While I was in Beijing, I wanted to get my tooth looked at. If you have been reading my blog regularly, you’ll remember that I chipped it in Lhasa. I asked Elyse if she knew of anyplace good. She gave me their name, but said that they were closed for the New Year and wouldn’t open until Monday — 2 days before we were hoping to leave. Monday we were going to visit the Great Wall — a trip that usually takes around 8 hours because of the horrible transportation to the part we wanted to see, so I was going to have to go to the dentist on Tuesday.
On Sunday night, the epoxy that the doctor in Lhasa had applied came out when I was eating at Pizza Hut. So I was broken for a couple of days, but I was good about brushing and rinsing so that nothing got stuck in the hole (picture). On Tuesday, I tracked down King’s Dental and caught a cab up there.
I knew immediately that I was out of my league, as this was the nicest dentist’s office I’d ever seen. The pleasant receptionist greeted me and informed me that the next day was the earliest I could have work done. I explained that I’d be headed to Mongolia and asked if there was any way it could be earlier. She said that I could get a cleaning done that day, but that wouldn’t have solved my problem. I asked to speak to a dentist to get their opinion and she motioned for me to have a seat in the waiting area, which looked more like a restaurant. She brought me some kind of rasberry flavored tea which was quite good.
In a few minutes, I was greeted by a young woman who spoke very good English. I explained my problem and showed her the affected tooth. She said that it would probably be OK until I got back from my trip if I were only going to be away from Beijing for a few days. So I had to explain that I wasn’t coming back and it’d be over a month before I’d be able to see a real dentist again. She agreed that something should be done and that she’d see if she could find someone to take care of it. Shortly she returned and said that it was alright, I could have work done. I was relieved.
The fee to see the dentist was 200 Yuan (~$25). I went back and sat in the nicest dentistry chair that I’ve ever seen, surrounded by some of the most modern technology that there is to be had. In the waiting area, I’d read a writeup about the dentist’s office that said they were trying to bring Beijing dentistry into the 21st century. They succeeded. The dentist poked and prodded and poked some more. She explained that I’d need to have it drilled out and filled in again properly. They had two options, one is a plastic like the one that I’d gotten in Lhasa, but probably better, the other option was to have them make a replica of the part I’d lost from ceramic right there on the spot. The ceramic option was 2500Y, the plastic 600Y. I figured that I might need more work on the tooth when I got back to the US, so I opted for the cheaper patch.
She began drilling with very clean and precise instruments, something that the dentist in Lhasa did not have to work with. After about 20 minutes, she was done and began the process of applying and setting the epoxy. During the entire procedure she took photographs for the records. After the epoxy had set up, she began shaping it and did an excellent job (picture). It feels nearly identical to my other tooth. She explained that I shouldn’t eat or drink anything too hot for about a week to allow the epoxy to completely set. I agreed, paid, and left.
On the whole of it, 800 RMB (just over $100) isn’t bad, considering the quality of care the I received. I’d gladly go to King’s Dental if it were in the US. In fact, if I were staying a few more days in Beijing, I would have gotten a cleaning and possibly even ceramic veneers put on. The prices were very reasonable, and the quality excellent.
It’s been quite a while since I wrote the original pieces on Beijing, so my memory has faded a good bit. But I’ll hit the highlights and try to give you a general feel of the city.
I went to my first clown-themed party while I was in Beijing. Some of Elyse‘s friends were throwing a party for their other friend and she invited me to tag along. I didn’t have any clowny gear, so instead I just puffed up my hair as best I could and put some lipstick on my nose. I didn’t look much like a clown, but it worked well enough. That crowd wasn’t too picky about the outfit, they just wanted to have fun.
The party is hosted at a bar so there is a lot of room. Some of this is taken up by contests and booths set up, in keeping with the carnival like atmosphere. There is an “Adult Kissing Booth” for taking some pictures of the guest of honor with his friends in compromising positions. There are also some setups for the games we’ll be playing, like “Pin the Penis on the Donkey,” “Sexual Position Balloon Pop,” and “Lipstick Kissing Contest” where you cover each others’ bodies with lipstick kisses. We are all in teams of 3-4 for this, which really helped me get to know people quickly. We all fought hard and gave it our best effort, but our team didn’t win. On some controversial calls, we came in second.
The party ended and Elyse and I went off to get some food with one of her friends. We ate at a place named for a Scandinavian Table Tennis champion, if I recall correctly. The food was pretty good. Then we headed off to this cool bar in the penthouse of a hotel down the street. It reminded me of a Western style bar and felt very trendy and European. Lots of funky colors, just a bit retro, and top notch drinks. We spent an hour or so there, and I met some really interesting people: journalists, actors, etc. All expats living in Beijing.
