Beijing, China: Conquering the Great Wall (2004)

Melissa, a friend in Hong Kong, wanted to fulfill one wish before leaving Hong Kong later this month: travel Beijing and experience China’s splendid beauty at its best. She will be assigned to my home city of Davao by mid-October so there is not much luxury of time to waste. Despite conflicting schedules we also wanted to make her dream possible; obviously she can travel on her own but nothing compares to being one with the crowd making noise in a foreign land.

After countless preparations, the trip was decided along with who are coming. I was not one of them for I was uncertain it was possible with busy schedules at the office often made me leave office past 10pm. But for some forgotten reasons, I was on board and became a permanent fixture of a group arbitrarily called “Beijing group”.

As I am often dead tired once I get home, I am only able to read the emails of ever active Melissa and Weng as well as ocassional dosage of Dodo’s, Mike’s and Jun’s tips and suggestions in preparation for the trip such as places to go, payments to settle, where to go first, who are staying at one room, etc.

Destination: Beijing
Certainly enough, the day has come. Most of us hoped that since the departure day is a Friday, we won’t be dumped with pending work to do and put our travel time in peril. I thought coming to the office early would make more sense to justify leaving also early. So despite regularly waking up at half past seven, at that same time I was already in Airport Express station with Weng to check in even if I had no check in baggage, while waiting for Melissa to follow suit.

I came to the office thinking I win the gold — first to reach the office — but I failed to do so as Marcus, our General Manager came ahead of me. I had things to do for e-newsletters which I did fairly quickly. Lunch time came and still I am at work. It was almost 6 and all are still in the office. By virtue of coming in the office early, it was easy to sneak out then.
Our office is just like a typical Hong Kong workplace, every staff tries not to be the first to leave his or her desk.

Taking a walk to Tin Hau MTR Station plus traveling towards Central Station and eventually walking to the airport express councourse took longer than I expected. Yet at 6:10pm I am still not too far behind. Near the lift where I boarded stood Melissa, Dodo, Mike and Weng. In a few minutes we took the same lift going to the train station one floor below. We were hoping Jun
could catch up with us down there. But as I called to know his whereabouts, he was moving out of the lift while the train moved on. With Hong Kong’s efficient Airport Express system, however, we’re assured he’s only ten minutes behind us. We reached the airport at 6:43pm.

Sprawling with 500,000 square meters and 1.27 kilometers from the entrance to one end of the Y – shaped concourse, Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport is among the best in the globe. Operating 24 hours a day all year long it was not so hard to explain a massive workforce of 45,000 keep the airport in operation from its launching in 1998. Dodo can attest to this. As a veteran of intercontinental flights spanning several international airports to compare. “San Francisco airport lounge is just about this size”, while referring to a couple of blocks of check in counters to his left. Despite the size, we still can locate Gino over the other edge.

Gino has been raving about the trip since our household meeting last night at Jay’s. “I probably won’t sleep because of the beautiful flight attendants”, Gino quipped, referring to the Dragon Air flight attendants. Dodo noted of this distinction among the flight attendants as a frequent flier of the airline on his trips to the mainland.

With Gino in sight, we started to take group photos as if we’re leaving Hong Kong for good. With group travels, you can always feel the excitement that you’d never bother to think and say “it’s too corny to take a photo behind theDeparture entrances”. In a while, Jun came and the Hong Kong cast is complete. I ad an almost brush with the law when I just took a small bottle of Watson’s and handed to Mike my coins as if he is the cashier. Unmindful of the honest crime, I rushed back to the cashier and pay. I realized that a guard was standing
in front of the store. Should I got caught, I’ll spend my weekend at the Airport Police station. But that was a sign of things to come later the night.

