The first day of our Beijing adventure actually began at night. Tuesday evening after 9 straight days of work I quickly changed and met my wife in the lobby of the building I work in. She was saying the subways were too packed and knowing Shanghai this was normal. It was 6:00 and our train left at 7:15. A taxi being the only next available option, I brought our bags to work as Coco is pregnant and I am not letting her do any heavy lifting, we went out to stand in the queue at the building’s taxi stand. The highway was packed too but we made it to the train station by 6:30. Fortunately the departure platform we were leaving from was close by. There were many people taking the same train, T66. We made it to the platform and had to walk to car #6 which was about 20 cars away. This was the first time I have traveled by sleeper car train since I was in the first grade when my mom took me to Chicago. Coco had purchased first class tickets, when I saw our room and accommodations I was glad we did not ride coach, because we had more space in the Navy then in this car. The train got underway and the ride was pretty smooth. I was hoping there was an electrical outlet in the room for my laptop but no luck there, there were outlets on each end of the car but they were being used by the people who were in the rooms opposite of them. We stowed our luggage and had a quick snack, we shared the room with two older sisters and one of them had a young daughter. The bathrooms were about the same size as that on an airplane but minus the sink, the sinks were located on the opposite end and were for 2 people to share at a time.
We waited in our car for a little while and decided to go into the dinner car which was the next car down. We had an ok dinner, the menu was small and the prices were a little high but it is like being in an airport, your choices are what they offer you. When we went back we found they had delivered our meals already. We tried our best to clean up in the small sinks and then went back into the rooms where the AC was working overtime. The beds were about the same as standard Navy beds but a little thicker and longer. There were nice thick blankets and 2 pillows per bed. They were in a bunk bed configuration making it a 1 person per bed situation. We watched a DVD until the disk gave out, it was a cheap pirated copy so you get what you pay for I guess. We then went to sleep. The next morning was very bright and sunny and armed with my camera I was determined to take some pictures of the countryside. Trains allow for such a closer look at the local land and its cities and villages then you get in an airplane. I found there were vast wheat and soybean fields and many small tree and flower fields along the train tracks. The area between out car and the dinner car was a smoking area and in the morning there were many people taking full advantage of this. I passed on the complementary yet over priced breakfast as we had packed plenty of snack foods and would be at the Beijing train station soon. The train ride takes very close to 12 hours, give or take 15 minutes. We cleaned up again, packed all our things and then waited for the train to stop at the station.
The Beijing train station is extremely busy. When you finally get outside there is a huge open plaza and it was packed with countless tour groups, foreigners and locals alike all rushing for the taxi queue. We opted for a photo op in the bright and airy morning. As we were doing this a taxi procurer approached us to bypass the long line, we were in a line of over 200 people waiting for a taxi. After many minutes of fierce Chinese negations Coco told me we had a good deal and we began the odyssey of ‘cutting’ in line. Most people didn’t care but a few older people near the front were very upset. Chinese people show being upset in a very different way. Having been suppressed by their government since the 1940’s and emperors before that they have this passive hostility down to an art. We got to a fence area and one old man blocked the way and turned his back, ignoring both Chinese and English requests to let us by. The Taxi procurer just shoved his way through drawing many outcries from the crowd and Coco followed him closely. I was with all the luggage and could not follow so closely. The old man was pretty secure in his passive presence and not allowing me past so I did all I could do. I threw all the luggage over the 7 foot fence one piece at a time and then climbed the fence right next to him. Of course I am cutting in line so I have no right to complain and I am not, just chronicling the whole affair. We finally made it to a taxi willing to take us, tipped the man for getting us there and then told the cab driver where we were going.’
Now I am an avid armature photographer so I am going crazy taking picture after picture at this point. When I noticed we passed the same building twice I verified it with my camera and my wife told me we were getting ripped off. I had her talk to the taxi driver but he gave her some excuse so I asked her to call the hotel where we were staying to see how much the fare should be from the train station to the hotel, the taxi driver was saying 70 and the hotel owner was saying 20. I had Coco call the hotel and give the phone to the taxi driver, and that was a huge shouting match from our end anyway. After that point the cab driver’s attitude changed dramatically. He got us to the drop off point, the Beijing National Olympic Sports Center, and charged us around 40. We stayed on the sidewalk waiting for our guide to show up. During our drive over and standing on the sidewalk I noticed some notable things about Beijing. First there were old buildings everywhere. Traditional roofs and old looking trees were everywhere. The air seemed much cleaner, but compared to Shanghai that is not too hard. I was impressed at how much the preservation of these buildings and style was being done. In Shanghai everything is new and they knock down old buildings all the time. It was pleasant to see all the old buildings, walls, and styles everywhere.
We were greeted and followed our guide past many many rickshaws toward the hotel. Coco had told me it was an old hotel, just over 400 years old, and as we were going there is was amazing. The area it is located in is the area of old aristocrats and ruler’s families. All you can see from the narrow winding streets are walls, not too high but not easy to get over if you had to either. Everything was painted a pale silver blue color and was at least 500 years old. We made it through some twists and turns and finally to the gate of our hotel. A small wooden door was recessed into the wall and Hu 同甲 33 was just beyond. (for those who can’t read Chinese just go to Altavista.com, click on the babelfish link and copy the web address into the Translate webpage field and select Simplified Chinese to English) The hotel only has 4 rooms, we stayed 4 nights for only 1,100 RMB, about $138 total which was much better then a hotel in downtown.
