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Saturday, March 4, 2006
Today was my first full day in Beijing.
Phil and Erica had warned us that
we would probably wake up
at 2 am and not be able to get back to sleep.
I did not think that there was any chance of this happening. I managed to stay up until about 10:30 pm,
but then I crashed hard. When I finally
went to bed, I felt like I could sleep for about 12 hours straight.
But sure enough, I was wide awake
promptly at 2 am. I told myself that this
was not acceptable
and that I’d have to go back to sleep. I
was marginally successful. I managed to
sleep off and on until about 6 am. At
that point, Margaret and I both decided to get up.
We took our time getting ready, and headed
down to breakfast at 7 am.
Breakfast was amazing.
The free breakfast buffet here is a far cry from the continental
breakfast you get at most hotels in the States.
The buffet was full of every kind of breakfast food imaginable: donuts, pastries, bagels, bread, pancakes,
French toast, bacon, sausage, eggs, fruit, and tons of Chinese food
didn’t recognize. Everything was
wonderful. I’m usually not a big
breakfast person, but I stuffed myself.
When I was about half way through my first plate of food,
discovered that there was a made-to-order omelet station in the corner. That’s what I’ll be having tomorrow!
showed up about halfway through breakfast, and herded us all down to
around 8:30. We had a 20 minute
to Tiananmen Square.
On the bus, Leon
warned us about the Hello
People. The Hello People are at every
tourist attraction in Beijing. They greet you as you exit the bus, saying
“hello, hello, want to buy a…” They are peddling everything from post
silk scarves to fake Rolexes. They speak
surprisingly good English. Leon
to be careful when buying from them.
There are good deals to be had if you are willing to haggle, but
just as easily be ripped off. And it’s
not unheard of to receive fake money as change.
We were told to use small bills and keep track of our money.
expected Tiananmen Square to be full
tourist groups like ours. Most tour
guides carry a sign with a flag on it, so that their groups can find
had forgotten our Lake Forest
sign, so he tied a little Santa Claus penguin stuffed animal to the end
flag pole. We would be following the
penguin all day. He also told us that if
we got lost and couldn’t find the penguin, we could approach any
English-speaking tour guide, and they would help us.
As we exited the bus, he also handed each of
us a business card. On it was written,
in both English and Chinese, “Please take me to the Tianlun Dynasty
then the address of the hotel. We could
give this to a cab driver if we ever became lost.
In front of the entrance to Tiananmen Square was a huge picture of Chairman
Mao, and we all stopped to
take pictures in front of it. The area
was incredibly crowded – filled with tourist groups like ours. A bunch of military-looking police men kept
shooing us along, yelling in Chinese. “I
wonder what they’re saying,” said Frank.
“Probably something like, “Stupid American tourists! Keep moving or I will shoot you!”’ I replied.
While waiting in line to enter
the square, we were
approached by a lot of beggars. Most of
them were missing limbs, or parts of limbs, like Thalidomide victims. Phil kept us away from them as much as
possible. Any time one got too close, I
would feel a strong arm around my shoulders, gently leading me away.
Square is just a
large open area, paved with bricks, surrounded by pagoda-type buildings. You have probably seen dozens of pictures of
it. If you’re like most Americans, only
one thing comes to your mind when you hear the words Tiananmen Square. However,
Chinese are prohibited from discussing the massacre, so I wasn’t
didn’t mention it. We did not linger in
the square. He rushed us through the
palace doors and into the Forbidden City.
City was the
palace of several of the Chinese emperors.
It is so huge that they call it a city.
Historically, it was forbidden to all commoners, with the
the palace servants, of course. The only
man allowed in the palace was the Emperor himself.
He was served by women, children, and
unics. This was so that if ever a baby
was born in the palace, it would be certain to be the Emperor’s. Even the Emperor’s sons were required to
leave the palace when they started puberty.
If a male baby was born to a
concubine or even a palace
maid, the woman would be elevated to a much higher status.
Her son would be a prince, and would have the
chance to become Emperor himself one day.
It was not a given that the oldest son would become Emperor. Typically, the Emperor had dozens of sons
(all with different mothers). He would
watch all of his sons grow up, and decide which one was smartest and
best-suited to becoming Emperor.
The palace is absolutely huge –
truly a city unto
itself. It’s mind-boggling that it was
built for just one person – especially when you know that in the time
Chinese Emperors, most other people in China were starving to
The last Chinese Emperor, Puyi,
started his reign when he
was only a baby. His tutor was an
Englishman, so Puyi brought many Western ideas to China. He was de-throned in the 1920’s when the
Communists took power. I guess the Forbidden City became a tourist attraction at
Walking through the entire Forbidden City took a couple of hours.