We wasted no time and proceeded to Gate 51, somewhere at the tip of the North wing. I would love to get a piece of Burger King but later reckoned Dragon Air flight KA 906 must have some nice dinner prepared for us. In general, airline dinners aren’t that good but to a hungry fellow like me, it should be alright. Before the start of the trip the guys already started the camera assault; all but me has a camera in tow. We’d take wacky shots, candid shots, group photos and photos with nonliving subjects. All for the sake of photography. It’s fascinating that more than half of the passengers in this flight are gweilos (Cantonese term for Caucasians). Since China opened its doors to the West it has reaped the benefits of globalization. Somehow this created more economic opportunities among the peoples in the countryside too. As a result China’s economic growth is currently the highest in the world. What makes it enormous is the fact that it’s home to over a billion people; almost one of every five people on earth is a Chinese.

That is why companies from Europe and America have moved offices and relocated facilities to China, though this activity has been initiated a few decades back. With increasing number of people classified as middle class, China is indeed becoming a lucrative market for various products from cars to cellphones. Traditionally it has been difficult for a typical Chinese to move out of a province and settle elsewhere in the mainland, let alone go outside of China. Now, with relaxed travel restrictions and with CEPA in place with Hong Kong, mainland tourists from Guangdong province come in on a daily basis, boosting the local economy badly hit by SARS. Ironically, it was suspected that some mainland tourists may have brought the disease from southern China and wreak havoc in Hong Kong last year.

Our plane is a small airbus 320 6-seater row model. While the three guys (Jun, Mike and Gino) were on one side, Dodo is seated between the two girls. I asked to be seated on another row “to explore things”. The flight was a bit delayed and experienced some turbulence along the way, owing to the fact that it’s relatively small plane plying a distance of 2024 kilometers. This is an unusual experience for Dodo as he always found on-time departures and smooth journey on his past travels.

Meanwhile, I am seated next to two mainland women in their late 20s or early 30s. I was reading USA Today while they pored over fashion pages of some local daily, ocassionally conversing in their thick Beijing accent. In a while, flight meals were served. There at the back, Gino must have been observing who among those ladies serving passed his standard. I could ask him in a snap but I thought it was too rude to do so. They don’t look bad, though they’re not distinctive from the other flight attendants I have come across the following airlines: Air Philippines, Cebu Pacific, PAL, Thai Airways, Garuda and Cathay Pacific. Not a big deal.

First Flight in 2004
The trip is going to take about close to three hours and I found it difficult to take a nap nor relax. The aisle seat I was located seemed not to serve the purpose I wanted. With ocassional restless passengers wanting to move across the cabin, I feel like I am lying in an hospital ward. Audio entertainment is conspicuously invisible so I’d rather stare at the ceiling and figure out where the spotlights fall as this French-made aircraft creates the gentle midair gush at an altitude of 35,000 feet. Meanwhile, the guys at the back are having wandering eyes on the flight attendants as inflight meals are served. I do not know if what we saw impressed us in terms of the lofty expectations brought about by Dodo’s earlier comments. To me, Kieve does not look bad, though she’s typically a Hong Kong girl who are identified as possessing slim to skinny bodies. We had sumptous dinner of either beef or roasted chicken on top of rice, noodles
and fruits for dessert. Apart from Cathay Pacific, this is one of the best I had; I was frustrated in the food I got from Thai airways last year. Taking this dinner diminishes any thought of that big Burger King bite at Chek Lap Kok.

Overhearing the conversations of Dodo and Melissa, attempting to take a nap for the fifth time, reading the newspaper’s hostage taking at beslan article, glancing on the window are all that surround me in the past forty five minutes. In a little while, the American flight captain apologizes for the second time about the flight delay and promised to bring us to Beijing before 10 in the evening.

Truly the promise became a reality as I can see the bright lights of Beijing from my seat. I was wondering what the temperature outside at the moment. Even with my small backpack, I managed to bring a piece of cool weather clothing. It did not take too long before we disembarked. Melissa and I were ahead and by the time we’re in the middle of the escalator, the rest of the guys took
their first Beijing pose. Anyway I’d like to go ahead and settle myself somewhere.

