The city of SMOG

Crowds going to see the forbidden city


We finally arrived in Beijing, who would have thought that it would take all day to get here! The flight from Shanghai played a nice video about the wonderful communist party of China and how they saved the country from financial doom. At one point the subtitles read: ‘We cannot help but admire the ingenuity and intelligence of the communist party’.

The driver picked us up at the airport and held a sign with Wes’s name. Wesley was very pleased because this had never happened to him before. The drive in from the airport took about an hour. Traffic was congested and the drivers are nuts. At first they seemed orderly but then all hell broke loose as lanes became suggestions. We drove down what I imagine is the main stretch of the city but since the entire city is filled with high rises – who knows. We saw a cool building that is the CCTV headquarters building.

I’m not sure how to describe Beijing. It is everything Tokyo is not. I don’t like breathing here… the smog is really really bad. I’ve been experimenting with what cloth works best over my face and have decided to sleep with a shirt over my mouth and nose. Wesley is digestively confused so we are staying in tonight. I don’t want to go outside anyhow because the smog rating is 135, which is bad. Anything below 100 is alright, and if it is above 150, you shouldn’t really hang out outside.


We started the day off kind of early. We had to present the sleeve for our room key to get our breakfast but of course we misplaced it so after 30 mins of scouring every pocket and bag we realized that I had stuck it with the passports. After finding our pass to satiation we headed down to enjoy a rice and bread breakfast. Wesley also had some bacon flavored meat. Meeting our guide at 8:30, we headed out for Tian’an men square. What a crowded place! It was a lot bigger than pictures made it seem. We continued along the dragon eye (or N-S road) to enter the forbidden city. After passing through 458 gates we arrived at the gate to the forbidden city. And we thought the square was crowded… what a joke.


We wandered in the forbidden city. We saw a concubine house where the emperor’s 100’s of concubines hung out.  We passed through more gates and saw more forbidden things.  We also saw some rocks in the garden that I thought were very cool looking since they reminded me of coral.  Amy (our guide) said that they are called tax free rocks because if a person presented this kind of rock to the emperor they would not have to pay for that year. The roofs were yellow because yellow was the royal color but pretty much all the walls are red. This remained the case for most all of the buildings we visited.


We left through the last gate and our guide took us to Hutong, the old part of the city. Here we found the bell and drum towers which they used to mark the hour before there were clocks.  Amy passed us off to Howard, a younger looking chap whose english was a bit better.  He put us in a rickshaw and told the driver to take off.  So there we were in a rickshaw wandering some ancient streets.  Howard took us over to a traditional courtyard house and told us about the pillars and steps and yin yang. The number of steps must be odd while the number of pillars must be even. Zero pillars means the person is poor, two means middle class, and four means rich. Eight means super super rich and twelve is only for the emperor. These pillars used to be used for matchmaking. He also spoke of feng shui.


We moved on from there to some old lady’s house.  We sat at her table and the guide translated for us.  She told is abut her son that was working in houston teaching kung fu.  She gave us his card, we’ll be sure to look him up? Her family lived in that tiny house for four generations and now that the government wants to expand a road they are going to evict her and give her a pile of cash as compensation. She plans to move to Houston to live with her son.

Random Chinese lady's house
Random Chinese lady’s house

For lunch, we went over to a normal chinese restaurant.  It was actually the best meal we’d had since coming to asia.  We had some sticky rice, orange duck, mushroom something, cucumber tomato soup, and sweet and sour pork.  It was very tasty.  Oh and we had coke because it was too difficult to obtain bottled water.

We left there and went over to a pearl store.  The tour has an agreement with the store that they’ll pay for some gas if they take the tour group to the store.  The lady there demonstrated how they get pearls out of the oysters.  It was neat because she actually cracked open an oyster to show us. There were about 9 freshwater pearls inside. She said that the pearls they cultivate are from the lake at the summer palace and they are pink from copper in the water. She said this color pink is only in pearls from that lake.  We bout a few trinkets and moved on to the summer palace.  This is where the Dragon Lady and her eunuch (Lord Varys?) lived.  The eunuch had his own courtyard because after brushing the Dragon lady’s hair, he collected it so that she did not know so much feel out. You see, it bothered her that her hair came out when it was being brushed because she thought she was a god. Also, she seemed a bit off her rocker because she only drank milk… human milk. We walked through the grounds and had a nice conversation with Amy about how Wesley doesn’t talk much. Several groups of school children wanted their pictures taken with us. This seems a normal phenomenon in other countries for some reason. This happened in Egypt and India too. The walk along the lake and the palace was lovely.  We then took a boat ride across the lake back to the exit and left.  Many men here do not wear shirts.

summer palace
summer palace

They took us back to the hotel, but on the way I had another long conversation with the guide about weddings and other things. Her aspiration is to become a wedding planner here in China. We talked about my wedding dress and she lamented that all of her family heirlooms were lost in the cultural revolution. We got back to the hotel and went to the room and rested a bit before venturing out to shop a little.  The mall next door was full of junk.  It reminded me a bit of the bazaar in Astana, with small cubicles. Everyone stared at us as if we were freaks. What were the strange white people doing in the Chinese mall?!  We walked around the block looking for something to shop for but all we found was some fingernail clippers (which was perfect because we lost the ones we brought and I needed to cut my toenail that was falling off).  We decided to head over to a little pastry shop and get smoothies.  I had a rose smoothie and wesley got a lemon one.  The rose smoothie was really interesting but i didn’t finish it because once I got near the bottom there were only balled up rose pedals left.  Wesley’s turned out to actually just be lemon water and was not very good.  He was sad.  I also got a donut for about 60 cents. We went back to the room and typed this up.  Before falling asleep i started watching soccer.  I’m not sure why, i didn’t think i liked soccer. Perhaps it was because that is something you don’t need translation for.


