Beijing is an enormous city with all manner of amazing things to see, both ancient and new—but when I think of Beijing, the first thing that pops into my mind is its subway system. According to Wikipedia, it has 231 miles of track with 192 stations, and on April 28, 2012, it set a single-day ridership record of 8.59 million, which may or may not be more than the population of New York City, depending on how you define “New York City.”
I loved Beijing’s subways. Once an attendant had shown me which button to push to change the display on the ticket-vending machines from Chinese to English, I could cheaply and easily get around the city’s core. Tickets cost 2 Yuan, or about 32 cents. Stops along each line were clearly labeled in pinyin on pillars next to the tracks – and I don’t think I ever waited more than a couple of minutes for a train.
It was on the subway that I realized that there is no one way to look Chinese. My fellow riders all had brown eyes and dark hair – save for the few who had grayed or who bleached and dyed – but they had different face shapes, different nose shapes, different skin colors, different bodies. I don’t know why this surprised me, since I knew that China was a nation of many population groups so different that they spoke different dialects, even different languages. But it’s one thing to know something intellectually and another thing to get it in your gut.
In Beijing, I spent five nights at Ji House, a six-room hotel on one of the city’s old hutongs, or alleys, where houses were built around a central courtyard with solid walls front, side and rear. Ji House was a short walk from a subway station, which pretty much made up for the fact that taxi cabs didn’t like to go there. I could actually have taken the subway from the airport, but I didn’t realize that when the plane landed near dusk.
I did get a cab driver to agree to take me to Ji House after I produced a map showing where it was located, along with its name and address in Chinese. We drove for miles through rush hour traffic, then turned into a narrow alley lined with tiny shops and restaurants and crowded with people on foot and on bicycles. Several blocks down this alley, the driver stopped at the entrance to another alley that was even more narrow than the one we were in, and also darker, with no shops and hardly any people. He pointed back and forth between the alley and a sign on the wall with a word from Ji House’s address, and it was pretty clear that he wasn’t going any farther and that I was to get out.
Well, OK then. I put on my backpack and started walking down the dark alley, clutching my map. (I have no way of measuring this, of course, but I’m sure my fingers buffed up considerably while I was in China from all the hours I spent with a death grip on a map or a ticket or a boarding pass.)
Then I heard a man say “Ji House.” He pointed towards a red flag flying in front of an opening in the wall a bit farther down the alley. “Xie xie,” I said. (This is pronounced “syeh syeh,” and it means “thank you”—something I had occasion to say many, many times in China.) I walked to the flag, stepped up to the inset door, and rang the bell. A young woman came and unlocked the door. This was Ji House. So far, so good. I breathed again.
Inside a small hotel
The front door to Ji House opened into a small entryway and thence into the courtyard. All six of the hotel’s rooms faced this courtyard, as did the combination office/dining room where I was led to check in. A black bird in a cage by the office door shrieked “ni hao” (“hello” in English) and two little dogs came over to check me out. I had read that people eat dog in China; these were the first of many dogs and cats I would see, even in working-class neighborhoods, which were clearly pampered pets that nobody was going to be eating anytime soon.
The dogs hung out in pet beds beneath the table at which the man and woman I took to be the owners of Ji House also hung out, eating, doing paper work, reading the newspaper, watching a small TV. There were several other tables in the room for guests to eat breakfast, plus the hotel desk, a sofa and a glass-front refrigerator which held orange juice for breakfast and bottled water and large bottles of beer for sale. Though the owners did not speak English, the young woman at the front desk spoke it far better than I spoke Chinese.
That evening I drank Chinese beer and attempted to access the Internet from my iPhone. A German couple I met in the courtyard were having Internet difficulties, too, but mine seemed worse than theirs, and they suggested I check with the Apple store in a mall next to the downtown Hyatt hotel. They gave me a map with the Grand Hyatt Beijing majestically marked, a few blocks down from Tian’an Men Square.
