"Please take a moment to stop and appreciate our upgraded and state of the art transportation facilities designed to bring Olympic visitors to the heart of Beijing, and meet some of the friendliest taxi cab drivers on earth."
Finally off the airplane, and just in time to hang out on Beijing's airport "expressway"... and hang out on it we did, as in jumping out of the taxi and standing around watching all the cabbies catch a smoke. Of course, this'll all be straightened out by the Olympics. ;) Regarding the taxis, in anticipation of the chaos of the Olympics, Beijing has standardized the taxi rates going into the city. No longer do you have to engage in Chinese bargaining, or be ripped off, to travel into the city.
Finding our Hostel, the Sleepy Inn, was an adventure as our cab driver bopped all over the Hutongs trying to find it and asking random Chinese residents where it was. By the way, the Chinese will always give you an answer if you ask directions. Never will they say, "I have no idea". They will always give you directions... to somewhere. Adding to the confusion was the obvious fact that most of Beijing is in the process of being built, destroyed, and/or restored. This is pretty much the case in any Chinese city, but Beijing even more so due to the Olympics. There are piles of dirt, bricks, lumber and other materials almost everywhere which only complicates the normal chaos present in the ancient Hutongs.
Speaking of Hutongs... these are the unique neighborhoods, traditional courtyard residences, and alleys of inner Beijing, many up to 700 years old. The "streets" in hutongs can range anywhere from 20+ feet wide to 3 feet wide (that I've seen). Most housing there is in rather dilapidated condition, but some residences are quite nice. As recently as 10 years ago, a third of Beijingers lived in the Hutongs. After landing the Olympics though, Beijing accelerated the removal of these neighborhoods, leading some to worry that the end of the Hutongs were near. I'm not an expert but someone must have realized the threat to this piece of history and now there are efforts to preserve Hutongs. We'll have to wait to see how all that ends up.
We finally found the Sleepy Inn Hostel, but returning to it was a regular issue during our time spent in Beijing. In fact, on the last morning of the trip (we returned to Beijing on the day before flying back), I had to jump into four taxis before I could find a driver who had any clue where it might be even though I had the Chinese address and a map to it. Almost every driver we used only found it because we would all grunt and point out the sidestreet each time they shot past it.
The Sleepy Inn was a decent enough place. The staff was nice and helpful, the beds were newer and the water was reliably hot. Minus the taxi difficulties, it was in a great location too. It was adjacent to Houhai Lake, which is surrounded by restaurants and bars, and within walking distance to the Forbidden City and all sorts of things to do. If you prefer walking to taxis, it's a great place to start.
The first night I tried to set up some fairly mellow activity, since we'd all be very tired from the trip. We met Wei at the Lotus Market (the southern entrance to the Houhai area) and immediately headed to a restaurant specializing in Yunnan Province food, our first non airport food in 20 hours or so. After that we wandered a bit...
...until GOPS went on a kick that he absolutely needed to find some obscure historical site (which would have been closed anyway)... after 13 hours of flights... in the middle of the night... in the middle of a Hutong. Fortunately, nature called on me before we became hopelessly lost on that brainfart, and I was able to steer the priority back to possibly catching up on sleep...
...until GOPS decided to start shopping... for a dress... after 13 hours of flights... in the middle of the night... in the middle of a Hutong. Once that particular urge was played out, we again started making progress toward home base only to find that no Taxis would take us...
...so we spent an hour finding our way back to the hostel... after 13 hours of flights... in the middle of the night... in the middle of a Hutong. Needless to say, sleep was welcome.
...but not necessarily forthcoming as I had to listen to GOPS snore and cough in his sleep... after 13 hours of flights... all night... in the middle of a Hutong. Good times.
The next day, I had arranged for a native New Yorker who had lived in China for six years to show us the main historical sites in Beijing proper (Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven & The Summer Palace). I've already been to these spots but they are what every China virgin wants/needs to see on their first trip, so the idea was that Alex could fill in a lot of the historical blanks. Well... that was the idea anyway, and why we were paying Alex at least twice as much as any of the several thousand local girls who've passed the country's official tour guide examinations. It didn't quite play out that way though. While Alex has written some travel articles it's not necessarily information that's sitting at the top of his head. He was however, an expert at having a good time in Beijing and a wealth of other non-historical information. Overall, he was worth the expense and will hopefully be a good resource in the future.
We started out the first morning with some local breakfast of vegetarian meatball soup and oil sticks (the Chinese equivalent of doughnuts, but with egg) . It was more food than we could eat and ended up being about $2.25 total for all five of us. After that we quickly went through the Temple of Heaven. The ToH is as much a huge community center, with locals participating in all sorts of activities, as it is a historical site. I highly recommend that if you go, take some lunch, relax there, and watch people.
After that, the group lost each other in Tiananman Square for about an hour, and then hit the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, pretty much every major building within the Forbidden City was in the middle of a pre-Olympics facelift, covered by scaffolding and/or blocked off by temporary walls. That, in combination with the lack of guide narration, almost made it a bust. Eventually though we stumbled into a section of the FC that I don't recall seeing on two previous walkthroughs, the Palace of Peace and Prosperity. It was roughly the east wing of the FC which in the past had served as a residence for Empress Dowagers and Imperial Concubines. Now, it is a storage place for gifts to Empress Dowager Cixi and any treasures that weren't stolen when Western Powers looted Beijing twice around the turn of the 20th Century.
After the FC we hit some cheap local lunch that turned out pretty good once we sent back some unsavory Razor Clams. Then it was off for The Summer Palace, another place rich with history, especially related to the Empress Dowager Cixi and the invasions of the Western Powers. However, again due to the lack of a historical guide, we ripped through it pretty fast. Near the end of the park, sunset was approaching and we moved into drinking mode, filling our backpacks with beers and climbing around the back side of the park. This was interesting as there are many structures and good views on the back side and it's not somewhere most tour guides are going to take you (it pales in historical significance to the lake side of the park).
NOTE: For this trip, I did not include many photos of the ToH, FC or SP in the gallery as I've covered them in nauseatingly extensive detail on previous trips. If you're interested, see the photos and accompanying notes for the 2004 and/or 2005 trips.
We had a pretty good head of steam at this point and finished the early evening at Alex's favorite Peking Duck Place, which was excellent. After that, we headed back to the hostel to regroup and plan any late evening activities. Cody passed out in the lobby. I went to bed because I always feel like crap on the first day and, assuming Don was going out, I thought I may actually be able to sleep. Don went out... till the wee hours... but that's his story.