Trip Start Jul 09, 2007
Trip End Dec 20, 2007

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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Day 24- Red China!
  I luckily re-checked our plane tickets to find out that the plane to Beijing left at 9:30am, not 8:30.  We awoke at 5:45 with no hot water for showers.  A freezing cold rinse really woke us up.  The bus to the airport made a pickup only a few blocks from the hostel.  It was about an hour's ride.  The rain started about twenty minutes into the journey, and showed no signs of letting up.  As we checked in with China Eastern Airlines, we were told that our plane was delayed by twenty minutes. 
  Phil wanted a quick snack before the plane, and Dunkin Donuts seemed the best bet.  The line was long, and a crazy Chinese woman behind us kept trying to cut in front.  We realized after buying a few donuts that we still had about 10,000 won left over.  It wouldn't be worth it to exchange it, so we went crazy buying snacks at a little stand next to our gate.  We were the second people in line to board the plane, which was a good thing, seeing as there was a mad rush to get on.  There was pushing and fighting, complete insanity.  We wondered if this was what all of China was like.
  Phil and I were seated in the middle row, in the middle two seats.  Luckily, it was a short flight, and we were in bulk head.  Although the flight was less than two hours, there was meal service, beef and rice.  Seeing as it was only 10:00 in the morning, and it smelled rancid, I chose not to partake.  Phil and I were very nervous about customs and immigration when we landed.  We had heard horror stories of how they would confiscate travel books and magazines.  I was ready with all of my doctor's letters for my various medications.  But it turned out to be the smoothest customs we have encountered.  They checked our visas and stamped our passports without uttering a word. 
  We still weren't sure of the conversion of Chinese yuan to U.S. dollar, so we just took out the maxim amount from the ATM- 3,000 rmb.  Our choice for transportation was a taxi for 100 yuan or the bus for 16 yuan.  Again, we still weren't sure of the conversion, so we chose to take the bus.  We were let off at the Beijing station, and as we exited the bus we were attacked by pedicab and rickshaw drivers trying to take us to our next destination.  Phil and I were utterly overwhelmed, and we just grabbed our bags and started following the rest of the people looking for a taxi.  My first experience in Beijing, was as we got off of the bus a little boy pulled his pants down and starting peeing right on the sidewalk.  China was definitely going to be interesting.
  Our tour papers told us to meet at the Chen Wen Men Hotel, which was a short taxi ride from the bus drop off.  We had made it to the front of Beijing station, when crowds of people started passes us.  We had never seen so many people in all of our lives.  Two lost Americans holding huge bags in the scorching sun, and we were in the middle of madness.  We tried to ask directions from police, and either they couldn't help us or they would randomly point in a direction.  We found a taxi here or there, but all would refuse to take us, saying "traffic".  We finally came to one man sitting in his cab, and we showed him our hotel.  He said he wouldn't do it for anything less than 50 yuan.  We didn't even know what that converted to, but we were tired, hungry, and soaking wet with sweat.  We said, "fine".  As we weaved through the city streets in an air-conditioned car, we tried to figure out what the conversion could possibly be.  Nothing was making sense.
  The hotel was a breath of fresh air.  A bell boy opened the glass doors as we walked up the ramp.  The doors led into a large lobby decorated in marble (not sure if was real) and gold (definitely not real).  We were given a card key (haven't seen one of those on this trip), and we excitedly got into the elevator to the ninth floor.  Oh my God!!!  Two beautiful twin beds sat in a real hotel room.  All white, 200 thread count sheets and duvet.  The room was bell-shaped with huge windows that looked out over the city.  We immediately took hot showers in our immaculate bathroom with kick-ass water pressure.  We relaxed for a while and hooked up to our room's wi-fi for the bargain price of $8 a day.  The only problem was, we weren't able to load onto our blog.  It seems that China's tightly regulated internet has blocked many blog sites, including travelblog. 
