My family (wife, daughter and self) just returned from our 4th family trip in the last five years to China. Each trip involves a combination of sightseeing, shopping, eating, family visits and soaking in the culture, history and local lifestyles of the Middle Kingdom.
Our visit this year was a mid June visit, due to my daughter now starting school. Our previous three trips to China were made in either the early spring or early autumn time due to the very hot and humid summers and the extremely cold winters in the part of China we were visiting. My wife's hometown of Handan in the province of Hebei, is in a medium sized city by Chinese standards, with a population of around 2 million people. Each visit is usually split between sightseeing in one of the many splendid regions of China along with a visit to her hometown to see family and friends.
Each time we have been to China, we have flown in to the capitol city of Beijing, spent some time there and travelled by train (350 miles SSW) to Handan. This year was no different. The flight time to Beijing from LAX was around 12-1/2 hours. We had a 2-1/2 hour flight to Vancouver, switched planes and had a 10 hour flight to Beijing. Interestingly enough, these were the last two cities to host the Olympic games, with Beijing hosting the 2008 summer games and Vacouver hosting the 2010 winter games.
The plan was to mess around in Beijing, see a few of the places we hadn't seen before, hit a few of the spots we really liked, visit with some family friends in the city, as well as enjoy the local cuisine. The weather in Beijing in mid June was pretty hot and very humid. The temperature was right around 90F every day, with the humidity likely in the 80+ percent area. We had two nights of sprinkles along with one night of a huge electrical storm with a big downpour. The downpour cut short a relaxing evening at the "Old Beijing" hutongs. A 50 minute tax ride back to our hotel saved us from getting soaked, trying to walk to the bus station or subway.
To my delight our hotel or "service apartment" room was in a 14 story tall building right across the street from the Bird's Nest (Olympic Stadium). The site of the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube
(swimming facility) lit up at night time was an eye pleasing site. We walked through and did a self tour of the Olympic Stadium grounds two times. Tours inside the stadium weren't given very often, and I was told that there is nothing to see inside besides chairs and grass anyways. As a huge sports fan, most of the fun for me of visiting a stadium is to go inside and see the "chairs" and "grass" and to feel the history of the stadium by being inside of it. Luckily, the outside grounds were very interesting and there was a lot to do and see on the surrounding grounds of the Bird's Nest. Inside the grounds was the Bird's Nest, Water Cube, a large "Olympic" tower, a grassy play area where a giant World Cup watching beer drinking party was going on with live music on stage, a huge square or gathering area whose expansiveness reminded me of Tiananmen Square, along with a moat that encircled the Bird's Nest and a few other large structures that I didn't have the time to figure out what they were. On the grounds there was tens of thousands of people mingling between the different sites, with many posing to take pictures alongside the venue attractions. We paid 120 RMB ($20) for the three of us to be taken around the grounds for a good look at the Bird's Nest and Water Cube from every angle. My wife was able to haggle down the price quite a bit. The general rule of thumb is to haggle down the price atleast 50% on most touristy things, otherwise you are getting completely ripped off. My wife is usually able to get around a 70% discount via haggling. It depends on what type of thing you are haggling over. Some things are more difficult than others to haggle over. The tram tour was great and we got some wonderful daytime pictures of the Bird's Nest. Like most of the other people visiting, we waited around for the sun to set and the lights to come on. In the meantime, we bought a kite (actually this kite had 10 mini kites on one string) from one of the local vendors. It seemed like everyone was flying these kites, and we figured it was a great way to entertain our five year old daughter while we waited for the lights to come on the Bird's Nest and Water Cube. What we didn't know, is that the police/security guards had nothing better to do than harass people who were flying these kites. They drove around in vans yelling at people to take down their kites, that flying them was against the rules/law. My wife got into it a little bit with the group that was yelling at us, and she asked the first group of police officers "... don't you have anything more important to do!?". This registered an embarrassing laugh from them and they left us alone. Later a more obnoxious and forceful group of officers came through with blaring loudspeakers and we had to take our kite down. It was nothing more than a game of cat and mouse though. The police would leave and the vendors and kites would be up all over the place. Then the police would come through with their blaring loudspeakers and the cycle started all over again. By then the sun had set and the red illuminating lights on the Bird's Nest came on. It was a beautiful site to see the lights shining on the unique mangling of concrete that was the Bird's Nest. The Water Cube, which is powered and lighted up with the use of solar power began to slowly light up in a shimmering blue as the sun went down. It was as if you were watching a blue sunrise. More wonderful pictures were taken.
