It only took me six months of living in China to make it to Beijing. The reason I hadn't gone was because I kept waiting for a time when Michael could go, and there just wasn't ever one. He said he didn't care to go anyway, and I found some Hult students who wanted to go, so off I went, with two really tall German guys.
When I think of Beijing, I will ever think of:
- walking forever
- losing my hair elastic and getting the rat's nest of fury
- getting my tongue and brain flustered between Chinese, English, and German
- my phone running out of juice every single day
- soldiers all over the place
- the awesome hike on the Great Wall
Our flight was delayed, but awesomely, the airlines passed out hot dinners to everyone.
We arrived around midnight at a tiny airport south of Beijing, so we didn't go to bed until pretty late. We stayed at a cool Airbnb that while about an hour away from the city center by metro, had three bedrooms and three bathrooms.
The Forbidden City is large and in charge. You walk through courtyard after courtyard after courtyard. Apparently it got its name because no one was allowed to enter or leave without the emperor's permission.
I thought the area towards the back was the nicest. I also thought that the guys would eventually catch up with me, but they didn't, so I spent the rest of the day on my own, which was fine.
It took ages to walk all the way back to the entrance of the Forbidden City, which is across from Tiananmen Square. Unfortunately, soldiers were blockading something, and I ended up walking the same huge block several times and I still ended up having to go through security three times—I even had to show my passport!
The Square. Also enormous. This view is just half of it.
It took me two rounds to realize that the mausoleum was closed. :( Preserved Mao is in there somewhere.
Because my phone died, I went to the metro stop by where we were set to have dinner, walked for about half an hour until I found a cafe/coffee shop called "Sculpting in Time," and collapsed there with some fries and a smoothie.
Not only did I need to deal with my phone, I had somehow lost my one hair elastic, and with a scarf and a wool coat, I could feel that my hair had the most enormous rat's nest that has ever existed. I tried to kind of hide it by putting it up in a pen, but that didn't work too well since the only pen I brought with me had a rubber grip.
Once my phone was charged, I was able to figure out where to go and met up with the guys at a great pizza place called "Tube Station."
As you can see, the pizza was almost as big as the Forbidden City.
When I got back, I took pictures of my rat's nest. (How interesting that the day of, I felt so embarrassed about the rat's nest of fury, but now here I am sharing it with the world.)
No fingers or comb could get through that monster. I could have named it.
I smothered the thing with shampoo (I didn't have any conditioner, unfortunately) and then spent a good half hour patiently combing, combing, combing. I was so glad to find an elastic in a drawer in the apartment. After that, it was a braid or a bun every day.
The next morning, the Lama Temple was the first stop on our list.
People were throwing money, trying to get it onto the top of this thing. I saw a coin hit a woman.
We had agreed that we would stick together this day, but I ended up waiting for the guys every five steps and I was getting really bored and frustrated. Finally, I gave Julian the guide book and the map and said I would go at my own pace and meet up with them in the evening.
My next stop was the Olympic Plaza, where the famous Bird's Nest structure is. Once I got there, I found that I wasn't very interested in doing a tour, and there wasn't much else to do, so I left to go find the bus to the Ming Tombs.
Unfortunately, I went way out of my way and didn't find the bus (there was another one elsewhere), but I did find this delicious chicken street food taco thingy, as well as some hot sweet potatoes. The woman cooked the chicken for about five seconds, so I was a little freaked out about eating it, but it seemed to be fine.
Next stop: the Summer Palace.
The Summer Palace was such a serene place. Unfortunately, my experience wasn't so serene. I rented this audio guide, and it just wouldn't work correctly. I went back to the booth twice and was told I had to walk the direction of the dots. I did my best to walk that way, but the map just wasn't detailed enough, and even when I knew I was at the right place, the audio didn't always start up. Frustrating. I think pretty much the only thing I got from it was that this long, roofed walkway holds the record for the world's longest corridor.
By the time I arrived at the other gate, my feet were done, but I still had to get to the metro, find somewhere to charge my once-again-dead phone, and then go to wherever the guys wanted to go for dinner. I got off at a random stop, and limped slowly around the corner . . . and found this:
I hadn't actually planned on going to the traditional "Hutong" neighborhood, and I'm not even sure that's what this was, but it was cool. Unfortunately, I walked the entire length of it before I found a place that looked appealing and like it might have a power outlet.
I ordered this watery, spicy spaghetti, and ate it as slowly as possible while my phone charged.
I guess we were all really tired that night, because the guys just wanted to go back to the apartment like I did (which is good, because there was only one key).
My feet were so sore and swollen that I put them up before I even took off my coat.
Since the Shanghai Hiking Lovers Meetup group that I'm a member of was meeting in Beijing that weekend to hike the Great Wall, I scheduled to join them. Because of the last traumatic hike and my sore feet from walking around Beijing for two days, I was a bit scared to go, but I confirmed that there would be a small group of people who wouldn't go as far. Ferdinand and Julian agreed to join, and the three of us looked completely crazy when we showed up where the Beijing hikers were meeting—they all had brand new, bright, professional hiking gear.
