A Tale of Two Cities: Hong Kong & Beijing (Part II)

3:22 AM Jessica Montgomery 0 Comments

Arriving into Beijing was a breeze. The airport was a ghost town and going through Chinese immigration was a lot less daunting than the trials of obtaining its visa made it out to be. This figurative breeze, ironically, was the last breeze we would encounter for some time. Once we left the airport on the train bound for the inner city, we were hit with a thick yellow wall of pollution and dust. We strained to locate the sun. As our train writhed through the dense atmosphere made for a Science Fiction novella it was clear to us that all of the stories, articles, facts, and figures we true. China was drowning in its own progress.

We checked into our hostel in the hutong district of Beijing and walked around in search of our first, real,  Chinese meal. We walked along a back road perpendicular to our hostel and was greeted with Beijing life. Happy children covered in dust, old men smoking and holding their exposed bellies, some playing mahjong, and middle-aged women riding by on bicycles from the 1970s in work-casual attire and face masks. It reminded Kate and I of Korea but stripped of everything new, cutesy, and carefree. We descended on a restaurant that served, as we could see by peering into the window, a tofu and dumpling dish. The restaurant was small, full of assumed working class on their break, and reminded us of a Korean kimbap chunguk (Korean diner). But, unlike the chunguk, we could not read the menu as it was in Chinese. So Kate and I did our best pantomime and motioned to the man's food in the window that lured us in to this place in the first place. Though we were proud with ourselves once she understood and jotted down in her notepad, the elderly waitress was definitely not impressed. Our food came and to our (not so much) surprise, our simple and safe tofu dish was topped with something anything but simple and safe. Century eggs, or "100 year old eggs", are preserved duck eggs that ferment and become black, brown, and charcoal grey in color. These babies were chopped up and sprinkled on top of our beautiful, silken, white tofu and topped with a pungent soy sauce. It seemed fitting that our first meal would be 'Bucket List' worthy. Kate and I laughed, spooned up a bit of the egg, clanked our spoons together, and on "three", downed it. Kate handled it far better than I did. It was rank. And the yolk was gritty. Neither of what I want an egg to taste like.  consider myself to be far away from the adjective "picky" in any aspect of my culinary pursuits, but this was just bad. I pushed the delicacy around in the soy sauce, tried it again, and ended up sticking to salvaging the tofu.

100 year egg. GAHH!

Day II:
Beijing has a massive subway system that seems to have grown on its own, funneling through any bit of city it so well pleased. To get anywhere is a crowded and sweaty mission that seems to take ages and years off your life. Walking between transfers seems to take longer than the actual train rides and once you reach your destination you feel like you are already ready to turn back around and head home. Beijing is not a leisurely holiday by any means and it was one of those destinations that I felt like I had to see rather than wanted. So for our first full day out in the city we decided to check of few of the 'have-tos'.
We started off with The Forbidden City. It was obscenely crowded and pouring rain. This is a lethal combination for someone of my height in China. Umbrellas were my enemy and the fact that I left the area with both of my eyes was an accomplishment. The City itself was impressive and it was surreal to be there with Mao's portrait looming down on whomever entered. But. It was unenjoyable. The crowds, the pushing, the dodging of flying mucus from the mouths of elders... Kate was extremely frustrated and I myself was barely holding it together. The carvings, gardens, and colors were essentially lost on us. The red walls became a blurr of bodies. We barreled through the complex and was funneled out the back exit like air escaping out of a balloon. We walked along the city's moat and found solace in space. Open space. Breathe. Tiananmen Square was next.

Tiananmen Square, its complicated history, has always interested me. We learned little about it in school, but iconic images of tanks and students are no doubt burned into most of our minds. It was an odd place. We crossed the boulevard separating the Forbidden City and Tiananmen underground and popped up on the other side in a Soviet wonderland. Stalinist architecture, hammer and scythe symbolism, and red stars surrounded us on all fronts. For the most part, the square was empty (compared to anywhere else we'd seen). Some Chinese families took photos, some elderly men sat in groups chatting... we were definitely a spectacle. We stuck out indeed. I was the only Western face and upon further inspection people noticed that Kate was in fact English speaking and not Chinese-speaking. Strange and perplexing we were! We got looks, stares, and at times, smiles. These felt different than Korean stares though. In Korea the stares usually felt harmless, inquisitive, and sympathetic: How are you making it here? But in China the stares felt harder: What are you doing here?

Kate and I were giddy with forcing the stares to roll off our backs and fighting against the No-English current. We needed a break. Later on that night, after a few more frustrations, we ended up finding an incredible restaurant close to the city centre. It was no doubt considered to be a upper-class restaurant for tourists and local and traveling businessmen, but, the prices would've told you otherwise. We ordered real Kung Pao chicken, sauteed peppered cauliflower, our first taste of dumplings, and a new treat: Shanghai pancakes. We feasted and sat at a table in the window for a good two hours for 9 US dollars.

