Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Friday, November 11, 2011

One week in Beijing

There is a train ticket mafia in Xining that controls access to Tibet, they sell the train tickets at double price. I had this as an option, but I was able to get tickets at Beijing West Station, ticket counter 16, the only one in Beijing and maybe in China were English is spoken. The stay in Beijing was marked by my three trips to the train station, first it took me 5 hours, the second time only 4 and the third time much shorter. Having the train tickets at face cost, saving maybe $600 and a lot of potential headaches, such a relief. There is one minor glitch. The Tibet permit, that has to be obtained by our agency in Lhasa, has to be for the specific day that we arrive, and was dated completely wrong, October 17, not November 18. Supposedly I needed that to get the train tickets, but nobody asked! I am now told not to worry, nobody would kick us off the train, "sometimes they check, sometimes not!"

We arrived in Beijing on November 2nd, the next day was a rest day, except for me of course (first trip to the station). Then we started with the Beijing Zoo, boring and sad after the pandas and the chinese pheasant. But the pandas, just by themselves, justify a trip there. We had trouble making Ioan understand that we are done, he enjoyed the rest of the animals and made us stay longer than we wanted.

Chinese pheasant
Next we visited the Lama temple, completing a pretty good day and a nice introduction to Beijing. With 18-19 million people, might seem small compared to Tokyo, but, make no mistake, it is huge. The distances are really humongous, looking on the map for some roads, it seems just one block and then half an hour later, still walking. I like the layout with six rings of boulevards, surrounding bigger and bigger portions of the city. We lived inside ring two but still we had to use public transportation everywhere. After getting out of the futuristic Terminal 3 at the Beijing Airport, we took a cab toward the city. It was cheaper (RMB 113) than five tickets on the special train (RMB 25). The landscape was marked by great looking huge buildings, mostly new. As we approached our hotel, it changed to more and more older high rise buildings. Hundreds of air conditioners in the wall marking each one of the older buildings, in my mind a sign of poor communist design, people want comfort and they get it, no matter what the architect wants. When we got off the cab, we immediately recognized the neighborhood: somewhere in Bucharest 1990 - 2000. It looked so familiar and this is not a positive. The dirt, the carts and bicycles in the road, parking on the side walk, garbage in the street. Ugly, grim, cloudy, November sky. People dressed in dark colors walking in all directions, minding their business, not a friendly face. We were all smiles, because it looked in certain aspects like home, we know how to handle this. The only minor inconvenience is that we cannot understand more than three written or spoken words and nobody speaks more than one word of "English:" "halo."

Lama Temple
The road to the Lama Temple
We learned pretty quick the subway layout and used it extensively. The buses were a different story, no English map, no latin letters, nobody speaking any English. Until we got to Lama temple, I don't think that we saw any foreigners. We even missed the temple, went the wrong direction, but not by much. We got out of the subway, saw a smaller structure on the left and a bigger one on the right, it turned out that the bigger one was nothing.

It's absurd to feel grateful to the Chinese prime minister that saved this Tibetan temple during the cultural revolution, how can somebody even conceive destroying something so magnificent. But they did, somebody actually thought that he has the right to erase these things, they still have the chairman's portrait on the entrance to the Forbidden City. How can people be so stupid to take for granted that they need leaders, politicians elected or not, that take control over a country and decide it's fate, decide its policies and its "direction". And they think that they have these rights. The amazing experience of walking through the Lama temple, it's buildings and altars, people praying, meditating, burning incense and being transfigured by their mystical experience. Something new for us, we enjoyed being spectators and learned a bit in the process. And yes in the end, I felt a little thankful to the communist leader who saved the building from another communist leader.

