As a traveler, I have always wanted to see historic man-made landmarks all around the world like the Pyramids of Giza, Angkor Wat, Christ the Redeemer, and especially the Great Wall of China, which is why I traveled to Beijing in 2012.I remember my first experience in Beijing very well because I was interrogated for three hours at the airport because someone at the airline didn’t send over my visa paperwork. Once my paperwork was cleared and after I received a crash course in Mandarin, I was told my visa was good for 72 hours and NOT to leave Beijing. This created a bit of a problem because technically you have to leave Beijing to get to the Wall, but I would figure that out later. I nodded, took my passport, grabbed my pack, and left.When I got outside, I realized that the temperature was drastically different from Hong Kong, which is where I had just come from. It was snowing profusely, and I was wearing shorts and flip-flops. After I did a quick outfit change, I caught the proper bus route to my hostel via their instructions. I arrived at my hostel in the middle of the night, and there wasn’t a single soul on the streets. I couldn’t believe that I was standing in such a huge metropolis and almost everyone was asleep. It may have been because it was a weeknight or because I was staying near The Forbidden City. I saw plenty of operating factories from the bus and some cars on the interstate, but when I stepped off the bus, I didn’t see anybody until I checked into my hostel.
The hostel I was staying at was unlike anything I had ever seen. The front lobby and Internet area resembled a typical hostel, but once you walked beyond the front lobby, it opened up to a courtyard with two stories of surrounding rooms. Until that moment, I had only seen places like this in Kung Fu flicks. It was very cool because it was very authentic.Upon dropping my bags off in my room, I headed out into the hutongs to grab some late-night dinner. Hutongs are a type of narrow streets or alleys, commonly associated with northern Chinese cities, most prominently Beijing. In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences. Many neighborhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighborhoods. I walked for about three blocks before I came across a small restaurant. I walked in, and the first thing I noticed was the row of ducks that lined the fireplace in the back.
What I failed to notice was that the entire restaurant had stopped mid-bite to see the Gweilo (outsider) that just came in. I gave everyone a warm smile and followed the hostess to my seat. The entire menu was in Mandarin, but thank God for picture menus. A lot of stuff looked good and a lot looked strange, but the only thing I had on my mind was eating some Peking duck. I pointed to the picture on the menu and away went my server. When she came back, she had an entire cooked duck laying on a wood slab. She sat the duck down and then proceeded to whack her hatchet into it four or five times before pushing it towards me with a smile. As I looked into the duck’s eyes while I was consuming him, I realized that this was the best duck I had ever tasted. After filling up on duck and some neon-green juice to wash it down, I headed back to my hostel for the night.The next day was the start of my real Chinese cultural experience. The hostel I was staying at was only about two or three streets from Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen Square is a large city square in the center of Beijing, China, named after the Tiananmen (“Gate of Heavenly Peace”) located to its north, separating it from the Forbidden City. The next day when I headed out for breakfast, the streets were anything but quiet. The sidewalks were filled with people and lined with military and police personnel.
This was the first time in all my travels that I realized that if something goes bad here, there is no US cavalry over the next hill to save my ass. With that in mind, I headed to the front gates located near the huge picture of Mao Zedong to purchase my tickets to enter The Forbidden City.The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty—the years 1420 to 1912. It is located in the center of Beijing, China, and now houses the Palace Museum. It served as the home of emperors and their households as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government for almost 500 years. As I walked through the courtyard, I tried to imagine thousands of military personnel in rows awaiting orders from their great emperor. Not one detail was left out of the design and execution of construction of this palace. The Forbidden City becomes even more amazing when you realize that it was all built by hand and covers 180 acres or 720,000 square meters. Inside, there are five halls, 17 palaces, and numerous other buildings. The Forbidden City is alleged to have a total of 9,999.5 rooms. The half room apparently houses nothing more than a staircase. I took in the sights of the sights of The Gate of Supreme Harmony and The Hall of Supreme Harmony and exited through the Gate of Heavenly Purity to arrive on the backside of the palace and back among the hutongs.The next stop on my sight-seeing trek was to find one of the last few entrances that lead into Mao’s secret underground city. The Underground City is a Cold War era bomb shelter consisting of a network of tunnels located beneath Beijing, China. It has also been referred to as the Underground Great Wall since it was built for the purpose of military defense. The complex was constructed from 1969 to 1979 in anticipation of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The Underground City was built to house 40% of Beijing’s population. The Underground City is so big that it has its own stores, restaurants, clinics, schools, theatres, reading rooms, factories, cultivation farms, and even a rollerskating rink.
