THE ORIENT EXPRESSED: BEIJING BOUND
Our 2011 Chinese odyssey consisted of five cities: Beijing, Xi’an,Chonqing,Yichang, and Shanghai. In two weeks, we flew six times, cruised the Yangtze River, and just for fun, rode the world’s fastest train.
July 7 & 8, 2011
As I write, we’re three and a half hours into a 13.5 hr. plane ride to Beijing. T’s time management skills made on time arrival dubious, as usual, but here we are. Adding to the fun, we sat on the runway for nearly two hours due to thunderstorms at JFK. Food on Air China is edible, at best. Our seats, middle aisle, four across, aren’t great. To my right are two little men. One snores and has little grasp of personal space, taking the liberty of sleeping in the fetal position across two seats (a magazine serves as the only barrier between his toes and my thigh). The other one is a screaming toddler who looks to be about a year old; I have far more tolerance for him. T is snoozing contentedly on my shoulder….5:57 AM NY time. We’re roughly 2hrs from landing. Flight was long, but smooth and definitely no frills. Nothing to eat since last night’s seafood with rice, served with salad, stale bread, and melon slices. Just got some o.j. and I’m hoping there’s a little more to come. T. has been sleeping soundly; I envy him. Passengers on the flight are of course mostly Chinese, then there are a few laowai (foreigners) like us, but so far, we’re the only Blacks. Wondering how much of an issue this will be during the next two weeks. I’m also looking forward to meeting the rest of our tour group when we land; hopefully, there’s no one too obnoxious. Signing off for now.
ARRIVAL: Beijing airport is massive and spotless. We proceed through immigration smoothly and baggage claim is a breeze. My feet and ankles are quite swollen though from the flight; this is a new thing for me. The ride to the Doubletree Beijing is pretty lengthy, and while it’s dark, it’s pretty clear that this is a bustling, thriving center of commerce. Not sure we’ll venture out tonight, as it’s nearly 10pm, but we spoke to our guide, Gary, on the phone. Our day starts early @ 8am–off to the Bird’s Nest and other Olympic sites in am and to The Forbidden City in pm.
July 9, 2011
We rose at 5:30am unable to sleep, and got ready for breakfast @ 6:30. The spread was impressive and varied: everything from an omelet station and pancakes, to dim sum and soup. At 8am, we met with our group, three families from California, and our tour leader, Gary, to head out to Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City. Both these sites are massive and crawling with tourists, again mostly Chinese. So far, we’ve encountered about 5 to 7 Black people, and we all appear to be objects of considerable interest. The Chinese tourists at times couldn’t decide which to look at first or stare at harder, us or the official sites. T. had a “mean Joe Green” moment when he was asked to pose with a little boy, while his family recorded this momentous encounter with a novel laowai). The weather was 90 plus degrees, and the walk was grueling (there are NO trees in Tiananmen Square). Trevor had forgotten his hat at the hotel and had to buy one post-haste. There was never greater need for the thousands of parasols we saw today on the square.
Next, we went to a rather unimpressive lunch with the group, pretty typical tourist trap “let me hook up my buddy/brother in law with some unsuspecting American customers” routine, and then we were all subjected to the first of the mandatory shopping stops that tend to go hand in hand with these tours. Gary took us to a pearl factory, where we got the expected spiel about pearl production etc. Needless to say, we bought nothing. Upon returning to the hotel, T. and I settled down for a much-needed nap after a quick trip to the supermarket around the corner. Tonight we plan to head out to Wanfujing Street to experience the night market, where they sell everything imaginable (and unimaginable) on a stick.
The night market is a real experience. First of all, it’s nestled right behind Beijing’s Rodeo Drive. All the big names are represented here: Chanel, Hermes, Rolex, you name it, but blink and you might miss this little alleyway that leads to Dong Hua Men St., and the most colorful interpretations of food you’ve ever seen. Scorpions, sparrows, seahorses, beetles, starfish, eel, and baby shark were all there by the hundreds to be enjoyed shish-kabob style. We took far more pictures than samples. T. refuses to try even the most conventional offerings, and I have some vegetable dumplings.