On Saturday we went to the Summer Palace. I wouldn't even try to rank the sites that we are seeing, some of the best creations of the human race. You have to love the Summer Palace. An idyllic location, improved by human work with a huge artificial hill, countless buildings all over the place, Kunming Lake and some islands, boats going in all directions and a great weather for the beginning of November. Huge crowds, we were able to avoid them, most of the time. I didn't really understand how much was the "real thing" from 300 years ago, but I had a sour taste. This lady must have been crazy. The second only empress of China, Dowager Cixi, took the money that were assigned for getting a naval fleet to defend her country from the English and the French and used it to build this complex. One palace just for her birthdays, one palace for this, one for that. Maybe somebody counted all the buildings in the Summer Palace, but not me. In what might have been some crazy gesture of the Nero type, or maybe just the paragon of sarcasm, she build one boat, a marble one, that must be the worst kitsch ever made. I do have some respect for the royal blood, so I was hesitant in my judgement of this empress, until a few days later when a guide explained that she was just a maid who somehow became a concubine, bribed an eunuch to get more turns to sleep with the emperor Xiangfeng, got pregnant with his only son, Tongzhi, and took the throne after his death, effectively ruling China from 1861 till 1911. Maybe that would explain something, maybe a maid is not meant to become empress and the true blue blood counts for something, but still a sour taste at the useless luxury of the Summer Palace. 

The Wall
Sunday was the real big day. There is a wall in China that everybody heard of. There is this rumor that it can be seen from space, just not true. It can be visited in several places around Beijing and we wanted the best experience. So we got it. A trip to Jiankou, private driver, left in a small village at the bottom of the mountain, we were told to keep straight up the mountain until we reach this section of the wall. Not touristic, not restored, just wild as it comes. Then keep going east for a few hours until we get to Mutianyu, one of the nicest sections. We got lost for a few minutes in the wilderness, we returned and started to climb for about 90 minutes. At some point we finally got a good view on a longer section of the wall and we all wowed. Then Ileana, our 14 year old daughter, just said it in the most perfect way, accenting the first two words: "How many people had to die for this?" As millions of tourists climb the wall every year, I wonder how many ask themselves what was the point for this, and why such huge resources where wasted for nothing. It takes just a notch from enjoying one of the most amazing things ever built. The best example of entrepreneurship, a guy got two stairs on this tower, he wouldn't charge for access to the Great Wall, just for the use of his stairs. We got up one, he wouldn't let us get up the second until we paid, when we hesitated he took off the first stair and we were trapped in the middle until we paid the 20 yuans :-) We had the wall for ourselves for long stretches, we are selfish like that, we passed by about 25 towers and in the end we got down the mountain in a five minute toboggan slide. Walking about 6 km on the wall, sometimes on a 80 degrees slope, holding on to whatever we could, sometimes it was easier up then down. At times we were running as a group downhill, yelling and joking, we had the best time. The sun heard us and came out, we didn't see it at all in the first 3 days in China. The perfect weather, the perfect views, the perfect partners to share this perfect place. Go and see it.

No plans for Monday, we are a little bit surprised that there is still something left of us, after yesterday, our muscles are sore and we are tired. The children woke up at 10.30 or 11, we didn't even had breakfast until 1 pm. They got a break, but we wanted more and we went Monday afternoon to visit two of the nicest parks of Beijing, Beihai park and Jingshan park, in the north of the Forbidden City and overlooking it. Then we kept walking for a bit, getting lost in a hutong, looking in the wrong place for a restaurant, passing by people playing traditional Chinese games in the park.
Chinese game
Tuesday my parents came from Romania. After we met at noon in the hallway of their hotel, we gave them a few hours to rest and then took them for a stroll around their hotel. John, our fantastic driver from the Great Wall trip, agreed to take all of us in his van to a special restaurant so we can have the Peking Duck. He is a good driver, speaks great English and seems genuinely interested in helping his clients have a great time in Beijing. So far, he was the only Chinese that I could communicate with about life in China.

