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Beijing (北京)

Beijing

北 – North

京 – Capital

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If you know absolutely noting about China and her history, you’ve probably at least heard of Beijing. If you haven’t, no worries, I’ve got you covered.

Beijing, meaning quite literally, northern capital, was given that name in the 15th century to distinguish it from Nanjing (南京), Southern Capital. With a population of 19 million, it comes in 8th place for Most Populated Cities, just behind Osaka, Japan and ahead of New York, New York. Popular attractions include The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City.

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“The air is so terrible in Beijing.” When I told people I was headed to Beijing to visit a family friend, this was their response 75% of the time. And 10% of the time it was “Oh nice, The Great Wall.” Not to forget the 5% of the time where it was simply “Ha, Communism.” As I boarded the plane headed East, I really had no idea what to expect from China. As an American, and more importantly, an American in the military, I was raised to fear China, to distrust anything Chinese, and to view anything they touched as inferior. I can honestly say that in the “Chinese Visa Acquisition Process” I definitely held these views. The number of times I was told simply “not today” or “this isn’t good enough” when just last week, the SAME LADY at the Chinese Embassy had said “this is all you will need next week,” was very trying on my open mind. When asked to surrender my passport for a week so they could “process it” I naturally assumed that it was now being shipped off to some black market or a tracking device was being added so they could “watch me.” I had heard of stories of cameras hidden in hotel rooms in China, and of people just disappearing after their visit.

As the plane took off I remember thinking “Welp, no turning back” as I mentally increased my personal vigilance and security posture. All around me there was nothing but a strange Asian dialect my ears had not yet been accustomed to after a year in Japan. After 4 very quick hours, the plane landed and we debarked, grabbing our luggage and heading to customs.

My first official interaction with China went smooth enough. “Passport!” The stern looking Chinese customs official barked as I fumbled through my bags. “How long are you here!” He ever so gently screamed. “Just 5 days,” I replied, trying to speak gently enough to calm the situation that seemed to be getting out of hand. There was the awkward pause that I always seem to find myself in at international airports where, they’ve already scanned my passport, but continue searching. Leaning against the counter, bags at my feet in disarray, and fearing that they will somehow find out, that one time, when I was 11, I once thought of grabbing an extra packet of BBQ sauce from Chic-Fil-A even though they said the limit was 2, and throw me in jail. Luckily, that didn’t happen this time and he gently ushered me through, “Ok, go!” Maybe it was just when he spoke English, but I really hope, for the sake of his family, that his Chinese Bedside Manner was better than his English…

As I successfully walked through customs, I approached a line that scanned everyone’s bags. I waited, patiently, as the line proceeded. There were two airport officials, both Chinese of course, and about, 40 or 50 passengers that had already made it through customs. They were there, working the line through, and randomly inspecting passports. “China doesn’t play around,” I thought. The longer I waited in line, the more I started to notice. “Hmm…they are only asking a particular demographic for their passports…” I thought. There were three African men a few people in front of me, and almost systematically, when they got to the scanner “Passports!…” “Maybe they’re asking more people and I’m just not realizing it…” I continued to optimistically tell myself. I kept watching. A family of Argentinians went through, speaking their Argentinian Spanish loud and proud as they are known to do (much love) and no passport check. A Chinese man went through. No check. A Japanese couple just ahead of me went through. No. Check. Finally it was my turn. I almost bet myself $50 that they would check mine, due to, you know, security reasons. I should have taken myself up on that. “Passport!” The “extremely friendly” Chinese security woman barked. I smiled, looked behind searching for some support in how ridiculous this was, handed her my passport, and she shoved it back like she had been on this shift for too long now.

Ignoring the “passport selection process,” and trying to remain optimistic about the People’s Republic, I marched on through the airport, finally being picked up by the family friend around midnight. We drove through the night, passing utterly insane drivers, enormous skyscrapers, and people on the side of the road, offering to wash the insane amount of dirt off of your car that every single car on the road had.

