Reminder to self: Never asssume! It makes an 'ass' of 'u' and 'me'!
Alejandro was a Mexican-American from the southern state of Georgia. He was on a two-month travel through Asia which started in Seoul a few days ago. He then made it to Beijing the same day I met him. He entered the hutong cantine the same way a Bandolero would step into a saloon in a Western Spaghetti. We shared a look and nodded at each other - a sign foreigners often share among themselves while in an area predominantly frequented by locals. In China, although a lot of tourists come to see the wonders of this beautiful country, we foreigners are still highly outnumbered by the local population. Therefore, whenever we cross a "Western" (as they call us), we show some kind of acknowledgement. "How is the food here?", he asked me. "Soup is delicious! Very filling, tasty, super cheap and the noodles are homemade!", I replied. "Good. I'll have the same, then.", he added. He took a seat at the table next to mine and we started talking. "Where are you from?"; "What are you doing here?"; "For how long are you travelling?"; "What have you visited so far?"; "What are you planning to visit?" are the usual routine opening questions - an easy icebreaker exercise. What struck me while speaking with Alejandro (as we were switching back and forth between English and Spanish) was the fact that an American citizen found a way to take two full months off of work, an unheard-of practice in the "Land of the Free". He explained he was managing his own business along with his partner and enjoys entertaining the freedom of taking long vacations whenever he pleases. So, we kept talking and decided to continue the sightseeing together for the rest of the day. We had a lot in common and discussed a lot about work, ambition, travelling abroad and even sports (Alejandro is also a runner). We both had plans to sightsee the Heavenly Temple, but it was closed by the time we got there (It was my second attempt to access its site and still didn't manage to see it (I eventually did on the last day just before heading back to Lushan). My usual "glass half full" mindset immediately thought this misfortune was the perfect occasion to show Alejandro the types of social activities the Chinese take part to when the night falls. We found a city square and observed locals showing off their square dance moves - an absolute "must see" while in China for anyone who truly wants to enjoy the local experience. At each new choreography Alejandro told me more about his life and all that time I kept referring to his partner to the feminine. At one point, he stopped me and said: "Why do you assume that my partner is a woman?" He was absolutely right! I am from Montreal - a very open and sexually diverse city, so I pretty much grew up with this openminded mindset and yet, I still accepted the heterosexual format as the default for society. At this moment in the conversation, Alejandro reminded me of a valuable lesson which I even used myself in a previous post: pluralism! The standars of one individual (e.g. heterosexuality as my own personal standard) does not necessarily apply to someone else. Of course, we should never assume or judge a book by its cover, but I also think it's important to remind ourselves of which values we believe in. Without it, we will most probably drift back into the mold that society imposes on us. Whether it's about sexual orientation, political views or anything else, we should always remind ourselves what we stand for in order to reflect these core beliefs into our interactions with people. It's so easy to just put ourselves on autopilot, talk the way everyone talks and use terms that every one uses, but do we really believe these words or are we just saying them because everybody talks like this? Food for thought. It was bad enough that I though Jono liked hard rock based on his looks. He really surpised me when told me he was a Reggae/Roots musician. I guess I once more judged a book by its cover. It then got me thinking... most people would never guess I am Canadian based on my skin tone, or even imagine I have two masters degrees based on my clothes and hairstyle. I would definitely hate it if I'd be judged by he way I look rather than by the content of my character. And yet, I did it.
