Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Beijing Day 1: Highlights

1. The Planning Stage 

Even before, it was never China, it was always Beijing. We were going to the sprawling capital, of an even more sprawling country, and we had only three days to do it. We had in mind an ambitious itinerary -- one that would include all the must-see tourist spots, plus an activity or two that had more of a backpacker feel to it. 

But upon closer study, we found out that the Summer Palace would take an entire day all by itself, and there was also the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube to squeeze in --which to be honest, I never really considered. Then there were the either/ors. Houhai Lake or the Drum Tower? Jinghshan or Beihai Park?

The question of how to get from one place to another was another pertinent question. With our limited budget, we listed down all possible modes of transport  in neat little columns  -- bus, bike or subway. Walking was always the first option, while taking a cab would always be the last resort.

The responsibility for finding our accommodations fell to J, and he showed me the website for a place called "Sitting on the City Walls." It was a hostel located in a hutong or a narrow alleyway. The name was charming enough, the pictures were good, and the reviews were glowing. We decided to take a chance and trust the good people at Trip 

People shook their heads in disbelief when they learn that our trip to China in February had been booked just a month in advance. 

It was challenging, sure, but -- as we found out -- not impossible. And so it was that on February 24, 2011, aboard  an 8pm Cebu Pacific flight, I found myself  in disbelief at the fact that the elusive dream of going to Beijing, was slowly becoming real. 

Starting with this -- the sturdy airline seats, the arrival cards we were filling out on our tray tables; the announcement over the speakers that were being translated from English, to Filipino, to Mandarin, and finally the flickering lights of Beijing itself, as we began our descent.

I've been to four Asian cities my entire life, but Beijing was the very first to feel different, from the moment I stepped into the airport. And it all had to do with the cold.

2. Winter In Beijing

It was cold. So cold that we kept saying, "It's cold" as we walked through the terminal. So cold that when we first stepped out of the airport, we took a video of our breaths coming out in tiny tufts of vapor. 

The first cab ride gave us a glimpse of all future interactions we would have in this city, whose citizens speak little or no English. We fumbled for our maps, our phrase book and a printed-out guide. Once we were satisfied that the cabbie had the correct directions,we settled into small talk and pleasantries. We were anxious to try our luck with the key phrases we had learned. "Wo xiao" (My name is....) "Ni hao" (Hello), came tumbling out of our mouths. At one point, I think I said pretty (piao liang) instead of friend (peng you), to describe my relationship with J.

And amidst the childlike chatter, it wasn't long before we were.... lost. The cab driver had to call the hostel several times before he finally dropped us off in a street, right smack in the intersection of darkness and nowhere.

It was right then, standing in the cold winter chill past midnight, lugging around huge backpacks, that the full meaning of a hutong hit me. They were narrow alleyways that twisted and turned, whenever and wherever they pleased. I was sure that in the daylight, these streets teemed with quaintness. But right then it had all the charm of a labyrinth, and death by a Minotaur lurked at every dead end.

We asked a woman who made a wrong turn with her car, and walked through a couple more dark alleys. And then, just as we couldn't get any colder, we saw the red-lit sign of the two most beautiful words in world -- CITY WALLS.

3. Staying in a Hutong 

The blessed relief of central heating welcomed us as we stepped inside. The lobby was a traditional Chinese courtyard -- and everything about it -- the red lanterns, the gentle terracotta warrior in the corner, the couch and its pillows -- glowed with warmth, and snugness and home.

The brisk and businesslike Lucy at reception ushered us into our 8-bed dorm room. I looked around to take in my very first hostel experience. Clean bathroom, check. Cozy bunk beds, check. Sleeping French guy in the other bunk, check. We whispered loudly and settled in noisily and the French guy tossed and turned until we finally turned off the bedside lamp and gave in to tiredness and sleep.

The following day I woke up to J's cellphone alarm that sounded like a police siren. Breakfast was dimsum and noodles, eaten in the courtyard whose glass windows let in the cold, gray light of the early winter morning.

It was at this time that we met Rick, who was just as helpful and friendly in real life, as he was through email. He told us we could exchange our peso to yuan through ICBC, a bank that could be reached by foot.

And thus began, one of several pilgrimages from our hostel, out into the main streets of Beijing.Our hutong was called Nianzi, and its residents went about their business with only a brief, curious glance in our direction. 

4. Beijing On Foot 

One of the first things we saw in the briskness of Beijing's street, was a "Ping Pong Park." Gray-haired men moving with ease and grace were tap tapping a small white ball with their paddles. Their wives sat on a nearby bench, watching and chatting. Not to be outdone, a couple of relatively younger men kicked a small object around in their circle. J said he wanted to join the pingpong game. But that would be for later. For now, it was off to the bank.

