French concession and Lost Heaven

Today I had no real plan other than to stroll along the streets of the French Concession. This area of Shanghai is a really nice, quaint area due to its boulevards lined with trees. These trees are full, shapely, and create a really green space within the confines of such a bustling city. It seems to dampen out the sounds of horns and the typical noise pollution of the bustling city.

The weather continued its wet, damp mistiness and didn’t lend itself to providing a nice backdrop to any photos. I stumbled upon a nice little café and went in for lunch. I was so hungry at this point so I was looking forward to something filling. Luckily, the sign on the front showed that a daily special was there—Cordon Blue? Sure!

After a hearty meal, I continued my walk all the way to where I had previously ended the night with Branden and Katherine, our Colorado friend from the artist painting. I weaved through the alleyways of this shopping area filled with people from all over the world, and shops carrying everything from around the world as well.

The weather continued its murky look, and started drizzling some, but I continued to make my way to the famous Hyatt on the Bund, to check out the much touted lookout from the top bar, called Vue.

After quite a hike, I made it, and went to the top and could barely even see anything it was so misty and foggy. It did make the city skyline look pretty cool because the buildings simply faded away to nothing into the clouds, though I knew that there was half a city not being seen.

After here, I decided to try another top restaurant called ElWilly, and made my way there to find that it was closed on Sunday. Which is odd, because I’m sure the site said open Monday through Sunday, to which I thought, why don’t they just say everyday. Anyhow, Maybe they mean Monday until Sunday at 12:01am?

I then luckily saw that Lost Heaven, another popular restaurant was just around the corner, so made my way over there where I dined on a feast of great Chinese food including vegetable spring rolls, Cambodian Chicken Curry, Hunan Spicy Beef, and an Eggplant dish served with tomato sauce. It was delicious and I cleaned my plate.

I then headed back home to pack and relax for my train trip back to Beijing tomorrow.

Watertown Zhaojiajiao

Today, I decided to take a bus out to the little water town of Zhaojiajiao, located about an hour outside Shanghai. I’d found directions online on how to take the express bus out there to check it out. Apparently, a lot of these little villages existed in the old times as little ‘Venice’s’ of Asia, whereby the waterways provided a pathway through the village in which to deliver goods, transport people, and have as a nice view for the buildings that were perched up along the sides of the walled waterways.

After finding my way through the city alleys that had cafes, shops, and coffee/tea houses, the rain started to pour and I was left ducking into a tea house run by an old man in the most modernly eclectically designed café. It looked like a modern tea house with a carefully curated set of props throughout the store. I decided to have a waffle and berry tea.

While I sat and watched the rain, I started to think about my first month of travel, looking back at how much I had planned and poured over what I would be doing during my journey. What I would learn. How I would grow. The trip has unfolded perfectly due to the amount of thought and planning I put into it, but also, watching the world live in front of me while I observe from my solitary position as a traveler, I find that people no matter where they are truly have the basic pleasures and desires in life.

Whether it be a grandfather playing with a grandchild, a baby crying for a mother, or children playing in the street, as cliché as it sounds, we are not all that different in basic foundations of our being. What I do think is different is the way in which we react to our environment, in which China has proven that they are a land of scarcity and overpopulation. The way they approach lines or entering a train is a desperate push, cut, and forcing their way to make sure they get on, because their environment has produced the mentality that the next one, may never arrive.

Instead of getting frustrated at people cutting, or pushing, you just have to get in there and push right along with them. Cut when you see an opening, because if you don’t, someone else will, and if you wait to be ‘polite’ the entire time, you will end up waiting until 1 billion people file ahead past you.

After my time in the watertown, I went back to the bus station and caught a bus back to Shanghai, had some dinner, and then managed my way back home from a full day of exploring!

Shanghai day 1

Wow, what a different city Shanghai is than Beijing! After leaving Datong last night after a great visit, my flight arrived late at night where I was hoping to take their new Maglev train into the city. Unfortunately, it had already stopped running for the evening. So I waited in line for a taxi and was on my way to my place for the next week.

