This is my journal for my trip to Beijing, the capital of China. While there I saw the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, the Olympic Park, and the Summer Palace. It was a crazy busy half week and a ton of fun.
(3/15) Best Friends 4 Lyfe
Today was really exciting. We started one of our longer trips of the study abroad going to Beijing! We had a train scheduled to depart from Shanghai at 3pm, which is about as early as we can leave with our schedule. We booked it back to our apartments as soon as class ended and then all walked together to the metro around noon. No one was late or forgot everything, so we were feeling great on time.
We took the metro to the train station and got in line to get tickets. Trains between Beijing and Shanghai are kind of interesting. There are probably about 50 trains leaving each city every day. They leave about every 15 minutes and take either 5 or 6 hours depending on the number of stops. This was crazy to me, because I didn’t think so many people would be moving between the cities on a daily basis, but I guess there are. The up side for us was that it was super easy to book tickets.
Anyways, we arrived at the train station, got our tickets, and then went through security. The security at the train station is so lax it’s almost scary. All you need to do it put your bag into a scanner and walk through a metal detector. You don’t empty your pockets, you don’t get patted down, they don’t even use that wand thing when the metal detector goes off. It’s just scan the bag and walk through the detector. Very different from US securities.
Once in the main waiting area we had about 20-30 minutes before our train departed. Since we hadn’t eaten lunch, and may not be able to get dinner until very late once in Beijing, Alex and I got in line to get some Subway sandwiches. The line was a bit funny because every single person in it was an American. In fact, looking around the station there seemed to be more Americans around than one might expect. The reason for this soon became clear.
After talking to some of the people in line we learned that there was a massive group in the station from the University of Southern California. It’s apparently spring break in America (I honestly didn’t know that) and they were doing a week-long trip to China. They had spent the first half in Shanghai and were traveling to Beijing for the second half. It turned out that not only were they taking the same train as us, but that they would be in the same carriage as well. Small world.
After getting our sandwiches, we walked over to the boarding gate. As we walked up the gated opened and we got onto the train. All told, I did exactly 0 minutes of waiting around in the station for the train. Talk about perfectly planned and perfectly timed.
The train ride was fun. I started out with an hour-long nap which was very much enjoyed, followed by a showing of Animal House. I had never seen it before and I have to say, it’s a great choice of movie to watch in a public place. After that I took out some homework since I had an assignment due Monday that I needed to complete at some point over the trip (read as: needed to do on trains).
I worked on a problem for about 20 minutes, when a lady sitting behind us started up a conversation. She was a professor of neuroscience at American University in Washington DC. She had studied in the states and took notice to the engineering homework I was doing. She asked us a bit about what class it was for (heat and mass transfer) and what topic it was (finite difference equations) before I put it away so that we could talk about other things. She was from Beijing and was heading back home for a while before going back to American in the fall. We told her about our trip and she gave us some tips about how to best see the great wall.
The train arrived and we parted ways with our new friend. After getting into the Beijing station, we worked our way to the metro, bought tickets, and then rode to our hostel. We had to walk for about 5-10 minutes through some somewhat grimy streets to get to where hostel was. What was interesting about this was how little it phased any of us. During our first few weeks in China we were so lost and worried and shocked about everything. A 10-minute walk in a foreign city where we didn’t know precisely where we were going would have freaked me out to no end. Now we had arrived in a new city, navigated a completely new metro system, and worked our way to our hostel not only without missing a beat, but without even feeling accomplished. It was just the normal thing to do.
The street that our hostel was is was really cool. It’s basically a market street for tourists. It has a healthy mix of food shops, restaurants, street vendors, convenience stores, and shops. People were shouting at us to come buy things as we walked down and trying to get us to eat whatever they were selling. It felt just like Shanghai!
Our hostel was midway down the street and had a big, bright sign out front. The interior was very nice. It was a mix of modern and traditional. It had a western almost hipster feel from the wagon wheel styled tables and chairs in the common area, but a cool ancient Chinese courtyard feel back where the rooms were. I really like the atmosphere of it. The lobby and common area were full of people of all sorts and from all sorts of places hanging out and socializing.
We checked in and went to drop off our stuff in our room. The room was as small as small can be, with 3 bunk beds thrown into it and absolutely nothing else. The bathroom was down the hall. We put all of our stuff in the room and then planned out what we wanted to do the next day. We travel mainly by having a vague idea of a thing to do each day, and planning the exact details the night before, so we were used to doing this. We also got nice and cozy as we made our beds for the night. We’ve all traveled together so much we’re really starting to become best friends.