Staying at Ji House, I later realized, gave me a distorted view of how many English-speaking tourists I’d encounter in China. The vast majority of tourists in China are Chinese—but having an “authentic China experience” in a hutong hotel probably doesn’t have quite the same appeal to a Chinese person as to a foreigner. In addition to the German couple, there was an American family staying at Ji House when I arrived, and later there was a doctor from New Zealand who went out jogging through the hutongs early in the morning in his running shorts. He was traveling with his wife, who apologized for wearing a man’s shirt—his. He’d told her she needn’t bother packing many clothes since they could buy new clothes very cheaply in China—only the day before, they’d bargained hard on some underwear for him and ended up paying as much or more as they would have back home. My last morning at Ji House, I met an American man and his Chinese-American wife as they were starting breakfast and I was getting ready to leave. We all watched as one of the dogs peed on a potted plant and the other peed on the doormat; I noticed they didn’t set their baby down on the floor.
Breakfast was included in the room charge at Ji House. There’d be a warm, perfectly hard-cooked egg in its shell, green tea in a glass (although coffee and orange juice were options), a bowl of a hot rice porridge that I came to be quite fond of, and a plate of small white buns, some of them with bean paste filling. (I could have had a western breakfast, but why?)
Several mornings I counted the staff and noted that six people were working to service the six available rooms, and I wondered what the business model was, how it all penciled out financially. Clearly employees didn’t make a lot of money—nor did they necessarily work a 40-hour week. I asked one of the young women who seemed to be there from early in the morning until late into the evening if she ever went home. She said she went home when the work was done.
Although Ji House was located in a less-than-prosperous section of the city, my room was comfortable, with nicer plumbing fixtures than I have at home, and I felt safe there. I felt safe walking in the surrounding alleys, too, although I never did it after dark. I’d set out from the hotel in the morning, taking the subway when it went where I was going but mostly walking, mile after mile, viewing ancient buildings and gardens, observing life on the streets, eating a late lunch, then returning to Ji House at dusk to eat some of the almonds I’d brought from home and drink a tall bottle of Chinese beer, which I bought at the hotel for 5 Yuan (79 cents). I’d be in bed by 8:30 or 9 and awake again by 4:30 or 5, which gave me plenty of time to drink tea and do qigong before going to breakfast. All in all, a fine schedule, one my body chose and I didn’t try to fight.
Taiji, the Grand Hyatt Beijing and a very old Daoist temple
The first morning I was in China, a Saturday, I walked to Di Tan (Temple of Earth) Park in search of a taiji group I knew would be practicing there. I saw several groups, although not as many as I’d expected on a Saturday morning in Beijing, but I knew I’d found the right one when I walked up to it and felt the pull of the earth just watching the group’s leader. I merged into the group and followed along as best I could. It is difficult to follow a form that has a lot of little differences from the version you know, but I really liked the leader’s energy and also—wow!—I was in China doing taiji.
But the form ended, and the leader started answering questions in Chinese. I struck up a conversation with a very nice young man who spoke very good English—only he didn’t think the leader I had liked so much held himself sufficiently erect. I didn’t feel like arguing with him, and I left, and the next morning I decided I’d wait until I got to Chengdu to do more taiji in China.
After leaving the park, I bought a bottle of water (my first commercial transaction in Chinese!), learned how to use the subway system, and with the help of the Russian translator, found the mall with the Apple store.
It was an enormous, long, multi-story mall with a McDonald’s and all manner of other familiar and unfamiliar stores. I walked down its central aisle, holding out my phone, pointing to the little silver apple on its back and asking kiosk clerks “is where?” in my best Chinese. The clerks at the Apple store tried to help me, but they couldn’t because, in fact, the problem wasn’t my phone. It had more to do with the vagaries of Internet service in China and the rather large gap between what I had been told by Verizon and what my phone experienced in China.
By this time I was exhausted. I decided to cave and go to the Grand Hyatt Beijing for a non-authentic meal.
The Beijing Hyatt is set atop a broad flight of steps, as are many of the temples and other historic edifices in Beijing—only it presents a face of gleaming glass instead of painted timbers and roof tiles with gargoyles along their ridges. It was way past lunch hour, so I settled into a lounge area off the lobby. I ate little chicken drumettes – no raw fruits or vegetables for me, not even at the Hyatt! – and I drank green tea and made two phone calls at $2 per minute to people I hadn’t been able to reach by e-mail the night before. Sitting down was lovely. Being able to order in English was lovely. The women’s bathroom off the lobby was lovely.