My first views of Shanghai were at night, but in the daytime, the city is bustling about with life. Street stalls selling pork buns, dumplings, streets zigzagging in all different directions each leading to another ‘business district’. I found my way to People’s Square, a great park full of greenery and a hub for transport. Right when I arrived, I saw one of those Open Air Bus Tours going around, which I thought would be perfect to orient myself to how the city is laid out.

After lunch, I walked to the stop that’s near the ‘Bund’, the most famous area of Shanghai that is around the river that curves through the city. On one side, you have the various European styles of architecture, which look across to the futuristic modern architecture of sky reaching buildings.

The bus tour was ok, as it took me through the city and gave a little dialog about each of the places. It did its job of orienting me to the whereabouts major sites were in the city. After a couple of routes (an hour each), I felt like I had a good understanding of where things were in the city.

I then met up with Branden from Austin, who’s studying here. We went over to Pudong, the modern side of the city, to go up into one of the buildings to overlook the city. It was really beautiful and I lucked out apparently on my weather as it’s been raining the past several weeks.

We then went to grab dinner before walking along the boardwalk area to see the night lights. It was as amazing as the pictures always show, but what is even cooler when I see ‘famous’ sights like this, is understanding their position in a city. I always thought the main part of Shanghai was the modern side, but it’s actually the opposite side sitting facing it. Really cool to understand the make ups of these cities.

The Hanging Temples

Today was incredible. We arranged a group van with the 4 of us staying at the ‘hostel’. Waking up after a beauty sleep of a good 8 hours in one of the most comfortable beds in the most clean and luxurious ‘hostel’ I’ve ever seen, I felt refreshed and ready to begin the day. After a little snack for breakfast, we were on our way downstairs to meet the van driver.

Right on time, the driver and navigator were smiling and ready to receive us. They barely spoke any English, which turned into some pretty funny dialog during the day when trying to get some things done. Luckily, during the journey, I was able to use my Chinese character knowledge and communicate some wishes—IE when’s lunch J

We started our journey heading for the hanging temples, which I was looking forward to. These temples were built so close to the cliffs edge that they were basically etched into the existing mountain. After a while, we arrived and pulling closer in, we saw an immaculately maintained landscape surrounding the grounds that were beneath the amazing cliff structure. It was truly a magnificent sight.

We got into the gates after getting our student discount, and went straight for the temples to beat a couple of buses that had just shown up. Luckily, our route through this amazingly detailed structure weaved us through steep staircases, perches upon perches, beautifully carved temple rooms, all continuing to lead us to the next perch of temples and stairs.

20140423-233337.jpgWe were all impressed how we were able to go through the entire thing, perched simply by toothpick looking stilts, yet felt very secure. The colors, the details, the overall uniqueness of this site has again, exceeded any and all expectations of my trip to China. Both this and the Great Wall have both made the trip incredibly worth the journey, and have made me even more excited to see spectacular sights that still remain to be seen.

During our descent from the temples, the paths became flooded with more and more tourists from the buses, and at that point, I was so glad we were already done. The path ways are extremely narrow, and in the way of Chinese tourists, ‘Tour Route’ means nothing, and people were already backtracking and creating complete messes in the tiny paths through the temples. This is where I would have been extremely uneasy as with the pushing and disorganization of filing through, I’d have sure to become wary of losing my cool.

We wandered around the park a little more visiting the temple dedicated to the traveler who had found these temples, and the pathways along the river were quite beautiful. We went back to the van and were so thankful for the beautiful weather we had, as well as beating the crowds that allowed us a very quiet view of these amazing structures.

We were then back on our way towards Datong to go to the Yangung Caves, which were on the opposite side of the city. At this point, we were ready to eat, so we communicated this and we had a great plan laid out before us. Step 1, Temples. Step 2, Train Ticket (for Olivier) Step 3, Lunch, Step 4, Caves, Step 5, Back to the Hotel, Step 6, Airport (for me).

