Beijing

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Getting into Beijing, I was finally meeting someone familiar. My future roommate in SF, Andrew, has spent the last 5 years in Beijing so his buddy Noah (also visiting) and I got the insider tour.

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I was overwhelmed with curiosity as I got to the Osaka airport for my flight through Shanghai to Beijing. The layover was short enough that I needed to rush to my Beijing bound plane and decided to check my large backpack in Osaka. Luckily my flight didn’t have a giant line for checking bags but that wasn’t the case for the Xi’an bound flight that lined up next to me. Everyone was using a free baggage roller, evidence of American’s ability to charge everyone for everything. Soon we’ll be paying for a cart at the grocery store. More surprising than the amount of luggage is the composition of that luggage. Almost every family bound for Xi’an had a rice cooker. It’s clear that the Shanghai plane I was boarding had a younger, more individual group, and the families going to Xi’an are heading to meet family or return home.

As the line slowly shortens, a girl about my age made a timely return to the front of the line and prepared to check her bag. Visibly bothered and bordering on late, the Asian guy next to me needed to relax my anxiety. She was pushed out of line because she had too much in her bag, removing bags of make up and other crap into an additional bag she would carry on. This isn’t a surprise, Chinese people seem obsessed with stuff, particularly those that are under 35 and have money. The same situation plays out regularly in the States and I probably say the same. I don’t know how long she was in Japan or how long she plans to be in Osaka, but the giant make up bag and multiple pieces of fur clothing that she was stuffing in her bag tell me hint at the excess I’ll be experiencing over the following three weeks.

I made it to the flight on time and had my seat moved toward the front to help catch my next flight. In Shanghai, I navigate the large airport fairly easily, and luckily check the departure screens to see that the gate has changed from what my ticket shows. It’s small decisions like that which make me wonder how I don’t get lost and miss flights more often. I arrived with roughly ten minutes to spare, but if I headed for the original gate I easily would have missed the flight.

This turns out to be a recurring theme during my trip. I think it’s one of the overlooked skills that travelers, particularly young, cheap, hurried travelers, pick up. Earlier that day, I decided to take public transport to the Osaka airport. A single wrong move would have meant the difference. After missing one subway, in the 5 minutes on the subway I finally take, can I figure out exactly how to catch the 45 minute train to the airport? One misstep and I’m probably going to miss my flight. All to save $30 on the taxi ride? I think it’s to prove that I can figure it out. That if offered $30 for making those decisions, I would take it in a heartbeat.

When the plane finally arrived in Beijing, I followed the heard to baggage claim and sunk back into my Kindle. As the bags appeared, and the other travelers departed, I was left without my backpack and noticed another Westerner talking with China Eastern Airlines personnel about a missing bag. I put the book away and joined the conversation. It turns out this Dutch guy, Mitch, was on the same flights as myself from Osaka and I remember him holding up the baggage line in Osaka. It shouldn’t be a big deal for me, I’d be in Beijing for 4 or 5 days and need to be sure they can deliver everything to the Holiday Inn, where I’d be for 2 nights. There’s only a few things I really needed from the backpack, particularly toiletries and chargers, but I can last a day or two in the same clothes. Mitch, however, was headed to North Korea the following morning, not such an easy situation. I pry a bit on this one, and it turns out he’s going for the Pyongyang marathon, meeting his younger brother. It sounds like the country opens up a bit for the marathon, which is run by an international marathon association, and more visitors than usual are allowed. I discussed my recent traveling through Japan, and rough plans for China. Reminiscing on my 24 hours in Kyoto, he enjoyed telling me he’s lived there for five years on and off and considers it his favorite city in the world. He runs an online business, capitalizing on an arbitrage between eBay and Amazon, though I don’t get specifics. As a big Tim Ferriss fan, and having read plenty about Digital Nomads and living on the road, I spent the 15 minutes we are waiting on these Chinese airline workers asking him about his travels. Beyond Kyoto, he’s lived for roughly six months in Medellin, Colombia, Xi’an, China, and soon St. Petersburg, Russia. I definitely agree with his choice of second tier cities rather than the large, international ones that seem to lose character as high rises are built. I finished filling out the forms and left the airport thinking about life on the road, living all over the place and how I could make tit happen myself. But would I want it? A single day in Kyoto wasn’t nearly enough, and five years is clearly too much, but six months? Alone? I know I’ll try to get myself back to places for more than a vacation but not at the expense of the rest of my life.

My cab into Beijing at around 5pm on Friday was mostly had in traffic but still cost just ten dollars. As I entered the car I showed the driver a Chinese address, which I’d have to do throughout Asia, but this is one of the few cabs I’d take. It’s easy to think you’re getting suckered in a cab like this, but I don’t have alternative options and these rides aren’t too expensive anyways. The exchange rate for my trip will be 6.5 Chinese Yuan (RMB) to 1 dollar. The math can get a bit painful at times so I tell myself it’s 5 to 1, which keeps me on the cheaper side of things.

The first thing I noticed about Beijing in comparison to the various cities of Japan, and my home in San Francisco, is the size of buildings and the collection of these buildings. Apartment complexes consist of multiple high rises, many over 20 stories. Huge office buildings litter the skyline. This all makes me feel much smaller and more insignificant than my place back home. The cars on the highway are virtually the same as those you’d see in America, or Europe for that matter as there seem to be some European and Asian brands we don’t have in the US.

