Today we got up early, as it was our last day in Beijing. We have been constantly surprised, ever since we left Canada, at the amount of drinking that goes on among our peers. I like a drink as much as the next person but if I am in Beijing, I want to see Beijing...not the inside of the Hotel bar! Oh well, whatever floats your boat!
We started the day with one of the hotels delicious breakfasts. I was vegetarian when I left for Korea and was forced to abandon it once I arrived there and realized I didn't know what I was eating half the time. So, I have to admit, I was very happy to see bacon this morning. Yummy!
We headed out first thing to see the Hutongs. Our tour guide told us yesterday that for 250 yuan we could go on a rickshaw tour of the Hutongs and even visit a
real Chinese home and school. Something tells me I have seen enough little Asian children performing for adults to last me a life time. We decided to be a little sneaky though and jumped on the bus which took the tour to the Hutongs. The we hoped off the bus, skipped the rickshaw line and headed for our own homemade (and free) Hutong adventure. Hee, hee.
The Hutongs are essentially the "old" Beijing. When the city was built, it consisted of quadrangles separated into courtyards by small alleys. Over time, the alleys themselves became home to thousands of people. Some of the buildings go back to the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1341) but are slowly being replaced by highrises. Like a lot of things in Beijing, they are being torn down in order to prepare for the upcoming Olympics.
"Hi, welcome to Beijing. All the things that made us China have been replaced with large, plastic American icons. I hope you don't mind."
"Mind? Oh, not at all! That's what the Olympics are for!"
In the centre of the Hutongs is an old bell tower that would sound the time before most people had clocks. It was a dull day today but it was nice in a way. We walked through the Hutongs and for the first time on this trip, I felt as though I had been dropped into China proper. There were no tourists and no neon. Just people going about their daily business. The Hutongs consist of hundreds of shops - tea shops, grocery stores, butchers, bakeries. Hidden behind the shops are the homes that have made the Hutongs famous. As we were walking along one of the many streets, an old man stopped us to say "Hello." His English was quite good and so we started to talk. He invited us back to visit his home and we agreed. We followed him as he shuffled down the street and led us through a maze of doorways and small halls until we reached his home.
He welcomed us in and offered us some tea. His home was tiny and dark and damp. He was obviously very poor. The house consisted of a storage room, a living area and a bedroom. He used the communal bathroom located in the square near his house. We sat with him and talked. As it turns out, his brother immigrated to Canada and is living in Windsor. He started to pull out every letter he had and asked me to read to him. I read his letters to him and he showed me his collection of pictures and magazine cutouts. He has lived in his house for 42 years! I asked him what he had done before he retired and it turns out he was a magazine editor. I was so intrigued by his stories and his life. He used to translate and edit a Chinese magazine into English (would explain his proficiency with the language)...it was almost too much to handle. And, being the intrepid journalist that I am I didn't have my mini disc. I had brought it all over China and on my last day out I left it at the hotel. That'll teach me.
Miao Hang Sheng was so sweet and so kind, and so obviously lonely. He shared moon cakes with us (which made me feel bad because it didn't look like he had a lot of food) and held my hand the entire time. I felt as though I had known him my whole life. Eventually, we had to leave and when we did, he made us promise to write him. He hugged both Brian and I and walked us back out to the street. We said our good-byes and when we had turned the corner I burst into tears. It is moments like these that make traveling so wonderful. I had shared more than a moment with Miao, I had become a part of his story, and he of mine. When I left I felt lucky to have met him and heartbroken to have left him.
We left the Hutongs and headed back to Tiananmen Square - we just didn't get enough of it on Sunday. We tried to catch a taxi but couldn't find any, so we ended up getting a ride in a death box. At least that's what I call them. They are basically small motorbikes equipped with a tin box that can sit two people. The one we rode in had a bungee cord keeping the door on! It was great. For 20 yuan we got a bumpy, rickety ride through Beijing traffic, trapped in a box that probably would have flown off the bike in the slightest collision. It was perfect.
Tiananmen Square wasn't the same today as it was the last time we were there. There were no white people there today and I got a completely different vibe from the place. Creepy wouldn't even begin to describe it. It looked like all of Beijing's hoodlums had convened in the square. Which is so weird because on Sunday it was full of families and flowers and soldiers. Today it was just muggers and rapists. Ok, I'm exaggerating but not by much. We met a really neat little Chinese boy who spoke perfect English. We chatted to him for awhile and Brian bought a Mao watch and the Mao "Bible" from the boy's father/uncle. We ran into an American girl who took a picture of Brian to show her boyfriend. I guess her boyfriend is a huge North Carolina basketball fan and Brian was wearing his Carolina t-shirt. Too funny.
We were mobbed by people wanting there pictures taken with us today. It has happened here (and in Korea) before but today was like nothing I had ever seen. People were literally lining up to stand next to us. At first it was just me, but then it was Brian too and then both of us. After a while we took off and left the square. Very odd.
We grabbed some street food (very delicious!) and headed off to the Silk Market to do some shopping. We bumped into a bunch of people from our tour when we first arrived and they had been at it for hours already. The market is huge and has everything you can think of. Shoes, clothes, silks, pottery, leather goods, art...You name it. Each stall is watched over by one or two people who are there to bargain. It was ridiculous but fun. I have bartered before in markets in Korea and in Africa but nothing like in China. They say "Fifty dollars", you say "Five dollars" and you go from there. They start so high that they have to be counterbalanced with a ridiculously low offer. They seem to enjoy it though and we quickly learned the whole "put on a show like you are walking away" technique. It works wonders! "Nice lady, nice lady! Please come back!" It was so much fun! They would go on saying things like, "Fair price, fair price. Only for you....(Yah right) You are killing me! Ok, 5 dollars, it's yours." I got some great deals and so did Brian. We bumped into a few people who had been royally screwed and we realized that is how these people make a lot of their money. They screw those they can and deal with those who can't. It must all even out in the end. We figure if they were a little bit mad when we left than we got a good bargain. I bought a beautiful Chinese tea set, some sneakers (since they don't carry my size in Korea), some silk, wall hangings and a really funky Mao t-shirt. All in all, it was a good time at the market. I could have spent SO much money there but I didn't. Maybe I can go back tomorrow before we leave?
I am heading to bed now as we have a 4 a.m. wake up call tomorrow. We still haven't received any pillows and are sleeping on our makeshift camp-roll. We had our tour guide talk to the front desk yesterday and they assured us that they would bring us non-feather pillows. The same bell-boy (the hotel must only have one!) showed up with, yup, you guessed it, two feather pillows. Brian started trying to explain the situation, again, and resorted to gesticulations. He kept pointing to the pillow and then would put his hands around his throat (the universal sign of choking - or so we thought) and proceed to hack and cough like mad. The bell boy did not get it. I would love to know what he was thinking. "If you bring me any more pillows, I am going to kill you!"
Goodnight from Beijing.