Monday, May 19, 2014

China, Part 3 - Beijing

After leaving the Great Wall, we had a two hour drive back to the city because we were stuck in more traffic.  The last 10 miles or so took a whole hour.  It was interesting to catch glimpses of different parts of the city as we passed slowly through it.

This apartment building with so many windows was very representative of the types of apartments we saw all over the city.  It seemed the older buildings were not as high whereas the newer ones were all huge concrete towers, with SO MANY tower cranes everywhere!  My boys love tower cranes and they certainly got their fill of them on this trip.

We eventually made it back to our hotel and took a few minutes to rest before heading out again.  We needed to purchase train tickets to get back to Shanghai in a few days.  It was really nice at the Mandarin Oriental that they handled everything for us and just delivered train tickets to our room.  Not so much at the Doubletree.  They did point us in the general direction of the train station but we had a long walk to get there.  It didn't look that far on the map, but the city blocks in Beijing were big and everything seemed further than it looked.

It was interesting to walk the city streets and get a close-up view of everything going on.  We walked over a pedestrian bridge and saw this make-shift market below.  This is so representative of China.  Produce being sold off the back of bicycle trucks, hawkers with various goods spread out on the sidewalks, rows of parked bikes, and there is even a little meat stand at the base of the staircase with an assortment of who knows what kind of meats on kabobs.  

In this next photo there is a group of men in chef uniforms standing together on the sidewalk across the street.  It looked like they were having some kind of team huddle before the dinner hour.  You can also see all of the white fences that lined many of the major roads we walked down.  The far right lane would be sectioned off by these fences, which I assumed was for bike and pedestrian traffic, but we still had to use extreme caution because there were also motorcycles and cars that would randomly appear in these lanes and that seemed just fine by everyone too.  There are traffic lights but the motorcycles and bikes don't really follow them, they just go whenever and wherever they want.  Sometimes the cars do too.  It is really crazy and quite dangerous.  

Beijing was really not pedestrian friendly at all.  The sidewalks were so haphazard and the bike/pedestrian/motorcycle/car/whatever it was lane was not much safer than just walking down the middle of the road.  We did use the subway but the stops were fewer and farther between than in Shanghai, so it was usually a long walk to get to a station.  We tried to hire cabs but on several occasions the driver would look at our destination (written in Chinese - they don't speak any English) and then just refuse to take us there. 

When we finally arrived at the train station Charlie took on the task of buying train tickets from a ticket agent.  We had looked online ahead of time to find the train and time that we needed - and it's a good thing because if we had to go off of that giant board up above us we never would have gotten anywhere.  There were generally less English speakers in Beijing than in Shanghai.  Luckily the metro signs and many of the signs for tourist attractions were written in English as well as Mandarin so we could at least get around that way.  I read that much of this was done for the Olympics in 2008.  

We had used up a good chunk of time getting to the station and finally getting tickets, but we were glad to have that taken care of.  Luke had fallen asleep in my arms and Isaac was hanging out in the stroller because he was so tired of walking.  We were not really close to anything, so we set out on foot again making our way towards the city center.  

We arrived outside of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City right around dusk.  There was really high security in this area and we had to go through a bag check and metal detector before gaining access to the walkways.  It felt a little like D.C. with the wide open spaces, political buildings, and museums all around.  There was also a lot of white cottony stuff blowing around in the air that we later figured out was some type of tree seed, but the boys thought it was funny when I told them that a giant stuffed animal must have exploded.  

We walked towards Qianmen Street at the south end of the Square.  Qianmen is a wide pedestrian shopping street that was rebuilt for the Olympics and is filled with souvenir shops, restaurants, and trolleys that run up and down the street.  It was pretty all lit up at night and felt modern and clean compared to most other parts of the city.  My photos didn't turn out that great because when we set out for the train station I didn't realize we'd be out all night and didn't bring my camera along.  

