Thursday, August 25, 2011

Beijing Beginnings


My first impression of Beijing is a highway flanked by low-lying buildings with flashy neon signs wilting under oppressive humidity. A mix of space age and Stalinist architecture all wide and heavy - any sense of height dwarfed by the ten-lane motorways that run through the city.

This is the Beijing we experienced last night as we hiked the three miles down to Tiananmen Square in a dense haze of smog that made the street lamps go blurry. Even after 9 pm on a Monday the massive concrete expanse was swarming with people and as we took a team picture in front of Mao's famous portrait, we found ourselves to be a far larger attraction to those with cameras cruising the square.

Today's Beijing was something different all together. We had a similar start with a motor pool ride back to the square for a visit to then Great Hall - a massive block of a building filled with swaths of plush red carpet, gilt chandeliers and preposterously large easy chairs set with microphones for official meetings. From there we quickly explored the new Chinese National Museum - just across the square. In a building that rivals the Louvre in size, the number of antiquities was remarkably sparse.


Following this, we hopped in vehicles again to battle Beijing traffic as we made our way to an authentic or at least convincingly restored hutong - or alley. Rusty bicycles and off-odors filled the tiny alleyways where ancient traditional courtyard dwellings (now multiple-family homes) mix with corner shops and windows selling all kinds of edible goods. Bowls of fish scales, the results of split pants* and all kinds of laundry dotted the alleyways adding to the olafactory experience. I took close to 200 photos in the 20 or so minutes that we speed walked through.


Our brisk walk put us back to the motor pool for a quick ride to a noodle shop across town while we tried to air out our sweat-soaked clothing under the air conditioning vents.


Our high expectations for the noodle joint were unfortunately met by an assortment of mediocre mystery meats and a few noodle dishes that lacked any flavor at all despite heaping helpings of chili sauce.


Back to the hotel for much needed showers - a few meetings and a trip across the street for a famous foot massage. For $25 and 75 minutes six of us sat enjoying the most ridiculous bliss in massage form. Shoulders and neck- feet and legs - occasionally excruciating but mostly just incredible. We will return to that army of masseuses again (and probably again after that). Another meeting and some late-night noodle soup followed by local beers at the hotel bar closed our evening.

Up again on day three for more dumplings, pancakes (Chinese) and watermelon juice before our caravan took us to the Great Wall. As we drove out of the city under the bluest sky we've had since arriving - the urban buildings and warehouses gave way to countryside, mountains and a fake Disneyland (yes even that's counterfeit here) that was closed because according to our driver, they ran out of money - I think ABC tells a different story.


Eventually the Wall came into view on both sides of the highway stretching up into the mountains as far as we could see, and with the Wall came the people, also extending infinitely in all directions each with an umbrella to block the sun and poke out your eyeball.


After 30 minutes and only a few flights of stairs we were saturated again under the merciless heat - a quick set of jumping photos and then back into the vehicles to a stop slightly farther away- Badaling.

A massive visitors center had signs indicating the added attraction of "Safarl World" or "Satari World" nearby -  the billboards featuring tigers, deer and small bears superimposed over the Great Wall was the closest we got to experiencing this gem. Instead more hiking up a crazy incline which resulted in more sweating and plenty of pictures.

Already thirty minutes behind schedule - we zoomed back into the city for a quick lunch for what we'd hoped would be dumplings- but with K's favorite shop closed, we quickly dashed through a mall food court filled with several visually and olfactory terrifying options before settling on Thai...