temple of heaven
I knew it would be cold in Beijing
. I wasn't prepared, however, to lose eyeballs and digits to frostbite. As I roamed mapless in the freezing temperatures, searching for my hostel, I realized how much I didn't miss winter. The icy slap that met my first step out of the airport solidified the concern that my wardrobe and I were severely out of place. As China is the sole winter stop in my year of eternal summer, my apparel options were limited to a couple long-sleeved tees, two pairs of pants, a spring coat and a collection of ankle socks and liner gloves that were better decoration than insulation. If I didn't go shopping immediately, I very well might have spent the entire holiday in the hostel TV room.
My first day in Beijing was dedicated to making the next 13 a little more comfortable. I stocked up on thermals, long socks, mittens and a sweater. Then proceeded to simultaneously wear every piece, everyday, for the rest of my stay.
Two weeks in China has taught me this: the general population seems predominately respectful and polite, save three situations. Metros, markets and a nasty penchant for spitting.
There are over 15 million people in Beijing. From my estimation, 3.2 million of them were squeezed into the same metro car as me at any given time. Officials are posted at some stations with the waiting crowd. They blow their whistles and direct commuters into orderly lines, painting the illusion of some sort of system. Once the doors open, however, its every man for himself.
me and mao
Passengers muscle their way in through a crowd that's muscling its way out. I eventually learned that the key to survival (and a spot on the train) was to abandon all instinctive tendencies toward etiquette and push over old ladies and step on babies with the rest of them.
The markets are really no different than the crowded haggling-zones of every Asian town. But I found the women of Beijing's shops to be a little more "hands-on." I've gotten pretty good at the barter-and-walk-away technique of market shopping. Show interest but not too much, wrinkle your nose in disgust at the inflated price, and then slowly walk to the next stall to look at the exact same product as they call after you with an increasingly desperate tone and plummeting price. The woman trying to sell me sunglasses, however, wasn't having the walk-away portion of the ritual on this particular day in the Silk market.
As I shook my head and attempted to back away, she grabbed hold of my wrist and held on for dear life as the negotiation continued. It was the flesh and blood version of Chinese handcuffs, as any attempt to wriggle my way free just tightened the Vulcan death grip on my arm. After calmly pointing to the bony hand clutching my wrist and requesting that she "Please don't do that," I evened the score by taking the overpriced glasses off her hands for a tenth of the price.
It's the third practice of spitting anywhere deemed appropriate (which basically means everywhere) that's more difficult to get used to. It's not a habit reserved for the lowly members of society, but rather an apparent showcase of talent and technique. Men, women, and sweet little old ladies alike sniff, hack and hawk from impressive guttural depths.
And as a predictable result, the flu and colds run rampant in this environment. On the bright side, this gives the locals a chance to make use of all the old SARS masks they must of had lying around the house. I'm told Beijing isn't even an accurate portrayal of the magnitude of this practice. A few years ago they implemented a law and resulting fine if caught in the act. This greatly decreased the number of public spitters, but makes me a little leery of walking around the lawless towns.
Beijing has many tourist attractions and, despite my first instinct to stay cozy inside and look them up on the internet instead, I eventually saw most of them. 9 Dragons Hostel provided a steady stream of fellow travelers to accompany me in the sightseeing. Dewi from London, who in certain glimpses could eerily and comfortingly remind me of my brother, joined me for the markets and bars.
my favorite german couple
Chinese-born but Canadian-grown Joshua was my companion and translator through the Temple of Heaven and local food courts. And all of my remaining waking hours were more-or-less spent with a german couple, Kerstin and Gregor. They were funny, told me my german was "cute" and didn't mind a third wheel. It was with one or both of them, that I made it to the emperor's palace in the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Bird's Nest, and hutongs and cute shopping streets aplenty.
