Speaking of challenges... I seriously think Suwei was testing me, as we had a few challenges on arrival to Beijing.
About an hour before we were due to land Suwei and I were filling out the required documentation (health card, customs card, & border control card). I was debating about checking "settle down" instead of "Outing/In leisure." Where as Suwei, with her cold, was mulling over the need to check "cough", "sore throat", and "snivil". At that time we figured we pull out the detailed directions on how to get to the hotel that we printed out before leaving home. Well, not so much. Luckily we still had the address and phone number, but alas no directions. Not to worry its only 2:30 pm when we land, we'll have time to figure it out. There's got to be an info center or something.
So with that we step off the plane and head towards the health inspection. As people flow past the "Please wait at the yellow line" sign 6, 8, 10 at a time, we pass through unabated despite our snivil. Then on to border control. At border control there are 42 lines, 2/3 of them are for Chinese and the rest for foreigners. We pick number 42, the furthest down the hall and the shortest line, with only 40 to 50 people in front of us. That's when Suwei notices that she no longer has her passport in her hands. She's holding on to the custom's form, the entry card, her WHO card, & the plastic baggy she was keeping the passport in, but no passport. Panic? Not yet, lets look in our carry ons. Nope not there. Panic? No, lets go back and look for it, you probably dropped it when pulling out the health form. We look back across the room of 42 lines quickly filling up to 60 or 70 people per line. Ok, this may be a good time to panic. We work our way against the mass flow of humanity, back to health inspection. Nothing. We ask if we can go back towards the gate and look. No problem, but no passport there either. A US passport laying on the ground in a foreign airport, or any airport for that matter, is not going to lay on the ground for long. Suwei is not looking happy at this point and I'm thinking about the afternoon cushion to find the hotel rapidly disappearing, about the hours we'll spend explaining this to the border officials, about replacement visas, and replacement passports.
At that point we figured it was time to talk to airport security. The color of Suwei's face and the tears welling up in her eyes told the gentleman that we were pretty serious. After a few minutes shouting into the radio he smiles and reports thats that security has a lost passport. We are sent to line number 2 where one of the officer's gives us a little tisk, tisk and a shake of the head as he checks the photo and hands over Suwei's passport. To say Suwei's face lit up would be an understatement. We were quite happy to be on our way.
The rest of the afternoon although tricky in spots was a relative breeze. We figured out what but we needed. No. 11 takes one to the central train station. From there we were told it would be easy to get a taxi. Well... when we got there, there were indeed plenty of taxis. What we saw was a taxi rank that was probably 6 or 7 cars in width and 10 to 15 cars deep all funneling down to a single red taxi ready to be loaded and an attendant standing next to it ready to load it. Great this is going to be easy! Umm, not so much.
So, here I'm going to write a bit about Pinyin. Pinyin is system of romanization of Chinese characters that provides a way for non Chinese readers to pronounce (or in my case.. grossly mis-pronounce) Chinese words. So, the address we have for the hotel is written in Pinyin, not in Chinese script. The problem with that is many Chinese don't read Pinyin. So neither the taxi driver, nor the taxi stand attendant could help us out. Luckily one of the hundred's of drivers stuck behind this one red taxi did know how to read Pinyin. Even more lucky, he said he could get us there. What wasn't so lucky was that his taxi was stuck somewhere in the middle of this mass of taxis.
He indicates that we should not worry, he'll take care of it. So in go our bags, Suwei climbs in back, I take shotgun, the driver climbs in and takes one more look at the directions, then starts to backup. He backs up all of about 1 foot before needing to stop. You see we still have about 30 cars behind us. So he honks his horn and the car behind him backs up about 1 foot before encountering the other 29 cars behind him. I'm thinking this could take some time.
Our driver hops out starts shouting at the drivers within earshot. Then starts walking towards the end of the queue to get this party started. Meanwhile our car starts slowly rolling forward. It seems he has forgotten to set the parking break. I manage to reach over with my left foot and step on the break before we smack the taxi in front of us. By this time the mass of cars behind us is starting to move, all this happening as more taxis as more taxis are continuously flowing into the taxi stand. We finally get to a point where our driver is able to swing the car around and drive into the on coming flow of cars. We pop over a curb, dodge a few pedestrians, swerve around the steel posts embedded in concrete that form the entrance to the taxi stand, whip a 180 so that we are now flowing with traffic rather than against it. Breath again... and we're off.
Of course driving in Beijing at what was now rush hour is still no easy task, as one must dodge all manner of bicycles, carts, mopeds, tuk tuks, buses, people, trucks, and you name it... all moving in every direction regardless of whether it happens to be in the road, in a bike lane, or on the sidewalks. I think it made us a bit nervous at first but then the exhaustion took over and we both took turns nodding off.
Ok, a little long winded but there you go. Day 1. Since then things have gotten easier.. our only challenge being getting over the jet lag. We've spent our time so far being good tourists. On Thursday we walked from our hotel past Quinhai Lake, through Beihai Park, and Jingshin Park (the only hill downtown in this very, very flat city. It was formed with the excavated dirt from the Forbidden City's moat). Then we had breakfast. Next it was on to the Forbidden City where we worked our way past the Hall of Preserving Harmony, the Hall of Middle Harmony, and the scaffolding engulfed Hall of Supreme Harmony. It seems that half of Beijing is under construction and the forbidden city is no exception. Many of the buildings are undergoing extensive restoration in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Next it was a quick stop at a four star rated toilet which I dubbed the Hall of Personal Harmony. Since we started at the rear of the city in the gardens and personal quarters and moved slowly towards the front, the courtyards and parade grounds kept getting wider and the succession of gates kept getting larger and grander. Topping the whole experience off with a giant painting of Chairman Mao and a wander through Tiananmen Square.
Friday, the sun came out in force and we rented what looked like two world war two surplus bicycles to ride out to the Summer Palace. Before I even made it to the craziness of the Beijing streets I knew my butt was going to be mince meat. But preserved and after 12 km of swerving around all the obstacles listed above in the taxi story, we were rewarded with a very peaceful walk around a beautiful lake hand dug in the 18th century.
Saturday, more wandering around town including a visit to the Dongyue Temple. Dongyue is Taoist temple downtown surrounded with glass and steel skyscrapers. A little more interesting because it's central courtyard is surrounded by rooms full of freakish statues depicting many different "offices" of Taoist doctrine including the likes of The Department of Happiness, The Department of Longevity, The Department of Reducing Longevity, and The Department of Life and Death. As you followed the rooms around the courtyard however things got weirder and the statues freakier. There was the Department of Wandering Ghosts, The Department of Hell, and The Department for Implementing 15 Kinds of Violent Death. I've got photos. I'll share them when I get this thing working. We also managed to wander down to the Temple of Heaven Park and caught an evening performance of Chinese Acrobats at the Wan Sheng Theater.
Today, we rested. Actually, we wandered around a big Sunday market for most of the morning, got some lunch then rested, but it still felt pretty mellow.
Tomorrow we hit the wall.
For more photos, slide show, comments etc.... go here: