Sunday, March 31, 2019

China memories, part 1 : pre-trip, and first impressions

Last year I remember coming home from work to find Wil sitting on the floor, tapping quickly on a laptop. I said, "Hi baby! What are you doing?" as I went into the other room. "Booking flights to China" was his reply.

I backed up into the living room, and said, "What?"

He said, "Scott's Cheap Flights -- wanna go see the Great Wall for our anniversary?" And then, 20 minutes later, we had a pair of round-trip flights to Beijing booked for the week of our anniversary, for about $800. Not each -- for both of them. (Seriously -- look into Scott's Cheap Flights -- they're amazing.)

Then I found a cute hostel in the old part of Beijing that had a private room with bath available for the week, so we booked our stay at the Red Lantern House.

Then we arranged for our China visas through Holiday China China -- completely no-fuss, they made the process easy, made sure we didn't make any mistakes on our application forms (that is, they corrected the error I had made on my form!!!), and turned them around at a much lower cost that other "visa offices" in Seattle advertised.

Finally we secured some Renminbi quickly and easily through Travelex, who oddly enough had the best exchange rate we could find in Seattle.  

I attempted to learn some rudimentary Chinese, with little success... and then early one Saturday morning we flew from Seattle to Beijing with a 2-hour stopover in Vancouver.

My journal has few notes from the flights -- apparently a smaller plane picked us up in Seattle, so some seats didn't exist, but everyone got a seat for the short flight. I also noted that, because we had a pre-flight drink in the lounge at Sea-Tac, and another in the lounge at Vancouver, we would set a goal to have whiskey in three countries in 24 hours. #aimhigh (Spoiler alert: we did.)

We had "oriental vegetarian" meals (tofu stir fry, red curry tofu, a lentil & bean sandwich); watched a bunch of movies; and eventually arrived in Beijing.

Immigration took a long time -- but no hassles other than that the self-serve fingerprint pre-scanner wouldn't scan my right hand. An assistant just told me to get into the main line. When we got to the front, Wil and I were separated -- one at a time means one at a time. For what it's worth, the main scanner read my hands just fine.

Then baggage, then customs, all easy. Wil spotted our driver -- we had decided to arrange for pickup through the hostel, which we were VERY HAPPY ABOUT. As the sun set, we were driven for about an hour on highways that alternated between super speedy and sudden stop-and-go stretches. Eventually we were on surface streets, and then turned down an unlit, narrow alley for the final two blocks. Wil said afterward that he was wondering what would happen, but I knew our hostel was down a hutong, so figured we were nearly there. And then, after a very slow drive, weaving past pedestrians, scooters, and parked cars, we arrived.

We checked in and had a slightly unpleasant surprise, totally my fault: our credit card had just held the booking, but we needed to pay for the week when we arrived. Luckily, we had enough cash to cover it, but it made us a bit edgy until we successfully got more cash the next morning. (And I'm pretty sure if we hadn't had enough cash, they would have let us pay for part of the stay -- they're very very nice at Red Lantern House!)

The hostel is a lot of rooms arranged around a common, covered courtyard. Lots of tables, some couches, places to relax.

And lots of lanterns. Really pretty at night -- such a great first impression!

A koi pond gurgled at one end, creating some nice white noise.

And in the very back, our room and private bath. The room was small but very clean, and we unpacked as much as we could in the limited space.

We went for a wander out to the main road -- amusingly, there's a Dairy Queen at the intersection, so it would always be easy to spot! There are lots of little shops, a couple of "hypermarkets", some restaurants, and, at one end, a mass gathering of musical instrument stores. So odd.

That night at the hotel we showered, had drinks the lobby (yes, whiskey in three countries, thankyouverymuch), and then went to bed to rest up for our first visit to the Great Wall.

Read part 2, the Wild Wall hike.


  1. I love your travelogues. It's just like being there!

  2. Thanks! I've posted "day 2" now; hoping to actually type up my notes one day per day!