Category Archives: Beijing

Travels with Steve: Kunming, Xingping, and Beijing

Travels with Steve in China (Here we are in Xingping, Guangxi Province)

Steve and Tamar in Xingping, Guangxi Province (Photograph courtesy of Jeannette Bajon)

Joining me in China for almost three weeks, Steve and I spent two full days in Kunming, more than a week in Xingping, and almost a week in Beijing. Below are his comments with judicious censorship by me and a few photos to go along with each section.

Kunming. Yunnan Province

Capitalism is rife in Kunming, Steve has noticed. Young people trying to be hipper than hip by dressing as au courant as they can. Hand-helds are always at the ready. Hear that sound? It is Mao doing the circular shuffle in his grave. Steve is proud that Tamar has figured out all these little alleyways and niches for herself — she is a regular at the baozi storefront as well as the local soy milk and fried dough breakfast stall. She knows the bowling alley and the best massage parlours, as well as the most scenic parks in the city. Finally, she can find good food. What more does she need? Here are a few photos from our two days spent together in this Spring City, South of the Clouds:

Kunming, Wall in Daguan Park

Kunming, Wall in Daguan Park

Kunming, (Salt) Peanuts!

Kunming, (Salt) Peanuts!

Kunming, Man Drinking Tea at Confucius Temple

Kunming, Man Drinking Tea at Confucius Temple

Kunming, Man on the Street

Kunming, Man on the Street

Xingping. Guangxi Province

Who would have guessed that we would have spent ten days here? Not us. This place is home to the surreal landscape of Chinese scrolls and water colour paintings. Karst mountains all around the rivers that populate this area, including the Li River, which is minted on the 20RMB bill.  We’ve hiked and biked and visited the local market. Steve climbed a mountain while Tamar rested and studied. We took a “plastic” bamboo ride on the Li river, sauntered through groves of oranges, mandarins, kumquats, and pomelos. People working in the fields were generous and offered/gave us fruit during our various hikes. We have must have said, “Ni Hao!” to strangers a million times. Tamar had her brain re-wired speaking French to other tourists at the hostel while she was also trying to speak Chinese to the staff and friends of hers who work at the hostel.  We had plans on staying for five days and then go northwestward to the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces but a bout of Mao’s Revenge (poor Tamar) kept us here and we were just as happy with that. Below are a few photos from our 11 days spent together in Xingping.

Xingping, Countryside, Li River in the Background

Xingping, Countryside, Li River in the Background

Xingping, Old School House

Xingping, Old School House

Xingping, Countryside

Xingping, Countryside

Xingping

Xingping

Xingping

Xingping

Xingping

Xingping

Beijing. China’s Capital City

Steve expected a landscape of massive modern skyscrapers, spewing an endless supply of young people dressed like lawyers, hustling and bustling to build the perfect State, as serious as the day is long. Nope. Like Kunming and even like Xingping –  but more so – Beijing rings with the sound of frantic, petty, business. Everyone is buying and selling in the streets, in the little tiny first floor shop fronts. Apart from the Givenchy and Chanel shops this place is okay!

Steve wanted to see the embalmed Chairman but poor timing on our part made us miss our appointment with him.  We walked a stretch of the Great Wall; God help us if the Chinese ever get so motivated again. Our trip to Beijing: walking and eating and walking and eating and walking and eating as well as visiting friends. Steve thinks Peking Duck is AOK. And based on a conversation with a friend in Beijing we discovered that in October 2013 the Canadian population was 35,295,770 compared to Beijing’s December 2013 approximate population of 21,229,000 (“unofficial estimates put the population at around 21-22 million”). Unfathomable. These are the top three biggest landmasses by country (remember — Beijing is JUST A SMALL DISTRICT in China).

Number
Country
Area (km2)
Area (miles2)
1.
Russia
17098242
6601668
2.
Canada
9984670
3855100
3.
China
9706961
3747879

And finally, here photographs from our five days spent together in Beijing:

Beijing, Outside the Forbidden City

Beijing, Outside the Forbidden City

Beijing

Beijing

Beijing, The Great Wall

Beijing, The Great Wall

Beijing

Beijing

Beijing, Outside the Forbidden City

Beijing, Outside the Forbidden City

Beijing

How I Love Beijing!

Beijing

Beijing

The flight from from Guilin to Beijing is 2.5 hours and as we approached Beijing I could see a ceiling of smog. I have been told the city’s population is over 20,000,000 which is hard to fathom. It is a huge city and when you fly toward the airport you see apartment block upon apartment block one next to the other — a whole skyline of them. I couchsurfed in the old city centre, in a hutong. Hutongs are narrow alleyways that zigzag inside Beijing’s 2nd ring in the centre of the city. They consist of one storey buildings/dwellings with courtyards that are hidden behind the entrance-ways. The city centre is full of young and old people, small shops, and lots of cafes, food stalls, and cheap restos. There are not many tall buildings here and I was situated in the northeast corner of the Dongcheng District which includes Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and many other such sites (these are all more toward the middle and south of this district).

