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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  



April 27. BEIJING The weather was holding out wonderfully in Beijing.  It had been sunny every day with some days a bit more gray than others from smog and dust.  We were happy to spend another day in the city instead of going to Tianjin. 

Walking west from our hotel we turned north at the first major boulevard and strolled through the park that stretched all of the way along the boulevard up to the next major intersection.  It was a new park from the look of it and separated the two lane street from the parallel frontage road.  The Chinese news was encouraging people to get fresh air and exercise to help prevent SARS and it appears that some people were taking heed of that advice, some with masks and some daring to go without.

At the end of the park we crossed a major boulevard and entered the hutong area on the other side.  It was recommended by Lonely Planet as an area that was nice for strolling and probably more used to tourist intruders than the areas we had explored earlier in the week.  It was a much more lively area than what we had experienced before.  In the middle of the hutong there was a "main street" that was a bit wider than the other alleys and had a bunch of little stores and restaurants.  Along this road we found the Pass By Bar.  Lonely Planet had it listed under bars but they really didn't do it justice.  Their sign on the street said "Better Travel Than Dead".  We entered to find a roomy courtyard full of tables and chairs.  More than a bar this quaint spot was perfect for a cup of coffee or lunch.  On either side of the courtyard they had indoor seating that had been cleverly modernized out of the old brick hutong buildings.  In the main restaurant had an upstairs area accessed by an old wooden ladder where small parties could sit "Japanese" style.  We took a seat in the courtyard and enjoyed a slow brunch.  The food was mostly western (excellent pumpkin soup!) and a nice break from the fast food and mediocre Chinese food we had eaten in recent days.

After our brunch we continued up the hutong's "main street" past more little shops and local restaurants.  The Pass By Bar was clearly popular with the expat community and the people of this hutong were not bothered by our presence.  A steady stream of foreigners was probably a periodic source of entertainment for them. 

Leaving this friendly hutong we turned onto a fairly busy street and went to visit the giant drum tower built back in the time of Kublai Khan (Yuan Dynasty).  The reward for stumbling up a long steep flight of stone stairs was some nice views of the surrounding city.  There was also a nice exhibit of giant drums that were supposed to be played every half hour but sadly not in this slow tourist week.  

From the drum tower we planned to visit Prince Gong's Residence in the nearby neighborhood.  A lake cut through the area and it wasn't clear whether or not there was a bridge. As we began to walk down a major road Rob spotted a lively alleyway to the side that led us towards Hou Hai Lake.  It was a very pleasant surprise that our guidebooks had completely neglected to mention.  I'd read about the growing bar area of Hou Hai in a local rag at the Pass By Bar but found no reference in our guidebook so it was just a stroke of luck that we stumbled on this lovely little spot.  The small lake was surrounded by a large hutong area that was getting a nice face lift.  One area along the lake was densely packed with little bars and cafes and they had a row of tables and chairs right up against the lake where people were sitting and enjoying the afternoon.  Definitely something to come back to later.

Unfortunately, after wandering the streets for some time we were informed by a local woman that Prince Gong's Residence was closed.  We were really finding people  helpful.  Even without any Chinese it was clear that two hands coming together was meant to indicate that the site was closed.  

At this point the afternoon was starting to get away from us so we headed for Beihai Park.   The park had many sites within but for me the most interesting aspect is the people themselves.  We found one old man that was painting Chinese characters onto the pavement with a large brush and water.  Unaware I tromped across the letters that were drying and fading at the top of whatever he was writing before I realized what he was doing.  Another man was stretching his leg along the wall of a building with a cigarette in one hand. It amazed me how the Chinese just go about their business without any concern for bystanders.  It is probably because the local people are indifferent to one another's activities and only the tourists find it interesting that people do these things in public. But, in a city with such tight quarters for most residents where should they go? 

There weren't many people in the park by Beijing standards but there were still quite a few boats out on the large lake and people strolling along the shores.  Nobody was wearing masks.  We took in a small garden, one of the temples, the nine dragon screen and then rode the ferry over to the "island" that was home to another temple with its large white pagoda.   It was close to 4:00 so the sights within the park were closing but people, mostly couples, were still entering the park to enjoy the sunset.

We left the park to walk along the outside of the Palace back towards our hotel.  We found a couple of dozen men scattered along the moat walls fishing and flying kites.  The warm sun really lit up the gold and red colors of the Forbidden City Palace.  Inside the courtyard that preceded the palace gates we walked back towards Tiananmen Square.  A jolly Chinese guard, an adjective I would rarely use for a Chinese guard, was flirting with his girlfriend on the bridges that crossed the moat.  His hat was twisted sideways and he giggled at us as he posed his girlfriend for a picture in front of the painting of Mao.  He was a delightful contrast to the stone faced guards that stood at attention in front of Tiananmen Square.

We had been walking and walking all day since our brunch in the hutong and for dinner all we could do was stumble into the nearest McDonald's before retiring for the day.  At least at McDonald's we had reasonable confidence that there was good hygiene standards.  They were really making an effort to keep their restaurants clean.  It is strange to think of a McDonald's as a safe haven to eat in after the grungy ones we have back home.  The food is also predictable, if not very good. 

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