Welcome to Beijing, China!

By: Kelly

From Berlin to Beijing, we booked our flight with Hainan airlines, a Chinese company that we had never heard of before. We were presently surprised at the level of service we received, the food and the traditional outfits of the flight attendants. The only downfall was we slept not one wink, considering that we left at 7pm Berlin time and then flew all night into the Beijing morning light.

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We had maybe two hours of darkness while onboard until we caught up with the morning sun. It was actually the most beautiful flight I have ever been on considering that the sun looked like it was right on the wing of the plane and was the deepest fire orange I have ever seen. Even our flight attendant wanted to look out my window to check out the gorgeous views.

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When we arrived in Beijing 10 hours later, the first thing we saw as we stepped outside of customs (which were surprisingly easy) was a KFC. Now, this tainted our vision of Beijing because we figured that Beijing probably was like most other big cities in Europe, meaning not too traditional and pretty Westernized. This was exactly the wrong impression and you will find out why later. So, we locate the city bus we are supposed to take with some charade games between us and a couple of young guys who didn’t speak English. We paid with some yuan that we had just changed over and climbed aboard. We were the only Westerners aside from this one German guy who was on the plane with us. We really didn’t think anything of this fact and rode in the bus into Dongzhimen station. I don’t even remember the bus ride because I was so deliriously tired from the flight. At Dongzhimen, we looked very hard for the subway and after a little frustration and about ten minutes, we found it right under our noses. Things become hard in Asia because suddenly it’s the Mandarin alphabet and you have no idea, aside from context what the signs are saying. For example, if windows are tinted on a shop front, you have no idea whether it’s a restaurant or hairdressers or bar or shop because the Mandarin characters mean NOTHING to you. Regardless, we got on the subway and loads of people were staring at us. We both agreed that we looked bedraggled and were two girls who have massive backpacks, probably making us a spectacle for the local city folk en route to their leisure activities on that Saturday afternoon. We arrived at the subway station and found our hostel down the road with little problems which was good since we were growing more and more exhausted by the minute and it was more humid in Beijing that I had ever felt in Florida. When we checked into our little Gulou hostel, we were told that they were tearing our hostel down the next day and the two nights we were booked in with them, one night would be transferred to their sister hostel on the other side of town. We were confused but determined to roll with the punches since most of the staff didn’t speak very good English and the best they could show us was a sign that “Hostel get take apart” which we took to mean, it will be bulldozed much like the rest of the dusty hutong it was residing in.

Our Hutong View

Our Hutong View

A hutong is a traditional Chinese alley where many families reside in big courtyards with ornate gates. Basically, think about how you envision life in China and a hutong is probably what you think of. They are very sadly being demolished at an alarming rate in Beijing to make room for high-rise apartments as Beijing modernizes itself. It’s sad because not only are hutongs traditional but they are also where most of the old/poor live. In fact, most hutongs have no indoor plumbing in the home so there are public bathrooms on every block where you’d have to go to relieve yourself or clean up.
Regardless, our hutong hostel was being demolished and we didn’t know when. With little real concern, we marched upstairs and proceeded to sleep the entire day away from our overnight plane exhaustion. We awoke groggy in the evening and decided what better way to ring in our first night in China than eating highly talked up dumplings? We caught the subway and headed to a neighborhood and began to follow the directions in the search of dumplings. We attempted to ask everyone we could find for help when we realized we had been walking up and down the same street for a long time with no luck. This is when we properly realized two main things about China. 1. one in twenty people speak English and this is being nice and 2)Of course, everything is written in Chinese characters therefore every shop front is like playing a frustrating game of Match., which we didn’t consider beforehand.

For example:
Ellie: Look that one has the circle in the sign!
Kelly: Yeah, but not the X and the squiggly cross thing….
Ellie: There, there it is!
Kelly: No, I think that sign is actually advertising a barber shop.
Ellie: But it has the squiggle, the X and the circle?
Kelly: But it also seems to have a tiny dot on the end, therefore canceling the entire thing out.

Some guy was nice enough to use his google translate on his office computer to inform us that the dumpling restaurant was supposedly down the street but he didn’t know of it and no one else seemed to either understand our question or know the restaurant. We kept trying to no avail.

Yes, it was crazy. We were getting crabby and no dumplings were to be found but there were loads of other restaurants so we picked a really busy one that looked a little like a Chinese Denny’s with bright fluorescents and padded chairs and went inside. The menu had some English translations which were absolutely amazing. My favorite one being: “The virtual prospect of the misty river at moon-light in the green woods,” and another one which described a dish as “Wooden Speculation Knots.” I never thought I’d say this but thank god for picture menus! We ordered two big beers, some noodles made of herb tofu, some bow-tie tofu noodles and the most delicious spicy tofu with red chilis. A lot of tofu, but it was phenomenal. Suddenly, dumplings seemed like a distant memory. The whole gigantic meal including the two drinks set us back a total of 4 dollars each. Did I mention that this was maybe when I knew we were going to love China?

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The next day, we took the subway from our dusty hutong after being informed we could stay another night without the roof collapsing on our head and went to the cultural center of Beijing. Luckily on the way we found a delicious vegetarian restaurant and had some cheap and interested grub in another hutong.

On the subway, we noticed a strange phenomenon. People were genuinely staring at us, like seriously undeterred eye contact at all times even when we stared back. I was expecting this in Cambodia or rural SE Asia but Beijing? Certainly, these people see foreigners all the time. This was when we both began to notice that we were the only Westerners around on the public transportation and this theme would continue even in tourist-oriented places where we were certain we would be less exciting.

We made it to Tian’amen Square and it was pretty cool to stand in such an iconic place with Mao’s portrait staring down and the stiff police.

