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I flew to Beijing from the Quzhou airport on a Saturday evening. The airport here in Quzhou is very tiny and is frequented almost entirely by tour groups. I fell into the middle of one of these when going through security, but it still took only about twenty minutes to go from my apartment to the gate. It would be fine with me if this were the case every time I flew. The flight was full of shouting voices and passengers in matching baseball caps; I spent it writing in my paper journal and making small talk with the woman next to me, who had never been on an airplane before. "You are always writing!" she observed. This is not really true, but maybe it is something I should aspire to.

I got into Beijing's smaller airport--not the one they refurbished for the Olympics, the one nobody's heard of that has one baggage carousel--and took a taxi to our hotel and found Andrea and Lindsay there. I have to make a note here of just how good it was to see some friends from my old life, who not only share a native language with me but work in the same industry I used to work in and know a bunch of my other friends. It's easy to forget the way such things make conversation easier when you've gotten used to small talk and generalizations and approximations of what you meant to say.

We decided to do the Forbidden City first. We were staying ridiculously close to the palace, so on Sunday morning we had a wander through the little streets near our hotel, bought some interestingly anonymous baked goods for breakfast, and walked in a generally northward direction until we suddenly came across a distinctly palatial gate, which we followed (past a surprising abundance of vendors of gigantic fruitcakes) to a sidewalk to another gate and walked around looking for a ticket counter. Then we found it, along with a WORLD OF CROWDS. I'm sure I've mentioned before the nature of "standing in line" in China--and just the previous day, the people going through airport security with me seemed to find me very rude for maintaining my place in line instead of, I don't know, just leaving or something. But the lines at the Forbidden City were a new category of Chinese line. More numerous than the queue at the post office. More agitated than the enormous line I once stood in in Rome to view the body of John Paul II (I quit that line eventually). We had to move through a series of cattle-gate line-organizer things that were set up in such a way that they did not organize the line at all, only robbed you of breath if you were standing next to one as the person behind you shoved you inexorably into the cattle rail and it jutted into your abdomen. Lindsay defected from the line at this point, stopped by a woman who was absolutely not going to yield; Andrea and I fought our way to the front and bought tickets.

Fortunately, the Forbidden City is big--unbelievably big, such that new servants probably got lost all the time and walked in on places they were not supposed to go. Once the massive crowds got inside, we weren't such a massive crowd anymore and were able to take pictures and gawk as much as we liked.

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We'd rented audio tours, and the system was equipped with a GPS or something that started the recording playing automatically when we neared one of its checkpoints. Whoever recorded the narration seemed to be under the impression she was rehearsing for a live tour, as she frequently asked us questions like "Can you let me know if you see anything unusual about these cauldrons?" How would I let her know this? She did provide a lot of interesting information, though. We wandered through more palaces or pavilions than I can possibly name, though despite our best efforts we could not find the Palace of Abstinence. We came close to where we thought it was, but there was only a locked door. We went and stood next to this door in hopes it would trigger the audio guide and she would tell us what the Palace of Abstinence was, but no dice.

Anyway, it was May and there were fruit trees blooming, so it was rather lovely inside the Forbidden City:

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There was also a garden, which was short on flowerbeds but long on crazy-looking cypress trees:

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I think we spent about four hours in the Forbidden City, and although we missed some things (when we got to the exit I looked at my map and realized we'd failed to see the Nine-Dragon Screen way back at the beginning) we eventually declared the Forbidden City SEEN and moved on to other things. Other things turned out to be hot pot, matcha pies from a place called Eat Pie Eat Pie Eat Pie, and a brief jaunt to Tiananmen Square, made briefer by the fact that it got dark and the Square closed (I'd had no idea the Square closed at night). That was okay because there is not actually very much to see at Tiananmen Square. It is a really, really, really large city square with some monuments on it. Oh, and also some jumbo video screens, which showed a surreal tumble of images of flowers, buildings, city skylines, sunsets, mountains, and other things that had no immediately obvious relation to Tiananmen Square.

We left, stopped at a snack shop where I recommended the blueberry potato chips and Lindsay promptly got addicted to them, found a vendor who sold us candied dates and kumquats (candied kumquats are very weird, but delicious), and walked to the Dongzhimen Night Market, which is a big long line of stalls selling weird food. It was not that much of a "market"--I get the impression the whole thing is just one commercial enterprise--but there were some extremely weird foods, mostly notably starfish and locusts. We chose fried pumpkin thingies on a stick. They were kind of gluey and overwhelming. At this point we discovered that we were exhausted, so we went back to the hotel and went to bed.

The next day was Great Wall Day! We got up bright and early and met our bus outside the hotel. First stop was the Sacred Way at the Ming Tombs, which is where the funeral processions used to be held when emperors (and their families, I assume) were buried here. This was a pretty spot, and remarkably peaceful considering it was a tourist attraction and a national holiday (May 1 is Labor Day here). We didn't see any actual tombs, but we had a leisurely walk in a green spot and met a lot of statues, so that was fun.

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Andrea bought a very pretty parasol from one of the vendors at the Sacred Way. The other vendors promptly offered her a second one for a lower price.

Then it was time for the bread and butter of these bus tours, namely, hauling the guests into commercial venues they are not interested in. First we went to a Chinese medicine center. A doctor (he must have been a doctor, as he was wearing a lab coat. That's how it works, right?) gave a very brief introduction, and then three other doctors set up stations to take people's pulse and tell them what was wrong with them and, naturally, what treatment from that very medical center could do for them. The three of us sat this one out. Then we went to a jade warehouse, where we got a lecture I'd heard before about how you tell good-quality jade, and some salesladies kind of yelled at us about buying bangles, and we escaped to where there were actually some rather pretty pictures for sale and I bought one of those instead. There was a cavernous dining hall attached to the jade warehouse and we had lunch there, with the other guests on the tour. It was pretty good food, considering we were eating at a jade warehouse, and we had fun talking with the other people at our table--two New Yorkers and two guys from Brazil (plus three Spanish people, but they just spoke Spanish to each other really).