  We met the rest of our group at our introductory meeting held at one of the hotel's many conference rooms.  We were the only Americans.  There were quite a few British, an Argentinean couple, and guy from Belgium.  Our leader was from Arizona, Toffler.  We were informed that she was not a tour guide, but a facilitator.  We also learned that this was not really even a tour.  Once we got to a city, we were expected to tour it on our own.  Intrepid (the tour company), gave us a small book with the city subway maps, our own plastic chopsticks (to save the trees), and a cloth bag (to not waste plastic when we purchased things). 
  We all went to dinner together across the street from the Hotel to the oldest Peking duck restaurant in Beijing (from the 1400s).  On the way, we walked by a little girl laying on the sidewalk with open wounds and burns throughout her body.  I suppose her parents positioned her there to get money for her medical care.  It was heart wrenching.  Knowing we were going to see sites much worse than this, we had to move on and followed the rest of the group into the restaurant.
This was quite the experience.  We were taken to one of the oldest restaurants in China, Bianyifang, which claims to have invented (and perfected) Peking Duck.  Founded in 1416 we felt privileged to have the opportunity to experience a meal here.  The room had a classic opulence with its gold leaf walls, sculpted ceilings and chandeliers. 
The meal started with stuff lotus root in a sweet and sour sauce.  It was interesting and pretty but forgettable.  Next was a braised cabbage in chicken (or duck) broth with macadamia nuts which was simple and delicious.  We also sampled snow peas, cold chicken breast in a spicy cold broth a couple others that were just ok.  Then it was time for the main event, Peking duck, baby.  A chef appeared with a carving cart and four beautiful specimens for our two tables to share.  Donning a surgical mask (a house rule) he applied his trade like a surgeon performing taking out an appendix, slicing and plating breast and dark meat with speed and agility.  The duck had the perfect amount of fat and meat providing the most rich flavor.  The skin (which I normally don't eat in the states) was crisp and paper thin with a sweet and salty addictive flavor.  Pancakes, rolls, fresh cucumber, scallions and hoisin sauce were provided on the side to create the most amazing pancake.  I'm not embarrassed to say I had about six of them.  If this place was in NY I'd be there twice a week until I got sick of it but I don't see how it could happen.  I think the total (including beer, tax, tip) for this banquet was 40 Yuan each which is about $7 total.  Insane!
  The conversation over dinner spanned from sites to see in Beijing, to foreign education, to the fact that Americans do not travel nearly as much as the English.  As we left the restaurant, we saw that it had begun to pour rain, and we all made a mad dash for the hotel.  Phil and I were exhausted, so we said goodnight and headed back to our room.
Day 25- A Summer Palace.
  We woke up at 8:00am to the maid knocking at our door to come in and make the beds.  She did it two more times before we decided to just get up and face the day.  At the reception desk downstairs, Phil asked for a map of Beijing.  The concierge said that maps were only available for purchase.  We now knew the conversation rate- 7.5 yuan to 1 US dollar.  They were asking 40 yuan.  We decided that we didn't want a map that bad (we could just find a tourist bureau in worst case). 
  We found a bakery around the corner, and piled some goodies on the tray for breakfast.  We had a hotdog bun, a French toast and tuna sandwich, and some kind of ham and corn bun.  Phil had a strawberry milk, and I had a hot cocoa.  The whole meal cost $2.50.  We sat down at the table at the back of the store and marveled at how cheap the food is here.  A moment later, Phil pointed out of the window to a group of people in the courtyard behind the store.  A man and woman were trying to break up the morning brawl that was ensuing between two smartly dressed men.  Before long the shouting turned to aggressive pointing in one another's faces.  Apparently this is more damaging than actually fist fighting.  As we headed down the street after breakfast, we saw that the fight had moved out front, still with just shouting and pointing.
  We were told by concierge that we could catch the 808 bus to the Summer Palace near Tiananmen Square.  As we arrive in front of the famous square, we searched all of the bus stops for one that said 808.  All of the numbers, though, seem to be ten and lower.  We ask some of the police officers stationed on almost every corner, and most just ignored us.  One waved down a side street, so we begin to walk down. 
