Sunday, January 30, 2011

When there’s no sunlight in a room it’s really hard to tell time, especially when you first wake up. Your internal clock is as reliable as a sundial on a rainy day. I woke up after tossing a bit, checked my watch, and realized it was 9am. After waking Shannon up, we both got dressed and headed downstairs for breakfast at the hostel cafe.

Shannon was reading the travel guide for China and consulting the girl who worked at the visitor guide’s table while I stuffed my face with eggs and fruit. The hostel was bright thanks to the sunny day outside, and once Shannon decided what she thought we should do with the day, we exited the hostel and walked a few stores down to a cold-weather wear shop. Shannon bought a few items, we spoke with some foreigners from Canada, and then we continued our journey to the Tian’anmen East subway station.

Important side note: as we were walking down the street, we saw a man suddenly careen and fall off his bike. We couldn’t figure out why he had suddenly lost control, and we stared for a while to make sure he was okay. We got the impression that he was fine, but annoyed that he’d fallen.


I liked that there were no doors between the subway cars. No one else found it as fascinating.

Riding the subway in Beijing is easy, even for those with no Chinese vocabulary. Of course, with Shannon in Go Mode, I did little more than follow and pay fares when necessary. After one transfer and a walk to the Summer Palace entrance, we paid the fee and wandered in.

The compound was much larger than I’d anticipated, and with the winter season far less popular than the summer, the number of tourists at the Summer Palace was low. I slowly walked, camera in hand, and took in the quiet, cold landscape. The lake was frozen, boats stuck in the ice, tourists walking or sledding on the surface.

This place would be crawling with tourists during the summer.

Shannon would walk ahead, then circle back for me, and I could tell my Tortoise method was frustrating to her Hare.

Bridge over frozen water. Isn't that a song?

After surveying the area around the lake, we climbed the steep paths to the top temples and pagodas. Upon reaching them, I was shocked by the level of ruin many of the buildings were in.

I liked that the buildings hadn't been repainted. It felt more historically accurate.

I climbed over felled stones and around large rocks, walked to the edge of the foundation of former temples, and took in the views of Beijing down below.

Beyond the cement where I'm standing is a steep drop.

If the Summer Palace had been in North America, there would’ve been railings and warning signs and areas where tourists weren’t allowed to walk, primarily for insurance reasons.

Only a few areas were off limits.

Several times I thought an employee was coming to shoo me away from an area because it was too dangerous, but they always passed me, bored.

At one section we found a woman who would write a person’s name, either in English or in Chinese, using broad paintbrushes to make the letters look like animals, plants or landscapes. We stood, transfixed, as she drew another tourist’s name. I finally turned to Shannon and declared, “I’m getting one for Hannah!”

My version of art is taking pictures of her version of art.

The artist wasn’t halfway through Hannah’s name when I decided to buy one for myself as well. If I hadn’t, I would’ve kept Hannah’s.

We left the Summer Palace and took the subway back to downtown Beijing. We exited at the Silk Street Market and found ourselves in a seven story building, one with two basements, chock full of small stalls selling everything under the sun. There were thousands of little shops, and salespeople shouting and grabbing at you to try to get you to buy something from them.

While Shannon negotiated the price for a hairdryer, I continued walking down the electronics/watch aisle, calmly saying, “No, xie xie,” like an old woman swatting away flies. My mindless strolling came to an abrupt halt when I spotted a Canon 50mm, f/1.8 lens.


I asked them to take the lens out of the case, and they immediately started asking me how much I wanted to pay. I looked at the girl and said, “I want to see it.” I wasn’t rude, but I was blunt. This little Tasmanian devil of a salesgirl needed to slow down and realize that her whirling and jabbering was going to get her nowhere. I work with small children. I can deal with anything.

Inspection of the lens, including attaching it to the Rebel, gave all indications that it was new and legitimate. After over a year of trying to find the lens in a store, I’d finally found it in Beijing. Go figure.

I asked for the price, and she said 1,800 yuan. That’s approximately $260. Once I’d converted the yuan to new Taiwan dollars and then to US dollars, I balked. I offered 500 yuan. The Tasmanian devil started whirring faster, saying she’d sell it for 1,500 yuan and telling me I was being ridiculous. I’d never be able to buy it for that price according to Looney Tunes.

That’s when my inner peace exploded into an angry American tired of being treated like Mommy Warbucks. I scowled at her, told her she was ripping me off, that I’d never pay more than $100 US, and then I stalked off. She called after me and offered 700 yuan. I could tell she was mad, so I turned, stared at her for a moment, considered my options, then bought the lens. The adrenaline rush was taking over my body, and all I wanted to do was escape the market and get away from all the salespeople.

Shannon and I left the market and walked back toward the hostel. We marveled at the sheer size of everything: buildings, streets, stores, the city itself.

Beijing is big. Really, really big.

Four kilometers later we walked down a pedestrian street full of high-end stores and restaurants; as we contemplated dinner, we happened upon a side street that looked like a night market in Taiwan.

If it was once alive and you can poke a skewer into it, you'll find it here!
The snozberries taste like snozberries... or something.

Twenty minutes later, after unsuccessfully trying to find a reasonable dinner that didn’t include insects or scorpions, we left the night market and continued walking to the hostel.

That’s when it happened. I was walking to Shannon’s right, my bags slung over my shoulder and my camera in hand. Without warning, my right foot lost traction and I fell, akin to one of the Three Stooges, onto the street. I’d slipped on the same patch of ice as the biker earlier in the day. My knuckles and knee were the only victims; still, it hurt, and I took my pain out on a driver who cut us off in an intersection as we crossed the road. I believe my exact words were, “I’m walking here!”

Finally, a block away, we found a small restaurant full of locals. The food was good, though not as memorable as the night before. At one point I leaned toward Shannon and whispered, “Don’t look now, but I think the mob just came in.” We giggled, paid, then left.

The weather grew very cold when the sun set, and we happily retreated to the hostel and went to bed at 9:30pm.