After walking for a ways we decided on KFC for dinner.  We were really unadventurous with food on this trip.  Charlie has been to China several times for business and has eaten in very nice restaurants, but even there he says the food is not that good.  It is hard to order because you don't really know what anything is.  American Chinese food is very different from actual Chinese food.  Now looking back I wish that we had eaten at least one traditional Chinese meal, but while we were out and about it usually felt more important to just find something convenient and that the kids would eat.  And they will always eat french fries. 

We don't ever eat KFC at home, but after a very long day (remember we started our morning at the Great Wall) and only munching here and there on snacks, it tasted pretty good.  Luke saw a sign in the restaurant advertising ice cream sundaes and started begging to have one.  Charlie gave in and Luke was delighted!  Isaac stole all of the mini Oreos off of the top of the sundae and Luke ate the rest.  Also notice the girl in the pink & white stripes in the top corner of the photo.  She sat there and stared at us throughout our entire meal.  Like did not take her eyes off of us for even a second.  It was creepy.  

After dinner we stopped in a few shops to look around.  Luke was once again ambushed by the Chinese wanting to take photos with him.  The shop workers really loved him too. 

I realize that this next store was just a giant tourist trap, but it was gorgeous!  I loved all of the bright colors and the lanterns and decorations everywhere.  We didn't buy anything, but the boys had fun playing with all of the junky little toys and the ladies who worked there.  They also loved the display of shiny gold jewelry boxes shaped like various animals.    

At the end of Qianmen Street we stopped to look at our map and decide the best way of getting back to our hotel.  It was about three miles away, there were no metro stops nearby, and we'd already had terrible luck that evening with cabs refusing to drive us.  Just then we were approached by a couple of guys with rickshaws who were offering us a ride.  We knew this would be a little pricier way of getting home but at the moment it seemed like a far better alternative than walking.  We negotiated a price (50 yuan per bike, which is about $8) and then off we went!  

We hadn't realized that the rickshaws were motorized and so we were surprised by how fast they were once we got going.  I rode with Isaac which was an adventure in itself.  He laughed and talked the entire time, talking about a bullet pack and racing the other bikes.  It was an exciting ride, that's for sure.  The traffic in Beijing is just plain crazy and riding in the open air, zooming around, and hearing all of the horns and city noise was an experience like no other.  It felt like we were on the Amazing Race.  I kind of loved it, even though it was a bit nerve wracking.  Charlie & Luke's bike caught up to us at a stop light and I loved seeing Luke's huge happy smile.  He was having the time of his life!

When we arrived at our hotel the price suddenly changed from 50 yuan per bike to 50 yuan per person!  We were totally swindled, but we weren't getting very far with our protests and it wasn't really that much money anyway, so we just paid it and went on our way.  The boys were both begging to ride again.  

The next morning we were up and at it again to see the sights of Beijing.  We had the bellman at the hotel call a cab for us (which was the only way we were ever able to get a cab in that city) to take us back to the Forbidden City.  The drive was slow due to all of the traffic in the city, but SO much easier than walking on those crazy streets.  

Just before entering the security zone around Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City, we passed this sign.  Isaac has always been a little obsessed with red circle "No" signs with a line through whatever is not allowed.  He always wants to know what they mean.  I thought he'd love this one!  But instead after we read through (or at least tried to guess) all of the prohibited actions he just got a mad look on his face and declared "This place is mean!"  I guess he didn't like the idea of so many rules!  

No dogs.  No kites.  No roller skating.  No balls.  No littering.  No cars.  No sitting on railings.  No bicycles.  No touching the flowers.  No horns.  No bicycles with a stick out the back?  No raking leaves?  No fires.  No Chinese symbol (I have no clue what that last one means).  

When approaching the Forbidden City from the southern gate, it is hard to miss the enormous painting of Chairman Mao displayed over the entrance.  It is obvious that Mao is revered throughout China and during our visit we saw countless souvenirs of all sorts baring his image.  Mao is considered to be the founding father of the People's Republic of China and credited with the modernization of China and building it to a world power.  Yet he is also responsible for the deaths of about 77 million Chinese people, and for that reason I find it hard to get behind the whole Mao craze that they've got going on over there.  

