I arrived to a snow-covered mountain framed Madrid after hoping a high-speed AVE train from sunny, 65+ degree Sevilla. I’d been anticipating going to China for six months – reading non-fiction memoirs and historical novels, mapping out Beijing and Harbin and mentally preparing myself for eating something with four legs and a tail that has the same name as my nickname for my boyfriend (puppy).Madrid was clear and about the same temperature as Sevilla, the sun glinting off of the agricultural ministry across from Atocha and a churros stand churning out fried rounds of dough. I stopped by an outdoor book fair, running my hands along the spines of dusty old volumes of comic books before picking up a 2 euro copy of Tales of the Alhambra. I hopped in a taxi to the airport, only to realize that the taxista’s meter wasn’t working when we arrived to the front gate. He probably over-charged me, but whatever. After meeting La Cris and Alfonso, I boarded my plane bound for Paris. A few hours, a mad dash to get through security and to another terminal to hop my flight to Air France, and a nine-hour trip to Beijing.After using gestures and grunts and caveman language to speak to the Chinese man sitting next to me for the entire flight, I expected to have a lot of difficulty communicating in Beijing. I’d been warned that English outside big tourist hotels was hard to come by. When I arrived to the airport, everything was subtitled in English (thanks to the 2008 Olympics!) and there were not big crowds. My dad met me in the terminal and we hitched a ride to the center of town. I expected to not see the sky the whole time I was in Beijing, but the day was clear and bright and traffic wasn´t horrible.
My mom and one of Margaret´s teammates´moms, Linda slash Linder, and I fought off jetlag and our extreme desires to nap to explore Wafujing Jie, the shopping drag on which our hotel was located. A beautiful western-style church stood on the east side of the street, across from an entire block of candy shops. My mother was continually hounded for money from the homeless, who tapped her on the shoulder and said Xié Xié (thank you) about a dozen times before giving up. We stopped by a huge department store and had ice cream before braving a bazaar-type shop – four floors of fake jades and pearls, tiny buddhas and painted combs. There were just as many employees in the shop, and shoving jewelry and stupid toys in my face trying to make a sale. I reasoned that the Communist government had to employee two employees for every customer to keep unemployment rates low and this was confirmed with every jade factory and silk store we went to.
One of the things I was really looking forward to was the Snack Street, a big tourist trap that I had seen on numerous travel specials during the Olympics. I remember the Travel Channel´s samantha Brown eating a fried starfish and resolved to eat as many weird things as my stomach could handle (considering the water is poison and health standards aren´t really that great). The snack street is a city blocked lined on the northern end with lantern-lit food stalls. everything from insects to baby birds to dumplings were sold for prices between 5 to 50 RMBs (0.75-7 USD). My dad and I, being the adventurous eaters, tried snake, cabbage dumplings, beef kebabs, grasshopper and scorpion, while mom and Linder blamed their tiredness for lack of appetite. The shopkeepers screamed the names of the fare at us, trying to make a sale: BACK CHOYYYYYYYYYY! GINGER ROOOOOOOT! SHEEP KIDNEYSSSSS! Giant pots of miso and boiled corn warmed our hands and the sugared fruit kebabs looked good enough (oops, probably not sanitary!). Dad and I opted for a giant bean-curd donut before heading to bed at about 8:30 pm.
Day Two: The Forbidden City
My parents’ two bags never arrived to Beijing, thanks to a glitch in LAX´s gate changes. They ended up being at the wrong gate after a delay from Chicago and only made their plane thanks to Linder refusing to board until they arrived. While my parents sorted things out with Air China, I watched English-language news and movies (something I greatly miss in Spain) and ate granola bars.
We had the Forbidden city on the agenda for the day, but got a late start. Skipping breakfast and heading straight towards the massive palace complex, we got our first lesson in Chinese traffic: cars always have the right of way. Even when the little green man for pedestrians comes up, a car or taxi or bus can slam into you without remorse. I always had to be on alert, like a life-sized frogger, so my guts didn´t get splattered all over the street. That said, driving can be scary, too, even when you´re in the back seat of a seatbelt-less taxi.
Located at the northern edge of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City was once the Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties, two of the more famous and important ruling families in Chinese history. Made up of nearly 1000 wooden temples and buildings, this complex held the Imperial families in the prohibited heart, encased by several gates and the Imperial city. The first gate, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, is protected by scores of cameras and green-clad guards. All of them have uniforms on that were used under Mao´s three or four-decade dictatorship that look two sizes too big. It´s technically illegal to take pictures of them, but I did. An enormous portrait of Mao hangs directly over the main gate, marking the place from which he watched military parades in the largest public square in the world.
The gate of Heavenly Peace is of particular interest to my family because one of my grandma´s ancestors, Jim reilley (the man for which her little brother is named), was killed during the Boxer Rebellion in August 1900, trying to enter the city. Legend says that the Dragon Empress fled from the Forbidden City from the rear gates, which is interesting because the Chinese emperors believed attacks would come from the Mongols in the north (which is why the Great Wall is built north of the capital). We were able to climb the tower and see the massive expanse of Tiananmen Square before passing through another series of gates before entering the palace.
The themes of red, yellow and the number nine are repeated all throughout the palaces and temples. The ceramic roofs bear intricate carvings and each building is rated on its importance. On the edges of many buildings throughout China, you see there is a man riding a creature with up to ten dragons behind him. the mroe dragons, the more important the building. The colors of the temples shone in the sun in reds and green and blues. Small paintings on the undersides of the roofs were all different, depicting different patterns of dragons and flowers. Once past all the temples, there are several smaller living quarters for different royalty and purposes, as well as a garden with small pagodas. Surprisingly, we hardly saw any Westerners.
By the time we finished exploring, it was already 4:30 and we hadn´t really had a meal. Our hotel suggested a place on Wafujing Jie called Quanjude for Peking Duck. This place is famous throughout the city, as it is a former palace and four floors of dining rooms and kitchens. Ducks hand by their webbed little feet in the windows of the kitchen, waiting to be lacquered and roasted! We ordered enormous beers and watched a chef sliced practically every part of the duck and threw it on plates – the feet, served with spicy sauce, the sweet, crispy skin, thin slices of meat, sliced liver and the heart. Eaten with thin pancakes and sweet molasses sauce, all rolled up into the pancake, it´s actually quite nice. We were also served briney vegetables and cabbage. I don´t think Linder and mom were really keen on all of the different parts, but it was interesting. At the end of the meal, we received a card with the history of the establishment and a certified number of the duck. This place has served over 150 billion ducks since it started counted in the 1860s!!!