All along the way, Leon
told us the stories of its history, and gave us time for taking
pictures. That encompassed the Chinese
for the morning. I also got a lesson in
Chinese culture, which was a bit more practical than the history side.
you will find two types of toilets. One
is the regular toilet that we are all used to seeing, called the
toilet” in China. (We have the Western-style toilets in our
hotel.) The other kind is affectionately
referred to as the “squatty potty.” The
squatty potty is like a narrow, oblong toilet bowl set directly into
so that the rim of the bowl is about flush with the floor.
Therefore, you can’t sit on it – you have to
squat over it, hence the name. Apparently,
these are the more common types of toilets throughout the world, except
Europe and North America. Most of the public restrooms we visited
(including my first Chinese public restroom at the Forbidden
City) have about 10 stalls containing squatty potties, and
two stalls with Western-style toilets (if you’re lucky – many only have
squatty potties). As you can imagine,
there is usually quite a long line for the Western-style toilets at
When we entered the public restroom at
the Forbidden City, the maid working
there directed us to the Western-style
stalls, and we all lined up to wait.
Meanwhile, several Chinese women came in and quickly bypassed
for the squatty potties. Margaret and I
glanced at each other and quickly agreed that we were not going to
entire trip waiting in line for the restroom, and made a beeline for
squatty potties. They are really more
hygienic, anyway – most public restrooms are not the cleanest, and your
never touches anything with the squatty potty.
By the second day of the trip, most of the younger women in our
were willing to use the squatty potties.
The older women weren’t willing to do it. I’m
not sure if this is because they are
squeamish about trying something different, or because they are not
they trust their thigh muscles to get them back up!
We exited the Forbidden City
from the opposite side from which we’d entered, and the bus picked us
there. We went to a small Chinese
restaurant for lunch. The food was quite
good, but I wasn’t very hungry, since I’d stuffed myself at breakfast.
After lunch, the bus took us to
district. Hutong literally means “alley.” Back
in the days of the Emperors, the area around the Forbidden City was a walled city.
was made up of one-story houses with narrow, winding, twisting streets
alleys between them, which why it is called Hutong.
This area is also called Old Beijing
Most of these houses still exist today,
although most have been greatly modified and remodeled.
The bus dropped us off in a
narrow street lined
shops, restaurants, and bars. In front
of the shops were parked dozens of rickshaws.
rickshaws are like great big tricycles, with one seat up front for the
and two seats in back for the passenger.
We all paired up and were assigned rickshaws, and we set off for
tour of the Hutong.
The transportation through the
Hutong was somewhat
nerve-wrecking. The rickshaw drivers
peddled us through the narrow, twisting alleys at break-neck speed –
somehow managed to avoid all the pot holes and speed bumps. The alleys in the Hutong are too narrow for
two cars to pass – really, they are even too narrow for one car, in my
opinion. But that doesn’t stop cars from
driving through them! And of course
there were dozens and dozens of bicyclers to avoid as well. It was scary, but also fun.
The temperature had warmed into the mid-60s,
and it was sunny. It was a beautiful day
for a rickshaw ride.
The buildings we passed mostly
looked run down. However, the streets were
clean and full of
well-dressed people. We passed many
restaurants, stores, and bars. Really
more bars than anything else. I assumed
that the buildings that didn’t have any signs on the front must be
they didn’t look like any houses I’d ever seen.
We screeched to a stop in front
of one such
were told to exit our rickshaws. We were
going to get a tour of a local Hutong home.
An English-speaking guide (not Leon) led us through a gate and
small courtyard. The courtyard was paved
in brick, and surrounded on all four sides by rundown buildings made of
wood and stone. A small, squat building
made of red brick was in the center of the courtyard.
There were several doors into the
buildings. The one nearest to us had a
small area fenced off around it with scrap plywood.
Two small dogs wandered about in this
makeshift pen. Several of the doors had
plywood overhangs above them, creating a kind of roofed patio area. Under the roofs were tables and chairs and
bikes and toys and all kinds of other items.
Our guide explained to us that
hundreds of years
the Hutong was built, each courtyard and the buildings surrounding it
by a wealthy Beijing
family. Each of the buildings on the
fours sides of the courtyard was an individual house.
In the largest house lived the parents. In
the other houses lived their sons and
daughter-in-laws and grandchildren. Only
the largest house had a kitchen.
Today, about 90% of the Hutong is
owned by the
government. Families with at least one
working for the government have the opportunity to rent one of these
houses. This is substantially cheaper
than renting a privately-owned house.
Actually, there are not many privately owned houses in Beijing.
