Tina and I had a fantastic time in Beijing last week. We probably disagreed more this trip than we ever have on a vacation (see below for why – it was mostly my complaining), but in the end, we laughed and chuckled about how wonderful a trip it was.
I realize that I went into the trip thinking it would be a great time of rest and relaxation from life in NYC (this was an unspoken, unconscious expectation). The problem is, Beijing is the last place one would want to find rest and relaxation! It’s roughly double the size of NYC’s population, and there are just as many tourist attractions as NYC, if not more… except these attractions require rigorous step-climbing. Throw in the difficulty of not speaking the native language, and voila, this was officially the least ideal setting to find “still, quiet waters”.
What’s hilarious is that Tina entered our trip with the correct view of Beijing – there’s lots to see (Beijing can be like one giant museum), lots of people, lots of places to eat, and she thoroughly understood that we don’t speak Chinese. My wife is a smart cookie.
Once I readjusted my expectations and communicated that I needed to take it easy for a couple of days (no sight-seeing and please, no steps), it ended up being a fantastic trip for so many reasons. Here are some of the highlights (I’m positive Tina would have a much different list).
1) Hanging out with Dave Hong – I mentioned in an earlier post Dave’s humor and insight, and there were so many fascinating discussions we had with the guy. At one point in the trip I told Tina that I don’t want to go to anymore palaces or temples and all I want to do is hang out with Dave. She vetoed me, so I’m trying to convince Dave to move to NYC so we can hang out every day. Sadly, this probably won’t happen until after Dave writes his book about China.
2) Hanging out with Sam Lau – We only had a chance to hang out with Sam one day, but it was so meaningful. Sam and I went on a trip together in 1998 with a host of others, and we hadn’t hung out a whole lot since then, but when we met up it was like instant chemistry all over again. It helps that he’s a Cal guy and a devoted sports fan who cracks me up… and loves God.
He and his wife Charis are an inspiration to me in so many ways, and I was so glad to have a chance to reconnect with him. It’s amazing that our trip to East Asia was 13 years ago…
5) The Amazing Hospitality of Jason, Mr. Liu, Barbie, & Jeffrey – family friends of Vivian (and Mr. Liu is Vivian’s father) – Well, Jason is really the close family friend of Vivian’s, and Jeffrey and Barbie work in the company Jason started. These guys were so helpful, especially since they were natives! We probably saved a total of 96 hours of our life in Beijing by having them take us around, translate things for us, research things for us, and choose dishes for us at restaurants that didn’t have pictures of the dishes.
We had such memorable, funny moments with these guys, too. We felt like we were getting the true, Beijing experience with them.
Jason was the ringleader, and we felt so indebted to him and his family, whom we had a chance to meet our last day. They were so, so sweet.
Jeffrey is a white guy from Virginia who loves China. He’s part of an improv comedy group in Beijing, and he’s got a terrific blog that outlines some of his experiences. Jeffrey, Jason, and Barbie were the source of many laughs.
Meanwhile, Mr. Liu took us to the Summer Palace for a day, and he was as warm and hospitable as can be. He even convinced us to rearrange our plans for the next day, which turned out working perfectly!
6) Seeing the Modernization of China – It’s been 13 years since I went to Beijing, and I was floored by all the modern improvements made in the country over such a short time. Everything from clothing, buildings, subways, and infrastructure – it seemed like an entirely different country.
Although, we still did have to carry toilet paper around just in case there was none in the restroom.
7) Eating Chinese Food – Tina’s really funny about where she wants to eat. She got a copy of Time Out Beijing and cross-referenced the restaurants listed there with those listed in a magazine called The Beijinger. We then did whatever we could to find those restaurants, sometimes to no avail in the most obscure of neighborhoods.
I’m more of the, “let’s just eat at the hole in the wall” person, but I must admit, the places Tina found were pretty impressive and wide-ranging in terms of styles of Chinese cuisine.
My favorite destination was a late-night excursion that led us to a Taiwanese place called the Bellagio. Is it an Italian restaurant? Absolutely not. The menu is entirely Taiwanese.
And we were dining at 11 pm with all the clubbers who had just gone to the MGM club next door.
Our hair disheveled and carrying backpacks, we appeared a tad out of place. But the food was delicious.
8) Going to Parks – My favorite places by far, probably because they were the least populated places. Big ups to Julie Whang for recommending Ritan Park, home of a stone cafe embedded in a small pond.
We also saw some elderly grandfathers flying home-made kites from one of the lookouts at Ritan. We felt like natives who were kite-watching in the park. When folks from Wendy Wu Tours came and crowded around the grandfathers while marveling at their prowess, I got perturbed and judgmental.
We also went to Jingshian park, a magnificent hill that overlooks the Forbidden City. We went there our last night, which happened to be following a beautiful day, and the 360 degree view of Beijing was quite breathtaking.
9) Olympic Park – Sure, the architecture of the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube was astounding, but I was more astounded by a Chilean fellow named Fernando whom we met outside the Water Cube. In the span of a couple of hours, we ran into him inside the Water Cube 3-4 times, on the Olympic Greens, off one subway line, off another subway line, and finally inside one of the subway cars.
Say what? Amidst 20 million people?
So yes, we’re now facebook friends. That’s how the world works, folks.
Again, Tina’s list is likely very, very different, and it probably includes many of the wonderful historic sites that we visited (Great Wall, The Forbidden City, Chengde, etc).
In the end, I’m sure we’d both agree that the best part of the trip was being able to experience it together.
And that’s what I’ll cherish most about our trip to China – spending time with my best friend forever (otherwise known as my bff).