I have a secret. I love Beijing. Love it. We have only been there a total of 61 hours, a bunch of which was spent in the airport. What little we saw of the city was beautiful and fascinating, and I really want to go back. Plus, the food was fabulous. But, it’s complicated.
I already wrote about our first layover back in August, which was confusing and kind of hilarious. This time around, I knew what to expect, and by the time we were coming back through on January 3, we were old pros. Going back to the US from Mongolia in mid-December, we had almost 24 hours in Beijing, and I wanted to see a former student of mine who is working there. We were arriving in the late afternoon, and departing around 5 pm the next day, so we’d have time to do some sightseeing, too. I found out she lived close to the Beijing Airport Express train, so I got us a room at the Novotel Beijing Sanyuan (“San Juan” in my head), which was basically right outside the Sanyuan Qiao Airport Express station. We made plans to meet at the hotel for dinner that Sunday night, and she would take Monday off from work to show us around Beijing. On our way back to Mongolia in January, we would have an overnight, but the timing wouldn’t be good to get together, and then when we head back to the US in July, we’ll only have a few hours in transit. So this mid-December day would be our one chance to see something of the city, and to get together with Xuwen.
First, let me get the “it’s complicated” part out of the way. Over the last several months, China has been making the news for yet another massive human rights atrocity: the detention and torture of millions of Uighur Muslims in “re-education camps.” These camps have been around for a while, but the Chinese government only admitted their existence in October 2018. According to The Independent, up to three million people have been detained in these camps, and subject to torture if they do not denounce their religion. Further, one million people from other parts of China have been sent to live with and spy on Uighur families to make sure they are not practicing Islam. Anyone who is gets reported to the authorities. This is only one example of China’s human rights abuses, but it’s a big one.
So, I believe that traveling to a country that is doing something so horrific is a bad idea. I believe in personal boycotts, as well as official ones. I have felt the same way about traveling to Iceland and Japan, countries known for their whaling. Of course, my country (the USA) is engaged in its own human rights abuses (among them, the family separations of people seeking asylum, and backing off on our commitments to climate action). International travel would be severely curtailed if we only went to countries that had pristine records, if indeed there are any such places. But something on the scale of what China is doing presents a significant moral dilemma. I would have preferred to travel through Korea, which was our other option, but it was hundreds of dollars more expensive to fly that route. Also, Emma and I have both been fascinated by China for a long time (Emma since going to daycare with Chinese kids, and me since taking Chinese history in college). The layovers were a way of getting to see something of Beijing without spending a lot of money there. I didn’t anticipate loving it as much as I did.
As anticipated, our arrival in Beijing on December 16 went much more smoothly. Our only hiccup was on the Ulaanbaatar end, when, after we had gone through immigration and security, the Air China representative who had checked us in came and told me we didn’t have tickets for our flight. We both had to go back to the check-in counters, where it was confirmed that we indeed did have tickets, we had to be re-checked in, and then go back through security (where this time around I had to unpack all my electronics and cables, not just the laptops) and immigration (where we confused the guy by already having exit stamps in our passports). By some miracle, though, we were able to check our suitcase all the way through to San Francisco (our port of entry in the USA), so we didn’t have to mess with it in Beijing.
We navigated Beijing Capital Airport more smoothly this time, and we found our way to the Airport Express Train pretty quickly. Our joke about the immigration line still held (“It’s Disneyland, without the ride at the end”). And the throng of people waiting to get on the Terminal 3 train was crazy. And our carry-on bags were proving to be way too heavy. We both had knap sacks to make getting around easier, but they were packed with all our electronics, and Emma had a couple of books, so our shoulders were aching by the time we got on the Airport Express. Fortunately, we found seats and could relax a bit for the half-hour ride.
The Novotel was right outside the train station. The lobby was all done up for Christmas. I was surprised at the extent of the decorations, but Christmas has become a global consumer festival, so I guess I shouldn’t have been. (I’ll have a separate post about Christmas in Mongolia, too.) We had planned to meet Xuwen in the lobby at 8:00, and we had a bit of time to rest in our room first. I was a little disappointed at how sterile the room was; it could have been anywhere. But the beds were rock-hard, like the ones in the business hotel we stayed in the first time, so I guess that was a sign we were in China.
We decided to go to the nearby mall for dinner. It felt a little like a cop-out, but we were both tired, and we were going to get out and see more the next day, so it seemed like an easy option. Xuwen used her phone to find a nice Chinese restaurant on the third floor of the mall. I can’t recall the name of it, but it was very pleasant, and the food was good. There were plenty of vegetarian options, including Emma’s favorite, steamed veggie dumplings, and a stir-fried okra dish I really enjoyed. We also had saffron cabbage and a mushroom dish. They gave us a free dessert – sugar-coated cranberries on bamboo skewers, stuck into a little fern forest.
