Tuesday, June 12, 2012

My Travels in China: Beijing Day 1

My Travels in China

All work and no play makes a veterinarian very cranky.  Dr. Arnold Plotnick, owner and chief veterinarian at Manhattan Cat Specialists, loves to travel and loves cats; in an ideal world he would combine the two.  So off he went... East... way way East... to China.  Over the course of the next few weeks, we will share the cultural and kitty cat highlights of Dr. Plotnick's trip.

Beijing Day 1

After months of reading my guidebooks and planning my itinerary, my vacation had finally arrived.  Packed and ready, me (and my traveling companion Mark) headed to Newark International Airport, to begin the journey to the world’s most populous country, China.  Our initial destination: Beijing, the Chinese capital.

First leg of the journey:  Manhattan to Newark. We did this in style,
using our two complimentary United’s President’s Club passes.  Even though we had only 50 minutes before we had to board our flight, we took advantage and stuffed ourselves with gratis Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies, some other fancy type of shortbread cookies, and enough pasteurized process cheese food substitute to power a chemical plant.  We then boarded a rickety 60-seat United Express plane for 90 minutes to Toronto.

Arriving in Toronto was a pain because we had to leave and go through customs before transferring to our Beijing flight. Customs? For Canada?  I guess Canada is a foreign country.  Then there was the layover:  3 hours.  Ugh.  Still, the airport was nice, and I had my iPad and iPhone and some magazines to keep me occupied.

At 5:40, it was time to get on our Beijing flight, on Hainan Airlines.  I’d never heard of Hainan.  I was hoping it would be as comfy as my last trip, on Turkish Airlines. Alas, no such luck.  They doled out warm soda, and were stingy with the ice cubes, but at least there were no screaming babies on this flight!  That’s a first for me.

I have never been able to sleep on an airplane, and this trip was no exception.  I kept busy with magazines and with the movie selections they offered (all pretty terrible, except for two hilarious episodes of the Simpsons).  My first Chinese meal of the trip was the airline offering from Hainan Airlines. Not the best.


 Finally, 15 hours had elapsed, and we were descending into Beijing.

Landing in Beijing is no fun.  Beijing airport is enormous, and in most cases, you disembark on the tarmac, where a bus takes you to the main airport terminal.  Chinese people do not line up in an orderly fashion.  They swarm.  Indeed, they swarmed this bus like sharks on a bleeding swimmer.  We managed to get on the little shuttle bus, where I discovered that the phenomenon of people strapping on a huge backpack and having it thrust into your personal space every time the oblivious wearer moves or turns is not limited to riders of the NYC subway.

Surprisingly, going through customs was pretty easy, despite the strict atmosphere and hundreds of warning signs, and before I knew it, we were out the door and in the taxi/bus/shuttle area.  I read in my guidebook that a cab to our hotel would be around 100 to 150 RMB ($16 to $24), but that it was imperative to negotiate the price before you get in.  We found a cab, and the driver threw our stuff in the trunk quickly.  I showed him our hotel voucher and kept asking “how much, how much?”, but he ignored me.  I looked at Mark, who is half Chinese, but he knows about as much Chinese as I do.  We felt kinda helpless.  Finally, two minutes into the ride, the drive said “one fifty”.  Okay.  Reasonable.  Another 45 minutes sitting helplessly, and then we’d actually be in our hotel!

we never found it...
Our driver didn’t know exactly where he was going, so he called the hotel and we got there pretty promptly.  We tossed our stuff in the room, quickly freshened up, and tried to head out quickly to get to Shun Yi Fu, supposedly the best dumpling place in all of Beijing.  They closed at 10:30 and it was 9:30, so, forget about relaxing.  Who cares if you’ve been up for 29 hours straight.  We want dumplings!


We headed out of the hotel in the direction of Wangfujing Street.  This is the main shopping drag, and it happened to be only two blocks from our hotel.  On the way, we passed the infamous Wangfujing Night Market, where all sorts of creepy crawling disgusting things on skewers are available for eating.  If it has a heartbeat or a face, the Chinese will eat it.  The market was closing, so we didn’t linger; we had a mission: dumplings.  But we did catch sight of some silkworm cocoons, starfish, grasshoppers, and scorpions on the grill. Ewww.  I’ll describe this nauseating night market in a future post, but here’s a glimpse.


We managed to find the hutong (alleyway) where Shun Yu Fi was located, but we couldn’t find the place.  The address was 36-3, and we found 36, and 34, but no 36-3.  36 looked like a massage parlor, and I was understandably reluctant to find out what you get when you go into a massage parlor and ask for dumplings.

We finally found an eatery that looked like might be the place, although there was no one in it, and no English signs anywhere.  It was very authentic looking, however, which is what I was hoping for.  The waitress asked what I wanted, and I pointed to a dish on the wall menu, not knowing what the meat source was, although it looked chickeny.


It arrived a few minutes later, and it was delicious:  a very generous portion of chicken with mushrooms and scallions.


Mark ordered what he thought was beef noodle soup.  In fact, it was an enormous bowl of beef and cabbage.  HUGE bowl.  Plus two bowls of rice.  I am not a master of chopsticks, and I had brought plastic forks with me for the trip, but of course I left it in the hotel.  Struggling, I managed to get at least half of the food in the general vicinity of my mouth.  The meal was great, but alas, no dumplings.  Our total bill for two big dishes, two bowls of rice, and two bottles of iced tea: $10.75.  I could get used to these prices pretty quickly.

Back to the hotel now for some badly badly needed sleep. Tomorrow is a big day:  Temple of Heaven Park, Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, and a stroll through the historic hutongs with our tour guide, Vivie Pan.  She’s meeting us at 9:00 a.m.


CHECK BACK SOON for much more of Dr. Plotnick's China Travelog
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