I hate Beijing.
If Shanghai is the glamorous, user-friendly version of China, then Beijing is the lying surly cousin who will show you a good time but only wants your money and demands the pleasure of stomping you on its sewer-smelling sidewalks while turning out your pockets for every last bit of change.
This might be an unfair characterization. I’m willing to admit that I might be wrong in having this sentiment. It’s also probably fair to say that when you’re making lists with titles like “What’s the Difference Between a Four-Year-Old and a 40 Pound Piece of Luggage?” that you’ve been traveling for too long.
[Sample from the list…
40 Pound Luggage can be left alone at the hotel room.
40 Pound Luggage is allowed on the plane without an extra charge.
40 Pound Luggage doesn’t need to be fed.
40 Pound Luggage doesn’t have a meltdown in a restaurant or on a subway train or on a sidewalk.]
At the end of our first full day in Beijing I was glad that my wife had taught in Shanghai and not Beijing.
At the end of our second day (which I will try to detail in my next post), my wife wanted to change our train tickets back to Shanghai from Thursday to Wednesday. Today is Wednesday here, but we have plans to meet an old colleague of my wife’s for dinner. Otherwise, we really would be on the next high-speed train to Shanghai.
It all started with the most disappointing experience I have so far had in China: The Forbidden City.
First off, you are only allowed to enter at the South Gate. We found this out when we walked to the East gate, a short walk form our hotel. The East gate is not open. So if you want to do Tiananmen Square, you should do that first, because it’s South of the Forbidden City, and it’s a very long walk to and from the Forbidden City, especially the North Gate, which is the exit you are, ahem, strongly encouraged to use. The Forbidden City is not small.
When we found out about the entrance and exit policy, we walked toward Tiananmen Square, which is separated from the Forbidden City by a ten lane street. After some wandering, we found the underpass.
Did I mention that our daughter Meredith refused to walk? So my wife and I had to take turns carrying her. It was either that or listen to a crying four-year-old.
We walked around the square, saw the People’s Monument, took pictures, and then we all started getting hungry.
Here’s something you should know: there is nothing close to Tiananmen Square. It is even gated off from the things it is next to. You have to go through a security checkpoint to get into the square. And there are plenty of surveillance cameras.
There is nothing nearby when it comes to food. We ended up going back under the underpass in search of a place to eat, only to find ourselves on South Chizi street which is filled with tourist hawkers and souvenir shops and what looked like cheap restaurants. The place we settled on had crappy food which we paid 177 Yuan for (nearly 30 dollars, not cheap by Chinese standards for stir-fry and noodles). We ordered plain rice for Meredith, who was hungry. We have ordered plain rice for her at many restaurants and she has eaten it. For whatever reason, she did not want to eat it. So she pouted, kicked the table, kicked the chair, then finally she knocked over my wife’s bag onto the floor.
My wife put her in a timeout on the sidewalk outside the restaurant and came back in to eat her so-so dumpling soup. Meredith cried on the sidewalk, drawing a few onlookers. After a few spoonfuls, Stephanie went outside and brought Meredith back in. Meredith still did not eat the rice.
Our stomachs full of the crappy food, we walked all the way back around to the East gate and took the trolley to the South Gate.
To get into the Forbidden City you have to buy tickets (60 Yuan/per person) to the “Palace Museum.” This is a misnomer. There is no “museum” in the sense that Westerners like me understand it. That price gets you onto the grounds of the Forbidden City itself. You can not enter any of the buildings. At all. Except for the Stone Drum Hall. Which is interesting. It contains large round stones with inscriptions of Chinese characters
I bought two tickets, after having to shove my way to the front through the usual non-line formed by a crowd of Chinese tourists (kids under 1.2m are free, luckily our kids are small), and spent $20 for the privilege of walking around a bunch of old interconnected buildings without being able to go inside any of them or learn their significance.
There are a lot of them and there is a lot of walking.
To see the “Treasures of the Museum,” a meager but stunning collection of artifacts that includes amazingly ornate jade carvings and gold celestial bodies chart you pay another 10 Yuan per person. But it’s a very small collection.
In fact, the Palace Museum Gift Shop, which you can see below, has more square footage than the inside space you’re allowed to enter in the Forbidden City.
Also, there were no maps in any language other than Chinese. OK, I know, I’m in China. But seriously? At one of the main Chinese Tourist Attractions? There was an electronic audio guide you could rent, but with two small children that didn’t seem like a smart bet. With kids we need to go at our own pace, which means lingering on some things and skipping others.
The Forbidden City is huge and impressive. But you are unable to learn anything about it without a guide. There are no signs explaining anything, even in Chinese.
We did take some nice pictures. So there is that.
After exiting at the North Gate, we walked to our hotel room. I had to carry Meredith and, once again, she fell asleep in my arms.