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As we approached the exit to get off the highway, I was properly introduced to the craziness of Chinese roads. Cars don’t care much about one another’s position on the road and expect another car that is behind them to make the necessary adjustments to avoid an accident. Weaving across three lanes to catch our exit isn’t just allowed, but routine. Once we got to city streets, scooters and three wheeled, motorized rickshaws join the fray. These smaller vehicles don’t seem to abide any of the rules of the road. Scooters ride on the streets, sidewalks, against traffic, through red lights, and any other place they fit. Cars don’t seem concerned with oncoming traffic when turning, but instead just start going in the direction they’re headed, expecting oncoming traffic to stop. All over China, it feels like there is a near brush with death at every intersection. As a pedestrian, you need to be aggressive or you’ll never get anywhere.

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I dropped off my few belongings, met Andrew in the lobby, and headed to a local bar. It was great to see the familiar faces of he and Noah but even more settling to meet other Westerners at the bar and hear natural English. The area feels fairly international and I’d soon learn that there are a large number of ex-Pats living in the area. After a couple drinks, Andrew ordered an Uber and we headed about 10 minutes away to his favorite restaurant in the city, an upstairs, loud, casual spot full of Chinese people. Apparently it had a bit more culture when smoking was permitted inside. The food is served family style, all ordered by our host from the 10 year old looking waitress that claims to be 18.

The next morning, rocking the same clothes I traveled in, we began our sightseeing at the Forbidden City. Like most cities I’d visit, I hadn’t been researching the city too much, although my Fodor’s guide book gave me an understanding of the city’s layout. Beijing is set up in the standard ring structure of many Chinese cities, with the historical Forbidden City in the center and the surrounding street being the 1st Ring Road. The Forbidden City was home to the government during several dynasties and only entered by the party elite. Knowing the importance, I was expecting a very regal, ornate setting but it’s mostly pretty bare and sturdy, with only the center buildings open for viewing. To add to the intrigue, thousands of Chinese people from all over the country were on the tour with us. Absolute madness, and it was super hot.  

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The heat was oppressive and after a walk up a large hill in the city, we headed for some air-conditioning and Peking Duck. Luckily Andrew knew the good spots. The budget wouldn’t suit me for my entire trip but a few days eating well in Beijing won’t break the bank. The highlight was the duck skin, in which they took the best pieces and served them alongside sugar for dipping. I think I really started feeling all of the walking through airports because my appetite had become insatiable.

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We finished the night with some dumplings and got a prompt start the next day toward the Great Wall. Our two hour car ride brought us to a fairly empty spot on the wall, well worth the trip as I’ve seen pictures that make it look like Time Square. The ride also gave us a chance to see the surrounding areas of Beijing. From inside the cab I could see the freshness of newly planted trees and plants and can’t help think of what this land was like twenty years ago, none of it looked natural. When we finally arrived, we navigate the small, tourism supported village that leads to the wall. This specific location is located on a lake where visitors can take out boats. We were the only Westerners we’d see until we left later that day, but it gave us a chance to see all the Chinese tour groups and families in true form. The group activities and humor of the younger people can take on a very immature tone, which can possibly be explained by the Chinese school system, which focuses on memorization and allows for few relaxed moments during school. (I must say that I recently walked past an elementary school at the beginning of the day, and while orderly, kids are kids and didn’t seem to be holding back from their antics.) I also have to think that the current generation in China must be in a tough position, having parents and grandparents that know such turbulent times in their own youth and trying to build a lighter cultural side without much lead from their elders.

Walking the Wall involved a good deal of climbing up and down stairs, and we were able to get to some great view points that show off the immense size. It felt like the wall was built not only as a physical barrier to entry but a way for troops to move from place to place as well as a lookout for possible oncoming attacks. It’s remarkable how much of it was built on the crest of the hills’ ridges, giving amazing views but presumably making it more difficult to build.

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We headed out that night to catch some Premier League Soccer at a local bar. It felt like we’d walked into a London pub, as British English was the most notable tongue and there were barely any Asians aside from the bartenders. I managed a 4am wake up the next morning to watch Speith lose his 5 shot lead, then saw Andrew and Noah off to the airport, ready to take on the craziness of China on my own.

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The next day, my last in Beijing, I headed for the Olympic Stadiums and planned some shopping in the famous Beijing Hutongs, alleyways lined with shops that are all over the city.

The entire Olympic area is impressive in its size, situated next to a very large park and containing a massive amount of open space for a city that is so congested in certain areas. It’s clear that the park and this Olympic area were totally redone and beautified before The Brid’s Nest outdoor stadium and Water Cube aquatic center are directly next to one another, and of course there’s a single ticket to go check them both out. The outdoor stadium held the World Games recently and the Aquatic center will be home to some of the ice games in the upcoming winter Olympics held mostly outside Beijing. I was more impressed with the Bird’s Nest, it has a beautiful look from the outside and the stadium features only good seats, particularly for track and field.

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The Hutong I went to next was a bit disappointing, particularly because everything was super expensive. It’s understood that the sticker prices are only suggestions, but $500 for a tea pot is a tough starting price. Similar to America, the store owners feel some privilege being on a popular, sort of out of the way street in a huge international city. The goods are high quality but it’s obvious that there is a particular customer, non locals.

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I saved my money and energy for the smaller cities I’d visit and continued walking around some of the interesting streets of Beijing. The next morning I’d head for the train station and my trip to Xi’an.