Sunday, April 1, 2018

Beijing!


It's been almost 9 years since my first visit to Beijing. On that trip, we covered a lot of sightseeing ground but I was more than happy to revisit many of those places as this time around, we will be exploring at our own pace so I hope I will see things that I missed the first time around.

Our flight to Beijing left Shanghai at 11a from Hongqiao Airport which is accessible via the metro. We had been to Hongqiao metro station just two days ago so we knew exactly how long the ride would be from East Nangjing Road metro station. We planned our departure accordingly and made it to the airport in plenty of time for checkin. I do have to say, it was a chaotic task at times - simply going through the first security check which was before the check in counters was madness. Remember, Chinese don't queue so everyone was rushing up to the security belt like they were about to miss their flight. I think I got shoved out of my place twice until I shoved back. Surprising thing here is that no one minds when you push back. So, I not only push back, I push back hard and sometimes I also flash them a bit of a snarl. That usually puts them in their place. Okay, venting done.

Our flight took off in time and landed in Beijing as scheduled, around 1:30p.

We got our baggage and made our way to the taxi stand. Originally, I had planned to just make our way to our Airbnb apartment via the Beijing metro. Our apartment is located in one of Beijing's hutong neighborhoods. Having spent time in a hutong neighborhood before, I realized it could be much too challenging for us, considering our inability to speak Mandarin, to find the place. So, I opted for the taxi instead. It was a long line of people waiting for taxis but the flow of taxis arriving was seemingly endless. Ironically, when there are ropes to constrain people, there are queues so Chinese do know how to file behind each other! We waited patiently for our turn. When we got to the head of the line, the dispatcher waved us toward the waiting taxi. As we approached the driver, he started shouting at us in Mandarin. We obviously had no idea what he was saying but with every word he shouted, it was also obvious, he was getting angrier by the second. He waved us back towards the dispatcher. We looked at the dispatcher. We looked at the driver. We decided to walk back to the dispatcher. All three of us were wondering why we had been rejected as passengers. My suspicion was that even though our suitcases are all small (22 inches) they were were too large to all fit into the trunk of his car. But, had he really wanted to take us, he would've simply had us put one of the suitcases in the back seat. Bro's contention was he was not about to get into a car with an angry driver. Good point. So we waited for the next taxi and driver and this guy took us. I showed him the address, which he then plugged into his GPS. He seemed like a much nicer guy than the first driver so I think that made all of us sigh a small breath of relief.

At this time of day, the drive from the airport to central Beijing takes about an hour because of the traffic. When I was in Beijing in 2009, the air quality was okay....at least I could see the sun. Today, there was sun but it was totally obscured by smog. The air was super hazy and literally brown in color. Bro will be wearing his surgical mask the entire we are here and I cannot blame him.

The drive was as slow as I anticipated though we had a driver who I would describe as fairly aggressive. He changed lanes any chance he could even if it only got him a foot ahead.

The closer we got to the center of the city, the more high rise buildings came into view, the more traffic there was, and the slower we crawled along. I know it would've been much faster for us to take the metro.

When the driver veered off the main road into a very narrow side street, in a neighborhood filled with old buildings, I knew we were in the hutong. Now, it was just a matter of finding our place.

The driver soon stopped the car and indicated we had arrived. Okay. So we all go out and took our luggage from the trunk. Our Airbnb host had been very explicit about where the driver was to drop us off.

Right spot, wrong gate.

Lucky for us, just as we were saying goodbye to the driver, a young man approached us on a bicycle. Realizing we were probably tourists, he asked if we needed help which was very kind of him. I showed him the address and the instructions and he pointed out to us that the entrance gate we were looking for was actually just around the corner. Another sigh of relief. The driver had dropped us of at the right location, just the wrong entrance gate. So we thanked the young man and followed his directions. The moment we rounded the corner and I recognized the buildings from the photos that our host had sent to me.

Standing outside our apartment building.

