Beijing, China

May 1st is International Labor Day, which entitles Chinese workers to a long weekend. Our school decided to lump all of the long weekends for May Day and the Dragon Boat Festival, giving us a total of 9 days off from school. Knowing that we would not likely get a better chance to go, we took a train from Mianyang to Beijing, China’s capital, to see the sights. We took along our personal assistant, now good friend, Erin. Ever frugal, we opted out of flying and took the train instead. The train ride was 30 hours, with dirty bathrooms and beds, but we made the most of it. We talked a lot, read, slept, ate, and looked at the scenery as we zoomed by.

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Once we arrived in Beijing we went directly to our hostel, dropped off our stuff and visited the closest temple.

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The Lama Temple is very beautiful, but we joked with Erin that once you see one temple in China, you have seen what all Chinese temples have to offer. People often throw coins onto statues, the luckiest landing on top or inside. The gilded sign in front of Kelly and Erin warned against such an activity.

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After we left the temple and had walked down the street a few blocks, we saw this next to a man hole which you could smell a half a block in each direction.

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We met with one of Erin’s online friends and he took us to a vegan restaurant to show off some delicious food Beijing has to offer.The food was absolutely magnificent. It had been so long since we were able to go to a restaurant knowing that the food wasn’t contaminated with meat and able to leave without getting a stomach ache. The dish above is faux-fish, and it was shaped like a fish too! They use seaweed to mimic fish skin. It was nestled in a bed of sliced tomatoes and swimming in pineapple sauce. It was our favorite dish. We ended up eating here another 3 times and tried at least 1/3 of the very large menu.

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With bellies full, we headed to 798 art district.

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Mi always gravitated to toys and art that most young children would be interested in.

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Of course Mi has a love for dinosaurs and we spent a lot of time just watching wide-eyed Mi checking out this display. The bellies of each of the dinosaurs were marked with “Made in China.”

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Hand-made and painted parasol shop.

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We really liked the industrial art made from discarded objects.

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Erin admitted that she did not understand most of the art that we were looking at. We said that we didn’t either but the beauty of art is the countless ways it can be interpreted.

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Representing the influence of Western culture on the East.

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For dinner we went to a dumpling house close to our hostel and went to bed early for the big day ahead of us.

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The next morning we woke up at 5 AM with the intention of going to the closest of the three sections of the Great Wall, Ba Da Ling, but we missed the train by 2 minutes. The next train left 4 hours later and it we were told it would have been so crowded we would have only seen a wall of people.

Determined to see the Great Wall, we decided to take a taxi, despite the exorbitant fee. We agreed on a price and jumped in a black cab, drove for about 500 meters, then the driver stopped on the shoulder of the freeway onramp and asked us to wait for a few minutes. He left us in the car and went to consult with another driver. 15 minutes later we were still waiting for the cab driver, getting crankier by the minute, so we got out and decided to go to the Great Wall another day.

Our next stop was Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City.

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It was snowing pollen the entirety of our stay in Beijing.

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Usually we have to take pictures of ourselves or ask strangers to take pictures of us. It was nice to have Erin who took pictures of us when we couldn’t or wouldn’t have.

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Typical Erin. She is always laughing at us for some reason. Not long into our friendship, we started calling each other “2,” short for 250, which in Chinese basically means stupid.

There is an ancient story of an ambassador named SuQin who was killed while making his rounds. His good friend, Emperor Qi, wanted to know who killed the ambassador and offered 1,000 gold pieces to whoever confessed to the crime. Four greedy men took the bait, confessed to killing the ambassador and suggested the reward should be split four ways, giving them each 250 gold pieces. Emperor Qi split the reward in four, then beheaded them. Since then in China, 250 has meant stupid.

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One of our favorite exhibits was a display of old science and navigation tools.

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Why are that elephant’s legs bent backwards?! Mi was distressed.

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In true tourist Lao Wai fashion, we tried on some traditional Chinese clothing and put on a show for all the Chinese tourists, which pretty much happens anyway because we stick out like sore thumbs. Lao wai means foreigner in Chinese, we learned that pretty quickly because everywhere we go people use it to describe us. It is an informal word and it is not always meant positively.

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Crowds of people took pictures of us in our get-ups, including these little girl’s parents who were more amused by it than the girls were.

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After we left the Forbidden City we started walking toward the Temple of Heaven.

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As you can see, it was unbelievably crowded. During the May holiday everyone is on vacation so it makes points of interest difficult to fully appreciate.

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It was also very hot and windy.

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Getting a little lost, we walked in the Hu Tongs (old alleyways) trying to find our way to a subway station. Kelly liked this part of the city the best because it represents real Beijing, with its narrow passages and people going about their daily lives. During that time, H7N9 was a big concern, especially in the big cities.

