|Beijing (August 30, 2001 - September 4, 2001)|
By the time we got our bags in Beijing, it was almost 8:30 PM.
While in Nagano, we phoned a guide in Beijing (who had been recommended) and asked him to book a hotel and meet us at the airport. We met Sun ya ping ('Sonny') as planned, and he drove through central Beijing on the way to the Jianguo Hotel (aka Quinmen Hotel, 175 Yong An Road, Xuan Wu District).
The 2001 University games were on in Beijing, and the city was looking its best. The bridges and on/off ramps all had colourful fluorescent lights, and all the major building on the main street were blanketed in spotlights. Apparently this was just special for the games... but it gave us an indication of what Beijing might be like for the 2008 Olympic games.
Our hotel was nice. I guess I would describe it as a typical business hotel - clean and polished. The kids were in heaven - a western breakfast was included and the satellite TV was showing all the Star War series. The price was Y500 per night for each of two rooms - about $90 for each room. This is much cheaper than Japan, but we look forward to finding even cheaper accommodation once we leave Beijing.
Sonny was busy for the first two days with other clients, so we were on our own.
In the two weeks in Japan, we were never tempted to buy anything other than 'needs', such as food etc. China seems just the opposite. On the first morning, we walked to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. We passed by many shops with all sorts of items - clothes, handicrafts, watches all at very attractive prices. T-shirt were Y2 (about $0.40). However, Sonny had said not to buy anything, because he would bring us to the market on Sunday.
We walked through Tienanmen Square (it is immense), but our first real stop was the Forbidden City. As our guide book said, " if we entered the Forbidden City a few hundred years ago, the price would have been instant death... but now it is a quite manageable $6".
The Forbidden City and its opulence only hints at the lifestyle that the emperors must have enjoyed. But what I will remember most about the Forbidden City was that our kids were instant celebrities.
No less than 10 different people asked to have their pictures taken with our kids - most of these with just Chloe & Heather. They liked Chloe because she is so small, and they liked Heather for her curly blonde hair. The girls had their picture taken with other kids, parents, and men and women. We stopped for a popsicle and soon after had a crowd of about 10 people standing around us looking at the kids and talking about how they had planned parenthood in China. Was this Andy Warhol's 15 minutes in the sunshine for us? We slunk off into the shadows to some of the museums (saw some great vases and incredible clocks) and escaped. Our children have vowed never to become famous. hmmmm.
After some difficulty getting a taxi, we took the subway and then walked a bit back to the hotel.
Taxis are a nuisance. A number of taxi drivers refused to start their meters - instead they wanted a flat rate that we knew was way too high. We had another strange incident near Tienanmen square. We weren't quite sure what happened, but after a taxi stopped to pick us up and then left (he didn't know where the hotel was and I couldn't explain it), it was almost immediately stopped by a policeman. There was some discussion, and finger pointing at us by both police and driver. Sarah started to go over, but they did not appear to want us to get involved. We were told the next day that it was because he was not supposed to pick people up near the square and that he would receive a fine of between Y50 and Y200 depending on how the policeman felt.
We had dinner at the hotel that night. Even with expensive hotel food, we ended up spending under $30 for a very good meal for the family.
The next day, we went off on another walk (I have developed a phobia about taxis) to the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan) and the large park that it was in. We had a fun lunch at a slightly touristy restaurant - they brought uncooked food and a tiny barbecue, and we cooked on the table ourselves. Taxis remained elusive - we had a number of offers to go to Beihai Park for a flat rate of Y40 (they claimed the meter would be Y50). We finally found a taxi a short walk from the park entrance with a driver who spoke no english. Using the meter was fine for her... and it ended up costing Y13. It seems all the dishonest drivers just hang around the tourist traps.
One other 'ripoff' that we discovered after the fact - the Y1 and Y2 bills are very similar to Y0.1 and Y0.2. Sarah got caught once by someone giving her incorrect change (i.e. Y0.1 when she was owed Y1). Oh well - it was more of an annoyance as 1Y is only about $0.20. Sure enough, someone else tried it on us later, but Sarah was wise to it... and with a slight grin, Sarah was given the correct change.
Beihai park was very nice. We rented an electric boat and cruised around a lake that was formerly the emperor's play area.
The Hongqiao market was indoors and air conditioned (thankfully, as it was another hot day). We bought lots of stuff - Sarah & I were bad and got fake Rolex's. Mark was bad and got fake Oakley sunglasses. Heather and Chloe were good - Heather got a chinese doll dressed in a colourful traditional outfit, and Chloe bought a fan and spent the next few hours hours trying to flick it open and closed. Mark got some running shoes (we think these are real Asics), and we loaded up on cheap socks.
After seeing how little our kids ate the night before, Sonny suggested Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch assuming that the kids would like North American fast food. I think that girls had a few french fries and an ice cream each. Their stomachs are still somewhere between Vancouver and Beijing - they don't seem to like anything at the moment.
Sarah bought a little bit of food to eat in our room, and we called it a night.
The next day, we added another chapter to our upcoming book 'Laundry Around the World'. We had last done laundry in Nagano, so we had a good pile of dirty clothes. The hotel was expensive (no surprise there), so Sonny brought us to the local cleaner. There appears to be no such thing as a coin laundry but we expected the cleaner to be quite cheap. The cleaner asked us how many pieces we had - well, we had lots: about a weeks worth of socks, underwear, shirts and shorts for two relatively clean parents, and three relatively messy kids. They looked at the bags (maybe two loads) and wanted $60. For $60, we could buy all new clothes at the market!
Grabbing our clothes back, we went back to the hotel and got ready for the trip to the Great Wall. We'll deal with clothes later.
Fortunately they have built a chairlift to get us to the top. Unfortunately, it continued to be muggy and hazy, so the view at the top was not as good as it could have been. However, it really was quite neat to see the wall in person. If you ask the kids, they would say the highlight was taking the 'toboggan' back down from the top. (probably a 200 metre drop - maybe 800m long). Imagine a luge on wheels running down a metal track that looks a lot like a bobsled run - complete with banked corners. Mark said that all the Chinese spotters were yelling something in Mandarin as he shot past them ("Slow down!" or maybe "Watch out below - here comes a crazy kid!").
That evening back in Beijing was really quite fun. Sonny had helped us make a reservation at Li Qun's Peking Duck Restaurant - this little hole in the wall restaurant is a short walk from Tienanmen Square... but it would probably take a few paragraphs and a map to give you exact directions. You have to walk through a 'hu tung' - or area where all these little one story brick houses are separated by walkways that are wide enough for two bicycles. Just walking to the restaurant was interesting.
After supper, we walked to Tienanmen Square where Chloe, Mark and Heather tried unsuccessfully to fly our kite - much to the amusement of all the Chinese present. Of course, the Chinese kite flyers performed miracles with their kites in the very light breeze.
That's it for Beijing. We left the next morning (a good taxi ride again) and flew to Xi'an. We had hoped to take the train but the schedules didn't work for us: we would have arrived in Xi'an at 5:30 AM. Read more...