Beijing - Still a Forbidden City

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Our itinerary had room for just one stop in mainland China. We chose Beijing over Shanghai because we were invited to visit the Airbnb offices there, and as always, the staff gave us a warm welcome and helped us make the most of our five-day visit.

We first met Ellie, our main Beijing contact in San Francisco last September while we were interning at Airbnb HQ. We promised we would visit someday, and here we were. She and her co-worker Vincent were there to greet us at the airport - and as you can imagine the Beijing Airport is huge and confusing, so that was a godsend. Ellie and Vincent drove us to the office where we dropped our bags, freshened up a bit and then headed straight for an unexpected and rather elaborate lunch.

 We first met Ellie (between Michael and me) at the San Francisco office during our senior internship at Airbnb

We first met Ellie (between Michael and me) at the San Francisco office during our senior internship at Airbnb

We joined others from the marketing department in a private dining room of a well-known restaurant and sat down to a whirlwind of food. The large “Lazy Susan” in the center of the table was continually refilled with bowls and platters of traditional Cantonese delicacies - some known, some not. But all very delicious!

From there we returned to the office where we were scheduled for an interview with journalists from different media outlets. That was the first time we’d answered questions from three reporters at the same time. We weren’t sure how it would go and it felt like a mini press conference but Airbnb prepared notes for us to review beforehand so we felt ready.

 With the Beijing team in their offices. We were welcomed there anytime.

With the Beijing team in their offices. We were welcomed there anytime.

After our interview, it was time to tell our story to the office staff and take questions. We always enjoy this part of our visit to Airbnb offices around the world because we can share our experiences directly with the people who work so hard to make the concept of “Belong Anywhere” possible.

Finally, it was time to check-in to our Airbnb. And that was another first - we didn’t book the listing, it was chosen for us by the listing team at the Beijing office. We didn’t really know what to expect or even know where it was. Of course, it turned out to be really nice and just a few blocks from the office in a modern complex of condominiums, shops and lovely green space.

That evening we were invited to join a few staff members for a Hot Pot dinner (think Asian Fondue). I’ve always been intrigued with this cook-your-own ingredients dining method so I was happy to be shown the ropes. Other than our drink orders, we let the crew decide what we’d be eating, so we sat back and watched. First came soup, then small salads and dumplings for nibbling while the table-top cauldron of spicy broth on one side and a milder bone broth on the other came to a gentle boil. Then platters of thinly shaved meat and all sorts of vegetables began to arrive. And kept arriving! Then the tofu skin “noodles” and fish balls (and other balls) to swish in the boiling broth until done. At that point, we were done as well. We'd started our day at 4:00 am Hong Kong time and it was well past time to turn in.

 Going all in for  Hot Pot (Asian Fondue). It was a blur of chopsticks as we fought for the broth.

Going all in for  Hot Pot (Asian Fondue). It was a blur of chopsticks as we fought for the broth.

When Michael first began planning our visit to China he assumed there would be challenges around getting visas. But then he remembered our son Alistair and his family traveled through Beijing three years ago on a 72-hour transit visa. While doing research, he learned that China was now offering a 144-hour transit visit in a limited number of cities. That a meant, according to his precise calculations we could stay up to 6 days. In the end, we stayed one day less, just to be safe.

You don't do anything in advance which seemed a bit strange. Once we landed in Beijing we followed signs to the 144-hour Visa Desk where we filled out the required paperwork, got in line and "voila" we were approved and on our way. Only two caveats: 1) You must register at the nearest police station to our address within 24 hours of arriving in the city where you will reside. 2) You may not travel to any other cities in China with this visa.

 Our 144-hour visas were pasted in our passports. Just missing the registration stamp!

Our 144-hour visas were pasted in our passports. Just missing the registration stamp!

We learned, that if you stay in a hotel they take care of the registration. In our case, because we were in a private home (somewhat frowned upon) we needed to follow instructions and register by 10:30 am the next morning to meet the 24-hour deadline. At dinner the night before a young man who worked in Airbnb’s legal department confirmed that yes, it was important that we do so. A delightful young woman named Crystal was sitting next to me and offered to help us with the process. She knew it would be difficult due to the language barrier and the bureaucracy waiting for us at a government agency.

