Thursday, September 30, 2010

Panda's Tales

As I was sitting on the plane reading my book at 6:30PM on a flight from Beijing, China back to Seoul, South Korea.. I looked out the window.. took a deep breath.. and said 'DANG! Did that SERIOUSLY just happen?!'

I had just spent five magical, wonderful, insipiring days in Beijing all by myself, playing in the Forbidden City, exploring the traditional Hutongs, raving on the Great Wall, and meeting some awesome new friends!! All I have to say about this life is WOAH.

It was my first solo travel trip (well, I guess besides my trip to Korea) and it was amazing! I live in Asia.. so I wasn't nervous about not speaking the language, I just imagined myself heading to Seoul by myself! I was a little nervous about possibly having that feeling of 'alone-ness', but learned real fast that in hostel life you're all in it together. My hostel, Leo Hostel, was amazing. It definitely felt like a little family. I had researched it on the internet, and simply emailed them to reserve my bed. They fill up really fast, because they are so popular so I reserved it a couple of weeks ahead of time. The directions they had emailed me for getting to the hostel were fabulous, and I got there without getting lost! It only took me about an hour from arriving at the airport to getting settled into my dorm room. YES dorm room. When Joe and I used to travel in Central America, we used to always do our own seperate room in hostels, and never once did we stay in a room with a bunch of other people there.. so I was a little nervous about what that would be like. But I found it to be awesome! I'm stoked to stay in a dorm again, people who travel are just so fun and full of life. The first roommate I met had been a teacher in Korea the previous year, so he and I had a lot to chat about and immediately bonded. The sad part was that he was leaving the next morning, and so the first friend I made I was losing! I was a bit bummed, but met a bunch of people the next day on my trip to the Great Wall!

I arrived at my hostel at about 11AM on Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010. From there, I hopped on a subway (Beijing's subway system is super easy and in English!!! rock on.. highly reccomended!) and took a day trip to The Summer Palace. I was immediately aware when hopping off of the plane that I had not packed right for the weather! It was chilly!!! But all of the intense walking around the Palace definitely warmed me up, fortunately. I probably SHOULD have worn tennishoes.. and I probably SHOULD have waited to do the Summer Palace POST-Great Wall-ness.. but I didn't, and it still all worked out. I was just pretty sore after. I highly reccomend the Summer Palace.. the views were amazing, I got to walk along a river covered with Wheeping Willow trees, climb up a huge hillish/mountain to The Temple of Budhist Incense and gaze at the views around me.. as well as walk around a lake filled with lilly pads and ride on a dragon boat. I did this all by myself and loved every second of it, extremely relaxing!

After The Summer Palace, I went to an Electronics Market to find an extra camera battery for my new Sony, just in case it died while I was on the Great Wall. I WOULD HAVE CRIED IF THAT HAD HAPPENED!!! And it was the biggest mistake ever to go there! The Chinese vendors (which I was prepared for) kept shouting 'Hey Lady Hey Lady.. want a computer, Hey Lady! IPOD, Hey Lady! MP3?!' and I just wanted to pull my hair out. The initial prices they tell you are absolutely out of this world, which makes haggling a must.. which I also hate! As my friend Ange knows from Thailand, I'm A.) horrible at it and B.) despise it!!! But I found the best price I could and ran out of there! My first meal in China was guess what?! MCDONALDS! I know right?! Horrible, never in my life have I travelled to a new country and actually been like mmm.... I could really use some Mickey D's.. but it was just the right time for comfort food rather than a break down!

That night, I went to bed at 8:30PM.. you got it, that early!!! I relaxed in my bunk bed (on the top) and read part of my book and then passed out (I hoped none of my roommates thought I was the new weirdo lame-o roomie who goes to bed early and doesn't socialize... but I honestly couldn't have cared less I felt so exhausted!!). I'm such a hard sleeper, that I didn't even really wake up when my other 5 roommates came home to sleep!!! We each have lockers with electric circuits in them to charge our stuff and keep it safe, however the actual door to the room didn't have a lock.. and the place just seemed so cozy, that I didn't even think twice about it!