For dinner, we walked down the street and found a small restaurant. I got a spicy duck dish that was pretty good but a bit too spicy and a bit too boney. It was OK though since I had eaten on the train. We were a bit surprised when the bill came though, our dishes were a bit more than they had made it seem, and our plates cost us 10 kuai each. (It’s not uncommon for restaurants to have plastic wrapped plates that you have to open to use which you get charged for. They normally cost 2 kuai however).
Once we had finished getting nickel and dimed for dinner, we headed back to our market street and hit up some convenience stores for snacks. The plan was to hike the Wall the next day and there was a good chance of not being able to buy any meal that day, so we needed to be prepared. On the way out of the convenience store, we ran into two guys from Luxemburg. They had just arrived in Beijing and were only there for a few days. They wanted to go see the wall but didn’t know how to. We told them we were also going, explained our plan, and told them they were welcome to join us. They happily agreed and it worked out great since we were all staying in the same hostel. With lots of new friends and plan made, we went back to our room and got ready for a big hike the next day.
(3/16) A Surprising Number of Canadians
I had a really tough time sleeping through the night. The bed was crazy small for me, and I had to stay curled up all night long. Also, the room we’re staying in was super close to the front of the hostel. This meant that I could hear everyone that walked back to the rooms or used the bathroom. This was particularly bad around 3am when a whole bunch of drunk Europeans came back.
Despite all this, I begrudgingly got up at 6 to get ready for the day. After showering in the communal showers (which had these weird curtains that you pulled over your clothes to keep them dry), and a quick supermarket breakfast, we waited in the lobby for our Luxembourgian friends (is that what they’d be called?). We knew they were staying in our hostel but didn’t really know where. We waited for them for about 5 or 10 minutes but after that decided that we didn’t want to waste any more time waiting and headed out without them. With no Luxemborgnecians in tow (that’s definitely not right), we headed to the metro with the ultimate goal of seeing the great wall. We took the metro to a bus depot and then a bus to the outskirts of the city area. Beijing is what’s called a special municipality since the government doesn’t want any one province to contain the capital. As such, the land area of Beijing is rather large and so we never actually left the city at any point of the day. That being said, we essentially did leave since buildings and infrastructure lessened more and more the closer we got to the wall.
After getting off our bus we had to walk about 10 minutes to get to another bus stop. Once there we learned that this particular bus wouldn’t be running for another 2 and a half hours. Not wanted to waste to whole day on the outskirts of Beijing, we hailed a cab. It actually took quite a while to find a cab that wasn’t already taken but we did it eventually. The cab ride took about hour which brought the total travel time to the wall up to about 2 and a half hours.
The cab worked its way up the mountains, taking us past a bunch of smaller and smaller towns. As we got further up into the mountains, we gain seeing giant blue signs that said “Please help us to protect the Great Wall. This section of the Great Wall is not open to the public.” We started laughing a bit about this but our drivers seemed unphased by all of this. I don’t think it was their first time taking people to the wall this way.
As we got nearer to the drop point we started catching glimpses of the wall through the smog. It was so cool to see it so close but also still so far away. I made me even more excited to start our hike. When we finally did arrive, we were in a dirt pit that was surrounded by mountains on three sides. On top of all of them was the wall, small and majestic in the distance. Our driver pointed us to a trail and told us to take that to get to the wall, and the pointed which direction along the wall we wanted to travel.
As we were paying for the ride the driver started trying to get us to commit to taking his cab back off the mountain as well. He knew where our stop point was a told us he would meet us there in about 6 hours. We were a bit overwhelmed by this because we didn’t really want to commit to that, mainly because we didn’t want to rush our time on the wall. We didn’t give him any extra money, but he said he’d see us afterwards.
With the commuting behind us, we started off on the trail to the wall. This was just a little dirt path through some woods that didn’t look like much but ended up being the most physically demanding part of the day. The path only took us about 15 minutes to hike, yet in that time we probably did a 1000-foot assent. It was exhausting, but when it was through we were standing at the top of a mountain and the base of the wall. The base of the wall had a small shack and chair set up next to a metal ladder that had been tied to the side of the wall. A sign next to it told us it cost 5 kuai to climb up but since no one was actually there to enforce the price, we just went up.
We had finally made it! Standing there on the wall of exhilarating. It was so massive and stunning. The span and scale of the whole structure was simply unbelievable. It stretched out away from us in both directions until it became obscured by hills and mountains. Directly where we were standing the wall was unrestored. This meant that it had crumbled substantially and was much more rugged than the iconic pictures of the wall. The place we got on was actually the bottom of a giant ‘bite’ out of the wall, with the wall sloping steeply upwards in both directions. Even though we had climb about 10 or 15 feet off the ground to get onto the wall, giant piles of rock and rubble rose 50 feet overhead.
