My time in Beijing has come to end (note: 3 days ago, but the blogging is a little delayed, folks). I am (was) typing this offline while sitting in the Beijing airport, with the distinction of being the earliest passenger to arrive for my 8AM flight. I’m unclear if the guy at my hotel has just been acclimated to Americans wanting to arrive 18 hours early for flights, but it took me a mere 40 minutes to get from my hotel room to sitting at the gate (coffee in hand). Now have 1:45 to kill.
Over the last couple days, I made it to the Great Wall, Ming Tombs, Forbidden City, and saw Tiananmen Square (but got lazy & didn’t wander around through it because it was hot hot hot and I was a sweaty dog). One notable change in my travel style over the years is a steadily decreasing sense of obligation to check the box on all the big tourist sites in a given place. I would much rather people-watch, hit some markets, explore a neighborhood vs. death march through every museum listed in Lonely Planet. (Though maybe this isn’t that much of a change—I still remember my mom’s horror when friend Leigh & I traveled to Florence and skipped the Uffizi gallery, thinking our time and money would be better spent on bread/cheese/wine at the local market.)
To that end, I spend about 1.5 hours yesterday afternoon sitting in a sidewalk café on the busy Wangfujing Dajie shopping street sipping a frosty glass of Tsing Tao and soaking in the masses walking by. It felt like watching my own Chinese TV show, with the occasional foreign extra making a brief appearance. Good stuff.
After debating a blog post entitled “I Went to Beijing and Didn’t See the Great Wall,” I capitulated Tuesday night and booked a Great Wall/Ming Tombs tour at the B&B I was staying at. I was a bit reluctant, since the itinerary outlined “tours” of the Jade Factory & Silk Museum (a.k.a. forced shopping periods where your guide gets a commission for each hapless tourist he drags through). However, this seemed to be the case with the majority of tour options & I lacked the time to find a superior option with sub-24 hour advanced planning. J (And I figured that since this was one of the few organized day tours I’ve ever done, I should really have the full bullshit tour experience.)
The tour itself lived up to expectations (low), but I will say it was worth it to see the Great Wall. The drive through the Chinese countryside/small villages was also interesting, as was our tour guide’s commentary on capitalism vs. communism. “Many businessmen are lucky. They make lots of money by being lucky. This is not good for the poor people. Here, it is better for the poor people.” Additionally, our tour bus driver performed an impressive number of slow passes on blind curves, accompanied by liberal honking at any elderly bicyclist who dared to stray into our path.
First stop was the Jade Factory. After a riveting explanation by our guide about the magic of jade, we were left to our own devices in hopes that we would drop some yuan on the outrageously priced jade items on display. Lessons learned/questions wondered:
- Which Party official did these people piss off to get stuck in the Jade-making Zoo for the day?
- Similarly, someone must have lost a bet to end up as the guy forced to do his work on the old-timey foot-pedal carving machine.
- The Jade Factory can be very dangerous. For instance, I was attacked by this eagle:
- And THEN I got attacked by this jaguar (or perhaps jade-uar as they are known here):
2nd stop: Ming Tombs. Or more like Ming Tomb, #13 to be exact, and the Underground Palace. Its primary redeeming features were its green, hilly setting:
And the amount of money that tourists have scattered around the coffin of the Emperor & his two wives:
And these sweet elephant-chair tables, under the careful watch of the Chinese guard.
Next stop: lunch! Watered down Chinese fare, anyone?? The food was unremarkable, but did allow me the opportunity for my first non-Western bathroom experience.
Finally, it was time for the main attraction, the Great Wall at Mutianyu (http://www.mutianyugreatwall.net/)!! I chose this spot for my Wall visit as it seemed to combine convenient location (45 miles outside of Beijing) with a reputation for not being *as* touristy/busy/swamped with obnoxious vendors (as Badaling), but not quite as hard core as the 4-hour hike between Jinshanling and Simatai (as I lacked appropriate footwear/sportswear). Plus, it has TWO cable cars, a selling point on which friend Todd tipped me off. Having no other data points on which to base a comparison, Mutianyu lived up to expectations—it was indeed a Great Wall, cool mountain-y setting, cable cars/ski lifts galore, a TOBOGGAN return trip option, and lacking mobs of people.
And do you know how else I know that Mutianyu was the right choice? Because TONY HAWK was there too. With his posse. I mean, I’m not one to judge, but I feel like it’s getting a little awkward the way he’s following me all around China. First my international flight & now the same spot at the same tourist attraction on the same day and time…?? Coincidence? I think not. Unfortunately he startled me coming out of a guard tower as he + posse were outbound & I was inbound, so all I managed to get were some paparazzi-esque photos of the back of his head & a profile that may or may not be him from a distance.
It was drizzling a bit when we arrived at the wall, so the toboggan run was closed and we had to take the ski lift back down. Upon learning of this disappointment, I thought to myself, “My mom must have been doing a rain dance in Nebraska since she would die before supporting the idea of anyone riding this”:
Anyway, you’ll just have to trust me that it was cool, since my photos all suck due to the rainy/foggy weather.
Upon our return to the minibus, our guide informed us that it would be around a 2 hour drive back to Beijing with traffic, and since that is SUCH a long time period, their tour company requires the driver to get a rest. And where we would do that rest?? Why at the Silk “Museum”, of course!! It shouldn’t need to be said that I did not make any purchases. Rather, I was too busy feeling sorry for the girl whose job it is to pull silkworm pupae out of their silky little shells all day in front of gawking tourists, and then soak/stretch the silk over increasingly large bike locks. Woo hoo.
Must run for now, but more to follow on Peking Duck! Talk soon kiddos!