It has taken me some time to get to a point where I felt ready to reflect on our trip to China over Thanksgiving break. Travel writers rarely forget to touch on the subject of gratitude, maybe because once you’ve gone somewhere new, it’s difficult to not feel grateful. Even those with terror stories afar come home grateful for the experience.
I’ve wondered if this reflex comes from being raised to not take anything for granted. Every stage of my life has been peppered with adults making sure I knew just how “special this time of your life is” and “don’t waste a day of it” and “boy I wish I could be your age again”. Part of this is due to the fact that I have a dad forever living in his glory days, but the other part comes from a generation gap. Those adults sharing their life wisdom with me were most likely part of the Baby Boomers, the generation that took everything for granted and will spend their twilight years looking back. The science fiction stories of their days often sought eternal youth, ways to stop the aging process; science fiction now centers around tales of artificial intelligence taking over and fighting to stay alive in a post-apocalyptic planet. That’s a stark comparison between their world and ours. But, their lessons stuck and I grew up so grateful for every breath, every day, every meal, every age and moment of my youth.
China was no exception, and I felt grateful. Grateful to experience such a different culture on my first international journey. Grateful to walk the Great Wall with my best friends. Grateful that we were together the day we found out about Jon’s diagnosis. Grateful to be in a country where we are the minority, collecting stares from strangers and awkwardly standing while Chinese people took pictures of us and handed us their babies and giggled and pointed. Grateful to see Connie maneuvering a new country like a pro, teaching us things we would have never known without her expertise.
When Connie told me she was going to China to work as an architect right after she got her Master’s degree, I knew I was going to go see her. I wasn’t sure if Bryan would be interested, but I knew I would regret it forever if I didn’t go, and doing things alone never bothered me a bit. Visiting China takes a bit of planning, and I wanted to wait until Connie got there to buy my plane ticket because she was unsure of the details of her time there. Initially she was promised three months of work, but once she arrived, they placed her in a design team and told her she could stay as long as she wanted. I was ready to buy my ticket.
At this point, Bryan had decided he wanted to come. We bought tickets for Thanksgiving break and told Connie we were all set. When Ashley got the news we were officially going to China, she was immediately dead set on finding a way to go too. Ashley had been in Tennessee for several months and we were still adjusting to living apart. Being in China together was too tempting to pass up. It wasn’t long until Ashley and Destry had their tickets booked. Well what would Thanksgiving in China be without Emily? She knew she would be so sad in America while we frolicked in Asia, so finally, she booked her ticket as well!
While preparing visa paperwork, I noticed that you have to have the address of the place you are staying before you can apply. We all wanted to be near each other as much as possible, but I also knew Bryan and I wanted our own room and bathroom because why not? Emily found some great rentals where we could all stay in one apartment, but usually these were far from the city and lacked character. I sent them a link to the Peking International Youth Hostel, a place I found online after sifting through pages and pages of reviews. It looked really charming, bursting with fresh flowers and lots of options for rooms. Bryan and I had a room “en suite” which Connie told me means your bathroom is in your room, and Ashley, Destry and Emily stayed in a room with two beds “en suite”. Connie’s housing is on the outer edge of the city, so she was able to book a bed in the big sleeping room at the Hostel for the week we were there.
Emily, Bryan and I left from Seattle around 3 p.m. on the Saturday before Thanksgiving (November 22) and arrived in China around 10:00 p.m. Sunday night (November 23) after a 13 hour flight. We passed the time watching movies and trying desperately not to check the map to see how much longer we had. I cannot sleep on planes, so I knew it would be brutal at times. Although, watching the plane progress on its journey was interesting – I assumed we would cut straight across the Pacific Ocean to China, but instead, the plane followed the borders of Canada, Alaska, the Bering Strait, Russia, North Korea, then down to Beijing.
Ashley and Destry had arrived a few hours before us, so when we exited the terminal we were greeted with the biggest hugs and smiles that we had waited so long to see. Ashley, Destry and Connie were nearly three sheets to the wind, since you can drink beer everywhere in China and they had been crushing them waiting for our plane to land. We got on the airport express subway and a half hour later, numerous stops and transfers, we arrived in our hutong. It was quiet as we wheeled our luggage down the cobblestone alleyway, and I felt such strong contrasting impulses to explore Beijing all night and immediately fall asleep until late morning. I had some life left in me, and once we put our stuff in our rooms, I smoked one more cigarette with the group before finally going to sleep.
Monday was spent exploring our hutong and the surrounding neighborhoods. Hutongs are basically narrow alleyways that were constructed to house courtyard residences and shops. While they are packed with pedestrians and signs forbid cars from driving down the alleys, you’ll still feel a slight bump on the leg from a car slowly weaving its way through the hutong. There are no rules in Beijing seemingly, especially when it comes to traffic. That first day, we had the most beautiful blue and clear skies, something I hear is rare in such a smoggy city.
On Tuesday, we went to the 798 Art District. This was my first real experience with Beijing traffic. I learned from Connie that middle-class homes didn’t have cars until 7 or 8 years ago, so the surge in traffic was swift and poorly planned. Cars make lanes where they want, and horns are used consistently to warn other drivers that you are squeezing between. Children ride on their parents’ scooters with no helmets in the midst of 6 lane traffic, and yet we only saw one traffic wreck the whole time we were there.
The Art District was full of sculptures, paintings, graffiti, museums, shops, and cafes. It also had a really unfinished, industrial feel to it that I thought made it much more interesting to observe some of the pieces. The district spanned four (or more?) blocks, and takes you from dusty alleys covered in rubble to streets lined with delicate life-size flowers made of crepe paper. After we walked around all morning, we found a literal hole-in-the-wall restaurant where we ate some good, greasy Chinese food.
Before we headed back to our hutong, we stopped by LotteMart, the hugest store I’ve ever seen in my life. The entire store is the size of most American malls, and tiny booths are crammed on every floor selling everything imaginable. We made our way to the grocery side so we could buy coffee and snacks to prepare for our trip to the Great Wall the next day. As we left the store, Ashley found a stand selling candied fruit sticks, something she had seen people eating all over the place. Her and Bryan were not impressed, but at least they got to try it.
Stay tuned for Beijing Part Two next week.