When we landed in Beijing it was dark (of course, we seem to like this trend), and cold. Very cold. We stayed at Downtown Backpackers in the Hutong, Hutong meaning alley in Chinese. This district is comprised of several alleyways that are filled with tiny shops, restaurants, dive bars, and hostels for travelers.
Beijing is a large city. It has a population of over twenty one million and is widely known for its severe air pollution problem. The day we arrived a cold front swept in, the winds picked up, temperatures dropped, and fortunately for us it carried out most of the air pollutants that day. When we got in the Air Quality Index was at about a fifty. To put this into scale, Beijing's AQI has reportedly hit as high as 600 and 895, and Austin's average is about twenty five. Unhealthy is anything over 150. So... we got lucky with the cold air and harsh winds blowing out the pollutants our first day.
Over half a million people die a year from pollution in India and 5.5 million worldwide. One study showed that being in Beijing for six days was equal to smoking one cigarette. Locals walk the streets with masks on their face in effort to protect particles from entering their lungs.
Initially, I had no desire to go to China. Not even one little bit. It was Zach who was the encourager of this part of our trip. My previous opinion on the only thing I thought I knew about China was that I hated Chinese food. American Chinese food that is, which is not Chinese food at all (a lesson quickly learned amidst our China travels).
The best part about traveling with someone is each picking your must do's. Your bucket lists. Your individual meal choices, your tours or attractions, and various ways of venturing out of the box. Zach and I enjoy the same things, and we also don't. Traveling together means I try things I otherwise wouldn't have thought of or put forth effort to try (like the Forbidden City, etc.) - and the same for him. China has taught me to sit back and enjoy riding along someone else's travel desires.
I really didn't have much excitement for China when we booked the flights initially, except for the Great Wall, of course. I wasn't not excited, but it wasn't how I would feel about a country like Turkey. As China got closer and we talked to more and more people about it my excitement naturally progressed. In addition, my guard and suspicions began to go up as people told the two of us of how "weird" everything is in China.
"Chinese food is weird." "Everyone in China will walk up to you and want to take a picture." "Chinese people are not helpful." "Bathrooms are terrible." And so many more. Allow me to rebut the first. Chinese food is extraordinary. Weird is the absolute last verb I would use to describe it. When we arrived at our hostel we were immediately taken in by an older gentlemen by the name of David. David is a beekeeper, biology professor, world traveler, and China enthusiast. He quickly got the vibe from us that we were freezing (we didn't pack for the occasion), foreign (clearly), tired (duh), and hungry (hangry). David kindly offered to take us around the Hutong, help us to an ATM, and translate for us so we could eat. David was American - but an American who has traveled throughout China extensively and who was fluent in Mandarin.
Thanks to David we were able to experience true China and true Chinese cuisine without much effort or language barrier distress. We ate dinner together the first night and met again for dinner and drinks the second night. China cuisine is an explosion of flavors unknown in the U.S. It's tangy, sweet, spicy, the bread is sticky, foods are piping hot, vegetables fresh, everything is cooked quickly, and nothing left on the table. I LOVE Chinese cuisine. We tried several items from steamed dumplings, black fungus, peanut noodle salads, Shangh dumplings, real kung pao chicken, spicy Sichuan dishes, and biujiao (Chinese rice wine liquor). Each dish in Beijing averaged about $3 USD. We shared several plates on a very affordable budget. Check out my Chinese cuisine photo blog here.
Beijing surprised me in the most pleasant way. I didn't have expectations of Beijing when we arrived, because I was unknowledgeable on it. I did not expect that a city of twenty one million and known for is pollution crisis would carry such small town qualities through each unique ward. Street food is incredible.
We only spent three days in Beijing and fell in love. We didn't even scrape the surface. Zach has said that by eating all the foods of the city, we've seen the whole city. I cannot disagree yet. We still only scraped the surface, ate as much as we could, walked even further, and next time we go back it will be in warmer weather - with a lot more eager expectation.