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From Tian’amen, we began our journey into the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is the Chinese palace complex that housed the imperial Ming and Qing dynasties. For over five centuries, the emperors lived and worked here. The Forbidden City is sort of comparable to the White House to the Chinese even though no government business or ceremony happens here anymore and it is now considered the Palace Museum and Unesco World Heritage site. It was pretty stunning.

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It was also incredibly hot and Ellie and I were too cheap to pay for two audio guides so I translated everything the incredibly fast English guide said. We spent a few hours walking around the palace complex.

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Afterward, we saw the really pretty Jingshan park at the back of the temple and paid the reasonable 30 cents to tour it. We climbed to the top of the mountain in the middle of the park and saw our first Buddhist temple. The view of the Forbidden City complex, coupled with the ornate gold Buddha with people on their hands and knees, paying homage was a really nice surprise. Somebody had even left Buddha Ferrero Rochers! Lucky Buddha!

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While we were at the top, we kept hearing singing and couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. We climbed down and suddenly saw tons of people singing like a church get-together. To our left in a different part of the park was a woman and man, singing a duet and they even had microphones. At the back wall of the park were people doing Tai-Chi and couples ball-room dancing and line-dancing. At the east of the park was a man doing calligraphy on the ground with water. The whole park was buzzing with people doing their Sunday hobbies. It was such a cool thing to see because in the states we’d rather watch T.V. or play video games then hang out in the park with our friends and try to learn or practice new skills and most of these people were middle-aged or older. I thought it was refreshing and fun to watch. That night for dinner we ate the best lemon fried tofu of my life and some spicy noodle soup.

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The next day, we took a bike ride around Houhai Lake as the video in our sneak peek shows and we rode to the Olympic Stadium. After Houhai, we took a rest at home and then headed to the night market near the Forbidden City.

When we got out of the subway we were stunned. We had finally come across what we were expecting of Beijing all along: Huge hotels, bright lights, 20 ft glass windows displaying designers’ latest garments. As we headed down what must have been the widest six lane “hutong” towards the market, we admired the wealth of it all and were happy to welcome the change of scenery. So this is where all of the westerners must have been hiding, except there still weren’t that many.

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At the Dong Hua Men food market, we knew we needed to have an open mind when witnessing some of the traditional Chinese street food, but we had no idea how crazy some of those delicacies would seem to us. We’ve watched Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern to know these things exist but to see it in person was crazy.

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They have about every kind of meat you can imagine.  From beetles and scorpions to cow tongue and chicken feet on a stick. It was hard because one stall would have delicious fruit and fried sweets right next to a vendor selling snakes and sheep’s penis. And it’s not just because we are vegetarian, I think even the most avid meat eater (Susan Zitsman, I’m talking about you) would have been a little disturbed.  Actually, the worst part was the smell. And while yes, the fish and unusual animal parts did smell a little funky, it was the “stinky tofu” that was a killer. A few vendors had some version of stinky tofu and you could smell it from a couple stalls down. We spoke to a Western man who had worked his way through the scorpions and bugs on offer, and he informed us that the tiny scorpions were far tastier than the larger ones. He offered us one from his skewer and I bet you can’t believe that we politely declined his offer. We got some fried noodles which the man enthusiastically gave us a high five after we purchased them from him and also a blueberry bubble tea that was steaming but was actually cold and fruity.

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We watched children eat chicken’s feet off a skewer like chicken McNuggets. It was pretty crazy and we decided to try for vegetarian dumplings round two at another researched highly reputable place and again couldn’t find this place either.

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The next morning, we actually got moved from our hutong hostel to a hostel in the more modern area near where the night market is. It was a nice change to see another side of the city. We finally found the dumpling place from the night before and realized our guidebook had the wrong address. The dumplings were AMAZING! We got fried shrimp dumplings and steamed vegetable dumplings, as well as some eggplant with extremely potent mashed garlic. Everything for under $10 again. China was becoming the king of cheap and delicious eats.

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The heat in Beijing is really intense in the summer. It makes Florida look like the Himalayas. Often in the heat of the day, we sometimes found ourselves seeking refuge in our air conditioned hostel. That night, we decided to check out Sanlitun, the party and ex-pat district. We had heard about a good Mexican place so we thought we’d lay off the Chinese and try something new while we have the conveniences of ex-pat food in Beijing. The Mexican place also brewed it’s own beer (which was so good compared to the piss water of China), but the food was really expensive. We ate there anyway because by really expensive, I only mean about $11 USD each, but still that’s normally what it cost for both of us to eat.

In Sanlitun, we finally figured out where all the Westerners are. Every table was packed to the gills with English speakers. Sanlitun was glitzy and expensive and looked like a gigantic mall and I should not have been so shocked to see so many Americans. We figured since we were in American territory, there was nothing that a little Coldstone ice cream can’t cure (still the same price in China as in the states, unfortunately.) After our expensive night out, we were a little flabbergasted at all we spent and both realized how much better quality the Chinese food was, but of course, we should have known. Chinese food is better for our budgets and is a lot better than the greasy stuff that normally makes an appearance in the States.

Beijing was nuts. The traffic is horrendous. There is trash everywhere. The stinky tofu literally makes some street corners smell like sewage is running under your nose. The people stare, but I think Beijing was a perfect culture shock to get us stoked about the rest of our China time.

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2 Responses to “Welcome to Beijing, China!”


  1. 1 Mum Z July 21, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    I so want to join you! The food, the colors, the cultures! It is still sooo amazing to me! I really enjoy reading you text… the photos are beautiful. Keep up the excellent job of documenting you travels! Love Mum Z.

  2. 2 AUNT CHRIS July 24, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    HOW COOL!! You make it look easy getting around all those faraway places!! “Wonder Wall” how appropriate! Love your pictures & stories – take care!!


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