Thursday, October 14, 2010

China Part One: Beijing & the Great Wall at Mutianyu

Well, we made it to China last night. Even got to sit in first class on the Delta flight which was a nice treat! The weather is much milder here, in the low 20’s Celsius vs. high 20’s in Japan. What a difference that makes! I am feeling much better now; coughing up & blowing out a lot of crud today and still more fatigued than usual, but was able to be on my feet for a solid five hours to walk to & around the Temple of Heaven. We’re staying at Far East Hotel/Hostel, the same place I stayed five years ago when I came to Beijing for a week with Adena Longacher (now Leal), a flight attendant friend. While the part of the hotel we’re staying in is still considered budget accommodation (we‘re paying 260CNY/night), we do have a private bathroom, mini fridge and plenty of space to move around. I like this area because it is right in the middle of the hutongs -- traditional Chinese houses situated on narrow alleys that you can wander around for hours just absorbing the local culture. I was afraid they would tear down a lot of them to make way for new hotels and general “beautification” for the Olympic Games in 2008, but luckily this area survived fairly intact.
The taxi ride from the airport to the hotel went relatively well, although if I hadn’t been here before it might have been an issue. The driver didn’t speak English, but I had printed the directions to the hotel in Chinese as well as a small local map to avoid any hassles. Still he acted like he didn’t know where the hotel was located, despite it being just off a major street not too far from Tiananmen Square. I kept an eye on the road signs during the drive, which was difficult since it was already 11pm and quite dark & hazy, but once we reached Chang’an I recognized the landmarks and was able to help guide us to the hotel.
We got online for the first time at our hotel/hostel tonight and, as somewhat expected, discovered that we can’t access any social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, nor can we access any of our Picasa Web Albums, Blogger, etc. So we’re not going to be able to upload photos, post blogs, or even update our Facebook status for the next few weeks. At least we can check our email!
Both of us need a haircut again; our last one was in Melbourne, Australia! Luckily there is a barber shop directly across the street from the hotel and they only charged 35CNY or about $5.25 each. Greg & I both got a good trim and came back to the hotel to drink a beer we had bought at the neighborhood store (also cheap; only 3CNY per bottle or $0.45) before dinner.
We also used the hotel’s travel service to book a day trip to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall for Sunday. When I was here in 2005, I hiked a completely different section so I’m looking forward to seeing something new.

After sleeping in again today, we decided to rent bikes (10CNY or $1.50 each for the day) to visit the Forbidden City/Palace Museum and Tiananmen Square. Of course, I had no fear about riding a bike on the heavily-trafficked streets of Beijing, but I’m sure it was stressful for Greg. We rode through the hutongs a little ways then over to Qianmen Dajie and up to the square. As we were both out of cash after putting down a 400CNY deposit for the two bikes, we kept an eye out for an ATM. We didn’t spot one along the sides of the square, so we turned on East Chang’an Street and found one within a block or two. We doubled back to the Palace and walked through the multiple gates into the main plaza where we could buy our tickets and lock up our bikes. We decided not to hire a guide (audio or in person) nor buy a map and opted instead to just wander our way through the massive palace grounds. This actually proved to be a nice way to see the immense complex as there were enough informative signs in English to tell us what we were looking at plus I remembered some of my favorite areas of the palace from my previous visit. We hit all the highlights, walking around for about 2 hours, but decided not to pay extra to enter the Treasure Hall or the Clocks & Watches Museum. There were tons of Chinese & other tourists near the entrance to the palace but once we got inside the crowds dispersed somewhat. We still had to elbow our way to the front of the viewing areas for the primary sights and we have no “clean” pictures without other tourists in them, but I’m sure it could have been worse. It was a similar scene at the Temple of Heaven yesterday, and the overall number of tourists is far more than Adena & I encountered in April five years ago.
Upon exiting the palace we picked up our bikes and made our way across heavy traffic to the square, where we again had to search for a suitable place to park the bikes. As there are now security checkpoints at both the east & west sides of the square, we had to put the bikes near some souvenir shops along the western side then cross the street, clear security (ie, bag x-ray), and have a look around the square on foot. We made one big loop, then got back on our bikes.
We set out for an area northwest of the palace called Beihai Park. I really enjoyed riding bikes around the hutongs and walking around the lakefront restaurants & bars the last time I was here. However, the ride up Nan Chang Jie & Bei Chang Jie was not as I remembered, nor did the area even look the same to me. I suspect I completely went to the wrong park this time around! Already weary from our day of biking & walking, we circled back to the hotel via Fu You Street, dodging all kinds of traffic all the way. We bought a couple of beers from the same place we dropped off our bikes and retired to our room to recuperate before having dinner.
We decided to eat dinner in the hotel’s restaurant again. Their prices are reasonable and the quality (and cleanliness) of the food is not an issue. Last night I had the roast duck in orange sauce, which was good, but turned out to be quite difficult to eat as it was the thigh/wing portion on the bone and very hard to cut even with a knife & fork. Tonight, since we had big instant noodle bowls for breakfast and didn’t eat lunch, we ordered two chicken dishes (spicy kung pao & one with bamboo shoots in a mild sauce), one noodle dish, and one order of sautéed mixed vegetables. We also shared a large bottle of beer. The total cost of the meal was only 102CNY (US$15) and we put half of it in our mini-fridge as leftovers for lunch tomorrow.

