A China Christmas, Part 5: Beijing (2 of 2)

On New Year’s Eve we went to check out Olympic Park, site of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Highlights were the Bird’s Nest Stadium (currently playing host to a winter-wonderland) and the natatorium, which I refer to as the Bubble, but they like to call the Water Cube. We were unable to actually go inside any of the buildings. Meredith was beyond excited to be there, she LOVES the Olympics.

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Then it was on to the Lama Temple, the largest Buddhist temple outside of the city of Dali, I believe. It also has the largest statue carved from a single tree – a Buddha 26 meters tall carved from a single white sandalwood tree. The air was scented with incense burned by people offering prayers to Buddha.

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After the temple we headed back towards our hutong, stopping for a late lunch at one of the many restaurants there. After nap time, Mere and Dad wanted to head back out to find the night food market again. I was not keen to leave my warm bed unless I knew exactly where we were going. Since they were pretty sure they knew now how to get there, but not 100% sure, I passed on the excursion, as did Mom, Kelsey and Stephen. We four eventually rolled out of bed around 6pm to go to WuMart for the rest of our NYE supplies. While we were out, we ate dinner at…McDonalds! It was a nice break from all the Chinese food.  Meredith and dad eventually returned after finding the night food market. So everyone was happy. Let’s just say we had no problems polishing off that bottle of rum.

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After our little NYE party, we all slept in until around 9:30am. Breakfast was toast and instant coffee in the common room and then it was off to view Mao. We younger folks weren’t too interested in seeing a dead Chinese dictator’s body, but Mom and Dad thought it was important for the historical aspect. Well, in the end no one got to see him because his tomb was closed for the holiday. So, it was on to the silk market, very similar to an American mall, but the stores are much smaller and there are tons of them all selling the exact same thing. We ate lunch in the food court, but made the mistake of not asking for the price before hand. 6 noodle bowls were 220 kuai, which was a total rip-off. For comparison, the Beijing BBQ place we ate at and loved was only 98 kuai. Meredith is sure they gave us the “foreigner’s price” at the food court. While we were shopping, some girls ran by us, pushing through the crowds, their arms loaded with bags and purses. Looking around, we saw a couple police officers walking down the row of shops. It was surmised that the bags they were running off with were counterfeit and they were running from the cops! After shopping we decided to see if the Summer Palace was open. Apparently the only way to do that was to actually go there, and it was a 45 min subway ride away. Luckily it was open, or else there would have been a few cranky members in our group, including me. However, it was totally worth the 45 min subway ride. It is a large complex made up of multiple buildings built on and into the side and top of a mountain. Even though it was so cold, it was so beautiful. The view from the top was amazing, and the buildings themselves were fascinating.

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We made our way back to the hostel where Stephen and I hung out in the common room while everyone else napped and rested. Then we bundled up again and headed out into the ever-colder night. Our destination was the night food market that Meredith and dad had finally found the night before. Once there, you could purchase almost anything on a stick – spiders, snake, starfish, lizard, scorpions, squid, centipedes… We stuck with some yummy chicken, hot pear tea, and sugar-glazed strawberries. Those strawberries were one of the best things we ate all trip. By the time we had walked up and down the row of stalls once, the temperature had dropped from the high of 28 to around 20. It was steadily getting colder, so we practically ran home. The high the next day was 23, so I was glad we were home-bound that afternoon! We spent our last morning packing up, doing a tea tasting, and then making our way to the airport. We did have to take two cabs, but since this time we knew where we were going, it was ok!

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A China Christmas, Part 4: Beijing (1 of 2)

Meredith procured a large van to drive us and our massive amounts of luggage from the train station to the hostel that would be our home for the next few days. The hostel, Fly by Knight, was located in a hutong, a narrow street in a neighborhood of traditional courtyard-style homes. Our van driver more than earned his fare by venturing down the hutong, asking for directions (we had the address, but it was still hard to find), and even getting out of his warm van to make sure we were headed the right way (did I mention that it had snowed that night?). Breakfast and a warm room were waiting for us at Fly by Knight, which is one of those previously mentioned courtyard-style houses turned hostel. We took it easy that morning and ventured out into the hutong for lunch. There were several restaurants at the end of the hutong where it intersected a larger road, so we picked one at random. It turned out to be one of our favorite meals. The sign said “Beijing Barbeque”. We did not realize that meant the food was cooked on a little grill on your table! We had pork dumplings, rice, and then beef and sweet potatoes grilled at the table. It was all really good.

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One of the reasons we picked the hostel we did was its proximity to a subway station. After lunch we headed that way and took the subway to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City (officially known as the Imperial Palace). It was so cold and windy, and the Palace just seemed to go on and on and on. It was so much larger than I had initially thought. We got to the end, but wanted to go back out the front gate because that was where the subway stop was. So we haul it back to the front, heads down, noses wrapped in scarves, being careful not to slip on the compacted snow. Only to find that you cannot go out the front entrance, as there was some military drill going on. We had to go out the side, all the way around the Palace walls on the outside, and then make our way down a random street to get back to the subway station. Once we made it back to the hostel, we all collapsed into bed.

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But just for a nap, because then it was time for Peking duck with Wilson Hailey! Wilson is an old family friend who has lived in Beijing for 6 years now. His family used to go to our church and we all swam on our city’s summer swim team together. The duck was amazing; my favorite part (and most of my family’s) was the way you eat the skin – by dipping it in sugar! Yum! After dinner we went back to the hostel, where we took hot showers, only to have to emerge into a freezing, unheated bathroom. Brr. Our 6-bunk room was heated, though.  Stephen and I headed to the common room to make use of the wireless internet and check the weather. The high was going to be around 28 the rest of the time we were there. We were kept company by the two 6-month old puppies that live at Fly By Knight. One had a Chinese name that I never got, but the black one was called…Obama. Hilarious.

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The next day was Great Wall day. We were up at 7am, had a Western breakfast (provided by the hostel), and loaded up the cars at 8. The hostel had two cars going, so it was our family and two solo travelers, David and Hannah. David was from Singapore and Hannah from Sydney. They were very nice and happy to be able to split the cost of the cars with us. It took about an hour to get to the portion of the Wall we were going to, called Mutianyu. Once there, our drivers recommended we take the cable car up and down from the mountain ridge, as it was very cold. We lucked out and it was not windy at all. In fact, in the sun it was quite pleasant! The cable car was a good choice because not only was it cold, it was still snowy and icy from two nights ago, so the trail up and down would have been dangerous. Once at the top, the view was amazing. It was so clear; we were able to trace the Wall over the mountain ridges for some distance. I think all us girls were imagining the opening scene from Mulan when they light the signal fires from the guard towers. It was pretty much exactly like that. Haha. We walked perhaps half a mile each way before deeming it too steep and icy to continue safely.  We took the cable car back down and met our drivers at a coffee shop, where we warmed up with a cup and what was perhaps the best Snickers bar I have ever had. (pics) That evening we set out to find the night market with the crazy food we had heard about from a few different people. We thought we knew the general area we were going, but after walking and walking and not finding it, even after asking for directions, we were all cold and I was hangry. We headed back towards our hutong without accomplishing much of anything, except becoming cold and hungry. Dinner was in a hutong near ours, because if I had to wait any longer to eat I would probably have stabbed someone. A bonus was that we did pass a convenience store with some imported goods, so we picked up some Bacardi for NYE festivities, and I got another Snickers. Because I was still recovering from almost starving to death.

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