Note: I’m obviously not actually “live” blogging this trip, but I am going to try to blog about each day as it happens in a timely manner!
It’s the year of the tiger in China! To celebrate, I’m spending the first week of the new year in Beijing, seeing the sights, eating, shopping around a little, eating, and trying to make the Chinese like me.
Traveling over the holiday was unexpectedly easy. I’d go so far as to say this was my best traveling experience ever. The taxi ride took no more than half an hour, when I was told it could take up to an hour (but it cost me…). the airport was practically empty and the plane ride was comfortable and quick. Keep in mind that traveling for Chinese New Year is sort of like traveling for Christmas in America, except worse by a factor of one billion (literally – people) and not as orderly. One piece of advice I have for travelers is to never trust advice from foreigners. I know this calls my judgment into question, but it’s true. I’d heard from at least three different (foreign) sources that traveling would be awful. During Chinese New Year? Worse than awful.
While I’m sure everyone has their own experiences to draw opinions from, my suggestion to you if traveling in China (or anywhere, but particularly here) is to find out for yourself what works for you. I had a great experience.
I’m staying at Hotel G in the Chaoyang district near Sanlitun Village and the Workers Stadium. Beijing is less international than Shanghai and the language barrier has presented a few problems, such as this morning when I asked at the front desk if they might have a humidifier for my room and it was suggested that I check the 7-Eleven around the corner. But overall, despite traveling alone, I feel fairly confident. It helps to pretend that I’m in the official capacity of a travel writer and that when eating out alone I’m the food critic from Ratatouille.
Sanlitun used to be a quaint hutong, or “traditional village,” according to the interwebs, but when the Olympics came along the Chinese wiped it out and had a Japanese architect build a gigantic glass and chrome shopping complex. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very dramatic and attractive in it’s own way, but to make a long story short, traveling in Beijing since the Olympics is completely different from traveling here, say, five years ago. And, on a side note, while it may sound awful to kick people out of their homes to build an impersonal consumer-culture temple, I’ve heard that Chinese like to be relocated by the government because they get the best deal possible for their property. I can’t remember who told me this right now, but when I remember, I’ll try to amend the post.
I spent my first day freaking out a little bit. I was anticipating awful weather and had developed an indoors itinerary accordingly. When I got here it was sunny and in the fifties. So I rushed to the nearest park, Chaoyang Park, which turned out to be more of an amusement park than an enchanting nature haven, so I bolted for Houhai. Houhai is literally translated as “black lake.” It’s a really gorgeous lake that I’m glad I got to see frozen over in the winter. Scores of people had ignored the sign indicating that the fenced off ice was dangerous and were playing and fooling around all over its surface. I worked up the courage to step gingerly onto a small patch right next to the dock.
Houhai is surrounded by hutongs, the traditional, low-roofed, interconnected accommodations that you see in movies depicting ancient China. They’re really pretty and very fun to wind your way through as you walk around the lake. There are also plenty of bars and restaurants around the lake and Nanluguoxiang, a street reputed for its shopping and bar scene, is nearby. I strolled along it in the late afternoon, popping into a shop or two (I found an awesome leather notebook!), but most things were unfortunately closed for the New Year.
For dinner I treated myself to the Green T. House, a gorgeous and incredibly-designed restaurant-cum-spa (I think?). It doesn’t have a door that you enter, but a white wall that you approach. To get in you ring a doorbell and then one of the waitstaff open it for you. The inside looked like some sort of imperial dining room from Narnia or Star Wars, or maybe both of those combined. And the empire doesn’t consist of people, but elves from the Lord of the Rings. However, the food…notso hotso. I ordered pork ribs, a “medley” of natural rices and mozzarella covered broccoli (what?). The pork ribs had no flavor, despite their proclaimed “jasmine”-y-ness, and the rice was a little burnt and came in a small cup. The broccoli was delicious, but why was I eating a big bowl of broccoli covered in cheese at a fancy restaurant in China? Choosing á la carte might have been half the problem as I can’t be held accountable for my stomach’s whims, but they charged me ten USD for my water and the rice was one of the least “worth it” splurges I’ve ever had (it cost me seven USD). I’d recommend it just for the amazing interior, but be judicious when ordering. A full course “set dinner” will cost you about ninety USD.
I spent the night wandering around the streets outside my hotel in awe of the fireworks displays. It is not humanly possible to describe what I saw in words and the video I captured with my camera doesn’t do anything justice, but suffice it to say that if you can imagine wandering through a war zone for a few hours and then suddenly the world explodes in your face and you’re on the set of Mad Max and then cars are stopping and people are staring and holy shit the sky is ON FIRE and so is that box across the street from you and OH MY GOD that group of four Chinese men just brought out a box of fireworks the size of a moving crate but this has already been going on for hours how much could be left where is that firetruck going?
Chinese New Year is, in one word…scratch that, two words: actual insanity. Civilians purchase weapons-grade explosives and then set them on the street and light them. Chinese New Year is to the fourth of July as a nuke is to two kids playing with pop guns in their front yard. I recommend you check it out sometime.
Today I hope to decode the subway system and see the Olympic buildings. Wish me luck!