"The air burns our eyes."
Not to start out on a sour note, but that's one of the first things I wrote down in my journal when we arrived in China. I learned later that some of the grey haze that tinged the light in the broad day was cloudy weather, but not all of it. Before we left our home-grown Tennessee town, we had wondered to each other whether we would notice the infamous air pollution in the world's third largest city.
Our friend and guide, Wenbo, was about to take us through this massive city. But one of the programs that his father works on at the China Agricultural University is aimed toward helping absorb the smog that drives even spiders out of the city. China's capital is truly a marvel, and they're doing their best to care for their citizens and repair the environment at the same time.
After a pair of red eye flights that totaled about seventeen hours, we walked out from under the airport's hanging sign, flashing simply "Foreigners," and blinkingly slipped into the back of Wenbo's car. The car swerved from its place into oncoming traffic! Wenbo wove like a crazy person in and out of lanes, honking loudly and carving an aggressive path to the freeway.
"Now you will learn how to drive in Beijing" he said to us with a grin.
The Great Wall
The next day, despite our massive case of jet lag, we headed to The Great Wall of China to kick off our trip with a bang. As we got further from Beijing, we began to see mountains we didn't realize were there, because they had been hidden in the haze of the city.
They were other-worldly - lumpy mounds of earth's meringue pulled up to a peak and baked under a China sun. They were stunningly beautiful and filled with flocks of birds. Our drive was beautifully scenic and passed through several villages. At one of these we stopped for gas and shopped along the mountainside streets, where I bought a beaded bracelet made from the wood of a peach tree, designed to keep away evil spirits. Couldn't hurt, right?
After about an hour's drive, we made it to the village where the entrance to The Great Wall was. On our way in, we bought fresh hawthorn fruits and cherries to snack on as we walked - something we discovered Wenbo was very fond of doing to keep hydrated. I bought a hat to help block the sun, and - would you believe it - I haggled for it! I hate haggling as a rule, but it's the only way to buy much of anything in China. The woman was so kind and couldn't believe it when I chose the simplest hat they had, but I gently waved my hand "no thank you" as she cocked her head and pointed to brighter hats with lace and flowers. We laughed at each other and ourselves and didn't mind that any words we spoke fell on ears that couldn't understand them.
Then we saw it, and it sank in. We started up the steps of The Great Wall of China and we knew we were walking on the work of ancient hands. It was a staggering, humbling feeling to be that small and brief in the midst of mountains and feats of humanity both very huge and very old.
I was vastly unprepared for the amount of steps involved, and the late June sun was intensely hot; nonetheless, The Great Wall was a joy to visit. Part of this could be because we went to a lesser-known section and found the wall nearly empty.
And it was beautiful.
Pictures will never do justice to the way the ancient stones snake along the ridges of the mountains. At the section we were visiting, the original wall could be seen dipping in and out of the reservoir that filled the valley. We walked halfway around the lake and then took a boat back through the water and to the car. What an amazing way to start our time in China.
Buns and Other Meanderings
This was a very special day.
This was the day we learned about China's best kept secret and fully understood the entire Kung-Fu Panda saga in one go.
We ate stuffed steamed buns for breakfast at Qingfeng Bun Shop, and it's honestly the thing I crave most now that we're home. I got to try mushroom + veggie buns (the best!) plus sweet pumpkin soup, which reminded me strongly of grits in a mild-flavored, squishy sort of way.
Fun Fact: Often in China you will be asked whether you'd like a drink OR soup with your meal - these are viewed as interchangeable there, and it actually makes a lot of sense for a country without potable water to expand their qualifiers for hydration.
I just... there are no words. I don't think of myself as a foodie, but that soft, fluffy bun with a tacky outside and a savory inside dipped in spicy garlic sauce was absolute heaven. Chinese buns are the best ever.
Ok, now we can move forward.
Fun Fact Which Was Learned The Hard Way:
The Forbidden City is closed on Mondays.
