An I-remember-where-I-was-when Moment

Every generation has their I-remember-where-I-was-when moments such as when JFK was assassinated or when the Twin Towers collapsed. One of mine, whether dignified or not, is the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. I had gone over to my sister Julie’s and her then fiancée (now husband) George’s apartment in Noe Valley of San Francisco, George prepared delicious Chicken Abobo or Adobo or something that sounds similar to that for which I remember going back for thirds, and we started watching the Opening Ceremony on their new big screen TV using DVR until we caught up to the live–although technically delayed–broadcast. I had ventured there on the BART after work at my summer internship in Soma and was prepared for something spectacular.

olympic stadium statue

The ceremony lived up to expectation. I still recall there being 2008 of everything, whether it was lights, drums, dancers, etc. I remember the giant screen that they unrolled. I remember the dancer who had ink on his hands and feet and painted as he moved across a blank canvas. I remember people coming from the ceiling. I remember drummers playing so synchronously that I feared for those who failed to do so in training. I remember the little girl singer who had to lip-sync the words because the true singer wasn’t cute enough to perform. In others words, the event was more than memorable.

stadium up close

Therefore, although the Beijing Olympic Stadium might seem like a lifeless structure post-Olympics, it was high on my list to visit. In true tourist fashion with my map in one hand and my camera in the other, I worked my way to the Olympic Stadium via subway and foot. The openness of the surrounding areas near the Olympic Aquatic Center and of the Olympic Stadium made the occasion difficult to capture on film, or on memory card as the case may be, but this did not prevent me from tying. Also, on the off chance that I could get inside, I approached the stadium and found an open gate. After starting to walk through, I got pointed around the stadium because pointing was our only common language. For a small fee, I was able to enter.

olympic stadium chair

First thing I did was walk inside and find a seat. My mind started thinking about those Opening Ceremonies and all the other Olympic moments that took place within this building. The hair on the back of my neck stood up higher inside the Olympic Stadium than it had inside the Forbidden City. I thought about the athletes whose dreams came true after spending a lifetime of training and discipline. And I thought about that Chicken Adobo (or whatever it was), and how George had remade the dish the next night because he wasn’t satisfied how the sauce came out the first night, when I had gone back for thirds. I thought about how the 2008 Beijing Olympics was China’s way of proving its dominance to the world, and how similarly to the Forbidden City and all the great palaces around Beijing, these Olympics celebrated China and demonstrated its power.

olympic stadium stairs

Designed like a bird’s nest, the Stadium’s architectural details did not come through on TV as they did in person. From the staircases to the support beams, its free-body diagram seems like a nightmare to calculate. Making certain that all the forces add up to zero and that no member is under too much stress or strain is an art in itself when looking at a structure like this. Finally, the colors complimented the architecture so perfectly that it looked as though every perspective and every lighting combination was considered. Although sometimes very simply used, the color provided life to this otherwise empty building.

The 2008 Beijing Olympic Stadium left a strong impression.

Olympic Stadium and me

Highlights from Beijing

The Forbidden City was the Chinese palace between the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Although it served as the home to the emperors during these periods, it seemed to lack a homeliness with its vast open spaces and elaborate structures. That said, it was still marvelously detailed and colorful.

Forbidden city

forbidden city2

forbidden city bw

Tiananmen Square more than anything is an historical place. Unfortunately, the large concrete field that comprises the square almost pales in comparison to everything that has happened there. From government demonstrations of power to citizen protests, this square has been a central part of Chinese political history.

Old Beijing Street is relatively new, but is meant to represent how a shopping area might look in times past. The Starbucks and Haagen-Dazs ice cream may take away a little from the authenticity, but even these modern shops are set in themed buildings.

haagen dazs

old beijing

Jingshan park, located just north of the Forbidden City offers a fun hike to the top of the city to get an appreciation of the vastness and the layout of Beijing.

