Before we left home, my neighbor, who’s from Beijing, told me that it’s like three cities in one. It’s like New York (economics), Washington D.C. (politics), and Philadelphia (history). After being here for three days, I understand what he meant. I would also add that it’s huge and overwhelming though not as chaotic as Mumbai. Even with nearly the same population (more than 20 million people). Like everywhere we’ve been, we could spend an entire month exploring Beijing, but we can only hit the highlights. We’ve seen the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City, found some fabulous shopping districts, and tonight we went to an opera!

The Hotel

It’s hard to know where to begin since it’s all been so amazing. I think I’ll start with our hotel, which reminds me of a really big Chinese B & B. Rather than booking one of the big, modern hotels, we’re staying at a traditional “courtyard” hotel in the center of the city. To get here, you have to go through a narrow “hutong,” which is one of many alleys that seem to go back in time. One minute, you’re walking along the street in modern Beijing and in the next you take a turn down a hutong and see old men playing chess in doorways; it’s a bit disconcerting. When we were first driving from the airport, we couldn’t explain anything to the taxi driver since we figured out too late that the only English words he knew were “hello” “and “ok.” Luckily, we had the phone number of the hotel, so he just phoned, got us to the entrance of the hutong, and pointed. I think I can speak for everyone and say we were afraid we’d gotten in over our heads. But now we couldn’t be happier.

Tea and Breakfast

Our hotel was originally built hundreds of years ago and still has many older design elements. But like any first-class B & B it’s been upgraded with all the modern necessities, like good water pressure and free Wi-Fi. It’s so easy to Skype Kevin and the kids, that I have to pinch myself to remember I’m sitting in a place built by people who could never have imagined electric lights let alone computers. At breakfast, you can get “Western style” with eggs and toast, but we’re all eating the Chinese style which you can tell is better (and cheaper!) just by looking at it. My favorite is congee, which just seem like Chinese grits, with pickles, meat and peanuts and delicious deep fried dough sticks. Lisa and Carla like something called dòufu rǔa pickled, fermented tofu that ranges in color from off-white to a deep red, which is off putting to me but not to them. According to Lisa, it’s got a strong and salty taste, so they mix it with plain white rice and say it’s delicious (I have my doubts). Donna likes  all the rice dishes and has tried a new one every morning. We’re all eating the stuffed steamed buns (I can hear my kids cracking up) with red bean paste, which has just a hint of sweetness. And of course we’re drinking plenty of tea, which is far better than the coffee here.

The Great Wall of China

My two favorite places we’ve explored so far are The Great Wall of China and the Beijing Opera House. We decided to hire a car to take us to Juyongguan Pass. It’s out of the city (and away from the worst of the pollution) and has fewer tourists than places nearby. It also has very steep steps, but once you climb them, the views are fantastic. (Instead of steamed buns, we had burning ones!) When you get to the top, there’s something called The Cloud Platform that was built way back in the 1300s and is over 30 feet high! I can’t believe they carved all the Buddhist figures, symbols, and texts in six different languages way up on that platform without modern machinery.

Of course, I  thought the same thing in Istanbul at Hagia Sophia and at Notre Dame in Paris. We read that the people who built the Great Wall of China were all conscripted soldiers, laborers, and prisoner. Many died during its construction. It just shows that anywhere you go it’s always the rich who give the orders and the poor who bear the burden of them. At the wall, there was also a stall with a woman selling Buddhist prayer beads. So now I have something symbolizing every faith we’ve seen.

Chinese Opera

My second favorite thing was the opera we went to tonight in what the locals call “The Giant Egg” but what’s really the National Center for Performing Arts. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it before. It was a mix of marital arts, elaborate costumes, music, dancing, and singing. We couldn’t understand a word, but that didn’t matter because we were just overwhelmed by the spectacle. None of us liked the singing, but Carla pointed out that the Chinese language simply sounds harsh to our ears and that for all we know, we sound the same way to them.

Meeting Mr. Right?

On the way back from the opera, we wanted to stretch our legs and walk a bit and that’s how we discovered a small bar with great beer, music, and snacks. It turned out to be a huge expat hangout with lots of Americans, Europeans, and Australians. We were all done with our first beer when a gorgeous young man with an Australian accent asked Lisa to dance. The rest of us ordered another beer, melty cheese panins and some Belgian waffles (we couldn’t figure out why waffles were on the menu, but they were delicious) and admired Lisa and her mystery man shimmying all over the dance floor. After a while, they both sat down and we learned more about him. His name is Ian and he’s originally from Sydney although he’s lived in China for five years teaching English at one of the universities. He’s off tomorrow and he offered to show us around the Summer Palace (we all know he really doesn’t care if the three of us old ladies go along or not). Lisa’s so happy and I can’t blame her since he is one fine looking man. Who knows? Maybe her next trip will be to Australia!

Next: Carla Favorite Beijing Attractions: The Summer Palace