At long last, my overdue tales from China have arrived! Beijing, to be more specific. Thanks for your patience.
Brendan and I had heard that the Chinese capital was ridiculously expensive, so we tried to find some sort of online bargain ahead of time. Luckily, people are actually using Craigslist in China (come on, rest of world!) and we found a post for a short-term rental situation that seemed promising. So we emailed the guy, he responded to us right away, and we had ourselves a deal.
The guy turned out to be an New Yorker named Tony who rents out a spare bedroom to international travelers in his hutong apartment. In Chinese, "hutong" literally means "alleyway", but people know "the hutong" as an actual series of rambling neighborhoods within the city where thousands of people live. Hutongs have an unmistakable worse-for-the-wear-but-undeniably-charming quality to their layout and architecture, and upon seeing our new pad, B and I knew we were in the right place. And not just because little Max, the former stray street dog, was our new frightfully cute housemate.
After arriving from the train station on our first day (and enjoying the longest, hottest shower of my life), Tony took us on a little hutong tour, pointing out his favorite barber shop, restaurant, market, etc. so we'd at least have some good references for the next week. He works in Beijing teaching English, and over the last couple years has managed to get an impressive grip on the Mandarin Chinese language and culture. We quickly realized that having him as a resource was beyond valuable. For example, as tourists we'd have never known that this neon symbol means "kebab stand".
The hutong reminds me of a big 24/7 block party. It can be hard to differentiate between private dwellings and merchants' shops. People are just straight up chilling out in the street, all day and night. Compared with the majority of Beijing, which is a sprawling cosmopolitan city, it's a true oasis.
Turns out that Tony's favorite neighborhood restaurant serves quite possibly the best Chinese food in the entire world, where you can eat and drink yourself to discomfort for under $5. Seriously. We ate dinner there almost every night.
No trip to China would be complete without a visit to the Great Wall, so one morning B and I were up at the crack of dawn to catch a bus out to the ruins at Simatai. We chose Simatai over over Great Wall destinations that were closer to the city because we'd heard it had less foot traffic and more adventurous climbing. We certainly weren't alone up there, but the stairs were as strenuous as advertised. You want a great workout in an unreal atmosphere? Go climb the Great Wall. I really can't describe how lucky I felt to be there.
Back in Beijing we did some touristy things, like visit Tienaman Square, stroll through Beijing's Forbidden City, and hang out for an afternoon at the old Summer Palace in the northwest part of town. Covering the obvious sights in a new place always feels a little forced to me, although I can now honestly say that I've seen Chairman Mao's eerily glowing embalmed body on display in his mausoleum with my own eyes (free admission, but the lines are fierce and no cameras allowed).
By the way, Chinese people love umbrellas, rain or shine. Not only do umbrellas provide some shade from the unbearable summer sun, but apparently white skin is considered beautiful so avoiding a tan is of the utmost importance. If only I had grown up in China, I wouldn't be the skin cancer candidate I am today from endless summers spent slathered in baby oil.
The best parts of Beijing are off the tourist map, guaranteed.
Tony took us to a foot massage parlor where 80 indulgent minutes of reflexology set us back about $10.
We browsed through a enormously gigantic market stuffed with goods that gave new meaning to the term "Made in China", where Brendan found himself a new hat, and I picked up some cute shoes ($3 and $4, respectively).
I attempted to get a trim at a trendy salon and had to actually get up out of the chair after the trendy stylist cut off five unsolicited inches of my hair and appeared to have no intention of stopping there (I know he was going for a trendy look, but the language barrier was just too much).
And naturally, we made friends with the local drinkers at the neighborhood kebab stand and imbibed ourselves silly on more than one occasion. Alcohol: the universal language. The aforementioned local drinkers even convinced me to eat mutton off a stick, followed by chicken tendon. Brendan ate sheep's testicles (but you didn't hear that from me).
Like I said in a previous post, if B and I would have known how much fun Beijing was going to be, we'd have planned for two weeks instead of just one. Thanks for being a great host, Tony, and I promise not to drink twelve vodka/Red Bulls next time.
Exactly a week after arriving in Beijing, Brendan and I loaded up the backpacks, dragged ourselves to the airport, and boarded a plane in route to Saigon, Vietnam, by way of Guangzhou. Obviously we made it, and we'll be here until 7:30 tomorrow morning when we push northeast toward Da Lat. I'll catch you up on the insanity that is Vietnam in the next post. Seriously. This place is a madhouse.