This place was crowded!  Once inside the outer gate you enter into a large courtyard and there is a long line to purchase tickets to pass through the next gate.  Past the ticketed entrance it felt like we were in a moving sea of people, all pushing forward as one large mass through the City.  It was weird, because once you pass through the gate it opens up into a massive courtyard but 95% of the people keep moving forward in one direction rather than spreading out to explore.  It was just like that insect museum in Shanghai where they were all moving forward almost robotically, with the end as their goal rather than experiencing and enjoying the sights along the way.  

We broke away from the crowd at that point and took a different route through the rest of the Forbidden City.  I think we missed some thrones and things that you pass by on the main route, but it felt so much nicer to explore at our own pace and without the mobs of people everywhere.  

The Forbidden City dates back to the early 1400s and was built as the Imperial Palace of the Ming dynasty.  Over the next 500 years it served as home to 24 different emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties and was the center of Chinese government.  It was known as the "Forbidden City" because it was forbidden to enter within the walls without permission from the emperor.  The complex is seriously huge and covers about 180 acres.  The buildings are all constructed of wood in traditional Chinese architectural style.  The Forbidden City was built over a span of 14 years with over a million workers enlisted in the construction work.  I loved the architecture and all of the brightly colored decorative painting, which is all symbolic, but I felt like all of the buildings looked exactly the same.   

The people watching was pretty good here though.  We had plenty of requests for pictures with the boys.  And by this point I was so jaded with all of the Chinese people taking photos of us, that I didn't hesitate one bit to start taking photos of them.  

I loved seeing this tour group of monks in their robes.

When I saw this family from afar posing for photos, I assumed they were wearing the traditional clothing for some special occasion.  Like to celebrate a family event or something.  But just after we passed them I noticed a little store that was renting out the clothing for people to take photos in.  It didn't seem so cool anymore after that.  

This next kid almost left me speechless.  A woman from California that we met at our hotel had told us about the split pants, but I had yet to see them until now.  We had stopped in one of the courtyards for a snack and the family next to us was making a fuss over our boys.  Then they sent their young son over to play with Luke & Isaac.  Well first thing the boy does is smack Luke in the face.  The parents just laughed.  Next he puts a death grip on Isaac's hand with his fingernails digging in like claws.  Isaac was half laughing and half wincing in pain.  Again, the parents laugh.  Then the boy runs off and does a squat and we see it... the butt.  Now we were the ones laughing.  Our boys are totally into potty humor and they absolutely died laughing to see this little bare baby bottom.  Perhaps we should have been more discreet, but Charlie and I could not hold back our laughter either at this point.   

These split bottom pants are no joke.  Diapers are expensive, so I think starting around a year old, this is how parents potty train in China.  And the kids can just squat and go anywhere they want.  Here is an article that describes it even better.  Can you believe it?!  This was probably the most shocking thing I saw during our trip.  This boy was only the first of many others that we saw.  

So moving on.  The gardens of the Forbidden City are near the North gate, opposite of where we entered.  I would have liked to have spent more time in the garden area, but it was packed and we were feeling ready to get out of there.  

We exited the Forbidden City out the northern gate and then circled back around the outside of it to head towards Tiananmen Square.  There is a huge mote that surrounds the Forbidden City and also thousands of security cameras looming overhead.  

The sidewalk here was lined with beggars sitting every few yards, all with various handicaps and deformities.  Some of them were shocking to look at and then I felt really terrible for these people because it seemed to me that they were being exploited.  One was singing into a microphone held by his feet, one was painting calligraphy with the stubs of his arms, and others were sitting in strange contorted positions on the ground.  Some seemed to have mental disabilities in addition to the physical ones and the whole display was quite disturbing.  Isaac was very curious about these people and why they looked so strange and what they were doing, so in a way it was a good teaching opportunity for him to see the struggles that others are faced with and hopefully realize that his life is pretty awesome. 