After stopping to get the train tickets for Olivier, we went towards the caves to find a place for lunch. The driver stopped the van, and I saw BBQ out the window, so figured that would be safe in this pretty run down area. Instead, he lead us through this breakage in a fence up these stairs to a little hole in the wall that had 4 tables and a gross looking man smoking in the back. The menu was completely in Chinese, and I was able to decipher a few simple things like, noodles, lamb, pork. But the driver went ahead and took the liberty of ordering for us all. Oh dear, what is about to come out?

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We were served a dish with noodles, pretty simple, and pretty good, however, I was pretty fearful. Again to bring up the Colombian adventure which has unfortunately scarred me for life, I didn’t want to indulge completely in this dish that looked pretty gross from the outside. The noodles must have been handmade, because at first site, they looked like white meal worms, all lined up, short and stubby, and completely unrefined. They were in a dirt colored broth, which specks of red oil bubbles that floated and swirled around with each spoon dip. I figured since the soup was most likely boiled, that it was probably all right, and along with my comrades as gauges, decided that it must be somewhat safe to eat.

After our $.85 meal of noodles, we then drove literally 2 minutes to our destination, the Yungang Caves. The driver let us out and we decided to meet back at 3:30pm, which would give plenty of time to get back to the hostel, along with probably a snack for myself and to get to the airport in time for my 7:30 flight.

Walking to the caves, we felt a little disoriented, as there weren’t hoards of people or tourists. We found our way and bought some more student tickets which saved us quite a bit for the day, (I’m a life long student, always learning, mind you), and we wandered through temples that were listed on the back of our ticket on a map. We finally saw the beginning of the caves.

So much has been restored, that the beginning was not all that impressive. You saw reliefs of what looked like human forms in the wall, but nothing super spectacular. Until you get to the first real cave, where you go in and walk up a few stairs, turn to the left, and in your view sits a humongous Buddha that is being kissed by a ray of light coming in through the rock formed window in front. It was absolutely stunning, and made for some amazing pictures.

20140423-233304.jpgAfter studying the walls, the other disciples of Buddha, and admiring all the intricately carved pieces of stone forming beautiful decorative walls, we made our way to more of these types of structures, hidden in the caves, yet so grandeur in each own way that you could only stand in awe of what sat before you. To imagine the work and craftsmanship of these structures, inside actual caves, I don’t even understand how it was possible.

After seeing about 4 or 5 of these huge structures, we made our way around the park and headed for the exit where there were vendors selling all sorts of souvenirs. One of the best things was these guys who were using huge mallets to pound peanuts and walnuts in this pan mixing it with a honey and syrup that created almost a graham cracker like cookie of peanuts. They gave us some tasters, and afterwards, I was hooked. I bought a box and before I knew it, I had already finished the box (just four thick cookies) and we were upon the next vendor selling a different mix. His was just as delicious and was a different mixture of peanuts and walnuts which made for a slight less sweet cookie, and again, I was hooked and needed to buy. That will be my treat for later J

We then walked back to the van and made our way back to the hotel, again recounting how amazing the day was with one another. The weather could not have been more perfect, the crowds less crowded, or the sights less magnificent. Today was a great day that reminds me of why I journey to far off places like this to experience the kindness of strangers, the curiosity of foreign cultures, the landscapes of far off places, and the sights of history’s finest accomplishments.

 

 

 

Train to Datong

Train to Datong

As if buying the tickets earlier this week wasn’t bad enough, going to the Beijing train station to board the train was like getting inline to an unknown hell. At the front of the station, they had piles of people smashing into this one aisle gate. It was like a nightmare from elementary school when you’re trying to manage your space in line when everyone’s pushing for a prize or something. I literally got sucked in like a whirlpool with my backpack both strapped to my front and back, I was pushed in the sea of people past the gate where you show your ticket and passport, and spat out on the other side like a white water rapid having just released you from its hold.

After finding my way through to the gate, which was relatively easy, I was stunned at the train ahead of me. Walking down to the very first car, I saw a lot of the sleeper cars which was what I had originally wanted, but the ticket person couldn’t speak any English, and my visual signing of what I wanted did not work.

