Beijing and The Great Wall pt. 1: Checking In

It’s even more amazing when you’re standing on it.

We made it to Beijing during the National Day holiday, and we even got to the Great Wall.

Noelle and I left the Dalian airport on the 5th for the capital of China. The flight  is only about an hour long, and less than that if you’ve got the wind on your side. We made it into Beijing International at around 4 pm. It was later than we had anticipated, but the plane showed up late to Dalian in the first place.

The Hostel one of our Chinese staff members helped us book told us we could get a ride to pick us up from the airport, but when I called them I realized that we must have missed the cut off time because the girl on the other end told me to just take a cab. Cabs are all well ‘n good if you can speak Chinese, even if you can just motion in the direction you want to go, but if you don’t know where you’re going, know Chinese, or even have the address of your destination written in Chinese characters you’re pretty much up that proverbial creek, my friend. UNLESS, you have a phone. We jumped in the cab and I got a hold of the girl from the hostel. She gave the cabbie her coordinates and we were off.

It wasn’t the first time we’d been in a cab here in China, but when you’re going more than a few blocks the experience is always an endurance test for your nerves. Technically, there are traffic laws. In practice, they’re more like suggestions. The white lines indicating the lanes are just nice road decorations and red lights are the equivalent of saying, “I double-dog dare ya,” to the driver. They never back down. We take turns at break-neck speeds and swerve in and out of the pedestrian hordes that constantly flock the streets of Beijing. On more than one occasion we were close enough to on-coming buses that I could, if I wanted to, flick the rusty metal shell of the public transportation vehicle.

BUT, we arrive at the hostel. The Red Lantern Hostel.

It’s tucked away down a side street of Beijing, away from the hype of the city.
The inside. I swear, I could have stayed here forever.

Since we arrived late in the day that first night we just wandered around. We walked a mile or so down and up some streets until we found a pond. The sun was setting so we just enjoyed walking around it for a while. In China, just about every public area you go to has the max capacity of human bodies. Eventually the pond/park place became a bit crowded. Noelle and I ditched it for some grub. We found a nice restaurant that served some Western style food. The Little Yard.

It was set up like no restaurant I’ve ever been to. We literally had the place to ourselves. So we found the stairs and went to the top. This is a shot looking down.

The food hit the spot, and for a moment, it felt like we were eating back home. We ate and then walked around for a bit longer, stopping at one of the hundreds of “convenience” stores they have littered around every block in China. After almost an hour of trying to find our hostel, two failed attempts by strangers to help us, and one confusing phone call with the receptionist we had to admit that we were lost. In the back streets of Beijing. Even finding one of the main roads was a chore. Once we did, we utilized the survival skill every 21st century person has developed for times just like these and called for help. As we did with the first cab ride, the girl at the hostel gave directions and we held on for dear life as the driver executed what I’m sure he felt was standard operating procedure for driving a fare to their destination. We didn’t recognize the street he dropped us off at. Our only source of comfort came in the form of the Dairy Queen on the corner. We stopped in, had a blizzard, and then began walking down the dark alley the cabbie had pointed down. Luckily, the girl at the front desk had rightly doubted our navigational skills and came sauntering out of the shadows of the alley at that exact moment. Apparently she’d been looking for us. She laughed at us until we made it to the front door of the hostel.

That evening, in the hostel, a handful of the travelers hung out around the few large tables in the center of the main room. We talked with people from Sweden, France, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and even an elderly couple from Akron, Ohio. I kid you not. As we were making plans for our Great Wall trip a man asks Noelle if her hoodie is a picture of Zippy (Akron’s mascot). It sure is, we said. They were from Akron, born and raised. It goes without saying, but, seriously, “What a small world.” Ok, maybe it needed said.

The coincidences didn’t stop there. The Canadian couple we talked to, Andrew and Kristin, they’re teachers right here in Kaifa Qu, too. Basically, we’re almost neighbors. The live  about a ten minute’s walk down the street and teach at another private school in the area.

The conversations that night were great. I can’t express how amazing it is to just meet so many new people and talk for hours about everything. For me, the two best parts of our trip were the people we met and standing on the Great Wall early enough in the day that I didn’t have to dodge toddlers and the gaggle of tourists that come everyday.

But morning came quickly at 6:00 am.

We got up, got dressed, got some grub and then got on the rickety VW van with two Irish guys named Olin and Liam, and Olin’s Chinese girlfriend, Sandy. We were heading for the Great Wall of China.

Dalian Forest Zoo

The day started at 6:32 for us. Or maybe 6:34…ok, you caught me. I have no clue. BUT it was in that certain quarter of the six o’clock hour. And definitely in the am.

Noelle and I got up after having stayed up much too late the night before (we watched five episodes of Six Feet Under, marathon style). Both of us were groggy and more than a little concerned that our two weeks in China might already be reshaping our sleeping paradigm for the worse…We keep finding ourselves getting up ungodly early. And this is supposed to be vacation time.

