Couchsurfing After the fiasco I had getting to the country, and the apparent gloom from the heavy smog that greeted me, I was already mentally and physically exhausted by the time I met my hosts. Fortunately, staying with Jinling and Zhaohui provided a place of rest, and was exactly what I needed to re-ignite my curiosity and excitement.
Jinling is a wonderful cook, and filled me with traditional Chinese food my first evening in their home. They already had a student renting their spare room, but I didn't mind at all. Their couch felt like a luxury Tempur-Pedic after so much time spent traveling.
For the next two days they let me stay in their apartment and rest while they went about their business. In the afternoon Jinling would come home and we would drink tea and chat. She would show me new words and phrases in Chinese, and I would try to clarify some things for her as well.
The second night we rode bikes to a nearby market so she could get the ingredients to teach me how to make 饺子 （jiao zi), or dumplings. These are extremely popular around the new year and she told me when coupled with beer they mean good fortune. So dumplings and beer it was!
My last evening with them, I got to meet some family friends, and we all went out for hot pot. Another traditional Chinese dish/experience, hot pot is a large bowl of broth being heated in the center of the table. The table orders the raw ingredients they want, and then add them to the broth and let it all cook together. Delicious! (很 好 吃, *hên hâo chī)
Walking back, arms linked with Jinling, I couldn't help but grin like a fool. Not only did I get to experience Beijing with true locals, but I made more new friends! That seems to be the true beauty of couchsurfing: bringing travelers together to experience culture and connection at its core, and turning strangers into friends.
Playing the Tourist Game
My university arranged for everyone studying in China to go on a guided tour of Beijing before we began our semesters. They chose Beijing Champagne International Travel Service Co., Ltd. and the company did a spot on job of showing us all the major attractions; and our guide, Sunny, was a joy to be with every day and took care of all ticket and meal logistics for us. Rain came through the night before our tour bee gain and blew away all the smog too! I was ECSTATIC to see blue sky for the first time in three days. We got incredibly lucky in that.
I won't go into history lessons, because that's what Wikipedia is for, but these sites are definitely famous for a reason.
1. Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City/Palace Museum: The square is ginormous, with Mao Zedong's portrait overlooking all from the entrance to the Forbidden City. They really love good 'ol Mao. Or at least they say they do.
The city itself is divided into governmental and residential sections, and there seems to be no end to the buildings and rooms of both sections. The gardens were my favorite places. According to Sunny, the emperors and powerful people involved with this place always seemed to be very concerned with longevity and a long life. As long as people know of them, I suppose they've reached immortality in a way. I wonder if they'd be pleased with their fame if they could see their places of influence covered in tourists.
2. Jingshang Park: Behind the Forbidden City is a large hill topped with a Buddhist temple that offers a bird's eye view of the central line in Beijing where most of these important places are. The view is definitely worth the feeling of inferiority that comes when climbing a lot of steep stairs and realizing just how out of shape you really are.
3. Hutong district: After lunch, we spent the afternoon shopping and wandering through the old residential district around the Forbidden City. People still live here, and we got to enter one of these ancient homes that has been updated for its modern residents. We also made it just in time for a demonstration at the old drum tower. This is exactly like a bell tower in purpose just with, well, drums. It also had an insane amount of steep stairs. Highlight of the day - a rickshaw ride!
4. Chinese Acrobat Show: Extremely similar to a show I saw in Branson with my family, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable or the performers any less talented. Plate spinning, hoop jumping, diablo tricks, umbrella juggling, the whole shebang!
5. The Great Wall at Mutianyu: February is not the peak tourist season and we went in the morning, so the section we went to at Mutianyu was blissfully uncrowded.
I took a chair lift up:
Hiked to and from tower 1:
And rode the toboggan down!
6. Summer Palace: this place is much like the Forbidden City, except with water and more beauty for beauty's sake. This is where the "Dragon Lady" spent a lot of her time. If you don't know anything about Empress Dowager Cixi, look her up. She was a real piece of work. I'd venture to say a diva even.
7. Olympic Park: Beijing hosted the summer Olympics in 2008, and that takes an enormous amount of infrastructure. Which of course is all still there. We could see the Water Cube (where swimming events were held) and torch stand, and got to go inside the Bird's Nest where things like the opening and closing ceremonies were held. I can't decide which was more extravagant (and/or wasteful), the imperial dynasties or the Olympics...
8. Kungfu Show: After dinner we went to another show that told a story of a boy who became a Kungfu master. There were Kungfu demonstrations throughout the story. It was good, but you put jet-lagged college students in a warm room with a full stomach and I don't think any amount of light and sound can keep us fully awake.
9. Temple of Heaven: This may have been one of my favorite parts of our entire time in Beijing. The large park around the temple is open to the public and is well-used by locals and tourists alike. Older Beijing citizens could be seen everywhere dancing, playing games, and practicing tai chi. It was an extremely positive place to be on a Saturday morning. The temple itself is not for any certain religion, but a place where the emperor could come to pay tribute to the God of heaven. This was done to solidify the idea that his rule was given divinely and thus could not be disputed, but I can get on board with paying tribute to a God of heaven. It was in general a beautiful place too, it had more blues and greens in its architecture to represent the sky and agriculture.
I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to China's history than these days in their capital city!
*3rd tone is actually down-up, like a valley, not up-down, like a hill. However I wasn't smart enough to find the right marker. Whoops! You get the idea.