“Beauty is everywhere. Mostly it is within you.”
– I did
I was in Los Angeles a year ago when I applied for my visa for China. It cost about one hundred dollars and expires one year from the date of issue. With it American citizens can enter China for 90 days at a time. 2015 is as good a year as any to travel so that is what I planned to do. Although I have had plenty of opportunities to travel to China earlier this year, I put it off until just a month or so before my visa expires. It was worthwhile and I loved the experience. I would recommend visiting Beijing for the food, sights, culture, people, and history.
All I knew about China before travelling there is it is Earth’s largest Asian country and populated by the number one populous group on the planet — the Chinese. It is home to the language that is most widely spoken on the planet — Mandarin. With this trip I proclaim that I have officially earned my title — That Brotha in Asia.
This trip was planned over a two month period. In March I learned that there would be a holiday on Friday. With Thursdays my day off I would have nearly a five day weekend to enjoy. With my China visa in hand I set my sights on making the journey. This is the story of my first trip to Beijing.
Korea to China — I began my journey to Beijing on Wednesday night when I left Korea’s Jeollabuk province on a train bound for the capital city, Seoul. After arriving there I did not go to sleep in the hope that I would be so tired that I would sleep on the plane. My strategy did not work so I spent my first day in Beijing nestled in my private hostel suite where I enjoyed access to a TV with cable, shower and an extra comfy bed. Later that night I went to the nearby plaza.
There I found the food stalls that serve bizarre foods. Almost everything was on a skewer. From chicken and strawberries to bull testicles, tarantulas, and scorpions, there is bound to be something that tickles one’s fancy. I tried the chicken and avoided the scorpions and tarantulas. Mustering my courage to try them was too much of a task. If I didn’t like them I would have wasted my money. Spending money on that little experiment just didn’t seem worthwhile. Stinky tofu was more palatable. It reeks and you catch a wiff of it while moving around the alleys where food is sold. Its a god awful smell and the taste can be off putting, but I tried it and found that I could stand it. It was just like the befouled smell of Korean stew made with the same ingredient — soybean — called 청국장 [pronounced: Chung-guk-jang]. After I consumed several large squares of stinky tofu the rest ended up in the trash. It was just more than I wanted to eat. If I had my druthers I would have tried all of those bizarre foods just as Andrew Zimmern does on his shows.
On Friday after having slept through much of Thursday I decided to spend my day out and about. If ever there was a time to start it had to be ‘now’ I thought. After getting dressed I marched down to the Forbidden City where I was greeted by the realization that China is huge, and the Chinese are numerous. Yes, I knew this. Everyone knows. But until you find yourself confined to a space measuring less than one square foot because another human being is standing in front, back, and to the left and right of you in a line stretching the length of a city block just to enter the security checkpoint at the Forbidden City’s entrance; you can’t be bothered with such a fact. You just put it out of your mind like all the other ideas about the world that you will never see or visit.
After all, I’m an American. America’s the best country and I don’t need to travel! Americans, we care less about other people’s countries and their histories, not to mention geography. Also, China is so far from America I would never go there. Sarcasm intended. Americans! Throw away these assumptions all together. Please. They are all wrong. Because I was there. And there were so many Chinese!
I imagined my jaunt to the Forbidden City would put me at the front of the line which was a huge underestimation of the drawing power of this cultural landmark. Haven’t they already been here? What was special about today’s visit? It was my day off and that was my legitimate reason. What was theirs? Certainly they weren’t here to get a glimpse of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was also in town — I learned this from watching the news on the CCTV channel in my private suite at the hostel. Security was heightened for PM Modi’s visit. On this particular day access to Tiananmen Square was off limits to the public. Even the Indian tourists visiting on this day were less interested in attending formal meetings with their political organizations and more interested in seeing the palace. Perhaps their excuse was that due to PM Modi’s visit it was a national holiday. I seriously doubt that though.
The Palace is grandiose. The sky was clear and I thought the air quality was the best. In fact, I heard the air quality in spring is better than any other time of year. I was in luck.
The cost of admission is 60 RMB. Thank God I had enough cash in my pocket. Otherwise I would have had to shrink back to my hostel to retrieve the money. Embarrassed I would then go back to the palace after at least one hour which was probably the amount of time it would take for me to return to the hostel and double back to the palace where I would enter the security checkpoint again only to be greeted by ever longer lines outside and inside the palace walls. I hadn’t checked the price of admission so none of this was apparent to me until I stood in the ticket line. So much for planning and thinking ahead.