If you do not have the option of living in a government space
want to), the most available private option is a modern high-rise. (The government also owns high-rises for
employees who prefer the high-rise life to the Hutong life. However, the government high-rises are
generally pretty lousy compared to the more expensive privately owned
In the houses surrounding the courtyard
in which we were now
standing lived 9 separate, unrelated families – a total of about 40
people. The original 4 houses had been
carved up into 9. This is a very typical
situation in the Hutong. There was not
room to put a private kitchen in all of the houses, so the small brick
had been constructed in the center of the courtyard.
This building contained kitchens for the
houses that were too small to have their own.
However, this building was in no way connected to the others. The users of these kitchens had to walk
outside to get to them.
Each of the houses had the option
of installing a private
bathroom. Not all of the families wanted
to give up the space for that.
Therefore, there was also a public bathroom in the kitchen
again, not connected to any of the houses.
We were led through one of the
doors and into a house. We were introduced
to the lady of the house,
Madam Song. Madam Song did not speak
English, but we were encouraged to ask her any questions while our
interpreted. We learned that Madam Song
lived here with her husband, her mother and father in-law, and her
daughter. Her husband worked for the
Aviation Ministry, as did at least one member of each family in this
house cluster. The entire cluster was
owned by the Aviation Ministry. Madam
Song used to work for a private company, but she was able to retire
made more money by allowing the tour company to drag groups of tourists
her home every day.
We were given a brief tour of the
house. The living room was small by our
but was nicely furnished and had a large Sony TV. The
dining room table was also in this
room. Besides the front door, there was
only one other door in the room, and this led to a bedroom. The bedroom was tiny, and contained a twin
bed, a sofa, and a dresser. Another
large Sony TV was perched on the dresser.
There were two other doors in this room.
I stuck my head in one of them, and saw a squatty potty, a
table, and a
floor drain with a shower massager affixed several feet above it. Apparently, this was Madam Song’s private
The other door led into the other
bedroom. It was slightly bigger than the
bedroom, and also contained a twin bed, a sofa, and a dresser. A door in this room led to the tiny kitchen –
barely bigger than a closet – which contained a dorm room-sized fridge,
and a two-burner stove.
And that was it.
was the whole house, in which 4 adults and one pre-teen lived. Madam Song was very proud of her home, and
much preferred it to living in a high-rise, since the government
not so nice. She felt very fortunate to
be living there.
Seeing people living like that really makes you
it is possible to live very happily with a lot less than what we have. We complain when the internet connection is
low, and we don’t think we’d survive without TIVO, but guess what? You really need so much less than that.
One of the girls in my class had
observation. If Paris Hilton had taken
that same rickshaw tour, and then immediately afterwards taken a tour
neighborhood in suburban Chicago,
would she be able to tell the difference between the two?
About half the class thought that she would
not. She is so far removed from real
life that all our everyday experiences and surroundings would blend
and look the same to her. I’m not sure I
agree with that. I think the way we live
is a bit closer to the Paris Hilton lifestyle than it is to the Hutong,
could be wrong.
After the stop at Madam Song’s
house, the rickshaws took us
to the Price
This was Emperor Puyi’s playground when he was a child. It’s a very pretty park full of sculptures
and weird twisted, knotty trees. It looks
like something right out of Dr. Seuss.
Our final stop was the Beijing Bell Tower. One of the Emperor’s constructed two huge
towers in the end of Old
One contained huge drums and one contained a
huge bell. The drum and the bell marked
each hour of the day in ancient times.
To reach the top of the bell tower, you must climb 75 extremely
narrow stairs. The climb isn’t too bad,
but coming back down is a bit scary.
From the top of the bell tower, the panoramic view of Beijing is
breathtaking. The bell tower is the
built by the ancient emperors on the meridian line.
The meridian line is a north-south street that
ran through the center of Old Beijing.
It was considered lucky to live on this line (feng shui thing). The bell tower is the southernmost point,
then the drum tower, then Tianenmen
Square, and finally the Forbidden
City and the emperor’s palace.
And now the Olympic Village for 2008 is be constructed on the
line, extending the line north of the Forbidden
After decending the bell tower,
we stopped in the tea shop
at the base to learn about the traditional Chinese tea ceremony. We were all seated at a long table, and a
friendly English-speaking young lady taught us about the ceremony. She was very funny and entertaining. We were each given a small square china tray
holding two tiny tea cups. One cup was
wide and low, and the other was tall and narrow. Our
host told us about all the different
types of tea that are available in China, and explained how
them were infused with fruit juice or herbs.
Then she brewed some tea in a small pot and poured some into our
narrow tea cups. We were shown how to
invert the wide cup over the top of the narrow cup, and then flip the
thing over so that the tea ended up in the wide cup.
