Beijing was the last stop on tour and I had been looking forward to it since I learned I was going to China. First of all, it’s Beifreakingjing….the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Hutong neighborhoods…. In addition to that, I had the ridiculous luck of being able to catch up with some old friends there. “In a classic example of bad planning” as Time Out Beijing put it, Riverdance was in Beijing at the very same time we were. I had some friends who were on the tour, including my dear friend, Aislinn, from New Zealand. We hadn’t seen each other in almost four years. When you have a friend who lives as far away as New Zealand you basically resign yourself to hardly ever seeing them. But, as the fates would have it we ended up in Beijing at the same time. Unfortunately, the Riverdance kids were shooting a DVD. Well, that part was not unfortunate but the 14 hour workdays they had made it hard to find time to catch up.
We arrived at our hotel in Beijing quite late because of a delayed flight to find that there was no internet. I was trying to meet up with the Riverdance crew but all I had to go one was an email from the day before saying they might be at an Irish Bar (of course) that night. We decided to chance it so we threw our stuff down and headed to the bar. When we got there, I didn’t see any of my friends. Then I spotted someone I recognized from friends’ facebook photos. I figured he was my best bet for contacting them so I proceeded to introduce myself in a super creepy way.
Me: “Hi. I’m Katie. I used to sing in Riverdance and I recognize you from some friends’ photos on facebook (translation: I am your stalker). Do you know if X,Y, or Z are coming here tonight?”
Stunned Riverdancer: “Uh….I don’t think so. Most everyone’s gone home anyway.”
Me: “Ok. The internet in our hotel isn’t working. If I write a note for them would you deliver it?”
S.R. “Um….who are you again?”
We laughed about it later but seriously, who does that? Someone who’s desperate to see their friends, I guess.
It worked to our advantage that it wasn’t a big night anyway because the next day a group of us woke up at the crack of dawn (8!) to do a 7 mile hike of the Great Wall. Luckily, I was still able to squeeze in a couple nights with them.
But enough about me, let’s talk about Beijing. I didn’t have nearly as much time as I would have liked to explore Beijing but I still found it to be a really, really cool city. Lindsey, the aforementioned tour manager/translator, lived there for 4 years and took us to some great restaurants, neighborhoods and markets.
The evening after we hiked the Great Wall, she took us to Rumi, a Persian restaurant in the Chaoyang district. As much as I loved the Chinese food I’d been having, it was nice to be in a city with something besides Chinese food, Mc Donalds and KFC. Rumi totally hit the spot. We all went overboard ordering stews, kabobs, salads, hummus, FETA CHEESE! It was more than we were used to spending on a meal, way more. My 80 RMB bill came with some sticker shock. I had been used to 10 here for dumplings, 10 there for some grilled meat. But 80 RMB is about 12 dollars and 12 dollars for a fantastic meal in one of the world’s capital cities is not bad.
The next day I went with some folks to investigate the San Li Tun market. We had to be at the theater for soundcheck at 2 so time was limited. This is going to sound extremely shallow, but the thing I regret most about my time in Beijing is that I didn’t get more time to shop. I would have liked a solid day to spend in the markets. My goodness, the DEALS you could get and after five weeks, I was a well seasoned haggler.
Haggling was something I wasn’t comfortable with at first but in China you haggle for nearly everything. I went from being skittish about it to lusting after the rush I got when procuring a good deal. You know that feeling you get when you buy something at Loemann’s and it gives you the “you saved this much off the retail price” thing at the end? Or when you find a BCBG dress at TJ Maxx for $40 that was originally $220 (Is this just me??)? Well, it’s better than that because you made it happen. Every time I would show someone something I bought I would have to explain, with pride, what I bargained it down from. “I talked them down from 220 to 80!”
They obviously inflate the prices to fit this game, and do so even more for whiteys. This is one of the reasons you need a whole day to shop. The haggling process can take a while. Let me share with you what I found to be the key to haggling well – The Walkaway. They will start high, then you go ridiculously low. You both creep towards to middle and if you get to the absolute highest price you will accept and they deny you, walk away. Most of the time, they will follow you and give it to you for that price. This is key. If you sit there and continually argue with them, they won’t take you as seriously. I can’t tell you how many times I heard Americans get more and more heated about a price without doing The Walkaway. One man I heard was so mad that he stormed off, the shop worker waited a beat and tried to catch up with him to give it to him for his asking price but he’d already made it out the door. He inadvertantly did The Walkaway and didn’t even know it.
After the show that night, we went to see some of Lindsey’s friends play at Mao Livehouse, a cool, laid back bar in the Gu Lou neighborhood. One our way to the show we spotted a Mexican restaurant, Amigo. Upon further examination, it looked like proper Mexican food, corn tortillas, fajitas, chilaquiles, MORE CHEESE, and a 15 yuan special on Mojitos we couldn’t pass up. I must admit, I didn’t eat a whole lot of Chinese food in Beijing. I very much welcomed the variety of options. Plus, I was nursing a serious dairy deficiency that needed to be filled.
