The Fearless Travelers in Beijing, China, November 1998
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We traveled to Beijing with Katherine's parents, Clem and Lucy. We arrived in the evening and had two immediate reactions. One was of a city shrouded in a dark veil that smelled of wood smoke; kind of like scenes from Blade Runner. And the second was the flow of the cars in a kind of chaotic ballet. Indeed, Beijing does have a smog problem and a car problem as we came to find out. The other impression as we came into town was of the number of well known American retail companies doing business there; A&W Root Beer, the Hard Rock cafe, TGIFridays, HP, McDonald's and on and on.

Beijing's temperatures are like those in Philadelphia. And, while snow in November is unusual, the Beijing airport was closed because of snow the week after we left. Most of the days were cool with morning temperatures actually chilly. It's scenery, however, is very similar to that around the Los Angeles region; an arid region with a lot of scrub growth sitting in a bowl surrounded by mountains, albeit mountains not as high as those around L.A.

From Beijing, our first trip was to the Great Wall. We had arranged for a guide, Mr. Liu, and driver and they would dutifully meet us in the lobby every morning at 8:30. He spoke fine English and was able to answer just about everything we asked. Actually, Katherine kind of kept a check on this because she was using a Lonely Planet guide to Beijing. He did know his stuff.

Anyway, what used to be an all-day excursion to the Wall was shortened considerably by the completion of a four-lane toll road. As you come up on the Wall, it's hard to believe that they built it up and down the slopes of some very steep hills. It's like they just drew a line from peak to peak right along the top of the ridges and just followed the terrain along; up, down, up, down for some 2,000 miles.

Is it impressive? It's overwhelming. It's the only man-made object that can be seen from space. You walk up 50 steps or so to get up on the Wall proper. In one direction it rises steeply to the next peak about a mile away and in the other direction it ambles up more 'gently' through a series of ridges over a couple of miles. At each ridge is a parapet that was the guard house, where everybody stops to get their breath and take pictures before heading out further. The more intrepid of the visitors just keep on walking until they run out of time or energy; indeed there were people scattered all along the wall for the three miles or so of it that we could see.

Clem and Lucy were something of a curiosity here also. While Katherine and I continued along the Wall to one of the next parapets, Clem and Lucy waited for us in mid-section. When we got back, they said dozens of people had wanted to take pictures of them. Mr. Liu suggested that many of the visitors to the Wall were Chinese tourists from outlying provinces who don't see many westerners and so were fascinated by Kath's folks. The few westerners we saw were mostly European, usually traveling in a group, and much younger than they were. Needless to say, Clem and Lucy were entranced by the attention.

After we returned to the base of the Wall where Mr. Liu awaited us, we had our first Chinese banquet of the week, one that turned out to be the best of the trip. We refer to these meals as banquets because they just kept bringing food, in this case at least a dozen different dishes, all served on a giant lazy Susan. They would start bringing dishes and you would just turn the lazy Susan until you found what you wanted. And, of course, everything required the use of chop sticks.

The meals consisted of a variety of meat and vegetable dishes, not unlike what you'd see in a Chinese restaurant in the states. And, with few exceptions, it was all delicious. Rarely spicy, dishes often were on the sweet side. The odd thing, however, in both Japan and China, is that while rice is always served, they do not put the food on the rice. Rice is eaten separately, from a bowl, with chop sticks. Indeed, in Japan, it is served as a late course.

We actually never ordered a meal ourselves. Mr. Liu took care of the lunches, a friend of ours took us to one dinner, on several nights we were too stuffed from the afternoon meal to go out to eat, and we went to a memorable dinner at a place called Professor Li's on another night. Professor Li's place is written up in the guides as a place worth trying to get into. They go on to note that you shouldn't expect to be able to get a reservation without asking weeks ahead. However, Katherine's local business contact got us into the place on our second night; a little pull is great.

The professor, a retired mathematics professor, is the grandson of the head of kitchen security for the Last Emperor. When the emperor fell, Professor Li's grandfather took the recipes. But his son did nothing with them. Indeed, it wasn't until Professor Li's first daughter, a nutritionist, won a national cooking contest in the early 1980's, using some of the recipes, that he became interested in running a restaurant. Since then, the family has run a three-table restaurant in their home catering almost exclusively to tourists. Indeed, the night we were there a group from the American embassy was seated at the biggest of the three tables which seats all of ten people.

While the food was only ok, Professor Li was the show that made it worthwhile. He decides what will be served each night and then explains the history of all of the dishes-with particular emphasis on their health benefits-as the meal progresses.  There were a palate-numbing 27 dishes in all. And, during the course of the meal, he introduced us to his number one and number three daughters and the husband of the number two daughter. All of them are college graduates who have chosen to help him run the place.

Actually, getting to this restaurant was one of the more memorable events of the trip. We got a taxi at the hotel, the bellman explained to the driver where we were going, and off we went. All we had was a business card from the place and a map, all in Chinese. After about 10 minutes in heavy traffic, the driver takes off on a side street. Twenty minutes later, after a tour of a variety of back streets, all dark and crowded with people, he stops across the street from a place that didn't look like what we were looking for. Actually, it didn't look like a place we'd ever want to go. So, Mike made it clear that this didn't look right and gives him the map. Finally, after studying the map for a few minutes, off we go again. After zipping around more back streets he finally stops at the one neon sign on a dark, deserted residential street. While Mike is trying to get reassurance from the driver that this was the place, because we would have no idea how to get back out of here once the taxi had left, Clem, who had already gotten out, comes back and says the guy inside is expecting us. Everybody reluctantly bid the taxi goodbye and we went in.