As I was leaving, I asked someone for directions, but he didn’t speak English. Then a well-dressed Chinese woman came up to me and asked if I needed help and if she could practice her English with me. She pointed me in the direction I was asking for, and I let her tag along to practice her English. As we walked, I asked if she wanted to stop off for tea, and she agreed. We went inside a traditional Chinese tea parlor and got our own room with table. When waitress came in, she only spoke Mandarin to the lady I was with. We ordered a pot of tea with some pretzels and peanuts. Over a cup of tea, my companion asked me if I’d like to get a bottle of wine, and I thought that would be great. The lady then ordered a bottle of red in Mandarin from the waitress who then promptly grabbed our bottle. After a couple of glasses of wine, I asked for the check. When the check came, it read $735!! I asked the lady with me what the hell this was and she said it was a traditional Chinese lunch. Bullshit! I had seen enough of Beijing by this point to realize that not all 1.4 billion Chinese people are having $700+ lunches consisting of tea, wine, and Chex Mix. I told the lady I was with that there must be some mistake and I can’t afford that. She said she has money and that she would pay for 2/3 of it. I still thought that was outrageous, but I didn’t want to cause a scene and get thrown in communist, Chinese jail. So I paid my part of the bill and then said goodbye to my companion because I had already spent my budget for the day. I then went in search of the entrance to the Underground City only to discover that the government had closed down a lot of the entrances and the remaining few were closed for construction. When it rains, it pours. On the way back to my hostel, I managed to take some pictures of the Temple to Heaven, but I was not in the mood to take the tour.On the way back to my hostel, I stopped off in a liquor store to find the answers as to what just happened at lunch. I quickly discovered that alcohol in Beijing is stupid cheap. A 100ml bottle of Chinese moonshine is only $0.85! So I grabbed a couple bottles and headed back to the hostel. In the social area, I sat down at a table and started drinking while I tried to wrap my head around how I just got bamboozled at lunch. After an hour or so of deep thoughts and a spotted liver, an Aussie couple came and sat down at the table. Their names were Rob and Ruth, and they were backpacking around the world together non-stop for two years! They asked me what I was celebrating, and I said nihilism. I then explained to them the situation I just encountered, and they felt so bad that they started drinking with me.
A little later on, the manager of the hostel came in and sat down with us. I explained to him what happened, and he said that was an old Chinese trick. He said that my companion told the waitress to dramatically inflate the price and then she would come back for her refund of the money and her cut of the profits. He said if you’re ever in that situation again, get the police involved. He said most tourists are afraid to get the police involved, but in reality the police there aren’t corrupt and will have your back. The government takes care of the police well enough and out of principle they won’t risk pulling a scandal on you and getting caught. Good to know, but that info came too late. We then headed out for some dinner and few more drinks. Along the way, I noticed that little children in China pee and poop out in public. Either the parent catches the shit with a paper towel as their kid defecates, or kids will unzip and stand over a grate and pea with pin-point accuracy. After dinner, we returned home. It had been an exhausting day, so I hit the sheets because I had to be up in the morning to catch my bus from Beijing to The Great Wall. I know I wasn’t supposed to leave Beijing, but I wasn’t about to come all that way not to see it.
I awoke the next morning, ate breakfast, and then caught my tour bus out of the city. I don’t remember the ride to the wall because I slept the entire way, but I do remember getting out of the bus at the bottom of a hill and looking up and seeing the biggest man-made object in the world. It was grand in its vertical scale, but when you looked left and right you saw that the wall stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions. I know it sounds cliché to say, but I was pretty great!More than a million people died building The Great Wall (some called it The Great Cemetery), and their efforts clearly still shine today. The longer you stare at The Great Wall, it becomes harder for you to grasp that a structure so big that it stretches for longer than 5,000 miles. I took many pictures, ate a huge lunch provided by the tour, and then headed back for my last night in Beijing.Along the way back, we dropped off other members of the tour and I got to see many outdoor food markets that were selling everything from fresh giant starfishes and eels to tarantulas and lizards. I would have never imagined people eating starfish. Once I got back to the hostel, I met Rob and Ruth in the social area, and we headed out for dinner at Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant.Quanjude’s is a world-famous Peking duck restaurant chain in Beijing and apparently have the best duck. I do not know because there was a three- to four-hour wait. We were already starving, so we hopped into another no-name restaurant down one of the hutongs. After a delicious dinner, we picked up some souvenirs and more moonshine, walked around bar-hopping, and then headed back the hostel so I wouldn’t miss my ride to the airport in the morning.My time in Beijing was short—but nothing short of fulfilling. I saw a lot of strange and fascinating things in Beijing, but it was definitely worth going just to see The Great Wall of China.