The hotel has been in the same family for many generations, since the Quing Dynasty. They have many tour groups that come through and I was amazed to find out many Chinese people do not know that much about Feng Shui, they did invent it by the way. The house is perfectly aligned with the poles and each room has a specific purpose. After a brief tour we were treated to a traditional breakfast. There was an American college professor who had taken advantage of her 30 day visa and abandoned her tour group when they came back to the states and had been living there for about 3 weeks when we arrived. I talked with her and found all the historic places to see the real area and sights around and not just the large tourists attractions. We made a list from her suggestions and then she showed us the way to the shopping street full of cheap souvenirs and trinkets. The professor warned us of dishonest taxi drivers and said the bus system was the best bet and very economic too. For 13 cents or 1 RMB we took the #5 bus to Tiananmen Square.
The bus was very crowded because it was early and Beijing was not under the same holiday schedule as ½ of Shanghai so we were in the rush hour to work. We were dropped off at Tiananmen and it was beginning to get warm. This is a huge area full of nothing but concrete, lamp posts, and a few government buildings you can not get close to, the Peoples Communists Party Headquarters and their version of the parliament. We were offered a tour of the square and to be dropped off at the gate that leads to the Forbidden City by rickshaw, all for a mere 3 RMB, or 40 cents. Sounds too good to be true??? Yes you are right. There was a switch made after just a few yards and after about 15 minutes of going in the wrong direction we found out the ride was 3 RMB per minute! Coco yelled at the driver and I just got out and started to walk away, so he offered to take us back all for just 20 RMB. After getting back we walked around this huge concrete parking lot, this is where all the military stuff is for parades and stuff, and the sun shining down on all this concrete and being surrounded by large stone buildings, well it was getting hot, and no shade in site. Coco got an umbrella. I went to go see Chairman Mao. The line was long and cameras of any type are strictly prohibited. This was an odd experience. The entrance is rather small for the size of the building and there is a huge Lincoln Memorial Style white marble statue in the middle of the room with thousands of fresh flowers carefully laid down beside it, they flowers are for sale out front. There were prayer pillows in front of the statue and all were in use when I went through. There are 2 entrances off to the side and the line is split into one of these two side doors. From here you curve around a wall and back to the middle where you can see the other line. There is a thick glass wall that separates you from the room Mao is in. I walked through the passage and noticed there were guards in the same room as Mao, he was in glass but not sealed the way I would have thought. It was a little dark but there he was, or at least what appeared to be him draped in the communists flag and in plush gold color pillows. I have been told he is most likely a wax statue by this point but who knows for sure. After exiting through the gift shop and many other vendors I had to walk back around this building and its iron fence to get back to where Coco was waiting.
We walked around the square a bit and I played Tank Man in a few places trying to find where he really was for the famous series of pictures. There were Army everywhere and I was surprised by their lack of discipline in ranks. I was eyeballed by every solider we saw. We then took the underground passage to the front gates to Tiananmen, which is how you get to the Forbidden City. I took a tour of the first one and saw the little museum at the top. Coco was not up to all the climbing of the stairs and she came to Beijing as a teenager so she went to get some lunch in a restaurant while I explored the first two gates. We met up after an hour or two and then went through the third gate and got the tickets for Forbidden City. I got a voice tour guide thingy at Coco’s request. We entered and I was running around trying to learn about all the points on the map, impossible feat. Most of the cool places were closed for repair so they will be ready for the Olympics in 2008, which you are reminded of everywhere you go. We saw so many things, it would take a few pages to describe it all. Coco gave out the same time my batteries did and on the way to find more we found a Starbucks, in the Forbidden City, I will leave it up to you for make the jokes for that one. She stayed there and I was off again on my own with fresh batteries. After 2 hours I retrieved a very mad wife and we went to the garden. This was a huge area and the only on in the whole place with trees and shade. The outer courtyards have trees but they are behind huge walls and time did not permit that much exploring. We wondered the garden for an hour and then exited via the souvenir shop, I got something in this one. We had a man promise to take us back to the hotel, for 80 RMB, I knew were where getting ripped off but we were hot and tired. On the way we crossed the #5 bus stop so we parted ways with a very made crooked taxi driver and took the bus home. Exiting the bus stop I noticed there were only a few people around. The large Drum tower was in the distance and everything seemed disserted. It was late afternoon but work was still going on. In Shanghai no matter what time it is there are thousands of people everywhere, here only hundreds.
We went through all the street vendors and at the bridge and lake Coco said there was a famous BBQ restaurant here, so we went there for dinner. There was a 10 minute wait but it was air conditioned so we did not mind. Now Chinese BBQ is way different then American. There is little to no resemblance at all between the two. I did not like the meal too much and we left. Coco was really tired so after a quick shower she went to sleep while I stayed up to chat with the locals and guests at the hotel in the courtyard. Being such a small hotel it was surprising to learn it was full every night. They have around 400 to 600 people a day come through on tours and each one has to pay 10 RMB, about 2.25. The place is valued at $500,000.00 US so the taxes are quite high, but I think they are doing ok. After a few hours and noticing the air was much cleaner and I could see stars for the first time since I was in Guangzhou I decided it was time for bed.