Hello from Beijing!
The flight here was pretty horrible. I was more than ready for it to be over at hour nine. Fortunately we arrived in Beijing with only minimal turbulence. My first impression of Beijing was smog and heat. What they say about the pollution is true - this whole week has seemed cloudy, even on what was supposed to be a sunny day, due to smog.
My hostel is wonderful! It is located in one of the hutong districts which are wonderful to walk around and find little shops and restaurants.
My first night here I met two others staying in the hostel - Kate (England) and Heather (Canada) - who have been teaching in South Korea. They were in China for their summer vacations, and we spent the past few days seeing the sights. We took a boat up to the Summer Palace on our first full day here and accidentally walked the long way around the lake to the Palace. We rented a paddleboat and took it out into the lake to get great views of the Palace, then went back into the city proper and sought out Peking duck for dinner.
On Sunday we went to the train station to book our tickets onward (to Shanghai and Xi'an, respectively) and spent about 45 minutes just waiting for the ticket seller to come back to the window after she left for her break. Then we managed to navigate our way to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We stopped for lunch at a little hole-in-the-wall place near the duck restaurant that didn't have english or picture menus - we ordered by pointing at dishes the locals were eating that we thought looked good. The locals were amused. Then we wandered Tiananmen Square and entered the Forbidden City. We found an Australian volunteer, Matt, who offered to take us on an impromptu tour of the complex since his shift was ending. It turned out to be quite insightful and he gave us directions to the night market as well. Unfortunately, we were only able to see about half of the complex since the guards started shutting down one half of it while we were there - Matt told us it ususually means that someone important is coming for a visit when they do that. We left the palace and caught a taxi to the night market where we tried glazed fruit, fresh coconut milk and starfish - no scorpions or silkworm larvae for us.
On Monday we visited the Temple of Heaven, where Kate got roped into dancing with some of the locals. While at the temple we noticed a lot of Chinese tourists taking pictures of us rather than the temple and several of them asked if we would pose with them. I guess western tourists are as big an attraction as the sights themselves. Later, after taking a long drive around the city, we went to an acrobat show which was very impressive. I'll try to post some photos soon. We wandered the hutongs until we found a little restaurant with lamb skewers, Chinese beer and an amazing chicken and leek dish.
Yesterday was The Wall. We booked a tour through the same place that arranged the acrobatics show, and they picked us up at our hostel yesterday morning. There were about a dozen people in all going. It started out alright. We went to the Ming Tombs in the morning, which were a bit underwhelming, then to a jade factory for lunch. At that point we were okay, since we figured that the obligatory shopping part of the tour was over. We drove to the wall (at Mutianyu) where we were told that we would only have two hours there. Two hours! We were all a bit shocked at that. Especially when, on the way back, we stopped at a silk factory. We spent the same amount of time in shops as we did at the wall and got back to Beijing an hour and a half later than they had promised. Needless to say, we were a bit disappointed. But the wall was spectacular. Heather and I spent a bit of time trying to perfect our "jumping for joy on The Wall" photos and taking pictures of Bugs on the Wall (the latter was more Heather than me).
This morning we went to the Pearl Market to do some souvenir shopping. We got some great deals - not as good as the locals would get, but we didn't complain. Then we grabbed lunch and Kate and Heather left to catch their train to Xi'an. My day has been spent relaxing and doing laundry. Boring, yes, but necessary. Tomorrow is my last day in Beijing and then I catch a train to Shanghai. I'll try to post photos of Beijing soon.