Posted by: 1of10boyz | February 17, 2012

Family in China – Beijing Part 1


We are excited about this Beijing Adventure. We have been planning this trip basically since we arrived in China five months ago. We knew that we would be able to have Sam, our youngest, here in China at least once because he is in college. We are hoping to have all of the family here at some point during our 4+ year assignment. This trip we have Sam and are going to get Sarah after our first night in Beijing. Sarah had to share custody with her Ex on Christmas and only had our granddaughter Makaela for half the day. We had hoped that we could find a flight and connections that would allow here to depart Salt Lake City on the 25th but had to settle for an early flight on the 26th which will put her in Beijing in the evening of the 27th. Since we have been in Beijing since the evening of the 26th we have most of the day of the 27th to get settled and figure out how to get around.

Our little car isn’t quite big enough for what we are taking with us. We have in addition to our 3 standard oversized luggage bags, a bag that is full of Chinese purchases that will be going home with Sarah from our other trips, and a carry-on bag that has been packed so that when she stops in San Francisco on her way back she can give it to LaDawna’s sister to get her stuff and then forward to Mike and his family who are also in Northern California. In order for us to actually get it to the airport we have the carry-on in the front seat with LaDawna and Sam and I have my computer bag and the extra suit case on our laps in the back seat. The taxi from the Beijing airport to the hotel is one of the negotiated vans. I suck at taxi fare negotiation from the airport. I am not good at negotiating for something that I have to have (like transportation from the airport). When we arrived in Qingdao in July I paid $900 RMB for a taxi fare that should have cost $90 RMB, in my defense I had been awake too long and had no idea what it should have cost in the first place. Besides it was nearly 11pm on a Friday night and we had even more luggage then and it would have taken a small truck to haul it to where we were going. The van driver gives us a price which is lower than what he usually charges for the trip from the airport to the hotels in town (it was a typed rate table, had to be accurate right?). The trip ends up costing us about $300 RMB.

Before we left for Beijing the afternoon of 26th we were able to get Sarah and Makaela checked in on the flight via the internet at United.com. So I have made all of the arrangements to make it a pretty hassle-free check-in for them when they go to the airport. We are still worried that they won’t make the early morning flight. The women in my life now are not known to be morning people. It doesn’t help that she has to get up and start getting ready very early, something like 2:30 am. Monday evening, China time, we call her when we think she should be on her way to the airport, she is still home. She is going to cut it close for an international flight. We hope everything works out. Her account follows:

“Monday morning, very dark and early (2:30am) we got up and left for the airport.  I had originally made plans for her dad to drop us off and of course something came up and he wasn’t able to because he wanted to make other plans.  I had tried to make other arrangements and my dad just told me to park in long term and he’d pay for it.  That was the better bet for us so that we could just get there and not worry about waiting on someone to pick us up when we returned.  It sucked in the aspect that it was me; by myself with two suitcases, a bathroom bag, and two carry-on bags.  I couldn’t just park in long term and then trudge all this crap to the bus stop by myself and seeing how skycap for United airlines DOESN’T exist I parked in the short term [parking] and as we were walking in were lucky enough to have someone help us with all our crap.  I checked in our bags and then hurried to move the car to long term [parking] and then catch the bus.  I got through security by 5:15 am which was perfect [since] our first flight to San Fran [Francisco] would be boarding at about 6 am.  I’m so grateful that I loaded the car the night before so I didn’t have to worry about it before leaving; we would have probably missed our flight completely.”

We really like the location of our hotel. It is convenient to the most necessary items, food and transportation. After we get checked in to the hotel we stroll across the pedestrian walkway to the shopping area across the street. We noticed that there were a number of fast food locations on the corner and it looks like a mall. We wander around and grab a bite to eat at Pizza Hut. It is really slow service but I am supposed to be on vacation so I am going to try and not worry about time. That will be an interesting experiment this week. I am not good at going with the flow and time is always something I worry about. As we are headed back to the hotel, we notice that a street vendor is selling DVDs, I am sure that they are bootleg versions, but LaDawna finds one of the latest Twilight films that she hasn’t seen yet so we now own an illegal DVD (now our challenge is going to be getting our video library back to the US, I am not sure that we will be able to tell the difference between the legitimate versions and bootleg versions 4+ years from now). We realize that there is a grocery store in one of the buildings on our way back to the hotel, perfect. We enter and do some general browsing. The layout is not like anything we have seen, it has the milk and eggs right by the door as you enter, but we can’t seem to find the checkout counters. We pick up some things that will cover the meals that we don’t want to go out for. We get a case of water so that we have at least a little assurance that we are drinking good water. We get back to the hotel and put our stuff away, I am tired but not so tired to not notice that the bed is the standard Chinese fare – dang hard.