We got some pictures and group shots before starting our hike. We had the option of getting off the wall to get around the big rubble piles, but what would be the fun in that? The climb up was actually fairly easy, since there were just so many hand and foot holds available. We went slowly and took our time so that no one would get hurt or fall. The wall was still so incredibly solid for the most part. The pathways and structures were all still standing and looked like they would be for a while. Every now and then you would find a loose handhold, or see some rubble on the pathway, but nothing that ever made it dangerous.
The unrestored section was a blast. The wall frequently has outposts built into it that serve as good markers for how much progress you’re making as well as good places to rest. This portion of the day was truly hiking in every sense of the word, and at some points even more than that. Occasionally, we would come to a point of the wall which was completely impassable. When this happened, we found paths that led off and around the wall before getting back on to continue. These were all marked with red ribbons, so we weren’t forging a new path, but some points did get a bit intense.
A one point we had to climb 10 feet up a cliff that just had a crack running through it and no other hand or footholds. The path way we came from was only about 5 or 6 feet wide and beyond that was a drop down the mountain. At another point, we had to just climb a cliff and the rocks didn’t allow for it. Someone had built a ‘ladder’ here that was really just 3 pieces of wood lashed together. The ladder of lashings wasn’t even attached to the rock in any way, just leaned against it. Still another time is looked like a rock slide had covered a big portion of the wall hundreds of years ago and so we had to hug a giant rock while suspending ourselves off the side of the wall with a 50 foot drop below. It was super intense and super exciting.
We also explored the outposts a bit. We found one about 2 hours into our hike that looked like it had been restored a little bit, or else was just still in very good condition. We stopped for lunch, posed for pictures, and met some Chinese guys going the other way along the wall. They helped us with the pictures and let us pet their dog! This outpost was also a little sobering. In one of the rooms on the inside of the shelter there was a large green comforter that was wrapper around something and had rocks pressing down the opening. There was no way to tell what was in the blanket without moving it, but it looked like a dead body. It had what looked like a head and two legs curled up in a fetal position. I didn’t take any pictures of it, and I didn’t move it both for respect of the dead and because I really didn’t want to find out for sure. Someone in our group poked it with a stick and said that it was just a pile of leaves, but I’m still not convinced that it was. Why put a big pile of leaves into a blanket when you’re in the middle of the woods? Also, I’ve never seen a pile of leaves have such a defined shape.
Moving on from this outpost, the wall became a bit more restored. We hadn’t actually reached the restored section yet, but we were getting close. The wall now had a continuous shape and structure to it and we made progress much more quickly. We soon came to a point where the wall did a U-turn by going up a 500-foot slope, only to immediately go back down it. We found a shortcut to bypass this section though and once that was passed we started seeing the restored section.
Around this time, we met a group of three girls who were also hiking the wall. They had started the same hike we did only an hour earlier and we had caught them on the shortcut. We chatted and walked with them for a bit and swapped China stories. All three were from Toronto and one was studying abroad in Beijing. The other two were visiting for spring break.
We shared our experiences on the wall and within China beyond. The topic of picture taking was brought up (since we were all taking pictures nonstop) and we talked about how some Chinese people would swarm us to take pictures. I wrote about this extensively in my Mount Song post, so I won’t repeat any of them here, suffice it to say that it definitely happens.
The girls told us one of their own stories about Chinese people taking pictures that I thought was really funny. They had been eating in a restaurant in Beijing and wanted to get a picture of the three of them, so they asked a Chinese lady sitting nearby to take one of them. She kindly agreed and as the three of them were looking over the pictures the lady took out her own phone and said ‘maybe you’d like some of these that I took earlier?’ Lo and behold, she had about seven pictures on here phone already of the three of them just going about their meal. It’s kind of creepy, but I found it hilarious.
As we were swapping stories with that group we ran into another group, only this one we knew! There was a different group of students in Beijing at the same time from the Purdue study abroad trip. We had both chosen to hike the wall on the same day, and not only that, but picked the same section to hike. The only difference was that we were hiking unrestored to restored and they were hiking the reverse. We chatted with them for a bit as well and took a giant group picture with the Purdue flag. Super fun and coincidental.
After the meet and greet was finished we resumed our hike along the wall. We were now in the fully restored section and so made progress much faster. The actual activity here was now much more boring. Instead of climbing and path finding we just walked along a paved path. The pictures however became much more interesting and iconic. The wall here was much more like what you’d imagine when you think of the Great Wall of China.