We started off at 8:30 again. It was off to see the wall, you know, the great one. We stopped at a jade store on the way over. They demonstrated how to make jade decorations and jewelry and then tried to sell us many items. Wesley abandoned me to the ruthless salesman to visit the toilet. When he returned we promptly escaped having spent a small fortune. The drive to the wall went past Disney Beijing. You might be thinking that you never heard of Beijing Disney before. Well, that’s because it is a ghost disney, with all the frames for rides and buildings built and abandoned.

We arrived at the wall just as a downpour began (Oh, by the way, Beijing had a horrible flood about two days before we arrived but all the water was gone once we arrived.). Our driver, or Mr. Smiley as we like to call him, drove us as close to the entrance as possible, dodging buses, bikes, and humans along the way. Amy walked us up the first set of stairs and set us free to climb the wall. We thought the hour and a half was a bit too long but as we would find out – it almost was not enough time.


The ancient steps of the wall were worn and broken, some steps had only a few inches between that and the next whereas others had almost close to two foot high steps. To make matters worse the stones were quite worn and uneven, and WET! Watching our steps carefully, we started the ascent, pausing nearly every 5 minutes to catch our breath and let our sweat covered clothes dry a bit. When we were a few steps to the top we saw a blur of motion passing by… someone was RUNNING up the wall. Another blur… it was a whole group of South Africans RUNNING up the wall.  We barely made it stumbling up and there people were running! We were very impressed. At the top, visibility was quite poor, an outline of the watchtower loomed in the distant clouds, I overheard a nearby guide saying ‘up there is where god lives’. As the clouds cleared, inch by inch we could see more and more of the massive barrier. Those Mongolians must have been nuts to try and attempt to break through. The walk down was steep, but easier. There were many frogs along the path. More and more groups here wanted to take pictures with us.

the steps of doom
the steps of doom

We got some souvenirs (probably $100 worth for about 30 bucks… China is very cheap!) and next up was lunch. After walking through the cloisonné store and factory, we were seated at a buffet and told to go at it. Wesley found a new love: lemon glazed lotus roots. They don’t taste like anything we have in the states – they are sweet and spicy and also crunchy. They are probably very healthy so it was a good thing he ate ALL OF THEM. The Olympic stadium was next on the itinerary. The park is in the suburbs and absolutely perfect, not like the rest of China at all. In fact, Amy said she feels like she is in a different country when she goes to the Olympic park. Wes remarked that usually cities take advantage of the Olympics to improve the city whereas China just seemed to blow it on a one time use park. Even the highway leading up to the park is no longer in use. The nest is used for concert now; Jackie Chan sang (yes, sang) there. The cube is also for concerts (they cover the water) but mostly for competition swimming. This area reminded us both of Millennium park.  Amy mentioned that the park is also on the Dragon Line so it’s in a significant place.

olympic victory
olympic victory

We finished early so Amy decided to take us to her favorite shopping street. This street was a Hutong street that had been converted into a shopping area. There were many cute stores with strange items and shirts that made little sense in English (e.g., I ate the secular place is not my being. and Play play is nice boy). There were also a few food stores and we bought an ice cream and Amy shared with us a baked sweet potato. Most of the stores were clothes or junk so Wesley didn’t do much but he had fun anyway.  We decided after shopping for an hour, to go to see a Kung Fu show. What a big production. The drums were booming, and lights were flashing, and men were yelling and smashing items on their bodies. The show followed a young monk, Chun Yi, who became the leader of the monk place. We supposedly got the cheap seats but then ended up in a great spot. The people sitting behind us were professors at SIU and we talked to them for a while about Chicago and China. They had brought their son (about 11) with them and he was very excited to see all the Kung Fu. We kept hearing him say “COOL” “AWESOME” throughout the show. The show was entertaining but had some pretty slow parts.  The girl next to me was crying at the end because the old master dies.  We don’t quite understand how she was so emotional over a show like this.

strange food on the local shopping street
strange food on the local shopping street

Peking duck was for dinner. Appetizers consisted of duck wing and jelly (tasted like horse), lotus roots and carrots (Wes ate them all), spinach (overcooked), rice (rice), Mongolian beef (which we thought was the main course, so we ate it all). Then a man came and carved a duck and we were served cucumber, onion, pancakes, and duck with some sort of sauce. The server lady demonstrated how to make the taco wrap things but put way more sauce on mine than i would have liked (none).  The sauce ruined my life, it was so disgusting. We weren’t really hungry anymore after the first courses so we only had a little. Then came some soup (really good broth with cucumber) and a fruit plate. I’m not sure if they actually eat this much or just serve Americans this much food but after dinner we could barely walk.

wes and his lotus root
wes and his lotus root

We thought we might go wander around the hotel again but it was dark and rainy so we just packed and then watched some star trek.

Click here for all of our pictures.


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