By the time my plane touched down in old Peking, I had devoured the entire Lonely Planet Beijing City Guide, and was almost more aggressive than the Chinese in getting out of the airport and on my way to ‘downtown’. A rather lengthy bus ride, a short stint on the subway and a well-directed walk later, I found myself peering into the dusty doorway of Qianmen Hostel. It was my first look at, and stay in a ‘youth hostel’, once a 3-story courtyard residence dating back to 1850. I’d decided to stay there on the advice of a friend who knew the neighborhood to be an ideal location for the eager adventurer in me.
After stumbling through streets ancient and modern, Tiananmen Square suddenly appeared ‘out of thick air.’
It was still early, before noon, so I set out to make up for the morning lost to transportation. Outside, the hazy heat hung in every hutong (narrow alleyway) and smothered the city like a giant white net cast over this world capital. As I walked through the steaming smog soup, I had to squint and scowl to sightsee my way down “Dazhalan’ (pedestrian street in a hutong only a few steps from the front door of my hostel, and a flavorful street that quickly became my favorite). This heady hodgepodge of tea shops, silk stores, massage studios, tourist outlets and interesting architecture served as the daily access and return route for all of my urban adventures. With a left turn at the west end of “Dazhalan”, I was suddenly strolling a modern-looking boulevard bustling with brand name stores and beautiful Chinese restaurants with their radiant red and glittering gold porticos.
I stumbled on street car tracks under foot as I feasted my eyes on the fine facades and gaudy gates overhead. My head panned back and forth across the wide avenue as I wound my way ahead to where my gaze grew into a gaping gawk as the stern structures surrounding Tiananmen Square appeared ‘out of thick air’. With no particular plan, I was open to wandering, to meandering, to being just one of the thousands of people to plod through this cement desert known as the world’s largest public square. It was aptly named, as my insignificant speck of humanity was distinctly felt as I entered this almost 4800 square feet domain designed to hold more than a million people. Despite being considered a public space, the square was encircled by fences that funneled the crowds through security check points and bag searches, and obsessively monitored by closed-circuit cameras and stringent, serious-faced guards. Clearly not a relaxing place, I kept my pace with my eyes peeled and proceeded with my promenade around this political pavement.
The tea ceremony, holding and beholding the beautiful Chinese porcelain, had blown my entire day’s travel budget!
With my plan of “no agenda” well underway, my first chance to forge into new frontiers “without reservations” presented itself in the form of a very friendly, excellent-English speaking, Chinese couple. I was approached by this cheerful duo who seemed to think I could give them directions. I was by no means startled or surprised by this notion. Only this time, I apologized and told them regretfully that I had only just arrived in Beijing this morning. They were not the least bit dissuaded. In fact, this travel-talking twosome seemed perfectly content to just continue to accompany me around the asphalt attraction, and within minutes, our encounter had accelerated into an excited exchange of itinerary ideas, other areas to explore, and appropriate adventures for me to seek out — the first being a Chinese tea ceremony.
As a huge tea aficionado, I was absolutely delighted by this suggestion, especially when they offered to escort me and explain and translate the information that would be imparted. After lingering through learning the proper way to hold and behold the beautiful Chinese porcelain, smelling and sampling leaves of everything from herbal to oolong and lapping up the luscious local life, I realized I had blown my entire daily travel budget on this one exotic experience. Oh well, what better way to integrate than to celebrate with an authentic occASIAN. Besides, I told myself, I’d make up for it by eating street food and haggling for souvenirs. Welcome to Beijing, I thought happily, as I stepped out of the tiny tea house and into the rest of my summer vacation “without reservations”.