The other main sightseeing places we visited in Beijing in these four days (really only three when you consider travel time in and out of the city) were visiting the newly built Olympic Forest Park
. Once again we took a tram ride around the park as this day was probably the hottest day in Beijing. We were not overly impressed with the park. It looked as if it was thrown together kind of haphazzardly, not the usual standard for a Chinese park. There were loudspeakers interrupting the sounds of nature, playing classical music rather loudly in a forced and failed attempt at serenity. If you like trees a lot, then you might enjoy this park, but I don't recommend visiting it.
The next park we visited was much more interesting and beautiful and full of ancient Chinese history and archeticture, Beihai Gongyuan
(or Beihai Park). The park was the former imperial garden and part of the Forbidden City and open to the public for the last 85 years. The highlights of the park is the beautiful lake surrounded by a concourse lined with beautiful weeping trees, with Qionghua Island in its middle, with a large pagoda/temple on the top of its hill. We rented a paddle boat and made our way out to the island. The other highlight of the park was the Five Dragon Pavillion, which housed the famous Nine Dragon Wall
. The wall was built 250 years ago and is one of three walls of its kind in China.
Across the street from Beihai Park was the Hutong or Old Beijing (Lao Beijing) area. The hutongs are the very old housing areas that are hundreds of years old and still standing today. Many of the hutongs have been unfortunately torn down and replaced with more modern structures in the name of so-called progress. The hutongs are basically narrow alley ways that can barely fit a car in, many of the alley ways are too narrow for cars and can only be traversed on foot or bicycle. We rented a bicycle rickshaw for a relaxing tour. It was interesting to see all the old alley ways and amazing to see how people live a modern day life within the hutongs of Beijing. On the outskirts of the hutongs is another beautiful lake rimmed with bars and restaraunts. Needless to say, this was where many of the foriegners gathered for a mid day stroll or meal and a nighttime visit to a bar or two. We had a wonderful lakeside lunch at one of the restaraunts and did some shopping along a few of the touristy streets. One of the interesting items that many vendors had for sale, was a t-shirt with Obama's picture on it wearing a Mao suit and a red star cap.
There is one restaraunt that I must mention that we dined at in these first four days in Beijing. The restaraunt trip was a surprise, shrouded in secrecy as something that I'd really like and I was not disappointed. It was a unique Mongolian restaraunt with an outdoor setting. Each dining party had their own Mongolian canvas hut to eat in. The hut was built to look like the typical house of a Mongolian nomad. The inside had a table large enough to seat about a dozen people and the inside was ringed with beautiful and ornate Mongolian artifacts. I was awed at this dining experience. It didn't matter how good or bad the food was, I was very impressed. The food (lamb) was prepared in a large kitchen house which you could walk to and watch them prepare all the food. At some point during the meal, a group of a half dozen Mongolian people in full Mongolian formal dress came into our hut and played/sang three beautiful Mongolian songs. It was a life time dining experience. My daughter and I were very happy when they sang this song
as their finale, as it is the only Mongolian song we know and it is a great kids song. They did a great cover of the song too! I love listening to Chinese
Mixed in with all these park visits and wonderful meals was a visit to a family friend (seems like there are an unlimited number of family friends, I think that is a good thing though) on the southern outskirts of Beijing. The area was very trashy and we had to go over a few dirt roads to get there. Needless to say, I was expecting this to be a rather uncomfortable visit. Upon arrival at the friend's apartment (everyone lives in apartments or flats), things all of a sudden looked much nicer and the interior of the apartment was quite nice and the family friend very kind and generous. This is a theme that you will see all over China. A place (restaraunt, house, park etc...) will look like crap on the outside, whether it is a pile of rubble, garbage or a sewage smell, 9 out of 10 times the inside will be grandiose. The Chinese do a great job of decorating their interiors, it is almost as if you are in a palace (ok, maybe 8 out of 10). Restaraunt interiors will have the look and feel of a five star hotel, with the hostess often taking you on a labyrinth up stairs and down hallways to your own private group dining room. The most beautifully decorated restaraunts I have ever been to have been in China with out a doubt. Back to the visit to the family friend... it turns out this family friend is a doctor who specializes in AIDS. According to him, he has developed/discovered a cure to the AIDS virus. Feeling that I was bored out of my mind on this visit, the doctor kindly showed me a 45 minute DVD video (in quasi English) about the development, testing and actual usage of his discovery. The cure uses Chinese medicine and I have no idea how the medicine is made. My bull-shit meter was on high the whole time, but I left with atleast an open mind. Supposedly, he will be travelling to the US in the near future to pitch his cure at a United Nations AIDS meeting in New York. He asked my wife to be his translator while he is here... we'll see how that goes.
Note: More trip details will be intermingled with simulations for the next week.