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It may not be visible in the picture, but this worker is operating a jackhammer with his butt.

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It’s become a game for us to find signs that are translated in such a way that don’t make any sense at all. This kind of creative translation is all too common in our students’ homework assignments.

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We found our way to the subway and went back to the hostel for a well-deserved nap.

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Later that evening we made our way to “bar street” in search of a microbrewery.

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We didn’t find the microbrewery but we found something way better: MEXICAN FOOD!!  Burritos, guacamole, margaritas, chips and salsa; heaven. Erin, a true Sichuan native, was constantly bemoaning the lack of spicy food in Beijing; she was pleasantly surprised by her tacos al pastor. We have had Mexican food once in China, in Chengdu, but it was disgusting. The abundance of foreigners in Beijing meant that the food was more varied and more delicious. Afterwards, we made our way back to the hostel to rest up for another early morning.

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The next morning we went to the Summer Palace.

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The Summer Palace, like everything in China, has a long history. During the Jin Dyansty, Emperor Wányán Liang moved the capital to Beijing and began building the Summer Palace on a site he called “Gold Mountain.” Later, Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty changed the name of the site to the Summer Palace for his mother’s 60th birthday and made it even more lavish.

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During the Second Opium War, the Emperor feared for his life, so he hastily left the capital, leaving behind about 200 eunuchs who served the empire. In retaliation to the murder of 20 soldiers who were offering a treaty and afraid that China would become a world power, French and British troops murdered the eunuchs, pillaged and burned down the Summer Palace. Most of what we see now is beautiful but reconstructed.

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It was very hot and crowded, so ice pop vendors offered a cool relief every 100 meters. We got one to split and it was not very good. It was just sugar and water.

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After enjoying the views of the Summer Palace and the city nearby, we went to Wang Fu Jing Da Jie snack and souvenir street. This street is famous for its exotic foods such as scorpion kebabs, but the ones they had for sale were not big enough for Kelly’s adventurous taste buds.

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Later that night we met up with Mi’s Norwegian cousin, Simen, who helped us find the microbrewery we were looking for the night before. He has been studying at TsingHua University so he knows all of the best places in the city.

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It turns out that the brewery was just around the corner from our hostel. To give Erin, who is only familiar with “piss water” Chinese beer, the full flavor experience, we ordered a sampler to share. Kelly’s favorite was the darkest brew, but Erin thought that one tasted like Chinese medicine. Later we read in on chinadaily.com that the Slow Boat brewery is actually pretty well known in Beijing. Microbreweries are starting to bubble up in all parts of China. With a growing affluent population who can afford microbrews, China is the next up and coming place for top of the line beer.

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Erin and Simen: Drinking buddies.

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After a long night of drinking, we carried Erin back to the hostel and got a little shut eye.

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The next mornig we woke up before the sun and boarded a three hour bus ride to the Jinshanling portion of the Great Wall. After much discussion we decided to go to the farthest section of the wall for a few reasons. First, there are always fewer people at this location. Second, it has not been restored so it is the original wall. Last, we were told it was a more challenging walk than the other choices.

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You can hire a horse to take you up to the wall, take the tram, or walk. We walked.

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We walked and we got to the top before the majority of the people in our tour group who chose the tram. It only took about 10 minutes for us to walk and about 15 minutes for the people on the tram to arrive. The tram is about ¥50 per person. Walking is free.

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We got to the Wall and once again felt proud of all we have done in the short 2 years that we have been adventuring together.

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As you can see from this picture, this section of the Great Wall was sparsely populated, unlike the other sections of the wall and unlike many of the parts of China we have visited. The weather was warm but not overwhelmingly so, and there was even a nice breeze, making our sometimes strenuous climb all the more enjoyable. It was surreal to stand on this global monument, something that can be seen from space, and which embodies centuries of often tumultuous history. We would often stop on the elevated towers and look out over the expanse of greenery, where rolling hills and distant jagged mountains were a welcome sight after almost a year surrounded by grey cement buildings and a sea of people. At times, our experience in China has been trying, mostly because of the blatant disregard for public courtesy and the constant sensory overload. People here can smoke wherever, often spit huge globs of green phlegm onto the sidewalk, honk car horns incessantly and unnecessarily, and push to the front of lines without any semblance of order. We have longed for wide open spaces, trees, and quiet, which is part of why we enjoyed our time on Jinshanling Great Wall so much. Bird songs and the whispering of wind through leaves replaced the blaring of horns and the rumbling of trucks. We have long since decided that we are not city people and would rather spend our days in the company of nature. Fortunately, the center of our school is mostly green and has a lake in the center. However, the wildlife on campus is limited to common birds and softball-sized toads that lumber out of hiding after it rains, so we are looking forward to being surrounded by life untouched by human influence.