  Before long, a man speaking perfect English runs up to us and asks if we need assistance.  We tell him that we are looking for the 808 bus, and he motions for us to follow him.  We walk further down the street, as the man begins to tell us how he wishes to go to NYU (he was easily 35 years old).  He tells us that the bus is only around the corner, but wanted us to come in his store for one minute so that he could give us his email address.  I felt a scam coming on, but figured 'what the hell'.  After we exchanged email addresses, he asked our names.  He repeated them (although his pronunciation was way off).  He then began to draw, in calligraphy, our names (Filif and Nesha) on a piece of parchment paper.  All the while, I'm giving Phil looks like- 'I'm not giving this guy any money, this is a scam'.  A moment later, he hands us the paper, and tells us to have a good trip.   A very sweet young guy had waited outside the store to make sure we were ok.  He had seen us being brought in the store.  As we carried the drying paper out with us, he turned and asked, "how much?".  We told him, "nothing, he just gave it to us".  The kid looked shocked. 
  Our new friend started walking us to where the bus stop was, and tried his best to converse with us in English.  We walked at least ten blocks in the opposite direction as Tiananmen square when he stopped at a bus stop.  I read the number on the sign, and it said 60.  The kid spoke with one of the ladies at the stop and I saw his face crinkle a little.  He was told that the 808 bus stop was near Tiananmen, at least a 20 minute walk back.   The kid felt so bad that he ran in a store and bought us two waters and a pen (not sure why he bought a pen).  He kept looking at his watch, and we knew that we was late for work, so we told him to just go, we would find our way.  He wrote the rest of the directions out on paper, but he was shaking so badly that I thought he might pass out. 
  We waited for the bus in the designated lanes, which looked sort of like the ones at a theme park for a roller coaster.  Our bus pulled up, but no one in front of us moved.  We scooted around them but the bus began pulling away before we could get on it.  I caught the side of it and tried pounding on the glass (NY style) to get him to stop, but he didn't.  I was so upset that I began re-enacting the scene and threw my arms up for dramatic effect.  As I did so, a man behind me started running for his approaching bus and I managed to punch him in his jaw and frail chest.  I knocked the wind out of him, but he was able to still make it on the bus.  Phil and I joked that I was the second disaster to hit Tiananmen Square. 
  The one hour bus ride to Summer Palace was insane, to say the least.  It was the size of a normal NYC bus, but packed three deep in the aisle.  You had to hold your ground by keeping your feet planted on the floor, and keeping your hands on your hips with your elbows out.  We arrived at Summer Palace, the last stop, and emptied out of the bus like a drunk pouring out the last bit of Jack Daniels from the bottle.  We decided to grab a quick bite before entering the palace.
We were starving with not a restaurant to be found anywhere within walking distance of the bus stop and wanted to stay close to the entrance of the palace.  We spotted a snack bar and upon closer examination found a makeshift noodle bar in the back with communal picnic tables.  The kitchen consisted of two women presiding over three crock pots on fold out tables.  We ordered what seemed to be the only option, chicken soup. Ours arrived in a minute and sitting in large bowls lined with plastic bags.  We wondered about the use of the liner and deducted that it spared them from having to wash the bowls.  (Note, they waste a lot of plastic in China)  Either way we felt it was somewhat safe.  The soups were delicious; a healthy heap of thin linguine like noodles in a chicken broth with fresh cucumber, tofu, tomato, peppers, onions and nice clump of fresh cilantro.  Perfect to get the day started especially for about 75 cents a piece!
  The Summer Palace was huge.  It was built along a lake, and had endless temples and rooms scattered throughout the perfectly landscaped property.  We walked through the main gates and followed the thousands of tourists through the popular parts of the site.  We took a dragon boat ride to the other side of the palace, where we sat down to enjoy a couple of ice creams.  As we sat along the rocks enjoying the view of the lake, we realized that the family in front of us were fishing.  They had tied vines to a plastic bag and would dip it into the lake and fish out a couple of minnows.  They would collect the fish in a plastic water bottle.  Phil asked if they were going to eat them, and they said no.  We doubt they had a fish tank at home, though. 
