“-Hello, do you know the password for the Wi-Fi?” I curiously ask the Asian girl, sitting on the sofa in the hotel’s lobby in Geneva which my family and I have chosen for a stop-over on our Euro trip.
“Yes, it is youth1234,” retorts she in a ringing voice.
“Thank you very much,” reply I, and add “By the way, could I kindly ask where you are from?”
“I am from China,” replies (Wang) Zhen with a charming smile.
“Oh, I know so many things about your huge and enormously interesting country,” immodestly add I.
We continue chatting and Zhen turns out to be one of the most captivating interlocutors I have ever met, let alone in a random hotel in the French-Swiss city. Two hours pass in an instant.
“I shall come and visit you, Zhen,” I promise her confidently and say good night.
8 months later, my friend, George, and I, are greeted by Ms Wang Zhen at Beijing Capital International Airport’s Terminal 3. China starts amazing you even before you have passed its customs. To say that the terminal is gigantic would be a huge understatement. Indeed, it is the second largest airport terminal in the world after Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 and the sixth largest building in the world.
Zhen welcomes us with the most beaming smile despite our delay of more than an hour and a half. We quickly get on the subway and head to Haidian district where she has already booked us a great hotel at a decent price.
It is a good place to say that Chinese people bargain for everything. Not only on the street for confectionery – at hotels too. As soon as we arrive there, Zhen manages to further reduce the price by putting her exceptional bargaining skills into action. We are yet to experience more of them in the following week.
First Impressions of Beijing
After a quick shower, we meet her at the West Gate of Renmin University of China (or the People’s University of China), where she is following her second major. Renda, as it is colloquially called, along with Peking University, two of the most eminent Chinese hubs of knowledge, have the honour to teach one of the brightest and most hard-working young ladies I have met.
Zhen takes us to a student cafeteria where we have our first bite of China – a quite tasty and hearty meal for a negligible amount of renminbi. During dinner, we make a plan for the next week of exploring the most stupefying city I have ever set foot in. We head back to bed early as we need to recharge our batteries and deal with the jetlag.
George and I are curiously agitated to suck in every inch of Beijing and since Zhen is busy on the next day, we have to sight-see on our own. This proves to be a challenge. Armed only with our gorgeous smiles, diplomatic approach, and, of course, a tiny Chinese phrasebook, we enter into a local restaurant.
My Mandarin vocabulary is around a dozen words, George’s is non-existent. We are lucky that there are photos of the meals. We point to some, smiling and nodding. There are some surprises, but overall, the meal is quite delicious. After having finished, with the help of the phrase book, we order the bill (maidan), pay and proudly march out of the restaurant.
In the evening, Zhen introduces us to her sister and a friend of hers, and they take us to the Renmin University’s playgrounds. It is a beautiful campus, with breath-taking flowers and loads of sports facilities.
Since my friend and I are keen bars lovers (in this case, the ones that are used for pull-ups), we are astounded to see how good the sports base is. We show the girls some moves and are even applauded by some random people there. I start to fall in love with this city.
I have heard stories, rumours, and even legends that Beijing’s air is one of the worst in China, respectively in the world. It could be a media jibber-jabber, it could be true, but in seven of our eight days in the Chinese capital, we are greeted by a blue, cloudless sky.
The temperatures hit around 30 C (86 F) at noon, which is perfect for a walk in the Summer Palace, where the emperors used to retreat from the scorching summer sun when the mercury of thermometers can reach as high as 40 (104) degrees.
The Palace is tucked into a mesmerising park with a huge lake in the middle. The park is teeming with people and we quickly decide to head for the pedal boats in order to escape the crowd. While George and I pedal our way through the lake, our three Chinese friends sing us some traditional songs.
We have no idea what the lyrics are (later we are told that they are about the lake we are in), but they have angel voices. Since the Chinese language is a tone language, pretty much everybody who can speak it fluently, is capable of singing. That explains the craze about KTV or karaoke bars.
Chinese karaoke bars are very different from their Western versions. KTV buildings resemble somewhat a hotel in the sense that your friends and you rent a room where you can sing with them, drink something, and sometimes order food (I believe in Guangzhou you can do the last). In this way, you are not embarrassed to sing in front of many people, who you do not know, and practise your performance skills.
Must-visits and Local Cuisine
You cannot go to Beijing and miss the Forbidden City – the place where the Ming and Qing dynasties have resided for almost 500 years. It is comprised of 980 buildings, 9,999 rooms, including antechambers, and covers an area of around 180 acres. Even a month is not enough to explore its one-of-a-kind architecture.
Despite our busy programme, we decide to spend a whole day there trying to absorb as much as we can. We enter into it from Tiananmen Square (a square so large it could hold 1 million people at once).
The Forbidden City
Astonished by its enormous buildings and palaces, we slowly push our way into the City. The day is even hotter than the one before it, so from time to time, we hide in the shades, which gives us an opportunity to admire the structures, constructed for such a short time.
