Home in the Hutongs: Beijing China

Beijing, China! What am I doing here in this bustling capital city of an incredible 30 million inhabitants? That is my thought exactly as the plane lands into this enormous smog enveloped city in China. My youngest children are safely in Finland under the care of my daughter Aundrea, where they are going to a beautiful lakeside cabin near Tampere for a couple of days. As for me, I am here on the other side of the globe from my home in Arizona, far away from my family, in this place that hyper stimulates all my senses in a way that I can’t describe. The sounds, the sights, the scents….it all comes flooding back into my consciousness from our short visit to southern China last summer.

It is about an 8 hour flight to get here from Helsinki on a brand new Finnair plane. There is great service and the cabin is super comfortable. It’s a night flight so I settle in right after dinner and fall sound asleep. About an hour later I am jolted awake by some of the passengers who begin very loudly conversing right behind me in a foreign language. Okay, I will tell you they are not Finns, because Finns would not yell across aisles. First of all, Finns would have a hard time finding something to talk about, and if they did they would certainly be very sensitive to others around them that are trying to sleep. Well, I take that back. An intoxicated Finn could indeed be loud and very obnoxious.

The volume increases and the soon they are yelling across the aisle to some of their friends on the other side. I listen to the racket for a while, but when my patience wears thin I turn back to look at them, pull up my eye mask and give them a black stare. I must have had venom in my eyes, or perhaps they felt they had just been given the evil eye, because they quieted down immediately. Every once in a while the dude right behind me would start talking loudly again, and his neighboring passenger would say, shhhhhh……and the plane would fall silent again. It’s so annoying in such a small space to have to listen to people yelling in a foreign language. Fine…..talk in a normal tone, that’s great, but yelling?

I know that someone might ask me why on earth I would fly to Beijing via Finland, but I will tell you that I had already purchased our tickets to Denmark when I decided I would go to Beijing alone. It ended up being the best idea to make sure my kids get to Finland safely, and then travel on the same flights to China as my dear friend Andrea and our other travel companions.

The purpose of this trip to China is to attend the wedding of my dear friend Andrea’s oldest daughter. We are traveling as a group. The group consists of Andrea and her husband Erkki, her brother-in-law and his wife Sakari and Raili, the bride’s godparents Tapio and Reija, and my friend’s second oldest daughter Katja and her baby son. The plan is for me to share accommodations with the young mom and baby. Hopefully she can put up with my quirky personality and idiosyncrasies…..which I am sure you wonder that, too…..

The great thing is that I have had to do no preparation for this trip. I am just going to show up and go with the flow. There is an itinerary for each day that we are here, and I will just float along. Now, some of you may know me as a pretty strong personality, and wonder how I am going to manage in situations that are beyond my control. Now I do make a contract with myself. I vow to try my hardest to keep my opinions to myself if things don’t go the way that I would do them, and I also vow to renew that vow as often as I need to.

The only thing that I had to do before coming to China was to get a visa. I had looked online to see how to proceed with the process, and found it to be incredibly confusing. To apply in person I would’ve had to go to Los Angeles, which was out of the question. There are tons of companies marketing their services online who will process the application for you, but it requires sending your passport to and fro in the mail, and I couldn’t really tell which company is legitimate. I took my pre filled visa application down to the Chinese cultural center in Phoenix to a travel agency there. It cost me a bit more to have them process the application, but I am super glad that I did. On the application I had checked a box to indicate that I wanted a one time entry visa (as opposed to two), and the woman there told me to cross that off and put multiple entry. Recently China has begun to issue 10 year visas for Americans. I told her that I don’t think I can get that because I am Canadian, but she assured me that it is not a problem. Sure enough, I got a 10 year visa. Let’s see if I make it back to China again before my visa expires.   Something tells me that I might…..gut feeling….

Honestly, I have done no research whatsoever for this trip about where to go, or what to do, or what to see in this part of the world. I am leaving that completely up to the experts, namely the bride and the groom. The groom, Charles, is from China, and the bride, Tara, has lived here for 6 years. I think they will do a marvelous job, and we are fortunate to have them as tour guides.

Above Beijing there is a gray and smoggy sky.

When we arrive at the beautiful Beijing airport it takes about two hours to make our way out. We have tons of luggage along. Well, let me rephrase that. I don’t have a ton of luggage along, but collectively there is a ton of luggage. This is the first test of my resolve to keep my comments to myself. I hear myself saying, “Wow, this is a lot of luggage! These suitcases are huge! How will they fit in the cars?” Then I gulp and realize that I have already broken my vow. I must try harder! I learned last summer how to travel light, and I kind of prefer it. Okay, if my clothes smell just let me know, but I may just need to wear an item of clothing more than once. But maybe others don’t like that kind of travel. “Don’t judge and stop complaining,” I whisper to myself. “Just be glad you aren’t lugging around a ginormous suitcase yourself”.