Keep reading and I’ll tell you how this same planning, or lack there of, almost made me miss my flight back to Korea.
From the time I arrived at the palace, and after I toured the grounds and returned to the hostel, about two hours passed. Even though the long lines inside the palace moved fairly quickly and I didn’t stop to read many signs the sheer size of the palace and the distance I had to walk back to the hostel made the entire journey much longer. After visiting the palace I had lunch and relaxed and recharged my mind and body for my next outing.
My lunch consisted of …. drum roll … rice … and … succulent chicken in spicy sauce!
When I ordered the chicken I thought it was something I’d never eaten or seen before. It was described as ‘fried chicken in a spicy sauce’. I imagined this sauce and fried chicken was unique to Beijing. I employed the assistance of the wait staff to help me decide. I couldn’t choose between the fried chicken and the pork. Also, everything on the menu as it was described didn’t remind me of anything I had ever had so I thought I was in for a huge surprise.
I was truly surprised when my food arrived because it was less than fancy — just a dish of Kung Pao Chicken. I ate this dish many times in Los Angeles.
Had I just imagined myself in a Panda Express restaurant I could have ordered the same way I would there:
“fried rice, orange chicken, broccoli and beef, please.”
They probably would have served all those dishes too. And that is when it dawned on me: “this is China, silly!” This country and its cuisine can be found in every corner of the world. I thought: “You’ve tried this food before. It’s nothing new to you especially because you’re from California, which is home to the world’s largest Chinatown outside of China — [located in San Francisco].” Once they served me my anticipation and excitement deflated.
“Oh man, this is just Kung Pao Chicken!”
Korea Versus China
As for this dish, it truly was spicy. Spicier than any other Kung Pao Chicken I had ever tried. In fact, I would advise anyone to beware Sechuan cuisine. It will light your mouth on fire!
Although, when I ordered this dish I was warned about its spiciness, I blew it off because I had been warned many times in Korea about their food. Maybe I’m just used to Korean food, but so called spicy Korean foods aren’t always spicy to me. I thought it would be the same false alarm.
Nope! Not even close.
This is the kind of spiciness I don’t think anyone can really become accustomed to.
I spent my first two nights at the Beijing Jade Youth Hostel near the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.
I did not book a room for Saturday night because my friend, Janice, who I met in Korea and now lives in China, mentioned that arrangements had already been made for a group of travelers and I was invited to tag along. Great! I thought. Delighted, I just decided to follow her lead. Easy enough I thought.
Let me start by saying that Saturday was excellent. Janice invited me to trip with her coworkers to a remote section of the Great Wall. I thought that seeing the Great Wall would be the most important thing I would do on my trip to Beijing. Its importance was high on my priority list. My friends and colleagues who also visited Beijing have photos they took while standing on the Great Wall. I wanted mine! Having a friend in a new city was perfect especially someone as cool and fun as her. She was more than willing to help me too which was wonderful. The day got off to a slow start even though it turned out pretty well.
First, I awoke bright and early to make our 8am meeting at Dongzhimen station. My alarm was set an hour early because I knew I did not have a clear idea how to get there. To clear up things I would ask the receptionist. Simple enough or so I thought. After asking the staff at the reception desk I was instructed to take a bus to the station. The instructions were clear when she explained them, but not clear when I got to the end of the block. Was I supposed to take the bus headed north or south? The woman at the reception desk told me to turn left at the end of the block. I suppose if she had said ‘then cross the street and take the bus’ things would be much clearer. I decided not to cross the street. There was only one option: take the bus heading south. Unfortunately that bus began to head west at an intersection I was certain I would need to go east down. I hopped off that bus quickly and ran to the nearest subway station. Thank God I didn’t get caught talking to some foreigner and have my attention diverted so I miss that stop. Getting off there was crucial for time’s sake.
