In a continuing effort to exhaust us and keep our minds off of the fact that we were now a mere 48 hours away from meeting our son, Jerry had orchestrated yet another action-packed day touring Beijing. We got an early start that crisp Saturday morning, and we piled into our car and headed out of town. At this point, I feel I should digress just a bit and (attempt to) describe just exactly what it’s like to be in a car in Beijing.
First of all, when we were introduced to our driver the night we arrived, it was explained that he has the most difficult job in all of Beijing. This became apparent to us as we made our way to the Great Wall, which is located about 90 kilometers outside of Beijing. Our driver was, at best, surly. In truth, he was the crankiest man we’ve ever met. He was VERY vocal toward other drivers, and he punctuated his outbursts with blasts of his horn and shakes of his fist. We weren’t scared of him, necessarily, but let’s just say that he wasn’t the kind of guy we were including on our Christmas card list (and believe it or not, this all becomes relevant, albeit much later in our story). My point is, he had every right to be cranky. I think I would be, too, if I had to negotiate what is *supposed* to be a 3 lane highway….with EIGHT cars crammed across. The only time I EVER let a curse word leave my lips was on the return trip from the Wall, and yes, I yelled the F word. I was certain we were going to die. Thankfully, Mr. Crankypants had everything under control, but still. 19 million people call Beijing home, and most of them have cars. None of them, however, have any respect for A) other cars, B) lanes, C) speed limits, or D) pedestrians (the only thing scarier than being in a CAR in Beijing is being a PEDESTRIAN). Truth be told, though, in hindsight we were perfectly safe. The American view of traffic control is different, certainly, but we never saw a single car accident the whole time we were in China. I think that the manner in which the Chinese are accustomed to driving forces extra vigilance; plus they are required to go through pretty extensive driver’s training classes before acquiring a license. It makes our version of driver’s ed look ridiculous.
Okay, back to the sightseeing. We arrived at the Juyongguan Pass at the Great Wall, which is about an hour outside of the city. It was a cool morning, but it was PACKED. It was also a veritable United Nations. I heard at least nine different languages as we made our way towards the wall (also, someone asked me if the Great Wall was really all that great. The answer is yes. It’s pretty spectacular). Also? It’s steep. Really, really steep. The steps themselves are steep. Kevin ran up that thing like a champ; me, not so much. I was nursing a broken toe, but I did manage to climb a little way up before I threw in the towel.
Once Kevin rejoined Jerry and me, we sat for a bit, picked up our souvenir photo book (think “Look kids! Big Ben! Parliament!), and headed back into the city. As luck (or clever design on the part of our efficient tour guide, take your pick) would have it, we were going to pass right by the oldest jade market in China. As we had been at the pearl market, we were met with a guide who taught us everything we ever wanted to know about jade. We even got to see some of the carvers at work.
Let me say this: The Chinese know *exactly* what they’re doing when it comes to escorting foreigners. It was lunchtime, but that was no problem for Jerry; there was a restaurant right there in the jade market. Soon enough, we were seated and brought a mountain of “western-style” Chinese food (side note: Western-style” Chinese food is not good. It’s not good at ALL. I’m not entirely sure what I ate, but I learned my lesson to stick with Chinese-style Chinese food). After we had eaten our fill, we had plenty of energy to shop. The market is huuuuuuge and labyrinthine, which I suppose is the point, because before we knew it, we had bought enough jade to fill an extra suitcase. I didn’t feel too bad, though, since we managed to get the one thing we didn’t want to leave without: A pendant with the Ox symbol for Jack. These are traditional gifts for baby boys, and Jerry was invaluable in helping us pick out one of the highest quality. Kevin did an AWESOME job haggling down our final bill, too. The salespeople (both at the pearl market and the jade market) knew exactly how to part these fools with their money. They also honestly believed we wouldn’t blink at a the price of their wares, either, which we totally did. It was difficult to convince them that we thought their jade was beautiful and very high quality, but we just didn’t have that kind of money to spend. In the end, though, everybody was happy, and we were even still a bit ahead of schedule!