The trip to the Great Wall was pretty nutty. Brian and I had heard all sorts of things about fake wall ruins close to or inside the city that tourists would get shuttled to, so we stuck to just what the LP said. We decided to go to one of the least traveled spots (Simatai) which turned out to be very complicated and hard to figure out. Getting there and back involved buses, minibuses, taxis, and walking. In the end we spent about 6 hours getting there and away and only about 3-4 hours on the wall. But it was certainly worth it.
We woke up fairly early, around 8am, and got our breakfast in the Pub connected to the hostel. It was good and filling. Then we went to the long distance bus station about a mile away. No one spoke English, so we pointed in our book at the Mandarin characters and eventually someone understood what we wanted. We located the bus, bought a ticket outside, and got on board. Only a few minutes after the scheduled departure time, we left.
As we rode out of the city, the bus made a few stops to pick up those who were standing at the side of the road and waving. There didn’t appear to be any regular bus stops, as we sometimes stopped twice in 50 yards to pick up people standing and waving, rather than running towards a spot. Just before we left Beijing, we were ushered off the bus with only a few people, and put onto one with quite a few more.
There were several seats in the middle of the aisle that folded down and we were put on those. Inevitably by the time we were full, people were riding on each others laps and on the floor by the door. It was not until no other bodies could fit into the vehicle that the driver refused to accept payment and let people board. We rode in this cramped position for about three hours and were encouraged to get off the bus in seemingly the middle of nowhere. However, thanks to the Lonely Planet, we’d expected this. A minibus was waiting for wall climbers to save them the 15km trek — for a fee, of course.
The area at the starting point of the hike to the wall looked like it would have been nice in Summer. In Winter, however, it seemed to fade into the background of gray. There was a dam across the small river there so there was a moderately sized lake alongside the switchbacking trail running up the hill to the part of the wall we were going to climb.
We collected some friends as we ascended the trail: two Chinese women who wanted to sell us some books or postcards or something. We told them “wo bu shu yao” (which means “I don’t want it” in a respectful tone), but they continued to follow us. When we reached the wall, they began to tell us things about its history when we stopped to take pictures. They were great climbers, having done this probably several times a day for many years. We ran into very few others climbing the wall, including a group of three Canadians who were traveling at roughly our speed. They were fairly critical of the Chinese women, scolding them for following us and telling us to watch out for ourselves, that we’d be hustled for money at some point. But we’d dealt with our fair share of hustles by then. At one point, one of the Canadians started speaking in Mandarin to the Chinese women and shooed them away. It was probably better for the Chinese women to not waste their time on us, but we didn’t mind them talking to us and it seemed pretty rude.
There were parts of the wall that were too dilapidated to cross or that were under construction, so there were trails heading down the side. Many of the old lookout towers, lived in by guards, were crumbling with little attempt to repair them. It was apparent which stones were old and which had been put in more recently to fill a gap. This is the way the wall had been built and maintained over the centuries since it was originally built. At first it was several separate walls guarding different cities, then it was joined to keep out the Mongols to the North. It didn’t succeed. And now the wall has become a reason to come to China, spurring tourism. This was an irony not lost on us. As a barrier to entry, the Great Wall of China has to be the most spectacular failure in mankind’s history, actually doing the opposite of its intent on a grand scale.
The farthest traversable point for the section of wall we decided to climb was high up on a hill, called Watching Beijing Tower. This spot has a tremendous viewpoint for seeing Inner Mongolia to the North and all the way to Beijing, 120km to the South. However, due to the smoggy conditions, we were only able to see a kilometer or two into the distance. It was still a gorgeous view and we rested for a while there.
We were able to head down much faster than we’d gone up, but it was also more dangerous. Some parts of the wall were nearly vertical for a few dozen yards, so traversing these sections was especially difficult. When we finally made it to the base of the wall and to the concrete trail where we’d begun, our legs felt like jelly. Brian decided that it would be easier to take a zip-line down to the base of the trail, across the dam from where we’d originated. Meanwhile, I decided that I would rather take photographs and videos in case the Chinese engineering didn’t save him.