It was a long walk back to the Tienanmen Square and Isaac kept begging to get in the stroller.  This was a constant issue on our trip.  Luke mostly wanted to be out of the stroller and walking, but he would either be too slow or too fast and not watch where he was going, so it was much easier to have him riding.  But Isaac was always tired of walking and wanting to rest, and often whining that his legs hurt and he couldn't walk anymore.  He would jump into the stroller any chance he could get.  

We decided to stop and take a break so we found a grassy area on the edge of the sidewalk and sat down to have a snack.  After a few minutes some Chinese people stopped and asked to take a picture with the boys.  Then some more stopped.  Then more.  They would take turns shoving their kids in next to our boys.  Then some wanted Charlie and I in the photo too.  Before we knew it we were literally surrounded with a crowd of about 30 people with cameras taking pictures of us!  It was kind of hilarious and kind of unnerving all at the same time.  We were like sitting ducks and they were starting to close in on us.  That's when we decided to pack up and get moving!  

We saw very few other American or European tourists while we were there.  I'm sure that Beijing sees it's fair share of Americans, but I think that most of the people taking photos of us were tourists themselves from other parts of China.  And I'd guess that most Americans don't bring their two year olds to China, so perhaps Luke really was a novelty.  In any case, we got a little taste of what it must be like to have the paparazzi following you around!  I made this little video because it just makes me laugh.  But this still only represents a fraction of the photos that we posed for during the week.  

Tienanmen Square is just that - a square.  It's a large city square that spans the area between the Forbidden City, the National Museum of China, Great Hall of the People, and Mao's Mausoleum. (The mausoleum is a huge building containing Mao's embalmed and preserved body that people line up for hours to see.  No thank you).  

We didn't spend much time in the square other than to just walk through the middle of it.  Neither Isaac nor Luke wanted to walk at this point so we doubled them up in the stroller.  That stroller took a lot of abuse on this trip and I'm kind of surprised that it made it home in one piece!  

At the far south end of Tiananmen is the Zhengyangmen Gatehouse.  Isaac spotted this building the night before and named it the "Ninja House."  As we walked past it I encouraged Isaac to get out of the stroller and do some of his best Ninja moves.  He took this request very seriously, and of course Luke wanted to join in too.  Luke's moves were all accompanied by a loud "Hoi-ya!"  These pictures crack me up.  

And then this lady came and ruined all the fun because she wanted the boys to pose for a picture.  The look on Isaac's face says it all!  

After passing through the Ninja gate we made our way to the Hongqiao Pearl Market.  It is a huge four story shopping market that sells clothes, toys, souvenirs, bags, shoes, jewelry, etc.  We stopped and had McDonald's for lunch before heading inside to shop. 

Each vendor had their own stall or booth where they displayed their goods.  We had already been to a "fake" market in Shanghai, but I was still shocked at how many counterfeit products I saw.  Shop after shop of fake Ralph Lauren, Tory Burch, Chanel, Burberry, etc.   The logos were not convincing enough to look authentic and the quality was obviously lacking which really left me wondering - who buys all of this stuff?  As we walked down the rows the vendors would follow us for a few yards asking us "lady, lady, you need a bag?" or "over here, I have cheap price for you!" or "hello, baby, baby, hello - you need a shirt?" (and Isaac would always get SO mad that they were calling him a baby despite our best efforts to explain the translation issues).  

This silk shop was really beautiful, and although they did have an assortment of "Hermes" and a few other brands, they also had hundreds of gorgeous fabrics to tailor make clothing, and a huge assortment of non-labeled silk ties.  Charlie bought a few ties here as gifts and for himself. 

