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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A China Christmas, Part 3: Xi’an

The only reason we went to Xi’an was to see the terracotta warriors. Other than that, Xi’an didn’t hold much for us. There are these really old Bell and Drum Towers, but they were closed for renovations. So it was perfectly fine that we only spent one night there.

We flew out of Kunming early on Thursday, the 27th, landing in Xi’an around 8:45am. It was foggy and the air looked really dirty, much like you would expect in China, but we had yet to experience that. We hoped it would burn off as the sun came up, but no such luck. It remained smoggy and gross the two days we were there. It did not bode well for our time in Beijing. The temperature was a big change from beautiful Kunming as well, hovering around 32F. We checked into our hotel, which had been recommended by Lonely Planet. We dumped our bags, layered on more clothes, and went to explore the little market area across from the Melody Hotel, where we were staying. It was noodles and hot tea for lunch and then a short walk to buy our train tickets to Beijing. That’s right, we were going to take an overnight sleeper train to Beijing! We managed to get 8 bunks in 2 berths right next to each other. But more about the train later.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon cozy in our hotel rooms. I took the most amazing shower of the entire trip. The water was steaming hot and I didn’t feel like I was going to fall in like at Meredith’s. (Did I mention that her tub had a crack that turned into a large hole while we were there? We had to be very careful not to step near it while showering.) That shower was probably the best thing about that hotel. There was Hong Kong-style restaurant attached to the hotel, so we just ate there for dinner. The food was just ok.  But hey, it was warm in there and we were not about to venture out to find something better.

The reason the Melody Hotel was on Lonely Planet has to be because of the location. It is right in the middle of old center city Xi’an. While the location of the hotel was excellent, the placement of our rooms within the hotel was less than ideal for sleeping. We faced the main street and had a good view, but there was a TON of street noise. Bring your earplugs, people. Drivers in China like to use their horns. A lot. At 2am. And while we had gotten used to the hard Chinese mattresses, none of us slept very well.

Breakfast the next morning was at…McDonald’s. It was right across the street. And they had real coffee, not the instant stuff we had been drinking. After that little taste of Americana, we caught a bus for the hour-long ride out of town to see the terracotta warriors. They were quite impressive. It was neat to see something in person that you have read and learned about in history class. It also gave me a chance to appreciate our new camera’s ability to take good pictures in low light with no flash, because that was not allowed. None of the buildings were heated, and by the end of the day I declared myself “miserable.” It was so cold. Scrambling back on the warm bus was bliss. I took a nap on the ride back into town.

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Once back, we picked up a couple of warrior replicas, packed up, and headed to the train station. It was a little bit of an ordeal to actually get 2 taxis to take us to the station, because all the drivers wanted to go to the airport, and wouldn’t take us to the train station. The drivers who finally agreed to take us were not happy about it. Once we got on the train, we were very glad we bought the two extra tickets, as there would have been no room for our luggage otherwise. As it was, the train ride was kinda fun. We left Xi’an around 8pm and arrived in Beijing at 7am the next morning. We bought some instant noodle bowls for dinner, played some Phase 10, and went to sleep. When we woke up, we were at our destination!

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A China Christmas, Part 2: Kunming

Meredith lives in Kunming, the capital and largest city of the Yunnan province in Southwestern China. Kunming is known as the city of eternal spring, and we were definitely blessed with that weather while we were there. It was sunny, the bougainvilleas were blooming, and it all seemed so green after dreary North Carolina and Texas.

As we arrived at Mere’s apartment, we were all huffing and puffing while climbing up to the fourth floor. We thought we were all just really out of shape, but then Mere informed us that Kunming has an elevation over 6000 feet above sea level. We felt much better after that, considering we are all used to living at around 600-800 feet. Meredith has a 2 bedroom apartment. Mom and dad were in her room, Stephen and I were in the extra bedroom, and Kelsey was on the couch. Meredith slept on the floor in the living room, but after experiencing a Chinese mattress, I can tell you there is not much difference between that and the floor. Oh, and because I know you were wondering, Meredith has a western toilet. There are virtually no single-family homes in the cities, due to the density of the population. Buildings go up, rather than out. Also the government owns everything. You can buy the lease for as long as 70 or 99 years, but after that, it reverts back to the government. Pretty crazy.

Walking to Meredith's apt.

Walking to Meredith’s apt.

The courtyard of M's apt complex, her building is on the left.