  After a few more minutes of exploring the palace, we were ready to return to the hotel.  As we stepped out of the gates we were accosted by taxi drivers who offer various prices for our trip to the closest subway station.  The travel book says the price of the fare should be around 30 yuan, and these men were offering 50 yuan.  They said that traffic was crazy, and the meter would be at least 60.  We walked away from them, and found a metered taxi.  The ride only cost 28 yuan, and there was no traffic.  The driver even called up an English-speaking friend on his cell phone to make sure of our destination
  The Beijing subway was super clean, and not as congested at expected.  Seeing as there are only two major lines, they run every three minutes or so.  On the subway, a very sweet Chinese girl came up to me and asked where I bought my Nike sneakers (they are really cute mary janes).  I told her that I bought them in the states.  The guy next to me muttered, "yeah, but they're probably made in China".  I had to laugh because it is true, but just not something you expect to hear in China. 
  Speaking of shopping, our next stop was the Silk Road Market, the most famous market in Beijing.  You can't walk through the door of the market without being hassled and prodded at.  I had a mission to buy two things- a pair of black shoes and a bag.  We got to the second stall (of the shoe section) when I saw an adorable pair of black shoes.  I tried them on, but tried not to show how much I liked them.  The girl told me they were 180 yuan.  I said, "Oh no, I'm sorry, I just wanted a cheap pair of shoes to wear to the Opera".  She said, "Oh, so you give me price".  We told her 50 yuan, a price we felt was fair.  In the end we paid 80.  We were ready for the next vender, and I got a beautiful knock-off Kipling (that I saw in the states for $100) for $4.  We were starting to get the hang of this.  Phil wound up with a tee shirt for just a couple of dollars as well.  We discovered that you can pretty much get any price you want, you just have to have leave your guilt at the door.
  The subway closest to our hotel was closed for construction, so we had to go to Beijing station.  We then discovered how close it would have been for us to walk the previous day, rather than spend 50 yuan on a stupid taxi.  We waited for some of our group in the lobby to meet for dinner, but no one showed up.  We took a taxi ourselves to the bar quarter and headed to Rickshaw the bar/restaurant where we were supposed to meet the group.  Toffler, our guide, was there with one of her friends.  We took a seat on the balcony, but had to move to a ping pong table when the rest of the group showed up.  It was a completely American/Mexican menu.  We had beers, a hamburger, and a chicken quesadilla which were way too good to be had in China.  We felt cheated. 
  Joe, one of the English guys from our group, told us of how he was scammed out of 1,200 yuan.  A man, claiming to be a surgeon, ran into Joe in the street.  They got to talking, and one thing led to another and they were having tea together.  The bill came to over 3,000 yuan.  The "surgeon" offered to pay most of the bill, so Joe forked over 1,200 on his VISA card, only to find out that it was all a big scam.  A few more people talked of scams that their friends had encountered, and Phil and I were ready to go back to the hotel.  We shared a cab with Toffler, and went right to bed.
Day 26- A Forbidden City
  We met our group and our guide for the day, Vivienne, in the lobby at 9:00am.  We all jumped on a bus and headed to Tiananmen Square.  The only words we were able to understand from Vivienne was Heavenly Gate, which she repeated over and over.  Phil bought a really cool Chairman Mao watch from a man with one arm (for the bargain price of $3). 
  As we stood in line for tickets at the Forbidden City, we noticed that all of the small children were wearing pants with big slits in the crotch area.  We realized that this was China's solution to expensive diapers.  If the child had to go potty, they would simply squat whenever nature called.  Inside the Forbidden City, Vivienne told stories of how along with each Emperor, around 3,000 concubines shared the palace.  She told us one tale of how twelve of the concubines tried to strangle one of the bad Emperors.  The Queen found out, and the punishment for the concubines was to have all of their flesh cut off piece by piece.  The process took three days, and they remained alive the entire time.     
  Most of Vivienne's commentary for the city involved concubines in fact.  She told us of the Dragon Lady, who was one of the Emperor's favorite concubines.  When the Emperor died, her son became the next Emperor, and the same for her grandson and great-grandson.  Since her kin never lived past the age of 19, she remained in control and reined "through the curtain" for over 40 years.   Much of the city was under restoration, so picture taking became more difficult.  The restoration should be finished by the end of the year, in time for the Olympics.  We were able to see the building that previously housed a Starbucks in the middle of the city, but was thankfully closed down. 