After lunch we went on to the real destination, the Great Wall. We'd chosen to avoid the Badaling section of the wall, which is the most popular on any day of the year and would be especially crowded on a holiday weekend. Instead this tour took us to Mutianyu, a quieter section though it's definitely well-covered by the souvenir trade. Also, the trade of riding toboggans down a mountain.

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We rode a chairlift up the mountain to the wall, and lo, it was beautiful. It seemed the wall was designed to follow the highest part of the mountains, and the mountains, they were steep. We went up onto the wall and looked to the left, which was a relatively even walk along the hill. We looked right, which was a fairly epic climb up to a pointy summit. Being gluttons for punishment, we chose to go right.

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Here we are in front of the path we were about to take. (It was sunny that day, in case you can't tell from the super-attractive things we're doing with our eyes.) And we did it! In admirable time, too, if I do say so myself. The stairs kept going from reasonably steep brick steps, to crazy slanting shallow steps, to tall hunks of granite that barely qualified as stairs. We caught our breath occasionally on particularly comfortable steps (ha) and made it to the uppermost tower. No one was supposed to go beyond this, but of course there were people all around the "do not pass this point" sign.

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Note that here we are looking *down*.

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After a rest and plenty of photographs, we coaxed each other back down to where we'd gotten off the chair lift, and then we got to take sleds back to the base of the mountain. When we were standing in line to get on our sleds I started to have misgivings, but the slide turned out to be really fun. The sled had a brake, so it was easy to control, and there was something very zen about seeing the mountain and the spring flowers this way. Even the rickety wooden bridge we had to cross wasn't too bad, mostly because I passed over it quickly.

We got down and bought some food and souvenirs and interesting chocolate pancake things, and then we had a quiet bus ride back to Beijing. It was relatively early yet, about 5 in the evening, so we struck out in search of a Uighur restaurant on Andrea's recommendation. It was tucked at the back end of an odd little alley but totally worth the search--the food was rich and unique, especially the "walnut omelette" (this is not an adequate explanation of what it was, but I don't know how else to explain it). After dinner we went to Hou Hai, a lake in the city with sparkly bars lining the shore, and sat next to the water drinking lychee martinis and watching the bats swoop over our table.

On Tuesday we were all understandably tired, so we got a somewhat later start on the day. Once we were up and moving we went to a little American restaurant called Grandma's for breakfast. We had French toast and eggs and bacon, and it was glorious. Once we were properly stuffed it was time to go to the Summer Palace.

The Summer Palace is a little ways outside the city center, and it's where the emperor's family used to go to escape the summer heat. I was confused at first about the summer retreat being such a short distance from the Forbidden City--surely the climate is the same in both places?--but that was before I saw the lake and the green, breezy spaciousness of the place. The entrance to the Summer Palace was a little like the Forbidden City, with plazas and pavilions and a Hall of Benevolence and a kyrin statue, but beyond that the whole place was more or less a country home.

You can take a boat out on the lake, and we considered this but ended up doing the tour of the lake on foot instead and crossing many interesting bridges in the process--some high and steeply arched as if to let a steamboat pass underneath, some built like little pavilions.

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There were willow trees and lilacs everywhere, and despite tired feet it was a relaxing walk. We circled around the lake to the stone boat that the Dowager Empress Cixi built with money that was supposed to go to the navy; dodged a large and babbling tour group in the Long Corridor; and reached the temples on Longevity Hill. Faced with a hill, we of course had to climb it. There were steep, steep stone stairs that led us up, successively, to the Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion, the Cloud-Dispelling Hall, and the Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom. Large parts of all of these had been destroyed by an Anglo-French alliance in 1865, and there were plaques everywhere alerting us to this fact. (I looked up this incident in my little history of China later; it seems England was upset about trade, and a French ambassador had been killed somewhere in China, so they joined forces and marched on Beijing, and when they found the imperial family had fled the city they burned the Summer Palace, including a lot of things that had been built or influenced by Jesuit missionaries from the West. Go figure.) Despite this, what remained to see was graceful and impressive, and from the top we had an unbeatable view of the Summer Palace and, in the other direction, Beijing. We got popsicles--Andrea having alerted all of us to the possibilities of Chinese popsicles, of which I had been heretofore rather ignorant--and enjoyed the vista for a while before admitting we had to get back on our feet and go back down.

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Oh, Chinese fog.

We took a long and winding path to the bottom and then another winding path to Suzhou Street, which is essentially a tiny theme park within the Summer Palace grounds built to look like Suzhou, the famous canal city. It was almost closing time when we got there, but the relative lack of people there just made the canal and little stone walkways and darkened shops that much more odd and mysterious. The café was still open and we sat down there for dumplings and vegetables and tea, which was exactly what we needed.

That evening we got on the train that took us to Xi'an. It was a fancy night train, where each person gets a bed in a compartment of four beds. I was separated from Andrea and Lindsay, so the night was a little awkward--around 10 p.m. I just crawled into my top bunk and slept in my clothes--but I slept well, if only for a little while, and almost before I knew it we were in Wednesday and Xi'an.

More pictures at my Flickr page.
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marjorieinchina

July 2010

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