Hello again! My time in Mongolia came to a very appropriate end, with us waiting in the airport for a few hours because, while our flight left at 11am, the airport did not open until 10am. Mongolia doesn’t do early mornings. I seriously missed that this past week.
We landed in Beijing on Tuesday, and it was about as different as you could get from UB. We got straight onto a tour bus with a government-provided guide who gave us all sorts of information about how China is great and powerful and the standard of living is going up. We were all a bit tired and not particularly interested, but the drive through the city was nice. We stayed in a hostel in the 2nd ring of town, which is a very nice district, and were given the night to do whatever we wanted. I went out with Selina, who had lived in Beijing two summers ago, and we went to the night market. The night market is very touristy, and it’s basically a long line of outdoor food stalls. The food ranged from fried noodles to sea slug on a stick, and Selina told us this is not what the locals generally eat, it’s mostly just for show. I opted for some noodles, a few dumplings, and this amazing skewer of sugar-glazed pineapple. It was a fun experience, and afterwards we wandered around the nearby shops. We found a more authentic market nearby, where two guys tried to convince us to go to a pub with them to practice English. It was a bit creepy, and we quickly moved on. I learned later that some other girls on our trip had a similar experience, except they went along with it, and the girls who talked to them ended up scamming a bunch of money out of them by leaving them the bill for some crazy expensive tea. I’m glad to have avoided that. Anyway, we passed a church where a ton of older people were gathered outside doing some sort of aerobic dance. It was pretty funny, and we all jumped in and tried to learn. This younger guy came over and helped teach us, but we found out soon after he only did it to try and get Kari’s number. Poor guy.
The rest of the night was spent wandering around a huge mall, where we found one of my favorite stores, and then we hung out at a small coffee shop. It was a very fun first night.
The next day was jammed full of activities, and we were super excited to get a western style breakfast of eggs and bacon. The hostel in mongolia provided breakfast, but it was just a piece of toast (or a regular piece of bread, if the guy was feeling lazy/angry at us) and a bit of yoghurt. So, with full tummies we set off to look at the Ming tombs. These are pretty much what they sound like: Emperors from the Ming Dynasty are buried near each other, each with a large complex and a huge burial mound. It was very pretty, though I think my favorite part was that our guide directed us to the toilets by calling them “happy houses.” Also, the sign on the bathroom door said that the government rated this facility a three star toilet. Personally, I thought it was a bit smelly, but I guess I’m no expert. By the way, in case you didn’t know, Asia is very fond of squat toilets, which are basically a big hole in the floor that flushes. They usually have at least one western style toilet for the tourists though.
Anyway, after the tombs we went to a Jade factory, where they told us about different types of jade and how they refine it, but it was basically just an excuse to get us into their shop. These government tours get paid to take the tourists to certain places, whether we want to go or not. Because of this we went to lunch at an “authentic” restaurant, where they separated the Chinese from the westerners, and we had to go through an enamel making demonstration, and of course, we had to leave through the gift shop. I really wanted to buy some beautiful paper cutout art, but it was expensive and I worried about getting it home. Maybe next time.
After lunch we went on to the main attraction of the day: the Great Wall of China! The guide kept telling us we were going to a special part of the wall that wasn’t touristy, but that was a bald faced lie. The road to get up to the chairlift was lined with tons of tourist stalls, and on the wall itself several people had set up shop selling postcards and trinkets. Anyway, touristy or not, the wall was spectacular. The Great Wall stretches a length that’s about equal to the distance East to West of the USA, and was built entirely by man power. Standing on it you can tell it wasn’t meant for the masses, as the sections are all uneven, and some parts are more precarious than others. We took some group pictures, saw a wedding on the wall, and then Luisa and I took off to see how far we could go in the three hours allotted.
We decided to go up, rather than down, and that turned out to be a good decision because this was the way with less people. We set our sites on the highest point we could see, and it was very tough going. Eventually, we made it to the top and felt an enormous sense of accomplishment.
I wish we’d been given more time on the wall, since it was probably my favorite place on the tour. After the wall we were once again given the night off to do as we pleased. I really wanted to go see the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium at night, but it didn’t work out. Instead I went out to dinner with some of the girls and Nima, Professor Benard’s husband. It was his last night with us for a while, because while we’re in Malaysia, he got permission to return to his home in Tibet. He’s a very quiet guy, and we all like him a lot. It’ll be weird traveling without him.
After dinner we decided to go fancy and hit up a mcdonalds for some mcflurries. I accidentally got a tiramisu flavored one, but it was surprisingly tasty. Then we once again hit up some shopping, and I got myself a very pretty pair of embroidered shoes. We wandered the markets again, finding new alleys and sections, and had a very good time.
