Well, it's the first day of my Spring holiday and I can't wait for the adventure to begin!
Time to fly to Beijing. I met up with four of my Air China students to take their employee bus to the airport and Cheryl provided us with breakfast, Vegetable Baodzi (dumplings) - yum! Remember, I am an ESL teacher.
As I got on the plane, Ameng escorted me to, not Seat 5A, but Seat 1E (that's right, FIRST CLASS!). I have never flown first class before, so this was great. Apart from a much larger seat, with tons of leg room, I felt like I was dining in a 5-star restaurant, well, maybe not quite, but the personal attention was really great! I still can't believe that four of my Air China students changed their schedules so they could be on my plane!
The highlight for me was joining the Captain and his staff in the cockpit! His English was only so so, but I was reassured to note in his communications with the air traffic controllers that he spoke very clearly so they could understand him! What a relief!
You know, I have always wanted to see what it was like to sit in the cockpit, but children were usually the only ones invited (prior to 9/11 of course).
I had thought the cockpit's control panels would primarily consist of electronic devices, so it was a huge surprise to see that instead it looked like something out of the 1960's - tons of knobs, buttons, handles and gauges.
You can't even see much in front of the airplane itself, so the pilots must rely heavily on the controls.
I thoroughly enjoyed the experience however and was invited back to experience the landing.
I have to tell you that this experience is one I will never forget.
It certainly isn't possible to do this in western countries any more!
After landing, I went through the arrival doors and immediately spotted a huge sign with my name on it. My hostel came through! My driver delivered me to the Back Packers' Hostel in just 20 minutes, thanks to Beijing's new highways system! I had booked this hostel because it is located in one of the old Hutong areas (old winding passageways) but I wasn't too sure just where it was located.
Great Wall (at Simatai)
I started to smile though, as the driver took me down some streets that were familiar to me from my holiday here three years ago.
Sure enough, we drove past the exact hotel I had stayed in - sadly, it was closed - hopefully just for renovations.
Turns out, my hostel is located just two blocks from it, which means I know the area well and can revisit some favourite haunts (if they are still around, that is!).
My memories of the hutongs and Siheyuans are what brought me back to Beijing. Despite the urbanization and resulting destruction of the Hutongs, many old courtyards have been preserved, with daily life continuing as it has, for hundreds of years. The men still gather outside their gates to drink beer, play chess, smoke and chew the fat.
Great Wall (at Simatai)
Inside the courtyards, large trees provide shade and a peaceful environment, away from the traffic outside the courtyard walls.
Many of these old courtyards are fronted by large red doors, outside of which perch either a pair of Chinese lions, or drum stones.
In fact, a few days after my arrival, I took a rickshaw hutong tour to explore one of the hutong areas more fully, and was invited in to visit a family who had added a beautiful solarium onto their house.
Filled with warm sunlight, birds and plants, it made me realize that all is not what one sees from the streets!
After checking into my simply furnished room (120 Y per night = only C$ 17 per night!) with private bathroom, I immediately headed off for the touristy pedestrian shopping street called Wangfujing Dajie located just east of the Forbidden City.
Beijing is starting to recycle!
Packed with department stores, restaurants and cafes, I figured it would be a good way to start the day.
It boasts everything from Italian fashion shops, to Starbucks, to authentic Chinese noodle houses.
One thing I was not prepared for was its famous Snack Street
I have never seen anything like it.
Hundreds of food stalls cook up the most amazing delicacies.
Everything from scorpion, grasshopper, skinned frogs, chicken hearts, squid, fruit kebabs, dumplings, shishkabobs - you name it!
Everything is super fresh and tasty!
That evening I joined a group to see one of the famous Acrobatics shows in Beijing.
The Chinese acrobats troupe was simply outstanding, providing the audience with a breathtaking spectacle of joint-popping contortionists, jugglers, and gravity-defying balancing acts.
A most enjoyable evening.
Early the next morning (6:40 to be exact), I and 8 others were whisked away by minibus to SIMATAI, one of several areas where one can visit the Great Wall. This 19km stretch of wall is punctuated with watch towers; this rough section of the wall is very steep (definitely not for the faint-hearted)! Some slopes have a 70-degree incline, so you are forced to climb on all fours (a backpack is an absolute must, to keep your hands free). Despite the steepness, local 'hawkers' still manage the climb so they can attempt to relieve you of your hard-earned money by purchasing water, soda, postcards and the like.
The wall was murder on my knees - I suffered for the rest of my holiday, but the views were well worth it!
To recover, I enjoyed the soothing hands of a traditional Chinese masseuse and decided to take him up on his offer to perform 'cupping'. A series of bulbous-shaped glass cups are used (12 of them, I counted). He used some sort of gas and flame technique to create a vacuum for each cup when he placed it on my back for 1-2 minutes. It was quite painful initially, but then the pain eased. The objective of such a procedure is to help pull toxins from the system and to create a deeper healing. The resulting bruising on my back from the cups took several days to disappear, but didn't hurt.
One shopping trip I simply had to take again was to Beijing's famous antique street, Liulichang, located just outside the old city gates.
Waiting for Tourists outside the Drum Tower
Many of Beijing
's oldest shops can be found near this crowded hutong.
The entire area has been designed to resemble an ancient Chinese village.
Prices are totally outrageous, but the location and people-watching are wonderful!
It is also the best place to have an authentic Chinese "chop" made.