Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Peking

My semester abroad in Singapore came and went. Four months of studying, traveling, and socializing concluded last week when I finished my last final exam on Wednesday, December 1st. That night was the last time that many of us exchange students had the chance to say our goodbyes on the bridge at Clarke Quay. I don't really know how it started, but at one point in the night, people began to jump off the bridge into murky waters below to celebrate the end of the semester. Not being in Singapore anymore, I can confess that I became one of those individuals that took the plunge into Singapore waters. Considering it was another hot and humid night and everyone that did it before me said it was worth it, I figured why not. I made the jump with four others (don't worry mom it isn't that high up) and I must say it was a lot of fun as your body is in free-fall prior to hitting the water's surface. So now I can say that if everybody is jumping off a bridge, I would too.

After two days to clean up my room, pack for my three weeks of traveling, and catch up on sleep, my friend from Switzerland and I headed for Changi International Airport one last time for our 9:30 A.M. on Saturday, December 4th to Beijing.

I had just pulled an all-nighter to finish packing up and was absolutely exhausted in the cab ride to the airport, yet the driver was really testing me at 7:00 in the morning. The man, most likely in his fifties, asked both us where we were from for the sake of conversation. When my friend said he was from Switzerland, the driver made some small talk that was mostly positive about the country, nothing out of the box. However, when it was brought up that I am American, the man started going off on how the United States is a terrible country because of X, Y, and Z citing false information to support his claims. I chose to just sit there and close my eyes as the man rambled on and on for an extended period of time expressing his hatred for our country. I will just say he is lucky it was early in the morning and exhausted; I may be upset with the current state of our government, but you don't go off trash talking someone's country in front of them like that. Not the best start to the last leg of my travels in Asia.

I left the taxi in a bad mood following the episode in the taxi; no matter, the two of us continued our travels through Changi Airport. For the last time, I made my way through Singapore customs to go to the terminal where we would board our Air China flight. Of course, this was not to be a normal morning for myself as while I was waiting for my Swiss friend to get a tax refund from the Singapore GST, a magician came over and started pestering me to watch him do a trick. I let him do his thing and eventually got a funny picture out of it (it wasn't taken on my camera so hopefully I will see it again in the near future). Right as the magician walked away, two people came up to my friend and me asking us some questions for a survey about the magician and the rest of the airport. I really just wanted to run away and get on the plane. Thankfully, the people at the check-in counter had put us in the emergency row so we had ample leg room so I was able to sleep five of the six hours we were in the air.

I was now, and still am as I write this, in China. It feels weird saying that, especially when I think back to a couple years ago when I thought seeing this part of the world would happen, but not so soon. I had no idea what Beijing would be like excluding all of the great things I had heard about the capital from friends back at NUS who had traveled here previously.

The two of us walked through Beijing International Airport, expanded only a couple years ago for the Olympics, to meet up with our Chinese friend and his dad who live right in Beijing. Once we met up with our friend, we made ways toward the city to throw our stuff down somewhere and head out for a late dinner. The moment we walked outside the airport, cold air immediately began to blow with a fury against us. How good it felt to finally feel a cool breeze for the first time since climbing Mount Kinabalu. To give you an idea with how cold we are talking for Beijing at this time of year, the city is just about the same latitude as New York City, so not unbearable, but definitely worthy of a winter jacket. As we drove towards the heart of Beijing, pollution was very visible in the air not making for the best first impression one could ask for. Luckily, the coming days would be much windier resulting in little to no pollution hovering over the city.

