Beijing Part Two, China (8.29.11 – 8.31.11)

On Monday, I vowed to myself that I would head to the Vietnamese embassy to get a visa arranged for my travel to Vietnam. This was another one of my classically Chinese experiences, where I was left feeling totally defeated. Let’s see if we can cut a long story short, yeah? I wasted well over two hours trying to find the embassy because the official website had the location incorrectly marked on the map. Of course!!! After trying to find it for far too long, I sat down in a coffee shop, had a drink and made use of the wifi to try and figure out where on earth it was. The woman at the cafe was an absolute godsend. I asked her if she knew where it was, and she ran off! Next thing I knew, she came running back in with a map she’s printed off for me. As I left, she walked me out and directed me on my way, saying “I think maybe you better taxi a taxi and not walking. I think you not very good at walking.” I was amused, but so grateful for her help.

Sometimes, I feel that experiences like that are necessary to gain a renewed appreciation for how wonderful people can be. I eventually found the embassy, and get this… once there, discovered that there’s an embassy in Nanning, which is the big city closest to the Vietnamese border. I decided that I would much rather get my visa there. All that for nothing! Feeling silly and drained, I took the metro to The Temple of Heaven. Outside, I was accosted by an aggressive tour guide who very dearly wanted me to employ her services.

“100 is very good price. I have very good education, so for how good I am, what I charge is like you getting it for free. I am very good.”

“If you do not have me as your guide for 100 an hour, I think you make a very stupid mistake.”

Right, well, speaking of stupid mistakes, if there was ever a reason that would make me not want you as my guide, it’s telling me that I’m stupid. Well done!

I walked around the temple all by myself, and loved it; I loved every second of not having a guide. The grounds were beautiful, and the park was very peaceful. I sat and watched some musicians play for about half an hour. As I walked into the square where they were playing, I was overcome by the beauty of this man’s voice, so I watched them until they began to pack up their instruments. I didn’t understand any of the songs, but I know that I loved them.

After I’d had my fill of the Temple of Heaven, I left to go find dinner. I wanted to have peking duck a second time while in Beijing, and the guidebook highly recommended a place called DaDong. It failed to mention that it’s a seriously high end restaurant, and I felt sorely underdressed. The backpack didn’t help matters. I had to wait 50 minutes for a table, and I waited happily in the lobby, eyeing award after award for “Best Peking Duck in Beijing” and others in the same vein. Feeling underdressed and uncomfortable was entirely worth it when my food came out. The duck was absolutely incredible. They have a special method of cooking the duck so that the outside gets incredibly crispy. Typically, peking duck is served with pancakes, cucumber, scallions, and plum sauce. They brought these trimmings, as well as a few others, including sugar. I was told to dip the crispy outside pieces in the sugar; it was unexpectedly good. Altogether, it was an odd experience, but very tasty and I was glad that I’d gone.

On Tuesday, I wanted to go to the Great Wall again. The newest, most visited, most photographed section of the wall (it’s also the closest to Beijing) is called Badaling. I knew it would be touristy, but I figured, it’s most popular for a reason, so I’d like to see that as well as having seen Mutianyu a few days before. Get ready for another story of how everything is impossible in this country!

I arrived at the bus station from which I would go to the Badaling section of the wall. I knew that I needed to take bus 919. I found the stop marked 919, and asked one of the workers “Badaling?” pointing to where I was standing. I was in the correct spot. Families and other tourists were lined up around me. After about 15 minutes, he then says “Nine. One. Nine. Badaling.” and points further down the road. Perplexed, I left to find the real spot where I would catch the 919 bus. After a few minutes, I found it, and asked again if I was in the right spot. “Yes, yes, Badaling. Here.” I was reassured. OK! Excellent. I stood for 20 minutes, and was shooed off once again. I have no idea why they kept telling me I was in the right place, only to make me go somewhere else after waiting! What was most bizarre was that each of these spots was marked with the 919 route map. Each time, I was sure that I was in the right spot. So, I followed directions, and this time found bus 919, with people boarding it! I got on. The guidebook informed me that the ride would take 80 minutes. I put my headphones in and watched the scenery pass. About 40 minutes in, I became dreadfully aware of the fact that there were very few people left on the bus… which just didn’t seem right for a bus going to the Great Wall. 10 minutes later, we stopped at our final destination and it was signaled that I should get off the bus. “Badaling?” The driver laughed at me in response.