Lost my sight for a few moments
I got my vision back!
Wednesday we visited together the Forbidden City, then they went on with their busy schedule and we lingered around. Why does somebody go to the Forbidden City? Probably the second most famous touristic attraction in China, was inaugurated in 1421, after 17 years of construction, by the Emperor Yongle of the Ming dynasty - the one who also laid the plans for Beijing as the capital city. It was to remain the imperial residence throughout  the next 490 years, until the creation of the Republic of China. As the best preserved example of the classical Chinese architecture, the palace is also full of history. It has 8706 rooms covering a huge area, between 8000 and 10000 people lived here. We joined my parents for their guided tour, which took us to the most important sections of the palace, through various buildings and gates. Everything here had complex rules, huge gates that were used only on one or two occasions, smaller gates for regular people. Completely unimpressed to see the bedroom of Cixi and of the emperor, apparently they could only sleep in one bed at a time, like most other people. The palace is visited by tons and tons of Chinese people, they flow in rivers continuously, the occasional western tourist is hard to spot. We had to fight with them to get a glimpse of the throne room. It is smart that everything is laid out as a one way tour, at least everybody goes in the same direction. Like most other things in Beijing it is covered by dust and the windows on the imperial bedrooms were the best proof. We said goodbye to my parents in the Imperial Garden and decided to stay for another stretch and visit by ourselves. There are various halls, exhibitions all over the place, we looked for the jade hall and couldn't find it even after balingering through the courtyards several times. We decided that it must have been closed and maybe taken out for some unclear purpose. We did get to one of the more interesting exhibitions, the Clock Hall, an amazing display of creativity, richly decorated mechanical clocks from the 17-19th centuries, made by the finest artisans of Europe. We got there right before 2 pm and most of us were able to see the three clocks in action. 

Finally alone in the Forbidden City

Ready to go...

In the evening we barely made it to the Kung-fu show, it was OK, but way too expensive. Since the grandparents sponsored the children tickets, it tips the balance toward a positive experience. I still don't buy it that "it's all real." People breaking iron bars with their heads. Main character lies on his back over the blades of four swords, they put a board with long nails on his abdomen, another guy lies on that, they put a huge concrete slab over them and break that to pieces with a sledgehammer. The music was nice and since it was a show for tourists, it had some explanations in English in between scenes. Since I don't think that we are tourists, it wasn't for us and not for our budget but the children enjoyed it.

On the last day we visited the Temple of Heaven. it's not just one building, but a huge park with many structures and a long story that links everything together. We had a lot of fun.
Dancing in the Temple of Heaven

We checked out late from our hotel, in China you have the option of extending the checkout by a few hours for half the price of the room. Leaving the hotel on the last day we were lucky to find a driver that would take four of us to my parents hotel (for a couple of hours together) and I got there by metro and another 40 minute walk. To the train station we had to take two cabs, but the concierge at the luxurious hotel got them. Traveling by taxi in Beijing is not fun. Most drivers wouldn't take foreigners and even when they do, they don't speak one word of English. On top of that, we are five and they only take four people. The first trip from the airport was surprisingly easy, we had the phone of the hotel and the driver called and got directions, after that no success at all. By myself I got in a cab once, after being refused by several drivers, I couldn't make the driver understand that I want to go to the train station, so I got off and took the metro. When my parents arrived, I was able to get in a cab first, Ileana and the kids appeared afterwards, the guy wouldn't go because we were too many. We wouldn't get off. Smiling and begging we got him to go, they covered Ioan in the back with a coat. I had to give him directions using a chinese map and some iPhone screen shots from Google Maps. Amazing experience, tremendous success. The poor guy was so scared, passing by police cars, I left him a 80% tip and he didn't even smile.

We stayed in a small, barely decent hotel in Beijing, the cheapest available on The funny part was the included breakfast, we only managed to get it twice in our eight days there. We were too late, too early, the cook was asleep, or not in the mood. We had heat, hot water and some Internet, a restaurant down the street, it was good enough. It was a good week in Beijing, we saw the most important sites, missed a couple but overall we achieved more than we could hope for. And sharing with family was priceless. 

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