The next day I was able to meet up with another old friend of mine from my grade school days, Wes Smith, his wife Kasha and their adorable baby daughter, Berkley. But not after some difficulty. We picked a subway station to meet outside of, a very specific one, the A exit of a certain line. Unbeknownst to us there were two A exits. How does that make sense? So after 30 minutes of waiting, I decided I had to find a way to call him. I stopped someone walking out of the station with, “Ni hao….um…can I use your phone?” with the thumb-pinky phone thingy at my ear. The first person I stopped actually let me. It turned out Wes was inside the station looking for me. Easy fix! Except that when I went in, he wasn’t there. And when I came back outside, he wasn’t there either. Again, I stopped someone else to use their phone and not only was he obliging, he waited around while I tried to get ahold of him again which took a few calls. It left me thinking, if a Chinese tourist was in the same predicament as myself, standing outside a subway station in New York saying, “Hello!” then whatever “Can I use your phone?” is in Mandarin with the phone gesture thing at their head, would anyone actually stop?
After all that rigamaroll, we finally met up and went for a nice lunch at a Buddhist restaurant near the Lama Temple. Wes and Kasha seem to really love Beijing. Kasha teaches at an international school and while Wes was working and is thinking of going into teaching himself, right now he’s able to stay at home with Berkley. The cost of living there has afforded them the opportunity for one of them to stay home and also to have inexpensive care for Berkley when they need it.
Afterwards we walked around the Guanshuyuan Hutong. Hutongs are older neighborhoods in Beijing connected by narrow lanes and alley ways. Many of the homes are in the courtyard style with four buildings built around a courtyard. Some buildings still lack modern amenities, including bathrooms. There are communal bathrooms instead. Since the Cultural Revolution, many hutongs have been destroyed in favor of wider lanes and more modern apartment buildings. But some still remain and are actually protected.
The next day, our last day in Beijing, my band mate Eamonn and I visited the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Like many uber-touristy sites, we found the headphone tour to be the best bet. Because we are total cheapskates, we just bought one and shared it. I listened and relayed the info to Eamonn.
The Forbidden City is named as such because for nearly 500 years, from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, it was, well, forbidden. It is a palace complex that was home to the emperor, his family and servants (who were mostly eunuchs so they wouldn’t touch the ladies, ouch!). It was the seat of government in China and also a place for ceremonies.
I won’t lie, I haven’t retained much of the information I heard that day. I do remember that the middle, stone pathway was only to be used by the emperor but now tourists take photos on it all day long, tourists like this guy:
I can only imagine the emperors are rolling in their graves right now. I will direct you to Wikipedia if you would like to know more. Here are some photos snapped that day.
Later we met up with another friend of mine from high school, Jason Fetz, and his girlfriend, Laura, who are both teaching English in Changchun, which is about a 6 hour train ride north east of Beijing. They just happen to have been flying out of Beijing to Thailand the next day. Coincidence? Probably. But still, a pretty cool one. We went for Peking Duck, seeing as we were in Peking, and let me tell you, crispy duck dipped in sugar may sound gross but it is fabulously delicious.
That night Jason, Laura, Wes and Kasha were all able to make it to the show. I must say it was pretty surreal and very special to have old friends see me perform in Beijing. Oh and remember how I told you Chinese audiences are rather restrained? Well, I found the one thing that makes them break into raucous applause, the Beijing Olympics Song, especially when I sang the verse in Mandarin. By the way, doesn’t it sound like Sarah Brightman is doing an over-the-top impression of herself? I mean, I thought I had a good Sarah Brightman impression but Sarah Brightman has outdone me. I’m going to have to work on that. But I digress… The song was put in the encore in Beijing as a special touch. Holy crap. They went nuts. I’ve never been in front of people who were more excited to hear me sing something. I even laughed into the microphone the first time we did it because I was so taken aback. It’s hard to take it personally, though, as the cheers seemed more for the song than anything else. So the performances in Beijing ended on a very high note, with old friends there and an exuberant audience.
That night we wrapped things up at the Irish bar (of course) to celebrate the last night of the tour, as well as a few birthdays. Jason and Laura celebrated with us. Jason recounts the night’s events here in a much funnier way than I ever could.
I hope I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to go back to Beijing. I would love to go when the weather is warm and spend more time exploring the city without any (or many) obligations. I would be willing to travel in someone’s suitcase. I will pay the overweight fee, or lose 80 pounds, which ever makes more sense at the time. Contact me directly if you think this sounds like something you’d be interested in.