Mutianyu: The Great Wall of China
I finally made it to the Great Wall of China as I checked off yet one more Wonders of the Modern World of my list (3 down, 4 to go). There are many segments to the Great Wall of China and they are all located about two hours away from Beijing. Therefore, it's very important to think ahead what kind of wall to see. Some parts of the Great Wall are completely renovated and look like they used to 2000 years ago. Some other parts are partially renovated and others are ruins from the original Great Wall that were kept as-is and never re-touched. Also, during the high season certain parts are very popular among tourists and others, not so much. Of course, the Chinese have a preference for the totally renovated parts as it provides a "more beautiful" scene to snap. Every hostel offer different day trips to different parts of the Great Wall. However, the offering is limited to two or maybe three parts to choose from per hostel. My advice is to research the parts of the Great Wall before booking accommodations to ensure they offer the desired tours. For my part, I had the choice between Simaitai and Mutianyu. Simaitai was a hiking trail on the original part of the Great Wall - a physical and dangerous hike on ruins. Mutianyu, on the other hand, offered the possibility to see three distinct segments of the Great Wall: a completely renovated part, a partially renovated one, and a last part of original ruins. In my opinion, I did well to choose this trip as opposed to Simaitai since I had the opportunity to see different levels of degradation in a short amount of time. Should I had more time I would have probably gone further to spend the night in a small town and wake up early to enjoy the sunrise from the wonder that separated the Imperial China from the Inner Mongolia in the yesteryear. At least, I have one more reason to come back!
After my visit to the Great Wall, Jono and I have arranged to meet for dinner. Agreeing to meet at a subway station was perhaps not the idea of the century as the numerous exits a typical Beijing metro station has can bring you several kilometers apart. We finally managed to meet after a good half-hour playing hide and seek. On our way to have dinner, we were not really impressed with the area we were aiming for. It was recommended by the hostel staff from where Jono stayed. It was a toursty area with many bars, strip clubs and of course many street workers proposing a wide range of entertainment for the evening. Not my cup of tea... so we very quickly changed plans and looked for a more casual venue. On the other side of the street, we noticed a group of people enjoying drinks on patio sets placed right in front of a shack. We approached the very shack and ordered two cold ones, sat on a bench and talked while observing people catwalking on the street. At the end of the first round, hunger was building up and we had no intention of dining at one of these fancy restaurants. Jono remembered I told him about one of those barbecue places where you pick and choose your skewers from the fridge and send them to the kitchen to grill them. We found one of those places on a backstreet between buildings. We were very far from the fancy Beijing witnessed earlier. It was perfect! We picked skewers, added an order of vegetarian dumplings, another round of beverages and took seats under the sheet metal roof surrounded by canvas covers We must have stayed there two hours before heading back to our respective hostels. Unfortunately, the subways were already closed by the time we finished eating, so we grabbed a motorized tuk-tuk. It was driven by the funniest lady who complained at every traffic light on the way that Jono's hostel was too far away. Good thing we've had agreed on a fixed price in advance, or at least I thought. As soon as we got to the first stop (Jono's hostel), the tuk-tuk driver literally refused to keep going as she used this stop as a getaway from the sucker deal she found herself in in the first place. She then asked me for more money to bring me to my hostel as I was left alone against her. Of course, I refused to let myself being bullied as a matter of principle and decided to walk the rest of the way as she was chasing me with her tuk-tuk while gradually dealing the price down. Screw this! Who knows what the next trick would have been for her to extorque even more yuans out of my pocket. I'm not a sucker! I'd rather play it safe and walk my way back. In the end, this walk turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I stumbled upon an area which was much closer to my usual venues. The area was called Shichahai which consisted of three interconnected lakes with plenty of acoustic music bars all around. I pinned that location into my phone's Google Maps app so I could come back the next day.
Around the lakes with a Kazakh Star
On Sunday morning, I woke up and had breakfast at the hostel. I strategically picked a seat in front of a man with a Lonely Planet in hand. My plan was to ask and see what is worth visiting around here now that I've already accomplished my goal of visiting the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. After discussing a few minutes we finally asked each other where we are from. He was from Switzerland. It only took a second to switch it to the French language. We both found it quite funny that two native French speakers would speak English together. On that good laugh he recommender to visit the Summer Palace, an immense garden that the Emperors used as a vacation resort on warm summer days. Today, it is the largest imperial park in China. Among the beautiful monuments, gardens and landscaping I found particularly beautiful the Suzhou Market Street - a market area with many craft shops having storefront right by a canal. The other monument that particularly caught my attention was the Long Corridor - a 728 meters-long covered walkway decorated with more than 14 000 paintings. An absolute beauty and a true delight to walk it from end to end.
