We flew from Paris to Beijing on British airways. On the layover in London we are surprised that there are almost no Chinese people on the flight. We expected a lot more locals and we overhear some business travelers remarking along the same lines. It seems like china gets a lot of western tourists these days, maybe it’s the effect of the Olympics.
The flight is 10 hours from London, leaving at 3pm. So not much sleeping could be done and we spent the entire time watching movies, 5 movies in between the two of us.
Day 1 -
We arrive in Beijing at 10am or 3am Paris time. As we approach the city the captain announces that temperature in the city is -4 Celsius!!! We don’t have any winter clothes, so will have to layer for now. We exit in the very modern terminal 3 and take a small train to the main terminal. The airport must have been built for the Olympics, because it is one of the most modern, clean, spacious and orderly airports we have been to. We are greeted by uniformed airport employees / border / customs officials. Most of them are wearing white surgical masks to guard against who knows what, maybe the swine flu? You fill out a health declaration along with your customs form and as you pass through customs there is a second health inspections gate. This gate checks our temperature with an infrared scanner as we pass through it, presumably it would detect a fever from the flu.
Once outside we get 1000 Yuan ($140) from the ATM and grab a taxi. We give the taxi driver a piece of paper where airport information person wrote down the address of our hotel in Chinese. After two calls on the phone to his friend or sister or who knows, he seems to now know where to go, we hope. The drive on the modern highway proceeds without any problems, albeit very slowly. It seems we got the most careful driver in Beijing; he is going exactly 10 kilometers under the speed limit, showing turn signals for 5 minutes before turning, and being passed by all other taxis.
Once we get off the highway we drive along some really wide modern boulevards and as we get closer to the center the scenery changes from Soviet style 5 story panel houses, to modern apartment buildings, to glass covered modern office skyscrapers, to huge luxury hotels. We find our 3 star $63/nite Days Inn Forbidden City hotel guarded by a soldier in a long grey flannel coat and Russian style fur hat. The hotel service is more 4 and a half stars, with a bell boy and all kinds of employees welcoming us and opening doors.
After passing out till dark, at 8 pm we venture out to Wangfujing street (王府井大街 Wángfǔjǐng Dàjiē) a couple blocks from our hotel. Beijing’s most famous shopping street, nowadays it’s mostly the same international brands and modern malls you will find anywhere else in the world. Looking for a place to eat we turn into a side street that has a lot of vendors selling street food on a stick. The offerings include regular meat kabobs, but also include scorpions, crickets, larvae and other internal organs on a stick. We decide to skip this more adventuresome stuff for later, and head to the nearest mall through a side street of souvenir vendors, where we fight off a couple vendors literally grabbing at us to stop and look.
As we enter the mall, a nice Chinese “student” girl tries to strike up a conversation to “practice” her English. Since we read about this trick, where a girl will strike up a conversation and then tries to drag you into an art store, or a tea ceremony or something and rip you off, we wave her away and go inside the mall to look for food.
On the third floor of this totally American looking mall is a restaurant that looks semi ok, with a girl outside dressed in some kind of Chinese robes with bells. When we walk into the almost empty restaurant, it causes a commotion among all the waiters, they seem to loudly argue about where to seat us, and what to offer us. The menu is translated and has lots of pictures, with 20-30 pages of various fish, tofu, and meat dishes. Everything is in the 30-60 Yuan range ($5-9), the girl convinces us to get a couple dishes because the portions are small. Everything we point to the girl warns that it’s spicy, and we ask for medium spicy, to which she laughs and says ok. We pick a tofu dish, an eggplant dish, a fried fish appetizer, a broth soup and a bottle of local wine for 120 Yuan. The wine turns out semi decent after all the warnings we heard about bad Chinese wine, kind of like a Chilean red wine a little on the watery side. As the dishes start to come, we understand that the portions are not small AT ALL!!! After her warning we expected them to be the size of tapas. The soup is huge enough for 4 people, and the other dishes could have been a meal for 2 on their own. They are also very very spicy. They are probably pre-made before, since they are on kind of foil plates, and are cooked right before serving, so the amount of chili peppers in there could not be changed as we asked. Overall a huge amount of food for $35 with wine, and this is at an overpriced place at the mall (but we’re exhausted from the flight and its absolutely freezing outside so it will do for the first day). Tomorrow we will look for a place that is recommended and not at the mall.
Roma and Natalia are world travelers, photographers, and an all around fun couple. When they are not travelling far away continents or driving around USA in their trusted Highlander, they can be found in San Francisco, California.