My Couchsurfing hosts took me, a Russian tenant of theirs, and her visiting mother to the Great Wall on my first full day in Beijing; on the way we stopped off at KFC to pick up chicken to eat when we got there. This felt like a bad omen. BUT! They made up for that by stopping at a halal resto with typical Beijing snack food when we returned to the city. We ate savoury as well as sweet dishes: fermented soybean soup that you dip fried dough into (not the tastiest thing I’ve eaten but I did not hate it) , sheep’s intestines, a mung bean custard, a few cold noodle dishes, a kind of very soft thick grit-like soup that you mix with what tasted like a ground sesame seed sauce, and more….. The table was filled with these Muslim specialties – a “cuisine” that is called hui cai and which often includes mutton. My first real Beijing food experience was exactly what I had hoped it could be and quickly erased the memory of KFC at the Great Wall.

The Great Wall is surrounded by mountains. I was surprised that we didn’t see more tourists when we were there. We went there via the Mutianyu entrance (the one President Clinton went to — though not President Reagan or the Queen of England). We took the chairlift going up and walked down. There is a chute/slide that one can take down and I would have loved to try it but my hosts wanted to walk down.

Great Wall Chute

Great Wall Chute

Xian Hong and Zhen Ou — my hosts – speak very little English so our attempt to talk to each other was pretty funny. Luckily we each have patience and a sense of humour so we laughed a lot!! They were SOOOOOOO generous of their time – taking me around to various sites, essentially taking me under their wing. The two of them insisted on treating me to everything and were unbelievably kind. There seemed to be nothing I could do to repay them… but I came up with an idea. I took them, my friend Xiao Xi, who I met in Shuhe (Lijiang, in Yunnan Province), and the Russian women, out for Peking duck and I bought Xian Hong two Cordon Bleu cookbooks (in Chinese) since she has been to France a few times and mentioned how she’d like to learn how to cook French food – particularly dessert. I also bought her a Chinese dessert cookbook and got the two of them flowers. It wasn’t easy to find a way to treat them, but I was pleased that I succeeded.

On the second day of my stay in Beijing , Xian Hong and Zhen Ou took me to Art Zone 798 (which I had mentioned wanting to visit). Art Zone 798 used to be an electronics warehouse that was built in the 1960s in conjunction with East Germany. Now it is filled with galleries, small and large (including PACE Beijing and a North Korean museum) as well as shops and studios. Ten years ago it had mainly studios with some galleries but rents went up and many artists had to move elsewhere (about 4km away to a new artists’ district).

Beijing, Art Zone 798

Beijing, Art Zone 798

Beijing, Art Zone 798

Beijing, Art Zone 798

We started at Zhen Ou’s brother’s studio, A-One Design Studio. His brother, Professor Shi also teaches at Tsinghua University, Beijing. He is a well known designer in both China and elsewhere and his wife helps him but is also an interior designer. Here is an A-One Design Studio lecture given by Shi: http://spaces.kisd.de/netzradio/2011/01/18/a-one-design-studio/. I went back to the studio a second time and spent the morning listening to Chinese music with Professor Shi, talking about art and design, and using an app that has voice recognition and translates accordingly. This tool was very necessary since his English is not good and my Chinese is worse. He is a man who appears to love life and I was pleased to have the chance to meet him and even join him for lunch. Here is a video created by one of the student interns at A-One studio: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMzg3MTk3ODQ4.html (please click “Turn Off Chinese” to access this video)

The week I arrived in Beijing coincided with May Day which is a four-day celebration in China. The streets were more crowded than usual so, since I am not inclined to visit places just to tick them off a list, I did not go to the Forbidden City. Instead, I spent one day walking around Beihai Park and the lake in the middle of Beijing with Xiao Xi. She and I went to the Temple of Heaven and the surrounding park and then we went taste testing teas with Xian Hong before going out for supper.

Beijing, Dancing in the Park

Beijing, Dancing in the Park

I do love Beijing. I particularly love the area I stayed in since it was so central to everything including buses and the subway for destinations that were beyond walking distance. Mind you, as I mentioned above, my hosts did tend to take me places; every morning they called me from their home (I had my own tiny apartment in the hutong, while couchsurfing) to ask what my plans were and the next thing I knew they, by some coincidence, were on their way to see me and show me around! If i lived in Beijing this is the area I’d choose to live in.

Beijing

Beijing

Beijing

Beijing

Other food I ate: donkey; shuan guo — a broth kept hot under fire in a copper pot with a cone in the middle with mutton and vegetables added to it and a sesame seed sauce that has a little chili mixed into it.

A couple of observations:

  • In Beijing, waiters and waitresses stand looking over your shoulder until you have decided what you want to order
  • In China: babies’ and toddlers ‘pants are not sewn all the way to the crotch to make for easier diaper changing and toilet training which is done on the street (sometimes in a discreet place, sometimes literally on the street — in either case it is a brilliant design that should be adopted in the west!)