While Melissa went ahead I found myself in front of a lady immigration officer. After a minute waiting at the counter I can see Dodo and Gino emerging outside the counter. I can sense there is something wrong when the officer called another officer passing by and showed my passport to the latter. Then the second officer approached me and led me somewhere near their office. She asked why my passport has broken photo edges. I was dumbfounded and began to think they were suspecting me of altering my passport. They approached another officer and asked my credit card for identification. Logically I thought my Hong Kong ID was the best thing I could show but when they got hold of it, it seemed as if they saw a Hong Kong identification card only for the first time. One even tried to mangle it, as I was trying to get hold of it. At this time, I was mimicking as an arrested terrorist suspect, with hands chained. I did not feel worried, partly because
these officers were not asking me anything, despite their inability to speak English. Later, with no concrete set of questions to ask, I was let go.

The adventure in Beijing has definitely come underway even if we have not started ur itinerary. Three hours ago in Hong Kong, I accidentally pulled out a bottle of Watson’s water out of the convenient store’s outlet at the airport, even passing through the security guard’s attention. Avoiding a real theft charge I immediately paid gor my honest mistake.

Beijing’s airport needs a major overhaul despite its decent look and generally clean surrounding. I have no knowledge as to whether a mammoth airport is being build in time for the Olympics in 2008. We see taxi peddlers and special tour operators all over the place. It’s almost 11 and we’re not yet deciding on how much to pay to the driver now we have come out of the baggage claim area, we were met by tour operators and taxi dispatchers, similar type of people you see in Manila. As Dodo is relatively more familiar with the place and with Melissa’s researches and inquiries it was best to look after suitable cabs on our own; peddlers often charge unreasonably high markups.

We then found ourselves choosing a 400 RMB van and a “cheaper”one were have yet to see. After deliberations and influenced by our tired bodies, we felt it was practical to cut costs than to avail of a a great adventure, than to feel comfortable and get the cheaper one. Beijing nights have been cooler than expected. Looking at the map guide, mercury rises in between 19 – 27C in a typical September day. I was seated in front of the van making the most of the mildly cool air in the middle of a near empty speedway running at 90 kph. After 30 minutes we reached Novotel Xingiao hotel right at the center of Dong Jiao Min in Beijing. I am anxious to hit bed.

And while Melissa is negotiating the rooms, the also sleepy attendant told us to wait in a fashionable Beijing accent. It was half past 12. And we need to meet a tour guide at 8am later in the morning. Once I settled the room with Gino, we get to see a view of the Dongmen Hospital and the wide street across a subway station. Watching CCTV for a moment, I noticed and realized the televisions in China are controlled by the state communist party. I have always heard that any news bringing negative impression of China will immediately disappear before the TV screen. What a shame for a country trying to open up its doors on its neighbors whose citizens are enjoying much more freedom.

Anyway it’s 1am and Gino is arranging his things. I called it a day.

The Adventure
I was awakened by Gino’s uncanny ability to wake up at early hours of the day. He is used to this because his work starts even before I hit the showers so he typically slept very late last night but since this is a vacation, he never let his guard down and instead enthusiastically started the day right. The lobby where we will have our breakfast is elaborately decorated with fancy flowers and set up under the sun baked roof overlooking a pool on the other side of the hotel. When we got there Jun, Mike, Dodo, Melissa and Weng were already seated. We were wondering If Orly and anne were in town to join us in the morning trip to Great Wall in badaling. At 8am the guide was already waiting for us at the lobby. She is a veteran tour guide with sunny disposition and spoke in impeccable English. We will be boarding a van, which looks much better than the one we rode last night!

Beijing has never been a place often visited by tourists in the past due to its policy of isolating itself from neighbors, notably the west where it used to engage Cold War in the 80s until Deng Xiao Peng changed the political landscape and paved way for China to position itself as the most lucrative market in the world today.

Dodo has been taking a lot of photos even before we could start the first stop of our itinerary. With a powerful Nikon x99, he has the most coveted accessory in the house. We ocassionally pose somewhere, pretending not to be aware a candid shot was taken. The trip to the location was a smooth one, across paved roads on quiet neighborhoods, across trees aligned on major thoroughfares snd with multi lane expressways, traffic congestion is out of the question. Along the country roads, we can take a glimpse of the majestic structures man has ever created, stretching 4,500
miles long – about the distance from Miami, Florida to the North Pole – and took about 200 years to build.

