Monday morning began with a pounding on my door and that terrible feeling you get in your stomach when you’ve forgotten something. It suddenly dawned on me what I forgot as soon as I stumbled out of bed to answer the door and saw Stacey, Brad, and Elijah standing there with their backpacks. It was 5:30 am, and my alarm had failed its high and sacred duty of waking me up. So I took about five panicked minutes to get dressed and grab my bag, and then we went out into the chilly morning to catch a taxi to the train station. The taxi driver, sensing that we were Americans, thoughtfully put in a mix cd with English songs, so that taxi ride will be forever burned into my memory along with Eiffel 65’s “I’m Blue.” The ride should have taken 20 minutes. It took 10. Our taxi driver drove like a maniac as the bass line thumped along, and we were deposited at the station fully awake and ready to go to Beijing!
I thought Shijiazhuang was a big city, but Beijing takes the cake. Just to give you an idea, when I landed at the airport in Beijing four weeks ago, I was technically in the outskirts of Beijing, but it would have taken over an hour to drive into the heart of the city. It’s huge. The streets are a mass of people jostling to get to wherever they’re going, dodging taxis and cars and motorcycles. Brad, Stacey, Elijah, and I found ourselves in the middle of these crowds after we got off our train from Shijiazhuang and made our way to our hostel, which was great. The hostel was a short walk from Tiananmen Square, and located near touristy streets and older streets with shops and good food. There was a big group of Germans staying there, along with some other Europeans and a few Americans. My favorite thing about the hostel was the open courtyard in the center, with red lanterns hanging around, where you could just sit and relax or have a drink. I spoke there with one of the owners or managers of the place for a little while as he had a smoke, and he was gracious about my broken Chinese and started telling me about different dialects and accents in China. Another great thing about the hostel was that they had yogurt banana shakes…I think I had three of them.
On Tuesday, we walked around Tiananmen Square, which is huge. Several old men came up to Elijah and me and asked to have their pictures taken with us. The guards, however, gave stern looks to any foreigners who tried to take pictures of them. At several corners in the area, some SWAT guys with assault rifles and shotguns were hanging around. I’m not sure if they needed more security because of the National Holiday or if that’s a regular sight in Beijing.
While walking close to the gates of the Forbidden City, we were aggressively pursued by a jolly rickshaw driver who really, really wanted us to buy a ride. We said no many times (bu yao), but he kept following us and laughing and assuring us that he really likes Americans. He kept lowering the price, and we finally agreed, though it’s not very clear when or how we actually agreed to it. After that day, my heart hardened against people selling me things, to my benefit. But anyway, we rode in his rickshaw and he showed us some old streets in Beijing, and told us to get out at several points so that he could grab Elijah’s camera and take pictures of us. We alternated between speaking in English and attempting to speak in Chinese, which was pretty fun. He laughed the whole time, and even though we probably got somewhat ripped off, it was a nice little ride.
The next day, we had big plans to go to the Great Wall. We followed Brad’s directions to get to the bus stop where, according to Lonely Planet, the 919 bus takes passengers to a near section of the Wall (Badaling) between 8 am and 5:30 pm. We got there around 12:30 pm, after being hounded by taxi drivers offering to take us to the Wall for 400 kuai. The 919 bus pulled up, and I asked the driver if he was going to Badaling, and he said no. Another 919 bus pulled up, and I asked this driver the same question, and he also said no. Then I turned and saw the sign for Badaling, and it said that the bus takes people between 6 am and 12 pm. It was a very sad moment. And now I look askance at my Lonely Planet: China book and feel the sting of its betrayal.
Instead of giving up for the day, we decided to go to the Forbidden City and to Jingshan Park, a short taxi ride away. We climbed up steep stairs to shrines in the Park, and from there we could see the Forbidden City stretched out below us under a thick blanket of smog. Despite the smog, and its impertinent invasion of our lungs, the view was beautiful. After climbing back down, we crossed the street and forked over 60 kuai to enter the Forbidden City itself. The place was a huge maze of old walls, buildings, and side streets that opened into more and courtyards. A large amount of people swarmed through it, both Chinese and Western tourists. We walked across the whole city in two or three hours, and found ourselves back near Tiananmen after we walked (for forever) around the palace moat to the street.
One sight that’s become normal for me to see in China is chubby babies with exposed backsides, and there was no shortage of babies in Beijing. I apologize for not having photo evidence of this, but until I get a new camera, I’ll just have to describe it. Babies don’t wear diapers here as far as I can tell; instead, they just have a convenient split in their pants. I have seen many a parent nonchalantly holding their children over trashcans and street grates while the babies relieve themselves. I have no idea how the parents time this right, or if the babies are trained from a super early age to go when they’re told, but it looks like it works out fine. I guess it beats buying diapers…and those little backsides are so cute.
The last day in Beijing, we all had a late breakfast and checked out of our rooms, then walked around bargaining like mad for wall scrolls, t-shirts, tea sets, and other things. I’ve discovered that my best bet is to walk away when I can’t get a good price, because usually they chase me before I can get very far and say “all right lady, all right lady!” and lower the price down to what I asked. I bought a small tea set from one man, and we heatedly punched in numbers on his calculator to argue the price. I walked away three times, and he finally lowered it from 118 to 40 kuai, muttering and grumbling the whole time. I had to remind myself that this is just what he does every day, and that if I were Chinese I could probably have argued it cheaper.
We got to the train station to catch our bullet train back to Shijiazhuang, and it was a fast and comfy ride. It went up to 230 km/hr during this trip, which is close to 143 mph. Beijing was a blast, but it felt so good to be back in Shijiazhuang. The taxis here are cheaper, the streets less crowded, and this place has become home away from home now—a familiar place. Oh, and the fry guys’ place across the street from the school was still open. Yes please.