Thursday, October 8, 2015

Travel Diaries: Beijing, China

Badaling section of the Great Wall of China in Beijing.
A little over a year ago, I spent three weeks in China on the first truly international trip of my life. I kept meaning to blog about it, but never did… oops.

Part of why I blog about travel is to show other people places they haven't been and to encourage people to visit more countries, so I consider it important to share whatever I can about a place and it's culture when I visit. I was looking through old photos the other day when I stumbled across all my pictures from China, and thought, well- bettter late than never, right? So here we are!

First, let me give you a little background on this whole trip… One of my teachers in high school organized these trips to China to visit our sister school there, and I was one of the students that got to go during my senior year. We (me, about a dozen other students, plus a handful of chaperones) stayed in a hotel in Beijing for a few days before heading to Chongqing and splitting up to stay with host families for two weeks.

I have many stories and even more pictures, so I'm breaking the trip into three posts (one for Beijing and two for Chongqing) and hoping I don't overwhelm you with pages of photos!

Let's see, where do I begin? My first glimpse of Beijing, after the smoggy airport, was the view from my hotel window. Which, I have to say, was pretty dismal.

View from my hotel room… pretty sure this area was under construction!
Even though it looked kind of ragged, it definitely didn't deter me or my classmates from being super excited just to be in China. The 13+ hour flight was pretty disorienting, as well as the time change, and those combined with our excitement meant that we all woke up at 3am on our first full day in the city!

We stayed at the Beijing Jing Tai Long International Hotel, which wasn't extraordinary or anything, but we were always entertained by our breakfast options. Every day we woke to an eclectic buffet of Chinese and "Western" cafeteria food. The line started out with a bunch of hot dishes to choose from, things like noodles and rice porridge, as well as boiled greens. There were a few soup-like things I never tried, as they looked pretty murky and unappetizing. Well, I tried a coconut tapioca pudding/soup thing once, which was really sweet but had the texture of raw eggs. Then every morning there would be a different selection of side dishes, like hard-boiled eggs that had been cooked in tea, which were really good. Sometimes there was corn (read: we cater to American tastes!). Once there was something mysterious and unidentifiable labeled "Pond Bowel", which my entire tour group thought was hilarious, though mildly disturbing. 

Then there was the daily "Western" cuisine! Usually pizza (yep, still breakfast time), or some kind of deep-fried bread. My favorite were their "tortillas", which were like fluffy pancakes made with corn flour. My friend and I actually wrapped a bunch of these in napkins and brought them back to our hotel room… 

In the middle of the buffet there were a bunch of dough-wrapped things, which I tried a huge variety of.   Sweet bean paste wrapped in blue bread rolls; a thin, puffy wrap filled with eggs and veggies, and a thicker bread with pork inside. Finally, there were a bunch of desserts (once more… what? After breakfast…?). Most of them were green and jelly-like, and didn't taste like much, but there were a bunch of sesame cookies and pastries that my friends and I ate a ton of. Oh, and french fries! Sad, not very crispy, lacking-salt fries. But fries, all the same, for us American tourists.  

I'm probably going to spend half this post talking about food. 

Seriously, though, half the fun of being there was trying new foods! Although we did have to be mindful when drinking, because we'd been warned not to drink the tap water. Apparently water filtering systems in Seattle are better than those in China, and though the Chinese are able to consume their tap water because they're used to it, we'd get sick if we tried. This made brushing one's teeth an interesting experience involving lots of spilling plastic water bottles.

But anyways… Back to the food! More exciting than the hotel food was the insane variety of street food. You can literally just step out onto any street corner and buy inexpensive, delicious food.

It's really easy to find something I think is called "hum bao"- I kept calling them dumplings on accident. But they're basically dough balls with an assortment of fillings.
They are probably not very healthy, but they are perfection. You can also just buy your groceries on the street! The picture on the right is a vegetable stand in some alleyway, with a huge selection of awesome produce.

My cross country coach was actually one of the chaperones on the trip, and one morning we went on a short run through some of the backstreets. It was so cool to see what felt like the real China, in the morning when the streets belonged to the locals. Old men were out selling fresh and hard-boiled eggs, dumplings stuffed with steaming veggies and pork, greens stir fried in hot oil and various types of fried meat on sticks. The atmosphere was entirely different than in the afternoon, when tourists like us roamed the area.

One of the more fun ways to get dinner in Beijing was to explore these same alleys and use our non-exisent Chinese language skills to try to buy things. At one stand you could pick a raw seafood and get the guy selling it to barbecue it for you! The guy in the photo below is frying a squid that my friend purchased.