Our tour guide was in high spirits while showing the sights, telling the facts and even singing a traditional Chinese song which I believe has the same melody as a Filipino music. A bit sleepy, I felt comfort in my seat as the airconditioning unit tempered the warm air outside. I had been wrong to note that the climate has become cooler and concluded my red Nautica sweaters will never be put in use. The ride from the hotel to the foot of the Badaling took us about an hour and half. We had to drop by a shuttle bus stop where we also met other tourists, Westerners and mostly Chinese fellows in their ever recognizable fashion statement – high waste black trousers and dark flower polo shirts – which make them easy to distinguish apart from their rather darkened complexion and facial structures.

We had to walk across the foot of one of the structures of the wall. It’s been blazingly hot and having a bottled water at hand is a welcome relief. A head cap is also useful, as I did wear one, along with Gino, Jun and Melissa. While Dodo’s passion was on his camera, Orly was also busy filming the whole Beijing experience over his camcorder.

As I do not have a camera I had to contend borrowing an owner so I can have his or her solo photo session using the beautiful wall as a background under the clear blue sky. The crowd was huge and people often get caught by the camera while walking by. It is amazing to notice that the stones used to build the wall are still in good condition but I believed it will deteriorate eventually if no proper maintenance is done. While Apple, as we started to call our guide, has been steadily walking up, aiming to reach 8 towers in a short span of time, we can’t help but pause for a while and take photos, whether on our own or as a group. It was her first time to experience guiding tourists who were more interested in taking photos with the views in the background rather than taking the views as the main subject.

But she enjoyed watching us though. During the sars season last year, tourist guides like Apple had a terrible year. No one wants to go to Beijing, for obvious reasons. And while it kept
them worried the disease will eventually wipe them out, the aftermath would be disastrous that recession will likely be taking China recently opens its doors to outsiders, it has developed its fledgling tourism industry, to enable country people to showcase the beauty of China’s hinterlands, previously not promoted and much less familiar even to fellow mainlanders than the symbolic Great Wall of China. In 2002, I got the chance to take a look at every scenic spot in China — no I did not travel from Hong Kong to X’ian to Yunnan to Urumqi
to do this, I went to Shenzhen’s splendid China with Weng and Benjie — and awed with the sights from Terracota warriors to imposing pagodas.

But with the SARS outbreak, tourism was bleak. And even if tourism is not the sole breadwinner of the country’s economy unlike Maldives or Tahiti, the spreading of the disease means jobs of hundreds of thousands of people are in jeopardy. So I totally understand Apple’s predicament. The mid morning heat wasn’t scorching hot, thanks to the easterly winds that bring cool breeze. It is hot but not humid, so to speak. The blue skies above us was a perfect color match to set up a background of us taking photos in this imposing structure. The crowd numbers showed no signs of abating and instances of people getting caught in the middle of our smiles and the camera lenses frustrate us. It was then not difficult to decide we have to go down; we already got what we want from the Great Wall of China. Retracing the way back was a little longer than we took on our way up. We then came to a halt at a few stores offering souvenir items that attracted us. Melissa, Anne and Orly were leading the group applying the Mong Kok – Shenzhen buying rules.

It wasn’t long before we boarded the van leading to a restaurant atop a French inspired ceramic cottage house. We were toured on the facility and were amazed how much each 3 foot jar costs when it takes at least three weeks to finish this product after shaping, carving and polishing? Similar to the intricate mahogany carvings in Bali’s woodcarving villages that take 18 months to finish a single elaborate art, a single item is indeed worth calling a masterpiece. The restaurant at the top floor reminds me of a typical yum cha facility in Hong Kong with at least a couple of dozen round tables, each accomodating about 11 guests. The place was packed but we got our seats immediately, thanks again to the efforts of Apple. As guides were not allowed to take lunch with tourists, we promptly handed her and the van driver some cash for their lunch. I am not good at identifying the dishes but would only say that the servings are not new to me. I have been out for lunch with Chinese officemates and dinners with Chinese friends and the servings are familiar to me. One thing I still feel new in doing is handling of chopsticks; im not a good chopsticks user. Services were straightforward but the waiting time is a little longer. Language barrier was still a prominent problem even if more than half of the guests seated are
Caucasians. I was told that this is a government run enterprise that tour guides were required to bring their visitors here for lunch.

