Beijing Blues

I spent last weekend in Beijing, enroute to the US from my work trip to Qingdao.  This was my first time to Beijing, and I was looking forward to it.  But even as the train came into Beijing, it was as if a pall was descending.  By the time we were 100 km from the city, the air was milky white and visibility was down to a few hundred meters.

The smog obviously played havoc with sightseeing. For example, in the Forbidden city, I could hardly see beyond one gate to the next.  Strolling around the lake in the summer palace, you could hardly see around the corner. All those picture postcard views under clear-skies? They must have taken them after a thunderstorm or something. Those sights were simply not to be had.

On the other hand, there is nothing like travel to bring new perspectives on things.  Beijing was the first place in China where I was essentially on my own . So, I learned to recognize Chinese characters.  Because so many subway station names end with "men" or have "qian" in them, I know those characters. Bei=north and jing=capital, so I learned to recognize those two letters as I did the characters for "dong" or "east", and "nei" for "inner".  My eyes no longer gloss over when I see Chinese writing, and that's quite cool.

Since I had only one two days there, I decided to pack as much as I could into those two days and I maximized my use of public transport.  I took the subway and buses everywhere, learning to navigate the system.  The subway is quite well signed (in both English and Chinese), so it was quite easy.  I got into Beijing Friday afternoon and managed to see the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven that day itself.

I also booked a car to take to the Great Wall near Mutanyu (a lot less touristed than Badaling) on Saturday early morning.  "My own car," I specified, "so I that I stop only at the Ming dynasty tombs and at Mutanyu and nowhere else."  The travel agent agreed, but the driver who came to pick me up at the hotel said he had to make extra stops at a jade gallery, a foot massage place, etc. "it's part of the tour and it is included," he kept saying. I refused -- I did not want to spend half my vacation dealing with hard-sell.  Finally, they agreed to refund me my money and let me go my way.

That is how I ended up going to Mutanyu all by myself.  The person I asked for directions gave me this chit of paper:
It was a rather funny scene.  She quickly wrote down the Chinese characters, then took a deep breath and carefully wrote down the English pronunciation "huai rou qi che zhan".  I took a bus to that place from Dongzhemin and then hired a taxi to take me to the foothills of Mutanyu.

Mutanyu is famous for its cable car ("run by an Austrian businessman", the ad copy read) but there is also a nice steep path to the Wall.  I took the steps up, walked along the wall for a couple of guard stations and took a different trail back down.  It was very nice, but the smog was not far away, so the scenery was always rather shrouded.

I managed to get back to Beijing after hiking the Great Wall by 2pm on Saturday.  So, I had enough time to do a quick lunch at a fast-food place at the train station and make it to the summer palace.

Talk about a place being crowded.  The summer palace was really, really crowded. Not as bad as the Louvre, but quite bad.  But even in that crowd, I guess I stood out because a couple of groups asked me to pose with them for their pictures.  If you ever see a picture of me with two grinning Chinese freshmen or several weather-beaten farmers, that's why.

When the summer palace was near closing, I went off to the Olympic stadium, walked around there and finally called it a night.

Sunday morning, I visited the Confucius temple.  These stone tablets are inscribed with the names of Confucian scholars -- those who passed his examinations!  Forget about having a graduate thesis stored in a dusty library.  These stone tablets are how you really make a mark!
The temple is full of stone steles that mark a variety of imperial pronouncements, and each of the steles is in its own pavilion.  It's all rather impressive.

After this, the Lama temple which is just a block away from the Confucius temple was a big let down.  The sandalwood Maitreya is quite impressive, but that is about it.

After that, I went back to the hotel picked up bags and went to the train station where I could catch the Airport Express to the airport.  The plane was scheduled to leave at 3.45 and I was at the train station a little before noon.

Enough time to do another bout of Chinese fast food.  This time, I didn't know where to pay.  Everything in China is huge, and it turned out that I was the wrong side of the restaurant.  The counter where you ordered and paid was on the other side of the wall.  And in any case, I didn't know the name of the dish I wanted. So, I pointed to a pot and gave the cook some money.  She asked me some questions pointing at some spices. I shrugged saying I didn't care what she put inside the soup. She called a colleague who went over, paid and brought back a card that he swiped.  This brought up an order and the cook now made it for me:
A little convoluted of a process, but I think this is the way things work in a low-trust society.  Everything is monitored closely.   The noodles were delicious and the cook was all smiles to see me attacking it with gusto.

So, between Friday afternoon 2pm to Sunday noon,  I saw pretty much all the sights in Beijing:  Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Mutanyu Great Wall, Summer Palace, Olympic Center, Confucius temple, Lama temple. The only thing I didn't go to see (and it was a conscious decision) was Tienanmen Square.  And I did it all with public transport.  Try doing this in an American city. Pollution or not, Beijing rocks.

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