The Forbidden City was built from 1406 to 1420. There is a host of museums inside, but due to the limited time, we satisfy ourselves with buying a book about the City and leave for Jingshan Hill. Atop, we witness a stupendous view of Beijing, its parks, and spectacular skyline. From there, we also get a picture of how colossal the Forbidden City is.
HOT POT time
The evening is designated for a gourmet visit. Our lovely hosts take us to a famous hot pot place. Slightly resembling the French fondue, you are given two bouillons (spicy and milk-based) and you can order the ingredients you would like to dip into the bouillons – ranging from different kinds of fresh meat (I recommend goat) to all kinds of delectable vegetables.
The Chinese lotus flower is edible and is a real treat. In addition, you can fill a bowl with a throng of sauces – garlic, peanut, sweet and sour, coriander, to name a few – with which to garnish your boiled delicacies. Make sure you get enough green ice tea to put out the fire in your mouth as the spicy broth is quite piquant.
The Great Wall of China
Another must-visit place is the magnificent Great Wall of China(万里长城). The Badaling part of it is the closest to Beijing and on the next day, we are regally seated in a bus where we curiously suck in the scenery from the window.
After arriving at the foot of the mountain and in order to get on top, we take a small chain train. Probably the Mandarin language has better words to describe the fascinating view when you are on the top of the hills. We are speechless before this world wonder.
It ranges from 5 to 15 metres in height, around 5 metres in width and runs for more than 6,500 kilometres. According to some sources, with its branches altogether it is more than 21,000 km.
We decide that walking all the way will take years, so we just admire the views and head back to Beijing, not missing an opportunity to bargain for T-shirts, with “I have climbed the Great Wall” on them, on our way down. Thanks to Zhen, we get a sound discount and go back happy.
After this architectural wonder, we are ready for one of the culinary wonders of China – the eminent Beijing duck. The succulent skin of the duck should be eaten with sweet sauce while the fillet is supposed to be consumed with soy sauce. You put all that into a small rice pancake (or a crêpe) and add finely sliced cucumbers or onions.
The meal also includes a mouth-watering duck soup. In order for our senses to fully blossom, we decide to accompany this emperor’s treat by a ginseng tea. A real celebration of life.
The Olympic City of Beijing
Beijing’s Olympic City is another wonder of the modern world. Situated on a massive territory, you find yourself between the Bird’s Nest (the Olympic Stadium), a monument of five running women representing the Olympic symbols, and the Aquarium (where water sports take place).
While taking photos in front of the running women, we are also shot (photographed) by passing Chinese girls who thank us warmly afterwards. Foreigners in China, even in cosmopolitan Beijing, are celebrities in themselves. In return, we bestow them with our kindest smiles. A fair deal, I trust.
The afternoon is reserved for some bargaining. Hong Qiao Pearl Market is a place where, as soon as you enter its colourful chambers, you are immediately surrounded by myriads of Chinese merchants speaking decent English and advertising their goods’ qualities.
Seething with emotions, we dive into a world of opulence, silk, pashmina, and, indubitably, chopsticks. At some point, I start negotiating with a woman who begins the trade with a much higher price than expected. Since George and I are not easily deceived, and after a failed round of initial trade negotiations, we decide to continue our stroll around the market.
The lady, however, is not content and starts chasing us and since I do not pay her the attention she seeks, she starts lightly hitting me on the back. Chinese could get quite aggressive. We dexterously evade her grasp and go down to the ground floor where we see the real prices.
Minutes after that when we ascend again, the hostile woman is now as calm as a puppy. She offers us a reasonable price and we become friends. We spend a couple of hundred renminbi on silk scarves and chopsticks and leave the market at dusk.
On our last day in Beijing, we decide to audaciously immerse ourselves into shopping. Zhen shows us a huge market and leaves us for several hours.
We quench our thirsty eyes in a world of confectionery, scrumptious Chinese delicacies, swarms of tea, and luxurious Chinese porcelain. We spend a good amount of money on those and save our last yuans for a performance show with Chinese acrobats. Pity we were not allowed to take pictures of that magical spectacle.
After a hard-to-say goodbye and affectionate hugs, we take a taxi to the airport. On our way, around midnight, we are yet to observe the real Chinese construction power. It is how China grew in the last several decades – by non-stop work, assiduity, and discipline. Our breaths are once again taken away by the fairy-tale of generously lit skyscrapers, residential buildings, and gargantuan boulevards where even the asphalt is flabbergasting.
谢谢, 妹妹! 谢谢,中国!
Some months later, I find myself in the capital of Guangdong province – Guangzhou – which in February 2015 became the largest world agglomeration by surpassing the Japanese capital – Tokyo. But that is a different story.
Have you been atop the Great Wall of China? Have you treated your palate to the succulent Chinese duck? What was your impression of Beijing?
PIN ME, WILL YOU?