So I'm going to shut up about food now. Besides eat, we did quite a few other touristy things. Have you ever heard of the marble boat? I don't understand how it floats, but float it does in the waters at the Summer Palace, which we explored the grounds of while trekking out to see the marble boat. Along the way we got to gaze out at TONS of little boats hanging out in the water, too.

One of the weirdest things was that other Asian tourists wanted pictures of us wherever we went. At one point me and a couple other students drew enough of a crowd that there were literally people lining up to take pictures with us! Four of us really stood out in our group- two tall girls who happened to be twins, my friend with blonde hair and blue eyes, and myself with red hair and blue eyes. Unusual looks for China, so we got a lot of stares. 

Eventually we started giving our friends our cameras whenever people tried to take our pictures, so we got to keep the photos too. In the picture on the right, my friend Annabelle (far right) and myself (far left) are with this woman who took a bunch of pictures with us and then got her friend to do the same! 

I don't remember the name of this other park we went to, but the view of the mountains was GORGEOUS on this particular day, despite the smoggy atmosphere.

Then we found what looked to be bloody handprints on a random wall, and it was all a little less glamorous.

The Forbidden City, no longer forbidden, was another of our destinations. It was PACKED with tourists, but beautiful all the same. It was odd, though- because of the way the walls are structured, you'd think you were getting to the end but it would open into another courtyard… then another… then another… It felt endless!

Of course, no student trip would be complete without visiting Tiananmen Square and the famous portrait of Chairman Mao.

One of the most amazing things, obviously, was visiting the Great Wall of China. It's famous for a reason!

We went to the Badaling section of the wall, and what I did not expect was that to get there you had to hike through this massive staircase/hallway stuffed with vendors. Stall owners tried to sell us candied nuts, pastries, sweets, barbecued goat on sticks… Actually we did buy that last one. Yum. :)

The best moment I had with random people trying to take pictures with us was this guy on the Great Wall, who said my hair was cool and handed me a Chinese flag before having his friend take a picture. I tried to give the flag back and he said, "No! Keep it, it's a gift from China!"

Most of the Great Wall is actually stairs, at least in this area, and some of them were suuuuper steep, like clinging-to-that-hand-rail-for-dear-life steep. Here's a pic for perspective...

What's unique about China that you really don't see in the US is that there's just so much happening out and about on the street. Not just food, but everything. Here we have a lot of small shops and boutiques, or organized marketplaces, but in China there're just people with carts selling things everywhere. On one memorable walk back to our hotel we bought some clothes off a rack, had a guy spin cotton candy for us (right) and watched someone squeeze fresh orange juice into plastic bottles. There was also a woman sitting on the ground in an alley selling little figurines she'd made out of wires- I bought one shaped into a bike for my dad.

I suppose it makes sense because there are so many people there, too. I mean, it's Beijing so it's a city, but there are so many locals and tourists that everywhere is basically always crowded (see below).

Also… Starbucks really is EVERYWHERE.

The one thing I didn't take pictures of was this insanely cool show we went to, because cameras weren't allowed. I don't even know how to describe it… somehow we had these VIP seats and were literally in the front row of an old theater, and it was almost like a circus and 'The X Factor' and I don't even know what else combined. There were some tame acts, like a bunch of women dancing with parasols, and a trapeze artist swinging on a piece of ribbon (being in the front row, we ducked every time she came flying up off the stage). Some of the other acts were INSANE though- a bunch of gymnast guys brought out this giant staircase with rickety steps that were probably like half-foot squares, and proceeded to jump all the way up and down the staircase UPSIDE-DOWN, ON ONE HAND. There was a giant spinning wheel that would rotate as these guys jump-roped on top of it (and one of them almost fell, which was terrifying). They had no mats or anything- they were good but had they fallen it would have ended VERY BADLY.

For the grand finale, a wall opened up at the back of the theater to reveal a giant, round cage, which contained a guy on a motorcycle. It was amazing to watch him do circles inside the human hamster ball, and then they added another motorcycle! And another… and another… Finally there were EIGHT GUYS on MOTORCYCLES whizzing around in circles, like upside-down and everything, inside this giant metal ball, without crashing.

It was AMAZING. 

So there's Beijing for you. It's a lot and I didn't even see a fraction of it, but it is such a different culture and so wild. I love it! China really has such personality, and I'm sooo glad I got to see some of it. 

Next up… Chongqing! Stay tuned. :)

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