Having regrouped, I set out again and got lost again. A young woman on her way to a bus stop helped me find the White Clouds Temple, a Daoist temple founded in AD 739. Saturday must not be a big day for Daoism in China, because the temple was very quiet, with only a few visitors, all of them Chinese. But it was interesting. At the Temple of Earth Park, I had felt the energy of the earth. Here, as I stood in a hall where it appeared the monks must worship—there were several rows of gold cushions on the floor—I felt a swell of energy in my head. Heaven energy? I didn’t know. But it passed and didn’t return, and I took the subway back to my hotel for beer, almonds and bed.
Later, in Chengdu, Martin told me that Gao Fu, a Seattle taiji teacher I’d once met, had lived near the White Clouds Temple in the years following the 1949 communist takeover and had worked in a coal-fired electrical generation plant there. The plant was so polluting that its fumes ate holes in clothes hung out to dry and probably damaged Gao Fu’s lungs, but she was grateful to the Maoists for giving her a job because it enabled her to feed her children.
Sunday in Beijing
On my second day in Beijing, I climbed to the top of the Drum and Bell Towers which lie due north of the Forbidden City, toured a mansion built in the 1700s, and walked most of the way around Bei Hai Park, which was an imperial garden for more than 1,000 years and once the residence of Kublai Kahn. It was Sunday, and there were families with young children and also middle-aged people, mostly women, pushing elderly parents in wheelchairs.
I did not see many children of elementary or secondary school age at Bei Hai Park or indeed any other place in Beijing or Chengdu, except for the streets outside the high school near Martin’s apartment. Perhaps families with children that age, and the kids themselves, go different places than I went. But I suspect there were no kids where I went because most of the time, kids are either in school or at home doing homework. The Chinese take education very seriously. Students at the high school near Martin’s apartment arrive at 7:30 in the morning and go home at 9 in the evening every weekday—and some return on Saturdays as well. And I’ll bet they have homework, too.
Thousand-year-old Bei Hai Park is a lovely place to walk and watch. At its heart there’s a large lake with an island said to have been built from the earth excavated when the lake was dug. On top of the island is a Buddhist stupa called the White Dagoba, built in 1651. Below lake level lie a series of caves with small statues in every available niche. You had to pay extra to go into the caves—and of all the places I went in China, it was the only one where I was the only person present. It was spooky. I wondered what the Chinese parkgoers knew that I didn’t, and I left as quickly as I could.
Trying to get back to my hotel from Bei Hai Park I got very lost in a touristy hutong. I went into a restaurant, ordered sweet and sour pork (yes, that was timid of me), and after I ate, asked for directions. My waiter spent a long time examining the map I spread out on the table, and his nose dripped on it a couple of times. Finally he threw up his hands and left, and a waitress said something vague and pointed out the door.
Back outside among the tourists I sought help from a woman who looked like she might speak English. She said she was Portuguese and denied, in quite good English, that she could speak English, but she took me into another restaurant and introduced me to a friend whose English was excellent. His directions were clear; I felt hope.
I found the landmark Drum and Bell Towers and from there was able to navigate back to my hotel, getting lost only once in the hutong maze where I was staying. Perhaps because it was Sunday and the weather was good, I saw a lot of people, mostly men but also some women, playing cards and a board game I think was a Chinese form of chess at small tables near doorways and entrances to courtyards. I had thought that I would see people playing mahjong, but at least in that area of Beijing, mahjong must be an indoor pastime.
The Forbidden City—and falling for a tourist scam
Day 3 was the Forbidden City, although the Chinese call it Gugong, or Palace Museum, not Forbidden City, since it’s not forbidden to common people anymore. I failed in my lifetime-first effort to hail a cab—either they were all busy or my technique was poor—so I decided to walk.