We walked for a while on this section before running into an interesting problem. Despite being able to easily access our portion of the wall, and seeing a good number of tourists, the section of the wall we were on was technically closed. We eventually came upon a doorway that had been seal shut and we couldn’t pass. This was the end of the open section of the wall (well, it was the start of that section for us). This meant that we had to climb off the wall, walk around the road block, and then climb back up by scaling the bricks of the wall. We hopped onto a small path a viola, back on the wall. I had now technically trespassed onto the Great Wall of China twice.
The rest of the trip on the wall was fairly samey. We walked and talked and took pictures. The wall was stunning and gorgeous and everything I thought it would be and more. There are a few funny stories that happened along the way that I’ll talk about below.
The first one was when we met another group of Canadians who had accidently gotten into a photo shoot we had been doing. They were kind of enough to then take some group shots of us, the final one of which we all dabbed for, because why not? We then took some of them and convinced them that they should also to a dab picture. They reluctantly agreed and now a group of 40 somethings from Toronto now had a picture of them dabbing on the Great Wall. You’re welcome.
The was also one really cool outpost building we found. The inside had giant pieces of paper put up on it so that you could write your name on it. I found a blank spot near the ceiling and pulled a trashcan to stand on so that I could reach it. I wrote ‘Purdue ETA 2017’ and then all of our names. I also wrote an ‘IU sucks’ because people need to know. I was really cool to see all the people that had been through that area and left a small part of themselves behind.
After a long 6 hour hike we had covered 7 miles of distance and finally reach the end of the wall. Well, I say the end of the wall, it wasn’t really. The wall is 5000 miles long so we had really only hiked 0.14% of it. What we had reached was the exit point. We got off the wall there and were greeted by a gift shop. Some people got T-shirts, and I got a cool little scroll painting.
After this we had a choice of how we wanted to get down to the base of the mountain. We could either take a cable car, a chairlift, or an alpine slide. Is that even a question? We all knew we were going to take a giant slide down a mountain. We quickly got our tickets and headed over to the cart area. An alpine slide is basically just a big metal half-tube. You sit in a cart with wheels and roll down the track. Super fun.
We walked up to the station and were greeted by a Chinese man with a bare minimum grasp on the English language. Graham walked up to him first and he just goes ‘Oh! Small American boy!’ we didn’t really know how to respond to that so he just started cracking up with laughter. Megan was next and he says ‘Ah, small American girl‘ to which we just nodded and kept laughing. I was up next and he slowly looked up at me and went ‘tall American boy’ he really couldn’t get over the fact that we were Americans apparently.
We got situated in our carts and Graham pushed off first. Megan was taking a bit longer to get ready to the man running the station walked over and just goes ‘Come on baby!’ and pushes her down the slide. I tried to take off next but the man came over and stopped me. He put a hand on my shoulder and said ‘Chinese men with knives at bottom of slide. They take picture from you. Do not let them. You do not picture. Tell your friend.’ He then pushed me down the slide.
The slide itself was really fun. It was like a slide on the playground from when I was a kid, but longer and faster. We I got to the bottom I did see some Chinese men with knives. There were two guys dressed in big traditional Chinese dresses and carrying fake swords. They came up to us and tried to get up to take a picture with them so that they could charge us. They even went so far as to take some of our phones out of our hands. Very aggressive, but no one actually took one.
After that we took a bus off the mountain to the parking lot. Once there we actually did see the same taxi driver that had met us before. He had been waiting for us, and since there weren’t a ton of other drivers we just had him take us to the next bus. We then retraced our travel route back to the hostel. Once we returned there we dropped our stuff off and went down the street for some duck.
Beijing is known for its Peaking Duck and so I was really excited to try some. We found a restaurant the served us a group dinner and had duck available. We had three ways to get our duck. We could have gotten the entire duck just served to us whole, we could have all the meat cut off of it and just served that, or we could have all the meat cut up and also get all the innards and eyeballs and whatnot. We went with the second option.
The duck was very good. They fried the skin so it was extra crispy and crunchy. They also served sliced duck breast. They had some flour tortilla-esc things with some garnish as well so we could make duck tacos. After those two dishes, it was almost like they didn’t know what else to give us, so they just put a big bucket on the table with everything that was leftover (minus the innards of course).
After dinner, we went back to the hostel and looked through some of the pictures for the day. We had a bit of fun with our big group shot photo. Everyone in the picture is a Purdue student save for one. The guy right in the middle behind the flag is named Sanders and he is an exchange student from the Netherlands who was traveling with the other Purdue group in Beijing. We had a bit of fun photoshopping him out of the picture so that it was just Purdue people. (If you’re reading this Sanders, no hard feelings)
After such a long day, I was ready for as good a sleep as I could get on such a bad bed.
