09.26.2007 - 09.27.2007 0 °F
Whelp, I'm in China! It was 11 hours on the plane from Sydney, but at least I had a direct flight. After arriving Wednesday night I braced myself for a long intensive rite of customs full of broken English and interrogation. I got through in about 10 minutes, and the lady BARELY glanced at my documents. That was easy. I waited around for Ellen as her flight got in a little later, had to fend off a few personal Taxi offers, and then we were on our way to our hostel. We arrived after midnight, and found Char already there waiting for us. Unfortunately Air Canada has lost Char's luggage, and we're hoping it arrives today, 2 days after arriving.
We awoke early on Thursday and began to wander around. Our hostel is right in the heart of the old city Hutong neigborhood. Hutong means something like "alley" and the streets around here are quite small, wind every which direction, and are filled with people, bicycles, food stalls, etc. I much prefer them to the big busy streets, of which Beijing appears to have no shortage. I had been warned about the pollution and smog here, though to be honest, it doesn't feel any worse than walking down Michigan Ave with all the buses going by. Not that it's clean, either, but I was expecting blackened sky 24 hours a day and having to wear a face mask to keep the soot away. So, either people exaggerate, I haven't seen the really bad part of the city, or this push to clean up before the Olympics is actually working. It's the smoking that bothers me more. EVERYBODY smokes. The ban has not quite reached China yet.
We went to see the Forbidden City and surrouding sites as we are only a few blocks away. First, we waited in line to walk through Mao's Mausoleum. His body has been preserved (and is apparently kept in a giant refrigerator in the basement overnight) and on display everyday. The Chinese are extremely proud of their former Chairman, and there was a rather large line when we were there on a Thursday. They usher you through rather quickly, you can't bring anything in with you, and you cannot make noise while inside. I have a feeling that being a guard at this establishment is considered a pretty good gig. So, I was about 15 feet away from Mao. Embalming or not, he looks a little waxy.
The Forbidden City is amazing, and a must see for anyone who visits. It was built in the early 15th century by the Emperor, who was considered a God by his subjects. The construction followed the laws of Fenq Shui and Ying/Yang (I may have butchered the spelling of those). Citizens were not allowed within, or even near, its walls. There are over 9,000 rooms in the city, and it is absolutely ginormous! We walked around for several hours and saw only a fraction of it. It's essentially a labyrinth, very easy to lose your sense of direction and get lost. But very peaceful and serene. Well, once you get past the entrance and first courtyard, anyway. The detailing and color in the City are phenomenal.
As for culture shock, well, there is certainly some, though it's not too bad. There are other westerners around, though not too many. We are traveling on a budget, (translation: not paying for western luxuries) so you have to become accustomed to certain things, like squat toilets (AKA hole in the ground), no soap or toilet paper (hand sanitizer and bring your own), spitting in the streets (some of the women here can hawk their phlegm like you would not believe!), relaxed rules of the road and people and bicycles everywhere. At least they drive on the right-hand side of the road here. That's helpful.
We went to see the Beijing Opera last night, and that was fun. Lots of extravagant costumes and make up, and fun choreography and acrobatics. The music is very interesting. Instead of singing (or what I know as singing) it sounds like they are yelling or screaming in a very high-pitched range (men and women both), though not at all unpleasant. It's very rhythmic, and the "orchestra" is mostly percussion. It was put on in a very nice hotel, so of course we used the bathroom before leaving. NEVER give up the opportunity to use a nice bathroom when traveling in Asia. I've learned that lesson in less than 24 hours.
The food is great, so far, if you can avoid being horrendously overcharged. We've found our way to the back streets and more authentic restaurants. Some have menus, though if there are no pictures to point to, then you just have to gamble. Char was doing her best chicken dance today to try to communicate what we wanted to eat. Somehow, it worked. We stuffed ourselves for less than $1 each. How's that for budgeting.