We finally make it to our hotel. Now, this is an interesting choice of hotel. It is in the midst of the Hutongs, right near the Forbidden City. It gives us a truly cultural experience right away. This is definitely the type of hotel that I may have chosen myself. The alleyways are narrow and filled with a little of this and a little of that. As we walk down the alley we can catch glimpses into the homes of people who live and work here. Every once in awhile we catch a whiff of some food cooking from an open doorway, or cigarette smoke wafting through an open window. Everyone we see stops what they are doing to observe us.

Our hotel is a little oasis in this crazy busy city of 30 million people. It is quiet in this little courtyard. You would actually not expect to find this nice of a hotel in the alleyway through which we just walked. The young mom, Katja and I move into our room. I am quietly hoping that I don’t drive her crazy. Both of us instinctively check our beds for bed bugs. The doors are flimsy, and you can hear all the sounds from the courtyard beyond. My roommate’s baby, Jules, is absolutely the most darling thing you could lay eyes upon and steals my heart instantly. Katja is worried that I won’t be able to sleep with a baby in the room, but I assure her that I will be able to sleep even if the Mongolians come over the border and take over China. Not really, but yeah, I have no doubts that I can sleep.

After we have settled in we walk to a nearby restaurant for some lunch. The young groom, Charles, orders us something to eat. The waitress speaks virtually no English, and I can’t read Chinese so that seems like the safest bet. The food ends up being kind of like soup, or something, and it is delicious. Oh, and shame on me I am using western utensils.

Our plan had been to explore the Hutongs this afternoon, but there is a light rain falling. We decide instead to go to a shopping plaza/art museum. The groom calls up two cars to take us there, which is kind of an Uber service. I guess Uber is illegal here, but they have a service that is similar.

Well, guess what? Stupid me! I forgot my cell phone in the back seat. My phone case has a small compartment to hold up to three cards, and just hours ago I had removed my driver’s license and American Express card. I left one debit card in my phone case, which is for my Charles Schwab account. I did this because I thought that if I lose my phone it would be stupid to lose my license in case I end up driving in Beijing. Just kidding! I would not be driving in Beijing! But I may need my license to drive in Finland.

By the way, this might be the perfect opportunity to put in a plug for Charles Schwab. If you get an account with them you can withdraw money from ATMs from around the world. They give you the best exchange rates possible, and also if you are charged ATM fees when you are traveling as almost always is the case, Charles Schwab reimburses you for these fees, and charge none of their own. Throw away your Wells Fargo card! They rip you off with every transaction, charging you a percentage fee on every sale, plus a second ATM fee, and give you a horrible exchange rate! It’s a little bit complicated to set up the account in the beginning but then the payoff is huge.

Last summer when I was in Thailand some rascal had managed to make a copy of my Schwab debit card, and they got my PIN number. About a month after I got home I received a phone call from Charles Schwab asking me if I had been spending money recently in Thailand. Come to be that someone had emptied my account with about three ATM transactions. Charles Schwab reimbursed me the entire sum, which amounted to almost $1000.

Anyway, I am a bit perturbed at myself. Not only is my phone missing, but also my best debit card for traveling. If I have to use my Wells Fargo card I will be constantly feel ripped off. I tell Charles that I had forgotten my phone in the back of the car, and he tells me to relax, that it is not a problem to get back. “This is China,” he says. “You will get your phone back!”
Sure enough, he called the driver who verified that indeed the phone is there. About one hour later I have my phone and Charles Schwab card back in my hands. I think in most places the driver might just claim that they did not find a cell phone. I will have to be more careful from now on.

We spend a couple hours in this shopping mall. I am not much of a shopper, needless to say. I often will say that if they don’t sell it at Costco, I don’t buy it. Almost all my clothes are from Costco. Okay, admittedly I am not very stylish, but what can I say? Oh, and Last Chance…..you may know what that is……Nordstrom’s final clearance store. But anyway, the mall contains some unique art pieces, which I enjoy. And I find I am enjoying myself just simply window shopping. I find a little shop that sells a bike that folds into a suitcase size. That’s cool!

Now one thing is certain. This shopping mall is not a place where the lower class or middle class folks shop. This is a super high end shopping mall, and the stark difference to the shops lining the streets in many parts of Beijing is striking. I wish I would have taken a photo of the beautiful traditional Chinese gowns that I see in a shop window. I will tell you a dirty little secret. I am not a fan of traditional Chinese clothing, but these gowns are absolutely stunning! The detail and craftsmanship takes my breath away. As much as I am not a fashionista, I would love to see a fashion show featuring beautiful Chinese women wearing these gowns. I glance at the prices, and suddenly realize why they are so beautiful…..the prices are quite exhorbitant.