If truth be told, having our currencies exchanged and having that take up half a day, was not anywhere in our carefully crafted, just-enough-for-three-days itinerary. But its true what they say in travel. The setbacks and side trips often present you with disarming little surprises.

But first, let me say something about the cold again. It's the kind of cold that nips at your nose and clamps on your hands and face and makes you want to tuck in your scarf tighter around your head and wish for a ski mask. It's the kind of cold that makes you overly aware that all the locals' hands are bare (how could they go  about gloveless?) and the smiling, slant-eyed baby boy is dressed in lighter clothes than you (how could he smile without his teeth chattering?). It's also the kind of cold that will make you realize that the gloves you brought were no match for the chill,  and so we popped into a store and bought new ones.

Though the cold was a constant companion, we were nevertheless giddy at the very thought that WE WERE WALKING IN THE STREETS OF BEIJING. The thought of it pushed all complaints aside.  It helped us notice the bikes that weaved in and out of the traffic, the dogs with their handsome fur, the the ruddy-faced kids in their school uniforms. Because it was the middle of winter, we were the only two foreigners for miles on end. 

We felt like we had been dropped in the middle of everything, and we hardly caused a ripple. Beijing life went on as usual, and we were free to observe, unnoticed.

Beijing is a pretty straightforward city, and the path we walked on that morning, we would find ourselves traversing several more times in the coming days. It's a city whose sights and culture are so seamlessly blended with its everyday life, that you cannot compartmentalize errands and sightseeing into neat little boxes. 

On our way to ICBC, we noticed Drum Tower standing stately to our right, while Houhai Lake, spread out like a picture to our left. Tempting as it was to make a detour to these spots, we trudged on to the bank. Only to find out that Philippine peso can only be changed at the Bank of China.

5. Houhai Lake 

But no bother, because just as we were heading back,we saw our very first street food vendor. He was selling some glazed treat on sticks --  colorful and shiny and completely unidentifiable. I eagerly took my camera out, and was about to click when the vendor noticed and shooed me away gruffly. No pictures allowed. So J and I stood there apologetically. We watched him plunging yet another stick into sticky, opaque liquid. 

Finally we felt compelled to buy because we had stayed there too long. We chose the one that closely resembled barbeque. But that turned out to be sour, flattened strawberries dipped in caramel glaze. Not the best combination of flavors, we discovered. We sheepishly laughed and decided to take a short, little jaunt to Houhai Lake. It was on the way, anyway.

The lake was frozen and huge. Many trees lined its edges, as here and there were pretty bridges and charming red houses. It was the perfect setting for a hundred and one Chinese melodramas.

Rickshaw drivers were parked along the bridge. Then something happened so unexpectedly, that  I can only attribute to the desperation that must come, in off-peak season Beijing. One rickshaw driver offered to take us around Houhai, and though we politely declined several times, he kept walking with us and wouldn't take no for an answer. 

Finally he grabbed me, and told J that he would only let me go if we agreed to a ride around Houhai. How our eyes grew wide and our laughter became panicky, until he finally released me laughing loudly that he was just teasing. We were a bit shaken but Houhai is too pretty and soon we were taking pictures and laughing at my would-be kidnapping.

But we still had to go to Bank of China and we had no idea how to get there.In the case of J - it's not true what they say about men and asking directions. He never hesitated to stop any stranger anywhere. But maybe he was doing it for the thrill of the interaction. We stopped to ask directions at a FedEx, we asked two pedestrians on the street, to no avail. At last, we said, let's just go back to the hostel and ask the ever-reliable Rick.

Rick said, to get to Bank of China,we had to take the bus. At Jinshang Dongjie stop, wait for Bus 111. Bus 111, as it turns out, will be another thing that we will call "ours," because we would ride it several more times

6. Wangfujing District

Four stops and one yuan later, we landed in the glass and concrete world of Wangfujing, Beijing's 100-year old shopping district.The city's more modern side unfurled right before our eyes, with its shopping malls and designer boutiques. 

I sat on a building's front steps as J began to unfold his tripod. We began to take pictures of ourselves in the middle of the busy street, conscious that we were doing the most touristy thing on the planet. The anonymity was very liberating.

Still Wangfujing's decidedly consumerist appeal is not too far removed from China's communist history. One could, in fact, walk from here to Tiananmen Square - the most visible sign of the country's communist identity. 

After finally getting our currencies changed, we ambled on to Tiananmen, excited to officially start implementing our itinerary. As we made our way through streets and more streets, it slowly began to dawn on me that I didn't even know what Tiananmen Square looked like. 

