of the television.
Worth mentioning; hearing English names ‘translated’ into Mandarin…funny. Hearing Danny Devito ‘translated’ to Beijing Mandarin…weird.
I headed to the southern train station in the evening to catch my night train to Shanghai.
Day 5 – Shanghai
So it’s not just Beijing people; it seems like a significant portion of the population are seriously deficient when it comes to social etiquette. I walked from the French Concession to the Bund looking for some place to cool off, because my ability to determine scale on a map seems to be deficient. That was an absolutely long walk. I hit up everything I could inbetween though…the parks, Taikang Lu, and whatever else my little guide book could offer up.
Hmm, this place is humid as hell.
I gave my friend in Shanghai a call once I hit the Bund, who offered up lunch. I taxi’d over to meet him for lunch at Din Tai Fung. I dropped my things off at his apartment and took a bit of a nap as he headed back to work.
After composing myself, I headed back out to check out Xintiandi. When that place lost my interest, I subwayed over to Pudong, since I didn’t really care for the alternative method; the super-duper sightseeing tunnel Pink Floyd laser light show. Pudong…wow, what is this place? It’s just full of lights, gleaming new skyscrapers, and wide avenues. Having a plethora of towers to scale, I chose the Jin Mao Tower since it had the clearest view out towards Shanghai proper, with the Oriental Pearl Tower in view also. The newer bottle opener tower was right behind the Jin Mao. Up on the observation deck, you could look out towards the humidity hovering over the city like a yellow blanket. You could also peer down to the lobby of the Grand Hyatt 25 floors below. Scary…
I spent the rest of the evening strolling about the waterside, watching the lit boats make their way up and down the Huangpu River like a parade. Later at night, my friend took me out for Yunnan food at Lost Heaven, then drinks at a bar where you had to find the secret switch to open the door. Cheeky.
NOTE: Chatting briefly with our waitress at dinner, I learned the following: if you look Chinese, but you tell them (in Mandarin) that your Mandarin isn’t so super, they probably think you’re mildly stupid.
Day 6 – Back to Beijing
I spend the majority of my train ride back to Beijing reading the Engrish on the broadcast screen. I’m having a “delighted voyage“, making sure to “watch my belongs“. The station announcements are also all preceded by Kung-fu music, I kid you not.
Of note too, those annoying people you usually encounter on trains talking obnoxiously loud on their cells? That’s everybody on this train.
I got back to Beijing in time for dinner, and proceeded to get a call from my friends asking if I wouldn’t mind swinging by their studio to help a bit on their competition (due the next day). Suffice to say, I spent the rest of the night cranking out a rendering. I can’t seem to escape renders! I didn’t mind though. It’s the least I could do for them for showing me around Beijing.
We met up for lunch near Chaowei Soho, then I wandered south past the second ring towards fancy-pants department stores. A dust storm kicked up that day though; I hate eating sand. Not cool. Hmm, my journal entries ended here. Ah right, we had Peking duck later for dinner, then headed out for drinks at some hidden pub at the Workers Stadium. Two of my friends retired early since they were dead, so the rest of us continued on to go clubbing until some ungodly hour. It sounded like a good idea until I found myself crawling home at 4 am drunk and with a non-functioning sense of direction. I also had a flight to catch in the evening.
Beijing is a weird city. It took me a week to process all of this, and I came to the conclusion that it’s not a fun city if you’re on your own and if you like to wander around aimlessly. Because a car will hit you, or a pedicab will. All my fun derived from my friends taking me around (this is expected of course). But various cities are wandering-friendly. London, Tokyo, Barcelona, etc were all fun to explore through and take in the sights. Beijing, maybe not so much. Not for me anyway. Shanghai was though, if not for the face-melting heat and humidity.