I was feeling so much energy from having done qigong in my hotel room that morning that for a time I felt like my steps had little jet assists. I lofted along, peering into shops, taking in the scenes of the street, feeling altogether good. Then things went sideways, and I had the one scary experience of my entire trip.
I had walked quite a long way to the north end of the Forbidden City. A man with a two-person bicycle cart and a bit of English told me the north gates were closed and I had to go to the south gates, which I realized was true as soon as he said it. He offered to take me to the south gates for 3 Yuan, less than 50 cents. I figured we’d zip down the east wall of the Forbidden City, and I’d get to sit for a few minutes.
However, he turned into a hutong and the trip became circuitous, although we were still traveling in the right general direction. Once he took a left because the street he should have turned right on was in complete gridlock. Occasionally we chatted in English (he said “Obama!” and I said “Obama!”), but I had already begun to get a bad feeling when we passed a group of three people in an otherwise-deserted stretch of gray-walled alley and he pulled over to one side and stopped. Straight ahead, I could see that the alley turned right. He pointed and said the Forbidden City was that way, and very near.
I was already thinking I should give him more than 3 Yuan, but then he said 300 Yuan, which would have been about $47.40 and more than the cost of the taxi ride from the airport. I wasn’t sure if I’d misheard him or if he was now saying something different from what he’d originally said; I did know that no Chinese tourist would have agreed to 300 Yuan and that I would not have either. I was some mix of angry and scared, and I kept sputtering “mei you” (don’t have) as I pawed through what suddenly seemed to be an enormous quantity of Yuan notes in my fanny pack. I pulled out two 50 Yuan notes, gave them to him as he sputtered “American money?” and repeated the Chinese words for 300, and then I turned and walked as fast as I could towards the right turn in the alley.
The alley did very quickly terminate on a busy street, although I had no idea what street it was or where the Forbidden City was. I had walked a block or two in what seemed the right direction when I spotted a man with curly blond hair and asked if he spoke English. I always felt it was cheating to approach an obvious Anglo, but I was thrilled when he said that yes, indeed, he did.
Turned out that, like the doctor at my hotel, he was from New Zealand, and he was visiting a Chinese woman he had met on the Internet.
I ended up touring the Forbidden City with him and his friend; we were among a handful of people who weren’t Chinese and hundreds of handfuls who were. They were lovely people who communicated with each other in part through a handheld device with a microphone into which he could speak an English word which would then read out as a Chinese word on the device’s screen.
He told me that she had just retired from a government job having to do with taxes, because she’d turned 55 and retirement age in China is 55 for women (60 for men), and that she had a pension that was almost as good as what he would get when he retired in New Zealand.
They were fun and wonderful company as we made our way through the vastness that is the Forbidden City, with building after courtyard after building after courtyard plus lovely gardens and some amazing rocks. So much gilt and imperial red paint, so many tile roofs, such a maintenance nightmare. We saw a crew of workmen on the roof of one of the buildings; they doubtless have long-term, full-time jobs.
From the Forbidden City, we crossed the street to Jing Shan Park, which name refers to the fact that the park is on a hill with a terrific view. Beijing is pretty much a pancake; Jing Shan tops out at about 150 feet. It was built from the dirt and rocks excavated during construction of the moats around the Forbidden City some 600 years ago – well before the era of bulldozers, loaders and dump trucks.
When I’d told my Chinese friend that I was 70 when we were in the Forbidden City, she had became very solicitous of me minding my steps on the stairs; now, as we climbed the many flights of steps in Jing Shan Park, she worried about me getting out of breath. In the pavilion at the top, she knelt on a cushion before a golden Buddha and bowed. Several other visitors also knelt on the cushion and bowed, but most just looked. They were strictly secular tourists.
I told my friends that I was hungry and wanted to find a restaurant to eat a late lunch before heading home. They said they planned to eat later, but they insisted upon hailing a cab, taking me to a restaurant, and helping me order while they shared a soy yogurt drink. The woman called my hotel to get precise walking directions and then drew me a map. They left before I finished eating. Oh, dear, was I so obviously in need of comfort and aid? In truth, I had found the restaurant on my map when we first sat down at the table, and I could probably have gotten myself back to the hotel without difficulty. But such lovely people. May they both be happy and well, whether together or, as is more likely, in their native countries apart.
