Tuesday, January 17, 2012

In A Beijing Minute

When we first arrived in Beijing, I thought for sure I would like it. The grand airport was reminiscent of my favorite airport, Incheon, the one I traveled through when going to and coming from Seoul. It was so big, yet so organized and easy to navigate. In Qingdao's airport, I'm lucky to have a changing table in there for Raelynn. In Beijing, there are nursery areas where I can privately feed her and change her without having the general masses gaping at me. It gave a great first impression.

Even the ride on the airport bus into the city was pleasant, offering us a small unmanned tour of brilliant architectural sites. But in a Beijing minute, everything can change. And indeed, it did. As the taxi rolled up to our hotel, I couldn't mask my terror. "Here?" I say, my voice trembling. "Honey, are you sure this is the place?" Lane said that it apparently was. The Beijing Forestland Hotel was awful, but I convinced myself to go have a look, thinking that it's what's inside that counts. The outside was this wasting-away flamingo pink. It looked like the dumpy buildings in our own neighborhood but with better paint. Inside was even worse though. We enter the sorry excuse for a lobby which opens with a foyer. The floor of the foyer completely lacks any ambiance whatsoever, not that I should have expected any from the impression I received when I first set eyes upon this place. The floors are wet and ripe for slip and fall incidents from the haphazardly stacked tanks of fish swimming away the last of their moments before becoming lunch or dinner at the restaurant I can see just beyond the lobby. The lobby itself is smaller than our living room and is filthy with tobacco stains as far as the eye can see.

Apprehensively, we approach the counter and Lane asks if we might view our room first. There is an odd-looking woman with ill-fitting glasses and a young man with some of the stupidest hair I've ever seen sitting behind the counter. We're given the go-ahead to go and look but neither one bothers to go show us. They merely point out the staircase when we start to head the wrong way. There are no elevators here. Not that I'm at all surprised. We head up this insane span of stairs which resembles something from an M.C. Escher painting if he chose to paint cheap Chinese hotels that model themselves after American crack houses. There are also random bed mattresses stacked against the walls of each floor. I am ready to collapse by the time we get to the 4th floor. The room we get to see is grim and frightful. It looks worse than my in-laws' bedroom. The bed was large but took up the entire room. There was no room to walk anywhere except to the bathroom or turn for the door. The bathroom at least was better than my in-laws' but not by much. We high-tailed it out of there and the only thing I regret is that I was too shocked to take any pictures.

 Here are two photos, above and below, of us shortly after checking into the better hotel.

The Beijing Forestland Hotel had offered 170 rmb a night and shown fake pictures of the establishment which were nice enough together to convince my husband to book it instead. Lane had found a nice one called the Da Wan Hotel before choosing this dump for 260 rmb a night. He gave them a call and we were soon on our way to a better stay. This new hotel was MUCH better. It wasn't the Ritz, but it was a solid, decent place, well worth paying the extra money. Our room was very large, clean and neat. The lobby was a real lobby. And there were elevators! The restaurant in the hotel was also reasonably priced and quite delicious. I have to say I grew quite fond of the Beijing-style dishes. Those of you back in the states would like them too because these are the kind of offerings you all see on Chinese menus there. For once, I didn't complain about eating Chinese food.

We didn't do very much that first day because the next day was the most important day of all. It was the very reason we even made this trip in the first place. We had to go to the US Embassy to register Raelynn for a social security number and I also needed more visa pages added to my passport. I'm happy to say this, though a boring task full of paperwork, was so simple. The embassy, as always, was a pleasure to deal with. With the hard work out of the way, Lane, Raelynn and I went back to the hotel to arrange our plan for the next day. We'd agreed that the coolest thing we could do while there was to go visit the Great Wall.

Very early the next day, we got ready to join the tour for the Great Wall. Lane had talked me into having a Chinese tour guide. It was 50 yuan cheaper per person and he said they told him the only difference between the Chinese tour guided group and the English tour guided group (besides the obvious difference of languages) was the price. I figured it would give me an opportunity to hear more Chinese and hopefully pick up on it better. Plus, my husband worries about saving money and this trip wasn't exactly cheap. So I agreed. We were picked up by a large van and were joined by 2 other families. One family consisted of a father with his two adult daughters. One of the daughters had a horribly-behaved little boy and though she was quite pretty, she'd completely drawn eyebrows onto her face. Like COMPLETELY.  Later, it occurred to me that with such a mischievous and poorly-disciplined son, perhaps he'd somehow been the cause of her lack of natural eyebrows. Still, they were nice people. The other 2 people on the tour were 2 Middle Eastern women who spoke Chinese quite well and although quiet, were also quite nice.