When we both reached the parking lot, we had a couple of taxis to choose from. So they did what taxi drivers do in that situation, they fought over us. We finally negotiated a price for a ride back to the spot where the bus would pick us up. The cabbie spoke pretty good English, so we were able to speak with him a bit. We ended up making it back with only about 15 minutes to wait before the next transport back to Beijing, so the driver waited with us and we sat in his cab. When the bus finally came, he flagged it down and spoke with the bus driver — something we couldn’t have managed as well. However, the bus was obviously full. The bus driver wanted us to get on board, so he kicked someone back to a further back seat and offered something filthy for us to sit on. The cab driver, however, siezed the opportunity to offer us nearly the same price for transport to a different bus station which had traditional motor coaches instead of requisitioned minibuses. We happily paid and he delivered us with some more conversation.
It was nice to have the chance to spend a half hour or more speaking with a local and we used the time to find out about his life. He was getting ready to head back home when we’d come down the trail and had already called his wife to tell her he’d be on his way home. He lived about a half hour in the other direction, so he’d have some explaining to do when he got home. It apparently wasn’t worth the price of another phone call home. He seemed to be very happy to be doing what he was with his life, which was nice to hear, and his demeanor suggested he was telling the truth. But you can’t always tell when Chinese people say something like that because you don’t know what kind of pressure they’re under to appear happy whether they are or not. This can be both political and social pressure in their culture.
When we got to the other bus station, the driver pointed out the correct bus to us and we were overjoyed to see that it looked like something a High School might have chartered to take a long field trip! We thanked the taxi driver and wished him well on his trip home and in the future. We paid our fare to get on the bus, sat down, and napped most of the way back into the city.
Buying a ticket to embark on the Trans-Mongolian Express was an adventure in itself. The timetables we had were not quite right and the schedules had changed a bit. That’s not a small thing in this case, as it meant we might have to wait as much as a week before heading to Mongolia or take a series of buses to the border where we’d find a fairly regular train into Ulan Bator.
The one thing that was annoying about our hostel was the fact that it was a little too close to the club and disco district. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have minded being close to the bars, but these were way too loud to be any good. The noise was low enough in our room, but out in the hall it was really bad. Plus, there were lots of little beggar kids down there that pestered us for money any time we came home past dark. Once they realized we weren’t going to give them money, they left us alone, except for the occasional kebab skewer they’d jab us with or rude comment they’d give us. Then there were the young, well dressed guys who’d run up to us and ask if we wanted to go to the “Lady Bar”, which is apparently a whore house.
But the most annoying thing was the group of guys who would walk along with us and say things like “Hey buddy, I’ve got what you want.” “Hey buddy, you want some stuff?” “Hey man, how’s it going? You looking for something?” “Didn’t you say you wanted something? I’ve got it.” There were no fewer than a dozen of these guys prowling around at night. They weren’t intimidating, but the thing that bothered me most is that the only drug solicitors I encountered in China were all black. I try hard to fight against these types of stereotypes, only to this one shoved back in my face. Out of about 20 black people I saw in all of China, over half of them tried to sell me drugs. It’s discouraging.
Another thing that is discouraging is how the city has neglected its cultural sites. While we were in Beijing, we visited a few historical sites and only the Great Wall seemed to have preserved its sense of self. The first of the other two sites was the Forbidden City. This is where the Emperor lived and was a vibrant place. Now, however, it feels dead and soulless. Some of the buildings are undergoing renovations, but the ones that are open are underwhelming. The cobblestone streets are dilapidated. A similar fate has befallen the Summer Palace, a retreat for the Emperor which is now a museum. The paint is all faded and peeling, intricate woodwork has gone unrepaired, and things feel as if nobody cares to keep it up. The Communists have let these vestiges of its history become rundown.
However, the Great Wall does not seem to have suffered from a similar fate. That is perhaps because it isn’t a regal leftover, but it may also be because the thing has been crumbling and being rebuilt for centuries. The part we hiked (Simitai) was far from the city and difficult to get to. Because of this, it was also pretty devoid of tourists and hawkers, which is what we were looking for. It was also one of the steepest parts of the wall. It seemed to be fairly well maintained most of the way, but there were a couple of parts that were broken down. Another part of the wall we could see from ours looked to have been repaired recently and made to be quite a bit easier to walk. I’ll write more about the wall in a later post.
There also quite a few areas of the city called “hutongs” which are neighborhoods built in a more traditional style. The streets are narrow and the buildings are built in a 3 sided square with a wall and a gate facing the street. These are nice little areas and give a feel much different from the modern city. A couple of these areas have been restored, however, many of them have been torn down to make way for more modern buildings.