This time I feel a little sleepy standing outside the restaurant waiting for the van to take us to our next destination. Nothing much to see except Mike was taking photos in the midst of warrior statues, while Jun and Weng were savoring some ice cream. I had the urgency to sit and take a nap as I usually do in the office at this time, something that some officemates treat as a sign of weakness rather than recharging one’s mind and irks me everytime I hear someone comment about it.

The skies are now filled with cumulu-cirrus clouds which helped ease the hot weather of the day. We’ll be moving to the Ming’s tomb in a while. It will take us another hour to drive there, passing through some of Beijing’s suburbs. The city, which will host the 2008 Olympics has been gearing up big time for this event. The government is hiring native English teachers to educate the masses with the universal language and help guide visitors in the coming Games. Even as most mainland Chinese do not speak English, Beijing’s English speaking population has been thriving, with influences in the newspapers, cultural shows, and media (the one we see at 8am with former TVB Pearl’s James Chau at the anchor). It is understandable for a country not colonized by any foreign influence; if many Hong Kong Chinese do not speak ‘ying man’ despite the British presence that lasted even less than a decade ago, how much more do ordinary people in┬áthe villages and counties ever learn without being taught in medium other than native tongue and hearing public discourses of Wen Jiabao, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin in r-flavored Potunghua?

On our way, we can see a symbol of old China’s tradition outside houses and businesses: pillars that signify prominence in the society. It was told that four pillars erected at the top of doors mean you are an heir of a highly respected person in the community and it means you can only marry another person of the same social stature. I am not sure about this but to me it sounds similar to Indian caste system than even if the government strongly denies applying this in the modern Indian society, it is still very visible to everyone. Wide streets, often misguiding tourists where to cross because of its apparent absence of signs. But the good thing is that in contrast to Manila or Bangkok traffic jams, Beijing traffic situation is virtually under control — for now. As affluent middle class people grow in numbers, so are the cars that ply along the streets and with roads never meant to become wider — as it is very wide at the moment — the problem of traffic congestion could be in the list of Beijing planners headaches in the near future.

Finally we reached the ming’s tomb at about half past 2. Talking about time, China’s adopts single timezone (gmt+8) which means regardless if it’s still dawn in Xinjiang in the West or it’s mid morning in Harbin in the east, both cities share the same time. Each of us paid 40 rmb to get inside, which the entrance notice boasts of age-old preserved antiquties from giant Yunnan logs from the southwest and royal clothing which our tour guide was quick to dispel the fact. Truly, this is a real cultural minefield in this part of Beijing. Whilst the city moves towards the new generation, preserved relics of ancient rulers were a manifestation of love for heritage, which is one of the world’s richest. To attest this, over 90% of the visitors we see are of Chinese ethnicity. They may come from different countries in the world but they belong to one race and the heart of their origin lie amongst the sprawling museum complex recently threatened by denudation coming from the region of Inner Mongolia. Winds drive the desert further east to Beijing so in order to counter the threat, Beijing is sprucing up the metropolis with fir and other sub temperate trees to preserve soil quality.

Inside the compound are trees carefully labeled to show age. It did not take us long to tour important areas of the Ming tomb. We were mostly concerned of the beautiful spots where we could take out our cameras and click. But we’re also careful with what we do. Earlier, Mike mimicked a monkey climbing a relatively young tree for a photo op when he was immediately berated by a visibly irritated guardsman.