The next morning, I walked outside and said 'Holy Moly, I've GOT to find some warmer cothes for the Great Wall'. I had just signed up for a 1PM overnight tour to the wall, where we would be camping ON the wall.. and knew I would freeze to death! For some reason the only things I packed for China were, two singlets, my green and white tye-dye short sleeve WWF Panda shirt, two dresses, a fleece jacket, one pair of shorts, and my purple/red tye-dye Thai pants to sleep in (well I DO know the reason, I thought it would be much warmer, and 'beginning of fall weather' like a sweatshirt and shorts). So I ventured off to the Wanfujing Shopping District listed on the map that my Hostel gave me.. and knew I needed to hurry it up so that I made it back in time for my trip. Well... of course the 'shopping district' was filled with nothing but Gucci, Fendi, Prada, etc, etc.. and I found nothing. I was super bummed, and scared of what was to come, and ventured down a Hutong (alleys that are filled with shops.. very traditional in Chinese cities) and found a Panda Hat (which I have been wanting ever since Ange and I saw a kid with one in the Shanghai Airport on a layover in July).. I got it for $3US!!! I was stoked! And at least my head would be warm on the Great Wall if nothing else!! And this would eventually be the reason I received the travel name of 'Panda'!! :)

So at 1PM on Thursday, September 23rd, 2010 about 12 of us ate a big sub, and headed off to a 'secret' area of the wall where not many tourists would be and what we thought would be a quiet relaxing night in nature ON the Flipping Great Wall!! There were a couple of people from Norway, Switzerland, New Zealand, America and Germany, a fabulous group (also, there was a current and past Korean ESL Teacher!) We had a great time chatting during the 2 hour ride to the wall, there was a van of people and then I rode in an old VW with 3 other peeps :). We realized we were definitely going to a random 'secret' area of the wall when we began to go down a random dirt road, so the excitement was definitely beginning to build! When we arrived at the entrance, we were shown the area of the wall our tents were at and told when/where to come back for dinner. We hiked up and back for about 3 hours (I believe), took some awesome pictures, and vasked in it's glory!!! I still can't believe that I was on THE Great Wall of China!!!!

When the sun went down, it started to get pretty chilly, especially since we were up in the mountains with the wind! We headed back to the tents around 7 and began to hear some random music, and noticed people down at the entrance (which was random, because besides our group of 12, we had only seen about 8 other people on The Wall). We didn't think too much of it at first, until we went closer to it to eat our dinner. The meal was super yummy (thanks Leo!) as well as the Yanjing and we were given super warm blankets before our guide and drivers left us there for the night to camp! I went up to the tents to put my super cool tye-dyed pants on and grab my panda hat so I wouldn't freeze to death, and on my way back down it was so dark that I couldn't hardly see the steps! We stayed at the dinner area for about an hour just chatting and swapping stories about our countries and travelling.. during this time, the full moon showed its face and the music had gotten louder and louder! We also began to notice some random spotlights along The Wall and temptation began to stir! We eventually decided to go down and sneak past the guards to experience this amazing dance party! And experience we did! It was amazing, dancing, laughing and being able to look up at the sky and see the full moon and the shaddow of THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA!!!
We stayed there until about 2AM and headed back up to our tents to get some sleep, which was near impossible because it was so cold and the music was SOO loud!!! But we all woke up at about 7AM, discussed the night's happenings and brushed our teeth on The Great Wall (we were quite stoked about this, using bottled water and spitting it off the edge)!! Leo Hostel's drivers (our Driver's name was Noodles!) came bring us dumplings for breakfast and to take us back to Beijing!

I highly recommend this hostel and this tour! It was absolutely amazing!!! Although, you probably won't be lucky enough to be able to rave on The Wall because our drivers said they'd been there about every day for 2 years and had never seen anything like that happen!! It was great!

I was quite exhausted post Great Wall, so I roamed around the city and went shopping in the less expensive shopping district that I was informed of by one of the Norwegian girls. And bless her heart, because I found some leggings to keep me warm for the rest of my trip!!
I also went to the Pearl Market to get yelled at by a million Chinese vendors to buy their things. It wasn't quite as frustrating as the Electronics Market, but I found it quite annoying how jacked up the prices were, and that you HAD to haggle for EVERYTHING! Literally, I was warned before going there to always ask for a 1/4 of the price they offer and don't go much higher!! It's insane, but I found some good items and souveniers so it was successful!
I ate dinner at the hostel and left for an Acrobatics Show at about 6:30PM. The show was awesome, it reminded me a bit more of a circus (minus any animals) than an acrobat show, but it was still enjoyable. The hostel informed me afterwards that it must not have been the same show as they normally put on, but all was good. I saw an amazing act at the very end, where FIVE motorcycles went round and round in a steel dome (like what you would normally see in a circus in America, but with one motorcyclist in it).. I was pretty worried about them, I felt like a mom! And I got to meet one of them afterwards and get a picture, it was pretty cool all in all!
I went to sleep early that night, even though it was a Friday. I'm pretty sure that out of the 6 people in my room, I went to bed the earliest every night I was there! Possibly because I was sick and possibly because of my allergic reaction to my antibiotics.. but still, I was practically a grandma :)