The courtyard of M’s apt complex, her building is on the left.

After our late night/early morning just finding our way to Mere’s place, we were happy to sleep in on Saturday morning. When we did arise, we raided her kitchen for instant coffee and toast with peanut butter. Because we came “a day early” she had not yet had a chance to stock up on groceries. Sorry Mere! We spent the day exploring the minority park, also known as the Yunnan Nationalities Village. It is a beautiful park complex on the edge of a lake showcasing the architecture, food, clothing, and cultural traditions of each of the ethnic groups found in Yunnan.

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Sunday, the 23rd we went to church at the apartment of one of the church members. They rotate whose place they meet at each week. It was great to meet and fellowship with some of the people we have heard Meredith talk about! Lunch with some of those same people (it is cheaper to eat out than cook at home, Mere has found), and we all worked on improving our chopstick skills. Kelsey’s technique and grip was terrible, but she was doing the best out of all of us. So maybe her technique was actually perfect? For dinner we had hot-pot with Mere’s co-workers, which is similar to the main course at a fondue restaurant. There was a large pot divided into three sections, each with different broth. Then all the food was dumped into the broth to cook! Pretty neat, but not my favorite meal of the trip. I burned my hand on the steam and I had trouble breathing there. Maybe it was all the steam and fumes from the pots, (maybe it was all the men smoking at the table next to us) but it kinda turned me off hot-pot.

Monday (Christmas Eve) was spent exploring the Bird and Flower Market, which used to be mainly for animals and plants, but has expanded to include all sorts of items. After some bargaining tips from Mere, Kelsey went off on her own (gasp!) to do some Christmas shopping. For a blonde foreigner with zero Chinese language skills, she did quite well. Side note, because we were foreigners, we were stared at wherever we went. Kelsey was even more of a stand-out because of her blonde hair, and because she would stare back, smile, and wave… And then wonder why people were staring at her. We had an early dinner at a house-turned restaurant that was over 400 years old. The buildings that make up the Bird and Flower Market are some of the oldest in Kunming, at over 500 years, which is pretty amazing, considering they are mostly wood.

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Our Christmas celebrations consisted of an informal service followed by Christmas goodies at the apartment of one of the leaders of Meredith’s home church. A count was taken (much like the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem) and there were 28 adults and 19 kids! Christmas Day involved sleeping in, watching The Sound of Music while opening the presents we had brought from the States, and eating bacon that smelled suspicious while cooking but turned to be really good. We had dinner at the same family’s apartment the service was at the day before.

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On the way home we stopped to explore Walmart. It was very similar to a U.S. Walmart, but there were multiple floors (up not out) and their seafood selection was way more extensive than any Wally World I have seen here. Dad was particularly taken by the fish heads on ice. We passed on the fish heads but did pick up some baijiu. Baijiu, which translates to “white liquor” is used often for toasting, and is the worst thing you will ever taste. You might as well drink rubbing alcohol. We all tried it though. Stephen said it wasn’t that bad, but he is better at taking shots than I am and probably didn’t even get any on his tongue.

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The 26th was our last day in Kunming. We went to the Yunnan Safari Park with Meredith’s friend Denise. Denise if pretty much exactly like Meredith, just a few years older. They sound the same, act the same, and even kinda look alike. Who would have thought Mere would find her doppelganger in China? The safari park was pretty neat; we were able to get really close to the animals. So close, in fact, that we were able to let a tiger sniff our hands, and when he was done, he turned around, lifted his tail, and sprayed us! Yes, we were marked by a tiger. We took advantage of the opportunity to go fishing for tigers as well.  Visitors could purchase a hunk of meat on a string, dangle it into the enclosure, and feed the tigers and lions. Live chickens were also for sale with the intention that you would then chuck it into the lion’s den, but we didn’t do that.

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A China Christmas, Part 1: Travel

My sister Meredith works for Concordia Welfare and Education Foundation in Kunming, China. She has been there since September 2011 and we decided to visit her for Christmas. Because when else would we ever go to China?

Our trip. The southern-most marker is Kunming, middle is Xi’an, northern-most is Beijing. You may need to zoom out to see all of them at once.