We trekked out about a mile into town until we hailed a cab. Now my Chinese is improving, but that basically means I’ve gone from a lexicon of zero to like four words. Telling the cabbie we’re going to the light rail wasn’t in my vocabulary that morning. After getting a blank look and the universal, “I have no stinkin’ idea what you’re talking about,” gesture (the scratching of the head–he actually scratched his head, too) I gave up and called one of the Chinese teachers we were meeting. She told him and we made it in time. Noelle, Me, Michael, Sunny, and her brother, Qian Fei (sp?) all boarded the train to Downtown. Seven stops. At each one more and more people crammed into the compartment like it was the last Arc ship from that Cusac movie 2012. Seriously, every time I felt like I’d staked out a little personal space we’d hit the next stop and thirteen people would be jammed into my armpits. During the trip I occasionally found myself wondering if a claustrophobic clown was ever forced into carpooling with Bozo and his pals. The experience couldn’t be all that different from the train ride here.

We got into downtown and eventually boarded a bus that would take us to the Zoo.

The entrance to the east side of the Zoo.

Now, I haven’t been here long enough to know this definitively, but it seems like the Chinese have perfected (among many other things) standing in lines. When we got there the group from the bus had to stand in two single-file lines for about 15 minutes before some young kid brought our tickets out to us and ushered us to the gate. The whole time there are troves of  people walking in from every direction. I asked what we were waiting for and I was told, “our tickets.” When I pointed out that we could just walk up to the gate and exchange the ticket we had already been given for the admission ticket without waiting in line I received a perplexed, and slightly annoyed look–but no comment. Can’t fight city hall, I guess. We waited, but were eventually let in.

Dalian is a port town that is quickly developing into a city with some girth, but the people still harbor parts of their rural mindset. Foreigners aren’t all that uncommon, and in parts of Dalian at night you can come across a handful of Russians, Germans, and even a few vacationers from Sweden or Canada. Even with that, I have caught many Chinese people trying discreetly to take our pictures simply because we’re foreigners. I’ll catch the flash from the corner of my eye and turn to see a teenager or an older person grinning as they watch us for a reaction. It’s funny after you get beyond the oddity of it, however at the Zoo we had a new experience. Just as we got through the gate a small family came up to us and more or less handed their daughter over and wanted to take a few pictures of us. Noelle and I laughed and went along with it, smiling and leaning into the girl so it didn’t just look like two Americans were looming sinisterly over a defenseless Chinese kid. It wasn’t until we had walked down a ways that it occurred to me that, “We’re in a zoo.” That picture could seriously be a thing of ironic beauty. “What,” I asked Noelle, “are we the American exhibit?”

We padded through the zoo for a few more hours, taking in the scenery, relatively fresh air, and the crowds. The animals were cool, too!

So, are they white with black stripes or black with white stripes?

These things are just creepy looking.
“Be careful! They spit.”
Yakity yak!
Rhinos! One of our friends we went with desperately wanted to see the rhinos, so this was a good moment.

The wolve were probably my favorite. There were about a dozen in their area and we got to see them feed on the meat people were throwing over to them. Still, I was sad that they had to be in there.
The Hyenas were cool, too. However, people were making noises at them and I had to fight the urge to toss one or two of them into the caged-in area just to shut them up.
Yep, she had no idea I took this one..

Tigers are always impressive. It’s amazing to think about how much power is just lounging around right in front of you! BUT, they do kinda remind you of big housecats.
“It’s ok; you can pet my belly.” Riiight.
Lounging Lions

Leopard eating what was, just moments before, a live chicken.

After the cat area we walked by the bear exhibits, but the small containment areas they had them in ticked me off too much and unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures. They had black bears and brown bears squared away in a rectangular area about the size our our apartment. The floor was concrete and there were just a few amenities: some rocks, a dead tree, and a drinking area. I don’t like animals in cages period, but what the bears, and even the lions to an extent, live in makes me made. I’m not a member of PETA, and I don’t carry red paint with me, so I just walked by the bears and distracted myself with some of the “chinglish” signs.

Yeah, try an figure out what they’re saying here…
This one is a bit better. Sometimes the Chinese to English translation isn’t as smooth as it should be. You see shirts and signs like these all the time here.
What’s the biggest ant in the world? An eleph-ant! Ok, I’m done. We caught an elephant show, too.
The “raccoon monkeys” as Noelle called them. Haha

This animal was impressive, too. He would sit on a post in front of the crowd and clap his hands and then hold out his palm to catch whatever food people threw out. When he finished it he would clap his hand again and wave at the crowd to toss something else. It was crazy. No employee was even around couching him.

As we left the primate area we ran into some Russian students on holiday from their studies in Xi’an. We chatted for a few and then began our trek down the large hill we’d hiked up to see the zoo. On the way down we snapped a picture of us with the ocean in the back.

After catching a glimpse of the water we decided that we should just find a nearby beach and relax for a bit before catching a bus into downtown.

Some kids playing in the freezing water.

I had no idea she took this of me…

We ended the day by finding a nice Indian restaurant, walking around the downtown area, and then finally taking the train (I bought our tickets using my very limited Chinese!) back to Kaifaqu.

Some honorable mentions that didn’t make it into the entry: the kangaroos, the bears, about a half dozen other primates, mountain goats, alpacas, and the rainforest area with the trees and flowers.

[Next entry: Beijing and The Great Wall of China—lots of pictures!]