Email from Beijing

I sent the following email to my education abroad students, who were studying for exams in Hefei, to pump them up for the following week’s excursion to the great city of Beijing.

From: Hover, Paul

Sent: Monday, July 30, 2012 1:56 AM

To: (Students of Virginia Tech in China Summer II Course 2012)

Subject: Preparing our Beijing Excursion: a few notes I entered into my smartphone along the way

Hi all,

Our little hotel is in the most interesting neighborhood I have yet seen in China. It’s extremely hard for taxis to find but I now have a card with a map. The Hutong courtyard neighborhoods are large, historically unchanged compounds of many alleys and narrow passages, crowded with folks hanging out and going about their business. The alleys are a bit narrow and winding here and there, but well-kept, and the low, simple buildings and shops authentically reflect how Beijing was and still is organized. Shopping, restaurants, you can find it all in the Hutong. Immediately adjacent (a 4 minute walk) is a bustling, renovated neighborhood shopping area with lots of small arts & crafts shops (no hustlers except the rickshaw dudes), trendy restaurants and bars, and just an incredibly lively and friendly atmosphere. I met a Spanish lady who speaks Chinese like a Mandarin, hailing a taxi and then flinging a few choice phrases at it as the driver drove on without her. I opened the conversation with her by asking her to repeat the choicest of her fluent harangue. Don’t ask me to teach you that, you’ll have to find your own Spaniard.

In harm’s way

I was caught in a huge rainstorm and completely soaked Friday night after dinner. It was so bad, my umbrella was a joke! I was just at the moment of deluge crossing in the middle of a giant big-city roundabout and traffic was blindly coming at me… fortunately a police car stopped and helped me get across. Imagine that in seconds I went from dry to wading almost up to my knees. So far there have been 77 deaths in Beijing attributed to the recent rains and subsequent flooding, but that was last week, and I wasn’t expecting it still to be happening. Things happen so fast–that’s traveling.

TianNaMen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall

Saturday morning our tour takes us to TianNaMen Square, the astounding Forbidden City, and the Great Wall. The Forbidden City went on for gate after gate after majestic gate–one imagines the palace to be a large affair, but this is, suitably for one of the world’s largest and longest-running empires, simply gigantic. Royal yellow roofs with 9 animals on the eves–all is significant, which you will learn about in a week.

The Great Wall

The Great Wall was, well, pretty much invisible. Fogged out. After climbing straight up for 30 minutes I got to see nada, so I’m hoping it will be better next week with you guys. We WILL take the cable car, too. Lots and lots of touts (after all it is a world premier cultural artifact), but I learned from the guide to say “bu4 xu2 yao4,” “I don’t need,” which works better than just “bu2 yao4,” “I don’t want.” (In the latter phrase the bu4 becomes a bu2 when it is followed by another 4th tone, in this case yao4.) On the way out to the wall (an hour drive) and on the way back I got “treated” to a few government stores: jade, silk, and Dr. Tea. Yes, the guide gets a commission (5%) on all sales, so they really want you to go to these places. Bring your armor-plated anti-sales suits, amigos, because you’re really going to need them. These sales persons are THE BEST, slick of tongue, and the thing is, the quality of their wares really is the best there is, too, so it’s hard to refuse. Any up-scale, high-quality gifts you need you should consider buying there. But they’re not cheap, no special student prices I could find. Since I’ve been through this kind of song and dance before, I was able to resist… ermmm, well, I actually did buy some wonderful tea for my wife Tecla and daughter Shantal, “very good for health,” wait…. how much was that again in US$?? Waaa! (“Waa” is, very conveniently, the Chinese for “Wow!” See… Chinese is easy *cough,* sometimes anyway 😉

Chinese Opera

The opera was (and I am not just being the prof here, I mean it) terrific. What made it accessible, even at times moving, was the fact that on either side of the stage were electronic text boards explaining every step of the opera’s 4 famous scenes. Thank heaven for electronics engineers–they penetrate to the depths of culture and open it up to everyone! Many Japanese tourists were in attendance, and most had the headphones you can rent for 50 yuan a pop, but it’s not necessary for English speakers since the boards are in Chinese and English. My guide, I call her “Opera Annie,” was at first unwilling to accept me as her client, because she was looking for another person named Robert , who had paid for the tickets by CC. A few telephone calls got us over that, and Annie became the nicest guide yet. A village girl who studied tourism in college, she was very competent and helpful. Another snag that got fixed was that the taxi driver had never heard of the (quite famous) theater, so I had to call Annie from the taxi while dashing through Beijing traffic: the full address in Chinese is duly noted in Chinese on my schedule for next time.

A rambunctious elderly gentleman

There was a rambunctious elderly gentleman sitting in the section we are going to sit in next week, the one with tables where they serve tea and light snacks like in the old Bogart movies. He got in a little trouble. Annie and I were higher up in normal seats and saw the whole thing unfold right before us. The old fellow had some difficulty understanding why he wasn’t allowed to sit in that section, and kept shouting and threatening the staff to not lay hands on him or try to remove him. Finally he left, loudly protesting and shaking his arms at the audience… he was so entertaining, for a moment I even thought he might be part of the act. Lo and behold, ten minutes later the old rogue showed up again, sat at the same empty table, but this time he was prepared. An elderly male “fu2 wu4 yuan2,” staff person, came to get him to leave and was tugging on his arm when he was surprised and dismayed to have the intruder whip out a flashlight and shine it in the staff person’s eyes and began a loud speech about his rights as a veteran, etc. The flashlight ambush was unexpected and effective: it drove his enemy from the battlefield!

Peking Duck and mantou

BTW, fu2 wu4 yuan2 is also the word to get the waiter to attend on your table–just call it out confidently, it works. Went afterwards to the famous Peking Duck restaurant, He2 Ping2 Men2 Kau3 Ya2 Dian4 (pretty sweet you can pronounce that now, eh?) “Peaceful Gate Roast Duck Restaurant” –if you like, we can go there, too. I got the low-down on how and what to order, so get ready for duck crepes a la Peking with sweet onion and cucumber with garlic and thick soy sauce. Waaa!

There’s a famous bakery where they sell the products immediately as they come out of the oven, 3 types of “man2 tou” (no tone on last syllable), steamed buns, the best in Beijing and only 5 minutes from our hotel. I got some to take home to Hefei, like one yuan (15 cents) a huge bun with red bean or sweet syrup filling, can’t beat it. I had to stand in line about 20 minutes to get some, it is so popular: people describe the place as especially “huo3,” lively, in the spotlight, much sought after.

Getting outta Dodge, Chinese style

Beijing Airport is easy to navigate, and the taxis easy to find. Lots of unofficial taxis to avoid.  It was useful going to Beijing in that I was able to work out quite a few things to make our trip next weekend go more smoothly. It’s amazing how even the most straightforward-seeming things can be complicated at the point of action, and preparation is a must. Still, even with the best laid plans, adventure is always just round the corner… be flexible.

P.S. Do you remember that one of you lost your departure card, the small yellow second half of the entrance card you filled out at the Shanghai Airport before entering the country? I asked at Beijing International Airport about that, and they said no worries, there is a special location at the airports where people can replace them if lost–it’s a simple procedure. No charge, but bring your own stale bread and water because the cells are poorly equipped LOL.

Hope your test went well,


(Beijing opera photographs from