I asked Nik this question yesterday as we began our initial descent into the Beijing International Airport, and the answer is smog.Â We had read about it and seen photos of it on the internet, but to actually see the China smog was impressive.Â It stretched far beyond the metropolis into the farmland, and probably all the way to Russia!Â Although it is unhealthy, I don’t find it ugly.Â In a strange way, it matches the winter grey that already blankets the city and reinforced Nik and I’s transition from tropical Thailand to Chinese winter.
After gathering our luggage and exchanging money, we made our way to the Airport Express line of the Beijing Subway.Â We paid the 25RMB fair, boarded and found our seats.Â The train was immaculate and comfortable.Â Table tennis played on the flat screen monitors, grey suburbs were blurred as we sped past, and we were happy to be in China.Â As we arrived at the final stop, we prepared ourselves for our first transfer to Line 2.Â In order for you to understand why we had to prepare, you must know that Nik and I were both carrying a backpack, duffle bag and computer.Â A 10 year old child could fit in Nik’s duffle bag, and my backpack is three times deeper than I am.Â We were a sight to be seen, and we were certainly seen by the hundreds of people that were cramming onto the #2 train!Â My bag was so big and the train was so crowded that I couldn’t turn around.Â I had to back out of the doors at our stop, and I was tempted to make the “beep-beep” sound of a dump truck backing up to the dumpster…but I refrained.
After one more transfer and a 20 minute walk, we arrived at our hostel.Â We are staying at the Jade International Youth Hostel, and couldn’t be happier.Â For 220RMB/night (about $33 USD), we have a king size bed fitted with clean white linens and a down comforter, and an in-suite bathroom complete with towels, water glasses, toiletries and sanitized toilet.Â The room also has a television, writing desk, hot water pitcher, tea service and telephone.Â The hostel lobby is bright with plenty of lounging space, free WiFi, and the young, energetic staff is fluent in English.Â There is also an “information desk” that offers the basic tours, postcards and nick-knacks as well as providing bicycle rentals for free with a 300RMB deposit.Â The cafe is overpriced, but there are plenty of small Chinese restaurants, convenient stores and a small grocery store within a couple blocks.
Once we were settled in, we called my friends from Tennessee, Tim and Jaime,Â that were also visiting Beijing, and decided to meet for dinner at 6.Â Tim led us to a great little local restaurant that was filled with vocal men sharing dinner, drinks and cigarettes!Â We each ordered a dish, and to our surprise we ended up with a great combination of pork, chicken, soup and dumplings all for 90RMB.Â After dinner, we were all pretty beat, so we planned to meet in the morning and went our separate ways.
This morning Jaime and Tim met us at Jade for a walk to Jingshan Park.Â We wandered through a few of the hutongs (narrow residential alleyways), and I must say…I love the hutongs!Â They are so windy and crazy, and unlike anything else.Â We all wish that we could venture deeper into the homes, but our language barrier prevented us from making any inquiries.Â Tomorrow, Nik and I plan to rent bicycles and explore the area a bit more.
At the Jingshan Park, we climbed the manmade hill to join the other tourists for the vista.Â The morning was hazy, but we could still see the vast expansion of the city.Â We also wandered through the park to see the various groups of older men and women doing their aerobic exercises of the day.Â They twirled fabric whips through the air.Â They played juggled a hacky-sack with feathers.Â They gracefully balanced a ball on a tennis racket while moving and dancing through the space.Â They played with a yo-yo made of two long sticks, a string and a plastic top that whistled.Â They practiced ball room dancing and the Chinese equivalent to line-dancing.Â We only saw a couple individuals practicing tai chi, but I’m sure there were larger groups earlier in the morning.Â Unfortunately, I was too shy to take photos of most of this, but I didn’t have any problem watching with admiration.
Next we stopped at a dumpling restaurant that had been recommended by a friend, and were quickly welcomed and served.Â Between the four of us, we had three trays of dumplings and two bowls of soup for 30RMB ($4.50).Â We also talked to another group of foreigners that was studying Chinese at a school near by, and we decided we were all envious of their year in Beijing!
After lunch, we took a taxi to the Summer Palace.Â The Palace is located northwest of the city center, and the suburbs have grown to surround it.Â The taxi ride set us back 46RMB, and basic admission to the palace was 20RMB.Â The grounds surround a large lake, and were originally a cool respite for the imperial family from the Forbidden City during Beijing’s scorching summers.Â We crossed the 17-arch Bridge, took a ferry across the lake to the Cloud Dispelling Hall, and walked along the wide boulevard lined with willows that surrounds the lake.Â We also lost Jaime and Tim in the process!!!Â We learned that when traveling in a group, specific meeting times and locations are a must, but we all managed to make it home safely and had a great time.
I am loving China more than I expected.Â I am excited about our casual itinerary of 4 cities in one month, and I love comparing what we see to Thailand and India.Â It is great to be in a large city during the off-season, and it’s nice to be cold for once.Â So far, the people we have encountered have been very nice, and I get great joy out of coaxing a smile out of fellow pedestrians.Â The price of everything is a bit shocking and expensive, but I know it is still much cheaper than home.Â I have not felt the frustration of not understanding the language yet, and I am fascinated by Chinese characters.Â I love the street food, but the restaurants haven’t impressed me.Â I know that there is so much more to see, and I am certain that every day is going to be drastically different than the next.Â In fact, our plan for tomorrow is to do a bicycle tour of the hutongs and visit the Forbidden City.Â Then Wednesday, we will be taking a bus to Jinshanling and walking on the Great Wall to Simatai.Â And Thursday…who knows?
As always, Nik has taken some amazing photos of our first two days in China as well.Â In fact, his are much better than mine and I am jealous.Â So I’ve hijacked a couple of his to show you here, and you can see more at his website.