Exploring Beijing

When last I wrote, we were unconscious, having fallen into bed after our long journey. We awoke on Tuesday morning in what still appeared to be a very nice hotel room. There was a pot to boil water and some packets of instant coffee, so Kris made up two cups. Interestingly, the instant coffee was a bit too instant, in that it included both cream and sugar in the mix. Breakfast is included in our room, so we pulled ourselves together and went downstairs to the “Sunny Cafe” restaurant off the hotel lobby. We were offered a choice of a Chinese or American breakfast. Not feeling very adventurous this early in the morning, we chickened out and opted for the American breakfast. It was very nice with two eggs over easy, two strips of Canadian bacon, two sausages of an unfamiliar type, and a selection of toast and pastries. The service was excellent with about five employees attending to our every need.

Returning to our room, we plotted our next move. This day was scheduled to be a day of recovery from jet lag, but we felt pretty good. So we decided to employ a strategy we evolved on our Asian trip two years ago: We decided to walk around the block to orient ourselves in the city. We asked the concierge to show us where our hotel was on a map. Astonished, the concierge indicated that we were just a couple of blocks east of the Forbidden City! Trusting our fate to Sunny turned out to be a good thing, indeed. So off we set. Unfortunately my usually reliable sense of direction failed me at the first turn out of the hotel driveway. I turned right instead of left and off we marched. At the end of the block I carefully note the street name and we make a right hand turn that, in my mind, should take us to the Forbidden City.

From what we observe, Beijing is a prosperous, clean, bustling city. The streets we are on are wide thoroughfares. Traffic is moderate. They have special lanes for bicycles that are actively used, but not overcrowded. Some of the bikes are powered by some means I cannot distinguish. The bikes come in a multitude of styles, though mostly with balloon style tires better suited to urban cycling than high speed or low weight. Sometimes the bikes have a small cabin to protect the rider from the elements, or a small truck-like bed for carrying goods. We make our first mistake of the day. We stop in a store and buy 3L of bottled water since the price of bottled water in our hotel has the usual outrageous hotel minibar markup. The temperature is 30C (86F) and we have just purchased 3L = 6 pints = 6 pounds of dead weight to haul around with us on a trip that will turn out longer than planned. (Strains of “…a three hour tour, a three hour tour…” come to mind.)

After walking a few blocks with no Forbidden City in view, it is time to consult the map. In good boy scout fashion, I observe my shadow and the time and determine that I am walking south, not west as I had thought. Fortunately, the street we were on was along a segment of the Beijing subway and we had noted a couple of stations along the way. So, knowing our rough location, we headed west toward the Forbidden City.

Having studied the map, I know realize that the street names in (at least this part of) Beijing change just about every other block. I was reminded of my first encounter with this phenomenon in Galway, Ireland and it is much more amusing in a small Irish city than in a city of 15 million people. And the “blocks” on the map are not comparable to the blocks we are used to in American cities, they are much larger. As I understand it, in the Peking of fifty years ago, these blocks contained enclosed group of homes called hutongs. In the US, we tend to have rectangular blocks with a long and short side. In Beijing, the blocks are also rectangular, but the short side is more like the long side of a US block and the long side proportionately bigger. So, walking around the block is quite a hike.

We would have made it to the Forbidden City if we had persisted. Instead, we found the next intersection to be Wangfujing Street. Wangfujing Steet seems to be the Beijing equivalent of New York’s 5th Avenue; upscale shopping cheek-by-jowl with cheap knockoffs. Given Kris’ desire to shop and my desire to start back toward the hotel, we turned north on Wangfujing Street. Major Western brands are represented by stores including Nike, Hagan Dazs, KFC, and MacDonald’s, along with numerous Western clothing brands marketed in the West mostly to teens whose stores I have never entered. In addition there were stores selling Chinese goods. Kris cruised a store specializing in chopsticks and one specializing in silk. I suspect that the saleswomen in both places were on commission as they were all pretty energetic and persistent sellers, though they did not cross over the line to outright coercion.

By this time it is time for lunch. We enter a six story shopping “mall” and travel toward the upper stories. We find a food court on the sixth floor and start casing the food stalls. We can mostly tell what they are offering by some English language descriptions and some full size plastic replicas of the dishes each stall serves. After much indecision, we settle on a stall and try to point at the posted menu to indicate our choices. We point. The woman behind the counter smiles and shakes her head. No. We point again. She smiles again and indicates that it will take 5 minutes to prepare. We agree. Then we start to catch on. They have bowls of various dishes set out on a steam table and they expect us to just point at a bowl. Then Kris notices that everyone is paying with plastic and I mean everyone, without exception. It reminds me of that inane ad where the toy store is selling to a horde of customers who are acting robotically until one customer decides to pay with cash and everything comes to a screeching halt. Here is was fast as no one was signing anything. So, Ii hold up my Visa card to the woman behind the counter and she smiles and shakes her head. No. I pull a 100 RMB note out of my wallet and hold it up. Again, she smiles and shakes her head. No. Kris gets it first. We have to go to a central teller and buy a card with a prepaid amount of money loaded on. We have seen the prices on the menu, do a quick calculation, and request a card with 140 RMB. Through a communications mixup and the lack of small change in my wallet, we end up with a card loaded with 200 RMB ($30). Back to the stall we go. The dish we were waiting for is done and we point to several more to make up our lunch. We hand over the card and get a receipt. Strangely, none of the prices correspond to the prices on the posted menu, they are all considerably cheaper. Our total bill for a small bowl of rice each, a bowl of stir fried bok choy each, and two different bowls of meat containing entrees cost about 30RMB ($4.50). The ambiance was not much to write home about, but the food was decent and the price was right.

We then trouped back to the hotel to collapse for an afternoon nap. Come dinner time, we decided to make a dent in the reaming balance on our food court card and returned there. We were a little more adventurous with our choice of entrees and stopped my the fruit and espresso stall for some fruit and espresso. Finally, we splurged on dessert at Hagan Dazs. Can you imagine? This was a sit down Hagan Dazs where a uniformed waitress takes your order and delivers it to your table. We ate our cones while watching the evening crowd out the window enjoy the cool night air. Walking back to the hotel, we passed by St. Joseph’s Cathedral, all lit up, one of the oldest Catholic churches in China, dating from the 1600’s.

And what do you know, reaching our hotel, we collapsed into bed again, dead to the world.



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