Thank God for Crystal. At 9:00 am we hopped in a taxi and went to the police station nearest to our Airbnb. We were not the first people in line when we arrived, and from what we could see this could take a while. When it was finally our turn we were told we were at the wrong station (by about a mile). The woman at the counter was stereotypically brusk and couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell us where we should go. Eventually, someone shouted an address for the station and we hopped in a second taxi and arrived at a slightly larger station, where we took a number at 10:20 am.  

 You never want to spend time at a police station in any country. China, in particular.

You never want to spend time at a police station in any country. China, in particular.

When it was our turn were asked for our passports, and then looked at our arrival time at the airport. She looked at the clock and then looked at us for what seemed like forever, and decided we were just within the time limit. However, she then asked for the leasing agreement from the building management company stating the apartment we were in was registered as a short-term rental. Yikes! We didn't have that information because we didn't know it was necessary - and our host was out of the country. Crystal got on the phone with her boss to explain the situation. Obviously not being able to follow the conversation - but we could see by her anxious looks at us and furtive glances at the woman waiting impatiently behind the counter, it wasn't going well.

Best we could tell, our listing was not registered as a short-term rental and few are. Therefore, if we were to try and obtain the paperwork it would implicate our host as having a rental in a building that may not allow her to do so. On the other hand, if we did not register ourselves with the police we could be in hot water when we tried to leave the county. It was all very awkward because we did not book our listing, so we had to let Airbnb, as our sponsors, make the call. They said they were sure that registration was just a formality and we could play the “ignorant tourist card” at the airport. So we slunk out of the police station without submitting any paperwork. Personally, we were very uncomfortable about the whole episode, but we’d just have to deal with it later.

The next day as we began to navigate the city Michael was becoming frustrated with Google Maps. It was not giving us accurate walking directions which made it difficult to find metro stations, restaurants, and other destinations. It would show our location with the familiar “blue dot” on the map, but it was always off by a few streets from where we knew we knew we were standing. We count on that app more than we realized!

 Without Google Maps, this became our navigation method. We'd snap pictures on our phone of where we wanted to go and show it to metro staff and strangers along the way and eventually end up in the right place.

Without Google Maps, this became our navigation method. We'd snap pictures on our phone of where we wanted to go and show it to metro staff and strangers along the way and eventually end up in the right place.

When we shared our frustration with our Airbnb friends they confirmed that it was the Chinese government at work. We also found I could only access Facebook and Instagram intermittently and couldn’t post on either. Michael found our internet at the apartment painfully slow and he had limited access to news sites. What a wake-up call!

Fortunately, we were close enough to the Airbnb offices that we could stop by to connect to the “outside world” using their USA work-around account. They also taught us how to use a VPN and set us up on WeChat so we could stay in touch with our team of supporters at the office. That was a fun app to use if only for it’s emoji madness!

 WeChat is a popular way to communicate. And it was fun because of the hundred of emojis and videos you could download to get your point across in any language. 

WeChat is a popular way to communicate. And it was fun because of the hundred of emojis and videos you could download to get your point across in any language. 

In order to see as much of the city as we could during our short visit, we signed up for a Gray Line Tour called “Beijing Bucket List”. We don’t often do bus tours, but this covered Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall all in one day. We expected to be part of a large busload of tourists, but when we arrived at the meeting place at a nearby hotel we were two of just three guests! A pleasant surprise. Our guide Roger did a good job of getting us to all three destinations and flashed his guide badge to get us past long lines.

 Out and about in Beijing. Here we are at the entrance of the Forbidden city.

Out and about in Beijing. Here we are at the entrance of the Forbidden city.

His knowledge of Beijing's history was good, but since we were a small group Michael was able to steer the conversation to more current events and politics. I am not sure he was 100% comfortable discussing the pros and cons of the current Chinese government, but he indulged Michael as best he could. Our fellow guest was a young entrepreneur from Quebec, Canada so Michael had yet another foil for political discussion. He was happy.

 It paid to look up while we were touring. The intricate ceilings and hidden temples on the rocks could be easily missed. 

It paid to look up while we were touring. The intricate ceilings and hidden temples on the rocks could be easily missed. 

We were a bit underwhelmed at Tiananman Square but amazed a the vastness and the intricate architecture of the Forbidden City, and it just seemed to go on and on! From there our tour included stops at a silk factory and a jade carving facility. They were somewhat educational, but really they were shopping opportunities that must have somehow benefited the tour company.