Our next “official” stop was a tour of a hutong (a very old, very traditional Beijing neighborhood that Kevin insisted on calling a Wu Tang, after, you know, the Wu Tang Clan), but since we had a bit of time, Jerry treated us to something beyond cool: He took us to Olympic Park. On the way there he gave us a bit of background (he was SUCH a great source of information, and we learned an incredible amount of history from him, and I’ll be forever grateful). Beijing is built on an axis; the placement of every important building is critical. Even the shapes of the buildings have significance. China was subjected to a whole lot of criticism for displacing families when building Olympic Park, but until you *really* understand Chinese culture, you can’t judge. I’m not condoning human rights violations, but there’s definitely a lot more to the story. Once again, however, I digress.
I can’t even begin to tell you how much I wanted to see the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube up close and personal. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Beijing has the Forbidden City and the Great Wall and some other cool historical stuff, but I was so in love with Beijing’s Olympic Park from the moment I watched the opening ceremonies in ’08 that I couldn’t wait to be there in person. Mr. Crankypants pulled over, double-parked, and out we set. We climbed a set of stairs, and at the top we found ourselves dead in the middle of…..a movie shoot. Jerry led us right through the whole set-up of cameras, cables, and actors. I’m not sure if he exchanged words with the director or not, but he led us over to a perfect vantage point for taking pictures. I know it sounds strange, but that moment of staring at those two buildings was one of the highlights of my trip to China. Oh, and by the way, the round shape of the Bird’s Nest symbolizes Heaven (just like the Temple of Heaven), and the Water Cube’s shape represents Earth.
We trekked back through the movie set and piled into the car, and now we were finally headed to the hutong tour. We had completely fallen behind schedule, though, not because we dawdled in Olympic Park, but because of the horrific traffic. We got there soon enough, though, and Jerry handed us off to Tom, who would be our guide through the hutong (yes, I’m perfectly aware that our guides that day were Tom and Jerry. They got a kick out of it, too, since the cartoon is hugely popular in China). We climbed into a rickshaw, and Tom hopped on his bike to follow us. The very first thing I noticed was how QUIET it was. Here we were, smack in the middle of a city of 19 million people, and it was almost dead silent. The streets are almost too narrow for cars, so bicycles reign supreme. Our rickshaw driver took us up and down nearly every street, with Tom giving us little bits of history every now and again. Eventually we stopped in front of a brilliantly red-lacquered door, and we hopped out to get a little history of hutong (or Wu Tang, if you’re Kevin) residences. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with too many of the details, because, hey, Wikipedia and Google, yo, but
I will say that these neighborhoods are hundreds of years old, and they’re passed down through the family. You can tell how successful a family is by the number of “posts” above the door (the more posts, the more wealth and prominence. The emperor, obviously, had the most at 9). Here’s a picture of the door we stopped in front of:
After a brief history lesson we were once again underway on the rickshaw. Pretty soon we got stuck in a crazy traffic jam. A rather large van-load of VERY drunk tourists had gotten stuck on the tiny street, and there was a HUGE bottleneck of rickshaws and bicycles as the van tried to make an extremely ill-advised three-point turn. It was so amusing that I actually shot video; the pissed-off shouts of several angry Chinese men totally made my day. It took about five minutes to get everything straightened out, but it was so much fun to watch. We got going again, though, and a couple of turns down some even narrower lanes led to our next stop. Our driver pulled over and Tom told us to hop out.
We were SHOCKED. He was inviting us into the hutong home of a family who had lived there for so many generations that the addition of indoor plumbing was recent. We entered into the courtyard and through the front door (it was a two-post dwelling just in case you’re curious), where we were met by Mrs. Dong. She is a diminutive woman, but we immediately got the feeling that we didn’t want to cross her, especially when we got settled and saw the 8 million swords on the wall. She offered us jasmine tea, and with Tom acting as translator, answered every question we had about day-to-day life in China. She explained that her house had belonged to her family for over 200 years, and not only had they added said plumbing, but the second floor now had heat. The first floor? Yeah, not yet. Her sons are kung fu champions; one of them actually coaches the US team in Houston. Kevin was invited to engage in a little training exercise (yes, with a real-life sword), which was hilarious. Mrs. Dong then showed me the kitchen, because, hey, I’m totally into that. It was, and I say this with absolutely no exaggeration whatsoever, TINY. It was the size of my coat closet in my front hall. There was a wood-burning stove, a tiny sink, and…yeah. That was pretty much it. Having said that, though, there were some pretty incredible smells coming out of there, so I’d say that lack of space wasn’t much of an issue for them. We were so humbled and honored to be invited into the Dong family home, and it was an experience we won’t forget. We hopped back in the rickshaw and we drove toward the Drum Tower, where we met back up with Jerry. We said goodbye to Tom and our driver, and headed off to the evening’s next adventure: The Acrobatic Show.