Our Chinese friend's dad drove us to the hotel where my Swiss bud would be staying before heading out to have a traditional Chinese dinner on famous "Ghost Street." Before dinner, though, there was the business of getting some winter clothes after having been near the equator in Singapore for the last four months. While the shopkeepers spoke English, my Chinese national bud ended up doing the majority of the haggling. I eventually got a decent knock off of a Billabong full-zip for 105 yuan or about fifteen U.S. dollars, not too bad. Then we headed to the restaurant, the four of us met up with our friend's mom for what would be a splendid Chinese meal. It was evident from the outset that this was no touristy kind of place as my Swiss friend and I were the only Caucasians in the entire establishment. This was truly how the locals went out to eat in Beijing; the various foods we ate were all delectable from steamed cauliflower to scrumptious dumplings and even some kind of very tasty fish. I managed to survive the meal only using chopsticks, but at times it did get difficult picking up certain types of food namely rice. Hopefully, my skills with the sticks will improve as the week progresses.

Once we finished eating, the three of us being an American with Swiss and Chinese nationals, drove around the city for a bit to see Beijing at night. The structure of Peking is based on a ring system with Tiananman Square being the center. Different rings have been formed by huge highways around this area that indicate how far from the city center you are (i.e. the second ring is the closest enclosure to Tiananman followed by the third ring and so on). We drove through Tiananman Square and saw the perimeter of the Forbidden City that bears the portrait of the People’s Republic of China’s founder, Mao Zedong.

We dropped off our Swiss friend at the hotel and headed back to where my Chinese friend lived to sleep off the day prior to our journey through the Great Wall the next day.

The next morning, we got an early start in order to reach the Great Wall a little before lunchtime. Depending on which part of the wall one would want to go on, the Great Wall of China can be anywhere from ninety minutes to three hours away from the center of Beijing. With that in mind, we woke up at 8 A.M. on Sunday and were out the door by 9:00 A.M. to pick up our friend at the hotel then make ways towards one of the seven wonders of the world.

We reached the bottom of the Badaling section of the Great Wall around midday to see the beginning of this spectacle in person. It was quite euphoric to have finally reached this man-made creation after months of planning and traveling.
When you get up onto the wall, it was a sight for the ages to see the Wall go on for miles and miles stretching across the peaks and valleys in the mountains. The three of us walked along the wall for a couple hours taking in the scenery, which included signage from the 2008 Olympic Games, more of the Great Wall, and mountains that went on to as far as the horizon. I am still impressed with how steep the Great Wall got a certain points since the steepness of the structure matched the contour of the mountains they were built on. It was a little bit of a hike, but our trio reached the highest point of the Wall and looked out to see practically everything. One could not have started off my week in Beijing any better. In addition, I received a text from my mom that UConn had barely beaten USF on our decent from the mountain making for a great day in multiple facets. The only bad part of the whole experience was finding out I had been giving counterfeit money at some point during the last day and a half. Thankfully, it was only a 20 yuan bill (worth about $3), but never before did I have to worry about fake money reaching my wallet.
It was then time to head back to city in order to meet up with our Chinese friend’s parents for dinner once again. For a second night in a row, my Swiss friend and I were in for a real treat. The restaurant we went to was a Chinese Opera house near where they lived. The combination of the amazing dishes of food with the amusing show going on in the background made for a one-of-a-kind experience. I had some of the best tasting food in my entire life including famous Peking duck, squirrelfish, sweet & sour noodles, and fried dumplings. Besides the entertainment taking place on the stage, we saw about thirty guys around the age of 40-50 at tables nearby getting ridiculously drunk. Apparently, they were part of a firm that had recently completed testing for one of, if not the, fastest train in the world. My friend’s parents were explaining to me with the use of my friend as a translator that in Chinese culture, one gains “face” or respect from another through excessively drinking when in celebration. At least, I think that’s what I got out of that conversation. Either way it looked like a bunch of kids my age drinking alcohol like it was water while screaming things in Chinese before chugging what was left in their glass. Definitely made dinner and the entire day that much better.

Don’t think that it was all downhill from here in Beijing. The Great Wall was an out of this world experience, however, Peking has much more to offer including Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, and Wang Fu Jing Street; all of these attractions were on our itinerary for the next day.

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