As I got closer and closer to my car, the crowds were getting incredible. People with bags and bags of stuff, standing all in the aisle ways.

I got to my car, and literally could not even make it to my seat, where I saw I was in the middle seat of a row of 3, facing another row of 3, with a tiny table. Everyone just sat there looking. All the luggage racks were taken, luggage was on the floor. People were smoking. People were standing, crowding in. People were sitting on tiny stools in the middle of the walkway.

I immediately found an attendant where I showed my phone translation for ‘I would like to upgrade my ticket’. She brought me to another car that had even more people crowded around a jail cell like compartment where a little man sat with a calculator and a receipt machine. Everyone had their hands passing through the jail bars to the attendant trying to get their ticket seen. I showed mine, and he put my ticket number as number 17. 17 in line that is, for wanting to upgrade my seat.

They explained that all I had to do was stand there until a seat was open. So while being pressed up against the jail cell bars, with my backpack now on the ground, any person trying to transit the car created a push around all people to allow someone through.

Finally after a terrible hour of waiting in the most uncomfortable way ever, he came back with seats available. He had a list of the seats, which I counted, and it didn’t look like there would be 17 of them. As he called out the ticket numbers, people would quickly push and shove their money through the bars to the attendant to obtain their new seat.

Minutes went by which seemed like hours waiting to see if my wait was for naught. Last seat, number seat 15. Terrible.

I tried to manage my way back to my seat which by this point, I became Chinese and simply pushed through the aisleway not being conscious of the lack of space, but made my way forcefully to my seat.

I kept my backpack between my legs as I sat at the seat which I had to make someone move who had taken the seat. I sat hugely uncomfortable and nervous being the only foreigner on the train, and as we made our first stop, the crowds of people lightened, and I felt a bit more relaxed in the seat in between a teenage boy and an old man.

The old man couldn’t stop looking at me and smiling, and kept trying to say something to me, but only laughed when I couldn’t understand. So I got out my pen and paper and wrote the characters for my name is Benjamin. He wrote the characters for ‘which country’. So I wrote back the characters for ‘America’. He then tried to talk as in, why can’t you talk if you can write. So I wrote down the characters for Japanese, and can read/write, but no speak/hear. J That made my point across and we laughed. He then pulled out his phone to show me pictures of his trip to New York. Very random that this little old man on this ruralesque train had had the fortune of going to New York apparently to visit a daughter.

After 7 hours on the train, we started to pull into the village of Datong. Village? Um, no, this was a huge city which by any means would out high rise most cities in the US, but this tiny little city is nestled up near the Mongolian border and home to the region of the hanging temples and the Yungang caves. That is the whole reason I’m here, to see these amazing things in person.

I found my way to the hostel via cab, and I was amazed by this place. It was on the 22nd floor of this high rise building and a brand new loft type apartment that had been retrofitted as a hostel with single rooms and dorm rooms. I had booked a single room, and when Tina, the young girl ‘manning’ the hostel showed me around in her impeccable English, my room was huge, with a beautiful queen size bed, clean floors, and a view out over the city. The whole place was so curious as in, why are you running a hostel in this penthouse like apartment in Datong? It was very bizarre, but I didn’t need to question it as it was a great deal.

After getting settled in, I ventured to the walled city to find the best restaurant in Datong, a place called FengLingGe, a dumpling house that is in an old temple like building. Here I had amazing selection of dumplings from pork, vegetable, mushroom, to crab. It was absolutely delicious, decadent, and the environment was that of like a fine palace. I enjoyed watching everyone eat while I enjoyed my meal, and felt a sense of relaxation overcome me after my long day of travel, and looked forward to my night’s rest in that beautiful room.

When I returned, I met the French guy who is going with us on our journey tomorrow, along with the New Zealand girls. All four of us will have a driver taking us to our sight seeing places tomorrow, and then at the end, I will be brought to the airport for my trip to Shanghai!