All that needs to be said about the show was that it’s a miracle nobody was seriously injured or worse. These were definitely not the Chinese acrobats you see touring the world. Don’t get me wrong, some of the acts were perfectly fine, and they were all amusing, but that’s about the best that can be said. The audience started out with polite gasps and cheers, but yawns soon took over. Boredom reigned for a while….until, that is, the Great Motorcycle Sphere of Death came to the stage. I’m sure you’ve seen a similar act: The huge metal sphere is rolled out, and a couple of guys on motorbikes go roaring around inside of it. This was not that. This was not that AT ALL.
First of all, we were in a very small theater, and we were all close to death ourselves from the carbon monoxide coming from the bikes. We fought for consciousness, though, when we saw the third bike enter the Great Sphere of Death. When the fourth one came, we thought we were hallucinating. When the FIFTH one entered we were pretty sure we had already died and gone to stunt heaven. Dude. I’ve NEVER seen anything quite like the sight of those five motorcycles and their certifiably insane riders. It made the rest of the show totally worth it, especially since, based on the caliber of the previous acts, we were so SURE somebody was going to die. One of these days I’ll get around to posting the video; it’s five minutes of your life you’ll gladly spend.
Once we stepped outside into the fresh air (and that right there should be an indication of just how bad it was inside the theater; nobody would ever refer to Beijing’s air as “fresh”), we headed across the street to dinner. Jerry had asked us earlier in the day if there was anything special we wanted to eat, and I jumped at the chance to have Peking duck. Hello??? We were in PEKING. You bet your ass I was gonna have some duck. Jerry, being the awesome guy that he is, took us to a tiny local hole in the wall, and as he had done every meal since our arrival, proceeded to order for us. Soon the table was filled with huge platters of beef, noodles, broccoli….ZOMG. We STUFFED ourselves. Kevin went to town on that beef, and I have never in my life attacked broccoli like that. To say that it was delicious is a huge understatement. I couldn’t resist; I HAD to take the following goofy picture:
And then there it was….My beautiful caramel-colored duck. Normally, the guy just slices it up back in the kitchen, but Jerry had arranged for him to come and slice it up where I could watch. It was like watching Van Gogh paint. He had that bird broken down in record time, and it was a good thing, too, because I was about to wrestle the carcass away from him. It was served with all of the usual accoutrements, but I gave up on those after the first two little duck burritos. This duck was so succulent, the skin was so crisp, and it was just so GOOD that I didn’t want to spoil it with anything else. I am unashamed to say that I ate every bit of that duck. Every. Last. Bite. It was one of the tastiest things I have ever put into my mouth, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I will spend the rest of my life trying to duplicate the experience. Crap. Now I’m hungry.
After dinner, Jerry took us back to our hotel and told us what we could expect the next day at the airport. It seemed impossible to believe that our first visit to Beijing was already almost over (we were definitely looking forward to our return trip a couple weeks later). We couldn’t have asked for a better guide, or a better overall experience. We stuck to an itinerary that would have made Clark W. Griswold weep with pride. We ate some truly spectacular meals, and, most importantly, we were shown amazing hospitality that (we thought) would be impossible to duplicate. In case I forget to mention this later (Mommy brain has set in something fierce), Jerry is now someone we consider not just a friend, but part of our family. I’ll share the story about how fate binds people together in another post, but I think it’s worth noting now that we have continued to stay in touch with him. In every way that counts, Jerry set the tone for our whole trip to China, although he didn’t know it at the time. Without him, we could have found our way around, but we would never have had so much fun or such a rich experience.
We crashed HARD that night. The next day would take us to Changsha, Hunan. We were counting the hours until we met our son.