Then you rub the inverted tall cup around the
rim of the wide cup 3 times. Then roll
the tall cup between your hands several times, and then smell it. It smells strongly of whatever type of tea
you are drinking. Then you pick up the
wide cup using three fingers, and drink the tea in three sips.
Following the tea ceremony, we
returned to the hotel. On the bus, Leon
asked if anyone wanted to get
a massage that night. He could arrange
for a girl to come to our rooms and give 1.5 hour reflexology massages
Yuan, which is about $20. A 90 minute
massage for $20…amazing! I signed up.
That evening, Margaret went out to
dinner with a friend of
hers who lives in Beijing. After she left, I went to the hotel fitness
center and had a good workout. Then I
took a shower and went to the Executive Lounge for Happy Hour. Everyone staying on the executive floor got
two free drinks during the Happy Hour. I
had one beer with some of my classmates before it was time to go back
room and wait for the massage girl. I
returned to my room and put on my pj’s.
The massage girl was running a
bit late. She looked extremely young. I assume that she must have been at least 16
or 18, but she really looked about 12.
She had me lay on my bed with my head at the foot on my back. She started out with scalp massage, and then
moved on to my neck, back, arms, and legs.
This was not like any massage that I have ever gotten at home. The massages I have gotten in the States have
all been slow, kneading, relaxing massages.
The Chinese massage was not exactly relaxing.
She attacked me with vigor, and there was no
way I could have fallen asleep or even really relaxed completely. But it felt wonderful. Even
when I get deep tissue massages at home,
I never feel like they really get deep enough into my muscles. This girl did. She
poked and prodded and moved my joints
around. I wore my pj’s the whole time,
and she did not use any kind of oil.
After she finished with my legs, she
disappeared into the
bathroom. I had no idea what she was
doing, but soon I heard the bathtub running.
“What the heck?” I thought, “Is she going to bathe me? Weirder and weirder.”
I walked into the bathroom and
saw that she had brewed a
bathtub full of hot tea. She had me roll
up the legs of my pj’s and sit on the edge of the tub to soak my feet
tea. While my feet were soaking, she
massaged my scalp and neck. Then she
rubbed my feet and lower legs with the tea bag.
She had me step out of the tub
onto a waiting towel, and she
dried my legs and feet. Then she had me
come back to bed, with my feet at the foot this time.
And then she went to work on my feet. Wonderful!
I’ve never had a foot massage before, and it was fantastic.
When the massage was finished, I
paid her and she left. I felt amazing. Although I wouldn’t have described the
massage as relaxing while it was in progress, every muscle in my body
completely relaxed afterwards. I felt
I got dressed and met some people
from the class for
dinner. We walked to a nearby Chinese
restaurant that Leon
had recommended. I got a big plate of
noodles and veggies for about $3. Tsing
Tao beer was served in 22 ounce bottles for 12 Yuan – about $1.50.
After dinner, I went to bed, still
feeling totally relaxed
I need to mention something here that
doesn’t really fit
into any particular day. There is a guy
in my class, Dave, who is really overweight.
I mean, REALLY overweight. He’s
shorter than I am, and probably weighs over 300 pounds.
He does not carry the weight well. It’s
all focused in his belly. He does not move
easily, and always looks uncomfortable.
There really aren’t any fat
people in China. Everyone you see on the street is thin, and
almost everyone is beautiful as well.
It’s like walking through a Japanese Anime cartoon.
We are something of a spectacle, since we are
not Chinese, but Dave is even more of an oddity because of his weight. People treat him as a kind of a freak
show. They stare and point.
They walk up to him on the street and rub his
belly. (It probably doesn’t help that
there are statues of fat Buddha everywhere, and rubbing Buddha’s belly
Dave was put alone in a rickshaw
for our Hutong tour, so as
not to overtax the driver. Apparently,
the driver was a bit overexerted anyway, because he tried to ditch Dave. As we were all boarding our rickshaws after
one of the stops, his driver just took off without him.
We all had to wait while the driver was
retrieved. At the time, I didn’t know
what we were waiting for. We were a huge
group, and Margaret and I were in one of the first rickshaws. Dave’s rickshaw was at the end.
Dave told this story over dinner.
I do feel bad for Dave.
I hate being the center of attention for a negative reason. But on the other hand, he should have known
what he was getting himself into when he came to China. I knew that a group of American tourists
would be a spectacle, and I also knew that there weren’t a lot of
people in China. He should have known that this would happen,
but he complains about it a lot.
I think having Dave in our group
really personifies what
most of the rest of the world thinks about Americans:
fat, slow, lazy.
Go to March 5