Friday, 18 January 2013

Beijing -- finally!


I’m really here! Amazing!

I flew out of Hong Kong this morning at 7:45 a.m. – or 8:15 HK time! Performances in HK don’t start on time, and airlines seem to be just as casual about promptness.

The flight was only half full, so I changed to a window seat for a chance to catch at bit of scenery. Alas, since I slept only about 2 hours last night – just a bit excited, I guess – I napped until we began our descent, so all I saw was a lot of farm fields dusted with snow.

Yes, snow! After months of living in tropical Hong Kong, I am back in the real world. It was -10 C this morning when we landed. And although I didn’t bring my outer wear with me to HK, I hit the post-Christmas sales in our shopping mecca and got a very  nice down jacket with hood on sale, and  a hat, scarf and gloves for about $14 for the three items. So, I arrived prepared.

I am staying for the first few nights in a traditional hutong – the narrow lanes leading off the main streets. The small hutong house is an old-fashioned Chinese home with all the rooms opening onto a courtyard. Very exciting to experience it, even if I won’t get breakfast in the courtyard at this time of year. (Remind me again, why am I touring China in winter?!)

Getting to the hutong was quite the endeavour. My taxi driver didn’t seem overly familiar with the downtown core, but he got us within shouting distance before we hit a traffic tie-up. We both tapped our toes and muttered, but there was no escape. It turned out that there was an accident around the corner, but who knew? After about 20 minutes of sitting in traffic, we made our escape and drove the final mile or two.

I wasn’t sure how I would spend my first day in Beijing, and since I was a bit fried, I couldn’t work up enthusiasm for museums. Instead, on New Year’s Eve, I decided on a Western outing: to see Riverdance! I have never seen it, and it’s here and so am I, so off I went to the Beijing Exhibition Centre, which is a bit like the Exhibition grounds in Toronto, without the livestock barns.

Thanks to the two young guys who run my hutong inn, I found the subway, and they had a cheap price for tickets, since tomorrow is a holiday. I handed over my dollar, hopped on and managed to get off at the correct stop – I’ve learned from my Guangzhou experience.

Everyone has told me how big Beijing is, and they aren’t kidding. Something that looks like a two-minute walk on the map is more like 15 or 20 minutes on foot. By the time I got to the theatre grounds and got my ticket, it was only 40 minutes to showtime and I hadn’t eaten in hours. So, I did something I haven’t done during my entire stay in HK: I went to a McDonald’s! I decided that if I was being Western in Beijing, I might as well go all the way. A greasy burger for lunch, then some fried sesame balls from a street vendor. My stomach won’t be eager for anything for a while now – it’s in shock.

To get to Mickey D’s – and it was a huge one -- I had to cross a highway egress. Traffic was heavy, but people and cars here seem to do a dance that allows them both to get along somehow. It’s ungainly, but it worked for me.

Amazingly, scalpers were everywhere outside the theatre grounds! I brushed them off, but it’s the first time I’ve encountered them in Asia.

Riverdance is fabulous, as everyone else probably knows already. It’s a feast of Irish music and dance, with some flamenco and American tap thrown in, and I loved every minute of it. I had no idea feet could move so fast. What a wonderful treat! The audience loved it. too. People say HK audiences are mute, but not so Beijingers. They clapped along when asked and cheered for the performers at the end. I sat next to two teenage girls who were just thrilled to be there – it added an extra dollop of pleasure to my own experience.

Afterward, I retraced my steps and thought about how cold it was. Since I have ambitions of walking the Great Wall later in the week, I was thrilled to happen upon a store displaying long underwear – now there are two words I haven’t strung together for months! However, jeans and socks just don’t cut it for a lengthy outdoors affair, so now I should be set.

Coming home in the dark wasn’t as easy as leaving in the daylight, however. I found the street, but as it turns out, our hutong isn’t labelled. When I reached the next major cross street, I knew I had gone astray, so I stopped into a clothing store. Luckily, like a kindergartner, I have a map of the street with the phone number and address in Chinese and English – bless my hosts! The lovely women at the store didn’t know where the hutong was and didn’t really speak English,  but they phoned my hosts and got me turned in the right direction. Just like their Hong Kong cousins, Beijingers prove to be kind.

However, I realize that I need to refresh myself on some of my rudimentary Chinese, because words keep escaping me at crucial times. Luckily, people seem pleased when I try  -- and sign language is a great invention.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I debated going out again, but once I made it safely to my room and the heat went on, it seemed like too much of an effort. Good enough to be starting a New Year in a completely new place.  A good omen for a year of further adventures!

Happy New Year, all!

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