No matter how much a person reads or hears from others, you really have to go to Beijing to fully appreciate its sights, sounds and smells. You can, of course, stay in a five star hotel in Beijing, eat at the hotel restaurant and shop on Wangfujing Street, thereby missing most of the real Beijing. We chose instead to ride the subway, stay at hostels and eat at the food stalls on the street. Beijing held many surprises for us.
Several large traffic arteries divide Beijing into large city blocks. Each block contains a maze of alleyways known as the Hutong. The Hutong are lined on either side by rows of small attached houses. Doorways off the main alleyways lead to small court yards with more small houses off of them. Most are single story dwellings and some are very primitive looking. Most Hutong have restaurants, small stores and businesses mixed in. There are public bathrooms everywhere in the Hutong and we realized that most of the homes within the Hutong do not have bathrooms.
Because the Hutong make up most of the central residential area of Beijing, there are not as many skyscrapers as we expected. Most of the very large high rise apartments are located outside of the centre. Interestingly, the people of the Hutong often aspire to live in apartments while it has become trendy for apartment dwellers to move to the Hutong, refurbishing them to modern standards.
The smells of Beijing range from the mouth-watering smell created by street vendors to the olfactory assault of public washrooms. Some of the Hutong are hundreds of years old and built before the sewer system. Public bathrooms are on a septic tank system which accounts for the smell. The streets however are very clean and each day you see people with straw brooms sweeping them.
Our family seems to be a bit of a curiosity. When we stop to take pictures, Chinese people sometimes ask if they can photograph us or have a photo taken with us. Other Westerners have told us of similar encounters. When we travel, other people often make the most interesting pictures. We didn’t expect to find the shoe on the other foot. This reminded us to always be considerate in our picture taking and ask before taking pictures of individuals.
As a wheelchair user, we knew that Kasenya might be stared at but we didn’t expect long drawn out stares from almost every passing person. We have had people walk around her in a circle for a better look, or come and stand directly in front of her and stare. Kasenya seems rather unaffected by this as many people look at her and smile. She says that she is a normal person and its their problem if they stare. The staring seems to be more a matter of curiosity than anything.
We were surprised at how accessible Beijing is. Preparation for the Paralympics have no doubt had a huge affect. Kasenya has written in her blog about the surprises in the subway system. We were also happy to discover so many ramped curbs but then we realized that this is not so much for wheelchair accessibility as for accommodating bicycles and the many vending carts that are found on the streets of Beijing. If there is no elevator, someone will usually direct you to a ramp.
We were also surprised at how lush Beijing is. In this way, Beijing looks like Havana. Many of the main traffic arteries are tree lined. Many boulevards are filled with elaborate horticultural displays and you routinely see people trimming and caring for the shrubbery.
The cost of certain things was also a surprise. We hoped to pick up a second camera in Beijing but discovered that the one we want costs almost double what it would cost in Canada. Besides you can never really be sure you are getting an authentic brand.
A Starbucks coffee costs about the same as home. However a very basic hotel room in a new and clean building costed $25 CDN per room per night. The cab ride to the train station took over an hour and cost about $10. Since fuel prices are about the same as home, we wondered how the cab drivers make any money.
Traditional cuisine is very inexpensive. We seldom spend more than 100 Yuan on a meal. This is equivalent to about $16 or $17 Canadian dollars. We have had some very interesting meals. We tried the night market, which is a series of stalls that offer such delights as starfish, scorpions and silk worms. (Deep fried scorpions are delicious). There were also several things that we could not identify and a big pot of soup with floating pieces of intestine. In such a populous, yet poor country, they eat all the parts of the animal and you usually see several menu items that include things like tongue, kidney, tendon and tail. At one restaurant we ordered lamb hot pot. We got a huge metal bowl of broth and spinal columns. The meat off the bones tasted great but the presentation was a little off-putting.
Our next stop is in Xi’An to see the Terra Cotta Warriors of the Qing Dynasty.
Bissky Dziadyk Family
Travelling the world as a family since 2008.
In September 2008 our family embarked on a four month journey through South East Asia. Traveling with a child who uses a wheelchair presented its challenges, but following the Mekong River through China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam with a wheelchair was truly an adventure.
When we move beyond our fears and embrace our dreams, the Universe has an odd way of not only supporting us but giving us more opportunities than we ever imagined. Embarking on a journey with an open heart we can not help but be changed forever by the experience. Indeed it would be a waste to return untouched in the spiritual realm.
September: China (Beijing, Xi’an,Kunming, Yuanyang)
October: Northern Vietnam (Hanoi, Halong Bay) and
Laos (Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane)
November: Southern Vietnam (Hue, Ho Chi Minh City, Mekong Delta)
December: Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampot and Sihanoukville).