(3/17) Hey Guys!
This morning I got up and had a small breakfast of fried dough from some street vendors near our hostel. Today we had an industry visit that Megan had put together for us. We would be going to see a Cummins Engine Production facility. We met a representative who drove us in a van through the busy Beijing traffic. It took about an hour and a half.
Once we arrived at the facility we met a translator and a different representative who would be taking us through the facility. We were given safety glasses and high viability jackets and began touring the facility. Since this was an active industrial site, we were not allowed to take any pictures of the assembly line, so I’ll have to just describe it.
The facility we were in manufactured 2.8L, 3.8L, and 4.5L engines that are used widely in trucks, busses, and construction equipment around the world. The engines all start as simple machined engine blocks and have all of the ‘fixings’ added in house. In total, it takes one and a half days for an engine to work its way through the entire line. This is due in part to the quality that Cummins strives for, but also due to the extensive testing that’s done on every single engine. Each engine is given a quality test, at multiple different stages of production. They test both the performance and the tolerances of the machines. I seemed a little strange to me that they would spend the time to test each and every block as a US production line would only test some of the engine and extrapolate the results of those tests. The reason for the extensive testing is that the tests have a 1.5% failure rate. With a such a high failure rate, it makes sense that they would need to test every engine to maintain quality.
The assembly line itself was also very interesting. Each engine was propelled along by different means at different parts of the line. For the start and end, the engines for placed in mounts which could be wheeled along a magnetically guided track coming out of the floor. They were taken from station to station where operators added components and/or performed tests. At other times the engines could be hooked onto chains that hung from tracks mounted in the ceiling. They could then be moved through the air so that operators could work on the underside of the engine, or so that the engines could be moved through the furnace and painting rooms.
After the floor tour, we meet the plant manager for this site. He was a 1990 Purdue grad and gave us a rundown of this Cummins facility. After his presentation, we had a brief Q&A that was really more of just a conversation about engines and mechanical engineering. When this was over, we took some group pictures and then were driven back to our hostel.
We got some lunch on the street and then headed over to Tiananmen Square. Our hostel was in a great location so we were actually able to walk over to Tiananmen which was very convenient. We knew where it was located but had the hardest time actually getting in. The entire area is entirely fenced off with guards posed regularly and frequently. We kept getting directed away whenever we tried to go into the square. After a while we came to a security check that spanned the entire sidewalk. They definitely took security at the square very seriously.
The line to get in took maybe twenty minutes. It moved very slowly and in the true China fashion, if we weren’t paying attention for a second we got cut. Once we finally did get to the front of the line I just got waved through. I didn’t get scanned with one of those wand things, they didn’t pat me down, didn’t look at my passport, they didn’t even bother to have me go through a metal detector. I think that they really didn’t care about foreigners in the square and were much more concerned with the Chinese citizens trying to enter since they were having all of those things happen to them.
Finally in the square, we headed to the back and started looking around. We found a small museum in the far south area of the square that had a history of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, with one event that happened in the late 1980s oddly not mentioned. We also got to see the outside of Mao’s Mausoleum. I only got to see the outside because it’s apparently closed from March to August. That was kind of upsetting because I really wanted to see it.
Moving forward we found the square proper. It was a wide open and paved area with a bunch of people milling around and taking pictures. To the left was the Chinese Congressional Building and to the right was the National History Museum which is like every single museum in DC wrapped up into one. In the middle was a big monument called the People’s Monument. Directly in front of the square was the iconic gate to the Forbidden City with the big picture of Chairman Mao in the middle. We explored the square thoroughly and took lots of pictures including group selfies. We decided to call these group selfies ‘hey guys’ because whenever someone wants a group picture they just hold up their phone and give a nice cheery ‘Hey guys!’.
We bought tickets to get into the Forbidden City and started walking around and taking a few hey guys’. The Forbidden City was the home of China’s emperors back when China still had emperors. The entire complex is absolutely massive. The land area it covers is easily as large as Purdue, maybe larger. It’s home to the main palace chambers such as the throne rooms, the emperor’s chambers, and meeting places for important government officials.
The architecture is also very distinct. The roofs are all sloped and tiled. They’re also very colorful with lots of reds, greens, blues, and oranges. They’ve all been maintained in the original style, so you can see what it looked like back when the emperor lived there. The roofs also all had statutes on them. These signify how holy a location is, as the statues are supposed to fight off the unholy spirits. The more holy a site is, the more statues it has. The emperor’s palace is consisted the most holy place in all of China and had ten statues on each roof corner.