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The next morning I awoke to an absolutely gorgeous view of the city. The sun was just rising, and this panoramic view made for the perfect addition to my morning cup of local tea. Without skipping a beat, we left for The Great Wall. Everything about Beijing seemed normal enough. The people were there. The buildings were there. Sure it was a little dirty, but what major city isn’t?

This is right about when Beijing’s charm started to hit me. The locals, for the most part, had no idea what I was saying, and I, of course, returned the favor. But communication is always more than words, and I could tell that these people weren’t the cold barbarians I had been made to believe. Our driver, a Chinese man whose name I will NEVER be able to pronounce, kept making sure that we were at our highest levels of comfort. Every time we almost got in an accident, which happened more than a handful times, he looked back and gave a thumbs up with questioning eyebrows. The men and women at the produce and meat stands gave free samples, and said something in Chinese which I translated via body language and intonation as, “These are great, you are great, you deserve these.” And when we declined to buy, “Have a marvelous day!” I’m guessing of course.

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Maobama

Finally arriving to The Great Wall, we purchased our tickets, took the cable car up and saw, with our own eyes, one of the great wonders of the world. I was pretty taken aback. My friend had probably been here numerous times and was probably tired of bringing every visitor here, but you can’t go to Beijing and not see it at least once. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of graffiti on the wall, along with stolen breaks and general decay.

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We were in front of this couple here on the left just about the entire time, and, although in Chinese, they appeared to be having an argument, the entire time.

After The Wall, our hosts took us to a local grocery store. There was a VERY STRANGE smell that permeated throughout the store. If you took a plastic water jug, heated it, and added raw chicken to it, you could possibly mimic the smell. If that isn’t enough to make you uncomfortable, there was, so, much, raw, meat, just hanging out.

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Raw Poultry
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No gloves

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If you’re a savvy reader, or are irritated by mistakes, as I am, even though I make them myself, you probably noticed the percentages in the beginning did not add up to 100%. If you didn’t catch that, no worries. The remaining 5% of people, when made aware of my trip to Beijing, commented “They have amazing food there.” These wise 5%, were absolutely correct.

After getting back to the house, resting up, showering, and heading back out, we made it to a authentic Chinese restaurant. American me expected to see, Kung Pao Chicken, General Tsao Chicken, or any other popular Chinese food item. I was, blown away. Our host ordered this fried duck for us. I have no idea what part of the duck it was, but, the way this meat literally melted in your mouth, as the sugar coating broke apart and gave you a caramel sensation followed by succulent protein made me completely fall in love with China. There was this spicy chicken dish, seasoned with all kinds of herbs and spices. I not only ate my serving, but I had the audacity to ask my host “How hungry are you reaaaallllly?……” It was that good. If you ever get the chance to travel in Asia, go to China, find yourself in Beijing, and try real Chinese food. You will be blown away, or discover that you really don’t have any taste buds.

The next day we were arranged to meet with a Chinese tour guide that would take us around the famous Square, and forbidden city. She was a nice enough women, late 20’s with great English and a great depth of knowledge about China. She pointed out almost every building and gave its history. Right around now, I looked around and noticed the air looked quite odd. I thought it was just the way the sun was rising, but the “filter” didn’t leave once the sun had completely risen. “This is the smog we are famous for,” our tour guide explained. I honestly cant remember if she said that the fog was worse in the winter because everyone was using their heaters and increasing energy consumption…or better in the winter because the air was less humid and thin (if you know please inform me, I’m pretty irritated with myself that I can’t remember).

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Apparently there were no clouds. This is the smog, that is the sun.

After arriving at all the tourist traps, she started getting pretty political. Really all I care to say about that, but I was worried a passing guard would hear her rhetoric and throw us all in jail. I was happy when she switched from politics and current events to history. Did you know the Emperor of China had a whole city of concubines for him and him alone? I hadn’t. I looked at my girlfriend and made the facial expression for “That would be pretty cool huh?” She wasn’t as amused by this fact, and even less so by my stupidity.

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I HATED standing watch in uniform. I empathized with this guy. Pretty sure we had a moment.