Antique Markets of Panjiayuan

Today, I went out to the Panjiayuan markets, written about in the guidebook that I had which said it was a colorful marketplace full of photography opportunities. That was definitely a true statement. Making my way on the subway changing from one line to another, I made my way to the markets and was emptied out onto the sidewalk with no markets in sight. Enter my trusty iPhone, and I see that it was just one block away.

Winding around the sidewalk, I then found the path that lead me to the markets. The street was full of people looking at various wares and antiques spread out on little blankets, each stall selling something completely different than another. From a bunch of walnuts, to old war paraphernalia, to bronze buddhas, to wooden jewelry, the sights were pretty interesting and you couldn’t help but look.

Finally, I saw an entrance to the real markets, and holy cow, the market place was a buzzing. I didn’t even know where to begin because looking to the left, I saw rows and rows of artwork, antiques, handicrafts, and jade, while to the right I saw calligraphy works, more antiques, pottery, and furniture. What a beautiful set of amazing items, all waiting to be bargained for.

I decided to start on the left hand side, and while I was busy taking some photos at any chance I got, I also found myself keeping a tally of things I thought looked interesting, and how to come back to them. After a good hour, I decided to break for lunch and found a random café in the market area that summoned me for lunch.

I sat down next to a German family, a brother, a sister, and a mother. The mother reminded me of a dear friend’s mother (Judith), and hearing the girl speak great English with a hint of a German accent, I couldn’t help but view her as dear Judith. She was living in Beijing and working as an art restorationist, going around doing various projects around Beijing restoring artwork. Her brother was visiting along with the mother, and came to see the sights of Beijing before her work in Beijing was completed.

We enjoyed our conversation at lunch together, and I loved the chicken sandwich, and we were on our way to break open our wallets in the ping pong tango of bargaining for goods. I went back to the stalls that I had seen items that I wanted, and not knowing if things are fake, real, authentic, or quality, it’s hard to pay a lot for anything without some type of verification. So I only went for a couple of items that I thought would be conversation pieces, like an old canteen, a Tibetan vibration bowl, and a couple other items.

I made my way back home with my new wares, and packed up the box I had received from a nearby hotel the previous day when looking to ship my vase back home. This box was the perfect size, and I was able to pack it tight with the other items, and get it prepped for the next day to bring to ship out.

That night, I went to one of the best dumpling chains in Asia, Dai Tin Fung, a Taiwanese dumpling house that is high quality and great. I enjoyed a great meal complete with many different kinds of dumplings from fried, to steamed. The food was delicious, and I definitely enjoyed being able to watch the kitchen make the dumplings in the back.

Trip to Great Wall of China

Today, I started off on my journey to the Great Wall of China through a tour that I had booked the previous day. I decided for the half day tour because of reading on TripAdvisor that the other full day tour going to the Ming Tombs wasn’t as good as spending more time at the Great Wall itself.

So, I went to the spot across the street from where I was staying to get picked up for the tour. As I walked up to the stairs of the bank, a random man waiting in a car waved at me to get my attention. I was surprised, because it was just a man in a car, and I was thinking, um, ok who are you and why are you in a car and not some tour van. Of course, he didn’t speak much English, but I went with it, since he said Great Wall of China.

We were on our way and I was wondering the whole time why no one else was with me on my Guided Tour. As we weaved our way through the streets of Beijing, we pulled over to wait for a bit. For what, I wasn’t sure, but he was on the phone seemingly coordinating something. All of a sudden, we were then on our way again, and as we made a turn, he nudged me and pointed out a van that was driving in front of us. This was my tour van, and they were pulling over literally just for the few seconds to pick me up. It was pretty funny.

I got on board, and there were two others already in the back. A guy, Santi, who’s living in Beijing studying at University, and his sister who came to Beijing to visit. Together they were doing various tours around Beijing to show her around. We chatted for a bit before we stopped again, and loaded on about 10 other people to our tour van. And we were off.

Our tour guide, Monica, told us about 5 minutes worth of history of the wall, basically saying that it was built during three Dynasties, and we were visiting the newest of the built. The weather wasn’t the greatest, and I was a bit disappointed that over the last several days, the weather had been at least dry, and now it was wet with drizzling rain. The van was comfortable, and people began to fall asleep as our journey continued on to the wall.

