Beijing, China

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Sunday, July 8, 2007

As we arrived in Beijing Charlie and Ben informed us Tonka's odometer registered 12,439 kilometers since we pulled out of Saint Petersburg, about 3,800 of which were on unpaved tracks in Mongolia.  Because of the border glitch between Russia and Kazakhstan that led us to use some bus and train transport, that figure is only an approximation of the distance we covered. I had, of course, also started six weeks earlier in Germany and am unsure what distance I covered before meeting the group. 

Between this Russia/Kazakhstan/Mongolia trip and the Silk Road trip I did last year upon arriving in Beijing I felt a great sense of accomplishment and of having gone full circle overland through Central Asia, as one of a privileged few travel pioneers visiting some of earth's most remote places.  Whereas the Silk Road tour constituted a string of cities and true sights, this trip through Kazakhstan and Mongolia was more of an odyssey of wilderness exploration.  The last 11 weeks from Saint Petersburg were sometimes hard, and there were some drawbacks to being on a first-time exploratory trip on which there was no pre-existing knowledge about roads and sights along the way.  Nevertheless, I ended the tour with a true feeling of achievement on crossing the Asian continent again, this time on an overland route not previously done by a western tour group.

As a grand finale to the tour, directed by our Chinese guide Kevin, Ben drove Tonka into the wrong alleyway in the hutong near our hotel and continued forward through the narrowing street as cars behind blocked Tonka's ability to back out.  We truly wondered if we'd make it through as obstacles required folding Tonka's mirrors in, moving parked bicycles out of the way, and finding the owners of parked cars as throngs of local hutong dwellers gathered to gawk at the funny orange and white vehicle filled with foreigners trying to make its way down a street way too narrow for it.  Charlie had to get up on the roof to lift low-hanging wires and big tree branches out of the way while an irate woman came out to give us all a piece of her mind over what we were doing to her quiet lane.  In time (quite a bit of it), though, we made it through and to the hotel.

Beijing was hot and steamy unlike anything I experienced so far on the trip, the air on most days a heavy mixture of moisture and pollution that seriously reduced visibility. This was my third visit to Beijing, a city that's come to feel very familiar despite the enormous changes from year to year during which bicycles have been replaced by motor vehicles and many of the old hutong neighborhoods have fallen to ever more expressways and glass towers.  Having been here before and having seen most of the sights already, I gave myself a few days to relax and recoup without too much hard core sightseeing before continuing on south through eastern China.  Thus, you may notice I have no pictures of a few of the top spots like the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and Great Wall on this blog; those I all visited last year at the end of the Silk Road tour and are covered in that blog.  I did make to Tiananmen Square, where the official countdown clock for the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony keeps ticking, Yonghegong Lama Temple, the Summer Palace and Ming Tombs outside of town, and the construction site of the Olympic Stadium, nicknamed "The Bird's Nest" for its unique design.

I went for a long walk one day through the hutongs around Huguosi Hotel and around the Shisha Lakes and the Bell and Drum Towers to the north and northwest of the Forbidden City, an area of the city I also wandered through with my brother Doug on our first visit to Beijing in 2000.  The Old China of crowded slumlike residential areas and unkempt markets in the area in 2000 has been thoroughly sanitized, the lakes now filled with lotus flowers and small pleasure boats and circled by high-end restaurants, outdoor cafes, and bars, the side streets filled with art galleries and antique stores, t-shirt shops and porcelain showrooms, small inns and boutique hotels.  Arguably these areas have lost much of their character as they were spruced up for the Olympics, but they still physically conform to tourist's notion of what an old Chinese hutong should look like, unlike so much of the old city which has been bulldozed for modern highrises.

I can't get enough of Chinese food after months of camp food and the mutton-based cuisine in Central Asia and Mongolia.  A few of our meals, including our farewell dinner at a hotel near the Great Wall at Mutianyu before we entered the city, were served banquet style in which more and more dishes of every description are brought out and placed on a lazy Susan on the circular table for all to sample - whole fish, soups, dumplings, meat and chicken dishes, rice, noodles, stuffed buns, shrimp, rice, and vegetable creations of all types, all with delightfully different flavor combinations of ginger, soy, salt, chili, fruit, and sweet & sour.  Brought to the table when they are cooked, the dishes arrive in no particular order, except that the rice and soups tend to come last, a confusing twist on the order we are used to food being served.  Except for some sanitary concerns regarding the absence of serving utensils, I find the Chinese way of eating group meals to be wonderful, and the notion of each person ordering a separate individual dish for himself is quite foreign in China. 

What a mess I make trying to use chopsticks!  The restauranteurs probably laugh at me for a while but when fully entertained usually take pity on me and bring me a fork and knife.  I'm not the only one dropping food, though; Chinese people at a banquet meal must the noisiest, messiest bunch of humans anywhere.

The social atmosphere in China is quite relaxed and casual, unlike that in most Muslim countries, and during the hot summer both men and women dress mostly in shorts and tank tops.  Chinese men like to roll up their shirts to show off their guts as they sit around or walk, a well-rounded belly apparently a status symbol in this newly prosperous society.  As they say, "When in Rome...", so I followed the locals lead and let my gut hang out each evening as we were sitting at an outdoor cafe in the hutong near the hotel sipping 625 ml beers that cost less than 30 cents.

People in China seem mostly good-natured and happy, smiling and laughing much of the time.  For example, I went to China Post in Beijing to mail home a box of no longer needed items (camping gear, warm cloths, guide books, souvenirs) to lighten my load for the next four weeks of travel where I was efficiently waited on by a half dozen smiley, giggly young women who couldn't have been more eager to help me out.  "Now come on, is your job really that much fun?" I wondered, "or is it just that I'm that funny looking?"  I'm not really sure, but I received the same treatment at the train ticket booking office, on the train, in stores, and in other places in China.

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