Hello, underwear!

Today was errand day. Today, we decided to get our train tickets sorted out, and make plans for an excursion to the Great Wall. Inadvertantly, some things happened along the way…

First off, we hopped the subway down to Qianmen station (which is Tiananmen Square, but we weren’t headed there) to search through the hutong neighbourhoods. After a little dive in, we were diverted due to biological reasons (namely self-preservation having not to use the toilets in the back alleys). Out back on the main street, the decision was made to skip ahead to the Grand Hyatt Hotel for two reasons: exchange traveller’s cheques and see if they can handle tour bookings a little more easily.

(Just as a side note: if you’re travelling to parts distant, such as Russia, England, China, Hong Kong, Japan, and so forth, don’t bother with travellers cheques. Yes, they’re safe. Yes, they can be replaced. But they are not accepted everywhere. It’s (pardon ma français) fucking annoying. Everywhere we’ve been, it’s been “sorry, we don’t accept those”. I’ve exchanged them successfully once. If you’re going, just bring a bank card and a VISA card. That’s all you need. Trust me on this. Even in Mongolia, you can use them — they have no ATMs, but banks will do the withdrawal for you.)

We scooted up the sidewalk on the east side of the road of Tiananmen Square, in the hopes of an expedient passage. We were almost immediately hit with the Art Exhibit people.

The Art Exhibit people, in case you’re wondering, is a bit of a scam. The idea is to entice tourists (generally English-speaking, as they don’t seem to speak other languages) to see an “art exhibit” that will close “in five minutes”, and encourage you to purchase something. It’s all quite nice, starting with “hello”, then going to “where are you from” to “is this your first or second time”, to the shpeal about the art exhibition. We’d been warned about this not only from Lonely Planet (thanks, guys!) but also by others who’ve been here before. In the span of about seven minutes we were hit four times. The last time, we resorted to speaking French to throw them off.

About 10 seconds after that, we ran into Noah and Justin, two brothers originally from Montreal who were touring China. We immediately hit it off with them, recounting our mutual experiences with trying to shake the sharks after the tourists. (Noah has a particularly novel way of getting rid of them. He looks them in the face, and tells them “I don’t speak English” as clearly as if he were telling you his phone number. Noah seems to follow the philosophy that visiting China is almost a game. We like these guys.)

The four of us pretty much hit it off (partly because Amy and I have been dying for some home-grown company, and both of them had great senses of humour), and hung out for most of the afternoon. We all headed down to the Grand Hyatt where I failed (yet again) to change all my damned travellers cheques for renminbi. (I’m so never taking these things again!) Then we tried to book a tour to the Great Wall.

We’ve been told that going to the Great Wall might not be fun. It all depends. For starters, you don’t go to Badaling if you’re actually looking for the Wall. Badaling is a restored section of the Great Wall, done in the grand ol’ Disney style. We’re thinking of Simitai, which is a little more authentic (at least according to Lonely Planet). But getting there is a bit more difficult. The conceirge at the Grand Hyatt (exceedingly nice, and outstanding English) suggested a taxi, which should cost about 800 renminbi (a little over $120, divided amongst four people) — considerably cheaper than any of the tour prices.

Justin and Noah then went to purchase tickets for their trip back to Shanghai (they’re flying in and out of there through Air Canada, and have yet to take the train here), and Amy finally found replacement books (she’s been suffering through Dostoyevsky for weeks). A trip through the rather nice mall nearby followed.

One thing about Beijing that all of us noticed. They’ve got the whole communist thing sorted out (mostly, aside from the odd overzealous crackdown, anyway). The mall was better than almost any that I’ve seen in North America. There were even BMW, Audi, and Volkswagon dealerships! And a store that sold a whack of Star Wars and Astroboy shirts.

Our ultimate destination, though, was Silk Street. This is the ultimate in (potential) bargains. It’s a massive four-floor store where you can find all sorts of brand-name clothing (whether or not it’s real depends on how good you are at mind-reading), and all of it for sale at a price you can attempt to get, if you’re good. This is where the good haggler comes into effect. So far, this isn’t me. You don’t get to browse here. You need to know what you’re looking for. You need to know what it is you want, and you need to be ready to wheel and deal. I figured this out after casually looking at a North Face jacket and deciding that it wasn’t anything I was interested in. I could have picked it up for about $10. Amy went after a Gap shirt (definitely fake) and a pair of zip-off pants. We’re thinking of going back to see if we can get some other bargoons.

Noah and Justin tried to get $25 Armani suits. They didn’t succeed … this time.

Walking through the place is hard. Not because it’s crowded, but because some of the vendors are fairly aggressive. (Noah swears that a couple of other places, such as Hong Kong, are worse.) You hear greetings shouted out often starting with “Mister” and “Lady”. One tried to tell my that my beloved Critical Mass sling pack is dirty. (A mark of pride, thank you very much!) Trying to leave the place through the somewhat-unmentionables area, we were treated to “Hello, underwear!” and “Hello, socks!”. Very surreal.

Dinner was an interesting experience, with Amy and I (we’ll hook up with Justin and Noah for the Great Wall on Monday) walking into a restaurant near our hotel. I love the Chinese way of naming foods. It’s like trying to decipher the title of a Led Zeppelin tune to figure what it’s about. Such items included:

And my personal favourite, although we didn’t order it:

The food, however, was pretty darn good, even if the start of one section read:

That was for the seafood section. Go fig.