Thursday, May 15, 2014
I arrived at Beijing Capital International Aiport on Thursday, May 15. I was greeted by someone from the travel company and shuttled over to Terminal 3 (yes, we had to drive – their airport is HUGE) to wait for the rest of the Howard group to arrive a few hours later. To kill time, I decided to buy wifi and grab some Starbucks in order to stay awake. I had only slept about a couple of hours on the 12-hour flight and wanted to stay awake in order to combat jet lag. I had totally forgotten about the strict Internet restrictions and I was a tad bit frustrated that some of my Internet searches were blocked in addition to websites such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. The restrictions made me appreciate the US and the fact that I can find any information I want on the Internet (within reason) without being subject to government censorship. After sending off some emails (most people were sleeping due to the 12-hour time difference), I went to go exchange some of my traveler’s checks to RMB. My parents wanted me to carry traveler’s checks around instead of cash, but my advice to anyone going to China/Korea is to just take some cash that can be exchanged at the airport and used in case of emergency and an ATM card. There were many ATMs in each city that were available to exchange money and the rates were reasonable.
When the rest of the group arrived, we headed over to the hotel, Traders Hotel, which was in a pretty cool location next to China World Trade Center. My phone camera had stopped working correctly right before I left and I desperately wanted to find an Apple store so that they could fix it. I left with one of my classmates to go explore the city and although we did not find Apple, we found many other gems.
The first thing to note is that we only had access to wifi, which limited our navigation skills since we couldn’t just bring up Google Maps whenever we got lost. Needless to say, we got lost because a portion of the directions and street signs were in Chinese and we knew none of the language. I decided to start asking random strangers if they spoke English and found a friendly businessman who pulled up Maps on his phone and directed us toward this unicorn of an Apple store. We still didn’t find it, but instead found the subway station, a Wal-mart, and a mall (with a food court!!!!). By this time, however, it was 9pm in Beijing and we arrived after most food places had already closed. We decided on a random restaurant by the name of Goodfood Kitchen and quickly realized that the language barrier applied to basically… everywhere. We had to order food by pointing at pictures and hoping for the best. After we ate, we decided to browse a convenience store to see what they had to offer and my friend got some facial masks to take back to the US. Finally, we retreated back to the hotel and so ended our first evening in China.
Friday, May 16, 2014
I ended up sleeping through the whole night (yay for no jet lag!) and woke up refreshed the next morning. The hotel provided a breakfast in its T-Bazaar restaurant that consisted of five open kitchens. To give an idea of the breakfast options, there was an American breakfast (with omelettes, pancakes, waffles, sausage, and hashbrowns, to name a few), some Chinese food options (dumplings, noodles, rice, etc), an assortment of breads (croissants, muffins, etc), fresh fruit, and an expansive freshly squeezed juice station.
After breakfast, we loaded up our bus and headed for the first attraction on our itinerary: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. I was particularly excited to go to these destinations because they are two of the most notable attractions in Beijing. Our tour guide, May, led us through the crowds of people and security until we finally arrived in Tiananmen Square. I don’t think it hit me in that moment how significant it was for me to be in that location in the year of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square 1989 protests. However, this was the first moment that I thought, “wow, I’m really halfway across the world in China.” There were no other Black Americans around us and we were greeted with stares and cameras. May talked a bit about the history and significance of the square, but I was too busy taking pictures with my peers to actually hear her. Thank goodness for Wikipedia! After our history lesson she released us for 15 minutes to take pictures around the square – some of my pictures are below!
Next, we left the square and headed underground (and through more security) to gain access to the Tiananmen, which is also known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace. The Tiananmen is the informal gate to the Forbidden City and the actual gate to the Imperial City.
Once we went inside the gates (and through even more security), we finally arrived – or so we thought. As I said in my first post, I had done no research and had no idea what to expect in the Forbidden City. It is a vast complex that includes many gates (that basically all look the same) and covers about 180 acres of land. After seeing about 5 gates, we thought we had seen it all. Sadly, we were mistaken – about an hour into our Forbidden City tour, we were wondering why they didn’t tell us to wear sneakers and fitness clothes because the amount of walking was getting ridiculous haha. Luckily, we had been provided water bottles and I had packed a granola bar for sustenance. As we walked, we encountered numerous people who wanted to take pictures of/with us and touch our hair (many of the females on the trip had braided their hair up – including me!). It basically felt like we were a walking zoo and when we stopped for history lessons from May, people swarmed around our circle with cameras ready to get in on some photo opps with us. We also had our first experience with Beijing public restrooms in the Forbidden City. The squat toilets are very popular and instead of being able to sit/squat over a toilet, we were required to squat over holes in the ground. The bathrooms also do not provide toilet paper so we had to bring our own. After using the toilet paper, we could not flush it due to the plumbing being unable to handle it so there were trashcans in each stall for discarded tissue paper. Let's just say that I tried to avoid the public bathrooms as much as possible. After our walk through the Forbidden City, we finally made it to the Imperial Garden and made our exit, approximately 2.5 hours after arriving.
After leaving the Forbidden City, we headed to lunch at our first traditional, family-style Chinese restaurant. Some of the food options included soup, rice, chicken, fried fish, tofu, steamed kale, beef, and a LOT of pork. I did not realize that pork was so popular in China, but as I quickly learned, it was offered at every meal. In addition to food, we were provided bottled water, tea, Coke, and Sprite at every meal.
The food was comparable to Chinese food in the US, but a little less greasy and seasoned better, in my opinion.
We left and headed to a Beijing Hutong Culture Tour. A hutong is most popular in Beijing and consists of alleys formed by traditional courtyard residences. We rode through the hutongs on rickshaws and then did a walking tour. We were able to go inside one lady’s courtyard residence, which was an interesting experience. The courtyard was similar to a family room/den in the US with the dining room, bedrooms, and bathroom all surrounding it. Next, we went by the river where we were able to indulge in happy hour, sightseeing and shopping. It was a cute little town that had a lot of bars and places to eat. We finished the tour by getting back on our rickshaws, but it wouldn’t be as much of an experience to tell if my driver hadn’t gotten us in an accident on the way back smh. There was literally a 4 or 5 rickshaw pile up with the domino effect taking place, luckily no one was injured and it’s a funny story to tell now… It makes you wonder who was drinking, the drivers or us?
We ended our day with a Welcome Dinner at Shang Yuan Fang, an elegant Chinese restaurant. This was one of my top 3 meals in Beijing, mainly because we were served Peking duck! We received the traditional Chinese dishes again with chicken and pork, soup, rice, etc, but were able to watch as the cooks carved up Peking duck and served it to us. This place also stood out because they had Western toilets, I’m pretty sure everyone used the bathroom at least once here.
We finally headed back to the hotel after a 12-hour day and needless to say, I was exhausted! However, my case study presentation was in two days so my team had to buckle down and practice for our presentation. The downside to presenting on Sunday is that we missed going out to bars with everyone on that night, Friday and the next night, Saturday.
Stay tuned for my next post where I talk about my visit to Peking University, case study presentation, and experiences (and struggles) pertaining to the Great Wall!