(Andrew leaves in less than two weeks. I'm definitely not freaking out.)
We took our last vacation together last week. After careful consideration, we decided to spend the majority of our time finishing up some last things in Beijing. Sorry if it seems less interesting to you folks; but we're really pleased that we went. We did some pretty cool stuff.
We arrived on Sunday evening and checked into a different hostel, the Sanlitun Hostel. This place was a cool, backpacker hang-out in the Sanlitun district, which is the big ex-pat hang-out part of town. This meant we had easy access to a variety of western restaurants, shops, and attractions. The big tell that we were in White Man's Land was the "No Honking" signs on the streets there. We spent our first night walking around this area, feasting on scallop and bacon pasta and shrimp and papaya salad at Element Fresh, and then spending some time lingering over drinks at Bookworm Cafe, a cafe that doubles as Beijing's English library.
Monday morning we got up early and headed to the Summer Palace. It was amazing! This place was the summer retreat for the emperor, and you can see why. It's set in a beautiful hilly, quiet region to the northwest of Beijing. There's a big lake, and we were lucky to see the beautiful cherry and plum trees in blossom. It seems spring has finally arrived!
We spent hours clambering up and down stairs, taking the boat across the lake, and posing for the paparazzi who followed us everywhere.
Cool dragon boat on the lake
I don't even want to think about how many pictures were taken of me. It could have been the crazy hat, but honestly, I get this reaction pretty much everywhere I go. You'd think I was back in Mali again.
Also, we finally got to go totally Manchu: we dressed up like the imperial despots we really are. I totally love the gold embroidery.
All hail the Emperor and Empress
We didn't get quite as much time as we wanted in the Summer Palace because we had a Noodle-Making class to catch at The Hutong. This cooking school was different from the other we've used. It's owned by an Australian team, and the quality is more professional (and more expensive). Overall, we decided that despite the Chinglish-y instructions at the other school, we prefer the more authentic atmosphere there.
Still, this class was really fun. Ever since watching the bonus footage on Kung-Fu Panda, where the Chinese chef skillfully stretches hand-made noodles, we knew we had to try this. Our teacher was really skilled at this; we weren't, so much. But it was a valiant, and tasty, attempt. You can compare the video of me and our teacher stretching the noodles.
Since we were in the area, we decided to walk around Houhai, a big pedestrian area surrounding a lake. We did a lot of shopping, picking up gifts for friends, family, and selfishly, ourselves. We got ourselves a pretty awesome tea set. We also hit up the local Mexican restaurant, Amigo.
The next morning was another early start for us. After eating breakfast in the hotel, we joined a tour group going to Mutianyu, a 5km section of the Great Wall situated in the hills about 2 hours north of Beijing. This section was less reconstructed than other parts, and not too crowded with tourists. We took the chair lifts to the top and then spent the next three hours hiking up and down the wall, visiting the different watchtowers. We only made it to 9 out of 23. Yes, we're wimps. The countryside wasn't as green as we had hoped, but there were plenty of plum blossoms to decorate the landscape with beautiful patches of white.
We did our part to get rid of the graffiti on the Great Wall, changing "Stanford" to it's proper spelling. Go Bears!
Andrew's favorite part of the trip was going beyond the "No Entrance" sign and climbing to the very edge of the broken down wall. But then again, he's a rebel.
We met some cool people on the wall, including a retired Frenchman who was traveling around learning Mandarin. It was fun speaking French again. It makes me feel better about not learning Mandarin; at least I'm fluent in some languages! After we had gotten our fill of acting like billy goats, we took the toboggan sled down the hill, which is definitely the weirdest, and fastest way to leave the mountain. It was fun! Then we braved the tout-filled souvenir street which seems to be obligatory at any tourist site in China. We scored some beautiful green table runners for us and a panda quilt for my niece Hailey.
After the Great Wall, we returned to Beijing and managed to drag ourselves to a Beijing Opera show. Before the show started, we could see the actors doing their make-up. Andrew and I sat through one hour of screeching, cat-like singing and at the end both concluded it was one of the worst things we'd ever heard. Seriously. First, despite being an opera, there wasn't that much singing (which was frankly, a relief, but I felt we were being cheated of our "opera"). Second, this was obviously intended for tourists. Everyone else in the theater was white, and the tickets were too expensive for such bad seats. The stories were superficial and not very interesting. There wasn't a real set, either, just different backdrops. Third, the music sounded, to quote Andrew, "Like a bunch of 7-year-olds banging on pots and pans." It was awful. The two cool things, though, were that they juggled a bunch of spears, playing "monkey in the middle" with the middle person kicking the spears out to the others, and finally, there was a man with a dragon mask that spit sparks.
For your listening (dis)pleasure
After sitting through that, we had to escape and nurse our sanity back to health so we went to Bookworm Cafe for an amazing dinner and some reading. Then we had a drink in the hostel bar before going to bed.
Wednesday morning was a little more relaxed. We stopped by Jenny Lou's, my favorite place for western goods, which was conveniently not far from our hostel, and filled our larder with avocados, tortillas, cheese, and root beer. (As we were taking a plane later that evening, the root beer turned out to be a bad idea since we were forced to drink it ALL in the airport before going through security.) After packing our things, we hopped on a bus and finally made it out to the 798 Art District, after multiple recommendations from friends. This place is made up of many different buildings, most converted factories, that showcase different types of local arts. We enjoyed ourselves, walking around the different galleries, but since most of it was contemporary art, we weren't really interested. But the Transformer was cool!
After that visit, we grabbed our gear and headed to stage two of our trip: Pandas!