Wednesday was a busy day. We started the day by getting some food at Costa Coffee (chocolate croissant – $2) across from the Lama Temple and made our way inside the complex ($4/ticket). The Lama Temple is a collection of Tibetian Buddhist style prayer halls, Buddha images (some of which Jordan thought looked like angry smurfs), sculptures, and excessive amounts of incense wafting through the air. What Jordan found most interesting about the visit was watching a mother coax her toddler to squat in the middle of the Lama Temple Square and do his business. While Jordan definitely thought this was gross and somewhat shocking, she could not stop staring. This was one of those cases where the anthropological intrigue trumped the historical.
Following Amira’s recommendation, we walked down the street to the vegetarian restaurant across the street from the Confucius Temple where we went to town on the 80 RMB ($13) vegetarian buffet lunch. An elaborate spread of fake meats, vegetables, tofu and other mushy substances were quite enjoyable and even Hannah and Neil (who you know eat everything) agreed. From there, we continued through the a few hutongs – original (or reconstructed) Beijing neighborhoods left as they were before the rapid modernization of China began. We enjoyed checking out the quirky shops and stalls and eventually, made our way to the Drum Tower ($3/ticket) in time to catch the last drum show of the day. From the top, we enjoyed the sweeping views of the city, but the 15 minute drum show was the highlight. Next, we took a stroll through another hutong and hopped on the subway to meet Ridvan in front of our next activity.
After a quick stop at the cafe next door for Neil to refuel on espresso and for the rest of us to drink some free water and snacks from our backpacks plus use a nice bathroom (these things are very important, especially in China), we met Ridvan who had our tickets for the Chaoyang Theater Acrobatics Show ($32.50/each). While not quite Cirque Du Soliel, the high level of acrobatics kept us constantly entertained and at times, at the edge of our seats. Jordan and Neil thought that the show’s roughness around the edges made it feel a little more human. Exhilarated and hungry, we headed over to Ghost Street where we met up with Shimi for dinner. Expecting a quaint dining street, we were disappointed by the typical assortment of Chinese restaurants, but the interesting company made up for unimaginative Chinese BBQ restaurant where we ended up eating ($30 for assorted skewers and drinks, thanks to the ‘rents for treating the 5 of us!). Shimi, a friend of Felix’s parents, regaled us with stories of life as an expat Israeli in Beijing, and took charge of communication with the locals, which was a welcome relief. We said our goodbyes to Shimi, took the obligatory photo, and headed back to our hotel, completely exhausted.
Starbucks was the first order of business for Thursday morning. We ordered our coffees and pastries ($13) and had the barista write our names in Chinese on our cups. As we sat and enjoyed our breakfast, an Israeli guy overheard our conversation and began speaking to us, As it turned out, Or was a flight attendant on El Al and was in Beijing for a few days on one of his stops. Jordan especially enjoued the conversation with him and told him that she hoped to see him on one of her future flights to Israel. It’s always good to have fun connections.
Caffeinated and fed, we were on our way to the Summer Palace ($5/ticket). More than just a palace, the large site on the outskirts of modern Neijing includes a number of grand buildings perched on a tree covered hilltop overlooking the beautiful Kunming Lake. In the center of the lake is an island connected by the decorative Seventeen Arch Bridge. Once the exclusive retreat of Emperors, the buildings, paths, trails and walkways (many of which were reconstructions) were full of tourists from China and around the world. We began with a view of a traditional water street, made to mimic the canal streets of Suzhou and used to recreate a commercial street (complete with maids and eunuchs posing as clerks) so that Emperors could learn what “real life” was like. From there, we climbed to the top of the hill where we explored the various structures and sweeping views.
Following a few trails down to the bottom of the hill on the lake side, we made our way to a snack shop and sat watching the dragon boats cross the lake while enjoying a lunch of cold noodles in sesame sauce ($3 with a drink). We walked along the lakeside covered walkway, once reserved for Emperors and now crowded with Chinese tourists. Rather than walking the whole way around the lake, we took a shortcut in the form of a Dragon-Boat Ferry ($6 each) across to the island in the center of the lake. All these beautiful views coupled with the intense sun left us feeling tired, yet satisfied. We made our way to the exit via a string of palaces, stopping to cool off periodically and grab an ice cream ($1.50 for a taro ice cream and cone).
With a few hours left before our night train, shopping and eating were on the agenda. Our first stop was the Silk Market – another multi-level indoor mall of stalls selling… pretty much everything. Felix picked up a pair of polo shirts ($7 each) earning the moniker “tough guy” for his bargaining skills. For maximum efficiency, we split up from Hannah and Neil for an hour, and rendezvoused at the supermarket where we stocked up on snacks for the train ($10). Having not set foot outdoors (the market is directly connected to the metro), we headed to our next stop: Wangfujing Snack Street. An overwhelming array of stalls and restaurants lining a grid of old alleys, with all sorts of strange and exotic foods on offer. None of us were interested in a still-alive scorpion on a stick or an octopus tentacle, but Neil was very excited to sample a drink with liquid nitrogen which induced smoke pouring off the top. Our main course was a plate of vegetable fried noodles ($2). The four of us shared a few other goodies: Korean pancake balls, semolina cakes, batter-fried tofu, and candied haw apples for dessert ($1-3 each).
After a long day, we were looking forward to some rest. First, though, we had to collect our bags and make it to the train. Alas, rest was still a few hours away. Once we returned to the hotel and got our bags, we packed all of our bags and ourselves into a small taxi for the 10 minute ride ($3.50) to the Beijing Railway Station. Disappointed that the VIP Waiting Room was already closed, we parked ourselves on the floor in the middle of the station (along with all the Chinese travelers) and waited for the boarding announcement. Our 4-person soft-sleeper cabin ($50/ticket) was comfortable enough (and not freezing cold, to Jordan’s delight). Our only complaint was the squat-toilet, but by now this didn’t surprise us. We turned in for the night, excited to be arriving in Pingyao the next morning.