I arrived in Nanchang and spent the next two days sleeping. I had felt a cold coming on the day before I left. DayQuil and sleep got me through the flight, but I was in no mood to do anything else. I didn’t suffer from jet lag; in fact, I reveled in it.
Sunday, August 9 I flew to Beijing. Beijing’s airport is massive, efficient, and international. I felt the way I feel in Shanghai’s Pudong airport—like I’m not in China, but in a completely new melting pot of a country. Beijing’s airport also has a shower, which is simply the best idea (if truck stops can, why not airports?).
I took the train and met up with my friend Mike and Mike’s friend Lily. They had arrived by train two hours before, so we went to our hotel to put our things down and rest. At least, that was the plan.
On the subway, I started to feel a little off. I didn’t know how far we had to go, but I thought if I could just get some water I would feel better. I bought a bottle in line for the bus (travel in Beijing is rarely a single-step process), but the day was hot and I was still weak and dehydrated from being sick. I felt my eyes start rolling and my vision go darker. I crouched down so I wouldn’t pass out. A woman waiting in line crouched down next to me and began massaging my hands, pressing points on them. The next thing I remember was Mike saying, “Stand up, Sarah, it’s time to get on the bus.” I briefly wondered what was going on but obeyed. Maybe I blacked out for a second, but I didn’t fall over.
I found a seat on the bus and the hand massaging woman sat by me, continuing to rub my hands and forearms. My vision browned over and I bent over my seat, not caring that I had snot all over my face. After a few minutes, I felt better and was able to sit up and accept some water and a tissue. I think the woman was stimulating my circulation, and I think it helped a lot. Finally I could sit up, speak, and see what was going on.
Mike called his Aunt Meimei, who was planning to meet us at the hotel, and asked her to drive to the bus stop. Once in her car, I felt much better. I thought I would be OK with some water, a shower, and some juice. Aunt Meimei was trained as a nurse and asked me some questions (through Mike—she speaks no English), but I think she agreed that it was just dehydration and heat exhaustion.
At the hotel, the staff looked at me and declared I couldn’t stay there. Some hotels only allow Chinese nationals (not even Hong Kong or Taiwanese can stay there). What? At a Super 8? Apparently. Aunt Meimei had made the reservations and, being Chinese in China, had not considered that option. She called a few other hotels but was not able to find an affordable option. So it was decided: Mike and Lily would stay at the hotel, and I would stay with Aunt Meimei’s family at their home nearby.
First of all, I am so glad I had the presence of mind to buy Aunt Meimei a gift from Minnesota. It wasn’t much, and I would have done much more had I known it would turn out like this, but at least I didn’t feel like a total boor. Second, it was a unique experience, since they live in a hutong neighborhood. (I hasten to point out that it is a modern apartment in a hutong neighborhood, not a traditional hutong with a bathroom shared among several homes. Phew.) Third, it was a bit awkward to stay with strangers, but I tried to make a light footprint. And Grandma (Aunt Meimei’s mother-in-law) was very kind and friendly, despite knowing no English. When she saw me in the mornings, she would say, “lao shi! Chi fan!” I would sit down to breakfast with the four-year-old boy and eat much the same foods as him—moon cakes, corn on the cob, cream of wheat, dumplings, whatever I was given.
The next morning we went to the Summer Palace. I assured Mike and Lily that I would be OK, although I might have to rest and stay behind a little bit. Chinese people know how to look after their elders, and I definitely count. We brought lots of water and some heat exhaustion remedy, and things worked out fairly well. I am interested in Empress Dowager Cixi, and she was one of the rulers who stayed at the Summer Palace. So I’m glad I got to see her former stomping grounds, including her marble boat. Yes, she built a marble boat. Some people’s theocrats, am I right?
The day was a little difficult for me, though. I splashed out for a taxi ride back to the hotel. It was a long trip and fairly expensive, but it was a nice way to see the city. Beijing is prettier than I expected, and even the modern buildings have a lot of character and uniqueness. This is in contrast to Chongqing, which feels like it’s expanding so fast that nobody has time for anything but beige rectangles. Polluted? I suppose, compared to Minneapolis or someplace, but it didn’t look dingy or feel smoky. I definitely plan to come back in fall or winter (probably winter due to my teaching schedule).
