Tuesday, September 21: My South African friend Suzanne & I wake up in my apartment at 5:00 a.m. to begin our journey to Beijing. Since she lives in Seongju, where we both teach English, and since there are no buses from Seongju to Daegu so early in the morning, she stayed Monday night in my apartment. We leave my apartment at 6 a.m., rolling our suitcases the 5 blocks to the Keimyung University subway stop, then arrive at Dongdaegu around 7 a.m., just in time to eat some hamburgers at Lotteria before we catch our bus (waffles aren’t available until after lunch, but they DO serve hamburgers for breakfast!). We take the 7:20 bus to Gimhae Airport in Busan, where we are to meet with the Kangsan Travel tour group at 10:30. We have a lot of time to kill, but a week earlier when we had tried to buy bus tickets for 9 am, they were all sold out because of the Chuseok vacation in Korea. We figure we will get to Busan, find a Starbucks, and have a leisurely coffee before our meeting.
After coffee, we head downstairs to meet the tour group at Gate 1. I don’t know what I expected, but I am surprised that the group is mainly EPIK (English Program in Korea) teachers, along with a couple of Mexican ladies who teach Spanish at a university in Busan. Apparently there are to be 19 of us in this group; however, we will meet up with an additional number of travelers from Seoul in Beijing, for a total of 33 of us! I am not happy about this situation, to say the least. First, we had been told there would be around 20 people on the tour. I also expected a mix of people of different ages from different professions. Why I expected this, I don’t know! Foolishness I guess. But since Kangsan’s tour is an English-speaking tour out of Korea, who else would be there but English teachers? American military guys would be practically the only other option. Once again, I feel out-of-place, being the only “older” person in this group.
I am reminded that I don’t fit in by two South African girls, Trushan and Gillian, who immediately start talking to Suzanne, telling her they “researched her” on Facebook when they saw her South African name and they couldn’t wait to meet her. They all start talking about their common background. Trushan seems fun and cute and bubbly, the other, Gillian, rubs me the wrong way immediately. The one totally ignores me as if I am invisible. I determine in my mind at this point that I will give Suzanne plenty of space so she can hang out with them as much as she likes; I will not care to hang out with these two girls (although I like Suzanne very much) and so I will just keep to myself. If Suzanne wants to hang out with me, I’m happy to have her do so, but I am not going to intrude on her space in case she wants to be with these fellow South Africans. We have arranged to share a room together, but I really don’t want her to feel tied to me because of this. I feel that this creates an awkward situation from the start. This is why I hate traveling in groups!
We embark on a small Air China plane. It’s a turbulent flight and makes me a little more nervous than usual. Lately, I’ve been very relaxed flying, rarely feeling any fear, but this smaller plane is a little on the rough side.
Beijing Capital International Airport looks brand-spanking new, bright and airy (though it opened officially over 10 years ago on October 1, 1999 to mark the 50 year anniversary of Chinese Communist rule). We take numerous moving walkways and a tram to get to the main terminal, where we are greeted by red welcome signs in multitudes of foreign languages. It’s all very modern and impressive! Everything moves quickly and when we are through immigration, we meet our Manchurian tour guide who calls himself the English name of “Jerry.” His real name is Hao Yuashen, which means “Moon Fresh.” The Hao is his family name, which appears in typical Chinese fashion of last name first.
The bus already has the Seoul group on board; we settle in and Jerry begins to talk. He asks us if we know how to say hello in Chinese. Most of us answer “Ni hao” but he tells us that this is a formal greeting not really used by the locals. He says they mainly say “Tru la ma?” which is translated exactly to mean “Have you eaten yet?” but really means something similar to “How are you?” The answer is “Tru laup” which means, “Yes, I have,” or “I’m fine.” He emphasizes too many times to count that this greeting can be used at any time of day under any circumstances, EXCEPT when someone is coming out of the toilet!
He tells us other common words: Shia-Shia (xiexie) is thank you, and Bu is No. No, thanks is Bua shia (not Bullshit, he emphasizes!). Hao is good, and ding ding hao is very good. This is Jerry language. I can’t find this language in the phrasebook I have. 🙂 Jerry also informs us that beginning tomorrow is the 3-day Mooncake Festival in China, which is much like the harvest festival of Chuseok in Korea. He warns that because of this, the traffic in Beijing will be horrendous, that usually there are traffic controls in Beijing, but there will be no traffic controls during the holiday. All I can think of is the 10-day traffic jam that was in the news just one month ago.
The Mooncake Festival is one of the few important national holidays in China, along with Chinese New Year and Winter Solstice. Farmers celebrate the end of the harvesting season at this time and Chinese friends and families gather to eat mooncakes and pomelos under the bright mid-autumn harvest moon. Jerry says a mooncake has “all the sweety things in the filling.” He tells us of other festivals such as the Spring Festival and the Chinese New Year (which has customary fireworks and firecrackers; if one is lucky enough to eat a dumpling with a coin in it, he or she is guaranteed good fortune in the year ahead). He tells us of the Bamboo Rice Festival where they put rice and dates in bamboo leaves. This festival is to celebrate a minister who didn’t surrender to his enemies, but instead threw himself into the river to kill himself. People threw bamboo rice into the river so the fish would eat that instead of the minister’s body. “Today,” says Jerry, “we only put the rice in our mouths.”