Jingshan park

The Summer Palace was probably one of my favorite spots in Beijing, and not only because I got to dress up like a king. It is set next to a beautiful lake and both the serenity of the nature it is near along with the grandeur of towering Chinese palaces. It was nice to stroll through the palace and next to the lake.

summer palace1

summer palace bw


summer palace2

summer palace3

The Temple of Heaven, a place used for worship, again is comprised of awe-inspiring structures laid out in a very methodical manner. And again, similar to the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven is surrounded by thousands of trees.

temple of heaven1

temple of heaven2

Beijing Pharmacy Experience

When wondering through the old parts of Beijing, I came across a beautiful Chinese “pharmacy”. I placed the word pharmacy in quotes because I would have been hard pressed to find Advil, Tylenol and multi-vitamins. Instead, in this multi-storied building, I found things like flying squirrel feces, rhinoceros horns, snake oils, and turtle shells. I witnessed medicines made from insects, made from fungi, and made from plants. All these medicines, including those only made from plants, came with a high price tag either because of the age of the plant or the care the plant received. There was even a thousand dollar ginseng root. In addition, each medicine served a different purpose from aiding with kidney problems to liver problems to indigestion to sexual dysfunction.

The outside of the pharmacy:


I am not about to discuss the merits of eastern versus western medical beliefs; however, being that I am in Beijing, I wanted to learn and begin to understand some of the basic tenants of eastern medicine. Eastern medicine is based a lot on traditional religious ideas of balance and opposites—yin and yang. Stemming from this, illness then derives from an imbalance, either between competing body systems or between the body and its environment. Furthermore, these eastern medicines can help bring the various body systems into better balance.

Having studied biology at school, I am one who always wants to see evidence for any claim, but in this case, although the westernized explanation for why a specific remedy works may not be available, there is at least some empirical evidence that these medicines work. Chinese medicine has changed little since antiquity and has been improving the lives of people which it has treated throughout its tenure. Also, there are many examples of westerners finding a more scientific explanation to why certain eastern medicines function as they do. All in all, it was an eye-opening experience to walk through this eastern pharmacy in the heart of Beijing.

Beijing Qingfeng-Xisi Hutong Guest House

Located at No. 58 Xisi bei wu tiao Hutong (no.58 Xisi North 5th Alley) Xicheng District, this hostel has been an additive experience to my stay in Beijing. Although I arrived the first morning before 7am in the morning and clearly woke up the people who manage the hostel, they were still so nice and accommodating. Not only was their spoken English so welcome, but their demeanor and helpfulness made me feel so much better after having just arrived in this new place. I should probably place such a review on yelp or tripadvisor, but for now, it will remain as a memory to me of how wonderful the staff was.

The front door of the hostel:

Front door

Although the inexpensiveness of a hostel is appealing enough to make me want to stay at one, the atmosphere and the camaraderie shared at most hostels was also a strong pull being a solo traveler. In the morning before I even settled in, I met Mike from Montreal who was consulting in the Chinese space program. As a gift from them, he received a model Chinese space rocket, which was very impressive. He told me where a couple good food spots were and how to get around. After meeting Mike, I had the confidence to go check out some of the sites that Beijing had to offer.

Later that day in the evening, the guest house taught us how to make dumplings. Not only was this a valuable cooking lesson, it was also the perfect opportunity to meet the other residents.

Making dumplings

Me and dumplings

While having my hands messy forming dumplings, I met the residents and staff members. There was a mixture of English and Chinese spoken by all, except for a few of the residents like myself who only could contribute in English. One of the residents has been staying here for about 6 months and is in an intensive Mandarin language course. He was our default translator in both directions whenever communication blocks arose. I met one pair, Laura and Alex, who traveled here from the UK by train. It sounded like quite the experience when they recapped a couple of their highlights from destinations like Berlin, St. Petersburg and Mongolia.

Hostel Scene

By the end of the evening, after playing a couple games of chess with Mike, I was able to convince Laura and Alex to join me the following day on my adventure to the Great Wall.

Ni Hao

Having had very limited exposure to China or Chinese culture, I regrettably admit that I only knew China through my Chinese friends and Chinese food. I was also aware that Chinese food in California is not what I might find in China. It was probably a highly Americanized version of Chinese food, which although still delicious, it lacks some authenticity.

Recently, the cliché that has come to surround China is that China is the future. Its economy, its language and its international influence continue to grow every year. When thinking of studying a new language, many people told me that I should consider Mandarin because it is the language of the future. With well over a billion residents, the Chinese have the first ingredient to propagating any language, a large Mandarin-speaking population.