After about an hour, we had a rest stop to use the restroom and get some snacks from a market, and within another half hour, we were arriving at the bottom of a main entrance into the wall. Complete with Subway Sandiwich and KFC available for doing something cultural, and then completely westernizing it in the worst possible way. We then got our entrance, and headed for the cable cars that would take us up the mountain to our first post.

Once we got to the top, we opted to head for the tallest of the posts, post #23, where the people would become scarce at the prospect of having to climb such steep stairs to the top. Luckily, the mist never turned to rain, and in essence, gave such an amazingly cool refreshing and mystical look to the entire landscape. While at this point, I was disappointed to not see the expanse of the wall, for we could only see a few hundred feet worth in front of us, how the mist crept over the walls and left the rest hidden behind the fog was very intriguing.

We pressed onward, and the farther we went, the fewer people were around, which made for some ghostly pictures of the wall in its solitary beauty. The stones making the stairs were pretty smooth, but we finally ascended to the portion of the wall that was a lot more rough, which made it look more authentic and historically ruined.

The higher we climbed, the closer we came to post 23, where we found a random old man manning a tiny market on the side of the pathway with a sign that says, ‘Last Food or Water for next 10km+’. At this point, we had hiked for almost 1.5 hours and figured we should head back so we could make it to lunch on time. After some pictures, we started our way back which was almost as challenging as the steep stairs going up. My legs began to shake a little bit from the strenuous nature of having a backpack, balancing, and just having spent the last 1.5 hours climbing up. Oh and I was beginning to get hungry, so there’s that too.

20140422-072520.jpgAs we started back, the clouds started to part, and the expanse of the wall was beginning to show through the mist. The overwhelming nature of this structure can be felt simply by being anywhere on the wall, and seeing an endless path in front of you. It is by far one of the most impressive things I’ve seen, and while the architecture is as ‘simple’ as being a wall, the idea behind it, as well as the length of it, has by far impressed me more so than I thought possible. I’ve seen some amazing things in this world, and finally being able to see this structure has been a very wonderful opportunity.

As we headed back, it was almost completely sunny, and the sweat started to form which I was glad now of our opposite morning. We got the best of both types of weather, which made for great pictures on both fronts. Of course leaving down the wall we were confronted by a ton of merchants offering their goods. You couldn’t help but look because there were interesting things from Mao’s Red Book, Tibetan vibration bowls, silk dresses and such. By the time we were finished looking at all the items, we were looking like we’d miss lunch. So I went to Subway and grabbed a sandwich just to make sure. Then once I got to our lunch, sure enough, the dishes were practically all done, and I had just the scraps of what was left over.

Once back on the bus, I had my sandwich which I was glad I’d bought. Our ride back was quiet as everyone was exhausted. After a couple of hours I got back to my place and relaxed. I was happy to have my own space to relax and enjoy a quiet evening at ‘home’.

Overall, the tour to the Great Wall will be one of my favorite tours, and I could have stayed even longer on the wall hiking!

 

Wandering around Beijing

One thing I’ve made a point about for this trip is to schedule long enough in a place where I’m not constantly running around trying to get everything seen in a short amount of time. Japan had a pretty full schedule, but now I get to stay in one place for a week, and get a feel for the place. With that said, today I didn’t have anything specifically planned, so I picked out a spot to go see and headed there slowly. I first thought I should go and arrange my train ticket for Datong just in case there’s something odd about train ticket purchases.

Once I arrived at the station, it was chaos. An open square full of absolute chaos. And what was more amazing is that there was no signage anywhere about where to buy tickets. No one seems to speak English, and even in the train station security guards, I motion handing a ticket and paying money, and they all stare at me like I’m talking about nuclear chemistry in Greek. It took forever to figure out where to go get a ticket, and once I did, it took even longer.