Day III:
The gem of the trip: The Great Wall of China. I can't say definitively that I wouldn't of come to China if the Great Wall didn't exist...but, it would've taken a little more than Mao memorabilia to get me to book that flight.
We did our research and decided to take a tour along the Jinshaling stretch of the Wall. The Jinshaling portion is an approximate 3 hour bus ride outside of Beijing, and it is absolutely worth it. The Jinshaling wall is the only unrestored portion of the famous Wonder of the World and is fittingly dubbed as the "Wild Wall". We booked a tour with our hostel and met up on a bus with others from other hostels and all over the world. We were definitely the only Americans. Our bus set off with "Irene" as our guide. Irene was this tiny, toothpick, of a girl who in all seriousness, might've weighed as much as my thigh. She had been giving tours along this wall for 5 months. She loved her job, loved speaking to us, and was a giant bundle of energy in comparison to her size. Regardless of her petite stature, I would want her on my side during a fight.

Our bus left the city centre, passed by industrial countryside, and winded through valleys until reaching the base of the mountain leading up the Wall. As soon as our bus pulled into the parking lot, local women scattered up to our coach, smiling and waving colorful fans and souvenir chopsticks.  Their faces were unlike the women we'd seen in the city. These women had cherry red faces, sweet smiles, and eyes that didn't seem to eye our wallets but our faces.
We took a rickety cable car up the top of the mountain and departed on a small hike up to the wall itself. We reached beyond the brush and stopped in awe. There it was. Every guidebook, encyclopedia photo, National Geographic article could not capture this. Every crook and dip of the brick nestled into the mountain made all the little headaches of getting here disappear. We climbed up into the first watch tower and stuck our little heads out into the wilderness before us. One side China, one side Mongolia. Every time that I'd heard the term 'Great Wall of China' came flooding back to me. Why did this moment mean so much to so many? Why did this moment mean so much to me?

We set off along the 'Wild Wall' and pranced along the wall stopping every so feet to drown ourselves in photos. The sun made a glorious appearance and penetrated our psyche. We were drunk on 'Once-In-A-Lifetimes'. We danced along the wall, climbed, skipped, and even attempted a tandem  photo while taking on the world's largest bee. We climbed until we could climb no more and met the end with a construction barrier and a man tired of hearing "No" attempting to sell us a can of Coke.  We scooted down a steep portion of the wall on our butts and sat in awe for a few moments of where we were. We both decided that this was the highlight. This was it. Mid-trip, we had peaked.

The air on Jinshaling was breathable and invigorating. The scenery was intoxicating and the sense of accomplishment and adventure was worth the Hong Kong visa headache. We were fortunate with clear weather and the privilege of skimming our hands along one of the wonders of the Medieval world. If you ever make it out to Beijing. Go to Jinshaling.

A photographer's dream.


Day IV:
The night of the Great Wall we crashed early after "Just one beer?". Going at full pace is our style and we stormed on through to more of Beijing's highlights. We started the day off at The Temple of Heaven. Kate and I had been drowning in temples since arriving in Korea, but they've yet to be dismissible by us. Especially the Temple of Heaven. Architecturally, it is different than most Chinese and Korean temples because it is actually a shrine dedicated to Earth and astrology worship. The colors and motifs reflect this. Heaven, Earth, and the Mortal World are all represented through deep blues and emerald greens; very unlike the primary reds, mint greens, and bright yellows usually associated with this area. It was genuinely beautiful and distinct. So much so that we stumbled upon a few couples taking engagement photos in traditional Chinese dress. The women were as stunning as the landscape.

The Temple of Heaven is actually part of a larger park complex with other shrines, pagodas, and smaller temples. We walked around for a bit but had to retire in the shade after elbowing our way up to small kiosk to grab drinks bigger than Kate's head. We pulled ourselves up and reluctantly funneled back on to the subway to get to another 'check-point': The Summer Palace.

The Summer Palace was just that. A palace for royalty to reside in during the summer months. Initially, I didn't have must interest in going. But it was on Kate's list and knew that I would not be returning to Beijing anytime soon so of course I ended up being game. The Palace was as crowded as the Forbidden City, but by this point we were used to the amount of people and rising number of personal body sweat we'd come in contact with mixing in with our own. (Just add it to the pile.) The Palace was surprisingly beautiful and expansive. It was a jigsaw puzzle of pagodas, temple halls, and lake front walkways and bridges carved in stone. We climbed up a large, tiered, pagoda called the Hall of Incense and had a look over-top the complex. It was dream like. All of the people below seemed to disappear under ceramic rooftops, row boats and paddles boats drew lines in the water, and a tell slender pagoda in the distance served as a mythical watch tower.  We climbed back down and rested under a long walkway with an intricately painted ceiling. It was under here that I had my celebrity moment where two young girls had their mother take their photo with me. They sat next to me, said hello, and said that I was very beautiful. Ahh, back in Korea already.