Later this evening I decided to go back to the district I've had accidentally stumbled upon the night before. As expected, the whole area was crowded with people also seeking for the good entertainment that acoustic music offers. I still wanted to enjoy the comfortable weather this evening so I grabbed something to drink and sat on some stairs facing one of the lakes. As I was enjoyin the night breeze, I observed people around while making my own stories in my mind. A delightful me-time which I've been enjoying quite a lot for the past three months travelling alone in China. Sometimes I find peace in finding myself alone with my own thoughts. About an hour later I walked around the lake and almost got runned over by a bike. What an idea of pedalking in the middle of such a crowded area! The lady caught my eye nonetheless with her big eyes and unusuall haircut that was quite similar to mine. I was actually trying to look for a cheap barbershop earlier that day, so I thought I'd ask her where she got what looked like a fresh undercut. I was disappointed to learn that her sister cut it for her. I couldn't really bank on that intel unless the sister would agree to cut my hair too. I thought it was a bit too forward for a first encounter, so I just winged getting 'so fresh and so clean' for a few more days until I went back to Lushan (where I normally get a haircut, shampoo and massage for 38 RMB). We got the conversation going and had good laughs about people taking pictures of us with our big eyes and atypical hairstyles. After a moment talking on the bridge that connected both sides of the lake, Agata, her sister Amina and myself decided to hunt for good live music. Agata, my new Kazakh friend, is a famous uprising signer in her country. She participated in the Kazakh edition of The Voice and has quite an impressive ratio of followers per capital on Instagram. Later that night, as I was discussing further with Agata I learnt she is an ex-heroin addict and now owns a rehab centre. At that moment came to my mind the learnings from my encounters with Jono and Alejandro. We kept the talking for a few hours until my body required me to give it some rest for the next day. We exchanged phone numbers, followed each other on Instagram and scanned our WeChat before walking back to my hutong.
On the last day, I decided to keep it casual by visiting a few monuments within the city and not too far from the Beijing West Railway Station. I started with the Beijing National Stadium, better known as the Bird's Nest, that hosted the Olympic Games in 2008 - an impressive architectural piece of art. It was quite expensive to enter in comparison with the other traditional historical monuments of the city. It was about 180 RMB to get into the stadium... no thanks! I settled for a nice walk around the Olympic Village before I took the subway in direction of the Heavenly Temple - the last stop before it was time to leave Beijing. The whole sight was beautiful, but in my opinion it was a little bit more of the same that I've already seen in the Forbidden City. Don't get me wrong! It was a beautiful sight, but let's just say that had I had less time available and needed to skip this visit, it would have been the end of the world. Perhaps the tiredness of walking from the early morning till late at night for four days straight got me a little less enthusiast about this last stop before leaving. Totally understandable, right? So, about two hours before my train departure, I walked again around Qianmen and ran into Alejandro who just made it back from the Great Wall. We paired up for dinner before I left. My first question to him was how much did he pay for the group tour to the Mutianyu. Question to which he replied: "I didn't book anything. I just asked people around how to get there and took a public bus which brought me to the foot of the Wall in about 2 hours. "How much did it cost you?" I asked. "About 140 RMB in total." was his answer. That's less than half of what I've paid! I don't regret my choice of booking the tour through the hostel because I had such a great time, but this information is nonetheless good to know for a future visit. Alejandro and I enjoyed a light lunch together before I headed to the railway station. From there I took the night train to Jiujiang where the factory driver was waiting for me to go directly to the office. I arrived at the office around 7:30am, brushed my teeth, got changed and walking into the meeting room ready to rock my week until my next adventure.