I felt too lazy to take on The Forbidden City on Saturday morning, so I decided to have a relaxing day of Pandas and shopping! I took the subway to the Beijing Zoo and wandered around for a couple hours. The Pandas were of course my favorite part, I watched one play outside for a good 30 minutes and enjoyed every second of it! The Zoo was huge! Way bigger than I thought it would be, being in the middle of Beijing and all. I couldn't be bothered going around the whole thing, but wanted to check out the 'American Animals' section, because it sounded too funny.. what exactly ARE American animals?! Well I found some goats in this section, along with DOGS and CATS!!! I about peed my pants! I couldn't believe my eyes, plus it was pretty sad, because their PETS not zoo animals!! But the dogs looked like they were having a blast playing with each other, there was about 30 I would say, all sizes, there was even a Lassie dog! And there were a bunch of cats, but they were in cages :( I left after that and went to the Wudoukou Clothing Market.

The clothing market was not quite what I had expected. I'm pretty sure I was in a ghetto area of Beijing, which was pretty interesting! I had to take a taxi from the subway station to the Market, and when I was dropped off I was looking at the driver like, 'are you sure?!? are you for real for real?!' because it looked like an old wearhouse sort of. But it was definitely the market! My Lonely Planet said that this is where the hipsters go to get their 'trendy' clothes! So I wandered around, found a couple basics and got my nose pierced! I know random..! It was an interesting experience too! The man spoke ZERO English, I don't even know if he knew 'hello!'. I sat down, pointed to my nose, he put a dot on my nose and handed me a thing of earings to choose from. I chose the smallest one I could find and handed it to him. He pulled out a file and sharpened it right in front of me (I'm thinking, oh dear.. is this normal?!) and then sterelized everything and held it with pliers, while putting another set of pliers in my nose and just pushed it through! I was relieved when it was finished and we exchangd a hug! It cost me $8US!!

Later that night, I met up with the Swedish couple, the Bostonian, the Korean ESL teacher, and a guy that was staying in our hostel to get some Peking Duck! We got our own private dining room, and we chose a large duck to split between all of us and ordered about 8 different side dishes! All of which were super yummy, from mushrooms to tofu to sweet & sour soup! The duck comes out at different times, they first bring you the skin, then the dark meat, then the white meat, followed with a pile of the bones! My favorite part of the duck was the plum sauce they serve it with and the little pancakes you wrap it up in when you eat.. however I honestly missed me some Sam Gep Sal barbequed duck from Korea!!! HaHa, I KNOW! We decided to get some post dinner drinks/dessert at 365 INN and I got to eat HOMEMADE Apple Pie for the first time since December!!!! I was in heaven! After 365 we did our sorrowful goodbyes and wished each other well on our travels! I was really sad to say goodbye to my new friends!!

I was - THIS close to not going to the Forbidden City. I was thinking it was just going to be like any other temple/castle I had been to before. Once you've seen one, you've pretty much seen them all in Korea/China!! But I got off my lazy butt during my last day there (half day) and ventured off to the city. And I am SOOOO happy that I did! I had been told by people you want to give yourself a half-a-day to wander around the Forbidden City.. guess how long it took me?! Half an hour! HaHa... and I loved every part of it! It was huge, and magnificent, and interesting, and reminded me of a movie I had watched with my mom when I was younger, 'The King and I'. After the Forbidden City, I went up the small mountain directly behind it to get a good panoramic view of the Forbidden City and Beijing.

This was definitely an interesting trip! I walked past about a hundered older chinese people doing yoga and arobics, singing, dancing, and just enjoying life! I loved it, I felt so relaxed there! When I reached the top, I took lots of pictures and also got dressed up in some traditional chinese princess get-ups and got my picture taken! It was a lot of fun playing dress up!!

I decided to spend my last couple of hours in Beijing shopping in the Hutongs and reading a book in the bar/dining area of Leo's while eating fried bananas! My last meal wasn't chinese at all (not so big a fan of the chinese food!) it was a huge CheeseBurger from 365 and green tea! Then I headed to the subway at 2:30PM to catch my 6PM flight back to Seoul, South Korea!

BEIJING, I love you, you were such an inspiration and beautiful (at times smelly) city, I will be back again some day!!!!

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