I think that we will visit Beijing many times over the next few years. So in planning our first trip to this amazing city back in November, we tried to make time for the famous spots and some lesser known. We chose the Forbidden City, the Zoo, Olympic Park and a few other sites. This visit was scheduled around my appointment with a rheumatologist at the Beijing University People’s Hospital. (That will have to be a separate blog entry.) We chose a hotel that would be close to the university, so that put us in the northwest corner of the city center, close to the Zoo and near the Summer Palace. It was also close to a metro stop. Between that and the inexpensive taxis, we had an easy time getting around.
I went down a day earlier for my doctor’s appointment. So later that day, I opted for a trip to the Silk Market and Wangfujing Street. Given the shopping and the thousands of people, Tim would opt out of both these excursions. In the Silk Market, as it is called, they actually sell souvenirs, material, pearls, watches, luxury copies and more. Many vendors speak English, and they will get your attention by saying “Lady”. So imagine walking down an aisle of your local department store and having the sales clerks shouting “Hey lady.” “Lady, wanna buy a watch.” “Lady, buy necklace.” “Lady.” “Lady.” “Hello lady.” They are hard bargainers too, and once you show interest in an item, they will expect you to negotiate a price and buy it. This isn’t really the place for browsers, nor for people who can’t say no and walk away. You must be as tough as they are.
When Tim arrived, we took the metro to the Forbidden City, the first stop on the Beijing itinerary of many visitors. The Forbidden City, also called the Palace Museum and the Imperial Palace, was the home of the emporers during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Most of it is not original since 600 years will reak havoc on buildings, especially in a hard climate like this. But they have renovated well and you can get some perspective on royal life during this period. There is an Imperial Palace in Shenyang, albeit smaller, and it was interesting to see so many similarities in the two complexes. There weren’t many tourists in November, and certainly not many Westerners. One couple asked to take a picture with us (see photos) and they treated us like celebrities. I’m not sure we’ll ever get used to that in China.
After we had spent a good four hours there, we left and walked across the street to Tiananmen Square. Most people our age and older remember this site for very controversial reasons, and that weighed on our minds as we walked through. They say this is the world’s largest city square, about 440,000 square meters. Here, you can see the Great Hall of the People and the Memorial Hall of Chairman Mao. If you go at the right time, you can actually visit Mao and see him lying in state. Maybe next time.
We walked south to Dazhalan, a pedestrian street, the oldest commercial area of Beijing. Some buildings have been preserved and some are brand new. This was evident by the Starbacks and Zara, and also by the tea and hat shops. West of Dazhalan are some of the Beijing hutong (old neighborhoods), where tiny streets, dumpling shops, tea houses and souvenirs abound.
When we reached the end of Dazhalan, we made one of those traveler decisions. For those of you who travel, you’ll know what I mean. You finish a visit in a different place than where you started, and you convince yourself that you can just walk a little way in a different direction and find something else to see or find a metro station. After a kilometer, you wonder if you should just get a taxi. After two kilometers, and after a long day of walking 25,000 steps, you are cursing your tourist map of whatever city you are in. You try to motion for a taxi, but it is 5:30 and they are all full. You walk another kilometer. Just when you’re sure your feet have nothing left, you spot the metro station 50m up. And after a short metro ride, another short walk, you sit down at the Mexican restaurant you had heard so much about, order a beer or margarita that you haven’t had in 6 months, take a breath and a drink, and you don’t remember how tired you were just a half an hour ago.
Travel is about those gorgeous sites. Seeing Mao’s painting hanging from the gate to the Forbidden City. Seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time, or every time. Seeing the sun come up at Abu Simbel. For us, travel is also about the food. Whether it is the dumplings, the unknown meat on a stick, the melting ice cream cone, or a Mexican restaurant in the middle of Beijing, we remember places because of what we ate. And travel is about decisions. I will wear comfortable shoes. I will dress warm enough or take sunscreen, depending on the season. I will take my picture with unknown Chinese people to make their day, and make ours too. I will walk down an unknown street, open my eyes and see what there is to see. And I will do it all over again.