We spent our time walking down the main path of the Forbidden City. There were two other ‘paths’ that we could have taken, one on each side. These had lots of parks and museums, but we were a bit pressed for time. The city closed at 4:30 and we had only entered it around 2:00. Moving the through the city became a bit samey after a while. Each gate and temple started to blur together and it actually became hard to tell how much progress we were making.
We wanted to start branching off to see some of the interesting things to the side of the main path, but ran into a peculiar issue. Even though the city didn’t close until 4:30, all of the side attractions started shutting down around 3:30. We just started bouncing between attractions, unable to buy ticket, until we eventually ran out of time and got forced out the back of the city.
Now standing on the street out back, we made plans for the rest of the day and dinner. Alex had a friend named Yana doing a study abroad in Beijing and so we made plans to meet up with her. We headed out to the main shopping street of the city. It was very similar to Nanjing road in Shanghai, or comparable to Michigan Avenue in Chicago, or Times Square in New York. We walked along it for a while and got some drinks from a fruit stand. We rested for a bit to make plans for dinner. We didn’t want to eat here since it was fairly upscale and expensive. We also wanted burgers, since it was St. Patrick’s Day and we were feeling more western than usual.
We found a hole in the wall burger place online and texted Yana a meet up point. We met up with her near a metro stop and then all walked to the burger joint. Hole in the wall is a very good description of this place. It was very small and cramped, with every available space filled with tables or a kitchen. It was also packed with foreigners celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. We had to hover around a table and swoop down on it just to get seats. We all ordered and had some incredible burgers. I’ve been very surprised by the quality of burgers I’ve been able to find in China. I have yet to find one that’s better than a good quality burger in the States, but I have found some that reach the same level. It’s been really nice since it’s like finding a taste of home.
After dinner, we went out to a street market that Yana knew about. It was packed and had an extremely lively atmosphere. The main draw was the fried scorpions on a stick that they served. The stalls selling them had bunches of sticks of scorpions all in little buckets. They showed the fired ones, as well as the ones yet to be fried. The latter group was the grossest because not all of them were dead. You could see some wriggling around on the stick. Despite this, we bought some.
I ate two scorpions in total, and I have to say, it was way better than I expected it to be. They were very crunchy and savory. It tasted like a mixture of shrimp and chicken. I actually would have gotten seconds, but they were a bit more expensive than I wanted, so I held off and kept exploring the street. I ended up buying some ice cream and red bean dough balls later on.
After our group was all done exploring the street, we hopped on an incredibly packed bus and headed back to our hostel. Along the way, Skylar realized that she had lost her phone at some point between waiting for the bus and getting on it. We searched as best we could in the wall-to-wall packed bus, but to avail. We got off at the stop we had originally planned and Nick, Alex, and Skylar walked back to the bus stop to look for the phone while Graham, Megan, and I went back to the hostel.
We set up in the lobby and looked through pictures from the last two days while we waited for them to return. They eventually did but had found no phone. We think that someone pickpocketed it off Skylar as she was getting onto the bus. It was really unfortunate. With that damper on the evening, we all headed to bed.
(3/18) Pushy Pushy
Today was a repeat! We woke up a bit later than normal today, since we had had two early days in a row. We got some high-quality McDonald’s breakfast and then headed back to Tiananmen Square. We had decided that we really hadn’t seen much of the Forbidden City the day before, and so wanted to go back and see more of it.
We powered through the security check and the square and made into the Forbidden City rather quickly. The one thing we did stop to do was take a group panoramic in the square. We all stood in a half circle and Graham started taking a picture. I was on the end, so once he passed me, I jumped out, took the phone, and finished the picture as he jumped into the picture. What was hilarious was that as he was moving to get into position, these two Chinese women walked up and started grabbing Graham, trying to get a picture with him. We would normally be happy to take a picture with them, but not when we’re in the middle of something. Graham didn’t know what to do, because if you stop moving the camera on a panoramic, the picture gets messed up. He just said something like ‘No! No! Not now!’ and pushed the women away. I felt a little bad about it, but it was really funny to see. The panoramic came out great, but by the time we were done the ladies had left. Oh, well. Into the city we went.
Once we were back in the city, we split into two groups: Nick, Megan, and Alex were one and Graham, Skylar, and I were the other. My group went off to look at some old porcelain bowls and sculptures. They were a combination of historical artifacts, and gifts that emperors had received over time. It was a pretty big collection of very fine pieces of art.
After the porcelain, we saw the treasure rooms. They had large collections of gold, silver, and precious gems on display. It had all been collected by emperors over thousands of years. After that we walked around some gardens and looked at where the empress’ dowager had lived. She had basically had an entire palace to herself. What a life.