On the other side of the entrance gate were several apartment buildings, three of which were identical looking.  I knew one of those was the one our apartment would be in.  But which one?  Of course, had I paid very close attention to the photos that the host had sent me, I would've realized it was the second building that was the correct one  but I was not that mindful.


We simply entered the first one and headed up to the third floor.   It was not the correct apartment because it did not have a coded key lock. Okay, so here is a bit of advice. When there are three of you, send one person up to check out to see if you are at the right place and not have everyone do the same thing, lugging their luggage with them.  The person going up should've been me but the other two....yes, I blame it on them were a tad too keen to take the lead.

So, we tried the second building.  This time, SK went up.  When we got confirmation that the apartment had a coded key entry, I went up and handed her the code.  She punched in the numbers and the door opened.  Viola!  We had arrived! 

The hallway area of the apartment building was not very attractive looking at all.  Reminded all of us of the apartment we had just left behind in Shanghai.  The only decorations were what looked to be stenciled paintings of letters above numbers.  None of us could even venture a guess what they were or represented.  Being the person that alway sees everything in a positive light, SK declared them to be very artistic. You gotta love the girl 😁


But what a surprise we had when we entered into the apartment!  Small but with four beds, it was enough for the three of us as well as Yim who would be arriving in two days.  The apartment was very stylishly appointed with all the modern amenities (Wifi, flat panel TV, washer, etc.) we needed.  The host had also provided each of us with a nice pair of disposable slippers and an amenity kit.  The beds and bedding were very nice.  We were all so happy that this would be our home for the next few days!

After taking a few minutes to settle in, we decided to head out and check out our hutong 'hood.


The last time I was in Beijing, I spent about a day in one of these neighborhoods and I loved being in where the locals live and work.  There's so much activity taking place here and it's just so interesting to see it.  I don't remember there being so many cars the last time I was here. 

The entrance gate to our apartment building is on the left, just past the parked Honda.

The lanes are so narrow, car owners take their own measures to protect their parked cars from damage!

Our hutong 'hood.

I didn't have any specific agenda in mind for our afternoon but I did tell Bro that I wanted to head out towards the main road.  I knew we were a few blocks away and I figured we could explore a bit of the hutong on the way and once we got to the main road, there would hopefully be plenty of shops for us to do a bit of window shopping.  I know Bro would not mind picking up some fruit.


So far, we've been very lucky with the weather in China.  It is spring and days have been comfortably cool.

We had barely walked a block away from our apartment when we came across a small row of shops and streetside eateries.  It was good to stumble upon the food places as it was well past our lunchtime.  Although we did have breakfast (at our favorite place in Shanghai) as well as a meal on the plane, I know that we were all ready for a bite....a small snack tie us over to dinner.

The site of any pastry will always stop me in my tracks.


The flaky pastry looked so tempting and even though we really had no good idea what was inside any of them, SK's kindergarten level mastery of Beijing was enough for us to pick out a few to try.



She would've bought more if not for the fact that I kept telling her that there would be plenty of such places as we walk along.  You never go hungry in Beijing.....or Shanghai....or Hong Kong or any of the other places we'll be visiting on our trip.


A few feet later, we came across this guy who was making what I can only describe was a version of jianbing, Beijing's most popular street breakfast food.  While we watched him make them, we didn't order one today.  Tomorrow.

Instead of a crepe base, it looked like he was using sheets of pasta??


We eventually arrived at the main road but decided to cross it and explore the hutong neighborhood on the other side.   Here, we could see the old architecture that defines the hutong area.  I told Bro and SK that behind many of the old facades are often courtyard style homes that have been restored and renovated and are now commanding serious dollars in the real estate market.  This is not a cheap part of town to live in!


Of course, many of the old buildings now house stores.  We popped inside one selling furniture that was so modern in design that it evoked thoughts of Scandinavian furniture.  I think it caught both SK and Bro by surprise that there is such modernity here.  It definitely shakes up any preconceived notions of China being a *backward* country.