So, wouldn't you know it, the day we went to see the Forbidden City was on a Monday. After lamenting our spilled milk, we realized we were still able to go to the top of the Tiananmen Gate and look out into Beijing's sprawling skyline and Tiananmen Square.
Since we couldn't see The Forbidden City quite yet, we grabbed a tuk-tuk ride - a cart attached to a motorcycle - to the next best thing (which turned out to be the first best thing IMHO): Jingshan Park, where we knew we could at least see it from a distance.
Our tuk-tuk ride was one of the highlights of our trip for me. Not only did our driver confirm our suspicions by admitting that, had our Chinese friend not been with us, our trip would have cost ¥60 (about $9) rather than the more reasonable ¥20 (about $3). He was also very charming and wanted a picture at the end of our ride (I wanted one, too).
It was the best form of travel we experienced and gave us no motion sickness because we were too busy having a blast and clinging to our seats to notice.
Fun Fact: The only reason we braved a tuk-tuk ride was because we had a friend with us who knew the ropes. We had read about potential scams related to tuk-tuks aimed toward foreigners, and we knew we were prime targets. Be careful and be informed, and have fun!
Jingshan Park was originally a private imperial garden and was part of the grounds of The Forbidden City, but it was opened to the public in 1928. It sits atop Jingshan Hill to the north of the city, which was made by human and animal labor during the Ming dynasty with the soil gathered from the moat at the south side. This was done not only to block cold northern winds and fortify the city, but also to fulfill the requirements of Feng Shui.
If you're interested, there's an excellent two-part documentary on Netflix called China's Forbidden City from the Smithsonian Channel which I watched before we left.
The hill features five peaks, each crowned with its own pavilion. Several of these house large Buddhist statues and the higher ones give you a taste of the views to come. It's not until you reach the very top, though, that you get to see the entire Forbidden City perfectly squared off from the center point of Beijing.
I loved this park. The lush greenery made the paths almost exclusively shady, and the view was magnificent. At the top, we sat and rested for a while as we watched the birds swoop out into the city below. Peaceful, beautiful, and ancient - yep, that's what we went to China to see.
This day was also a day of public transport, something Justin and I aren't very accustomed to using. We rode in a private car, a bus, a taxi, a subway, and a tuk-tuk all in one day! It was really great fun.
After the park, Justin and I were really beginning to suffer a bit from our jet lag and worn out feet, so we stopped for a meal (eggs with black fungus, cucumber with garlic, and egg drop soup) and then went to our hotel to launder our clothes in the sink and hang them out to dry overnight.
Fun Fact: While there are washers in China, there are few laundromats - and dryers aren't really a thing. Everyone hangs their clothes to dry on a line, and as the price of getting our clothing cleaned for us at the hotel was astronomical (about the same as the U.S.), we went to the store and bought hand washing detergent and washed our clothes in the sink. This saved us a ton of money, but it was tedious and made us really appreciate our grandmothers as we rung out each piece with blistering hands. After our first batch of old-fashioned washing, we were much more economical with our clothing and totally slept naked (TMI? ha!) so we wouldn't have to wash any more than we had to. That actually turned out to be an ok system, though, so I would do it again.
The Forbidden City
"We feel like we are almost used to China now."
This log entry turned out to be only slightly true, but by this time on our trip we had fallen into a very tentative rhythm.
Get up (much harder than it sounds).
Eat something for breakfast (whatever was handed to us, usually).
Ask Wenbo what we were doing that day (because he was the language-speaker and therefore the plans-maker).
Go do that thing and try not to get sick or overheat.
After our failed attempt the day before, we decided to take the train ride again to The Forbidden City before we ran out of time in Beijing. We thought leaving early would get us inside quickly, but when we arrived just after 9:00am, there was already a massive line of people spilling out onto the sidewalk. It turns out there's not really a great workaround for avoiding crowds in The Forbidden City.
80,000 people are allowed into The Forbidden City every day, and by 10:45am 33,000 had already gone in. It was hot, crowded, and just stunning. Everywhere we looked there was sacred decoration and historical significance.