While Charlie was shopping the attendants from the nearby stalls gathered to talk and play with Luke.  They LOVED him.  We stayed here for 20 minutes or so and they made paper airplanes, played games, and swung him around in the air.  They of course played with Isaac too, but Luke was seriously such a big hit everywhere we went.  

The third floor was where they had all of the jewelry and the pearls.  There were dozens and dozens of stalls with all kinds of pearls, beads, and jewelry.  I had no idea which one I should go to, so we just aimlessly picked one and luckily she was very friendly and easy to work with.  None of these type of markets in China have fixed prices, so you have to bargain for everything.  Normally the first price they quote is five to ten times higher than what you will actually pay.  

When Karl & Janelle visited China a few years ago they bought pearls for all of their daughters in law, and I have really loved mine, so I wanted to have some pearls made for my mother for Mother's Day.  The lady showed us various strands of pearls in different sizes, colors, and quality.  She showed us how some were more symmetrical than others how some had more even coloring.  I eventually chose the set I wanted and then she went to work stringing them on a necklace for me.  It was fascinating watching her work as she would string and tie each one so swiftly.  I also had her make two jade necklaces for myself and for my mother in law.  

The Pearl Market is right across the street from the Temple of Heaven, but there is a never ending gate all around the Temple of Heaven park, and so we had to walk a long ways before we could finally get inside and purchase tickets.  (While walking we passed a grown woman squatting to do her business on the side of the road.  Seriously.)  

The Temple of Heaven was probably my favorite place in Beijing.  It is like an oasis of greenery in the middle of a polluted concrete city.  The Temple complex is a sprawling 660 acres with various buildings, halls, and alters spread throughout.  I just loved that it was so full of trees and felt quiet, cool, and peaceful compared to the busy rush of the traffic and city noise outside the Temple walls.  

There were paths leading in every direction, all lined with hundreds of trees.  The grass was all fenced off.  Every green space I saw in Beijing was fenced off.  There were lots of local people there just enjoying leisure activities like walking, biking, playing chess, singing, doing tai chi type exercises, and playing various games.  (Some of this can be seen in the video at the end of this post.)  

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the most famous in the complex and that is where we went first.  When Luke first spotted it's tall round tiered roof he became super excited and asked "Can we go in THAT China?"  At some point during the trip he started calling any building with traditional Chinese architecture a "China" and wanted to go inside all of them.  

Unfortunately after climbing the steps and working our way past the crowd to get to the entrance of the "China" we found that it was gated off!  Luke and Isaac were both SO angry.  It was kind of hilarious because really, what did they think was inside of that "China" anyway?  There was a beautifully painted ceiling and pillars and some alters, but it could all pretty much be seen from the doorway.  

They were still super disappointed and I had a hard time getting them to cooperate for any photos after that.  We were able to go into the adjacent rectangular hall (or "China") which cheered them up a little, but I think they were just kind of done for the day at this point anyway.  

I took this photo of a tour group on our way out of the park because it was so representative of the hundreds of groups we saw all over Beijing.  99% of the tourists we saw were Chinese, likely coming from cities all over the mainland.  There was always a flag for the group to follow (Luke wanted to get his hands on one of those flags in the worst way) and a majority of the groups had hats.  This was really funny to me.  They were mostly baseball caps or bucket hats and different groups had different colors.  This group apparently had reversible faux Burberry bucket hats.  Lots of the tourists also wore the paper face masks.  

We left the park around 4:30 and had tickets for an acrobatic show at 7:00.  If we were to visit Beijing again I would seriously consider booking a tour (though not the kind with the flags and matching hats) just for the convenience of getting from place to place.  It was so hard to get anywhere!  From the Temple of Heaven we walked over a mile through the crazy streets to get to a metro station.  Then we had to transfer to a few different lines to get to our destination.  It was rush hour and the subways were super crowded.  