Luckily, I had Google Translate, and wrote out the sentence of what I wanted to do. After waiting 15 minutes in line, she said I needed to go to window 16 for that ticket. Again, a twenty minute wait in line, and once I arrived, I was told that it’s window number 1. Unfortunately, being able to read a bit still didn’t help out, as none of the characters made sense as to what type of lines I was waiting in. Thankfully the third line I went to was short, and I got my ticket and I was on my way.

I chose to go see the Lama Temple, which was up north, and an interesting set of temples for Confucious.  The grounds were nice, and the entire area smelled of incense burning. After spending a while looking for a decent place to eat, I opted to use Trip Advisor and see if anything was nearby. There was an Italian place that seemed close, but of course, close in Beijing still means a good 30-45 minute walk. I managed to find my way to this shopping street which was lined with all sorts of modern shops in very old buildings. It was really nice. While my eyes perused the unique shops, my stomach lead me to the alleyway where the Italian restaurant supposedly was. And there was, a tiny hole in the wall, closed. I looked at the door and I pressed my face against the window to peer in, and oddly, I could see a setting of a table being used, but no one was inside.  I pulled on the door, and it was locked. So disappointed, I sat there shaking my head.

Suddenly, a dainty looking Chinese woman opened the door, and in an almost overly exaggerated enunciation of R’s and L’s, the woman’s English was very good. She explained that the shop had to close today due to some other circumstances, but said that she herself could make me anything that wasn’t a ‘meal’. That included mushroom soup, lasagna, all paninis, and desserts. I wonder what a ‘meal’ was if those were the only things ‘she’ was able to prepare. My mushroom soup was so good. I’d been holding back a little bit on feeling comfortable eating, and once the soup touched my lips, the familiarity of quality ingredients immediately allowed me to chug it down. Then came the Panini. Unfortunately, not as good as the soup, the bread was overly crunchy, and the ‘italian’ sausage had a very ‘chinse’ flavoring to it that made me feel a little grossed out. All in all, the meal was good, and got me going on my second round of walking.

20140417-212202.jpgI then decided to walk on down to the Forbidden city, to finally see what I hadn’t been able to see the previous day. Tienanmen Square with the famous Mao picture. As I made my way down, I went by subway so that when I exited, I followed the signs to Tienanmen. After security check, we were able to walk towards the square, and all of a sudden, while soldiers marched by, I saw the grand intersection where the gates of the Forbidden city stare back at you. It was really cool to finally understand it’s position in the city, in the street, in the square.

The square was huge. Like Red Square. A massive, communist type, square that obviously holds quite a tainted past. I know they have a flag dropping ceremony at sunset, but it was just 5:00, so I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay. I am so glad I did. I went over and took pictures for a while, and then headed back to the square where everyone was gathering in front of the guarded flag to wait for the ceremonious flag change.

I then saw two foreign girls, and thought I would ask them if they knew what time the flag was dropping. They were really nice and both have been traveling together for the last few months. They too the TransSiberian train from St. Petersburg, all the way through Mongolia, and made their way down to Beijing. Quite the trek! As we chatted, the time flew. We were having a grand old time, and everyone around us was watching intently, laughing when we were laughing, and just wishing so much they could understand what we were talking about. It was funny, and sweet.

Apparently being in Tienanmen is a big honor for the Chinese, and it was a very important thing to be able to watch the ceremony. Finally, we saw movement of troops coming in and standing in a line. Apparently each step is precisely calculated something like 108 steps to get one place to another each measured by a certain space. What I’m curious is who’s checking.

After another wait, the flag began to lower, and ceremoniously, the troops took it off the pole and removed from the grounds. After the removal, everyone dispersed like cockroaches. The troops then began shewing everyone out of the square. Vehicles were driving around making sure no one stayed on the square and that the entire square was evacuated. All of a sudden, the lights of the Forbidden city were aglow, and it was fantastic.