However, our tour guide was unbearably annoying. So much so that both Lane and I began to regret our decision to go with the Chinese tour guide. The beginning of the tour was wonderful, with a trip to the Ming tombs. My husband didn't need to translate very much for me since there were placards everywhere with English descriptions on them. It was fascinating and honestly, there was this eerie, ancient vibe there that I couldn't shake off. You can see what I mean when you check out these photos:

Next up on our tour, our guide decided that this was where she wanted to piss me off severely. She dragged us to a factory outlet for jade. She told us that if we buy anything, she will receive 2% commission. We weren't planning to buy anything anyway, but once she said that, we were downright determined to ensure that wouldn't happen. There were some stunning jade sculptures that we would have loved to own but we simply couldn't justify the cost of such a thing. Add to that our lack of desire to further fund this woman's pocketbook. While I had noticed the English tour group at the tombs, I did not notice them here. With no place to sit, we were stuck wandering this massive jade outlet for a good 45 minutes. Raelynn became hungry and fortunately, some of the women behind the large display counters offered me a stool to sit on while I fed her. As if we weren't already annoyed with our tour guide, she kept pestering me while I was feeding my daughter. She wanted to hold her and kept pressing the issue while Raelynn was still eating. And then, just when I was almost done resisting the urge to grab this woman by the hair, throw her to the ground and kick her in the ribs, when I gave Raelynn her pacifier, this dumb bitch had the nerve to take it out of her mouth and tried to tell us it was bad for her. How my husband remains so calm and polite during this kind of shit is a mystery to me, but he managed to shoo her away before I could act on my impulse to fully throttle her head until it burst like a grape under a shoe.
Here is a shot of some of the jade pieces we saw, which were no question about it, absolutely beautiful. We were really irked to be dragged on an overpriced shopping trip rather than to be taken directly to the locations the tour had boasted we would visit in the brochure.

But soon after this, it was time to eat. Apparently, there was a giant restaurant that all the Chinese tours took their groups to attached to this sales pitch of a store. I also noticed the English group was absent from this and I couldn't help wondering what delicious food they got to eat instead. Our food wasn't bad but I was beginning to resent being the only foreigner in the place. The Middle-Eastern women had gone off for something else because they did not eat meat.

After lunch, Lane and I figured we'd be on our way to the Great Wall finally. But our tour guide had another shopping detour in mind. She took us to a store known for it's vacuum-sealed Beijing duck. They gave out samples. I thought it was just okay. Lane wanted to buy it until he felt how small the duck was in the bag. I'd rather a fresh-cooked one any day. Besides, I have always been a bit of a skeptic when it comes to shelf-stable meats. The store was a labyrinth. You couldn't just go back out the way you came. You had to wander through this horrible maze like cattle on their way to their slaughter. The shelves were lined with bags of ducks along with dried fruits and those sorts of things. We wound up buying a bunch of dried fruit. Lane wanted it for his birthday which was the following day. As if being led through this hell wasn't enough, once you paid, you were released into another shopping area with cheaply-made Chinese crafts. It was just dreadful. We were so happy to get back to the van.

And then finally, it was time for the Great Wall. I have to say it is as spectacular as you see in photos. Although, it is grander than you could ever imagine when you are there. We took the cable cars up and down which gave us a phenomenal view of the wall and surrounding mountains. I felt special after having seen it, almost like I was sprinkled with good luck. I'm quite sure it was just my imagination though. Check it out for yourself:
 A view from the cable cars on the way up. 

 As we approached the end of the road on the cable cars at the top, we were treated to this beautiful view of the Great Wall.

 Do you see this incline? I seriously felt like I was going to throw up. For me, it was completely disorienting.

 Not for Lane though. He is hamming it up, diaper bag and all. Due to the steepness of the inclines and the stairs, he traded me the diaper bag for Raelynn. It was slightly easier moving about up there without having to hold her.

It was one of the most magnificent things I've ever seen in my life. Despite the vulturous tour guide, it was so worth the trip. Take the English tour guided group!

It had to be my imagination running wild, because the next day, Lane's birthday, we were set to fly back to Qingdao at 11pm. So we had all day to see some sights before heading to the airport. After checking out, we decided to visit Tiananmen Square. Only when we were in the subway, someone bumped into me on the stairs and I lost my balance. And down I went. I tried stopping myself but it was no use. I was going down and I knew it. All I could do was protect my daughter. And protect I did. She was just fine, still sound asleep strapped to me in the baby carrier. As for me, I banged up my left knee and my right foot was hurt badly. I moved it around and checked to see if it was broken. Thankfully, it wasn't but it was still beyond painful. Lane helped me move to a chair out of the way. The pain was initially so severe that I began to black out. The sounds of the subway were tinny and hollow in my head. But soon, everything snapped back into focus. With Lane holding me up on one side, I hobbled up to the train.