7. Tiananmen Square

That is, until we saw the huge photo of a stern-looking Chairman Mao fronted by Red Guards. When we entered, it was kind of hard to believe that the famed Tiananmen Square was actually what it said it was -- a square. A flat, concrete space, enclosed by four walls. Without the historical significance of Chinese students razed to the ground under Mao's orders, the square was just big, and there.

So after buying  a 10 yuan snack of salty crackers, we hurried north to a more promising destination -- the Forbidden City. At the gate, one had the option to rent an audio guide narrated by Roger Moore. But we decided to go at it guerilla style.

8. The Forbidden City 

Whatt I will always remember about the Forbidden City are:  the gigantic red doors with their gold knobs, the red buildings with their ornate roofs of green and blue,  how people kept moving in a northerly direction, how they swarmed the vast center space, and how we decided to escape the crowds and veer towards the right. 

Through the eastern doors, we meandered into a garden of long, softly curving streets, tall trees, chirping birds, and a feeling of isolation and secrecy. Maybe this was where people in ancient China escaped here when they needed to get away from the bustle of official ceremonies or the coldness of the squares and stone edifices.

As we joined the crowds back to the center, we began to be acutely aware that we knew nothing about the intimate details of the Forbidden City. So we tried to catch a phrase of two from paid tour guides in our proximity. From one such guide we learned that a building to our right was the human resources department of sorts of Imperial China, and this was where one would be scrutinized before being granted passage into this lost, secret world.

But that was all we learned. One building led to more open squares, which led to more open squares, where big iron jars were cordoned off and a Red guard looked uneasily about while his partner stood erect and unmoving. Guards and officials, in fact, roamed the grounds making sure people stayed away from certain gated-off areas. Parts of the Forbidden City were still forbidden, it seemed.

9. Jingshan Park 

It was late afternoon when we finally exited the Forbidden City. It was a testament to Beijing's inherent charm that we had completely forgotten to eat lunch. We crossed the frozen moat surrounding the Forbidden City and strolled over to Jingshan Park, right across the road. 

Here we climbed the man-made hill, where atop sat a pagoda that afforded us a breathtaking, 360-degree view of Beijing. The ornate temple roofs of the Forbidden City were orange-hued in the fading afternoon sun. Among the modern skyline of skyscrapers and and houses, we tried to find Bird's Nest and Water Cube and tore our trusty map in the process. 

There, high above the city, we were given not only a place to rest, but also a bit of perspective. It was a literal bird's eye view on things as we neared the end of our first day in Beijing. And, overall, it was a deep sense of gratitude that filled my heart, as sure as the sun's slow descent on the horizon.

Soon it was time to head back, not to the hostel, but to Houhai lake, where some 300 or more eateries were located. It was as we were trudging back, that J had an idea, that would later on prove to be a stroke of genius. The operative word here, being, later on. See, he wanted to ride a bike to Houhai. Rick mentioned that the bikes we saw leaning on the hostel's front walls were free to be used by guests, anytime.

I am, by nature, someone who will try anything, at least once. So I said yes, but in the back of my mind, the cars and the busy intersection we would have to go through loomed ominously. Never have I tried biking on a highway before. But Beijing was a great (if scary) first place to try. Besides, J promised to ride ahead of me, so all I really needed was to pedal close behind. No sweat.

And boy am I ever so glad that I said yes to that. Because even with the terrifying intersection and almost run-ins with cars that were not even moving, biking along Houhai lake is now one of the top experiences of my life.

10. Biking in Beijing

We took our sweet time on that postcard perfect road that ran along the banks of the lake. The gray, frozen stillness of the lake to our left, the glowing orange lights of streetlamps and restaurants to our right. We passed by fellow bikers and dozens of locals draped on benches. We rode past a man in nothing but shorts doing jump ropes. As if that wasn't enough, we were also just in time to ogle at a man resurfacing from a hole on the surface of the frozen lake.

When I think about it, it was when we biked that things took a turn to the splendid.

It heightened the  feeling that traveling always gives me -- that of being truly present in the now, unencumbered by past or future. It added that wind-in-my-hair, not-a-care-in-the-world feeling of childhood

That night the only thing that mattered was the lake, the lights, the cold nippy air, and the feeling that -- up ahead -- adventure was waiting. 


  1. We faced the same dilemma, a few days in Beijing won't cover all the awesome sites. Never mind if they're touristy since they're touristy for very good reasons :) Hope to do biking in China too, one day.

    1. True! And that's just Beijing. The rest of the country is a whole other story :)


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