Photo Credit: Dodo Casibang

Apple as a sign of desecration of the tomb’s lesser guarded properties. Dodo came across a painting of various shapes and sizes, abstract and illustrations. The painter prodded him to try his paintings and embed his name in Chinese. Dodo replied in Potunghua saying things straight: “what will I do with that” while moving away to the chagrin of the artist. Along the way, I took the comfort of borrowing again Gino’s shades while ocassionally taking photos on our way back to the city. I feel sleepy again at this point. Melissa was discussing plans for the next two days which will cover until Monday. Gino and I will fly the next day back to Hong Kong so most likely schedules on half of Melissa’s itinerary plans will never be experienced by both of us.

This time Melissa, our tour leader discussed in Tagalog about the payments to the cabbie and our tour guide who did splendid job. While they agreed to watch the carnival I feltl adamant about it. Apple began calling the ticketing office and inquired about ticket sales. Each premier ticket costs about 300 RMB which is roughly equivalent to seats 30 feet from the stage of an Elton John or Duran Duran concert in Hong Kong. With the recommendation of her friends, Melissa is quite sure that it is worth it. Apple returned from a conversation that while there may be tickets available, the time to reach there may not be enough to start the show. Upon learning about this snag, coupled with a long, exhausting day at Badaling and Ming tomb, it was a practical decision to leave it for the next day the most.

On our way to the hotels (Anne and Orly were booked on another hotel 5 minutes away from ours) we fancy eating something popular in Beijing: roast peking duck. Something we don’t want to miss out despite all the rants about cholesterol. After dropping off souvenir items to the hotel and me managing to change to my black Hard Rock Cafe shirt. We will be going to Wang Fu Jian, a busy street filled with souvenir confetionery stores, street hawker food stalls and just anything similar to Mong kok and sham shui po. We got our first ride on the Beijing subway system.
The train network is composed of two lines spanning Beijing’s busy eastern business district and central district, which is home to government offices. It is not as efficient and as automated as Hong Kong’s mass transit railway; tickets have to be bought only from a counter and attendants have to check the tickets. Orly noted this is chaos if the system is implemented in Hong Kong, whose train systems MTR and KCR carry a combined three million passengers each day.

It was not long enough for us to wait for the next train to Wang Fu Jiang to arrive but we were able to sneak a couple of photos in the platform. The trip won’t be long as we only have to travel to the next station. Walking in Beijing streets is relatively safe, as opposed to years ago when walking on dimly lit pavements invites crime perpetrators.

When we reached one restaurant, we could hardly come inside, and when apple asked about the availability of seats, the host promptly notified us everything is taken at least until an hour later. Looking at the place makes me think Beijing’s elite take their visitors here. Until recently, state officials are the recognized elite as communism forbids people from owning properties in excess of the items prescribed by law. So I see foreign dignitary photos taking their share of sumptuous Beijing cuisine at this very place. It reminds me of some noodle shops in Hong Kong that proudly displays photos of Chris Patten taking a sip of tea with a smiling propreitor by his side.

We had to vacate the place and settle somewhere else. Good thing it did not take us a long time to find one decent place. Everyone is hungry and whatever is laid on the table becomes a welcome treat. We were seated at the table nearest to the door. Along the hallway are portraits of dignitaries and officials along with their signatures and feedback about the whole eating experience. Ghana, Czechoslovakia, the Philippines, Soviet Union and Thailand leaders were among those I see. At the table, I often get disoriented on how and when to use the bowl, plate, knife and chop sticks. Should I put the dim sum on my bowl? Maybe on the plate? But it’s difficult to pry it with chop sticks that way. Anyway I will get used to this. But I have been in Hong Kong for the past three years and handling chopsticks should be a piece of cake. Apple had to arrange the orders because we could hardly communicate with the waiters. When every item has been ordered, she asked to go.

The slices of were especially delicious. Top it with the dangerously crispy duck skin and everyone is busy helping himself or herself. I ate once with Shasha and her mom in Hong Kong’s Yung Kee and the taste is almost the same. The Hong Kong order was more expensive though. Once we finished the dinner, we took time walking around the street which was apparently closed for pedestrians to enjoy wider space for a leisure walk amidst this dry weeknight air. I was thinking what to bring to the PCL people. I had in mind not all of them would be pleased with something from mainland China but I am trying to imagine the delicacies they want. After all this is my first time to bring some goodies to the office.

