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The Birds Nest at night

BEIJING — Now that Team JiDa was complete, we had to decide what to do for the next few days. We had at our disposal four full days and for three of those days, clear and dry weather, so shopping and tourist attractions beckoned.

Though we had all gone to bed in the wee hours Thursday, we were all surprisingly alert by 9 am. First up, a walking trip to the Bank of China east of the hotel to exchange American greenbacks for Chinese yuan. Then, we took a not-so-successful trip to price cell phones in Zhongguancun 中关村, got lunch at Pizza Hut, and visited Yuanmingyuan 圆明园, which is a short subway ride away.

Yuanmingyuan, also known as the Old Summer Palace, was the site of the Imperial Gardens, which the British and French ransacked and burned to the ground in 1860 during the Second Opium War. Now, the Gardens of Perfect Brightness are one of Beijing’s many tourist attractions, and Westerners — even British and French ones — are welcome to visit.

Friday was our day to visit the Forbidden City. Though Sally, Vanilla and I had been to Tian’anmen Square twice so far, we saved the Forbidden City for the new teachers’ arrival. The Imperial Palace, as it is also known, is a huge place; a thorough visit would take two full days at least. We lasted only a few hours. Between the hot sun, the huge crowds, and wacked-out sleep schedules, all six of us were pretty tired after seeing only a fraction of the grounds. Besides, we also wanted to shop in Xidan 西单 and see the Water Cube and Birds Nest before calling it a day … um, night.

By the way, all of these sights are easily accessible by subway. We all had fare cards, which you can recharge when they run low on funds. The subway costs 2 yuan with cash or card, but the buses, which usually cost 1 yuan, are only 4 jiao (0.40 yuan) with the fare card. So, you don’t really need a lot of cash to navigate Beijing. Since we were all really tired from Friday’s excursions, I put us in two taxis for the trip from the Birds Nest back to the hotel. That fare was just 19 yuan for each cab.

On Saturday, it rained pretty heavily, and the newcomers were too pooped to go out, anyway. So we all stayed in the hotel and watched HBO and the BBC, which lucky Beijingers can get, at least in international hotels.

Blessedly, the weather cleared Sunday. We all agreed we would visit the Great Wall come rain or shine, but sunshine made the excursion much more pleasurable. We were all really excited about going, even me! My friend Orchid, who works in Beijing, had the day off and joined us, so seven happy people took the #919 bus to Badaling.

The cheapest way to get to Badaling is to ride the #919 bus, which with a fare card costs 12 yuan each way. (It’s 40 yuan cash money, though.) These buses leave from Deshengmen 德胜门 as soon as they are full, which doesn’t take long in tourist season. If you don’t mind standing on a crowded bus, it’s cheap and convenient.

After our return, Orchid, Sally and Vanilla went to eat Chinese food, and we Americans went to a trendy little eatery near the hotel, called Planet Cherry, where they like K-pop stars (Korean pop stars) a lot. The place is packed with CD covers, key chains, concert ticket stubs and posters, and the TV shows K-pop music videos all day. The food was really good, even if you don’t know one Korean singer from another.

Monday was our departure day. Vanilla, Sally and I had some chores to do in the morning, so we pried ourselves out of bed by 7:00 to return our fare cards (and get our deposits back), find a cheap breakfast, and find some Peking duck to take back with us. (Five times to Beijing, and I still hadn’t tasted Peking duck!)

Here’s one indication I’ve been in China a while. I actually preferred a Chinese breakfast to the Western-style offered at the hotel. For 30 yuan at the hotel, you could get waffles, eggs and so on, or for 4 yuan, you could get steamed buns (baozi), porridge or beef noodles at one of the shops nearby. Vanilla and Sally of course preferred Chinese style, both for the price and the taste, so in the mornings I usually accompanied them. Our breakfast Monday morning was from a street vendor, who served up a better tasting version of a sausage-and-egg biscuit than the KFC and McDonalds places nearby.

By the way, Peking duck costs 22 yuan ($3, roughly) at a Beijing specialty food store called Daoxiangcun — just in case you get the chance to shop there. (Hat tip to Orchid.)

Our flight to Changde was uneventful. We were met at the airport by Mr Qin, who took the newcomers and Vanilla back to JiDa in time for a huge dinner at the school hotel. Sally and I stayed behind to tour Changde a little before we both headed home. My duties as a tour guide were now over, and I gratefully put myself in the capable hands of my hostess for the next day.