  The tour abruptly stopped in the garden at the rear of the city, and Phil and I bolted to grab some food.  We were quite familiar with area, having been lost there the previous day.  As we walked down a side street with many restaurants on it, we came across an old woman lying flat on her back in the middle of the sidewalk.  Her bag had spilled over onto the floor, and she wasn't moving.  Surrounding her was two police officers and dozens of bystanders.  Everyone was smiling.  We were horrified until the woman began to show some signs of life. 
  We stepped into the one restaurant that didn't have a person stationed outside dragging passing tourists inside.  The "restaurant" was a storefront with plastic tables and chairs and walls desperately in need of painting.  When we sat down at the table, a man came over and poured some water on the table and then squeegeed it off.  We looked at him with quizzical looks on our faces, and he explained that this was a four star restaurant.  I had an omelet and Phil had some really bland rice.  The waitress tried to sell us on a special dessert which was "commonly ate by Emperors".  It just looked like a rice crispy to us. 
  We finally found ping pong at a sports complex near our hotel.  Outside were basketball courts and mini-soccer fields.  Inside housed floor upon floor of badminton, bowling, pool, and ping pong.  At the back of the ping pong room, I couldn't take my eyes off of a little boy (about 5 years old), who wore nothing but little white boxer shorts.  His father had a huge bucket of balls, and one by one hit them over the table to the waiting boy who hit each back in perfect form.  While Phil got the paddles and negotiated a price, I ran to use to the restroom.  The bathroom had three stalls, and I went for the middle one with a partially opened door.  As I opened it, however, I found a woman squatting above the "hole in the floor" taking care of business.  I apologized and opened the door to the right.  There I found brooms and cleaning supplies.  I swore off public bathrooms and met Phil at our table.  I did pretty well (Phil was great of course), and other than being hit in the head with my ball by one of the nearby kids, I had the time of my life.
  Before the Opera, Phil wanted his hair trimmed.  I pulled out the professional trimmer we've been lugging all over Asia, and began to cut.  A little less than halfway through, I noticed the buzzer getting really hot.  I shut it off and showed it to Phil, who felt the machine and said, "Its fine".  Less than a minute after I resumed cutting his hair, a loud 'pop' echoed through the hotel room and smoke began pouring from the buzzer still in my hand.  I screamed for Phil to unplug it, and the smoke ceased as we ran it under water in the sink.  Then we both starred at the reflection of Phil's half-shaven head.  We had to meet the group in twenty minutes for the opera, and Phil looked ridiculous.  I had to use scissors to cut the excess hair, and then we used a sort of a glorified nose-hair trimmer to scrape the rest off.  We did manage, and his hair looked great.   
  On the bus to the Opera, our guide- a Chinese native with limited English, tried to include us in a Chinese 'bus game'.  She would give us a word like, "wife" and we had to break it apart to see what it stood for.  (ex: work, intelligent, food, and entertaining).  It didn't really make any sense, but she was really sweet.  The Opera was fantastic.  I feel like Quentin Tarentino might have visited the Opera before creating Kill Bill.  The Chinese teacher with the long white beard was a character in the Opera.  The haunting melody played in the film, was played in all of the fight scenes of the Opera.  The woman character in the show was amazing.  She gracefully flipped around the stage, and did an amazing trick with long spear-like sticks.  The subtitles though, were probably the best part. 
  We had an early bus ride in the morning, and on the way home from the Opera the group discussed getting some food for the road.  We told everyone of a bakery around the corner from the hotel, and the bus driver agreed to drop us off there.  As we ran to the glass doors of the store, the woman on the other side crossed her arms signifying that they were closed.  Just then, our Opera tour guide jumped from the bus and started speaking to the girl.  A minute later, she let all fourteen of us in the store.  We loaded up on croissants and rolls, and were ready for the Great Wall tomorrow.
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