The lighting was absolutely beautiful and boasted the grandeur sense of what lays behind the gate. After another bout of picture taking, I decided my full day of wandering around Beijing was over. My feet are tired. On my way home however, I saw a group of old ladies using giant calligraphy brushes ‘painting’ characters in the street. They were using water to make the characters. I went over and watched them, and they started to smile. So I motioned to take a brush, and we started writing characters together. She wrote the character for Love. Then Country. = Patriotism. Then China. Wow, already propaganda I wonder? So I wrote the character for Beauty (which also is the first character in the wod USA). And she smiled surprisingly that I could write anything. She then wrote the character for person, and pointed out middle, kingdom, peson. Chinse. So I pointed out Beauty Kingdom, Person (American). I then wrote ‘Good’ and then wrote the chcaracters for Japanese Language, because they didn’t understand why I could write but not speak :) I then wrote down the Chinese characters for my name, and asked her hers. It was a really cool experience, and something fun to remember. 20140417-212127.jpg

Arrival in Beijing

The flight to Beijing was incredible. I had been disappointed thinking I was going to be on the 787 again, but the JAL 767 plane took the cake! I had my own amazing compartment like seat complete with a huge screen, lie flat seat that had a massage, hidden cubbies, a place for my shoes, the works. It made the 787 business class seats look like a joke.

Resting nicely aboard this beautiful plane made me wish the flight was a little longer :)

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After landing into Beijing, I was one of the first off the planes, and we were corralled into the area to show our passports. The overhead building looked like a big striped canopy so far above my head, it was almost surreal looking. The waves moved back and forth with the curvatures of the ceiling, and it was pretty incredibly huge. It reminded me of Madrid’s airport.

I found my way out of the airport and ATM, armed myself with a bus ticket and was on my way to Jinbao Road, where my Airbnb apartment awaited. The host had texted earlier saying he left the keys for me at the door, so after a ride from the airport, I found my way to a typical Beijing alleyway homestead, a Hutong. Voilà, the keys were right there. I just love when that happens. I found my way in, and the place was perrrfect. A cute little downstairs with a table and bathroom, with a staircase that brings you to a bed loft area. It’s great!

After unpacking and knowing I’ll be here for a nice little punctuation of my trip, I oriented myself and saw that I was just a couple of blocks away from the Forbidden City, so I was out the door and on my way.

After almost 25 minutes, I still had not arrived at the forbidden city, and with my trusty iPhone maps, I now see that a ‘block’ on the map is really a humongous quadrant of a good stretch of about 8 minutes across. By this point, I had been asked by several people where I was from, and if I would like to go to coffee or have tea with them. How sweet! At least, the innocent side of me thinks so. The independent traveler who knows it would take a while for anyone to come a lookin’ says, No, I do not talk to strangers. Much less have coffee and tea with them in an undisclosed location.

I found myself at the Eastern Gate of the Forbidden City, and people were everywhere. So I walked along the moat and headed South, because I wanted to see the famous gate with Mao’s picture in the middle. After another good 15 minutes, I found the gate. I was excited, but a little saddened because I figured I’d be coming out of it, and would have to turn around. I like those ‘a ha’ moments like when you’re walking up Red Square unsuspectingly, and then BAM, St. Basil’s Cathedral. Or driving in Paris, and BAM, there’s the Eiffel Tower.

The Chinese saved me however. They have that as an incoming gate only, and the only way to get back there, is to rewalk all the way around back to where I started, then back down again. Too much, so I headed back.

Along my way home ‘2 blocks’, I happened across a street market that had been setting up on my way to the Forbidden City. It had transformed from a row of stalls empty, to a bustling food market with anything you could imagine on skewers.

Let’s name the items:

  • Frogs
  • Cow Liver
  • Sheep Leg
  • Sheep Testicles
  • Sheep Penis
  • Frog
  • Snake
  • Crickets
  • Meal Worm
  • Grub Worms
  • Scorpions
  • Oh, and fruit.

It was incredible. Sounds, smells, lights, action. This was the travel that I’d forgotten still existed. The sense of seeing and experiencing something with total wonderment, and curiosity. It was a blast. But no, I didn’t try anything this go around, as Colombia has left such a scary flavor in my mouth, I’m being extremely careful.