China also has its long and storied past, which can start as far back as Homo erectus more than a million years ago if we choose to start there. Closer to 2100 BC is when the dynasties begin with the Xia, Shang, and Zhou. Coming from a country that has limited recorded history before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1942 and really before the Plymouth Colony started in 1620, going all the way back to 2100 BC produces such significance and grandeur that I am unaccustomed to. Through its five millennia of existence, China’s history is filled with wars, emperors, invasions, rebellions, revolutions, invention, art, natural disasters, foreign rule, and modernization.

I look forward to leaning about a small piece of that throughout my visit.

My First Traveling Companions

The Passport Ice-breaker Game:

Fast forward about 10 hours and I’m sitting on the plane with 3 hours left of this marathon flight to Beijing from LAX. I’ve been able to sleep a descent amount partly because I was so sleep deprived that I was passed out before the plane even left the gate. With lighter eyelids, I now receive the immigration form from the flight attendant. I think she could tell that I wasn’t from China. I’m not sure what the biggest give-away was, but my appearance and my language barrier are both high on the list.

Now that I was relatively rested and feeling more sociable, I thought it was a good time to meet my non-English speaking row mates, and what better ice breaker than comparing passports and visas. I receive the yellow immigration form and pull out my passport, and immediately, I notice how interested the couple sitting next to me was. The wife spoke a small bit of English, which was helpful while we tried to make friends. It was also helpful when I was filling out my immigration form. When I was trying to find a couple details that I was supposed to transfer from the visa in my passport to the immigration form, a few of them were only written in Chinese. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to start busting out some Chinese characters, but luckily, my new friend was able to translate it into English and I was spared the embarrassment of what my Chinese characters would’ve looked like.

As the couple sitting next to me stares more and more intently at my passport, I hand it to them with a gesture that says, “go on, take a closer look”. I would’ve said it too, but most verbal cues were lost in our conversation. The first thing they do is settle a disagreement they had when they immediately looked at the year I was born. They show twenty-five by holding up their fingers, first 2 and then 5. I tried to ask them how old they thought I was, but that conversation path ended up being rather unsuccessful, so I moved back to passport examination. At this point, they take out their passports and we compare some of the differences. The most obvious difference was that they had Chinese passports with US visas, and I had a US passport with a Chinese visa. Another very noticeable difference was the amount of artwork that is placed throughout the US Passport. I recently renewed my passport, so I am not sure if the artwork was there to this extent before, but when comparing it to the plain pages of the Chinese Passport, the graphics and images became quite noticeable. All in all, the pictures received praise from my neighbors, and then they proceeded to show me that there were hidden images that you can see when holding up a page to the light. This hidden-image feature was also present on their passports, which showed a graphic of the Great Wall.

Now that the ice was broken, we championed the small talk that is available to people who have trouble understanding each other. I find out they went to New York and LA, they learn that I am going to Beijing and Shanghai, and they give me a recommendation of where to stay and what to eat while in Beijing.

Finding the Hostel:

In one word, the Beijing Airport is impressive!  They remodeled the airport for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and that was very obvious.  High ceilings, elaborate displays, clean and shiny, and streamlined.  Going through customs was quick and easy, the bags were already coming out when we got to baggage claim, and I was done within about 30 minutes of landing, and that includes having to take a tram from the terminal I landed in to the baggage claim.

After going through baggage claim, I bumped into Eric from Cleveland who looked similarly lost.  He was in Beijing on business, but also didn’t know a lick of Chinese and was trying to figure out how to get into the heart of the city.  Since I had an address from my hostel and knew that I was heading in a similar direction, I asked if he’d be willing to share a cab.  The first buses into the city wouldn’t be leaving for at least another hour or two.  Eric said yes and we shared a cab to his hotel, which was about 2/3 of the way to my hostel, and then I continued on.  Overall, I’m where I wanted to get to, I’m here in one piece, and I’m starting to think about how I want to start the day since it is not even 8am yet.

Although I might not get to all of them, some spots I’d love to see while here include the Forbidden City, Tianenmen Square, the Great Wall, and the Temple of Heaven to name a few.  I’ll wait for some others in the hostel to stir and then I’ll see if I can meet some buddies to adventure with for the day.