Our last night in Beijing was not my favorite. My sore throat reached its peak the night before, and I was trying my hardest to stay excited and happy on about 3 hours of fitful sleep. First, we went to Tianamen Square, where people were lined up as far as the eye could see to pay respects to Mao’s mausoleum (or, as the tour guide kept saying, “Mao-soleum”). It was impressive, but I wasn’t able to appreciate it. Around this time I started feeling the more potent side effects of my malaria meds. That is, I had a wild mood swing that made me almost break down crying in front of the giant picture of Mao. It was really unnerving, since I had no reason to be so upset, and I didn’t realize until later why it was happening. Needless to say, that particular part of our tour wasn’t my favorite.
By the time we reached the Forbidden City I was feeling better, but still not 100%. We were all a bit tired, and they had built in just a bit too much time to wander around looking at the Emperor’s bedroom. We took off on our bus once again, this time for a traditional Chinese Tea Ceremony. Not being a lover of tea, I opted to sleep on the bus while everyone else went inside. It was the best decision I made all day, and I nodded off to the sounds of the bus driver’s radio soaps.
When everyone got back we spent a few hours in the Silk Market, which is basically a big multi level building filled with little stalls of crap. The people are fiercely aggressive in their sales tactics, and it was a bit draining. Tired though I was, I think I ended up improving my bartering skills, and I walked away with a new ring and purse.
Dinner that night was a traditional Peking Duck. They cut the duck up in front of us, and Lisa explained that the reason this dish is so tasty is because they fatten up the duck in a special way, and you only eat the skin. It was very good, but a bit overwhelming. I’m glad I tried it.
That night we took an overnight train to Xian, the ancient capital of China. I really like overnight trains, and I’m glad we’ve had the opportunity to take a few. It was a nice ride, though we were rerouted due to flooding and ended up getting into Xian at 12 instead of 9. Because of this our schedule changed a little bit, and we went straight to a nice buffet lunch, and then on to the Terra Cotta Warriors.
I was really excited for the warriors, and they were quite a sight. There are three excavation pits open to the public, though the first one is by far the most impressive. The story behind them is that the first emperor of China had hundreds of thousands of these warriors made for his tomb, so he would have protection in the afterlife, as well as subjects to rule over. Each warrior is about six feet tall, and every one has a unique face, presumably modeled after his actual army. They were very cool.
Unfortunately, as with most parts of our tour, they misjudged how much time was appropriate for each place, and we were left to sit and people watch for an hour until it was time to go to the next site. This was ok by me though, as people watching has been one of my favorite things to do this trip. People in China dress very interestingly, and I love it!
Anyway, the last stop of the day was a famous pagoda, the name of which is something like giant goose, and it was pretty cool. We were left to wander for an hour, so I made a circle around the complex and then found a quiet place to sit and think for a minute. Finding alone time on this trip can be hard to do, so I was happy for a few minutes to myself.
That night after dinner we were allowed to go wherever we wanted in Xian, but I was sick and exhausted, so I just watched a movie and went to bed. In the morning we had to leave for Shanghai around 10, and I once again failed to explore the city. I guess I’ll just have to go back another time, because it seemed like a cool place, and most of the people who had been to China before said it was one of their favorite cities.
In Shanghai we went to a circus performance, which was really fun. There were contortionists, a magician, spinning plates, bicycle acrobatics, and some motorcyclists who rode around inside a giant metal cage. It was all very well done, and felt kind of homey to me. Afterward I went back to the hotel and finished my final paper for the Buddhism course, and was really glad to have it done. The next day I went out with Luisa and Sarah to the Oriental Pearl Tower.
The tower was really sweet, and there were some amazing views from the top. Shanghai is such an interesting city. I think I like the skyline better than New York. It is one of China’s most populous cities, and probably its most commercial.
The middle level of the tower had this plexiglass floor from which you could see how far above the ground you were standing. It was terrifying, but I managed to get past my fear and walk on it, and then we even jumped on it. I have some pretty fantastic pictures of Luisa and I trying to perfect our “jumping photo.”
Next, Luisa and I took a taxi to the fabric market, and wandered around for a bit. It was a lot like the silk market, but without the constant yelling, which was really nice. I got some good pictures for my independent research project, and then we wandered aimlessly down some streets.
We passed some local markets, and eventually came to a more touristy area, where we ate lunch and window shopped. Eventually, Luisa decided she wanted to try and find a store she had been to the last time we were here, so we set out to look for the hotel she had stayed in to use as a landmark. We soon realized we had no idea where the hotel was, so I found another hotel to ask directions, and they printed the address out and we took a taxi. We did eventually find the store she wanted, and I got myself a new pair of knockoff converse shoes. It was pretty fun.
We went back to the hotel, watched a movie, and ate some ramen, and generally had a lazy night. The next day was a full day of travel, but it wasn’t terrible. I’m in Malaysia right now, and it is gorgeous. But I’ll save that for another time.