We are up on the 27th and get some of the breakfast items that we bought last night. We are finally ready to get out the door to wander the city by 10am. I didn’t even make it one day without worrying about the time, but I am going to keep trying. We head toward the subway station; it is only about 200 meters from the front door of the hotel. I have a flash of brilliance as I am approaching the entrance; I take out my cell phone and take a picture of the subway entrance and its name. I am going to have several opportunities to use that picture over the next 48 hours to get me back to the hotel. I don’t know if I have ever read that bit of advice before, but I would recommend it to all travelers if they are not native speakers of the prevalent language in country they are visiting.

We enter the subway and I pause in front of the subway map. I have brought my Lonely Planet China book along and we take a moment to familiarize ourselves with the two maps. We are not very interested in getting lost and the hope is that we can save ourselves some frustration by taking the time now to figure out where we are so we can find our way “home” again. It takes about 10 minutes of comparing the book map with the subway map for me to feel confident that we can get back to this location again using the subway system.

We had worried that we might need a driver to get around in Beijing but it looks like we can get to every location that we want except the Great Wall using the subway. That is going to make this trip a little less expensive than we thought it might be. A driver for the day in the city would cost something around $400 – $600 RMB ($70 – $90 USD); the subway costs us just $2 RMB per person each time we have to get out of the system. The subway is going to be an adventure by itself so we are looking forward to trying to get around using public transportation; there really aren’t too many opportunities for that kind of experience in Wyoming.

I have a couple of locations that I want to visit just for the purpose of seeing what they are. One of these is called the “Friendship Store”. It is really becoming irrelevant by some materials that I have read. It has become irrelevant because of the “open market” that is beginning to happen in this country. The ability to find the stuff that was found in the Friendship Store in the other shops in town is not quite probable. This is a good thing; we are not able to find it (we go looking for it later in the week again, unsuccessfully). We do find the Silk Market.

There is something a little ironic about the Silk Market and Communism. The Silk Market is consumerism and, in my opinion, capitalism at its finest. There are so many little vendors in the many stories of this building that are trying to sell things that it doesn’t look anything like what I would imagine communism is supposed to look like. It is another example of how things are changing in this country.

We wander around looking without a pressing need to do anything else. We are the vender’s worst nightmare; we aren’t really looking for anything special. We are willing to walk away from any deal that isn’t just right. We find some more video stores and find some videos that we are interested in, mostly TV series, something we are willing watch and pretend that we are sitting in the US watching it. The clothes shops are much more aggressive, we wander down the aisles and the vendors do some nice wares. We stop and get Sam to try on a couple of Chinese type jackets. We get him in a black one with a nice white shirt underneath, it is quite sharp looking. We like the way he looks, the sleeves are a little short but it is more than functional. We negotiate a little and LaDawna and I try to convince Sam that he looks nice in it. The price starts at over $600 RMB, we hem and haw and the price keeps coming down, Sam finally tells us that he won’t wear it so we tell the vendor we are not interested and start walking away. She comes back to us, almost two shops away and gives us a price of $130 RMB (something like $20 USD) and I say we will take it. Why not, I have bought him other clothes that he won’t wear that cost lots more than that and he at least looks good in these.

We wander through the watches and electronics. Sam finds a watch, finally, that he likes. We argue and negotiate a price that seems reasonable and he finally has a watch. I can no longer tell that the time is “time to get your own watch”. We find a nice eye glass shop, since I looking for some sunglasses that will make me look like Elwood Blues I go in to see what they have. I finally settle for some “Raybans” which have to be knockoffs. But they look nice and I will wear them more just for the performance. They end up costing me $60 RMB (just a little over $9 USD).

We are hungry and sit down at the little café and order some lunch. We spend about $110 RMB for lunch including sodas and juice. We wander over to the tailor section and look at the silk. I am looking for a particular green silk, I have an old green silk apron that was embroidered by my Great Grandmother for my Great Grandfather that I wear to the temple and I would like to do another little project like that for me and pass that apron to my oldest boy. We are able to find some really nice silk and the patterns are muted enough to allow it to work for its intended purpose. The silk is selling for $125 RMB for a meter of cloth that is about 48” inches wide, we get enough to do several aprons; now, I just need to learn to embroidery.