On the bus on the way to the wall, people introduced themselves using the microphone, one by one. There weren't many expats, and even fewer dared to get up and even try some Chinese. I went up and said, "Da jia hao. Wo shi Michelle. Wo shi ruanjiangongchengshi" ("Hi everyone. I'm Michelle. I'm a software engineer.") People cheered a lot at that. Then I said, "Wo zhu Shanghai . . . normally? . . . wo zhu Jiu Jin Shan. Wo yao xuexi Hanyu yinwei wo de laogong shi taiwanren." ("I live in Shanghai . . . normally . . . I live in San Francisco. I want to learn Chinese because my husband is Taiwanese." They all cheered again. "Danshi ta bu yao shuo Hanyu he wo. Wo xuyao ni de bang zhu." ("But he doesn't want to speak Chinese with me. I need your help.") Then as I was about to hand back the microphone, I said, "Wan de kai xin." ("Have fun.") I can say sentences and have people understand me, see? The problem is knowing what the heck people say to me.
We made a good team. The weather was perfect for hiking, and bringing Michael's jacket was a great idea.
Miao Miao clearly liked taking pictures of and for me. I didn't even have to ask. Awesome.
Once we got to the touristy part of the wall, some parts were sooooo steep that we pretty much crawled up them. We started taking breaks every ten steps.
I saw a woman in a bright pink wool coat and heels clip clop her way up these stairs without taking a break (or at least as far as I saw). I don't know what world she is from.
It was about here that I found out that I'd completely missed the escape of the "easy" group—they went down some really awesome-looking toboggan chutes, but lack of service and phone battery made us unable to reach each other. Again. I was told that I could go back and go down and try to find them, but I'd gotten that far, and Miao Miao and I were doing well, so I went on.
This is what the wall looked like past the touristy section. We hiked with a group of other Beijingers and wow, I couldn't understand them at all, though they could understand my horrible Chinese.
I loved the entire hike, but going down was especially fun for me. I liked picking out which root or rock to step on next. Miao Miao didn't find it so easy and we got further and further behind. The guide stayed just ahead of us, encouraging us to go faster because the buses were waiting. I think at one point she said I should just go ahead, but I remembered being ditched on the last hike and said no way. When we got to the rock in this picture, even the guide got a little bit stuck. I was right behind her, and it didn't look that tough to me. I ended up going down the other side while she was still shakily surveying her options. As I waited for the others to get down, I wondered about what made it easy for me, and I tried to point out the right footholds.
Having to slow down helped me look at my surroundings. Here are some attempts at being artsy/sharing the beauty:
Miao Miao shot this photo as we were coming off of the mountain and into the valley. I was tired but so happy. I'd done 18 kilometers that I hadn't expected to do. And somehow my feet didn't hurt as much as when I walk around a city all day.
The sign of a good hike: your socks stand up by themselves. The hike was my absolute favorite part of Beijing.
Once we got off the bus in Beijing, I invited Miao Miao to join us for dinner. We went to "Grandma's Kitchen," a place that my friend Kate suggested. I loved the hamburger bun that was nearly the size of my head, and the mint ice cream shake was really refreshing.
The next day, Ferdinand and I decided to go to the Ming Tombs in the afternoon. He insisted that lunch is "almost as important if not more important" than breakfast, and we needed to sit down and eat something warm. I said, "I know that Germans think that. I'm just going to go to the store and pick up something while you eat."
Unfortunately, we got distracted on the metro and ended up going all the way around the city. Then, walking to the bus wasn't so easy and we ended up climbing up a retaining wall by a river and walking all around a big gate until Ferdinand waved down the departing bus that we needed.
To make things even more stressful, we had to stand up the entire one-hour bus ride, and because there wasn't much room to move around and I had to hold myself up using other people's chairs, I couldn't even take off my jacket. I don't know if I've ever sweated that much without physical exertion. I just hoped that the effort was worth it.
It wasn't. We arrived around 16:50, and though the guide book told us the place would close at 18:00 and the "selling ticket time" didn't end for a few minutes, we couldn't find anyone to sell us a ticket and the guy at the entrance wouldn't give us a break. We ended up running right back for the bus and heading back. I again stood the whole way. We wasted a day. :(
We arranged to meet Julian at Soho for dinner and then I used a Chinese restaurant app to try and find us a place to eat dinner. The first one on the list looked pretty good, so we walked toward the location indicated, only to stand in front of it and see that it was another location of Grandma's Kitchen, the place we'd eaten at the night before!
We ended up in a Chinese place instead, where you have to mark everything you want on a big piece of paper. I was jealous when Julian's meal turned out to be what I had hoped for, but my noodles were decent.
The next day, I headed to the National Museum while they went elsewhere. I found out from a guard that the museum was closed. Ack! To add to my frustration, my phone was quickly running out of battery and it was out of money anyway, so I really couldn't look up anything or let the guys know about the museum.
I walked and walked and walked for miles, past a lot of soldiers who stared at me with my giant backpack (I'd brought all of my belongings with me) until I collapsed in a cafe where I bought some waffles before heading to the airport.
When we'd booked the tickets, I had said that two days were enough for me, but Ferdinand was quite set on five days, saying we'd need every minute. As it turned out, everything I did that I liked occurred in two days and I wished that I'd just returned to get stuff done in Shanghai. Oh well—I had several opportunities to speak some Chinese, I quite enjoyed a day of hiking on the wall, and I was able to see the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.