blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Day 1 in Beijing: a rainy day at the zoo

Written on May 10th, 2015

We've been at the Shangyuan Hotel for a day now. Howard, who was so kind meeting us at the airport yesterday afternoon with his car, had a terrible job bringing us here: because of the heavy traffic the ride took a good two hours, and at the end of it, although we identified recognisable nearby landmarks, we couldn't find a way to reach the hotel entrance without having to make U-turns and stops to study the GPS map on Howard's cellphone. Meanwhile, pedestrians, cyclists, rickshaws, garbage vans, buses and other traffic careered chaotically around us. We knew we'd arrived in Beijing, all right.

Our hotel, seen from its entrance the Gaoiliangqian Xiejie (road)
The Shangyuan has a grand gate with sentry boxes containing sometimes sleeping sentries and an archway, dilapidated around its base, the buildings around the courtyard mid-European 18th century in appearance, if not in character (this hotel wouldn't have looked out of place in Bad Pyrmont except for the red-lit Chinese characters over the entrance). I took the precaution of asking Howard to come as far as the hotel lobby with us in case of confusion, and sure enough, the receptionists didn't speak any English. If you ask them, most people here shake their heads and look panicky. I took a deep breath and began women you yuding...--we had a reservation--but of course they said something in reply which I didn't understand, so Howard had to leap in and help. I asked him to make sure we had a large bed; the phrase for this is da chuang. Can't remember how he said “non-smoking”. Our passports were photocopied and we were given room keys; the word for key in this context is ka, i.e. card. Howard decided to come upstairs and take a look at our room too; he seemed relieved that it wasn't too bad here! The shower wets the whole bathroom floor but the water drains away eventually. We have all sorts of little extras in case we'd forgotten anything: slippers, razors, nail trimmers and several packs of condoms with “magic grease gives you more happy more power ... most memorable sensation”! On the bathroom tap, we're advised to Please Drink After Boiled. Teabags (green tea) are also provided and there's black tea at breakfast from an urn, although the milk to go with it is condensed milk.

Our local street, Gaoliangqiao Xiejie (seen on a fine day)
Before sleeping last night, we thought we'd better try to find some supper and in fact the neighbourhood is the sort where every other building is an eatery of some description. We found a clean and comfortable place where we could order from a menu with pictures and ate some pork fried with whole cloves of garlic and spring bamboo, and bowls of rice: felt more human after that. Our waitress, typically friendly, looked up the translation of our tasty main dish on line––it was spring bamboo with pork––but I managed to remember how to ask for the rice and the receipt without assistance. On the way back we bought a large bottle of “purified” water for drinking and tooth-brushing; we did the same again tonight.

North entrance to the zoo (photo taken May 16th)
Today has been mostly very wet, but this doesn't matter because (a) the rain will clear the air of some of the pollution, and (b) it has forced us to return to the hotel for the afternoon and catch up on some more sleep. We're not too jet-lagged, but I did wake up at 3am all ready for a day's sightseeing, which wasn't appropriate, although it's a quieter city at that hour. This morning, we risked the complimentary breakfast buffet, choosing scrambled egg with bits of boiled cucumber, deep fried dough (looks like a banana fritter without the inner banana), boiled dumpling (rather stodgy) and spring rolls. Well, it's food. Then we walked to the nearest metro station which is Xizhimen, next door to the Beijing Bei railway station. Lots of dangerous road-crossing involved and we already had our umbrellas up, but I felt reassured to have learned the way there and back. Then exploring in the other direction from the hotel we easily found the entrance to the Beijing Zoo (north gate) which is up a large flight of steps. It has the look of a 1960s American theme park about it, but the park itself is attractive and will be worth seeing again on a fine day. I was surprised at how expensive the admission fee was, 165 yuan per person (that's more than $30), but maybe I misunderstood the information at the ticket window. 

It made sense to visit the indoor attractions on a day like this and we spent a long time in the modern aquarium, as did a great many other people, none of whom were occidental. More and more arrived as we were there, mostly with young children. I enjoyed watching them as much as the sea creatures, although it got very noisy. Background music played and kitschy shops sold plastic glow-in-the dark toys. We saw dolphins, sharks of all sizes, stingrays, turtles and whales as well as the exotic fish. A pair of beluga whales did vertical gyrations around one another, wonderful to watch. In one of the tanks a diver was swimming too, moving the sand around an inner tank for the smaller sharks. We also walked along the wet paths to other animal enclosures, some much less acceptable than others. Presumably they're modernising the zoo by gradual degrees. They had brought the elephants indoors because of the weather, but it bothered me to see those large animals confined in such small cages. The partly roofed “monkey mountain” wasn't so bad. The outdoor animals were sheltering from the downpour; we saw a tiger (hu) asleep under an overhanging rock and the back legs of a lion (shi). No sign of the Australian animals. They didn't want to be out in any rain. Parts of the zoo are lakes and a river runs through it too, with long-boat rides available. In one section is a covered, painted walkway like the one we saw at the Summer Palace on Day One of our previous trip to Beijing. At “Swan Lake” we found a nice, quiet restaurant that served us “slippery mushrooms with chicken”-- a nice stir-fry that came with a bowl of seaweed soup.

Zookeeper in the shark tank, Beijing Aquarium

A pretty corner of Beijing Zoo, in the rain
The puddles on the way back to the hotel afterwards made our shoes, socks and trousers so wet that we were obliged to wait for a few hours before going out again. We slept. We had passed what looked like an Indian restaurant on the way so thought we'd try that for supper. The architecture indoors and outdoors and the Indian script over the door would make you think so, but according to the menu, it wasn't. Preferring not to try the “sheep's waist” or “chicken gizzards”, we opted for some beef with plentiful chilli peppers, a sort of naan bread and a dish of stir-fried green beans garnished with sesame seeds and Szechuan peppers, with beer to wash it all down. I used my rudimentary Chinese again, which never fails to cause fits of giggles, although they're usually polite enough to control themselves till they're in another part of the room. After supper the rain seemed to be easing off, which is promising. We explored as far as the university campus this time which looks most attractive, even in the dark. Chris will need to find his way around here during the week. A large statue of Chairman Mao stands in a central courtyard, and there's a university hotel that looks posher than the one we're in. In one of the lit buildings, a few couples were practising some kind of formal dancing, their umbrellas left open on the floor by the windows.

On the Jiao Tong Da Xue campus, photo taken May 15th

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