Since she would be in Beijing for a little more than a week, I asked for some time off and got a few days.
I had heard of Beijing's reputation for bad smog, and though I never doubted anyone's sincerity, I don't think I really comprehended just how smoggy Beijing is until I stepped off the plane and into a grey haze.
As we drove, I began to form my own impression of the nation's capital. People had described it to me as "grey" and I wasn't sure what they met. Now, I see that there is no word that better describes Beijing. The buildings are grey. The sky is grey. The streets and cars are grey. The streets are all long, straight streets built on a grid and the buildings are all colorless and characterless communist-era buildings. I'm sure if I stayed longer I would have seen the color of the city's people and cultural institutions, but as a tourist all I could think was "grey."
My mom and the driver at the university she was staying at met me at the airport and drove us to the hotel my mom was staying at.
Of course it's good to see one's mother again and to catch up. But I realized that we actually share a lot of the same interests, such as travel, literature and art and we talked incessantly for hours.
No stop in Beijing would be complete without making a trip outside, to the Great Wall.
It felt wonderful to leave the grey, smoggy city behind and venture out on winding roads through beautiful, mountainous countryside and to breathe in fresh air again.
The wall itself was as beautiful as the pictures I'd seen of it, but with a 360 degree view I could see the wall winding and twisting away in either direction like a giant snake. In this sense, no photo can possibly do it justice.
I never realized just how steep some of the parts of the wall were. In places, it was difficult to walk.
Too soon, we were back in the van, headed back to Beijing.
We probably came at a good time, too. There's no public holiday in November for the Chinese.
It was a cold, windy day and after touring the temple complex we took refuge at a cafe where we ate Portuguese pastries. Thanks to Portugal's occupation of Macau, you can find these "pastage de nata" all over China. My mom lived in Portugal for a few years and she was excited to find them here.
We made the mistake of taking a taxi back to the hotel. I didn't realize until later that The Temple of Heaven was on the other side of the city from Beijing University (where the hotel was), and by the time we left, rush hour had just begun. It ended up taking us over a hundred rmb and over an hour to get back.
If I had been shocked by the pollution when first arriving in Beijing, it was nothing to this day. Even standing in this fog, I couldn't quite believe it was smog. It had to just be thick mist, didn't it? But the air didn't feel wet enough and I couldn't shake an omnipresent burning smell.
Another cold day. After walking around the square, we warmed up in a small dumpling restaurant. Signs on the wall advertized the best in Beijing, a claim probably made by dozens of other dumpling restaurants across Beijing, but they were delicious. Perhaps the best I've had.
The Forbidden City is, perhaps poorly put, a kind of Chinese version of Versailles. Majestic, huge, and decedent. Yet, it couldn't seem less like the boroque gaudiness of Versailles. Everything in the Forbidden City is stone, widely and symmetrically placed to evoke power and might.