We dropped by a specialty store which brings us to virtually all kinds of confectioneries. We toured the store before approaching the demo taste section flocked by us and ocassional mainland tourists as well. I am not so keen on what type to bring. I was more conscious of where are the cheaper ones. I had chosen a pack of preserved fruits and carefully selected items by flavor and dumping them into a plastic bag before handing over to the saleslady for weighing. Ok, I got enough for 15 people in the office. I hope they will like it.

Walking with Hong Kong friends in this lovely evening at a foreign land is something that happens very rarely. The last one was in 2002 when I was in Jogjakarta with fellow SFC members Shasha, Jenny, Barbie along with newly met friends Cielo and Patrick just after our food festival adorned in traditional Chinese costumes. Here in Beijing, our mind is in unison, not much worry about work but purely relaxation though the term often connotes tiring yet not stressful day of adventures. After a few sightseeing of neon lit 10 rmb shops and ocassional shots, we headed back to our hotel.

As the mattress is softer than what I have at home, sleeping has never been a problem. There was a joke circulating on the other room about snorers. So far I had no qualms about Gino maybe because he does not snore and simply falls asleep as soon as he snugs inside his comfy blanket.I stay a little later preferring to spend time watching BBC News which I prefer over CNN about Beslan hostage crisis in the Caucasus. After filling up my diary for the day, I found my way to bed.

The next day Gino and I got to the table earlier than the rest of the gang. Same old variety of food which is really good. We’re gonna miss this tomorrow; we’ll be flying back to Hong Kong at 720pm later. Today Apple will not be with us so we have to contend with traveling on our own. It’s not a worry though as we have almost everybody familiar with Potunghua: Anne and Orly are from Guangzhou (also known as Canton, which I believe where the word Cantonese is derived yet people there speak Mandarin), Jun, Weng and Mike are Mandarin students and Gino and Dodo are the most well versed among the group. That technically leaves me or Melissa as the only ones who will be lost in limbo once left on our own.

You jump, I jump
Today we will be going to Tiananmen square, the place I longed to be, besides the Great Wall. We took the subway ride again and when we got off the station we can see ancient structures sprawled across the area. Lush greeneries surround the area under the temperature of early twenties. We took time taking photos from almost any angle and here we started the jump sessions where in a click of the camera we will be caught at our fresh from its best ever finish in the Athens Olympics, Chinese countrymen are eagerly awaiting the homecoming of their
athletes. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was here until yesterday. While China is in jubilant mood, the Philippines is again empty-handed for the second straight Olympics despite the hype and publicity of the country’s chances. Open spaces were great places for photography. It took us almost an hour for the photo sessions even as we walked across the sprawling complex filled with weekend revelers: country folks exploring better life in Beijing, old townsfolk sitting at the balmy edge of the streets, street hawkers and young families taking the kids for a walk. We met John, a Filipino working in Beijing for the past 4 years. He is a member of Singles For Christ Beijing and is active member of South Cathedral’s choral group. He gave us hints on which places to visit and things to do, despite the limited time we are going to spend amongst those suggested itineraries.

The air is calm and gray skies cover the sunshine yet I perspired a lot probably because summer is still not in a distant past. Dodo and John lamented that winters are bitterly cold and skies are gray most of the time when the cold season is out. We were led to the Church just before 10am. Contrary to my belief that religious practice is suppressed here, Christians are free to profess faith. In the church we see a sizeable number of parishioners at the south cathedral who are composed of locals and expats as well. Local filipino community provides the melody of
the holy eucharist, as is in almost every place where Filipinos thrive as a product of worldwide diaspora.