Between the two days, I’d say that I saw maybe 70% of the Forbidden City. I could have easily spent the rest of the day there, but there was more to see in the city so we headed out. Behind the Forbidden City is a mountain (really a large hill) that overlooks the city. We had to pay a whopping 1 kuai to get in (that’s about $0.14). Once in we climbed to the top on the hill where there was a pagoda and an outlook over the Forbidden City. It was stunning to see the scale of it. I knew the city was large, but there’s something about seeing it that gives a new sense of scale to it.
We decided to take some hey guys’ of us and a Purdue flag in front of the city when we ran into a strange problem. This one Chinese lady kept coming up to us and going ‘no, no, no’ whenever we tried to take a picture. She even motioned to the flag and shook her head like we weren’t allowed to have it out. At first we entertained the idea that she was some kind of park security, but quickly ruled that out because she was just dressed in normal clothes. We ignored her and kept trying to get into position to take our pictures. This only prompted her to start saying ‘no’ louder and more frequently. We hit a breaking point when Graham just turned to her and said ‘yeeesssss’ and we took some pictures.
Once we had had our fill, we left the mountain and walked to the metro. Along the way we found a hole in the wall Muslim noodle place and grabbed a quick lunch. We then got onto the metro and headed to the Olympic park. When going through security to get into the park, we had a good laugh at the banned items sign. We were not allowed to bring in guns, drugs, or explosives which was fine and dandy, but they had also banned mining equipment, saxophones, and printers. Don’t know what happened to cause those rules to be made.
The Olympic park was really cool to see. We got to see the nest and the water cube. The nest was the main arena where the ceremonies were held and I believe the track and field events as well. The water cube was where the swimming and diving events were held (who could have guessed!) and had been heavily modified after the games. They down sized the number of competitive pools and decreased the seating for spectators. They converted a whole section of the building into a giant indoor water park as well, but same as in Chengdu it wasn’t turned on.
After leaving the water cube we decided to head back to Tiananmen Square for the third time in two days. The Square has a big Chinese flag in the center. They raise it every day at sunrise and lower it every night at sunset. We had heard about it from a Chinese friend and so decided to go and see it. We did have to book it though because it was an hour on the metro and an hour until sunset. We ended up running a little bit but made it to the square with about 5 minutes to spare. We weren’t able to actually get into the square since entrance had been blocked, but we watched from across the street. There was a big military performance as two soldiers lowered the flag and folded it. It was then marched into the gates of the Forbidden City for the night. It was cool to see. It’s the Chinese version of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider in Arlington.
With the sun now set we headed across the city for a bit to find a pizza place. It was a bit upscale but had some very good pizza. I had a whole one to myself which was magical. We headed back to the hostel after dinner and hung out at a bar across the street. By coincidence, a bunch of the other Purdue people in Beijing that weekend were also there. We all hung out and swapped Beijing stories before going back to the hostel and heading to bed.
(3/19) Someone’s Getting Left Behind
Had a rough night again on the way too small beds. The lack of quality sleep is starting to get to me a little bit. Good thing I’ll be heading back to Shanghai today. This morning I woke up and showered, and then packed my bag up fully. Once everyone else had finished doing the same, we checked out of our hostel and moved our luggage to the hostel’s locked room where we could store it for the day before our afternoon train out of the city. The locked room was anything but. It was just a room off of hallway leading out of the lobby that anyone could walk right into. It was a little disconcerting how insecure it was, but it wasn’t like we had any better options.
I got a breakfast of baozi (fried bough with sweetened meat on the inside) and then we went to visit the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace was a bit on the outside of the city and is where the emperor would go to relax and vacation. It was mainly used in the last dynasties before the People’s Republic took power in the mid-1910s.
The Palace grounds consist of two parts: a very large temple/living area and a large lake. The lake is entirely manmade, and the dirt removed from the lake was used to make a small mountain on which the temple and palace were built. We arrived and got our tickets through the huge crowds of people. The summer palace seemed to be extremely popular, but mainly with Chinese tourists. The ratio of Chinese tourists to foreign tourists was much larger than it’s been in most of the places we’ve gone to.
The entrance was a bit bland. Large monochrome plaster walls with staircases built into them. However, the further up we climbed the more interesting everything became. There were more buildings with some interesting structures on them. The roofs were all in the traditional arched style and some of the temple walls had golden Buddhas carved into them. The colors of the buildings were also very vibrant. Bright golds, blues, and greens on a base of dark and rich reds. Similar to the colors of the Forbidden City, but with more consistence across all of the buildings. They must repaint all of the buildings every year or so, because there’s no way that it could be in such good condition without constant upkeep.