Mike and Lily had a flyer from a travel agent, and they thought that would be the best way for us to see the Great Wall the next day. It was inexpensive, we would have an air-conditioned ride to the Wall, they would give us lunch, we could take a cable car to the top of the Wall, etc. Lily called them to make the reservation and lo and behold, they had 3 spots open. They even knocked off 80 RMB. Mm-hm.
I’ve heard of other tourists getting taken in by scams and other misleading tour groups, and I wondered how they could fall for it. Well, now I know. Because they say what you want to hear adn you want to believe. So, what follows is a cautionary tale.
Mike and Lily got up at 4 a.m. or some such hour to see the flag-raising ceremony at Tiannanmen Square. I was interested, but not 4 a.m. interested. So a van from the travel agent’s came to pick me up, with Aunt Meimei’s guidance. I met up with my friends at the tour bus. They showed me the video of the flag ceremony; the flag was a red speck in the distance, and there was no music or other real pomp.
As the bus ride left Beijing, the tour guide explained (in Chinese—this tour was not for foreigners) that we would have to pay an additional 150RMB for a “show.” Hmph. And we were free to leave the tour at the Great Wall and make our way back to Beijing for a discounted price. We huddled together. I thought we could find our way back (we were at Badaling, one of the easiest spots to see the Wall), but Lily disagreed. I felt it was best to trust her judgment, since I am functionally illiterate in her country. We wouldn’t even save that much money if we left the tour. So, we were in.
I’m not someone who has yearned to visit the Great Wall. I’d be disappointed if I didn’t, but it felt like more of a checklist item. I hadn’t done a lot of research, just looking at friends’ photos. It looked to me like you climbed up some steps to get on the wall and then it was all flat. No, it was not. It was steps, then more steps, then finally, a butt-ton more steps. And the steps were uneven and fairly steep. (I did not see the promised cable car to the top.) So I didn’t get very far. I climbed up a bit and turned around. Mike helped me get to the bottom and then went up to the top to join Lily. I had a chance to sit and think about the Wall, what it was like when it was built, what have been like to be a guard there. That was fine.
Back on the bus, and, after a literal drive-by of some Ming Dynasty tombs, we were herded into a jade superstore. The place was huge. We poked around a bit, but none of us were in the market, so we went to lunch in the same building. It was fairly bad. In a diabolically clever move, we were herded to a food store afterward. Then the show, which was not acrobatics as promised, but a lame magic show in a non-air-conditioned, non-cleaned room. I should note, too, that all of these places were in the middle of nowhere, so we couldn’t just leave and grab a taxi. We were stuck but good.
Finally we were almost done. Oh, wait, one more thing. Mike interpreted for me that before going to Olympic Park, we would go to a building and “rest.” I saw the room we were sitting in and said, “Are they going to do a sales presentation?” Oh, yes, they did. More goddamn jade. We were openly defiant at this point and paid little attention. A couple from Hong Kong overheard Mike and me talking and asked if he was an American. He was so thrilled by that the whole day might have been worth it.
Finally we got to the Olympic Park. We had dinner nearby and came back at nightfall. I didn’t have high expectations, but it was fun to see the buildings lit up. The heat had dissipated and we were just glad to be away from that damn tour group. We just goofed around and took photos and watched people.
The next day was a rest day for me. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see more of Beijing, but I needed it. We had dinner with Mike’s family at their home. As a guest, Aunt Meimei kept plying me with food, especially meat. I don’t know what it is about Chinese food, but I always feel like I’m not eating a lot. I just feel satisfied earlier than I expect to. I hope I don’t come across as rude to my hosts. The food is delicious and satiating (it’s not high sodium like Chinese food in the US, which would explain it).
The next morning, Lily headed home and Mike and I headed to Qingdao. Beijing South train station is incredibly huge. Like, Mall of America huge. There is a Starbucks on every floor and two on the third floor. That’s Manhattan-level Starbucks saturation. It was worth it because we got to take the G train, the fastest trains in China. New, comfortable trains, announcements in Chinese and English, comfortable seats, and speeds of up to 304 kilometers per hour. Five hours after we left Beijing, we were in Qingdao.
To be continued in Qingdao!