Soon enough we are on our way out for dinner. Some of my travel companions are, shall we say, less aware of the food/dining culture in China. Last summer when we were in Guangzhou with Lilac we quickly learned that in China you do as the Chinese do, and that involves sharing dishes. Now, some people are paranoid. Like me. I am paranoid! I don’t like sharing food items or dishes with other people. Who knows what kinds of diseases someone might have? Like me…..I work in an ICU, and lord only knows what kinds of strange things I might contract there. I definitely don’t want to get herpes, which is one thing I am relatively confident I don’t have. Nor do I want to get some kind of cold or flu bug or anything like that. But despite my reservations about sharing food, I know that this is how it works in this country, and I can’t change it.

The restaurant we are in is world famous for Peking Duck. I love the way that our group is put into a private dining room. We each find a place around the table and soon the groom is ordering every manner of delicious food. We have two more people who have joined our group, namely my friend’s third oldest daughter, Suvi and her boyfriend, Anthony.

Each dish gets placed in the center of this enormous round table, which has the hugest glass lazy Susan I have ever seen. And much to the dismay of many of the newcomers to China who are sitting around this massive table, each person pokes their chop sticks into the plates of food to grab their portion of the delectable dishes. Then those same chopsticks are used to shove food into the bearer’s hungry mouth. I hear comments such as, “perhaps we can use a spoon to take the food, and use our own chopsticks just for eating.” It doesn’t take long before someone is digging in again with their own chopsticks as the food on the lazy Susan spins into position in front of them. How can you resist? Each dish that appears on the table is equally delicious as the last.

We learn Chinese table manners, such as, if you accidentally drop food on the table do not pick it up. Don’t poke your chopsticks into the food on your plate, because it signifies death. And especially don’t take the food plate off the spinning lazy Susan to scoop your own portion. It must stay on the lazy Susan. It’s okay to lift your own plate closer to the lazy Susan in order to make it easier to get the food off the serving plate. As for me, I am pretty certain I broke all those rules. My chopstick skills are extremely rusty, and I can hardly use them at all. I have lots of learning to do.

In the end a chef comes into our dining room and he skillfully carves a roasted duck next to the table. The best cuts of the duck meat is placed on this plate in a decorative fashion resembling a flower. Some of the most crispy pieces of duck skin are placed into a separate plate next to a bowl of sugar. The idea is to take a piece of the crispy duck skin and dip it in the sugar, place it on your tongue, and simply allow it to melt in your mouth……which is exactly what it does.

The above photo shows everyone in our group, so from left to right starting in the back……Tapio and Reija (bride’s godparents), Sakari and Raili (bride’s uncle and aunt), Charles and Tara (groom and bride), Katja (bride’s sister second in birth order), Suvi (bride’s sister 3rd in birth order) and her boyfriend, Anthony. In the front is my dear friend Andrea and her husband Erkki, the parents of the bride.

It’s been a busy day, and when we finally finish dinner it is getting to be 10 pm. We stop at the Forbidden City as we head back to our hotel in the Hutongs. We are planning to go to the Forbidden City tomorrow. Don’t ask me why it is called the forbidden city. I will have to do some research, I guess. Across the busy street is Tianamen Square, which we don’t have a chance to visit now as it is getting quite late.

Kind of crazy to be jumping into the Uber car in the middle of the street.

Finally we are dropped off on the street nearest our hotel. As much as the walkway into our hotel appears to be, shall we say, not in the highest caliber of neighborhood, I feel perfectly safe even at this late hour. There are people moving about the neighborhood even now, but mostly they seem delightedly pleased to see westerners.

When I am back in my room I reconnect with the hotel Wifi to catch up on what’s going on in the outside world. Mostly I am worried about my father-in-law. He has end stage Alzheimer’s disease, and he was placed on hospice care just before I left on this trip, bless his heart. If he gets worse or if the end of his life is imminent, I will need to leave from here back to the States. The messages that I have received today seem optimistic enough for the time being.

Then I find some Whatsapp messages from Aundrea. My little munchkins are at a cabin near Tampere, as I mentioned earlier. The cabin belongs to the parents of our foreign exchange student from three years back. I know that the kids are getting treated like royalty. Aundrea has sent me photos that tear at my heartstrings. My babies are having a great time, enjoying the absolutely beautiful Finnish nature, fishing and hiking and playing games. Once again I am wondering….what am I doing here? I should be with my father-in-law…..I should be in Finland with my babies…..what was I thinking coming here?

It’s time to switch off and sleep. The baby is sound asleep already. How could this lovely baby not steal your heart? The truth is he is stealing hearts all around here. Everywhere we go he is the center of attention!  Now let’s see if baby Jules keeps me awake tonight.