China Week 1: Hutongs, Hustles, and Dancing Grannies / by Anna Terry

Hello 2018! I made a New Years resolution to procrastinate less and write more. Well, two weeks in to my 2018 resolution and I still haven’t really written about our China experiences from last year. Here’s hoping I catch the writing bug and hold myself more accountable! 

CHINA! The motherland for half of my ethnic makeup. Growing up I would hear wonderful, weird, and sometimes crazy stories from my grandparents who spent a portion of their lives there or from my aunts and uncles who went back to visit the villages our family originated from. The idea of ever visiting China was so far from my mind, not because I didn’t want to go, but because...well it’s on the other side of the world! Haha It’s so far from any place I’ve ever been and despite all of the traveling I’ve done, we have never made it that far east. So now we have a whole month to do some Chinese soul searching and the first stop is Beijing. I’m super excited to see where half my family comes from and to see/eat/do the things that some of my ancestors may have experienced or been a part of. 

Welcome to Beijing
Leaving Japan was kind of tough for us. We almost said to heck with the trip, lets take the rest of our money, buy a little house in Tokyo, and teach English. But the world is a big place, and I’ve only seen a fraction of it. I’ve heard that China is a place that will sometimes really test westerners. Coming off the plane we had a little preview, testing my sense of patience. As soon as we descended the stairs, people made a mad dash to the bus that was taking us to the main terminal. Like literally they were sprinting, willing to plow you over if you got in the way. And it wasn’t just the young, old grannies were ready to take you out. Such a difference from Japan where everyone was overly polite. We survived the stampede and eventually made it to the bus terminal to take us to our hostel where suspicious looking taxi’s and “Uber” drivers came up to us constantly asking where we were going. Then, the bus ride was something out of a video game. It was a dark smoggy night and the bus driver was driving like a bat out of hell. We kept on falling over as he swerved around scooters, pedestrians and other cars. Although it was reckless, to be honest it was kind of fun. We arrived to our hostel’s street and I turned to Shane wide eyed asking him where the heck has he taken us. The road was all torn up from construction, mix that with the darkness, looming pollution, and cars covered in dust; the place looked like a bombed out war zone. Yikes. A bit concerning at first especially since you always here don’t go down dark scary looking streets as a foreigner. This was definitely looked like one of those streets. Luckily, our hostel was a shining beacon of welcome from the suspicious looking surroundings and the staff friendly. The next day shed light on our surroundings which in the end I grew to really like. What originally looked like a disaster area definitely gave the street some character. When the construction crew finished fixing the road, I admit I was a bit sad.

Peking Duck
Although I’ve tried Peking Duck back in the states, it wasn’t memorable or mouth watering enough for me to ever think about ordering it again. But the US version of the dish doesn’t hold a candle to the OG of Peking Duck here in Beijing. SO. FREAKING. GOOD! Crispy skin and tender moist meat. Put it all on a super thin pancake, top with some sauce, green onion, etc and viola! A mini Peking duck taco. After trying a couple spots, we came to the conclusion that the restaurant down the street from our hostel was the best and most affordable place. It’s been tough just in general trying to find recommended places to eat here in Beijing. Reason #1. Google is blocked here unless you have a VPN #2. They don’t have Yelp here for reviews on places, instead they have the Chinese version of Yelp but...it’s all in Chinese #3. The restaurants signs are all in Chinese and unless you know where you’re going or if you’re with a local, these spots are usually hard to find. Even Shane who has a built in GPS system in his head has had a tough time finding his way. Luckily, one of Shane’s college friends is Chinese and came down for a few days to hang with us which REEEALLY helped.

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Hutong Exploring
One of my favorite things about Beijing are the hutongs. What is a hutong you ask? Mainly found in northern China (specifically Beijing), they’re little alleys and courtyards that interconnect to form the neighborhoods or the local residences. From the outside, it just looks like concrete walls and a dilapidated door. But once you go in, you are in a maze of corridors leading to numerous family homes, your neighborhood butcher or produce market, coffee shop, etc. It’s like a whole little mini world where you don’t really need to leave your hutong to run errands. Slightly worn down and a little nitty gritty, these places are full of character and it felt like the real Beijing/China I had heard stories about from my grandparents. The government has made it its mission to either completely bulldoze these ancient hutongs for high rises/highways or gentrify them. These new modern hutongs have attracted artists and hipsters who set up cute coffee shops and boutiques. In many ways this is good since it’s bringing a second life to these little neighborhoods and attracting more attention/young people. On the other hand, the nitty gritty that I mentioned earlier is squashed out and it feels more like any other city that you go to that has a coffee shop on every corner.  

Living in a Chinese Musical
There aren’t too many smilers here in Beijing. You catch someone staring at you and you flash a friendly smile but in return they just stare at you. So serious, no smiles. So you can understand why I was so pleasantly surprised that any time you enter a public park you are surrounded by people singing and dancing. Usually older folks, they blast some tunes and are either doing some sort of choreographed dance, tai chi, or waltzing around. It’s quite adorable to watch. Usually these groups are within feet of each other and stumbling on to it, it almost looks as if they are having dance offs. I think the Step Up movies need to make a Chinese version here in Beijing. What could make this park stroll even more magical? How about blaring some catchy Chinese tunes and singing along. Bring your own karaoke machine down to the park and sing a sad song by yourself (as if you’re in your own music video) or get your buds and some instruments together for band practice. I think the most entertaining group of singers we saw weren’t actually singing, they were just mouthing the words to a song blasting from some speakers. I should have joined them since I’m actually an amazing lip sync-er. 

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The Great Wall Hustle
Forbidden Palace, check. Tiannemen Square, check. Hutongs, check. Peking Duck, check. Great Wall, check. Like the city of Rome, Beijing has been an awesome city for checking off my “must see or eat” list as well as walking through history. The most impressive (in my opinion) was getting to go see the Great Wall. The trek out was equally as interesting. Unless you go with a certified/expensive tour group, trying to get to the Mutaniyu section of the Great Wall on your own can be tricky. Our research showed that many tourists are scammed. It’s an hour drive away from Beijing by bus, and often times “fake” buses will offer you a great price but end up dropping you off at another stop far from where you are supposed to be thus causing you to take an expensive taxi to the Great Wall. (The taxi drivers are in cahoots with the “fake” buses) Our plan was to take the REAL bus to the town right outside of the Great Wall where we would get a certified taxi to take us the rest of the way. Once we started to get close to our bus stop, random guys would enter the buses exit and start shouting at us (more specifically at Shane, he stands out like a sore thumb here) to come with them and that they would take us to the Great Wall. Kind of unnerving. And once we got off at our bus stop, they bombarded us wanting to take us to the wall. Really overwhelming. You have to be very firm about saying no. It has become second nature for us to use the Chinese phrase “Wu buyao” (a phrase I highly suggest you learn when visiting and translates to “I don’t want it”). But it’s not just the Great Wall scammers that try to hustle you, it seems that way everywhere in China. I’m definitely glad that in our travels we have the internet to seek out answers on how best to get from point A to B. Anyway, back to the Great Wall, it was surreal. You've seen it in movies and in your history books, but nothing really prepares you when you're standing right in front of it/on it. We hiked up to the section that had been restored and standing from one of the high towers you can see the wall stretch out for miles and miles. I highly, highly recommend going out to see the Great Wall when you're in China.