Beijing Memories
or Love, Luck, and Duck in the Middle Kingdom

When I first came to Korea a few years ago there were several countries I was dying to visit. So during my first Chusok holiday (Korean Thanksgiving) I made reservations with my friend Andrew to visit Beijing. This is our story.

We flew on Air China from Seoul to Beijing which is approximately a two hour flight. There were a hundred or so Koreans and me and Andrew. Oddly, the stewardesses could not speak any Korean, only English and Chinese. As a veteran of two months of ELS Korean class I decided to lend a hand and help translate the menu. Unfortunately two months does not a translation expert make. Somehow I managed to translate "chicken" as "dogmeat." I was really upset that nobody could understand my translation so I started speaking LOUDER and CLEARER. "THEY HAVE BEEF AND DOGMEAT!" The strange looks alone were worth it when I realized my mistake a week later.

There is an old Chinese proverb which goes something like "You can always fool a foreigner." This became apparent shortly after our arrival. After barely clearing immigration, where the officials weren't amused at our reason for visiting China (to visit Harry Wu who was at the time jailed for pro-democracy activities), we searched for a taxi. We were offered a ride for about 60$US which seemed rather high since our travel agent assured us, "Oh, yes. Your hotel is near the airport." Apparently in some countries, 40 kilometers is considered nearby. We paid the 60$ but later found out that we were overcharged by about 50$US. Score one for the Chinese. We felt better though after we found out that 18 ounce ( about 750 cc) beers only cost a quarter.

Since we fancied ourselves intrepid travelers, we only made hotel reservations for the first night. So, armed with the Lonely Planet guide to Beijing, we ended up at the Qiou Yuan Hotel. This high-class accommodation only ran 10$US a night for a double room. When we arrived, however, the front doors were boarded up, which in most countries would not be a good sign. We were deciding what to do when a French couple hailed us and sent us around back where we found the back entrance which was fortunately not boarded up. We discovered that only the third floor was open for business while the rest of the building and surrounding area was under construction/renovation. This five-star accommodation featured communal showers and toilets. Although there seemed to be plenty of rainfall at the time, the water only ran for four hours a day. The showers were rather dingy and reminded Andrew of the "showers" at Dachau. I was a little apprehensive about staying in such a dilapidated building but it's amazing how much peace of mind several of those 25 cent beers will buy.

Of course, we did the typical touristy things. I had to see Tianenmen Square. It was full of people but possessed an eerie sense of calm. We spent a lot of time searching for tank treads and bloodstains from the 1989 massacre. We couldn't find any and reached the conclusion that the government must have utilized its prison labor pool to tidy things up. The square (actually a rectangle) is rather large and I estimate it can hold about 500,000 people under normal circumstances and even more if there are a few tanks around to help compact things. This was my favorite place and we returned there often.

We went to what the Lonely Planet described as the busiest McDonald's in the world. For me it was like a pilgrimage to Mecca. I now make it a point to visit McDonald's in every country I visit but this was the first I had visited outside the US and Korea. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures of this sacred moment because Andy lost the film while trying to pick up some Italian chick at the Hard Rock Cafe. It boggles my mind that the Hard Rock is such a world-famous institution. In reality it's just an overpriced restaurant with lackluster food and gaudy memorabilia from some so-called "stars." The Hard Rock did supply some entertainment both intentionally and unintentionally. There was a band, Jive Talkin', which was billed as "Singapore's Hottest Band" that played passable covers of pop songs. Andy and I passed the time by watching expatriate businessmen fondle their prostitutes and by betting beers and cab fare on people's nationality

We took a trip through the "Forbidden City." "Forbidden" came to be one of my least favorite words of the whole trip as I'll later describe. The best thing about the tour was the audio guide-James Bond...Roger Moore that is. You can rent audio tapes and players in the major languages and follow a numbered path as the voice on the tape tells you more than you ever wanted to know about Chinese history, architecture, and politics. The most memorable moment, for me at least, was when Roger joked that one emperor died "heh, heh, from 'overindulgence' with his concubines." Some guys have all the luck, or as Mel Brooks has said, "It's good to be the King."

Speaking of the King, we had the opportunity to see Mao's mausoleum. What is it with communist countries and their little cults of personality? Anyway, we waited in line for about 20 minutes and saw "Mao" for about six seconds. I must say that the body looked rather fake, almost plastic, but then again I'm no expert on embalming. For some reason this made us hungry so we decided to visit Beijing's most famous Beijing Duck restaurant. I think the name was "Beijing Duck Restaurant" or something like that. I guess the communist education system doesn't promote creativity. I'll say this though, the food was cheap and absolutely delicious. The only negative side effect was that I had to put up with Andrew whining that every other food wasn't "as good as that duck." Even now he still brings it up. I guess the restaurant's motto says it all: "Never will you find a better place for the most delicious duck." Is that a warning or a curse?

No trip to China could possibly be complete without a trip to the Great Wall. It was a beautiful day to climb (and I mean CLIMB-it was very steep where we went). I was rather impressed by the grandeur of the scene, however, the omnipresent and overly aggressive vendors detracted from the rustic splendor. Who said that the Chinese don't know capitalism? Trust me these guys can rip you off faster than any American street hustler could in his wildest dreams. My only advice on this would be to take the first price you're quoted, cut it in half, and then think about it...hard. Perhaps it's a sad statement about my maturity and intellectual development but the best feature of our tour was our tour guide-"Stephanie."

Before going to China, Andrew and I vowed to insult as many Chinese women as possible. According to the Lonely Planet guide, there are "Sex Police" in Beijing who try to prevent foreigners from insulting Chinese women. As the guide explains, "'insult' seems to be a Chinese idiom meaning 'have sex with'". This leads me back to Stephanie. She was an attractive 26 year-old on her way to a foreign university to study. I was relentlessly and shamelessly hitting on her. As Andrew later put it, I was "pulling up on her like Charlie Sheen pulling up on Darryl Hanna in 'Wall Street.'" So Stephanie, Andrew, Stephanie's friend, and I went to J.J.'s, Beijing's hottest disco. Without going into details, it was getting pretty hot and heavy for both Andrew and me. Oddly though, once outside our dates refused to return to our hotel, saying "It is forbidden." Not even Andrew's legendary charm and perseverance could win them over.

Our return to Seoul was a mini-epic in itself. A note to fellow travelers: ALWAYS confirm your flight, especially during travel season. We didn't and ended up trying to fly on standby for two days. Unless things have changed recently, Beijing airport has got to be the most god-awful place this side of a Thai prison to pass time. Eventually Andrew and I had to buy new tickets for 640$ US. Believe it or not, we considered this to be a stroke of luck since we were informed that the next available flight was TEN DAYS away. We missed two days of work and angered our coworkers, some of whom had to work ten hours a day to cover for us. I swear to god, if I ever hear a Chinese say "no seat" again, I'll strangle him. Of course Andy and I had backup plans. #1: Fly to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and take a taxi. #2: Buy wheelchairs-that way we have our own seats. #3: Desperation Plan-Break into "Mao's" tomb, cut off his head so that the guards would be forced to kill us thus ensuring an honorable death. Death is certainly preferable to languishing in some Communist hellhole!


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