I’m guessing Greg will say that several times he thought he was going to die today first & foremost in his blog about the Great Wall. I, for better or worse, have already traveled too many places in the world and am accustomed to the crazy driving, traffic & obstacles in the road. Somehow I think I actually ride better in a vehicle when I’m traveling versus at home because I know I don’t have much choice but to stare out the window at the passing scenery or sleep and hope that I get to my destination in one piece. Of course I always wear a seatbelt and am even carrying a luggage strap that will double as a seatbelt in buses, trains, etc. that don’t have them (and that I consider a higher safety risk).
But suffice it to say that we did make it to the Mutianyu section of the Wall unscathed after dodging many cyclists, motorized rickshaws, large trucks and piles of brush, dirt, and even stacks of bricks in the road. We were picked up at the hotel at 6:30am and were surprised to find we would be the only ones on our day trip and thus were riding in a 4-door sedan instead of a minivan or bus. I don’t think our driver spoke much English because he didn’t say a word to us during the almost 2-hour ride to the Wall. We agreed to meet him in the parking lot at noon and proceeded to the cable car entrance for a less strenuous ride up to the wall in a small gondola.
We were happy to find that we had beat the tour groups and had the Wall almost to ourselves for a few minutes. We decided to start hiking toward Tower 24 first. It was a beautiful, clear sunny day with temps around 20C. The actual wall has been repaired and cleaned up for 2.5 kilometers in this section so, while it is still a strenuous walk due to all the ups & downs of the natural terrain the wall is built on, it is not particularly dangerous. I can contrast that to my previous walk from Jinshanling to Simatai five years ago where much of the wall had loose stones, missing sides, etc.
We walked for about an hour only stopping to take pictures but decided to turn back around Tower 20 or 21 (not sure as they weren’t labeled) because the next section was a 45 degree uphill climb. We backtracked to where the cable car is (Tower 15) then continued in the opposite direction to the last accessible tower (1) in this section. Of course, it was also at least a 45 degree uphill climb, and in some places, more like 75. Still, we made it to the top where the wall branches off in two directions but has deteriorated and is overgrown with trees & brush. Again we backtracked, but this time to the ropeway & toboggan ride where we chose the ropeway (ie, ski lift) to get back down to the parking area. We met our driver in the parking lot and were back at the hotel just before 2pm. The total cost of our visit (including transport from/to our hotel, a light breakfast (bottled water, banana, 4-pack of Madeleine-like cakes), entrance tickets, the cable car ride up and the chair lift down was 395CNY or $59 per person.
Based on my two experiences at the Great Wall, I highly recommend a side trip there with the following advice:
  • Carry drinking water & some light snacks (you can purchase both in the parking/entrance area or from vendors along the wall -- although they are spaced about 30 minutes apart).
  • Be advised that restroom facilities along the wall are practically nonexistent in some sections and you happen to come across one expect squat toilets and no toilet paper or running water.
  • Wear sun protection, breathable/lightweight/layered clothing, good walking shoes, and bring a hat, sunglasses, and a bandanna.
  • Be prepared to sweat! Walking the wall is not for the unfit. It is strenuous and there are a lot of uneven stairs & slopes.
  • Know that you will encounter people trying to sell you postcards, t-shirts, trinkets, and drinks/snacks along the wall and at the entry/exit points. Unless you actually want something, do yourself a favor and just say “no, thank you” (or ignore them) and keep walking. Otherwise don’t be surprised if they follow you and persistently try to sell you something.
  • If you have the option, don’t go on a “guided” tour. You really just need transportation to & from the wall; ideally to be dropped off at one point and picked up somewhere down the line a few hours later. If you do a little reading beforehand, you will know the history of the wall and can then just enjoy walking it at your own pace. The best times I’ve had on the wall are when no one else is around and you can be in awe of the scale & scope of its construction given the surroundings.
  • Arrive early -- the earlier the better. It will be cooler, the light softer, and fewer people making noise and getting in your “view.”
I also don’t want to forget to mention the haze in Beijing. Ever since we have arrived, no matter what time of day or night, there has been an impenetrable gray haze over the city. We couldn’t decided if it was air pollution or that plus some combination of weather conditions that caused everything to look washed out and even reduced visibility. However, the skies were clear at the Great Wall and when we returned to the city this afternoon, the haze was gone!

