Enchanted by Beijing

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Follow the lights. Or your nose.

Alluring red lanterns illuminated the night sky. We had just arrived in Beijing for a short layover, and our stomachs led us here to Gui Jie (簋街), also known as “Ghost street.”

Walking down Dongzhimen, we glimpsed bustling restaurants serving huge platters of Sichuan crawfish, known as Ma La Xiao Long Xia (麻辣小龙虾). Customers licked their fingers while simultaneously pinching a crawfish in the other. The chilly November air ushered us in to a humble and modest eatery; no fancy tables or decor, just locals enjoying their meal.

Our unexpected surpise was an order of chicken and “potatoes”. Seemingly ordinary, the chicken and fries were served in a hot pot, the gas flame flickering underneath. Biting into the chicken, the full flavor of ma la was released, and I finally understood it… In Chinese, ma means numbing and la means spicy. Sichuan peppercorns and herbs tantalized my taste buds like fireworks bursting with fervor in my mouth.

A casually dressed young guy serenaded each table with Chinese ballads, accompanied by his acoustic guitar. Unlike musicians I’ve seen in the States, he didn’t accept tips nor did anyone offer any to him. He smiled and played each table’s requested song, like an artist on stage playing for his beloved fans. The other diners sang along, tapping the tips of their cigarettes against ashtrays, following the song’s tempo.

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an ancient city becoming more modern

The next morning, we took a brisk walk.  Beijing is a city that is changing with the times; it still has that ol skool’ feel. Elders gracefully practiced tai chi in front of traditional roofed buildings, and just around the corner, shiny stores boasted designer goods.  The fashionistas strutted their heeled boots, black tights, leather bags, and trendy coats with tulle underneath.

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Tienamen Square

In Tianamen Square, red flags flapped as the wind blew.  I quietly reflected upon China’s tumultuous history, its people, its sacrifice. And the cost of freedom.

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City

We then entered into the majestic Forbidden City, aka the Imperial Palace Museum. Built during the Ming Dynasty in the 1400’s, the Forbidden City ‘s yellow roofs (the color reserved for the Emperor) glowed in the sunlight. Standing before the palace, I suddenly felt small and insignificant, like a little fish in a giant, unfamiliar ocean. Clamoring crowds, guided tour groups, young and old families eagerly explored the history inside the gated walls.

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guardian lions protecting the palace

Climbing numerous steps, we approached the marble terrace of the Gate of Supreme Harmony. It was like stepping back into time and witnessing China at its glorious splendor- a place of great power where only the Emperor, his family, and staff resided (no commoners could enter).

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the vast palace, with its many tiers and levels

The red & green ornate ceilings, strong, sturdy pillars, and vast, grand halls gave us a small glimpse of what life was like for the royal family long ago. Images from The Last Emperor played through my mind, like young Emperor Pu Yi playing in the courtyard as a child and learning about the world through his foreign teacher, because he was forbidden to leave the palace. Or the Emperor reigning over China, wearing his distinctive glasses, sitting upon the imperial throne, with its royal yellow silk cushion, elaborate embroidery, and detailed wooden carvings.

A tinge of sadness swept over me, remembering the atrocities that occurred in China at the onset of World War II and the Cultural Revolutoon. After being abdicated from the throne, used as a puppet emperor for Japan, and later held as a prisoner of war for 10 years, Emperor Pu Yi was finally declared ‘reformed’ and released under a newly governed China. In the last scene of the film, he revisited the desolate palace, all the glamour and pomp from his previous life had become only a memory. He lived the remainder of his life as a civilian, as China continued to discover itself with its new identity.

Unfortunately, our feet quickly tired from the walking, and my father-in-law stumbled on one of the stairs. As for myself, despite wearing my running shoes, the soles of my feet burned in pain. (The result of working grueling 12 hour shifts on hard hospital floors). Thus, we were unable to peruse the palace in its entirety.  Guess that means we’ll have to visit Beijing again in the future!

Travel tips

  • prepare for your trip beforehand. We used Fodor’s Beijing.
  • don’t let taxi drivers rip you off. The airport “security” and taxi drivers scammed my family; they were overcharged on the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel.
  • ask the hotel for their card with the chinese name on it so you can show it to the driver (because they probably won’t recognize the English name.
  • take frequent breaks if you’re not used to walking a lot.
  • walk cautiously when crossing at intersections. Beijing drivers are merciless! We were crossing the street when suddenly the light turned green, and a bus still came towards us anyway… we had to run across. It was really scary!

~ ~ ~

My last few posts have been so melancholic… I felt like I really needed to break the mood up with something more light hearted.

Currently listening: Jay Chou- Chrysanthemum Terrace.

Jay Chou is one of my favorite singer/songwriters because he creatively fuses Chinese music with Western music, like this song where he plays guzheng.  The video also has some great visuals of what the palace might have looked like, back in the day. Check it out. =)

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10 thoughts on “Enchanted by Beijing

    • mmm. traveling abroad can be stressful at times, but don’t let it stop you! as long as you go with the mindset that nothing ever runs smoothly and to expect bumps on the road… you might find yourself an unforgettable adventure. =) china does have the 3 you mention though.. =)

  1. that is such a classic song. i’ve always liked that song ever since i heard it when i was very young. i’ve seen that movie too, which jay chow also starred in. a good one. only ’cause i’m a fan of the director, who uses colors to tell story. my fave of his movies is HERO. i had to watch it the second time to really get what the whole notion of the movie is really about, with the director’s approach in presenting the story.

    anyways, it is not hard to be enchanted by beijing. the most popular and historical city in china. i’ve been there twice. both times i visited the Great Wall, and i still want to return. it is the main reason i made my way to beijing. too bad beijing is not exactly my fave city, food wise. northern china cuisine is not my liking, especially when i’m not a fan of ‘ma la’.

    • me too! i’ve seen the film with jay in it (although it was a very shakespearean Oedipus Rex kinda film..uh… depressing). i’ve also seen HERO which is one of my favs.. .i think i watched it at least 4 times! i don’t usually watch movies that often but you’re right, it takes a second watch to understand the storyline more clearly.

      my great wall post will be next… and how can you not like ‘ma la’?! do you like spicy in other cuisines?

      • not really. never been a big fan of anything that is very spicy. a little spice in food is exciting, but when it gets too much i just can’t enjoy it, for i savor food for its flavors. i want to taste, not to sweat.

  2. Are you still in china now? That’s so exciting!! If you get the chance, Guilin and Yangshuo is a majestic other wordly place. It is a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the large industrialized cities in china. I’ve never visited beijing, and travelling through china was a big pain but well worth it. I couldn’t sleep tonight and turned on my computer aimlessly, was searching for something to remind me that there’s much more than what I see in front of me. thanks for sharing this great post.

    • no, we visited a few months ago, but i yearn to return! i’d love to visit Guilin and yangshuo. I’d really like to see other cities and the countryside, to get a feel for a different pace and lifestyle. it’s sound so interesting, i’d love to read more if you would share about your time there. =)

      you’re welcome! i have another post planned on beijing, will post it soon!

  3. I want to visit Beijing! I hear it’s more traditional than Shanghai although I’m not sure if I can get use to their accent :p Can you eat spicy food? David can’t handle it.

    I love this song by Jay Chou!

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