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Ni hao everybody!  Erin and I just returned from our first trip, to the great city of Beijing.  Of all our traveling exploits, I think this ranks as the one I am most proud of us accomplishing (slightly in front of renting a car in South Africa and having no issues whatsoever) because so much could have gone very wrong on this trip.  The day started in Tangshan, getting in a cab for the bus station.  We jumped our first hurdle, which was getting the cab driver to understand that we wanted a bus to Beijing.  After a few minutes, he understood, dropped us at the station, and we purchased our tickets.  We hopped on the bus, listened to some guy try to sell everyone these cheap looking rings (and selling at least one to every person on the bus except us!!!), and then headed towards the Chinese capital.

We were dropped in the middle of nowhere, and wandered around confused, repeating the words “Tian’an Men” to various people, trying to get towards Tiananmen Square.  After about 40 minutes, we got a cab and were taken to the city center.  Unfortunately for us, the weather was pretty nasty on Monday.  Not nasty meaning rainy or cold, nasty meaning they sky was brown with dust blowing around constantly.  We have both had enough of the pollution/dust, but what can you do?  Luckily it cleared up substantially that night, so it wasn’t too bad.  Anyways, if you are standing in the middle of Tian’an Men Square, take a couple steps forward because you might be standing on Chairman Mao’s embalmed corpse!  In the middle of the square is…Chairman Mao’s Memorial Hall, which is basically his body and some sculptures.  The body is on display in the morning and afternoon, but we didn’t see it this time.  There is an obelisk in the middle as well, the Monument to the People’s Heroes.  If you are facing the Forbidden Palace, then the Great Hall of the People (aka Parliament building) will be on your left, and the National Museum of China will be on your right.  The most impressive aspect of the square, as I mentioned before, was the size of it.  Some pictures of the square and the buildings are attached, so take a look!

We wandered about the square for a little while, but we wanted to find a hotel ASAP, because we did not have our passports with us, which presented another potential obstacle.  We had letters from the government of Tangshan saying our passports were being reviewed so we can become resident aliens and luckily Erin remembered as we were walking out the door that we had copies of our passports.  We walked up Wangfujing Street, the main shopping street in all of Beijing.  There are huge malls on both sides of the street and the place is packed with pedestrians.  After getting our hotel room squared away, we got some food near St. Joseph’s Church, one of the oldest and most impressive churches in Beijing.  After eating, we walked towards the Wangfujing “Night Market”, one of the most famous food streets in China.  A food street is a street that has tons of street food, and every city in China seems to have at least one, if not many, food streets.  The Night Market is special in that it has gathered many of the street foods found in cities all around China.  It is a walking tour of street food around China, a tad overpriced, but we learned quickly that just about everything in Beijing, even if the price is listed, is negotiable.  I took lots of pictures of the foods found in the street; beef, lamb, potatoes, eggs, noodles, silk works, snake, sheep testacles, sheep penis, seahorses, starfish…you get the idea.  If anyone comes to visit us, seeing the Night Market is an absolute must in my opinion.  There just aren’t places like that, especially with foods like that in the USA.

We walked down Wangfujing street again, looking at more of the shopping areas this time.  We bought some books for learning Chinese, a map of Beijing, and I bought “The Analects”, the most famous book of Confucian teachings at the Foreign Language Bookstore.  The street looked very different and a lot more lively at night, and there were cheap souvenirs were all over the place (although the first price you hear is usually not so cheap).  As I mentioned before, prices are very negotiable in Beijing, and as our manager explained to us, you should expect to pay about 30% of the first price they give you.  Based on our experiences haggling, I would say expect to pay 10-30% of the first price they give you!  There are a lot of tourists in Beijing and many of them do not even attempt to haggle, so these places have to make an incredible amount of profit per sale.  The constant haggling is another fun aspect of Beijing (and most of China), but it gets tiresome, because you have to deal with salespeople telling you outrageous prices and then whittling the price down to 10% of the original.  Some pictures of the souvenir shops are also included, with some of the even odder delicacies we saw that night, namely LIVE SCORPIONS!  Why people were eating these still moving scorpions I do not know, but I guess there is a certain fascination with eating anything that weird.  Part of me dies inside seeing the way the Chinese treat animals and the environment, but there isn’t a whole lot I can say to change anyone’s minds.  If an entire country is willing to put up with dust storms and pollution that makes them get cancer, blocks the sun for months, and don’t mind not seeing a blue sky all year, how can you change their minds about other environmentally damaging things?  I don’t have the answer yet.  We walked in a few more shops, did a loop back up the Night Market, bought some street food for dinner, and then went to sleep.  Erin didn’t feel great (potentially because of the dust), so we wanted to get lots of sleep for the massive amounts of walking we would do on Tuesday.

Beijing is a great city that is incredibly hospitable to the large amount of foreign tourists that visit, but at the same time, many people in the city understand that it is almost too easy to fool a tourist that speaks no Chinese and has no idea what prices are like in China.  We encountered a common scam Monday night, which involves 20ish year old girls approaching you, telling you they are college students learning English, and are wondering if they can practice with you.  Then they ask to get coffee somewhere, where you are then potentially charged thousands of US dollars for coffee.  If you refuse to pay, gangsters that are part of the plot will make you aware that refusing to pay is simply not an option.  Don’t worry, we chatted with the girls for a little while just to see if they were scammers, and sure enough, they asked us to go for coffee, and we declined.  It makes you appreciate humble cities like Tangshan in a way, because we have not been given an unfair price at all since we have been here.  There is no haggling in Tangshan, even as an obviously foreign customer, because most of the shopkeepers are so stupefied that a foreigner is in their store in the first place.  All this considered, if you ever have had an interest in Beijing or in visiting us, you should do it.  Seeing Beijing would be worth the trip in itself.