Well, anyway, in the following days we hit most of the major tourist stops. We toured the Forbidden City, the Ming Tombs, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, the Round Town, the White Dagoba, Fragrant Hills, saw Tiananmen Square from a distance (it was being spruced up for the 50th anniversary of the forming of the People's Republic of China next year), and visited a number of other places whose names completely escape me. In reality, any guide book to Beijing will give you a better synopsis of the sites than we ever could. Still and all, a number of things stood out.

The Forbidden City, at some 250 acres, is immense. You keep walking further into it, through one huge courtyard and into another huge courtyard. It takes pages in a guide book to begin to explain what you are seeing. Most of the time, I couldn't begin to get a picture with my wide-angle lens. However, in deference to Japanese palaces, the grounds are stark. They are not the park settings of the Japanese places. Also, the places you will visit have lovely names. Fragrant Hills, Hall of Perfect Harmony, Hall of the Preservation of Harmony, Gate of Earthly Tranquility, Gate of Devine Pride, and so on. And, just about everything you see has significance; the number of bolts in a row on the huge gates you keep passing through and the number of rows of bolts-both nine, a lucky number-a large step you must step over to go through the gates-to keep out demons who, apparently, can only slither-the trees around many of the places which are hundreds of years old, the number of figurines on the corner of every roof, the huge stone lions in front of so many buildings, the three entrances to the courtyards, and so on. Well, you get the picture. When we got back, we made it a point to rent The Last Emperor and 100 Days in Peking. The Last Emperor was filmed in the Forbidden City and it now makes more sense.

Beer was drunk everywhere and Beijing Beer was very good. Avoid house wines. Houses had piles of cabbage stacked up for the winter much as you would see firewood stacked in Vermont; the people used it slowly throughout the winter. Yes, they eat a lot of cabbage. The people were all very friendly. At the silk market, a side street about two hundred yards long with probably a hundred vendors linked to it directly or through some side streets, you could get cashmere sweaters for $50, silk blouses for $15, and a 2.5'x4' silk rug for $200. And it was jammed with shoppers, mostly foreign. As it was in Shanghai, there is a lot of new construction and all the buildings are interesting to look at; there is virtually no boring architecture, in part due to their belief in feng shui, the establishment of a harmony with spiritual forces that is very much related to the association of buildings with mountains and rivers and other physical objects.

There are people in uniforms everywhere. Police, the military, security guards, whatever, there are people in some kind of uniform wherever you go. There were hawkers at the entrances and exits of virtually every site and they rank up there with Turkish rug salesmen for perseverance; not as bad as India, but close. Traffic was also unforgettable in no small part due to the eight million bicycles. It quickly became clear that we were entrusting our lives to our driver. It also became clear that getting us wherever we were going as quickly as possible was a kind of personal vendetta for our driver. Stop lights, lane dividers, turn signs, were all merely advisory. Driving was definitely not for the meek.

Off of the toll roads, the roads offered an assortments of trucks, cars, bicycles, bicycle carts-three wheeled jobs totting all variety of stuff-and scooters, intermingled with people trying to cross the streets. This is the first place we have ever been where the time it takes you to get across a street must be factored into your travel plans. Major streets are up to five lanes wide in each direction and there are not a lot of traffic lights. Also, the traffic making a turn on the light slowed down for no one so you had to keep watching in all directions when you crossed at a light. Even on the smaller two lane roads, traffic was solid and mixed with bicycles and nobody, particularly our driver, was going to stop for you crossing the street. All along these streets you'd see people part way across waiting for some opening to continue their trek across the street with cars whizzing by on both sides.

In merging, as usual, size gave you the right of way. There were times when I had no idea how we missed hitting, or being hit by somebody. At one point, coming back from the Wall, two lanes of a three-lane toll road made a U-turn to go the other direction because there was no exit on our side to get to where they wanted to go; talk about chaos. The driving experience here is close to that of driving in India, except there aren't the parade of animals on the road. And, as it was when we were in India, Katherine spent a lot of time looking out the side window because she couldn't bear to watch the driver slalom through traffic and people.

Another of the challenges for Katherine and Lucy was finding western toilets. The vast majority of toilets in Japan and China, outside of those in hotels and tourist restaurants, would have to be considered the last vestiges of male dominance. They look sort of like a small baby carrier-two feet long with a kind of hooded front end-set in the floor requiring you to squat to use them. On the other hand, the lines at these places were never long.

The one major negative was the smog, which was almost unbearable. You could never really get a clear picture of anything. On several days it turned into a fog, just as smog did in London until they cleaned up the pollution there. You looked out the hotel window to smog in the morning and it was there when you went to bed, casting a pall over the city. By the end of the day, our eyes were pretty irritated. We also noticed another oddity, as we had in Shanghai. With very few exceptions, there were virtually no small animals around; no birds, not even pigeons, no squirrels, no cats, no nothing. We also have no comment as to why. Well, that's about it for the trip. It was memorable.