Our sole objective today was to map out some sort of itinerary for our remaining 14 nights in China, followed by 5 nights in Hong Kong. I spent a few hours doing some research last night while Greg started looking at possible Turkey itineraries. It is not particularly enjoyable to have to sit in the open lobby of the hotel to get wifi access. There is a lot of foot traffic, smoking, and loud conversations in Chinese.
We got up after 8am and had our instant noodle bowls for breakfast. We have found that this is an extremely inexpensive (3.5CNY or about $0.50) way to start the day and we don’t start getting hungry until mid-afternoon. We also drink some kind of hot tea, usually provided by the hostel/hotel for free.
After reviewing some of the notes I made last night, we went down to the lobby to get online and do further trip research. After a couple of hours I had mapped out a rough itinerary based on train schedules and the feasibility of getting from one area to another. Unfortunately, when we inquired at the travel desk about overnight train tickets to Shanghai for tomorrow, we were told that everything was fully booked for the next 5 days! Despite our best intentions, and a fair amount of research when we were mapping out our overall itinerary, we are going to be in China during one of their two annual weeklong national holidays. This means that the majority of the 1.3 billion people that live here will be traveling between 01-07OCT. Not good news for us!
We ended up not getting out until after dark. Walked through the hutongs to Qianmen Dajie where we decided to eat at a traditional hot pot restaurant (supposedly in business since the late 1700’s!). I ordered for us as the English menu was not exactly descriptive. I tried to explain that I wanted the soup base to be something between no spice & spicy but we ended up getting the chili base which was definitely the spiciest! I ordered the garlic for the dipping sauce and some lamb, shitake mushrooms, spinach and noodles. I do have to give our waitress a little credit for helping us cook the ingredients properly. Eventually the two Chinese guys sitting next to us asked me if I had been in Asia often/long because I was very good with the chopsticks. This has happened many times on our trip already; the servers almost always only bring Greg a fork because he does not use the “proper” chopstick technique. The guys also gave Greg a taste of their rice liquor.

More China to come...

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