From 500-year-old junipers to a truffle at the Hyatt
My final day in Beijing, it rained briefly in the morning—and I do have to say that weatherwise, I totally lucked out; that morning rain was the only rain Beijing had during my stay. I set out late, partly waiting for the rain to end, partly waiting to see whether the flower floating in my tea at lunch the day before had been a fresh fruit or vegetable that was going to bite me in the gut.
When it didn’t, I took the subway to Tian Tan, a large park containing the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, which is sometimes referred to as the Temple of Heaven. Built in 1420, at about the same time as the Forbidden City, it was yet another place for the emperor to conduct religious ceremonies.
Ming and Qing dynasty emperors were considered to be Sons of Heaven, in charge of communicating with the gods and therefore having heavenly authority to manage earthly affairs. They were also consummate builders who spared no expense. The buildings and grounds of Tian Tan were impressive, and I saw many tourists, including children on field trips from school, who were properly impressed. But by that time, I had seen so many magnificent buildings and parks built for the exclusive use of the emperors that all I could think was, boy, those guys had to go – and, of course, they did go as a result of the first Chinese revolution in 1911; 38 years later Mao came to power and sealed the deal. Yes, separation of church and state is a wonderful thing.
At Tian Tan, what I liked most was the gardens surrounding the temple complex. The park has thousands of trees, including many 500-year-old junipers, and the garden areas are meticulously cared for. In one area distant from the temple, I saw three men squatting in a grassy area, pulling weeds by hand. Indeed, there were many gardeners and sweepers in the park that day. I’m guessing they don’t make much money, but at least they have stable government jobs and maybe they get to retire at 60.
I was surprised to find that the plants in Beijing and Chengdu were pretty much the same as the plants in my garden here at home. Parks and tourist sites like Tian Tan often had large floral displays – not in the ground but in plastic pots massed on a walkway or on top of the ground. (Trying to dig annuals into the root-bound dirt around 500-year-old trees would have to be pretty tough.) There were asters, fibrous begonias, impatiens, hostas, coleus, nandina, roses, azaleas, canna lilies and more. Mondo grass, a low, clumping grass which I have planted in twos or threes, often filled broad expanses in lieu of a lawn.
After leaving Tian Tan, I walked a considerable distance, passing a McDonald’s and a 7 Eleven, to a “renovated” tourist-oriented hutong. Dazhalan Jie was supposed to have a number of Qing-era specialty shops, including a century-old pickle shop and a Chinese medicine shop in business since 1669. I did not see those businesses, nor did I spot a place to eat – and at some point the touristy hutong dwindled and I found myself walking down a vaguely unsettling alley hoping I’d come out on a major street soon.
By the time I did, I had formed a plan: I was going to walk to the Hyatt. I was going to cave into my comfort zone again, no matter how far away it was.
On my way, I passed Tian’an Men gate, with its huge portrait of Mao, a rather forbidding edifice with many tourists out front. Two young women stopped me and asked, in English, if I was German. We chatted briefly, and they said they, too, were tourists and wondered if I’d like to go drinking with them. I declined. I doubted that they truly desired my 70-year-old company, and I’d read that this is a popular scam which leaves the tourist with an inflated tab to pay. Near Tian’an Men gate I also saw a young boy peeing into a sidewalk tree well, quite pleased with his arc, and a beggar nodding over his money cup. He was one of only a few beggars I saw in Beijing. Nobody was bothering him, but nobody was giving him money, either.
It was well into the cocktail hour when I reached the Hyatt, and all the tables in the lobby lounge area were occupied, so I ended up sitting at a table off a chocolate shop. I drank an endless pot of green tea, eavesdropped on some Americans discussing business at an adjacent table, and then ate chicken drumettes and spring rolls before buying a Grand Marnier truffle for 10 Yuan ($1.58) and taking the subway back to my hotel.
The next morning I had my meltdown and caught the train to Chengdu.