Beijing is a giant, crowded city of wide avenues and modern high-rises. The best way to explore the city is by bicycle. There are bike lanes along all of the major thoroughfares. They are often as crowded as the traffic lanes, but biking is safe, as long as you watch out for the other crazy bikers! Cars do not yield, so left-turns can be tricky. The best tactic is to stick closely to the hordes of other bikers. Turning off the major roads, there are a few traditional neighborhoods, called “hutongs”, of narrow alleys and squat brick houses. Here people sit on their porches, selling vegetables and watching the world go by. Someone might be making fresh noodles in front of a small restaurant, or cooking food in an open-air kitchen. Food is surprisingly good in China, although MSG and oil pervade almost everything. Sweet and spicy dishes are served with rice or noodles. Everything is thoroughly boiled or wok-fried. Bakeries sell cookies and rolls, while street-food vendors dish up grilled “balls on a stick” or quick-boiled fresh greens. Most Chinese seemed friendly enough, and curious about foreigners, but were shy about speaking English. The language barrier was always a problem - learning a little Chinese would have improved our experience immensely. In our travels we met many English teachers who were taking advantage of their stay to learn Chinese.
The Forbidden City is Beijing's premiere tourist attraction. This immense, walled “city within a city” used to be the palace, fortress, and cloistered world of the emperor. Nowadays, it is possible to see first-hand how these absolute, godlike monarchs lived and ruled. Inside were paths that only the monarch could travel, carried in a litter, of course! Outsiders could not penetrate most areas of the palace. Everything in the Forbidden City is built in a homogeneous architectural style, with similar embellishments and decoration. When one of the buildings burnt or was destroyed, it was rebuilt in exactly the same style. A whole day of exhausting walking was barely enough to see the major parts of the palace. There are endless courtyards, mini-museums and gardens hidden in the rambling alleys and lanes. We could peek into the quarters of the last Emperor, now frozen in time. In another part of town, the Temple of Heaven, another impressive collection of buildings from the same period, is built in the same imperial style. An imposing circular pagoda, held up by giant lacquered teak columns and painted in dominant blues and greens stands on a white stone base.
On one giant lane we stopped for a haircut. With a few vague hand-gestures Eric attempted to tell the stylist that he wanted it short. Everything started out well with the scissors, cutting and clipping. Before we could do anything, out came the comb and electric razor, and soon Eric had a Chinese military-style buzz cut! When he came to visit us that night, Dave failed to recognize him and walked right by. Evenings were pleasantly warm, and we sat around drinking beer in the hostel courtyard, talking with the other travelers. Chinese beer, at less than 25 cents for a 660ml bottle, is cheap and good. The small store across the street also sold delicious natural yogurt in clay jars.
No visit to Beijing could be complete without a visit to the Great Wall. Taking a package tour from our hostel to one segment, we walked about 5 km to another restored section. It was boiling hot. Waves of shimmering heat assailed us from the naked rubble and surrounding scrub. Following the steep ups and downs of the mountains kept us sweating. At each watchtower, hawkers beckoned us with trinkets and bottles of ice-cold water. Some even followed us along the wall, exposed to the blinding sunlight and ferocious heat, but they soon gave up and retired to the cool stone towers to wait for other tourists. The wall dipped into a gorge, climbed a steep ridge and ran along the top of the mountains into the distance. We crossed the river, but had no more time to continue. If we ever go back to Beijing, we will certainly explore some of the wilder sections of the wall, but not in the summer!