I was in bed 1:30am-9:30. I didn't sleep the full 8 hours, but I did dream that I lost my Treo again (see the Russia-Scandi tour).
The Dongjiaominxiang Hotel, where we stayed. Walking distance to Tiananmen Square.
I explored Beijing on foot randomly. I was impressed. Beijing is classier than Bangkok and doesn't smell.
On Chongwenmen Avenue, which I ended up on because I thought our hotel was on the other side of the street and I had north-south reversed, I saw the old Ming Dynasty city wall. But it turns out that it's a reconstruction, and therefore isn't photo-worthy, like Old Town Warsaw.
In a nice park near Tiananmen Square I met a local girl who immediately phoned two friends (university students) so they could come practice their English with me. I thought I remember reading in The Book that Chinese people are friendly that way. So I went along with them, because I had nothing else specific to do and it seemed like a chance to mingle with the locals. We went to have tea, and when the bill came I had to pay for the girls and it was much more than expected. They were cool and gave me their e-mail addresses at the end, so I still wasn't sure if it was a scam or a cultural difference. They wouldn't let me take a photo of them because they were "strong Buddhists"...not sure if this meant no photos at all or just in the tearoom where there were images of Buddha. The guy said I looked 25-26 and one of the girls said I looked younger without the Wiffleball hat. I told them that LG liked the hat, and took care to imply that the liking was nonsexual.
I went all day without eating, in anticipation of the initial group dinner. I wasn't hungry but needed hydration, just like last time.
Beijing is not as oppressively humid as Southeast Asia. My shirt didn't get soaked after an hour of walking around. Also, Olympic Fever is everywhere. As you know, there's only one prescription for Olympic Fever. I'll address that on the May 29 page. Wait for it!
At 7pm we had our first group meeting. Normally Intrepid tours have 12 to a group, but ours had only 6. I suspected that would be the case because I'd been monitoring the number of open spots on the web site. In addition to me we had Anne Marie from Ireland, Terence from Australia, Koenraad from Belgium and working in England, and Peter & Rose from England. So girlwise, this was the opposite of my last tour when it was a bunch of dames and me. Luck of the draw. Also, our group leader was MJ, a Chinese guy (from Xi'an) who had been a local guide before joining Intrepid 3 months ago. From the web site I had also suspected that we'd have a Chinese group leader instead of the usual Aussie or Kiwi.
For our first dinner we had the legendary Peking Duck. I won't call it Beijing Duck. Actually the meal was one of those Chinatown-style dinners where a bunch of dishes are ordered and there's a revolving thing in the middle of the table and everyone shares. Most of our meals on this tour would be that style. Sharing is one of the worst legacies of Communism. Anyway, the duck was just one of the dishes, but it was the highlight. The other dishes were the usual stuff (kung pao and whatnot). There was no rice, which traditionally isn't part of a real Chinese meal, and also the north of the country favors noodles while the south favors rice. At one point the chef came out and announced in an Italian accent "I just checked your duck...it is more succulent than even I had hoped." Well, no, but he did show it to us. Our bird, not his bird. And he had to order it a day ahead of time, just like Poppie. And he, HE HIMSELF, the chef, carved the roast beast. The duck was in fact more crispy than succulent. However, the dinner was marred by my beverage: a 500-mL bottle of Tsingtao, which is a 3.1% quote-unquote "beer". That's less alcohol than a standard-sized bottle of real beer. Someone later asserted than Chinese people (or Asians in general) lack some enzyme necessary for proper alcohol metabolism, so they make beers weaker over there. Damn, first the penis thing and now this. [17 Jan 2007: A discussion at work yesterday whose participants included both world travellers and Asians supported the enzyme assertion. Penises were not broached.]
We returned to the hotel at 10pm. We didn't go out to a bar, but that was OK because I wanted a good night's sleep. Before bed I took my first putrid dump of the tour on account of the spicy food. Usually at the beginning of any overseas trip I'm irregular for 5 days until a putrid dump resets my bowels. So they got over their jet lag quickly this time.