After dinner, we collapsed in bed. Beijing was in the same time zone as Ulaanbaatar, so no jet lag to deal with. The next morning, we checked out of the hotel and met Xuwen in the lobby for our day out on the town. We’d already settled on a visit to the Lama Temple (Yonghegong), a large, active, Tibetan Buddhist temple and monastery. We had breakfast at a fabulous restaurant down the street from it, first. Steamed veggie buns, egg buns, scallion pancakes, and veggie wraps – yum!
The Lama Temple was gorgeous. Walking down the tree-lined lane leading towards the entrance, I could already see and smell the incense from people offering prayers outside the first building. We got three incense bundles, one for each of us, and walked through the gate, past the drum and bell towers, and towards the charcoal braziers where you could light your incense sticks. It was difficult to get to the coals; there were many people there, all pushing in to light their incense, and waiting one’s turn was not a concept here. Emma had a hard time reaching in with her incense (too short), so I helped her, and Xuwen explained how to bow three times in each direction, because the gods are everywhere, make a prayer, and then place our remaining incense into a large open censer that was billowing wonderfully scented smoke. Then we went inside.
The temple, built in 1694, started out as an imperial palace in the early 18th century. It became the national center of Lama administration after it was converted into a Lamasery (monastery) in the mid-18th century. It survived the Cultural Revolution and was opened to the public in 1981, and it’s now one of the most popular working Buddhist temples in the city. I didn’t have much to compare it to, but Xuwen said it was extraordinarily intricate and rich compared to other temples in the city. The red, blue, green, and gold decoration and the yellow tiled roof were sumptuous and elaborate in their detail. I could have spent much more time there, but we only had half a day, and Emma and I were carrying bags of rocks on our backs.
The first building is the Gate Hall of Harmony and Peace. It had a statue of the Buddha in the center, with statues of the four protectors, two on each side. I wasn’t able to take photos inside the halls, but the detailed carvings and the statues were impressive. We walked through the Gate Hall to another courtyard, and then into the Hall of Harmony and Peace. This hall had three Buddha statues, the Kasyapa Matanga (Buddha of the past), the Gautama Buddha (Buddha of the present), and the Maitreya Buddha (Buddha of the future). Around the sides were statues of the 18 Arhats (people who have achieved a high level of enlightenment).
The next hall, the Hall of Everlasting Protection, was where the Emperor Yongzheng’s body was placed after his death; it had also been his living quarters when he was a prince. It has a statue of the healing Buddha, Bhaisajya-guru. But the fourth hall, the Hall of the Wheel of Law, and the last one, the Hall of Boundless Happiness, were the ones that took my breath away. The Hall of the Wheel of Law is where the lamas hold ceremonies and read sutras. It contained a incredibly colorful and intricate sand mandala, which would be destroyed once it was finished—an expression of the Buddhist belief in the transitory nature of physical life. In the back of the hall was a sculpture of the Mountain of 500 Lamas, an intricate hillside carved from wood with individual small statues of 500 different Lamas, each in different poses and expressions.
The last hall, the Hall of Boundless Happiness, contains a very tall statue of the Maitreya Buddha carved from a single piece of sandalwood. The statue continues below the floor and is around 26 meters (85 feet) tall in total. The statue makes a very serene presence, and it would have been nice to spend more time contemplating it, but the hall was starting to get crowded, so we moved on.
Finally, in the very back of the temple, was another hall that we didn’t enter, which contained another Buddha statue and carvings of dragons. As we headed back towards the entrance, we entered a side hall that had an exhibit about the history of the lamasery, and the role that it had played in both Buddhist and Chinese history. There was a lot translated into English, but with my heavy backpack, I didn’t spend nearly enough time looking at the exhibits and reading the information. At this point, my back was twinging, and Emma was complaining as well, so we decided to head out and find a place to sit and have some coffee or a snack.
We went back out to the street, and crossed into the network of hutong (alleyways) that have survived modern development in this part of the city. Despite their antiquated appearance, some of the stone buildings house contemporary Western chains like Costa Coffee and KFC. We walked down an alley away from the main street and came upon the Freshbean Café, the front of which was an old red VW-style van. We took a seat inside, and I ordered the “special” Rose Latte, while Emma ordered a hot chocolate and a slice of dragonfruit cheesecake. This turned out not to taste good to her (the dragonfruit had a soaplike quality), so she ordered a tiramisu cake instead, which had more success. Xuwen and I shared the dragonfruit cake. The rose latte was delicious; I would never have thought of rose-flavored coffee (though I like rose tea), but it was just a hint of rose that was almost unnoticeable after the first few sips. We talked for a while about startups in China, and then realized it was getting late and we really had to go on.
I would have been happy heading for the airport, but Xuwen had told us about Jingshan Park, which had a hill overlooking the Forbidden City, and since it was a beautiful, clear day, we decided to take a taxi to the park before heading for the Airport Express station. We got out at the park, bought our entrance tickets, and headed for… the restrooms. Emma and I really needed to go. Then we climbed the hill for the view. This was a bit of a challenge for me, and I was really regretting the 50 pounds of rocks I had decided that I really needed in my carry-on. But I made it to the top, huffing and puffing.
