Doing Beijing my way
Trip Start Sep 04, 2007
19Trip End Nov 20, 2007
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Many people like traveling with tour groups, and there are benefits that solo travelers don't enjoy: someone else sorts through train and bus schedules to figure out how to see the greatest number of places in the shortest amount of time, hires private transportation when public transit won't work, makes adjustments based on experience, hires tour guides who (ideally) can tell you something about what you are looking at, gets you into places that you wouldn't otherwise know about, and handles problems as they arise. A group also swings more weight than a solo traveler when something goes wrong.
Me, I prefer going alone or with one other person (or with my friends Gregg and Lori, who might as well be one person ;-). This allows me (with some negotiating when I'm not alone) to spend a little extra time anywhere I want, do nothing at all if that suits me, turn left if left looks more interesting than right or straight, change my mind about what I'm doing this afternoon if the weather isn't conducive to a traipse through the grounds of the Summer Palace, eat in a cafe that doesn't have enough seats for a tour group, stand in a long line without being left behind to get a bag of fresh-baked cream puffs the scent of which is turning the head of every passerby, skip the fourth mosque in three days, catch a concert that was written up in the morning paper, decide that winter camping just isn't that much fun and bag after the first night of freezing temperatures, or spend an extra day in this town before moving on to the next one.
Do I see less than a tour group? That depends on how you define "less." I don't get to as many of the sites that are listed in the travel guide in a given day as a group does, but I get to watch a couple of guys on a back street that a tour would never traverse play a board game I've never seen while a half dozen of their friends kibbitz, watch a couple of girls strike silly poses and take pictures of one another in front of a fountain that isn't grand enough for a tour to stop at, walk three or four times around a sculpture that is several blocks from the nearest tourist attraction in search of interesting views for a photograph or two or ten, watch four friends play a game of two-on-two basketball and then watch them ham it up when they realize I have my camera out, and generally watch local people do what local people do instead of racing from monument to museum to palace to mosque to pagoda and seeing real life only from inside a bus, which prevents you from getting more than a glimpse.
The first five days that I was in Beijing, I did it my way, which means that I wandered back streets a lot, took most of a rainy day off to update this blog, ate at restaurants that I found by walking by, spent little more than an hour on Wangfujing Dajie (the major tourist shopping street), and skipped most of the travel-guide stuff because I knew the tour I was soon to join would catch me up on all of that.
I had to at least pass through Wangfujing Dajie because I'd heard it mentioned so many times. It's about what you'd expect of the Beijing equivalent of Fifth Avenue: lots of internationally known brand names; the usual assortment of junk food, American and otherwise; several indoor malls so business doesn't fall off too much in bad weather; and prices higher than anywhere else in town to cover the expensive rent. A side street that an Aussie couple pointed out was much more fun. They'd laughingly suggested that the food vendors there sold anything that moved, and the seahorse and scorpion kabobs were a good start toward making their case.
The weekend edition of China Daily, the English-language voice of the Chinese government, mentioned a ruan concert Sunday evening at Beijing Concert Hall. I'd never heard of the ruan, which seemed like as good an excuse as any to go, especially when I tired of exploring about an hour before the concert and a short walk to the hall. I learned from the program that the ruan was invented in China, had fallen out of popularity and maybe had even gone extinct (my memory is fuzzy on the details) but was resurrected sometime in the 20th century and now has a small following that is led by the soloist for the evening's performance. The ruan looks a lot like a lute and sounds sort of like a cross between a banjo and a mandolin, if you can imagine that. I enjoyed it well enough, but by halftime I'd had plenty of ruan solos and ruan ensembles, so I skipped out.
George and Kay, my friend Chris's folks, are good friends with Nina Jablonski, the head of the anthropology department at Penn State. Nina, who has spent a lot of time in China doing research, was briefly in Seattle just before I left and graciously took the time to talk with me over breakfast about places in China that she thought were worth going. One of these places was the Sackler Museum on the Beijing University campus, where the collection gives a good overview of Chinese history. Her enthusiasm alone would have sent me there, and my China travel guide agreed with her, so I set out on Wednesday to find Beijing University. With only a few "where do I go now?" moments, I got onto the campus, found a helpful student named Xiong who could have given me directions to the museum but instead gave me a guided tour, and arrived at the door of the museum only to discover that it was being renovated and that the entire collection was in boxes. Not a problem. I'd already had a good adventure, and it was barely lunchtime.
Xiong and I were walking back toward the main gate when I noticed an old watertower that I wanted a picture of. I was taking a second shot, which included Xiong, when an old guy (older than me, anyway) stopped and asked me to take a picture of him, too, and then asked, through Xiong, if I'd print and send him a copy in Chongqing, where he lived. (He has no email address.) Um, sure, I can do that. He wrote down his address in Chinese, Xiong translated it into Pinyon for me (so my package would make it out of the US), and we were off. Not just Xiong and me, but Xiong, me, and the old guy, Hang Yu, who had attached himself to me with the idea that I would accompany him to the nearby Qinghua University campus, take more pictures of him there (apparently as inspiration for his children), and print and mail the whole lot to him. My initial response was surprise at the effrontery of such a proposition mixed with a touch of sympathy, a dash of "what else do I have to do today?," and a squirt of "how long can this take?" Well, as it turns out, it can take the rest of the afternoon, and did. The nearest entrance to the Qinghua University campus wasn't all that near, and Hang Yu had never been there and didn't know for certain what he wanted photos of, so he stopped about every third person to ask questions that I didn't understand but that often left the questionees looking bemused or confused. Without any clear idea what we were after, we wandered and, in the end, it turned out to be exactly my kind of day. I saw a good piece of two beautiful college campuses, took some pretty good pictures, talked a little with Hang Yu, who I discovered spoke a skosh of self-taught English, did a good deed (or will have when I print and send him the pictures-I already cautioned him that I don't get home until late November), and had an odd experience that made for a pretty good story.