Sunday, May 10, 2009

Big Beijing -- A City on Steroids

Beijing -- this post has taken me forever to write because 1) it's hard to put into words, 2) it's massive and 3) #1 + #2 = time-intensive blog entry.

a thousand-year old emperor's palace.
an 80-story contemporary skyscraper that looks more like a modern art installation than an office building.
bumper-to-bumper traffic (BMWs, Volkswagons, Accords).
caravans of people on bikes (bike lanes are almost as wide as car lanes).
expensive malls with Chanel, Dior and Brooks Brothers.
old dusty alleys/roads called hutongs lined with local "restaurants", shops and dwellings.
an up-and-coming restaurant scene that already outshine it's Asian contemporaries.
street vendors that sell living, writhing scorpions and seahorses on skewers.
the hottest contemporary art scene in Asia.

Beijing is a dichotomy, a city so in transition from old to new that you can feel it inching forward by the second. In fact, you could go to Beijing for the weekend and have a completely "old" experience -- visit the hutongs, historical monuments, eat the crazy street food and travel around by rickshaw or bike. Then you could go back the next weekend and experience a completely different city -- eating at elegant restaurants with impeccable service and food, visiting art galleries with works by rising stars, taking in the unfathomable architecture that makes every other city's skyline seem stodgy and boring. The only things that remain constant between these two worlds are Beijing's massive size and pollution. The vibe is indescribable and must be what Berlin felt like in the months and years after the wall came down. I'm not trying to sound melodramatic; I was really taken aback by Beijing.

With my weak attempt at painting the Beijing picture out of the way, I'll dive right into our trip. It was a rocky start to say the least.

Arriving at our hotel Friday night we decided to walk to a restaurant highlighted in our guidebook, which according to the map was 6 blocks away. "Cool," we thought. "We'll be able to walk through the famous Donghuamen Night Market on our 15-minute stroll to the restaurant." The Night Market was quite a scene and, since I seem to use Times Square as the bench mark for every crowded tourist spot, Donghuamen Night Market made Times Square seem empty. Honestly, you were so pancaked in with the crowd that you couldn't walk one step without touching at least 2 other people (and is therefore not recommended for claustrophobes or germophobes). The funny thing about the market is that it didn't just appear to be tourists (although I'm still struggling to tell various Asian ethnicities apart); instead it felt like local people who were on the their way home from work and decided to walk through the market and grab a quick bite on their way home.

I did not partake in any of the food because this was what was on the menu:

Now, with the Night Market out of the way, we were on our way to the restaurant and at this point should only be 5 blocks away. Sparing you every painful detail, let's just say that a Beijing block is the equivalent to 4 NYC avenues. So after walking for 45 minutes in heels, after refusing to walk any further and threatening to get a taxi back to the hotel and just order room service (to which my husband replied, "like hell you are; we are NOT giving up after coming this far"), we flagged down a cab who took us two more blocks and dropped us outside the place. Famished, we got inside and began perusing the one English menu to figure out what we'd order the minute we were seated. This 20-page menu had pictures of all the dishes, 90% of which looked like a science experiment. One had a poor turtle (sans shell) splayed out over a plate. Another offered deer sinew, pigeon and sheep liver. I'm sorry, but I did not sign up for Survivor. We were able to find 3 dishes that we would even consider eating -- all of them shrimp (which we knew would be served with the heads on, but was the lesser of 200 evils.)

Shown to our table we ordered beers and our shrimp dishes along with some type of cornbread-looking starter. The starter was not available, we were informed. OK fine; whatever. Then they brought warm bottles of beer and when we asked for cold beers (the other thing about Beijing is that English is a real rarity, which makes you appreciate HK all the more), they brought us a bucket of ice and tongs. Ten minutes later, the waiter came over, pulled out the menu, pointed to the dish I ordered and started waving his finger back and forth and saying, "No." I took this to mean that they were out of my dish and began to have a melt-down. Vin told me to buck up and just get what he was having so, wanting to kill him and the waiter both, I sucked it up and did so. Then 5 minutes later, the waiter walked over to Vin and did the same thing. At which point, Vin looked at me and said, "get your stuff; we're leaving." Much to the bewilderment of our non-English speaking waiter we walked out of the restaurant, hailed a taxi, ate at McDonalds and got over being mad at each other when our blood sugar levels returned to normal. Unfortunately for Vin the bad luck doesn't stop there as the Quarter Pounder-like burger he ordered at McDs came with sliced cucumber in it....and he hates cucumber.

Here's how I felt about the entire night.

So lessons learned, you ask? First, consult the concierge and/or valet before leaving the hotel to find out how far something is. Throw out the map in the guidebook as it's complete crap. Consider throwing out the guidebook altogether, only after writing to let them know how bad the restaurant they recommended was.

Day 2 was our big tourist day, which is quite the endeavor for 2 people who don't really enjoy sight-seeing all that much. We started at Tienanmen Square -- the largest city square in the world (and another example of how everything in Beijing is on steroids). It's massive, but doesn't really have all that much going on.

It did however introduce us to what I assume to be a trend in Chinese baby fashion --

I guess it's both easy access for bathroom breaks and also a nice cooling system for those hot summer days. Although wearing a diaper seems to defeat the purpose of the slit, no?