At the hotel I spent over an hour online searching for restaurants nearby that had been reviewed and recommended. None seemingly exist. Apparently, we’re staying at this wonderful hotel that is a stone’s throw from the Forbidden City, yet none of the restaurants nearby are on the radar of the local foodies.
Nor are any reviewed restaurants near any Metro stops. Which is just as well because our hotel isn’t near any Metro stops. The subway here is not as extensive as the one in Shanghai, which makes traveling around, especially with small children, a tad difficult.
I found a restaurant named Filling House. It seemed to be a good one, worth the price of a cab ride and reasonably priced. It even featured a window to the kitchen where you could watch the chef hand roll noodles. I thought the kids would love that. According to the reviews on TimeOut Beijing it’s a good place.
I wrote down the address and brought it down to the hotel concierge to see if they could write down the address in Chinese characters. With the Chinese characters, we could have a taxi driver take us there.
After a lot of confusion on the part of the earnest and helpful hotel staff, it turned out the listed number doesn’t work anymore. Apparently, Filling House is no longer in business.
Stephanie wrote down the address, 74 Baochao Hutong, along with the phone number. We brought it back over to the hotel desk. The very helpful staff once again took up the task. They called the restaurant to confirm it’s address. Done. They wrote down the address in Chinese characters, we thanked them profusely, and off we went to hail a cab.
Several open taxis refused to stop for us. These were interspersed with a few taxis that did stop but their drivers, upon seeing the address, refused to take us but then took some Chinese people somewhere. This left us frustrated and dumbfounded.
Finally, a taxi driver agreed to take us. He dropped us off somewhere and through hand gestures and Mandarin explained something, none of which I understood other than maybe that the road for the restaurant was perpendicular to the street we were on. I paid him and we got out. The restaurant was nowhere to be seen.
We asked a man who was saying hello to our kids as we got out of the taxi if he recognizes the address. Through hand signals he points us in another direction. We walked in that direction for awhile.
We figured out that Hutong means Alley. But we didn’t see signs for Baochao Hutong anywhere. We did not know what to do.
We walked up what another person said is the right hutong and didn’t see the restaurant at all. We saw a restaurant with a name in Chinese on one side and a public restroom on the other that was set at an odd angle in front of what looked like a Super 8 Motel under construction. We turned around and headed back to the street and gave up on finding Mr. Shi’s. No dumplings or noodles would not be eaten by us that night.
We saw a restaurant that advertised in English that it was a Halal restaurant. The others nearby didn’t have any English signs. My wife was now famished and said she didn’t care anymore, that she just wanted to sit down and eat…something. It was now well after seven o’clock. I was tired, so the idea of trying to figure out a menu with the handful of food-related Chinese characters I know did not appeal to me.
So we went into the halal restaurant. Stephanie ordered a chicken sandwich. We ordered french fries and shakes for the kids. I had a chicken stir-fry dish with rice. Then Meredith started acting out and proceeded to do one of her high-pitched screams. I picked her up and set her on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. I was about to go back in when she got all apologetic.
I took Meredith back inside where we then ate without incident. The food was okay. Nothing special.
By the time we finished eating it was around 8:30pm. Time to try our luck at hailing another taxi.
Several open taxis refused to stop. In-between them were several more taxi drivers who refused to take us after seeing the hotel address, yet allowed Chinese people into their cabs and took them wherever it was they wanted to go.
I started using variations of the word “fuck” in front of my kids I hadn’t used before.
We needed to get back and clean ourselves up and put the kids to bed so they could get enough rest for our trip to the Great Wall the following day. But there we were stranded in Beijing without the faintest idea what the hell to do. Because apparently, where we wanted to go wasn’t a place Beijing taxi drivers are willing to take people, especially loawai.
My wife had the brilliant idea of just getting into the next open taxi and basically demanding they take us there. Guilt them with the kids already in the cab. This actually worked. The driver drove and dropped us off across the street from our Hotel.
My wife, still furious like me over our experience with the apparent impossibility of getting a Beijing taxi driver to take you anywhere, asked the hotel staff at the front desk what was up with that. Their explanation: it happens to everyone, not just laowai. Since taxi drivers here are paid by distance, not time, they don’t want to take people during rush hour where they’ll have to sit in traffic wasting gas, nor do they want to take people to places where they think they won’t get a return fair. So you have to essentially bribe them, wave money around and offer to pay them more than what the metered fair would be.
The Ethnocentric-minded American in me would just say, if the rates aren’t enough for taxi drivers to make money, why don’t they have the government raise the rates? That way, the drivers can make more money and dumb tourists like us don’t get stranded around various parts of Beijing trying to hire a taxi because we haven’t the faintest idea how the hell to hire a taxi here.
That was Day One in Beijing.