After lunch we drove about an hour to a section of the Great Wall. The weather was clear so we could see it winding off into the distance. There wasn’t much to do at the site but climb as far as you chose to go - and I chose to go about 100 steps. I don’t mind a good hike, but these ancient stepping stones were too uneven and steep for my neuropathy, so I opted for a coffee and a chance to read while Michael headed up to the first tower. It was quite the climb!

 Michael's view from the first tower. The creation of this wall boggles the mind.

Michael's view from the first tower. The creation of this wall boggles the mind.

On the next day, we took an Airbnb Experience called Old Beijing History and Walking Tour that took us on a meandering tour of the Maoer Hutong area. Not only could we see a traditional neighborhood, but according to the description, we would have our photos taken along the way by our guide Jodi, a budding photographer. We were starting to get the hang of the complex Beijing metro system and we were proud of ourselves for taking three different metro lines to find the meeting point! It was a picture-perfect afternoon for wandering some back alleys and now we have some very nice photos of the two of us taken by someone other than a complete stranger. We still “just say NO” to wielding a selfie stick.   

 Our guide Jodi delivering on taking photos along the tour.

Our guide Jodi delivering on taking photos along the tour.

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Another highlight was a morning spent wandering a flea market. It’s always eye-opening to see the detritus of any society - and in this case, that included, clothes, tools, tanks of tropical fish, an odd stash of accordions, piles of shoes, bicycle parts, and, as it is with flea markets everywhere, bins of vinyl records - many of which were contraband I am sure.

At lunchtime, we turned down a narrow street where the smoke from cooking fires was visible. There we found a few small food stalls. We chose the one with the longest line and watched as a woman made “Chinese Crepes” as fast as her griddle allowed. They were basically a traditional French crepe with a filling of one whole egg broken in the center and spread thinly to the edge, topped with bean sprouts, scallions, oyster sauce, optional hot peppers and a thin cracker that added a delightful crunch. We added a seared hot dog because that seemed the popular thing to do. It was absolutely delicious - and we got points from our friends for enjoying a truly local dish.

 They weren't pretty...

They weren't pretty...

 ...but they were delicious!

...but they were delicious!

But there was one dish I had to have before we left Beijing (formerly known as Peking) and that was, of course, Peking Duck. But somehow, the time went so quickly, that the only chance I had was lunch on the day we left. We were at the Airbnb offices when I asked where i should go - and that turned into an invitation to be their guests at a nearby restaurant that was famous for their duck! Michael declined and stayed behind at the office to firm up some travel plans, but I jumped at the chance - even though we’d be a bit rushed to be back in time to head to the airport.

As it turned out, I would have happily missed the flight for this lunch - it was that good. My two dining companions, Vincent and Crystal knew just what to order. Not only was the crispy skinned duck carved table-side out of this world, once you wrapped a few shavings in a warm pancake with slivers of cucumber and scallions and a smear of plum sauce you could live happily forever after. But wait, there was more! How about a plate of perfect Bing cherries, five real fruit and five faux cherries made by dipping a ball of foie gras in a paper thin red-hot candy coating that shattered in your mouth. Unbelievable! Or flash-roasted tomatoes floating on a bed of dry ice. Then there were tiny fish fritters in paper cups and a bowl of crisp Asian salad greens. The one dish I had to pass on was stewed duck feet - webs and all. The grand finale was dessert - swirls of soft-serve ice cream around a flower pot sprouting cotton candy flowers. One of the finest meals I’ve ever had!

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We returned to reality just in time to gather Michael and our bags and hightail it to the airport. After getting through security we approached passport control and hoped our failure to register with the police might go unnoticed. No such luck. After presenting our passports, we were immediately pulled aside and told to wait with no explanation given. We had a plane to catch, so after 45 minutes or so we were getting anxious and even a little frightened. Finally, a stout, stern faced woman marched up to us holding our passports. No time for pleasantries - she demanded an explanation of why we didn’t follow the simple instructions to register within 24 hours? Gulp. We began to explain that we did try and what happened, but she wasn’t sympathetic in the least. Meanwhile, this whole exchange was being video recorded by another officer. After some further interrogation, she reluctantly stamped our passports with a warning that next time we visited China we must follow the rules! Yes ma’am!

 We followed the rules going in....

We followed the rules going in....

Our brief 5-day stop in Beijing gave us an inkling of what life might be like in China. About what a weekend in Las Vegas might reveal about life in America. So maybe we’ll go back - if we can get past passport control! Up next … Seoul searching in South Korea.

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael Campbell

The Senior Nomads