Sep/Oct 2004 - part 3

Beijing and Beyond

well, it's that time again.  i'm sitting in the business class lounge in the beijing airport, reveling in the free internet and, better still, the free ramen noodles.  chinese businesspeople really know how to live!

my flight home boards in an hour, so i thought i'd take a quick moment (okay, several...) to finish up with (oh, did you know that ramen noodles in china come with a little plastic spork-like utensil right in the cup?  i kept wondering what the really hard thing i was stirring was!  i guess the fact that i just kept pushing it towards the bottom in a futile attempt to rehydrate it says something about my level of weird food tolerance while i'm traveling!).

anyway, as i was saying, i'm going to quickly finish up with a recap of x'ian (terra cotta warriors) and beijing.  nutshell:  since my focus for this trip was on yunnan, i was very happily surprised to really enjoy both x'ian and beijing.  the picture postcard sunny fall weather we had in both cities surely helped (except for our first very grey day in beijing which our local guide kept insisting was "fog" not pollution.  not too surprisingly, after one loong day with him, our group resoundingly decided to fire him...)

the terra cotta warriors are truly amazing.  thousands of them, lined up in rows.  with thousands more in various stages of excavation and repair in the dirt.  basically, visiting the warriors is to visit a working archeological site which happens to be under a massive roof (three, actually).  picture airplane hangar big.   HUGE.  i was really impressed.  and not only with the warriors, but with the chinese govt's astoundingly tasteful handling of the sites.  after seeing what they've done to lijiang and are doing to dzhongdian, i had very low expectations going into it.

afterwards, another chinese train ride, this time from x'ian to beijing.  12 hrs.  overnight.  very cool!  i have now experienced first class in china's nicest train.  the differences, as best i can tell are three-fold:  western toilets, tv's in every bunk, sparkly white bed linens.  similarities to other chinese first-class trains:  very very tiny living space (4 to a cabin, two up, two down), signs warning you not to drink the water in the sinks, and, of course, this being china, extremely hard beds.

our arrival in beijing was at 6:30 in the morning.  and it was brutal.  bedlam.  porters pushing, masses of people, bad bad bedhead all around...happily, our hotel rooms were actually ready for us when we arrived there at 8am.  we then strolled over to tianamen square (in the "fog").  again, it was surprisingly pretty.  i'd imagined a big sterile paved square (with tanks...).  there were tons of people (although, since this IS china, that really goes without saying), lots of flowers, a big picture of mao, etc.  my favorite was the surreptitious "nee how" i muttered to the soldier standing at attention as i stood next to him for a picture.  i must've caught him off guard as i did see his lip twitch towards a smile when i said it :) 

the highlight, however, had to be our excursion the next day to the great wall.  we went to simatai, which is out in the mountains, about a three-hour drive from beijing.  we had a stupendously clear gorgeous fall day - sunny, a nice breeze.  what an amazing hike.  we went as far as we could go in one direction (telltale sign not to go any further: chinese soldier and a really big sign) altogether spent about 3 hrs hiking.  

the wall is really really something - incredibly steep in many places (i read that it can be a 70 degree incline and it sure felt that way) with watchtowers perched at intervals atop each craggy hill - some places required handholds and one even a ladder!  it was a really glorious experience.

beijing is also surprisingly pretty, and the old part of town, where we stayed, is full of quiet tree-lined streets (and, of course, thousands of people on bicycles, vehicle drivers with death wishes, and seemingly hundreds of men selling the ubiquitous "beijing 2008" counterfeit paraphernalia).  apparenly fall is the hands-down best time to visit.  springtime sees windstorms from the encroaching gobi desert (yes, you read that right.  approaching at a rate of 2km a year...), summer is blisteringly hot and winter freezing cold.  

anyway - great trip.  fascinating overview of both rural and urban china, modern and ancient.  and, happily, really tasty food almost wherever we went.  and, with that, it's time to pack up my ramen detritous and head towards the gate.  as the chinese say:  byebye!


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