After T Square, we moved onto the massive Forbidden City -- the largest palace (I think that's what they said) in the world. All the guide books say that one could spend 5 days in the F City without seeing the same thing twice. We took their word for it and did the Cliff's Note version-- saw the big structures and courtyards, didn't opt to go inside and check out any of the interiors. I can hear the real tourists out there groaning (that's you, Mr. Heft). Honestly it was just too busy and we still had to get out to see the Summer Palace.

Here's an interesting tidbit for you: The Chinese believe that fu dogs were powerful protectors who would keep bad spirits at bay, so almost every building you see has a pair of fu dogs guarding the front door. Fu dogs are the Chinese Pug's early we got to see Victor's peeps everywhere we went!

It was nice to see that, unlike the rest of the world, the Chinese are supporting Chris Brown in his moment of crisis.

Later that afternoon, we hit the Summer Palace -- a palace a little farther outside of the city where the emperors would go for the summer. (You never would've gotten that from the title, right?!) Anyway, the Summer Palace was incredible! It's basically a little city built up a mountain with amazing architecture. The views make you feel like you're at the Parc Guell in Barcelona.

Once you reach the apex, you walk down the other side of the mountain into this massive park complete with a lake where people are paddling around in boats. The Summer Palace was much more enjoyable than F City.

Still smarting from the previous night's dinner fiasco, we took a cab to Courtyard and had one of the best meals of our lives! From the decor to the food to the contemporary art on the walls (and gallery downstairs), Courtyard was akin to Gramercy Tavern or Per Se in NYC. It also happened to overlook the Forbidden City's moat, which only added to the romance. Best of all there was no turtle on the menu!

The next day was the grandaddy of all sightseeing -- The Great Wall! I'll let the pictures tell the story and just say that the Great Wall lived up to the hype.

On our way down the wall we apparently struck the gondola lottery and happened to get the same one the Dali Lama used back in 1999. Apparently it's a big enough deal that they post it on the window.

After returning home from the Great Wall, I took a nap and Vin decided to walk around a little. On his way back to the hotel, he walked through the upscale mall next door. A nicely dressed Asian woman walked up to him in the mall and started asking him all these questions -- "Do you speak English? Where are you from? How long are you going to be in Beijing?" Vin thought she was going to ask him for directions, something he realized in hindsight seemed rather ridiculous since he's a Westerner. Instead she said, "Maybe you and me go get a drink?" The lightbulb went off that he was being solicited by a prostitute so he said no and walked away. No more than 10 steps later, he sees 2 other Asian women with big smiles on their faces making a beeline for him. They say, "Do you speak English" to which he just shakes his head and keeps on moving. Poor kid was traumatized by the whole ordeal by the time he got back to the room -- moreso because he wasn't expecting to get picked up at a mall!

Later that night we had dinner at an excellent Chinese restaurant in our hotel with an equally excellent name -- Made In China! Service was impeccable, ingredients were super fresh and you couldn't beat the location (seven floors below our room!) We ordered the Peking Duck, a Beijing specialty which they bring to your table whole and carve for you. Not really my cup of tea -- and I didn't enjoy when they lopped off the head and placed it on the table, but the duck itself was delicious.

Our last day in Beijing we wanted to go check out the comtemporary art scene and/or Olympic Village, but with traffic weren't sure we could fit it in and catch our flight. Instead, we headed over to the Panjiayuan Antique Market and picked up a few trinkets. It was pretty dead on a Monday (just our speed!) and Vin LOVED haggling! The sight of him and this little Chinese lady punching numbers into calculator and then laughing at the audacity of the other's bids was pretty funny. I thought she was going to hit him when he punched in 0 as a joke!

Finding still a few hours left, we ended the trip on a relaxing note -- getting a 70-minute foot massage at Helping Foot Massage 81 -- where we had our own room complete with recliner chairs and a flat-screen TV. The massages were HEAVEN and I implore anyone who goes to Beijing to enjoy this treat!

At the airport, realizing we haven't eaten lunch yet, we decide to end our trip like it started - -with really crappy fast food. When there's a Kenny Rogers Roasters at the Beijing Airport, you just don't pass that up. (Am I the only one who thought this chain had died out?) Unfortunately we should have because the food was complete crap -- I think hospital food has more flavor than what we were served. Starving, though, we woofed it down and, well, Vin's face sums it up.

Also wanted to share this photo because it totally captures Vin on vacation. We have NO IDEA what these little statues are or what they represented, but Vin just had to have his picture taken with them. Mind you, he had to wait his turn as all the Asians were also dying to have their picture taken. (He did the same thing on a fountain in Rome -- waited in line with 5-year olds to ride the stone fish in the Piazza di Poppolo.)

Finally -- and randomly, Asia in general has some of the best signs in English ever. You have NO IDEA what they are selling and they make no sense. Here are some good ones we spotted in Beijing:

"Large Luminous Balls"

"Spicy Grandma" (which I really hope isn't an ad for prostitution)

Next time, we'll do modern Beijing -- contemporary art galleries and the Olympic Village, take bikes everywhere and consult our concierge before leaving the hotel.