Time for me to wrap this up, especially considering that this was a trip from last November.
When we last left our Heroes, it was Thursday evening after they had flown halfway around the world to sit in a conference room for two days and exchange poorly translated power point slides. It wasn't that bad, I even think we helped advance our work with the Chinese. In any even, we were flying home Friday evening, but the plane didn't leave until six. That meant we actually had too leave the hotel at 2 in order to deal with the traffic at the airport, check in, security, passport control, etc. That gave us the morning to actually see a few sights. We decided to do the Forbidden city. The concierge at the hotel desk got us prepaid tickets, and we were off fairly early in the morning.
Rather than deal with the traffic, we decided to brave the Beijing subway. Rather cheap prices 2-3 yuan (about 6.5 yuan to the dollar) depending on the trip length. Pretty crowded, and you had to really pay attention to the stops, because no English in the station announcement. Our ride also included a transfer. Fortunately they had enough directional signs in English as well as Chinese so we got to the right place.
They do a security screening for you and your bags at every subway stop! If they tried this in the US, the lines would be a mile long and not moving. Here, it moves very smoothly, eve with us foreigners who don't speak the language. How do they do it?
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They've got platform screen doors! Or at least waist high boarding gates. Makes it harder for people to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train (or get shoved off the platform). Also people know where to line up for the doors. Apparently, they're going to experimenting with them in Boston and New York. They had them for the little train at Dulles.
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We finally got to Tienanmen Square, but we couldn't exit the station because our tickets were one yuan short. That was taken care of in a little booth inside the station ,and soon we were outside.
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Lots of red flags blowing in the wind. Lots of stern-faced armed honour guards surrounding the memorial. We widin't go visit Mao's mausoleum, but rather used the underpass (the streets are not crossable on the surface, and the traffic has to be seen to be believed.) to get to the Tienanmen Gate, which functioned as a wind tunnel. Note the big picture of Mao, just as is shown on TV.
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We finally found the right ticket window and gout our actual entry passes, then entered what is essentially a huge open-air museum. We didn't see a tenth of it. Back in the days when the emperors ruled, the only people allowed in were the emperor, his wives, concubines, and children, and female servants and eunuchs to to the work. In addition to the public pavilions where the emperor held court, there were whole streets of residences, and gardens as well. Lots of interesting traditional architecture and public art. It's worth at least a day, if not more, not the 3-4 hours we spent there. If I ever get back to Beijing, I would definitely return, but I'd also like to see the Great Wall, which we didn't have time for on this trip.
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The trip through is one-way, for the Tienanmen Gate on the south to the north. You get spit out on the north side, and you're back in modern Beijing. Note the surveillance cameras, electric trolleybuses and motorized bicycle rickshaws.
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Rather than look around for the subway, we found a cab and squeezed in to return to the vicinity of the hotel for lunch. This actually gave us a nice little tour of the city, we got to see the traditional quarters or "hutongs," (which used to be slums, but are now gentrifying, and the central business district and train station. Our destination was a well-known restaurant that specialized in Peking Duck.
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The chef carves the duck at your table, then you warp the little pieces, together with a scallion and Hoisin sauce, in a little pancake and eat. We also had bok choy with abalone sauce, tofu with peppers, spring rolls, and rice. Very tasty and not like waht you find in in most US Chinese restaurant. (Note the diner's face has been blocked to preserve his privacy.)
Finally back to the hotel, a short walk. Of course, as EPA employees, we noticed that the Chinese are serious about dealing with their smog problem, and appeared to be encouraging all kinds of electric vehicles, from the trollybuses we saw earlier to electric cars and bikes.
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Our van showed up and took us the the airport through another traffic jam. On the way,we saw the new airport train passing us. Check-in was relatively painless, then we had to go down and ride the shuttle to the midfied terminal, where we spent a good bit of time in line for passport control and the security check. For some reason, I was subject to some additional frisking, but the whole process was pretty fast and efficient. Then we were let loose into the transit area and departure gates with more than 2 hours until we boarded. This gave me time to check out the duty-free shops (liquor prices weren't anything special, but I got a bottle of mao-tai and some fancy tea) and a very nice little mediation area right in the terminal.
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Finally, we boarded. Some random few unfortunates were subject to additional security screening right at the gate. Fortunately that wasn't me. I found my seat. It was one of the last two rows in the middle cabin. Most of the rows n that cabin are designated "Economy Plus," but not the last two. However, the seat pitch was the same as the rest of the cabin. In such a matter I was able to travel "economy plus" without paying for the upgrade. I'll keep this in mind if I ever has reason in the future to travel in a 787.
We left at about 6:30 PM local time. Being that this was November it was already getting dark, and we flew in the darkness in whole way.
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The food out of the Beijing commissary that United uses is not as good was what comes out of Dulles. Some kind of meat and rice with no veggies to speak of for dinner and a very nasty egg and meat thing for "breakfast" that I could not stomach for more than a couple of bites. Don't complain about Amtrak food until you try this.
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Finally, after watching a couple of movies, trying to sleep, and gagging over the "breakfast," we finally landed at Dulles, in the dark at about the same time and date that we took off. This after over 13 hours in the air. The International Date Line is a weird phenomenon. International arrivals at Dulles are very complicated. You come up to the same midfield concourse you left from but the jetway disgorges you into a lower level that is cramped and relatively dark. You're directed down a bare corridor to the end where you board an old mobile lounge, the decor straight out the 1970s. You wait for the lounge to fill up. Finally, after what seems forever, it moves off and rolls around the airfiled for a while and dumps you off at the international arrivals hall. I got my first taste of using the quasi self-service customs and immigration check-in process for US citizens. There was only one plane that landed (ours) and the place wasn't crowded, so I didn't have to wait. I found a kiosk, scanned my passport and it asked me a few basic questions. Then it had me stand in front and took a picture of me. Then it spit out a slip with a copy of my picture. Boy did I look grumpy and disreputable! I was a little worried I might be denied entry on the basis of the picture alone. I then walked over to the short line where I got to interact with a real live Customs agent who merely asked me if I was bringing in any booze. "Just this," I said, pointed to the duty-free shop bag I was carrying. He shook his head in a way that suggested to me that my duty free shop purchase had already been reported and that they knew the contents of my suitcases, which I hadn't picked up yet. And then he passed me. Shortest and easiest US border process I've ever had, and that includes some crossing from Canada. Over to the baggage claim to get my suitcase and then out a door past the "nothing to declare" sign, and boom, I'm in the nain part of the airport free to go.
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Up the escalator, out the front door, over to my car, and then over to the Marriott on site where I had booked a room. I was about to conk out, in no condition for a 2 hour drive home. The Marriott was shockingly cheap for a hotel in the Washington DC area. It was a surprising throwback to the 1970s itself. But the room was clean and quiet, and I was able to get a good night's sleep. I fact I slept until nearly 10, and didn't hit the road until almost 11, stopping in Frederick for lunch and arriving home in the early afternoon.