The view did not disappoint. It was a clear day for Beijing; there had been some smog previously (or what Xuwen called “haze,” though nothing like what we had left behind in Ulaanbaatar), but it had dissipated a bit, and we’d had a beautiful day. We circled the hilltop and had a stunning view of the Forbidden City (which was closed Mondays, or Xuwen would probably have taken us there). Then Emma pointed out that it was a bit past the time I had said we’d needed to be headed for the airport, so we hoofed it down the hill and out towards the exit, while Xuwen ordered a taxi to take us back to the Airport Express station.
The taxi had seemed like a good idea at the time, but the traffic was starting to build as we crossed the city. We drove past Tiananmen Square, the site of the student massacre in 1989. It’s another place I would have loved to have visited if we’d had more time. By this time, though, I was really starting to stress out about getting to the airport on time. I remembered what security had been like the last time, and I was worried about how long everything would take. So I did my usual major panic on the inside, but calm, everything will be fine on the outside. And, of course, we turned the corner on the opposite side of the street from the station, and instead of just letting us out so we could walk across the street, the driver insisted on driving down a block and doing a U-turn at a traffic light so he could drop us right there. We waited through several light cycles, with me growing ever more stressed out, but finally were able to turn back around and get out in front of the station. We ran in and I bought us tickets. Then we said goodbye to Xuwen and went down to catch the train.
This is where my sometimes overly literal mind did me no favors. At this point, we had about two hours to go before our flight’s departure. I kept reminding myself we didn’t need to check bags – just get boarding passes, go through immigration and security, and get on the plane. We were waiting on the platform for the train, and there were a number of other people who were also there with luggage. There was a sign saying how many minutes to the next train, but it said “Terminal 2,” and we needed to go to Terminal 3. When the train pulled in, I asked the man who was waiting if the train went only to Terminal 2, or if it also went to Terminal 3, and his answer made me think it was only going to Terminal 2. So we waited for the next train. Of course, from this station, all the trains go to both terminals, but my stressed-out brain wasn’t thinking clearly. Fortunately, another train pulled in soon after, we got on, and shortly were on our way to the airport, with me looking at my watch every 30 seconds.
We found the desk where we needed to check in, and despite the fact that I was expecting her to say we were too late to check in, the staff person handed us our boarding passes without a word. We boarded the train to take us to international departures. At this point, I was soaking wet with sweat, and going over and over in my head exactly what we needed to remove from our carry-ons to go through security as quickly as possible. The one thing I had meant to do when we left Mongolia was put on a soft cup bra, because last time my underwire bra had set off the metal detector and called for extra screening. I had completely forgotten about this, though, so I thought, well, there’s an extra minute shot to hell.
I was right, and by the time I had pulled everything out of our carry-ons that needed to be in separate bins (laptops, camera, kindles, phones, cables, power banks, ziplock baggies of liquids, plus our coats), then had my bra gone over with a wand, and gotten back to the belt to reassemble our belongings, a security officer had walked off with my laptop. One of the others asked me if I’d had a laptop, and I said yes, so she ran around the corner shouting in Chinese, and came back a few minutes later with my laptop.
With everything back together again, we headed for the gate, just in time to line up for boarding. Our timing was perfect, but for me, it was cutting it too close for comfort. There are travelers who are perfectly happy getting to the airport at the last minute, hustling through immigration and security, and strolling onto the airplane at the last minute, whistling a jaunty tune while the plane door is being shut behind them. I am not one of these people. I would rather get to the airport way early, make it to the gate in plenty of time to buy coffee and snacks, and then sit and read for a while. But every once in a while, it’s good to realize that it’s possible to do things another way and have it work out, and despite the last minute adrenaline boost our rush to the airport gave me, I enjoyed every minute of our 24 hour layover in Beijing.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why I loved Beijing so much. Of course, there is the history, which is so very evident in the parts of the city that I saw, and even in the layout of the modern streets, with reference to the ancient gates that marked the four axes of the city. Part of my fascination with the city, though, and with the country, is simply its scale. China is huge. Everything about it is huge. Even before we got to Mongolia, with its paltry three million people, I was amazed by China’s scale. Beijing has more than 21 million people (over half the population of the entire state of California). The high-rise apartment complexes I could see from the airplane when we first flew over China in August amazed me, and there are so many of them in the city itself. The airport is huge, though I’m told it’s too small now, so they are building a new one set to open this year. The transit system in Beijing is a thing of beauty, compared to San Diego’s completely inadequate system and Ulaanbaatar’s confusing network of buses. Xuwen told me how poorly managed Beijing is compared to Shanghai, where she is from. But it is amazing to me how that many people could be organized into some semblance of order. And the city seemed much less chaotic than what I had imagined. So, I would like to go back to Beijing someday, and see more of China as well. But…it’s complicated.