We began our day as every day ought to be begun – with cakes. Amelia had bought a small cake for her birthday (as you may recall), and Iris had given Kat two mooncakes the previous evening. Not wanting to port these delicacies to Beijing on their backs, the ladies decided to carry them in their bellies.
I tried Kat’s mooncake, but did not care for it. It was very dense and quite sweet. Chinese people seem to like them, though – mooncakes are a very popular delicacy that are commonly eaten around the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is a pretty big deal hereabouts.
We went to check out of the hotel. Amelia and I had booked our own room for the first two nights in Shanghai, and had roomed with Kat for the following nights. Although we tried to be very clear about wishing to pay for our room separately, the clerk blithely combined our bills and put them on Kat’s credit card. Needless to say, Kat was not pleased, although she did feel that she had learned a valuable cultural lesson about differences in the formalities of payment.
The hotel’s doorman redeemed his employer by feeding two cats outside and teaching us the word for “cat” in Mandarin. It is “mao”, which adds a whole layer of irony atop the classic kitty name “Chairman meow”. And not hipster irony, real irony. Amelia and I spotted at least two types of it. If you aren’t sure what they might be, I would recommend auditing a high-school English class.
Anyways, we caught a cab to the right train station. Did I mention that we decided to take the bullet train to Beijing? Well, we did, and our cab got us there in the nick of time. This was fortuitous, as we had originally planned to take the subway to the wrong train station altogether. We changed our plans at the last minute because taking the subway seemed like a lot of work. Once again, we found that we had been saved from our own poor planning by a combination of laziness and money.
Once aboard the train we took to the dining car. We reposed at a table whilst lunching on overpriced instant-noodle soup, all at 300km/h.
The train ride was very nice. Although we were in economy class, we were treated to comfortable chairs and plentiful power outlets. To top it all off, they played Jackie Chan movies and Arnold Schwarzenegger documentaries for the whole 5 hour trip. In short, the ride was nearly indistinguishable from my childhood.
Upon arriving in Beijing we found that there was an enormous lineup to get a taxi at the station. This made the subway seem much more attractive, so we hopped on the metro in the direction of a station that had a name similar to that of the neighbourhood in which our hotel resided. Or, at least, the neighbourhood in which we thought it resided – it had been a while since we made the booking.
We got to the neighbourhood and showed a cabbie our hotel’s address with the hope that he might drive us to the right place. Instead, he motioned us along in the direction of some nearby buildings. We walked over and discovered our hotel. We had been saved by a taxi driver for the second time in one day, but this time it was free.
We settled in and then headed out for lunch at a nearby muslim restaurant. Kat had never eaten a hotpot dish before, so we ordered one, plus some cold lamb and beef dishes. Amelia and I enjoyed it, but it was a little savoury for Kat’s taste. She had been hoping for something sweeter.
After lunch we wandered down a side-alley that featured vendors of trinkets and food. We spotted some skewered scorpions, seahorses and starfish. I am not sure which category of wares I might put those under. Naturally, Kat suggested that we eat them. I called shotty on the starfish, which turned out to be a mistake.
The scorpions and seahorses tasted just like every other small item stuck in a deep-frier, meaning that Kat’s and Amelia’s respective snacks were relatively delicious. Kat had promised a friend that she would try eating scorpions in China, and was quite relieved to discover that they were (a) tasty and (b) not poisonous.
Further down the alleyway, Kat bought a paper hat. It was made in a very popular style that allows you to wear it four different ways. None of them are particularly fetching.
While she was buying this, I was looking at puzzle boxes. The vendor, noticing my interest, offered to sell me the box and teach me its secrets if I agreed to pay him a lot of money. Well, a lot of money for China – it would have been about CAD$20. I decided that I was not interested in purchasing the box at all, thanked the vendor, and wandered off.
Wandering off took a little longer than I expected, as the vendor called down the street with progressively lower prices as I got further away. Using only my feet, I managed to haggle him down to one third of this original price. Eventually I turned a corner, and our negotiations were over.
My feet drive a very hard bargain.
My feet and I (and the ladies) wandered over to a nearby garden path. It was a lovely reprieve from the sights and smells (oh my goodness the smells) of the alleyways.
We began to make our way to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Along the way we met some very friendly people with very good English who were very excited to show us art exhibits and take us to highly recommended peking duck restaurants. Luckily for us, Kat had read about these kind souls. They are scammers, and they will leave you with a large bill for services that you did not want nor request. Amelia found this somewhat demoralizing, as she had met a nice art student who had excellent English and planned on visiting UBC to study art and thought Amelia looked very Chinese and was putting on this really great art exhibit if we’d just like to come down this side-street with him.
We did not want to go down that side-street with him, but we did conclude that the comment about Amelia looking Chinese was probably a compliment from the perspective of most people in China. At least, it probably is when given to someone who appears Asian. Neither Kat nor I have been complimented in this way yet.
In addition to the scammers, there are the guides. They will engage you in conversation, asking where you are from and whether you have been to the Great Wall yet. They will follow you, and will not take “no” for an answer. Unless you have an Asian wife who knows exactly enough Chinese to tell them to take a hike. They will take “take a hike” for an answer, if an Asian person says it in Mandarin.
The nearer we got to Tiananmen Square, the more persistent and more frequent these guides became. We fought our way through them until we reached the gates of the Forbidden City.
We had arrived at the Forbidden City after just after 5pm. That happens to be the time when admissions end and the nice military men motion you away from the gates very sternly. So we went to one of the public gardens next door instead.
After sauntering around the garden for a while, we said good-bye to the silhouette of the Forbidden City and made our way back to the hotel.
We regrouped back to our home base and decided that our first night in Peking called for beijing duck. Wait – strike that, reverse it.
Anyways, we made our way to a peking duck place that came highly recommended, both by Lonely Planet and the Chinese government. Have I mentioned this yet? The Chinese government ranks everything. All tourist attractions get ranked on a 5-point scale (the terracotta warriors were AAAAA, and the Shanghai urban planning exhibit was AAAA), as are all tourist-oriented restaurants and hotels. The place that we went to had been given five stars on the Beijing Tourism Administration’s Tourism Restaurant scale, and five diamonds on The National Restaurant and Hotel Ranking Committee’s National Special-Grade Restaurant scale.
Although I am not totally sold on the Communism thing, I have great faith in these government rankings.
The restaurant itself was pretty intense. It spanned multiple floors, and appeared to have seating for north of 500 people. Each floor had an enormous waiting room full of people, with a hostess handing out and calling numbers periodically. We got number 106 upon arriving on the third floor, and it only took 20 minutes for them to burn through the 30 numbers (roughly 100 people) ahead of us and get us seated. We thought that was pretty impressive.
We ordered a duck and a variety of small dishes to accompany it. A chef came up to our table and carved it for us. It was both delicious and fancy. We enjoyed ourselves mightily.
After dinner we went back to our hotel and recuperated.
Tomorrow we visit the Forbidden City. Stay tuned.