This is just day 1 of our 2 day journey to Beijing, but I am too tired to finish it.  Maybe my lovely girlfriend can author part 2, but she is already asleep.  So for now you will have to enjoy part 1, and come back tomorrow (or later tonite I suppose) to see part 2.  I am going to leave a quote from the Analects at the bottom of my posts from now on, so put your philosophical thinking caps on.  Zajian everybody! (zaijian = goodbye)

2.2  (Book 2, passage 2)  The Master said, “If out of the three hundred Songs I had to take one phrase to cover all my teaching, I would say ‘Let there be no evil in your thoughts.'”

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So we had nothing at all to do today, so we decided to try to see a little bit of the city we will be living in.  We went with Eddie and Sally (owners of the school) and the other teacher, David.  The first place we stopped at was one of the major outdoor markets, which was an interesting experience.  It started with 4 of us getting in the back of a 3 wheel, motorized cart.  These things are all over the place, and they are just really cheap taxis.  You can see a picture of 3 of us and the driver all crammed into the little cabin.  At the market, there was a huge meat and fish market which was a little depressing, and I don’t think it would have quite passed the US’s food and health inspection.  Everyone was pretty surprised to see a bunch of foreigners walking around, and would laugh at our attempts at speaking Chinese (except for Sally who is Chinese).  They sell lots of random things as well, like mops, gloves, batteries, light bulbs, video games…pretty much you name it, they have it.  It probably isn’t authentic or high quality, but they probably have it.  I got a pair of gloves and a mop for about $3.00, so it was a successful trip.

The street food here is something to experience in itself.  It isn’t your typical American street food, with hot dogs, nachos, sausages etc.  They do eat hot dogs, but they are usually either fried or served on a stick.  One of the primary street food items, at least up here, is the baozi (pronounced bow-tze), which is a small dumpling filled with meat.  It kinda looks like a big hershey’s kiss, only it is filled with meat.  They are everywhere, and are pretty good.  Most of the food has a distinct and very different flavor to it too, similar to cumin and also with lots of bean paste.  Most of it isn’t bad, but I don’t particularly like it, although I do really like the prices.  None of it costs more than 50 cents, and most of it costs between 20-35 cents.  It is pretty incredible.  We sampled a bunch of different street foods at the market, such as cookies, fried sweet potato balls (very good), vegetable baozi, and a chicken pancake wrap.  All for less than 3 bucks (before I am asked, I did not eat the meat)!

After stopping by our apartment to drop off the mop that we got, David, Erin and I decided to take a bike trip downtown (isn’t it great that the other teacher is also named David).  I wanted to see the earthquake memorial, which is in the center of the city, so we hopped on our bikes and started riding.  Getting around in China is different from in the USA.  It is best to think of transportation as a food chain; buses and trucks are at the top of the food chain, followed by cars, motorbikes, bikes, and lastly pedestrians.  The rule of the road is “Don’t be in the way of something higher than you on the food chain.”  If you are lower on the food chain, you are expected to move out of the way of the bigger vehicles, and it is a little scary at first.  People also honk their horns CONSTANTLY, for all sorts of reasons.  Usually it is a warning of some kind, such as “I am going through this red light!!!!!!!” but sometimes it is hard to find any reason for the blaring.  You will see people hold their horns for 10 seconds, and then drive straight through a red light or make some crazy left turn through pedestrians.  It works though, so who am I to argue that the pedestrian has the right of way.  That is not the case here, and even if it is, you would be killed in a day if you lived by that.  Luckily our bike trip was successful, and we made it downtown safely.  I have attached some pics of the earthquake memorial, it is a park with one big obelisk.  Nothing too special, but it also had a huge fountain so it will be cooler in the summertime. (quick aside: in 1976, Tanghsan had the deadliest earthquake in human history, killing about 250,000 people.  That is the government reported number though, and most think it was actually 700,000+.  Kinda scary, especially considering I have felt a tremor already.)

After the memorial, we wandered over to the dinosaur market (photos attached), a collection of stores that were nothing particularly special.  Again, everyone was very amused by us, especially when Erin and I bought some street food.  Within 10 seconds a crowd of about 25 people had gathered just to see what we were saying, which was “I don’t understand, what are you saying?  How much does this cost.”  It was exciting for them though!  We wandered the market for a while, then headed back to our bikes, stopping at Pizza Hut on the way.  We didn’t actually eat at the Pizza Hut, because it is THE MOST EXPENSIVE RESTAURANT WE HAVE SEEN SO FAR!!  The menu offered meals with multiple courses, had classical music playing, and was connected to a 4 or 5 star hotel.  Somehow American fast food has convinced the Chinese that they are very high class establishments in the West, but to us it was just bizarre and over-priced.  Have they never heard of the $5,5,5 deal?!  I don’t want soup, salad and pizza from Pizza Hut.  I have also read that KFC has somehow convinced the Japanese through advertising that the typical American meal on Christmas is a bucket of fried chicken!  There are weeks long reservations to get a BUCKET of KFC in Tokyo on December 24th and 25th!  Ahh, the power of advertising.

That was the extent of our journey pretty much.  I added some amusing pictures from today, of the Glory Palace, with random Statue of Liberty on top, and two signs from bathrooms that I thought were funny.  Men smoke pipes, women wear high heels, got it?  Erin and I bought some fried bread that we used to make little pizzas, which turned out very well, and now I am starting round 2 of mopping our floor.  Exciting!  Order some Pizza Hut for me!

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