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This portion of the wall has not been restored so some parts are very difficult to walk on. Despite having to occasionally struggle up steep or crumbling sections, it is very worth it to see the original masonry work.

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As soon as tourists disembark from the tour buses, locals will attempt to sell souvenirs and at the base of the hill up to the wall, farmers will attach themselves to each tourist and informally act as their tour guide. Of course these farmers know little to no English and the English they do know has been learned over the years from the tourists. We were lucky to be accompanied by two very nice ladies. One is from the Mongolian side of the wall, the other the Chinese side. They would offer a few words of explanation about what we were seeing, smile and nod graciously, and take our hands to help us up the steeper parts of the climb. Sure-footed as seasoned mountain climbers, both women said that they made the climb every day.

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Some of the tourists (college students from the US) were  very demeaning and pushy with their farmer guides. At one point, we came up behind them as they were pushing stuffed animals into their guide’s hands and taking pictures of them, as if they were some kind of servant for their amusement. We were ashamed of them, but did not want to start a lecture on how they should treat others.

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Kelly’s guide is the younger one (who said that she was 40 but didn’t look a day over 30 despite spending her life outdoors) and from the Chinese side of the wall. Mi’s guide is the older one and from the Mongolian side. Kelly’s guide spoke a little English and we taught her more on the way up. In turn, she helped us learn more Chinese words. It was a great experience. They were kind and endearing. When we showed them this picture, Mi’s guide pointed at herself in the photo and then pointed at her chest, a broad proud smile on her face.

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On the way down, we decided to hike on the mule path instead of walking on the Wall. This way we got to walk by these ladies’ homes and farms. They showed us the vegetables they were growing and the well where they drew their water.

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When we got down from the Wall they wanted to sell us things from the bags they had been carrying the whole way. They said it was hard to ask us to pay so much because we had been so nice, so bargaining with them was very easy. We bought two books and a shirt. One of the books featured photographs by Kelly’s guide’s father and includes a family photo.

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On the busride home we were exhausted but unable to sleep because the seats were highly uncomfortable. We got to the hostel and took a nap.

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Later we went out for a drink at another fancy hole in the wall pub with Mi’s cousin Simen to say goodbye. It was so good to see him and talk with him. He is a really well educated and thoughtful guy so our conversations were well rounded. Talking about so much, including world politics, economics, society,  and film, we felt intellectually challenged for the first time since being in China. Although we have made some good friends at our school in Mianyang, the majority of our conversations are dominated by complaints about the students, the administration, or the city. We went back to the hostel, showered and slept late. The next evening we had to catch our train back to Mianyang.

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The next day we had time to kill so we put our bags in the storage room at the hostel and made our way back to the Mexican food place. After a nice big lunch we ordered food for the train ride back and went to a bookstore/coffee shop called The Bookworm. This multi-room cafe was our dream come true! Books lining almost every wall and in multiple languages, we ordered fresh squeezed juices and began to read. Erin did not bring a book and asked for advice of what to read while waiting. Kelly found on her of personal favorites, “Blink” by Malcom Gladwell and Erin began to devour it. After a few hours we went back to the hostel, grabbed our bags and boarded the subway en route to the train station.

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After our short, but action packed, tour of Beijing we were exhausted. We slept and read a lot on our way home.

Beijing was one of our favorite cities that we have visited. The population of Beijing is approximately 20.1 million people and during the May holiday, when everyone in the country is on vacation at the same time, the amount of people in the city usually swells to a whopping 25 million. The May holiday is a 3 day labor holiday so the factories in and around Beijing were all closed, giving us a brief relief from the usual thick smog. We had nice blue skies every day. Simen did say that some mornings he wakes up and feels sick but doesn’t know why, then looks out his window and can’t see the adjacent building because of the smog. We wish the pollution wasn’t so terrible because if we were to stay in China to teach, Beijing would be our top pick.

We appreciated hearing multiple languages spoken every day, nice microbreweries and pubs in the mix of old and new Beijing, enjoying vegan food from around the world, and still having the choice to eat delicious Chinese food. It was a nice change of pace. By the time we left, Erin was craving Sichuan food. She had a hard time going one week without it.

In one week we are leaving China to begin the next chapter of our lives. We will go to London for 3 weeks and from there fly to Bergen, Norway. Mi will attend graduate school at the University of Bergen, studying Development Geography. Kelly will stay for a week, then fly to Los Angeles to take care of some business, including applying for a Canadian study permit for graduate school at the University of Ottawa. She will study Spanish while learning French.

We will update our blog to include our adventures in London and Bergen. At this point, we are still unsure of how we will update the blog from there. We think we will do individual updates of our daily lives and during school breaks meet to have more adventures together.

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