We climbed all the way to the top of the mountain to find the Buddha incense tower. This is the main structure of the palace and the one you’re most likely to see when looking online. We got to walk around the base of it and take some pictures, but the inside was shut off. We circled around it and started heading down the hill on to reverse side. Normally this side faces the lake behind the palace. However, today this side just faced the smog.
The smog in Beijing is much than it is in Shanghai. Todays’ AQI (Air Quality Index) was 298. Shanghai is normally around a 120 and Purdue would be about a 25. Just to give some context as to how bad it was. You can see the smog in most of the buildings and I could hardly make out objects about 0.5km across the lake. Pretty bad smog.
After climbing down off the mountain, we walked over to see some of the other palace areas. We found a section for the emperor’s dowager as well as a Peaking Opera stage where the emperor used to watch private shows. It was all very fancy and behind a whole bunch of potentially locked doors.
Without spending too much time in the Palace, we met back out front to go check our train back to Shanghai. We took the metro back to our hostel first though to pick up our bags. Arriving at the hostel we found the locked room to be in an even worse state than we left it. The bags had been piled onto the floor 3 or 4 deep and were actually creeping out of the door. Ours had been placed on some shelves along the wall, so I actually had to dig and climb my way through the room just to grab the group’s luggage.
Although something as simple as grabbing luggage took longer than expected, we still started working our way back to the metro in good time. We bought our tickets and got onto the line. We had to take one transfer to get to the train station. The first line was a breeze, but the second not so much. When the train arrived at the platform, it was absolutely packed to the point of bursting. People were squished wall-to-wall. Only three of us were able to shove our way on board with our luggage. I was not one of them and so got left behind at the station to check the next train. The second train was quite full, but nowhere near as bad as the other one. We had to push and shove a bit but everyone made it on this time. We could even move around a bit on the ride to the station. What luxury!
We arrived at the train station and found the others. The six of us made our way up to the station proper and began looking for a ticketing booth. This was surprisingly hard to do, since although there were a lot of ticket booths, they were all automated. As foreigners, we cannot use these machines, since they require a Chinese ID card to operate. We looked around for a nearby manned ticketing counter but had no luck and so set out to find one.
It felt like we walked halfway across the station before we finally found a booth with a person at it. After being given the obligatory ‘not this booth the other’ ‘no, it was actually the first booth’ run around, we started getting train tickets printed. We hit a snag though in that Nick had mistyped a digit of his passport number when booking his ticket online. He had encountered the same problem in Shanghai, but that got fixed very easily. The person at the counter just typed in the correct number into the system and boom: ticket issued. The people in Beijing were not so helpful unfortunately. While Nick worked on getting onto the train back to Shanghai, Alex, Megan, and I went to grab a quick lunch at McDonalds.
Ordering there was so much more difficult than it needed to be. The people at the counter knew no English whatsoever. This was a little strange since the employees of the western brands usually know at least a small amount of English. What was also strange is that the workers seemed to think that we didn’t know what numbers were (at one point the cashier was trying to explain to me how much 50 kuai was). They would insist on using only their English numbers even though it would have been so much faster to just do it all in Chinese. Very strange. I don’t know if they were trying to be nice or helpful and failing, or if they just didn’t catch that I did know enough Chinese to recognize numbers. Regardless, it was more complicated and stressful than it needed to be.
Eventually we got all our food and met with the group at the security check. We got an update on Nick’s situation. He had had to go upstairs to get a refund on his old ticket and buy a new ticket. However, there were no more tickets available on our train (even though Nick had already had a ticket reserved for him on said train) and so he had to buy a ticket for a later train. We didn’t want to all have to miss our train because of this, and so we went through security without him. It felt strange to just leave him behind like that but there wasn’t really a better way to do it.
We got onto our train at last and found our seats. We were seated in the front row of our carriage which at first I was excited about, but not so much anymore. The front row really doesn’t offer any extra leg room over the regular seats. What it does offer is a significantly small table that cannot be moved closer to you. It makes doing homework, typing, or watching movies much more difficult.
Overall, the train trip wasn’t that bad and we arrived in Shanghai soon enough. I actually breathed a sigh of relief when I got back to the Hongqiao station in Shanghai. As weird as it is to say, I felt at home there. It’s familiar and I know what how to get places in Shanghai. We walked through the train station to the metro and got attacked by some tour group offering to take us around to see the biggest sights in Shanghai which was pretty funny. We navigated the familiar metro and got back to our apartments with no issues. Felt good to be back.