Although, I set my alarm an hour ahead, I forgot that my clocks were all running on Korea’s time which is one hour ahead of Beijing. Therefore, I arrived at the station at 7am. Janice on the other hand overslept and I didn’t meet her and the rest of the gang until 9am. On top of that she didn’t know at which exit we were supposed to meet. She told me to meet her at exit H. That would be an easy enough direction to follow except there is no exit H. When I realized I hadn’t met with Janice by 8am I panicked. I began rereading the messages she sent me. Each time I read her messages little details such as a misplaced ‘LOL’ and ‘You can find the station, right?’ all began to take a different tone — an unfriendly one at that. Was Janice setting me up? Did she want me to get lost in this big city? Was this an evil scheme to punish me for something I know not what? I thought she was laughing at me for following her directions to some nonexistent exit H. I was confused somewhat like Key and Peele’s sketch below.
Exasperated and exhausted of thinking of the possibilities I tried to run away. I thought Beijing doesn’t want me here. “I have to fly back to Korea now.” I thought. This is a sign. It truly felt like a sign because no one could help me. Everywhere I turned no one spoke English. Even the subway toll machines wouldn’t accept my money. That was my fault for putting 1 RMB bills into a machine that only accepts 5s and 10s. Every time the machine rejected my bills, I felt that Beijing was rejecting me. “Get out!” Beijing cried. It felt like Beijing and I were not getting along nor would we. I needed to escape. Then I spotted Janice.
I couldn’t simply contact Janice because I did not have an operable cellphone in China. I could only send her messages whenever a wifi signal was available which was only at the hostel.
I was relieved and my faith in Janice was renewed. She hadn’t stood me up after all. She’d just overslept. By that time, it was 9am. We waited in line to buy tickets for the 4 hour bus ride to the Great Wall when we were accosted by a man who invited us to ride in his private van for a comparable fee. The only difference would be he’d get us there in 2 hours. We accepted his offer and made our way.
The adventure began. We arrived at this section of the Great Wall’s entrance. The plan was to go bungee jumping, but I was less interested in and out of cash for that adventure. I passed.
I watched Janice and her coworkers bungee jump over the river. With envious eyes I did what any non-participant would do, I tried to help. I videotaped their activity. After watching and waiting for an hour or so, I walked to the cable car entrance. While all the bungee jumpers celebrated by eating corn and other treats, I hurried to the top of the mountain to enjoy my gift to myself — the Great Wall! I imagined that I would take photos standing on the Great Wall like so many other friends and famous people had done before me. This was my moment. This was the whole reason I was there. The bungee jump was icing on the proverbial cake. That cake didn’t even belong to me, but to Janice and her coworkers. My cake was a pie in the sky on this day though.
This portion of the Great Wall was not the well manicured section I came to picture whenever I think of it. This was a poor dilapidated saggy mess. This frumpy looking thing was not impressive at all. Janice had played an even crueler joke on me with this one especially because it was getting late in the day and soon we’d have to leave the not so Great Wall. Suffice it to say although I could not take the coveted picture of myself standing on the wall, I had to settle for the photos below — the most beautiful of which is of another guy’s girlfriend. I just photo-bombed their session as it were.
They were polite.
I complimented her on her beauty and snapped the photo then quickly walked away.
Again, my sole purpose on this journey was to enjoy my trip to Beijing. And a huge part of that was seeing, walking on, and taking a picture with the Great Wall. Ha! What a joke. If I would have had to board a plane back to Korea after seeing this site I would certainly have been heartbroken and miserable. The cost and effort put into visiting Beijing would be all up in smoke.
Luckily, that wasn’t the case.
That night I didn’t have reservation at any motel. Janice and her coworkers with whom I went on the trip all had jobs and apartments in China. They were eager to return to their comfy abodes to shower after a long day of fun, excitement, and fulfillment.
For the unfulfilled, me, I was very much disappointed. I saw beautiful sights, but my heart’s desire to see the Great Wall left me feeling some kind of hurt. Plus, I didn’t have a room or place to take a hot shower.
At the time when we were exiting the van and parting ways, Janice uttered: “if you can’t find a room, you can sleep on my couch.” This olive branch felt more like a thorny rose stem. It felt like a quip. I felt as if she was saying: “hey there homeless boy, I’ll take you in and give you a place to sleep, you loser!” Maybe not that harsh.
Before the night was over I was triumphant. I found a room in a motel not far from the Beijing Jade Youth Hostel.
In Part II will discuss how I met Tom and Andy. Cheers, if you made it this far! Thanks.