We stop and look at the decorative magnets. Some people collect teaspoons, others collect shot glasses, we collect magnets. We have always had magnets on our refrigerator, they originally got there holding up kids projects and pictures; now they hold up pictures of family and friends. We are glad that our refrigerator here in China is steel and the magnets stick. Our stainless steel one in Wyoming doesn’t work. Anyway, there are so many different kinds of magnets we find several that we think will be representative of our trip here and buy them. We find a glass painter that will paint a name inside a bottle and get one as a gift.

We are now getting close to the end of the time we have allocated for wandering around today. We head back to the subway to go to the hotel. We want to drop off the stuff at the hotel so that we can go to the airport without having to worrying about stuff. We are able to make all of the required connections and return without incident. We drop of the day’s treasures and head back to the front desk, the desk tells us that the taxi will cost us about $100 RMB from the hotel to the airport, which would have been helpful information last night when we got the taxi to the hotel. I decide that we are going to use the subway to go to the airport; it shows that the subway goes all the way. It does cost us a little more to transfer to the airport line ($25 RMB each) but it is still cheaper than the taxi and at this time of day it is probably faster. We get to miss the bumper to bumper traffic of Beijing. I hate only one thing more than wasting time or waiting around and that is being stuck in traffic, really the ultimate waste of time – I have no control of that lost time. Any opportunity to not be stuck in good traffic is a good opportunity.

We get to the airport without any real issues. We find the Arrival’s Board and the flight from SFO indicates that it has arrived. We hurry over to the area where the international arrivals will enter the airport. The wait begins. The flight did arrive a little early; however, I know that there is still a lot stuff that has to happen. They have to actually get off the plane, no small task on a 747, pass through Medical Screening (most people don’t even notice that station as they are going through the airport, unless there is some epidemic going on, like the bird flu) and Immigration. Then it is go to the carousels and wait for your luggage along with the other 400 or so people that were on your plane. Then it is off to the exit with the hope that the customs’ personnel don’t want to take a closer look at your bags.

Now on our side of the “barrier” it is a lot less interesting, we just wait without having any idea of what is going on. Sarah does have someone that allows her to use their Chinese cell phone and call me; she is just getting through Immigration. We have been waiting close to 45 minutes in the airport at this point, LaDawna is an emotional wreck; she is so excited to see Sarah and Makaela. I find her in the crowd that is waiting and tell her, with the most serious look on my face, that I just got off the phone with Sarah. I tell LaDawna that Sarah is going to be delayed because she was calling me from the Police Station in the Airport; I tell LaDawna that we might have a problem. I give her just a little time to digest that possible scenario (not more than about 10 seconds) before I tell her the real story. We don’t really know how long it will be but since she hasn’t made it through Immigrations we don’t have any idea how much longer it will be.

We have split up all over the exit. I have pushed myself into the crowd that gets a look down the passageway towards the baggage carousels hoping to get a glimpse of them arriving. I see them in the distance and watch them there until I know that they have made it past customs. The following is from Sarah:

“[Beijing] is hands down the biggest airport I have ever seen.  Thank goodness I had made friends on the plane so that I wouldn’t get lost picking up the bags.  Going through immigration was fun and new!  It was simple; you were given a card on the plane and you hand that and your passports to them and they update whatever and send you through.  Once you go down the stairs you get on a train to go to the baggage claims.  Good thing there were people with me who spoke English or else I wouldn’t have gotten on.  There were two different trains.  It was SO confusing and after getting little to no sleep and so disoriented I was so turned around.  Two different groups stayed with me until I got my luggage and even walked with me to my parents.  I can’t thank them enough!  They were really extremely helpful.  I almost didn’t have Ms. M’s stroller which would have been a huge burden for what we’ll be doing on this trip.  They were also kind enough to let me call my parents before I got through immigration to let them know what was going on.  I found out my dad told mom that it was the police saying that I was going to jail.  Of course, my mom was really freaking out at that point. When you leave the airport you feel like a rock star!  It is cornered off as you walk out and people are swarmed around and taking pictures and just waiting.  It was really cool!  I saw my mom almost immediately; she had the camera out and snapping pictures.  I handed Ms. M off before we even got out and around so that my mom could love on her right then!  It was so nice to see my parents and my youngest brother after such a long time being on the plane.  It made it all worth it! ”