I spent the whole day in terrible pain, attempting to walk it off in the name of not ruining my husband's birthday and seeing a few more things Beijing had to offer. Truth be told, I wanted to leave with the good impression I'd entered with. But it was all dissipating slowly from my mind. All I could think about were how unbelievably rude people had been to us. We had one nice taxi driver the whole time we were there and then every other one was a prick. Even our upgraded hotel, the Da Wan, was rude to us, calling our room at 10pm to demand more money when we'd already paid our deposit for the room. And the room itself despite looking nice had the most uncomfortable mattress I've ever slept on. It felt as though a thin sheet separated us from the poking coils beneath.

Additionally, the pollution was atrocious. Incidentally, the news had even said it was "off the charts" while we were there. The traffic was just as bad. I've never seen anything so horrible. The subway was also difficult to take. It was confusing even to Lane but worse were the crowds of people. After visiting the embassy, we tried to take the subway back to the hotel but it was impossible. The trains were so crowded we couldn't even get onto them. We watched in horror as a woman struggled to get off the train only to get her bags stuck in the cluster of people behind her. NO ONE helped her. That's when Lane called it off and we went back upstairs to hail a cab.

The final straw was when we went to find the airport bus to leave. The hotel had told us that we'd need to take a taxi to the nearest shuttle location. The traffic was already so backed up it was insane. We tried for over 30 minutes in blustery cold weather but it was no use. Then, as my husband went into a store to check on something, I did it. I got us a taxi. In my broken Chinese, I attempt to explain to the driver where we need to go but I have no idea how to tell him "airport bus." I call Lane and tell him to hurry back. He talks to the driver and it becomes apparent this guy doesn't want to drive us. He claims we can walk to the airport bus location. He points and explains it is just up on the next street. My foot is killing me and I just want to saw it off at this point, but we keep walking. And walking. And walking. We don't know where we are walking to, so I talk my husband into stopping at one of the big, fancy hotels to ask as we're passing by. Surely they would know. And at least I could use a nice, clean bathroom.

How I wished we could have stayed in the place we walked into! And how I wish I could remember the name of it. It looked like the kind of place my parents would stay at. Opulent and just fabulous in every sense. I haven't felt this close to home since my parents stayed at the Shangri-La when they came to visit us. One of the bellhops here was able to give us better directions as to where to find the airport bus. It was further down the street we were on at one of the other large hotels. That lazy bastard taxi driver! Walk there?!? Fucking walk there?!? Now, mind you, I don't ever mind walking. I like getting my exercise so that I may someday get completely back down to what I weighed before having Raelynn instead of just being close to it. But this was an absolutely ridiculously long walk, especially after Lane had explained to that sloth of a cabbie that I had hurt my foot earlier.

I almost couldn't believe it when we were standing right in front of the airport shuttle bus. Soon, it whisked us away to the airport, where in one last Beijing minute, everything changed again. We were able to check our luggage early, had no long lines to wait in or horrid hassles with checking in and security, and we even found a TCBY where, for Lane's birthday, I introduced him to a Coke Float.

So, will the Qu family ever go back to Beijing? There's still so much to see like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Tiantan Park, and TianNing Buddhist Temple, to name a few. Maybe not in a Beijing minute, but perhaps in a Beijing lifetime.


  1. Barbara and I had a similar experience in 1999. She also fell and almost broke her ankle because there was no warning sign concerning the construction (which never gets completed). She was treated by a Chinese doctor who put a salve of ground leopard bone on her sprain. I don't know what else was it it but it actually worked. She was walking the next day! I'll tell you about the details later.
    I'm sure you saw dirty dishes stacked on the floor next to your table, because they don't have enough busboys (or some other bullshit). And the restaurant that had been recommended to us, just happened to have the toilet in the ladies room (yes, a commode, not a hole in the floor) overflowed into the dining room and some of the plates started to float before we spotted the mess and fled. I think we were the only ones to leave.
    We were also almost attacked by an anti-American mob and had to seek refuge in a hotel lobby. Barbara could hardly run because of her ankle, so I had to carry her into the hotel. We managed to call for a taxi and we slipped the back door.
    I'm so sorry you were disappointed with Beijing and I hope your foot is better. It might be better to go back in the late spring or summer. It is quite beautiful - the summer palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, and so many others wonderful attractions.
    Have a Happy New Year. We'll talk soon.

    1. Please do tell me more about that treatment. That's amazing! My foot is back to feeling better though a bit bruised on the top so if a certain baby tries to sit on it in her new playpen, it hurts a little. We did eat in one really dive-ish place to try out Beijing snack food. There were no stacked dishes but the floors were so nasty. I chugged a beer for my poor foot and my sanity. Your story is amazing, Ken! I want to hear more about that too. And I think it's kind of romantic, you carrying Barbara. I miss you lots! xoxo