The Mass was in English but a couple of other translations were also noticeable in some parts of the liturgy, notably in the prayer of the faithful. The lively choir rendition, dominated by Filipino singers and instrumentalists is a familiar sight in many of Hong Kong’s Parishes where Filipino men and women manage church activities from lectors to singers to alms collectors. Just before the bishop read the final prayers, Edwin Lee, my buddy in the Jogjakarta conference and CFC coordinator here invited the faithful to attend the Christian Life Program
which will commence by noontime at the church halls. As we went out of the church I haven’t thought that the number of local Chinese parishioners still dwarf the foreigner numbers. Among them are members of Singles for Christ. As we gather at the church entrance to interact with fellow CFC’ers a few reluctant yet interested folks came over the table and signed up for the clp. Among them were an Indonesian couple who had been in Beijing for three years. We then took photos with the bishop and friends gathered at the time. John was to lead us to a fastfood plaza for lunch.

Beijing skies were still under the blanket of gray high-altitude clouds. The weather is warm but often times we sweat a lot due to humidity. As we walked along the streets, we can’t seem to stop taking shots of the Great Hall of the People, Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City In the city’s central landscape. Upon entering the monumental building, it is evident that Beijingers are way ahead of their provincial siblings: they eat at McDonald’s or KFC; they wear GAP or Abercrombie and Fitch; they listen to Michael Learns to Rock and Westlife. The way they embrace Western lifestyle was unprecedented though not totally unexpected since the demise of Mao Zedong and establishing Western ties by the late Deng Xiao Peng. And while the state is still ruled by the communism, signs point its shift to capitalism and participation to free trades among neighboring ountries.

We came across a wide variety of Chinese foods, from dim sum to noodles of various sizes and preparations. There were also non-Chinese dishes of course. I picked the big bowl full of thin fried noodles shared with Gino. John took Yoshinoya while others took sauteed eel or more conventional menu. Food is also cheaper than in Hong Kong. The surrounding was not different from Hong Kong where people often go out; which is why Hong Kong boasts of more than 10,000 restaurants while the much bigger city of London only has about 7,000. Beijing people tend to be more laid back than their brothers in the South. Sunday is a special day for the family, to gather together, eat together, frolic in the park or crowd the shopping malls.

Going Home
It is just a few hours and Gino and I have to separate ourselves from the group as we avoid the pitfalls of not being well versed in the Chinese language. What if I was lost and everyone is around me but nobody could speak my tongue? I might end up in jail. But I am quite assured Beijing people learn English quickly especially with the Olympics held not in the distant future and English speaking citizens are easily considered heroes in their very own rights, making China hospitable to visiting athletes, coaches or media when that time comes. Gino speaks Potunghua yet feel not confident to converse it around — until the taxi ride to the airport. He always insist that the language he learned is quite different from the lingua franca version.

Meanwhile, when the lunch was over we trekked inside the forbidden city and traced the mace that we ourselves are beginning to negotiate. Inside the forbidden city are relics, admirably well preserved by the government. The sun shone brightly as the afternoon progressed on. While the rest of the guys were busy looking over the structures and intricate carvings i was constantly nagging gino while looking at my wristwatch and reminded that the airport is at least an hour away in my poor estimates. Not long after the final group photo session I led Gino outside and in there we still took photos using his camera for the last time. Taking taxicab in China is the same in the Philippines where drivers who park their cars near the park charge as much as 500% more than those who ply the highways.

No wonder Caucasian backpackers ahead of us chose to stand up and wait for passing cars to hail while the unscrupulous ones try to persuade the elderly ones to take the ride. It did not take a long while to get a ride and the driver as expected did not speak in english but in “tongues” that I could hardly understand, not a thing, nada, zilch. But Gino is a promising Potunghua speaker so I have confidence we can overcome the language barrier. On the other group, at least Dodo, Mike and Jun are at least studying the language so they’re in safe situation. On the way to the airport the driver marveled Gino’s fluency despite the latter’s admittance that his version is taiwanesque and is void of The ‘ars’ in this region’s tongue.

Fast forward and we’re in the airport. I did not have the harrowing experience three days ago. While I imagine the rest of the gang looking forward to the next day’s activity while performing more jumps in their current locations. Meanwhile, I have to think about work at the office again. As I ask gino what the cantonese conversations on people around us are all about. It has been a great experience to be with friends in china’s majestic landmark and making new friends up North.

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