Stephen and I met up with my parents and Kelsey at LAX on December 20th, where we got on the largest plane I have ever been on for the longest flight I have ever taken. It was over 12 hours to Beijing, and then we would board another plane for the 3 hour flight down to Kunming. (Refer to map above.) The flight to Beijing was not too bad, as each seat had its own personal tv screen and we could pick what we wanted to watch. There were numerous current tv episodes and movies for our viewing pleasure. Because our flight left around noon LA time, it wasn’t really a good flight for sleeping, as we chased the sun across the globe. By the end of the flight we were all getting a little antsy, though. We landed in Beijing late on the 21st, got our luggage, went through immigration (no issues), passed through customs (one security person randomly pointing to people to check their luggage), and checked in for our flight to Kunming (which was done by handing the ticket agent our passports and pointing to the flight number on our itinerary). The Beijing airport is MASSIVE. The international terminal is enclosed under one huge roof structure that just seems to go on and on.

Beijing airport

Beijing airport

It was also in the Beijing airport that we encountered our first squatty-potty. We were waiting for our luggage (which took forever to arrive at baggage claim) so of course, we all decide it is a good time for a potty break. Kelsey and I head to the nearest bathroom, walk into a couple open stalls, and stare at the floor in dismay. Because this is what we saw:

Not the one from the airport, but once you've seen one squatty-potty, you've seen them all.

Not the one from the airport, but once you’ve seen one squatty-potty, you’ve seen them all.

Now, I knew there would be toilets like this, but surely in this huge, fancy airport they could have thrown in a couple Western toilets, too. I managed to do my business without falling over, but Kelsey was unable to figure it out. Mom took her turn in the bathroom and returned informing us she had found a Western toilet. And there was much rejoicing. Clearly, Kelsey and I didn’t look very hard. For most of the rest of the trip we were able to find Western toilets, but in some places they just weren’t available. It took Kelsey some time to master the sqatty-potty. And when she did, after some tips from Meredith, there was much rejoicing. Again.

Our flight from Beijing to Kunming was a red-eye landing at 1:30am on the 22nd. Stephen and I slept most of that flight. It was hard to get back on a plane after a 12 hour flight. But we arrived safely in Kunming, at their brand new, massive airport, and…didn’t see Meredith. Well, maybe she was just running late, so we head outside to wait for her and the van she had hired to pick us up. No Meredith. Mom has her number, but we don’t have a phone. We have no Chinese money. We know zero Mandarin. We waited about an hour, going off in pairs to look for her in other parts of the airport, but no luck. Finally a taxi driver comes over gesturing with his phone, takes Meredith’s number, and leads Kelsey and Stephen to the information desk, where he calls Meredith. By now it is 2:30am.
Kelsey gets on the phone with Mere: Hi Meredith, we’re here! Uh, hi Kelsey, where are you? Here, in Kunming! No you’re not, you don’t get in until tomorrow. No, we’re here now! Oh my gosh, I’ll be there in 45 minutes!
Meredith had misread our flight information every time she looked at it. Our flight was scheduled to arrive at 12:40am, Saturday, the 22nd. She read that thinking Saturday/Sunday night, rather than Friday/Saturday night.

Meredith arrived in a cab at the airport because the van she had hired was scheduled for the next night. Dad, Kelsey and I climbed into the cab Meredith took to the airport, and she told the driver to drop us off where he picked her up, gives dad some money to pay the driver, and off we go. It is about a 45 minute drive to Mere’s place. The driver pulled off to the side of a fairly large intersection, speaking in Chinese and gesturing to the right. We kinda nodded and said ok, and he turned into a neighborhood of apartment buildings. We drove a little bit in, and then he stopped, we got out, paid him, and he drove off, leaving us at 3:45am on a dark corner of an unfamiliar neighborhood. Once again, we had no phone, no money, (well, 40 kuai, which is like, less than $7), and no way to ask anyone for directions, if there had been anyone around to ask. We thought, surely the other taxi with Mom, Stephen, and Meredith is no more than 10 minutes behind us. We waited. Oh! Here comes a taxi! No, that is a man. Oh! Here comes another car! No, that is an empty taxi. Finally Dad said if they don’t come by 4:30, we will go back out to the main road and take a taxi back to the airport. Well, around 4:20am, Mere and Stephen walk around the corner! They had found us! Our taxi driver had tried to be helpful and drop us off further into the neighborhood; only it was the wrong side of the neighborhood. We were on the newer side, where many foreigners live, only Meredith lives in the older part, across the intersection. Luckily Meredith was fairly certain she knew where we would be. We finally were able to get to bed at Meredith’s apartment around 5am. A rough start to our time in China, but it only got better from there!