The Smog in and around the city is also terrible. I’m not sure if this was because of the heavy fog the night we arrived or the fact that it was Spring Festival and maybe the factories were shut down. But whatever the reason, we did have one gorgeous day there. The first day we were there, the skies were exceptionally clear, but after that the smog set in. While it isn’t as bad as Xi’an, it is still far worse than any other city I’ve been in.
I don’t want to give the impression that Beijing is a bad place or that I didn’t like it. Quite the contrary, as the title of this series of posts should tell you. But things should be a lot better for the capital of the country. The problems here that I’ve talked about can nearly all be fixed in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics to which the city will play host. The Chinese government seems to be moving toward it, but it will take a whole lot of work.
We arrived on the plane from Lhasa to Beijing at around 11pm. It was very foggy. We bought a ticket, stowed our gear underneath, and hopped on the bus line that would take us right by the hostel we’d picked out. The airport was about 30km from the city, so a cab would have been expensive. When we got to the appropriate stop, we hopped off and asked the driver to open the underneath so that we could grab our bags. But he wouldn’t. I guess we’d missed a sign or something, but we weren’t able to get our stuff until we arrived at the final stop, Beijing Train Station. However, this was about 5km from our hostel, so we ended up having to get a cab anyway.
We ended up sharing the cab with a couple of people we’d met from Jersey. Not New Jersey, but the British island that is just off the coast of France. The cab driver offered 40Y to take us. We haggled him down to 30. Then he had to ask if anybody knew where it was. We pointed it out for him on a map, he asked somebody else, and never quite figured it out. We only had to show him the map several more times on the ride.
So we’re driving around in the thick fog at nearly midnight and the taxi driver has less of a clue where to go than we do. We tried calling the phone number listed, but it had been disconnected. He finally ends up finding the stadium that is near the hostel and stops at the wrong end of it. He rolled down his window and asked someone outside if they know where the hostel is. That guy told him something and the driver told us “Me yo,” which we knew meant something like “not here” or “out of stock” depending on who was saying it. From that we took it to mean that the hostel was not there any longer. (The next day I walked around and couldn’t find it where it was supposed to be on the map. I also spoke to someone who made a reservation with them, so they apparently just moved locations but didn’t tell anyone where they went.)
Since we couldn’t find our place, we just found the next closest hostel in the Lonely Planet, a place called the You Yi, and pointed to the phone number. He called and located it and we checked in. It was a bit expensive, but we found out that it was pretty much the going rate for Beijing. The beds and bathrooms were clean, they offered a free breakfast, they had western toilets, and hot showers. It was nearly perfect.
The next day we had breakfast and split up. Brian’s sinuses had a problem with the dry cold air in Tibet, and the relatively warm moist air of Beijing was causing him to have some problems for him. He took a nap while I walked around the city. It was a gorgeous day with no smog in the sky and I had a great time. While I was walking around, a guy on a bike carrying two giant stalks of sugarcane stopped to speak with me and practice his English. It wasn’t great, but we were able to communicate. At the end, he broke off a piece of his sugarcane and gave it to me as a gift.
I went back to the hostel and called a friend of a friend of Meredith’s (my sister) named Elyse, who I’d talked to over email. She is from North Carolina and working for the US Embassy, so she is a handy person to know. She’s also written and produced a play called “I Heart Beijing” which is where I got the title of this post. She said that there was going to be a good DJ playing at a club not too far from our hotel and we agreed to meet up there later that night.
Brian was still napping, so I went back out for a walk to let him get some rest. I also wanted to check out some hostels in different areas to check on prices. After looking around, pretty much every place was charging about what we were paying. A couple of them were in an old hutong district near the city center, and it was nice to walk through that area. Finally, I walked down to the central shopping district and found a bookstore with English language books. I bought a couple and headed for the subway to go back to the hostel.
Brian was awake and using the Internet so I joined him. We met some people from Canada, one of whom was working in Shanghai as an English language editor. We chatted for a while and decided to go out for a bite at The Tree, a Belgian bar and restaurant below the hostel. The food and beer were delicious.
Later that night, we ran into each other again and went out for a drink at a bar around the corner which had 10Y beers — cheap for Beijing. At midnight, Brian and I were going to meet Elyse, but his sinuses were feeling lousy so he went back to the room. I went to the club and finally met up with her after about a half hour and another phone call. Note to self: You should have some idea of what the person you’re meeting looks like.
We hung out and chatted for an hour or so, then left since it was getting late. She said that a friend of hers was having a birthday party in a couple of nights and would check to see if we could come. It was also going to be close to our hotel, so she showed me where it was. Everyone was going to be dressed as clowns. But that’s a story for another time….