Now that we have everybody all back together again we need to get out of the airport and back to the hotel. Sam and I evaluate what we have for luggage and decide that we can manage it on the subway. We make our way back to the train and get tickets for everyone. I note on the train map that it takes us from the international terminal to the domestic terminal. I, however, underestimate the distance that we will actually travel between these two terminals. Even though we don’t make any other stop, when we get to the domestic terminal I bail on the train and we end up in the domestic terminal, CRAP. I am now frustrated enough that I am not going to get back on the train, we attempt to find the taxi stand and take a taxi. We get to the taxis and we load our stuff into a taxi. The lady driving the taxi doesn’t give us much mind until she looks in the rear view mirror and realizes that she has a total of six people in her taxi (not like we tried to sneak Makaela into the car). She starts talking really fast in Chinese and broken English. I don’t really know what she is saying and try to play dumb using my standard response “Ting bu Dong” (means, I hear you but I don’t understand you, literally – hear no understand). She pulls up the cab up to the front of the taxi line and jumps out to get someone to tell us what she is saying. We are finally able to understand that the taxi can only have five people in it. I volunteer to ride in another cab, I show her the picture that I took of the subway station and tell her to take everyone there. I do the same for my cab driver and we take off. The traffic is OK and I don’t have any taxi issues. The story I get from the other cab occupants is their driver was much more animated and would be cussing out the people that are cutting her off. Of course, the driver can’t remember where she is supposed to take her cab and I get a phone call from LaDawna asking where the cab is supposed to go. LaDawna has not taken any Chinese lessons, her pronunciation of Chinese leaves a lot to be desired. I am wondering if they will ever make it. LaDawna is trying to use her electronic translator, thinking that it will help her, what she doesn’t realize is that it is not designed to pronounce pinyin and it is not going to do her any good. I finally hear the taxi repeat the right destination, after I have tried to coach LaDawna to say it at least 10 times (which never did come out quite right). We finally get together again. I tell them to get out of the taxi on the road instead of making the u-turn since the road is really backed up. We drag all the stuff across the pedestrian walk way and get it put into the hotel. 

We knew that Sarah was going to freak about the driving over here, it is her first experience of international driving. While many of my expat friends tell me that there are worse places than China, it is going to be an eye opening experience for my kids. The following is Sarah’s account:

“They are absolutely crazy drivers!  I am shocked that they don’t get in accidents.  They have lines on the road and all the vehicles have blinkers but they don’t use them.  They make their own rules, which is so out of the norm for me.  We almost got in a huge accident within 10 minutes of being on the road. I literally had to just close my eyes so that I couldn’t see what was going on.  Our driver was hilarious on the way.  She was singing and she was yelling at the drivers by us that were being more reckless than she liked.  When it got closer to where we should get off my mom couldn’t pronounce the street and she got her handy dandy translator out.  She typed in the word and it said it but my brother had already said it before the thing did.  That was very entertaining; mom frantically trying to type the name of the street in and it malfunctioning a little bit.”

Now, so that you that don’t know me personally, I am the kind of guy that like to see something on vacation. My family knows that, so much so that Sarah has specifically told me that we are not going to do anything on the day that she arrives. What she doesn’t realize is that by the time she actually arrives at the hotel it is going to be late and the only thing to do, for old men like me, is eat and drink. We get to the hotel at 7:30pm and the only thing that she wants to do is get something to eat, we are also hungry. Sarah’s words again:

“First thing to do was feed Ms. M, we were starving and the plane food wasn’t awful but it wasn’t my favorite.  Little did I know that throughout the week I’d be craving this plane food.  There were a few American fast food places that we were able to go to.  We went to KFC and ordered what should have been a pretty big meal ended up being a small meal that didn’t fill us very well.  We decided to go to the grocery store to hopefully get a few things there with not a lot of luck.  It was very cool to see and experience the store though.  I have a pretty sensitive nose and the second you walk in the smell from the fresh produce being out could knock you over.  It was a little difficult trying to be sneaky taking pictures of the food sitting out.  One of the workers was not happy about me taking pictures; like I am going to steal this idea.  Instead of going to the hotel we went through one of the markets and I found this cool hat that I love!  Ms. M wanted ice cream and, of course, papa wasn’t going to tell her no!  The rmb currency compared to American money [threw] me off for a while; we spent $400 rmb on ice cream for five people.  So crazy!  We went back to the hotel, ate our ice cream and then went to bed!  Sleep never felt more wonderful!”

It is going to be a big day tomorrow. We have a couple of World Heritage Sites on the list and I am excited about checking those off the list of 40 places to see in China.

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