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Dear Rudy:

We returned this past week from a trip to Beijing. It was somewhat of a last minute trip; not one which we had been planning for years or even months. Circumstances and happenstance came together and we went for eight days. It was magical.

We did have time to research the trip to some degree before leaving but as has often been the case in past trips much of the research and preparation is done on the plane. In our case the thirteen-hour trip from Detroit to Capital Airport in Beijing served us well. The books and maps aside, though, the rest, in our experience is an ad hoc adventure of exploration on our own. This lends itself to some degree of excitement. That, at least, has been the routine with trips to Europe and other more "normal", if you will, destinations. But would it work for Beijing?

None of the gang of four on this trip spoke any Chinese and our sense and knowledge of Chinese customs was gained mostly from fortune cookies and many bad late night Chinese restaurants in any number of cities - be it New Ulm, Minnesota or London.

After some musing, we collected guidebooks, an article from The New York Times, an excellent, detailed map of Beijing and searched The Savvy Traveler web page. That information in hand, we decided to use our old approach and search our way around the city on our own. The best decision had already been made - to go to Beijing. The next best decision was to venture about without the benefit of China Travel Service or another group tour of that ilk. We also had rehearsed several Chinese phrases which would have to serve us in all situations and all instances! There was nothing about us that would indicate to anyone that we were anything but aliens visiting a foreign land.

Our adventure was a success.

Beijing is a fascinating city to explore on one's own. Venturing about alone gave us much more time at such sites as the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and so on. On foot we also got a sense of the grand scale of the City. Chong An a major thorough fare, is six lanes wide; a daunting task to cross mid-day; an absolute minefield during rush hour! Against this back drop we turned off major streets into quiet neighborhoods; self contained with small markets and restaurants. Many seemd more characteristic of small towns than a city like Beijing.

Taking routes dictated more by whim than anything else also brought us to many of Beijing's hutongs. On foot it seemed more intimate and less of an intrusion into these neighborhoods than some of the pedi-cab tours we saw on occassion more or less racing through these areas.

The hutongs are the remainders and reminders of old Beijing. An article appearing in The New York Times Travel section before we left guided us to one of these areas in the back lake area of Beijing. This is a delightful chain of three lakes in the northwestern part of the city. The willow, azalea and tulip trees ringing the lakes were coming into bloom thanks to the string of sunny, seventy degree days we experienced. Also in this area is Soong Ching Li's home. She was the widow of Sun Yat Sen and a major force in China' politics for many years. Her sister was married to Chiang Kai Shek. The home is a quiet city refuge in a garden setting behind an imposing stone wall. We encountered maybe fifteen people during our two hour visit.

While we walked miles, we also used taxis, ever present in Beijing. Most are red and small sometimes making it difficult for four people to squeeze in, especially with daypacks and packages. The traffic is generally hectic but for all of what seems to be chaos, the traffic moves and we always arrived safely at our destination. We encountered some problems with a few of the drivers but then we have also had bad experiences with New York taxi drivers who speak Enghlish! The indiscretions amounted to nothing more than some efforts to charge us over and what was on the meter. We stood our ground and paid the metered fare. We also refused to enter into a negotiated rate as that was almost always more than the meter rate. "Please turn on the meter" said in halting Chinese became our mantra with taxi drivers. Halting as our speech may have been, the response was always positive.

One minor discomfort of proceeding on our own was the fact that we were very identifiable visitors, myself particularly, standing six feet tall with red hair! That made us general targets for pleas for money. We almost always declined.

All of this is to say, get the books and a good map and set out to explore the city on your own. It is a wonderful way to visit Beijing.


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