Friday, December 05, 2008

12.3.08: Beijing

I am sitting in the craziest place. It's the Beijing West Railway Station around 9 PM and we're awaiting the overnight train to Xi'an with about 1,000 other people, standing and sitting in just about every surface--the floor, chairs, boxes, luggage--and raising an incredible clatter. Our little group seems to be the only foreigners in the huge hall. This is the most like what I expected in Beijing of anyplace we've been, so it's kind of cool to be here on our final evening.

(Beijing West Railway Station)

Now on train. Boarding was no easy feat amidst the pushy throngs and getting into our bunkbeds was an accomplishment in and of itself. We are sharing a car with the two Aussie couples from our group and we were all in hysterics trying to sort out how all six of us and our luggage was to fit in this extremely tall and narrow space. Our six beds are stacked three high across a narrow pathway, all totaling the size of a tall closet. Not an ideal situation for the claustrophobes among us! We managed to sort it out and celebrate with shots of duty-free vodka. Ganbei!

(Our group on the train)

So the last couple days have been pretty interesting. Yesterday was a free day, and Seth and I spent it wandering around Beijing for hours. Our travels took us through wide, car-filled thoroughfares; narrow alleyways cluttered with houses and food vendors; a pedestrian mall with department stores and fancy shops; past the Forbidden City walls; and ultimately to Behai Park, an elaborately designed recreation area used by former emperors to entertain concubines among other activities. The park encircles a lake and is peppered with willow trees and buildings with amazing names like "The Palace of Infinite Coolness," which Seth and I have decided to call our next apartment.

Although Behai Park is peaceful and beautiful and the buildings are richly colored examples of Chinese imperial architecture, it is not a site as highly noted on the tourist must-see map as places like the Temple of Heaven or the Summer Palace. The nice thing about that is that it's just a "regular" park filled with regular people doing their thang, which is highly entertaining when their thangs include random spouts of ballroom dancing, playing instruments, and loudly screeching karaoke numbers over little PA systems.

(Beihai Park)

I spent the best $11 of my life on a massage along one of the alleyways we walked through. After our 15 hour flight, 6 hour round trip bus ride to the wall, hiking up and down, and hours of walking, the human meat tenderizer otherwise known as my masseuse was very necessary.

We tried to find another section of residential alleys, or hutongs, that was recommended by our guidebook to get a good glimpse of how the locals live and shop, and when we got there the entire area was a pile of rubble surrounded by locked walls. We had heard about several hutongs being razed to the ground in preparation for the Olympics and newer, more modern buildings and we guessed that this was one such neighborhood. It was reminiscent of the rampant gentrification that we witnessed in ethnic San Francisco neighborhoods during the dot-com era, and I couldn't help but wonder where the former residents of this hutong ended up.

In the evening, we found a Buddhist-run vegetarian restaurant where we had an incredible, seven course feast in what felt like some kind of alternate universe. In the U.S., veggie places are often sort of hippie havens, slightly dumpy. Here, none of the normal restaurants we've been to are exactly up to U.S. standards of cleanliness or hygiene, but the veggie place was immaculate and beautifully decorated, with service so attentive that the minute we put our tea cups to our lips, they were already rushing over to refill them.

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