Beijing, Day 1

Our final stop on our tour was Beijing, the capital city of modern China. We weren’t sure what to expect here. If you watch the news you will have seen pictures of how smoggy and polluted Beijing is. We experienced very bad pollution the previous year when we visited Xiamen, Shanghai, and Tianjin and so were a little nervous about being in a place that was even more polluted. We need not have worried. The weather here was very nice – sunny and hot – with no pollution. What there is in Beijing that we were not expecting was windy. The first day it felt like there were sustained 20-30 mph winds with gusts up to 50 mph. Rose told us that winds come in off of the Gobi desert bringing sand with them. We didn’t noticed the sand, but we sure did notice the wind! As to the pictures of pollution? These were probably taken during the winter when the city is heated using coal which causes the heavy layers of smog. Though it gets warm here, it is a dry heat, unlike the other cities we visited that were all quite humid.

Beijing is a huge city – the permanent population is 22 million with another 10 million is or so that are part of the floating population. The traffic is horrible; it took forever to get anywhere in the city by bus. We saw more cars and fewer people on scooters here. Rather than an auction system to get a license plate like in Shanghai, there is a lottery system. I guess the registration costs must be lower because there are so many cars on the road; more people can afford a car.

People here live a very fast-paced life. They may work 10-12 hour days to be able to afford the lifestyle they want. Wages are still fairly low ($12,000-$18,000/year) but the cost of a condo is around $1,000,000 US. The younger generation is choosing not to get married and have children. Instead, they want the nice things that money can buy. There is so much pressure to be successful that it is not unheard of for 30-year olds to have heart attacks.

A very positive thing about Beijing is how many trees and flowers there are. There has been a concerted effort by the government to plant trees as a way of fighting pollution. In the 80’s and 90’s, many poplar and locust trees were planted. It turns out that many were allergic to the poplars, so now you will see willow, gingko, pine, and cypress. Roses were in bloom all along the streets – so beautiful.

Since we got in early, by the time we got our luggage and drove into the city (about an hour without traffic), it was time for lunch. The lunch today was Chinese (surprise!) but turned out to be the best meal of the trip. The food was all really good and very plentiful. Except for our “western” meal and the buffet breakfast we have daily, all of our meals are served family style. Rice is unlimited but the other food is not. Some of the restaurants have been skimpier than others on portions. The meal today was perfect!

There was an optional tour today that sounded so fun that we signed up for it. We were to go on a Hutong Tour (including a rickshaw ride) and visit a Chinese home. Hutong is a Mongolian word that means narrow alleyway; the area we visited was supposed to resemble “old” China. In 1949 when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded a modern city was built here. The old houses were torn down. Of the original 20 km long ancient city wall, only 1 km still remains. It is now part of a park.

Did you notice my use of the word supposed when referring to visiting the “old” China? When the bus pulled over to let us off, we were a bit disappointed to see that there were tour groups as far as the eye could see. There would be nothing authentic about the experience. In Washington state, we have a town called Leavenworth that is a fake Bavarian village nestled in the foothills of the Cascade mountains. It is a charming tourist attraction, but there is nothing real about it. To us, the Hutong was the Leavenworth of Beijing. It may originally have been traditional, but now only exists for the tourists to tromp through. We had a brief bicycle rickshaw ride, which was pleasant. But, there is really nothing too unique to see. The buildings are one-story tall and made of grey concrete. There is nothing charming about them.

We were let off by a small canal and walked to the “home” we would visit. Supposedly, Mrs. Wong lived here with her family. Her niece, who happened to be a painter, was there to help her pass around tea. It was a very contrived situation. Mrs. Wong was a retired lady that invited tour groups into her home so they could experience the real China. Really? Her niece showed us a picture taken of her taken during the 2008 Olympics with someone famous (I can’t remember who). A few people asked her questions about her life and about the furnishings in her home. None of them were antique or original; all had been built in the last 20 years. As we left, we were given a gift – a hackysack. We have taken tours where we actually did visit the real homes of people in different countries. This had a completely different feel to it. Most of the people in the tour thought that this was a completely fake home with a fake lady brought in to play hostess. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so!

We walked a few blocks to the local drum tower. Some people climbed the 70 steps to the top to take pictures. The drums here were used to tell time; kind of like the clock towers in the cathedrals of Europe.

When we returned to the bus, we met what turned out to be our favorite vendor. He was a really happy, cheerful guy that had all manner of trinkets to sell for only $1 each. Great Wall hat? $1! Chinese fan? $1! Nesting purses? $1! Scarf? $1! Though I didn’t buy anything from the guy, he put a smile on my face every time we met him because he was so darned cheerful! And, he followed us around for 3 days. Anytime we got off the bus in Beijing, he was there with his cart of goods. Each day he added new product, too. By day 3, he was bringing out the copycat goods. Women on the bus were snapping up “Louis Vuitton” bags for $1. Hopefully, they will not get caught at customs! We saw some Folex watches not he street, too, but they were big bucks – $5 each. Who knows how much it would cost for one that said Rolex? Or Rollex?

We had stayed at a beautiful Novotel in Xi’An so were looking forward to another Novotel in Beijing. What can I say? Same chain, completely different level of hotel. Some people’s rooms smelled so badly that they had to change rooms. One couple even paid to upgrade after switching to a different room. Though the hotel is now non-smoking, they apparently have not renovated since that change in 2115 so there is a persistent smoke aroma in many of the rooms. Ours didn’t stink but it was a pretty basic room. The bathroom in particular could use some TLC. But, we have stayed in worse places, so could easily manage here for a few days. The location was great, so that counts for something.

Dinner was on our own so we found a McDonalds in a mall only a couple of blocks away. We used the ordering kiosk only to find that we could not use our credit card to pay. Most Chinese use We Chat Pay or another pay system that we do not have access to. So, we went to the counter to order. They have a simplified menu there that you can point to what you want to order. Unfortunately, it is not exactly the same menu as is available on the kiosks so we weren’t able to get what we wanted. Oh, well!

We were pretty tired after our early flight, so made it an early night.