Greg and I also had the fortune of experiencing--but outsmarting--a couple of real life tea scammers. We'd seen signs posted all over the hostel and guidebooks, warning about so-called "students" who would approach you with random conversation in English, and eventually sucker you into some overpriced art gallery or tea shop, then leave you with a hefty bill.
As we walked around Tianamen, we shot down friendly offers left and right. We were alert and on top of our game. Then came the blind-siding. A 26-year-old out-of-town Chinese girl and her quiet, but friendly uncle came out of the blue with an attempt at conversation. My first instinct was to ignore them as well, but her innocent questioning and friendly demeanor left me feeling silly and paranoid, so I answered her questions and threw in some of my own. With nothing else on the agenda, we followed them on the uncle's tour of the area, welcoming the historical and architectural tidbits he threw out along the way. My doubt of the whole matter turned into thoughts of "this is a great, authentic experience," and a testimony to the kindness of strangers while traveling.
Even when they suggested a stop off for something warm to drink, we didn't bat an eye. I wised up very quickly, however, when the random drink spot was a proper tea house and they rushed us into a little room fit for four. Before I could even say the word "tea", we were shoved into chairs with plates of snacks and a menu in front of us. I owe the german language for the chance to unsuspectingly share my doubt with Gregor. He wasn't quite as convinced...until he saw the prices. A "room fee" and $10 cups of tea where enough to convince him of the same. Before any damage could be done, we excused ourselves from the situation and found a $3 pot of tea down the road. Close, scammers, but no cigar.
My evening entertainment came in the form of three New Zealanders and one American.
Warren, a kiwi, is a fellow couchsurfer who was also searching for the lowdown on how to spend Christmas in Beijing. He and the american, John, live and work in Hong Kong and took a little holiday up north with a couple old friends from Hamilton, NZ (Daniel and Jason). Along with someone to hang out with while in China, their friendship will prove itself doubly beneficial, by means of a couch and company in Hong Kong.
It was with these guys that I got a taste of Beijing's nightlife. And then I got a taste of Peking Duck. It's on the 'must-do' list in this city, and I absolutely understand why. I'm salivating as I write just thinking about the delicious toasted dish. Don't get me wrong, I fully believe orange chicken from Panda Express is possibly one of the greatest foods on the face of the earth, but on a whole, I'd have to say the Chinese in China know what they're doing.
lucky me (dewi, john, daniel and warren)
Basically everything I tried was delicious. And healthy! It's a far cry from the MSG packed fried dishes that look so good but inevitably leave you with a stomachache back home. I ate dumplings like it was my job and became a regular at the bakery/restaurant on the corner by our hostel. As long as things were in pointing range or pictures, we were good to go. Learning the word for rice (which is never in a menu) also proved to be enormously valuable. I took it to memory after an episode of 15 unsuccessful minutes of charades with a waitress.
Try as it did with an explosion of Santas and well-lit trees, Beijing just couldn't provide that fuzzy Christmasy feeling I was searching for. Proving, of course, that all the renditions of Jingle Bells and Here Comes Santa Clauses in the world can't replace friends and family during the holidays.
merry christmas, chinese style
We did what we could to make it special though, or at least a very pleasant day. On Christmas Eve, the boys and I sought out some holiday cheer in a club that was too loud, smoky and crowded for my taste. And the dazzling but alarming behind-the-bar firework display was a good clue as to how all those mysterious bar fires begin. But all the same, it was a good night, followed by a very nice Christmas day. Kerstin, Greg and I roamed around the decorated streets of Hu Hai, then joined the boys for another Chinese feast. Our turkey dinner came in the form of duck, pork, chicken, beef and dumplings. And egg nog was replaced by hot and delicious Glühwein from a little german stand down the street. My holiday attire consisted of two snowman springing off the top of a tacky headband, and the part of my family was played by two kiwis, two germans, and american and a whole lotta "Merry Christmas!" spreading chinese.
glühwein on christmas
Despite what it may have been lacking, it was a christmas I'll always remember.