Couchsurfing, Beijing and the Great Wall of China

We recently visited China during a much needed week-long vacation from our jobs teaching English in South Korea. We departed bright and early on Saturday, July 24th, along with two of our co-teachers, Brian and Dianna. To our slight embarrassment, Ashley pointed out that Bryan and I were looking like twins, both wearing gray colored t-shirts, khaki shorts, and a ball cap. The two girls thought this was quite funny, until a moment later we realized that Dianna and Ashley were both dressed in a coral-colored shirt and dark gray shorts, even with similar shoes! Now, I am not sure how we all ended up looking like twins, but it was quite a sight for the Koreans as the only foreigners walked through the airport in same-same attire.

We first flew to Seoul, enjoying some breathtaking scenery of the dark green mountain tops of Busan accentuated by the misty white clouds snaking through the valleys all around them. As we were checking in for our flight from Seoul to Beijing we had “no problem” (as quoted by the desk attendant) other than it took him no less than 15 minutes to locate seats on the flight for us. Luckily for us, however, it worked out in our favor. After being apologized to many times, we were informed that because there were not two adjoining seats left in economy class, we would “have to” sit in business class. Now, business class in my mind has slightly larger seats and is located at the front of the plane so people can get off first. However, I was not aware that it included fully reclining bed seats, personal TV screens, a multi-function remote, and a delicious meal. I love Korean Air!!!

Upon arriving in Beijing, I saw a line of children posted at the airport’s fence line watching the planes land and take off. We took a short train ride into town and hopped on the subway to meet our Couchsurfing host, Barry. Couchsurfing, for those of you that are not familiar, is a nonprofit organization set up to allow travelers to meet up with fellow travelers. A great perk of this is that you are able to stay for free in many cities around the world. We chatted with Barry for a short time, before leaving to meet up with Brian and Dianna to do some touring.

After reconvening with our friends, we headed first to see the front of the Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square. The square itself is just a massive slab of cement, but with large buildings on all sides. The Forbidden City, however, was a massive structure with Mao’s face posted right on the front center of the building. We saw a number of soldiers marching and standing at their posts. The atmosphere is quite laid back in the square, mainly feeling like a big tourist area. The favorite treat in the HOT temperatures was frozen water bottles and a white Popsicle. I am still not sure what flavor it was supposed to be. They did the trick though.

We walked quite a ways down the road, soon arriving at the Temple of Heaven. The temple is actually in the center of a huge park, with the most grass any of us have seen in over a year. Korea is decidedly lacking in the grass department. The temple itself was interesting as it was rounded, instead of looking like every other temple we have seen in East Asia.

One thing we discovered about China (many more to come, don’t worry) is that their children do not wear pants. They actually cut out the crotch of their kids pants, so they can pee and poop in the street. No kidding, there are kids everywhere pooping and peeing. No one bothers to look for a bathroom. The sidewalk is not exempt from this policy, so watch out where you step!

Later that night, we were able to meet up with our friend, Tonje, who we met in Peru volunteering with Expand Peru. She is in Beijing studying Mandarin – her 5th language! Ashley and the crew went to enjoy a Chinese dinner, while I ended up staying in with horrible back pains – no idea what happened, but I was literally on the floor for a while.

Barry’s apartment was located on the 21st floor and had hard wood floors, two bedrooms, and nice living and dining room area. We had one room to ourselves, with a very comfortable bed and A/C. I got one of the best nights of sleep I have gotten in a long time.

The next morning, we met up with Brian, Dianna, and a couple of other Couchsurfers, Tim, Jeff, and Andrea. We had organized a tour on the great wall through Couchsurfing – set up for free. We only paid a small fee for the transport and the entrance fee at the gate. We hiked around 9km from Jinshaling to close to the Simatai section of the Great Wall. The heat was incredible, but the views were more than worth it. We picked this section because it is far less crowded (barely anyone there) and is not refurbished. We could see where sections of the wall were crumbling from centuries of wear and chatted about how any army could possibly win a battle there. There are a number of locals who sell drinks on the wall. As it may be there only source of income, they are quite persistent. Some even try to be your “tour guide” – without asking you – and expect to be paid at the end. They are easy enough to get passed, however, and really only add to the experience.

We met up with Tim, Jeff, Andrea, and Tonje later that night to head out to dinner with us along with Barry at a Couchsurfing dinner. There were over 20 people in all that enjoyed a Char dinner. Char is basically cooked food on a stick. We had a delicious meal of eggplant, shrimp, fish, seaweed, tofu, and some other assorted dishes – along with some great beer. Afterward, we headed to a local bar to chat with the group. All in all, it was a great night.

The next day, we borrowed two bikes from Barry and road around the local Hutong district. The area is full of local houses and shops and made for a great ride. We ate brunch at Grandma’s Kitchen and had a wonderful meal! I loved the yellow smiley face button our waitress had on that read “I Speak English!” That afternoon, we boarded a bus to head to Shanghai. The bus itself was a great surprise as every “seat” was a bed, with a pillow and all. A midnight stop where we were forced off the bus into a trash-filled, abandoned parking lot was the only sketchy part of the ride. Oh, that and when we were stopped by a policeman a little while later and people were hiding from him on the bus. Oh, and a little while after that when we picked up another group of 10 people who had no seats and laid in the aisles for the remaining 8 hours. Yeah, ok, maybe the ride was a little sketchy, but we were comfortable and made it to Shanghai in one piece.

I will let Ash tell you all about our adventures in Shanghai. Pt. 2 to come soon!

-J

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