One thing that I really like about the hutong neighborhoods is the many tree lined streets.  The last time I was here was in July and it was lovely to stroll under the shade of all the old trees.  Today, it's barely early spring here and the trees have yet to display even a green bud let alone a leaf so the streets looked awfully bare.



We walked down the one street a bit and then turned around and headed back to the main road.  There were plenty of people out and about.  After being in China for more than a week now, Bro's eyes have adjusted to seeing a sea of people where ever he steps foot though his brain is still insisting that the country not only re-invoke the child policy but that it be tightened.  I think he's up to one child for every four families 😁


Saw this guy roasting skewers of meat.  Just had to take the photo 😁

As I had expected, the moment Bro saw a produce market, we had to enter.  I let him check out the fruit while I surveyed everything for sale which included some dried food items as well. 

On my first visit in 2009, there were so many fruits and veggies that I did not recognize.  This was not the case today.  In fact, most things sold here I can get back home.  Just goes to show you how global food has become.  Of course, there are still some items that have yet to make it to US markets.  Like these itty bitty things which I guessed are potatoes....at least they looked and felt like potatoes.


And then there were these things.  I really don't know what they are for sure but my guess is that they are some type of squash that were grown inside a mold shaped like Buddha.  From the way they are packaged, I assume they are very expensive....perhaps something you would give as a gift. 


Plenty of places selling dried food products.  I was contemplating whether or not to buy some seeds for us to munch on on our upcoming road trip but decided to hold off until Yim gets here.  She's been keeping our stash of food so we need to take stock of what we already have before buying any more.  No need to hoard food in China.



Traditional Chinese medicine shops seeming to be going by the wayside these days.  You can still buy traditional medicine but it comes all prepacked these days....like these bottles of ginseng.  I hate to say it but even though I know this is a more *sanitary* way to sell herbal medicines, I miss the old fashioned shops where the moment you step inside, you get a heady waft from the ginseng sitting in all the large open containers.


There was plenty of cooked food for sale on the streets.  I had expected SK to jump at the opportunity to try stuff and was really surprised when she didn't express any interest.  On the other hand, I was keeping my eyes out for prepacked cooked ducks.  I had plans to bring along at least two for our roadtrips in Xinjiang as I am expecting not so good food there....perhaps a lot of mutton aka old sheep.


We walked up and down both sides of the main road where there were shops before deciding it was time for dinner.  Earlier we had spotted a place that we thought would be nice for a meal so we decided to head back there.

It was a small place - maybe 6 tables in total.  Lucky for us, one was available.  Looking at the menu, I knew it was Sichuan cuisine and so it would be spicy.  I'm fine with the heat and I think Bro's tolerance is getting better so we each ordered bowls of noodle soup and a plate of lotus root to share.  We also ordered bottles of what tasted like peanut milk to go with our meals.  I liked that peanut milk a lot and and I will have to figure out how to recreate it when I get home.  Should be easy enough to just puree roasted peanuts that have been soaked in water and press out the juice à la making soymilk.



After dinner, we did a bit more food shopping which included me checking out food options for my next trip which will be on the Trans Siberian railroad from Beijing to Moscow.  In the instant noodle aisle, I found these self heating, yes, self heating, meal boxes. For about $2.50, they're not a bad meal option presuming they taste acceptable.  I have made a mental note to try and find these things again when I return back to Beijing in a few months.


By the time we were ready to head back to the apartment, it was dark.  Our little neighborhood shopping area was still filled with people out and about.  Street life was definitely beginning to slow down.


Tomorrow, we have a big sightseeing day ahead of us.  The plan is to cover Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, National Museum of China, Temple of Heaven, Niujie Mosque ending with dinner somewhere in the Niujie area.  I know it's an ambitious itinerary so we'll see how far we get. I'll be happy if we cover the highlights which would be the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven.

We're all settling into our own nightly routines which for me means working on my photos, some reading for Bro and if she can figure out how to work the TV, Chinese serial TV shows for SK. She claims that's how she's been hone her Mandarin 😁