Wow, what a different type of traveling. I’ve been wandering the earth on my own, popping in and out of cheap hostels, crashing at friends’ places, and napping on park benches for so long that I almost forgot what “nice” traveling feels like. I’m writing now from a room with only two beds (as opposed to the twelve in many of my recent rooms), one for me and one for my dad, on the 19th floor of the Capital Hotel in Beijing, China. It has two restaurants, an indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley, a weight room, and HBO. And our own private bathroom.
But I should probably start from the beginning. David and I awoke just before 7am on Friday morning after traveling all night on a train through China to an announcement saying that we had just arrived in Beijing. We said goodbye to our two Korean roommates, exited the station, and were immediately swarmed by people trying to sell us everything from tourist maps to little toy dogs that run in circles and bark at you. I’ve become quite adept at fending off the hawkers over the recent week, but this city posed a new threat to which I almost fell victim: Black Taxis. Thanks to one of David’s friends who’s currently living in Beijing he knew to warn me not to trust any taxi driver who approaches me to offer a ride. Black Taxis are nothing more than guys with normal cars who’ve bought fake plastic “taxi” signs and glued them to the top of their vehicles. They’re almost always dishonest. The first guy who offered us a ride to the hotel wanted seventy yuan, more than six times the price that a metered taxi would cost. I told him I wasn’t stupid, and we got in the “real taxi” line.
Since coming to China I’ve also learned that lines mean nothing. People walk right up and step in front of you as if you’re not even there, then they signal to their wife and kids to do likewise. Even at the front of the line, I’ve seen men run out and literally jump into a taxi right as a woman and her two children begin to open the door. This ain’t no Japan. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. Neither laws nor rules (nor manners) seem to apply.
And when we finally battled our way to the front of the line, none of the drivers were able to understand the address of my hotel (written in Roman letters rather than Chinese characters). So we walked into a hostel that we spotted across the street, had them write the Chinese for us, and began the fight for a cab all over again.
It wasn’t until two hours later that we finally got to the hotel and checked in, but the warm shower and private bathroom (with toilet paper – a rarity in this part of the world) were well worth the wait. Breakfast was at a nice Chinese restaurant one block away offering everything from dog to pigeon to turtle. I had shrimp. David had beef.
After breakfast the two of us at last separated – David taking a cab to the Northern part of town to meet up with his friend and myself hanging out in the hotel until about 7:00 to meet up with Rosa, a friend from UCSD who now lives in Beijing. It was a really nice little reunion and just one more of the many recent reminders of my fun college days back in the good ol’ US of A.
By the time I returned to the room my dad was already there waiting for me. It’s been more than eight months since we’ve seen each other, but somehow it felt like I’d just seen him yesterday. We chatted for a few hours before nodding off to sleep.
The next morning we awoke bright and early for a pre-arranged tour of the Ming Tombs and Great Wall. It’s been quite some time since I’ve taken a pre-arranged tour anywhere, but it was pretty much just as I remember: destinations overrun by herds of elderly, overweight tourists wearing identically colored hats and following Chinese women yelling historical facts over loudspeakers. Parking lots were filled with busses, souvenirs grossly overpriced, all of the buildings restored/repainted/rebuilt, signs and fences everywhere. This is not how to experience a foreign country.
Our first stop on the tour was an overpriced Jade souvenir shop that the guide forced us to remain in for an entire hour, despite our pleas to move on. The second was the largest of the Ming Tombs, which might have been impressive if not for the thousands of other tourists that made each and every display case require waiting in line to see. The third was a restaurant followed by thirty minutes in another souvenir shop. The fourth was a souvenir shop for tea and tea accessories. Finally, we visited the Badalang section of the Great Wall – so packed with tourists that you had to fight your way through dense crowds to walk along the wall. The entire section was rebuilt and nearly flawless, with few signs of its 500 year-old age, souvenir shops crowding every tower.
I hate tours. I don’t understand how people can travel that way. It’s just so fake. But, in spite of all of the paint and polish, the Great Wall was really quite magnificent – so my dad and I both agreed that we’d have to take another day and visit a more distant section of the wall where we could experience what it’s really like.
After the tour ended my dad decided to spend the night resting and recovering from the long trip to Asia, so I took the opportunity to meet up with David and his friends one last time. Coincidentally they were already having a Peking Duck dinner at a hotel just down the street from my own, so I met up with them, we picked up some 25 cent huge beers from a convenience store and began drinking in the taxi on the way to the main bar street in Beijing. That’s right, opened alcohol is permitted in moving vehicles! In fact, I was shocked to hear that in China men (but not women) are allowed to drive drunk. (Also, men aren’t considered real men unless they smoke and drink. Talk about a different culture.)
We started the night at a hookah bar with live belly dancers for entertainment (wow) followed by some time roaming the more seedy back streets, browsing the various pirated DVD’s and fake Rolex’s. Next we hit a bar called “Blu Bar” (no cover charge, highly recommended) before I broke off and caught a cab back to the hotel. The guys stayed out drinking a bit later than me, but I figured it wouldn’t be a good idea to be too hungover for tomorrow’s early start.
We began by checking out two street markets: first an enormous flea market where we scored a mace and an iron claw to add to our weapon collection (the two of us have been collecting primitive weapons from around the world for the last ten years or so, including pieces from Thailand, Bali, Costa Rica, Peru, Israel, Spain, Nepal, Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico, Japan, …and China.) Second was a more traditional shopping area set amidst a bunch of hutongs, or old-style Chinese neighborhoods (see the first few pictures of this post). Here we had quite an interesting experience regarding the sale of pirated DVD’s.
As I mentioned, vendors sell pretty much anything on the streets – including DVD’s for under a dollar (sure beats the $60 they charge in Japan!) But for some reason in this area of town the fakes seemed to be a lot more hidden, where rather than having a table set up in plain view, guys would walk through the crowds whispering “DVD’s” into your ear as you walk by. It reminded me of the drug dealers in Amsterdam who would slip by you and whisper “Heroine? Cocaine? Ecstasy?”
I decided to go back with one of the guys and check out what they had to offer. What movies, I mean 🙂
He led my dad and I down a small alley, regularly looking back to reassure us that it was “just a little bit farther.” The alley got dirtier and stinker the farther we went, finally leading us into a small room hidden away in the shadows. All of the windows were blacked out with curtains, the door swinging opened on a loose hinge to reveal a concrete-lined room with four or five guys sifting through unorganized piles of DVD’s in paper sleeves, a Chinese guy looking over each of their shoulders. The floor was composed of dirt and decomposing banana peels. I pulled out a few titles that I was interested in, but told the “staff” that I didn’t want to buy until I was sure they worked. He reluctantly led me back outside and into another equally dingy hole-in-the-wall less than a block away.
In his friend’s prison-cell-style bedroom we popped in our movie selections and checked them out. Through the window I could see a woman holding up her pantless baby by the knees so it could defecate onto the street. We bought the DVD’s and while holding our noses left the small alley, stepping over a rotten watermelon and small pile of vomit, finally returning to the main shopping arcade where my dad bargained the price of a silk comforter down from $100 to $40.
Once we were satisfied with this market we returned to the hotel to rent bikes and explore some more distant hutongs, a famous bell-tower, a lakefront bar street, and various other goodies before rushing back to the hotel so as to avoid being late to a show called “The Legend of Kung Fu.”
But I’ll save that for next time.