Thursday, August 23, 2007

Backtracking: Beijing and beyond

All right. I realize the blog had a hiatus of about three months. At any rate I stumbled across this entry which I never finished; it was started near the end of August:
I've given myself a month to let my memory fade so my post can be of a more appropriate shortness. After my brief Hong Kong trip I flew to Beijing because the timing of my need for visa renewal, by happy coincidence,1 was very similar to the timing of Simon (Alison's dad) being in the capital. (Speaking of capital I realize that I have now been in five countries' capital cities, but never have I visited Ottawa. Hmm.) The situation in Beijing made a pleasant change from my closet-sized rooms in Hong Kong. Simon was on a tour with his friends Liz and Cathy which had just taken them through Shanghai and Xi'an. It was just them (and now me), a driver with a van, and a guide. I met up with them at the restaurant they were having dinner, but not before making my own way there from Beijing airport, and that was a frustrating portion of the day.

There was a cheap bus to get me from the airport to the train station, which is much more central. After that I needed to get a cab, and even though I realized the foolishness of it as I did it, I went for the cabs right at the station rather than walking down the street a little way. I new taxis would be more expensive but I didn't know how much to expect (and hence what sort of price I should scoff at). I called Simon and got the guide to talk to my prospective driver, and the fellow quoted me 150 yuan, which sounded ridiculous as cab rides I was used to in Changchun would start at 5 and rarely go over 10. Sure, Beijing is a bigger city but 150 sounded outrageous. I walked away, then I realized I didn't really want to bother the guide to talk with every potential driver, so I conceded defeat and went back to the first guy; fortunately he offered 100 at this point (which was still way too much, as it turns out). Adding insult to injury was the fact that the driver was a moron as well as a rip-off artist. For one, the guy I'd had talk to our guide was one in a group of three, and in the end it was one of the other two who led me away to his car (which wasn't even a real taxi). He didn't bother talking to the first man about where it was I wanted to go, so after driving for a few minutes he asked where I was going. Out comes the phone again. Then some more driving. And some frustration on his part. Another phone call. This time it ended up being Simon on the other end instead of the guide so the idiot was just loudly demanding into the phone whether Simon speaks Chinese. At one point we even stopped in the middle of a (thankfully quiet) intersection, and the driver got out, wandering around trying to find someone to talk to to ask where to go. Most people ignored him (no wonder - he was a total doofus). He eventually found a place that has the same name on the outside as the restaurant I'm trying to get to. I wasn't convinced I was in the right place so I called the guide yet again and eventually I was fairly sure that Simon et al were inside, so I paid the nincumpoop his outrageous fee and got on my way. Turns out no, this wasn't where I wanted to be, but fortunately it was quite close and the guide managed to find me. Bah.

Moral: Unless you know what the fare for a ride should be, take a real taxi and insist on using the meter. I.e.: Don't be an idiot like me. Now I know.

The rest of Beijing was great. We had a nice dinner the first night, then spent the next three days visiting the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, Ming Tombs, and the Great Wall.

And now, I continue, writing in November:

The Forbidden City was interesting, but sadly much of it was under renovation. There are many galleries though each is surprisingly sparse in actual artifacts, as most have apparently ended up in other countries. It also dragged on a little; the guide was very well informed but after a small amount of information pretty much everything starts slipping over my head.

The Ming Tombs didn't actually include any tombs. Supposedly they're empty and so many people complain about the lameness of visiting them that tour guides don't bother going there anymore. We just walked down a long path with lots of stone statues on either side.

As for the Great Wall, I'd always thought people referring to "climbing" it were just poorly translating some Chinese word for "walk along." But no. The part we visited was indeed pretty steep. At the beginning the stairs are packed but after about a third of the way up you lose the crowd. Overall it felt like a little over half of the Grouse Grind, for those familiar with that frame of reference.

After the climb (which, not to boast, only Simon and I did to completion), our tour included a stop at a foot massage place. Some who know me may be surprised to hear that I actually succumbed to this, and it wasn't too unpleasant, actually (if a little painful in parts).

The next morning, Liz and Cathy prepared for a day of shopping before returning to Canada, and Simon and I rode a bit of the Beijing transit system together. It was surprisingly primitive - one underground circle line and a single light rail line jutting off to the northwest (which fortunately had a station quite close to our hotel) were the parts we rode and from looking on a map are pretty much all the system has to offer! I do hear though that six or so more lines are under construction for next year.

From the subway we parted ways—Simon to find some accommodation for his remaining days in the city, and me to reach the train station, from where I returned to the airport and then to Changchun.

1I was going to say "happy happenstance" for the alliterative value of it, but then on mere suspicion I queried and my fears were confirmed: The two words are indeed etymologically related, so I couldn't bear to put them together.

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