The Summer Palace

We had yet to explore Beijing's nightlife. Prior to the trip, a few progressive documentaries I'd watched glorified the rise of Beijing's punk scene amidst being under an oppressive regime. An underground, Chinese, punk circuit? We had to investigate. But every venue we sought out was a dead end. Old articles and misleading directions to clubs that didn't exist left us defeated; potentially as defeated as the movement itself. We wandered around a local university area for ages and finally found our club: Club 13. After dinner (and after I translated a sitcom script for our waiter) the sun went down I sent Kate through its doors to investigate further. (Kate being Asian would be less of a wrench thrown in the mix. Me, being the big goofy Westerner that I am, might of caused the record to skip upon entrance.) Kate disappeared through the red doors only to appear soon after with speed in her step. "Nope, nope, let's go...!", she said. Soon after, a slender, Chinese man with a shaven head and missing teeth came fumbling out of the door. "Wait! Where are you from!? Come back!" Reaction-ally,  I yelled back: "Canada!" and turned to go only as his fingertips began to creep around the cups of my shoulders.
Walking down the sidewalk I asked Kate what happened. "Well, I walked in and no one was in there aside from two dudes sitting at a computer. I asked if there would be a show tonight. They said, 'No. There will not be a rock show tonight. But! We will listen to rock music!', and then they put on Nirvanna and offered me a drink. So I walked out. Imagine if they closed those doors dude..." Ah. No punk scene for us...

Day V:
By day two Kate and I had developed a cough. I'd later read that this goes by the cute little pet-name of The Shanghai Hack. And by day five our bodies were starting to question our life choices. (Side note: A week prior to this trip I had sprained my back "playing" soccer in Korea.) But we had one full day left in a land that we knew we'd more than likely not return to any time soon, if ever. We were exhausted and had the latest start out of any of Kate and mine's adventures. We still had a few things on our list and unenthusiastically set off to conquer what we could. We got lost on the way to the antique market and things were looking bleak. Kate was ready to leave and after we both bought a few paintings from a man with the best English in all of Beijing, we did just that. Once we returned to the hostel and popped our shoes off, we were greeted with quite the surprise and a tell-tale sign that we did in fact need to pump the brakes every once in a while. We had walked so much over the past few days that Kate's feet were actually bleeding. Straight through her socks. She didn't even notice because her "feet had gone numb" long ago. I joked that this was truly a pilgrimage now.

We spent the last of our money on more good food and questionable street food along the ritzy promenade of inner Beijing. Who was buying Chanel? Coach? Burberry? Was China's middle class truly splurging on these so-called luxury items? From what we could see, the stores were empty. Was Beijing's '5th Avenue' just a modern-day propaganda village?

Street food delicacies anyone?

The remainder of Kate's money was to go to a t-shirt for her boyfriend back home. We sought out a chintzy shop to haggle and do just that. We were approached and offered a shirt for 160 Yuan. That was an astronomical price compared to everything else that we had payed for. We were ready to walk away when a woman from inside the shop came out and with a sly and sweet, yet monotone, voice said: "Hello. Nice to meet you. How much you pay?" Kate knew that even if she haggled for half of the original asking price her wallet couldn't support that. We waved her off and said thank you, but no. The woman insisted, "Hello. Nice to meet you. How much, then?" Kate explained our situation and said that we needed money for train fare in the morning. "How much then?", the woman insisted. Kate offered up 40 Yuan with a defeated, sheepish grin, because this was honestly all she could do. The woman's smile faded and quickly became stern and confrontational. "No. Look again. How much do you have?" Kate and I backed away pleading our case that we were truly out of money. The woman then lunged forward and grabbed Kate's arm, "Look in your wallet! How much you have!?" I didn't know what to do. I was standing there as Kate was wrestling with a woman who had just pulled a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and a man who didn't seem too friendly from the start. Finally Kate started yelling, "Okay! Now you're hurting me!", and looked at me in shock attempting to twist her arm to freedom. The woman, assuming she was afraid of the attention this might cause, let go. She lowered her eyes at Kate and in her new, grated voice said, " You know. I will give it to you for 30, because I like you." Kate threw her the money, grabbed the shirt, and in one fluid motion we doubled down the street. It was time to leave China.

(With that last incident left aside...ha!)
Here are my first impressions of China/Beijing:

-English is sparse and navigation can be difficult. Pre-planning is key and restaurants are a roll of the dice unless there are photos in the menu. Go into it knowing that, if worst comes to worst, there's a 7-11 right down the street.

-With that thought, the food is great! Far easier to be a vegetarian in China than in Korea! And that was surprising as hell for me.

-China's middle class is no joke! They are a proud and touristy middle class. But extreme poverty exists alongside.

-China is still incredibly suppressed. The Internet is virtually non-existent due to government regulation and the Mao uniform still exists.

-China is also still incredibly cheap. A round trip tour (3 hours each way by coach) of the Great Wall (a once in a lifetime sight), including water, breakfast, and lunch was only $40 USD. This was our largest expense.

-Even though we came back to our hostel each day grimey and exhausted, all the "hassle" is worth it. Honestly, how much can anyone complain? We're not living there, we are visiting and trying new things. Go and experience it. You've really nothing to lose.

-But, with that thought...HOW do people live there? That, is almost as amazing as The Great Wall.

(Fun Fact!: Written while staying at a hostel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Travel time has afforded me some catch up and writing time. Happy Camper!)



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