I was really pleasantly surprised by Beijing and China as a whole. They weren’t these savage monsters that knew nothing but how to be rude and untrustworthy. I’m sure they have that, hell, name a country that doesn’t. And although their customer service may not be as crisp as Japan’s, there certainly is something to be said about Chinese hospitality. Of course, I got strange looks in certain places. This really old guy just came up to my face and looked at me. I looked at my tour guide searching for an explanation, and she just shrugged. But people, for the most part, were just as friendly as I had been experiencing back “home” in Japan. Hell, the customer service of these “rude and backwards people” definitely beat some of the restaurants I frequented back in the States.

Right after this “old guy incident,” my tour guide gasped as she looked at her phone. “Trump just won…” she let out in despair. I chuckled as I realized I found out about who my next President was from a Chinese woman in Beijing.

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Mt. Tanzawa (丹沢山)

丹 – rust colored, red
沢 – swamp, marsh
山 – mountain

So this may just be my most memorable hike in Japan. It was late fall and I had only a few days left in Japan before I would head back home to the States for Christmas vacation. My girlfriend at the time and I wanted to do something memorable for my last weekend in Japan. She knew that I loved hiking and thought it would be a great way to end 2016 and send me off. Well, that was my first mistake.

Rule #1 – Always let the first time hiker choose the altitude of the mountain and the hike length.

Check, I had known about rule number one for quite some time now. As soon as she, my GF at the time, had mentioned that she wanted to go hiking my immediate response was,, “perfect, well, choose the mountain and the hike and I will take care of the rest.” About three question filled hours later we had made a decision, Mt. Tanzawa.

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Fortunately for us, on the day of the hike, we were initially greeted with no clouds and reassuring, constant beam of sunlight that took some of the chill out of the autumn air. It was at this point in time, that my hiking partner today decided to let me know that she had sprained her ankle a few weeks prior. Lovely.

Rule #2 – Don’t attempt a hike if you’re not feeling 95%.

I would chalk up a recently sprained ankle as significantly detrimental. What’s worse, I was not naive enough to not realize, that the previously unmentioned sprained ankle would at best slow my down and at worst possibly jeopardize our ability to finish the hike unassisted.

I ever so calmly asked her, “why is this the first you’re mentioning this?” “I saw how excited you were to go hiking and didn’t want to disappoint you,” she responded, “plus, I want to try to start hiking myself,” perfectly un-equipping me of any anger I could have felt towards her “delayed notification.” “Alright well…I guess just be careful,” I told her, knowing all too well of what lay ahead of us and how impossible it would be.

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We pushed off and I found myself in my element once again. She began asking me questions like, “What do you do if you start sweating a lot?” “How do you know how much longer you have to go?” “What do you do if you see a bear?” I easily answered all of them except for the last one where I simply smiled and replied “Ganbatte ne” (Best of luck to you should you ever find yourself in that terrible situation you poor soul) Loosely translated of course. The truth is, that I naively didn’t know much about bears at the time. I simply thought that they were farrrrrr away, out of reach from the casual hiker. I truly miss those days of ignorance. Hikes were much freer, more enjoyable without the constant scan for a curious bear. I know feel the same way about hiking as I do getting in the water at the beach, “I know I’m screwed if I see a shark so I damn well better not see one….”

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Anywho… As we began gaining some altitude I was pleasantly surprised by how well my hiking partner was doing. She hadn’t complained once about her ankle and was actually keeping a solid pace. The crisp autumn air ran through the mostly barren trees and made a whistling noise as if the mountain were inviting us further.

We climbed a few sets of natural stairs and scaled a few boulders, and before we knew it, we were a solid two hours in to the hike. This was when I made another mistake… “You want to stop for a water break?” I asked, and as soon as we stopped, whatever magical power that had been pushing my girlfriend forward must have tumbled down the side of the mountain.

We finished our water and I looked at her with raised eyebrows and my head pointed upwards implying movement. She responded with minced eyebrows and a quick hand to the ankle. “It hurts a little..” she said. “Yeah I’m actually surprised you made it this far without mentioning it, can you go on.” “Yeah!”