Now, my mistake here was not asking when I got on the bus if it was going to Badaling… but bus 919 goes there, according to the all the route maps, so I had no reason to doubt. I should have learned by now that when in China, even (especially) if you have no reason to doubt, then you should definitely, definitely be questioning everything. Check, and double check and triple check to make sure that what’s happening is correct.

I found the 919 bus stop for the route heading in the other direction. I matched the characters and found that my was stop listed, but I asked again, “Badaling?” The woman shook her head. “No. No go to Badaling.” Well. That does not make any sense. At all. At this point, feeling totally beaten down and defeated, I sat and pouted for a while, and maybe even cried a tear or two, mumbling to myself “This country doesn’t make any fucking sense.” After I’d had my moment, I tried once more. A taxi driver offered to take me there, but I said no. Eventually we worked a deal where he was going to take me to somewhere that would take me to Badaling. Skeptical, but with nothing to lose at this point (other than more time and sanity), I went for it. He drove me around the corner. To another stop marked 919. I was less than amused. Within a few minutes, bus 919 comes rolling around the corner, I got on and made sure it was stopping where I wanted. It was. Finally, after three and a half hours later, I had done what should only have taken me 80 minutes. I climbed the wall, and was sorely unimpressed. The weather was poor that day and visibility was limited. As was to be expected, it was teeming with visitors, which detracted hugely from its magnificence. This area of the Wall sees so many guests that the cobble stones are concave from wear. I was there for only half an hour before leaving; I’d seen what I needed to see. All in all, it was so silly. All that fuss and time wasted, and I wasn’t even that thrilled. However, it made me value my experience at Mutianyu even more than I had before.

I headed back to the city to visit the Summer Palace, which was a place of respite for the Emperor and his court. The grounds are enormous, due largely in part to a manmade lake. The land is dotted with magnificent halls and temples; there is plenty to see. I walked and enjoyed and admired, and ended up at the lake. I sat here and enjoyed the view, and took a nap for about half an hour. It was glorious, and relaxing, and needed after my irritating morning. After napping, I headed for the exit via a different route, eyeing more temples on my way out. I headed back to the hostel, showered and went to explore the cute street by my hostel once more. I did lots of window shopping, and explored a few of the vintage shops, but came away empty handed… probably for the best.

On Wednesday, I was due to take a train to Xi’an at 2PM. I aimed to leave for the train station at about noon, giving me an hour to get to the station, and an hour to make sure that I boarded the train without trouble. I didn’t do much that morning other than go to buy a train ticket for a later train journey. But this was enormously successful! In that, I did in fact buy the ticket for the train I wanted to, and it only took three minutes!! Sometimes things go as they’re supposed to, and when that happens it’s so, so wonderful. So then I took the bus to the train, got on the train, ready for a 13 hour ride to Xi’an.

So, that was my time in Beijing! I enjoyed Beijing a great deal despite continued setbacks which I am coming to accept as an inevitable element of my experience in China. Beijing is a big city, but it has a more authentic feel than Shanghai, due largely to the fact that Beijing is saturated with interesting sites. Old buildings with hundreds of years of history mingle with new buildings; everywhere you look there is something of cultural and historical interest. It has successfully managed to maintain an integrity, honoring the old while embracing the new, creating a thoroughly pleasant atmosphere. I give Beijing two thumbs up.

The Temple of Heaven

The musician who I watched play for a good half an hour. After a couple of songs, he was joined by another.

The Great Wall at Badaling

… full of so many humans

Here you can see the concavity of the path, worn down by thousands of visitors a day.

The following pictures are all from the Summer Palace

It was here that I took my catnap; it was so beautiful and peaceful.

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