He tells us also about the Dragon Boat Racing Festival (which consists of eating rice dumplings, drinking wine and racing dragon boats) and the Lion Dance Festival. He says most Chinese people have no religion, that Confucianism is a philosophy, not a religion and that Taoism is the local religion in China.
I look out the window of the bus as we drive through Beijing. It is ultra-modern, filled with skyscrapers, gleaming metal and glass, with bursts of red everywhere. We pass over a rather narrow canal and Jerry tells us that in ancient times this was the city moat that separated the inner and outer city. He says we can see examples of the city gates in the famous movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
I look at the cars and see everything: Focus, Elantra, Volkswagen, Jag, Hyundai, Honda CRV and Accord. This is as modern a city as anything I have ever seen, much to my surprise. I think I was expecting to see a city full of traditional Chinese villages, called hutongs, but apparently thousands of these villages have been razed to make way for the modern skyscrapers. I was also expecting total chaos in the streets of Beijing, but in the places I go, I never see this.
Jerry tells us that there are 55 minority groups in China and 1 majority group, the Han people. Of China’s 1.4 billion people, 80% consist of the Hans. Other sources say the Han people make up 92% of China’s population and 20% of the global population, making it by most definitions the largest single ethnic group in the world. The name Han comes from the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), which succeeded the short-lived Qin Dynasty that united China.
He also informs us that Mandarin Chinese is spoken in Beijing, while Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong. Beijing means “north capital.” In 1421, the emperor moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. Yanjing means “mountain capital;” there you can find the terra-cotta warriors. He says there is only one beer in China, Yanjing Beer, but Chingdao beer is popular in the south.
Jerry tells us that there are two dreams for most visitors to Beijing: 1) To get a picture of Tiananmen Square; and 2) to taste Peking Duck, which we will do tonight at dinner. He also tells us that it is very dry here in Beijing so we should “be sure to drink plenty of waters.”
The Temple of Heaven is our first stop and Jerry tells us it was built as a show of power and not a religious temple. The main temple building is the three-tiered Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, made entirely of wood without a single nail. The circular structure sits on top of a 3-tiered marble terrace, topped by 3 blue-tiled roofs. Four pillars, representing the 4 seasons, support the vault, and 12 outer pillars represent the 12 months. The temple was begun during the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty (who also founded the Forbidden City) and was completed in 1420. Though the temple was destroyed by lightning in 1889, it was completely rebuilt true to its original Ming design.
The building is quite beautiful and seems freshly painted in bright colors of royal blue, green, yellow, & red. It sits in an area where there are no gardens though, just vast floors of concrete; this lack of greenery detracts from its beauty in my opinion.
The temple represents the prime meeting point of heaven and earth. Heaven was seen as round and earth as square; thus the round temples and altars stand on square bases. The Son of Heaven was considered to be the emperor; he was the intermediary between heaven and earth. The emperor prayed here for good harvests, after making animal sacrifices, during the winter solstice each year. Commoners were forbidden to see this royal procession to the temple and were forced to stay locked in their homes.
We wander around the Temple and take pictures, and then we leave through a long rectangular park with emerald-green grass where Chinese people are involved in playing card games, playing strange musical instruments that look like miniature pipe organs, or kicking little bird-like things that looks like badminton shuttlecocks.
After the Temple of Heaven, we go straightaway to have a dinner of Peking Duck. This dish has been served since the imperial era in China and is prized for the duck’s thin crispy skin, which is sliced in front of diners by the chef. It’s eaten wrapped in steamed pancakes along with scallions and hoisin sauce.
In addition to the duck, we are served numerous other Chinese dishes on a lazy susan; these dishes are similar to dishes I have tasted in Chinese restaurants in the U.S. for my entire life. After months of eating Korean food, I am thrilled and eat as much as I can….it’s such a treat. 🙂
I also have some Yanjing Beer, the “only beer in China.”
We then head to an acrobatic show at the Chaoyang Theatre. We treat ourselves to Magnum ice creams and drinks, which to our surprise we are allowed to take into the theater.
The show is an amazing extravaganza of everything from jujitsu and martial arts, balancing Pagala bowls, juggling porcelain urns, spinning plates, demonstrating head skills on stacked chairs, bicycle feats and then an ending ceremony with fanciful and spectacular costumes.
One of my favorite acts involves this huge metal contraption that looks like two huge bicycle wheels; two acrobats walk inside the wheels (like those in a hamster cage) and even walk on the outside of the wheels as the wheels rotate around and around. Sometimes the acrobats, when they are at death-defying heights, attach a rope to a belt to break their falls, but on this bicycle wheel contraption, even when walking on the outer edge of the wheel, the acrobat wears nothing to break his fall! In other feats, the acrobats twist into unimaginable shapes and support weight, both of their own bodies and of their fellow performers, that seems impossible.
Another whimsical and captivating act is that of these pink-clad girls balancing these plates on sticks that look like lily pads and dancing all over the place. Lights in the pattern of flowers and stars and curlicues dance on the floor under the girls’ feet. So lovely.
Apparently, professional acrobats have existed in China for 2,000 years, and students begin training at age 5 in the main training school, Wu Qiao in Hebei province. This show is truly amazing and of such a high professional quality, including the music, lighting effects, and the scenery. I am bowled over!
We finally go check in at our hotel, the Holiday Inn Lido. It’s a beautiful hotel, and we each have huge double beds with all white bedding, including a fluffy comforter. It’s like sleeping on a cotton candy cloud….