Fun Fact: They have interactive maps with earphones which you can rent in any language imaginable. These were worth it, but I recommend just one person get one and relay the info to everyone in your group - otherwise, your maps will be slightly out of sync and you'll end up waiting around while everyone's recordings finish.
1420. That's when this sprawling puzzle of gates and thrones and walls began housing the emperors of China, during the Ming dynasty. 1420. That's a very long time ago, folks. How incredible to stand there and see the work of ancient hands preserved in a monument of accomplishment.
The Imperial Garden was my favorite bit. I admire how revered the natural beauty of these rocks is in Chinese culture. Often we would find displays of just really nice stones, which I found extremely charming.
The Forbidden City is infused with the number nine. Most doors (like this one) have nine rows of nine knobs. The highest single-digit number, nine is made up of three threes; nine nines is 81, a number whose digits add to make nine again (eight plus one is nine). It's a circular, harmonious, eternal number, associated forever in China with the majesty of the emperor.
Our time in the Forbidden City was amazing, but we had other things to see in Beijing, so we headed out a little early and went by cab to the famous Hutong villages - something I'd been really dying to see.
We ended up at an ancient Hutong village called Nán Luó Gǔ Xiàng (南锣鼓巷) which is famous for its shopping and food.
This is what I was so excited about! I drank in every ancient stone, every artisan vendor, every street food chef. We stopped in at a silver shop where we got to see smiths meticulously working metal into delicate engraved jewelry by hand.
Each alleyway was enticing. We spent the entire rest of the day here until our feet just gave out entirely.
When we'd had enough and the sun was sinking, we got another cab to take back to the car.
I have to include here that the next day we got Starbucks, China version! I got something called The Macha Earl Grey Jelly Frappachino, and I want frozen tea drinks every day from now until I die. We also went with Wenbo's father to try a special Chinese delicacy - puffer fish.
Fun Fact: Puffer fish is fatally poisonous if not cooked properly. Even once it's cooked, some of the poison remains in the broth of the soup it's served in - not enough to kill you, just enough to make give your tongue a tingling sensation as you eat. Chefs must be specially certified to make it, and they are required to try the first bite of each fish and wait forty-five minutes before serving it to customers. In case they, you know, messed it up.
EDIT: Unfortunately, we found out once we got back to the USA (and had access to Google) that puffer fish are being fished into extinction for these type of dishes around Asia. So, we won't be doing that again.
On our way to the ticket station for our train ride the next day, we swung by to see Tiananmen Square lit up at night. Just lovely.
The Summer Palace
On our last day in Beijing, we were pressed for time. It was rainy, so we forwent the Temple of Heaven (heartbreaking!) in favor of a quick visit to The Summer Palace before catching our train to Yantai.
It turned out to be one of my favorite stops during our entire trip.
We went up the mountainside to the palace of kings - or emperors - from the very deep past. The kind of past that feels alien when you play the stories in your head like a movie.
Some of these places still feel a bit alien today, and walking through them feels like you're walking through a picture book. And you keep having to remind yourself it's real - real, in the same way the past is real but so removed from anything you've ever lived that it's easy to say, "Oh, yes. That's a story from the past," and move on never having felt that it really had any form or tangibility.
This place gave me that lovely sad questioning feeling, when you think you might be a little afraid of dying after all, when you realize you'll never realize how small you are, or what words like "truth" and "real" even mean, and it's ok because no one else knows either. I cherish those moments, because I think they make life deeper.
The train station was an hour away and we still had to pack, so we headed back to the hotel before we really wanted to.
We left Beijing in the hopes of seeing the sea in Yantai with our imaginations filled to the brim with new material that we'll never finish remembering.
In the next installment of this series you'll read about our experience in Yantai, a city we wouldn't have visited had we not gone to China with our close friend Wenbo, and one that had some of our most unique experiences.
Have you been to Beijing before? Let me know what tips you might have in the comments below!