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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  



April 25. BEIJING It was going to be another logistics day.  We still had to find an Internet Cafe and we had to begin sorting out our visa for Russia.  Our guesthouse in Mongolia had tried to direct us to someone in Beijing but it appeared that the guy was actually in Moscow.  Getting "visa support" (i.e. a bogus invitation) from a third part outside China and applying directly at the Embassy was an option but we were hoping to find a service in Beijing that could handle the whole thing for us.  The only place that Lonely Planet could recommend was a travel agency called Money Business located in the city's embassy area.  

Rob had gotten up before me and gone out exploring in the area around our hotel.  North of the hotel there are some hutong, old neighborhoods, that are in the middle of being given a face lift.  The fresh paint still looks somewhat out of place but it is nice to see the city improving the old areas instead of just tearing them all down.  

I found Rob waiting in front of St. Joseph's Church on Wangfujing Road, directly across from Starbuck's.  The old stone church was just about the only building on the whole street that had any history to it and it definitely added some charm to the modernizing Wangfujing.  

Over the past few years we had acquired a growing collection of international Starbuck's mugs.  We aren't die hard Starbuck's fans but one mug led to another which led to another, ultimately accumulating to about seven mugs of various sizes. It never ceases to amaze me that Starbuck's proliferates in cities where much of the local population could never afford a $3 cup of coffee. Anyway, we went to increase our collection and indulged in breakfast and coffee for some US$15.  The mugs came with a "free" drink.

After breakfast we wandered north and cut across the center of the city to the east to reach Beijing's embassy area.  Our route took us through various back roads and alleys of the hutong neighborhoods.   It was touch and go since not all of the locals wanted us tromping in their backyards, so to speak, and we respected that.  The hutongs are small communities where residents live close together and share common resources, like a bathroom.

Many of the hutongs of Bejing have already given way to street widening and development.  We crossed from one hutong directly into a large area of townhouses that were under construction.  They were nice enough looking places even if they lacked anything that said "China".  They could have been almost anywhere in the world.  It is not fair to expect the world to live in primitive traditional style housing to satisfy tourists but I did hope that enough of the older neighborhoods would be preserved so that the city didn't loose the quiet solitude found only in the winding old alleyways.    

Walking aimlessly through the streets it was inevitable that we stumbled across some medical clinics. These always caused us to steer wide and move a little quicker, more closely surveying the people nearby.  The SARS cases in Beijing were still steadily rising.  Given the poor condition of some of the old neighborhoods and the questionable hygiene habits demonstrated by some people in the streets, it wasn't hard to see why it bringing SARS under control would be a constant battle.  After witnessing a man blow a big wad of snot out of his nose and pinch it off with his thumb and forefinger and another hawk up a big loogey onto the sidewalk, I began to think about the hygeine habits of the people that gave me change or handled my food.   

Leaving the back streets we crossed the second ring road and found our way to a side street of western-style bars and pubs where Monkey Business was located.  It was like the Beijing version of Roppongi or Lang Kawi Fong.  The Monkey Business people were "at lunch" so we waited in the restaurant downstairs, The Hidden Tree, until it was past one o'clock.   

The agent we spoke with at Monkey Business gave us a grim story about Russian visa possibilities.  It appeared that we could only get a visa in Beijing if we had ever minute of our trip scheduled and booked ahead of time.  This would preclude our plans to take the river trip to the Artic Circle.  According to them Russian visas were getting harder to get.  However, it would all be taken care of if we booked a holiday through them, at a none too small of a price.  It was an option nonetheless but we would explore our options before doing anything.  We learned that we only had one month to enter Russia after receiving the visa so we would have to sort it out towards the end of stay in China.

Monkey Business pointed us in the direction of a couple of Internet Cafes that weren't listed in our guidebooks.  It seems that an Internet Cafe had suffered a bad fire not too long ago and a number of people died, which provided the government ample justification to shut down all of the cafes.  We walked south towards Jianguomennei Blvd in search of the two cafes.  One had posted a sign on its door the day before and wasn't open.  The other one we never found.  

Our day's walking had turned into a giant loop and before we knew it we were approaching Tiananmen Square.  It was getting close to sunset but the crowds were still pretty light.  The guards marching around as they conducted a duty change over, a handful of people flying kites, and some straggling pedestrians and tourists were all that we found.  In such barren areas the secret police were easy to spot.  The cast longer scrutinizing stares at us that normal folks and didn't seem to move too far from one spot.  To make it even easier they always seemed to be wearing white gloves and carousing with the uniformed guards.   

After a long rest in Tiananmen we continued south past the Qianmen Gate to a well known and apparently the oldest Beijing Duck restaurant, Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant.  The restaurant had been serving up ducks since 1864! The waitress was quick to steer us toward a $40/person set menu or perhaps a whole duck?  Rob waived them away to look at the menu but we eventually did decide to split a whole duck. It was the popular thing to do here and we saw one after another get wheeled out and carved up for nearby customers.  We were served duck number 101691029, counting back to 1864, and were proudly presented with a commemorative card with our duck number on it.  A giant digital counter on the wall corroborated the count.  

When duck number 101691029 arrived it was carefully carved up by a chef in a white hat right at our table  It was plenty of food for two people, yielding three healthy plates of duck.  We rolled our little duck burritos with Chinese pancakes, plum sauce and scallions and devoured the whole thing. It was delicious!

At this point we were exhausted from walking and took a cab back to our hotel.  Not long after we arrived we heard a knock at the door and one of our floor ladies handed us a thermometer.  It was time to make sure we didn't have SARS.  We were both healthy but it made us think about what would happen if we did have a fever for some other reason. Would we be carted off to a hospital and quarantined along with other suspected patients? Yikes.

Well, I was SARS free but our rich and fatty duck dinner did not settle well into my vegetarian stomach. Before bed I lost all of my duck....  I guess I wouldn't be adding duck to my diet.

CLASSIC CHINA Beijing April 23 April 24 April 25 April 26 April 27 April 28 April 29-30 May 1-2 May 3-4 May 5 Pinyao, Shanxi May 6 May 7 Xian, Shaanxi May 8 May 9-10

TIBETAN PLATEAU Xining, Qinghai May 11 May 12 Tongren, Qinghai May 13 May 14 Xiahe, Gansu May 15 May 16-17

THE SILK ROAD Lanzhou, Gansu May 18 Dunhuang, Gansu May 19-20 May 21-22 May 23 May 24-25 Turpan, Xinjiang May 26 May 27 Kashgar, Xinjiang May 28-29 May 30 May 31 June 1-2 June 3-6 Hotan, Xinjiang June 7 June 8-9 June 10-11 June 12-13 June 14-16 June 17-19

A LAST LOOK Shanghai June 20-29 Beijing June 30