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We continued our upward cut through the mountain but nothing was the same. Our pace had been halved, if not quartered, and her face was full of sweat and pain. I painfully watched as Japanese grandmothers passed us on our left and right, decked out in their 1980s mountain climbing gear and ever loud, ever proud bear bells. “Hey, if you need to stop, just let me know” I reassured her.

She pushed on, and I could smell the resentment in the air. “Why the hell am I on this stupid mountain…” I just KNEW she was thinking something along those lines. The constant, engaging conversation had devolved to a mere one word answer with her frustration increasing in every response.

Fortunately for us, mostly me, we stumbled across these bunny/deer hybrids off to the side of the trail. The mama bunny/deer (bdeer) kept a watchful eye out as her offspring fed. It was rather entertaining and my hiking partner kept commenting on how cool it was. Hell, I had never seen any big wildlife on any of my Japanese hikes, this was really cool. “She’ll probably be in a better mood now because of this” I thought to myself as I thankfully watched her cheek to cheek smile materialize. A crowd quickly began to gather around us taking pictures of the bdeer and we decided it was time to move on.

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I kid you not, the very first step off from watching the bdeer, I sadly watched my girlfriend’s cheek to cheek smile turn into a hatred filled frown. I rotated my palms inward and up and asked “Wh…what just happened??….” “Nothing, how much further do we have?” she ever so pleasantly (sarcasm) asked. “I really have no idea, I plan my hikes based on a relatively constant pace and…we’ve stopped a few times…” Silence…. “Maybe 90 minutes left?” I tried to reassure her….Silence….

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The rest of the hike up was enjoyed by me internally, as I did not say or hear a single word. Finally, about an hour and a half later, we got to the top. The view made it all worth it of course, but even better, there were some benches to sit on. A little ramen shop stood off to the side and we ordered some Japanese curry and ramen of course.

I asked my hiking partner to show me her ankle, this being the first conversation we had since the bdeer sighting. “Whoah” I breathed with eyes wide open, “That’s pretty swollen…” “Yeah, I don’t think hiking was a good idea today…” she casually responded “sorry for getting irritated at you, it’s just pretty bothersome.” “No kidding, should we call for help?” I asked. “Let’s wait an hour and see how it feels. Knowing that without ice and an aspirin, and only an hour of rest, her ankle would feel exactly the same as it did now, I agreed and decided to fill my mind with other, less guaranteed things.

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Well the hour was up and so was my jovial mood. I knew for a fact that I would not want to descend any mountain over 300m on a sprained ankle, and here we were, faced with this difficult task. I say we, but really it was her duty to fulfill, all I had to do was absorb any of the “I have a sprained ankle, what is the point of hiking, its freezing cold” attitude coming my way. Easy enough, I thought, how hard could just being quiet be?

About an hour in I casually asked, “so…really…why didn’t you say anything about this ankle beforehand, I mean, this could be pretty dangerous?” Which brings me to rule number 3.

Rule #3 – If you ever find yourself on a 1500m mountain, hiking with a first-time-hiker-girlfriend who is beyond irritated with a sprained ankle, there is never a good time for logic driven questions. Hell, there is never a good time for questions.

Fortunately for me, she wasn’t a quitter and we kept moving. We did have to take numerous stops, which I completely understood, but, as I watched the sun fall closer to the horizon, my patience for waiting was quickly turning into a rush to get off this mountain before nightfall. During our last “stop” I tried to explain how crucial it was to not be on the side of a mountain after sunset. She understood of course, but all that was reverberating through her ears was a beating ankle.

We finally arrived at the trail head and just as we stepped off the trail and onto the road, we saw three Japanese men in blue uniforms with a stretcher run past us. “That was an option?” my intrepid hiking partner jokingly asked. I started to reply “Well actually there were many options that we could have taken today…one of which including not hiking on a sprained ankle,” but….I decided that wouldn’t do anything positive. Plus, she had just done a 1567m hike at less than 95%, easily earning my respect. “Thanks for coming with me,” I said as I gave her a hug. “Yeah, it was interesting” she responded, “thanks for guiding…..I’m never going hiking again.” “Believe me I know,” I smiled.

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