We had to wait for several trains before getting a chance to squeeze onto one.  We were literally packed like sardines on the train.  I held Luke so he wouldn't get trampled but poor Isaac was down low where I'm sure it was even more miserable.  On the bright side, we didn't have to worry about holding on because we were packed so tightly that there was no where to fall.  

While riding one of these trains Charlie started getting text messages from an unknown number about our show being cancelled.  Seriously?  They wanted us to come to the 5:00 show instead but there was no way we would make it in time, or to go to the 7:00 opera.  Our kids would not sit through an opera. No way.  We still had to go to the theater anyway so that we could at least get a refund.  The guy there that had been texting us was super apologetic and refunded our money.  They ended up selling out the entire 1,300 seat theater to an Amway convention.  Thanks a lot!  We were pretty annoyed because we had wasted almost two hours and a lot of hassle getting there, and at that point it was too late to go to any other show (there are several throughout the city).  There were other sites that we missed seeing too because we had set aside time for this show.  Argh.  The only redeeming thing was that the theater guy offered to drive us back to our hotel in his personal car.  I have no idea why he was so nice, but it was very much appreciated because the walk back would have been long and difficult.  

By the time we got back to the hotel we were all exhausted from a long day of walking.  We were hungry and hoping we could find decent food without walking much further.  Charlie started searching on his phone and noticed a Papa John's Pizza that appeared to be right next to our hotel.  How could we have missed this before?  Well because though the sign is the same shape, the Chinese characters made it mostly unrecognizable unless you knew what you were looking for.  

Again, Papa John's is something we rarely eat at home but the Chinese version was not too bad.  Mostly we were just really glad that we didn't have to walk anymore!  I kind of regret that we were so lame and unadventurous with our food choices in China.  But then again, it was kinda nice to just have something edible and that the kids would eat without any drama.  

After dinner we stopped in the mall/supermarket that was connected to our hotel to pick up some snacks for the train ride back to Shanghai the next day.  There was a decent selection of American products, but it was also fun to look at the weird Chinese stuff too.  This photo was taken right as I told Isaac that the package he was holding was duck brains and he tossed it back into the bin in shock (I have no idea what was really in there, but it certainly didn't look very appetizing).  

This is the view from our hotel window the next morning.  Just miles and miles of concrete high rises and a gray sky that was either cloudy or dirty or both.  I never saw blue sky in Beijing, it was just varying shades of drab grayish brown.  I could see the sun at midday but it was masked by a thick layer of haze.  

We had a hotel breakfast before heading out.  We mostly ate fresh fruit, pancakes, and eggs though there were other more ethnic options available - they didn't seem very appetizing, especially at the breakfast hour.

We took a cab to the train station and set off on our way back to Shanghai.  I think the boys were happy to be relaxing instead of walking.  They watched Frozen together, played with the iPad, ate snacks and played with some toys.  I have to mention that Luke is in love with the movie Frozen.  His favorite part is when the big snow monster throws Olaf into a snow drift and Olaf yells "Watch out for the butt!"  Luke repeats this line over and over and laughs hysterically at himself.  Isaac's favorite part is when they are cutting the ice at the very beginning of the movie.  Luke loves the ice part too and currently has his heart set on an ice saw of his very own for his upcoming third birthday.  This kid kills me.  

Here's something you won't find in the US.  In China they have hot water dispensers all over the place. They were in the train station and on the train and in other public areas.  Hot tea and noodle bowls are staples of the Chinese diet and so boiling water is conveniently available in many places.  This woman was adding water to her cup of noodles on the train.  

And here is one last shot of Luke with his messy Oreo face.  He can't stand to have even the tiniest crumb on his hands or on his clothes but he thinks it is hilarious to have a messy face and always puts up a fight when I try to clean it.  

Farewell Beijing.  It was a fascinating experience.  There were so many other things that I would have liked to see and do, but they will have to wait for a future visit.  To wrap it up, here is a collection of video clips that I took during our few days there.  Nothing fancy and I wish I had filmed a little more, but these are fun little glimpses of our visit.  

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