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Around the world travel, Backpacking, Beijing, Bucket List, China, Compass Holidays, Travel, Travelzoo

How Do You Say “Softly” in Mandarin?

Ads on the Beijing metro.

We have one last free morning in Beijing, and Michael has organized a late checkout for everyone, so after breakfast, Katherine and I head to Tiananmen Square. We were here the other day but headed straight for the Forbidden City, and because of Tiananmen’s historical significance, I want to pay a proper visit.

Tiananmen Square

So, we head back to Happy Valley, make the journey by metro to Tiananmen East, clear security and walk from one end of the square to the other.¬†Besides a few statues, there’s not much to see here, but I feel better having made the visit.

We hail a taxi and head northeast towards Dragonfly spa, a place that’s been recommended by a friend for massage and reflexology. Luckily, my maps is working without an internet connection, and I’m able to get us within walking distance to the spa. The language barrier is proving to make solo navigation challenging!

We arrive in an area that seems to cater to Westerners. A Hilton hotel sits next to a shopping complex that’s home to Starbucks, a wine shop, a public swimming pool, and the place we’re after, Dragonfly.

We take a few minutes to peruse the menu and both Katherine and I decide on a 1-hr traditional Chinese massage, which is a combination of deep tissue and acupressure. Andy, my masseuse, collects us from the waiting room, takes us to our respective rooms and shows us the linen tops and bottoms we’re to put on. They are made for petite Asian ladies, and I just about manage to get the pants over my hips.

Dragonfly Spa

Andy speaks very little English, but I tell him I like a strong massage. He goes to work, and I realize he has understood what I said. Maybe a little too much because as he works his way down my back, I’m literally twinging in pain. I start to say, “Ok, maybe not so hard.” But he thinks I mean the opposite and pushes so deep on my lower left back muscle, that I know I’m going to feel it for days. A little whimper comes out followed by “Owwww.” And he exclaims, “Ohhh, you mean softer.” Yes, softer, that’s the word I was looking for!

Andy finishes up an awesome massage, and tells me his name again, “You come back, you ask for Andy.” “Yes,” I say, not even attempting to try to explain I’m just visiting and actually leaving for Shanghai in a matter of hours.

I find Katherine in the reception area, and we laugh at the matching pillow imprints on our faces. We settle our bills, $30 each, head to Starbucks for something to wake us up, and grab a taxi so we can make it back to the hotel to check out and make our transfer to Shanghai.

A few people from the group flew out on a very early flight this morning, and the rest of us are on either a 5:20 or 5:55 flight from Beijing to Hongqiao. We drop half the group at Terminal 1 and the rest of us head to Terminal 2 and check in at the Hainan counter. We have lost Michael, who seems to have broken his own golden rule… “Follow Michael,” and don’t get the chance to say thank you and goodbye.

Katherine and I clear security, grab a snack at a Chinese fast food joint, top up our chocolate supply at one of the duty free shops, and board our flight.

It’s a short flight, but we have time to reflect on Beijing and the trip so far. Because I feel partly responsible for Katherine’s happiness on the trip, seeing as I’m the one that suggested it and sold her on China to begin with, I ask her, “So, what do you think so far?”¬† Her reply, “We’re in China. We paid less than $600. I’m just taking it for what it is.”

As independent travelers, it’s tough for us to have so many of our decisions made for us. We are used to doing the research, the planning, the bookings, the navigating. Doing that kind of work before a trip ensures (most of the time) an enjoyable adventure, and there’s a sense of satisfaction when you figure out a place. BUT, it IS China, and I’m not gonna lie, there’s something nice about these 4 and 5-star hotels, the bus that shows up for our airport and city transfers and the assistance with the language barrier, and oddly enough, the weird and wonderful members of our group are growing on me.

I think about what Katherine said, and agree that we could have never planned this trip for the price we got it for. (Hence the factory visits). I will move forward with an open mind about this “organized travel…” or so I tell myself tonight.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Beijing, China, Compass Holidays, Great Wall, Guided Tour, Travel, Travelzoo

The Great Wall After The Greatest Jade Factory

I wake up at 2am. Maybe it’s the excitement of our trip to the Great Wall, or it could be the fact that we went to bed at 8pm…I will myself to stay in bed until 4am. Needless to say, we’re the first to arrive at breakfast. Here, we spot a few people from our group who we’ll be spending the day with.

We have Ray & Warren from Utah, who I will affectionately refer to as “the boys.” Nick and Sue are a lovely British couple who now live on the Canadian side of Lake Huron. Veronica from Philadelphia, flips houses for fun, but is a world renowned psychologist who is basically changing the way mental health is treated in the Middle East. We have Stacie (originally from Chicago) and her girlfriend Kiva from New Orleans. Stacie is in finance and Kiva is a personal trainer. We have, Matthew (architect) and his boyfriend D’Andre (a model) and Matthew’s mother Marilyn (who is super sweet, just a little hard of hearing). We have the old couple who sit next to each other on the bus and yell their observations at each other (they must be hard of hearing too). Jeff, a lawyer who tagged this trip on to the end of a business trip, is traveling with his sweet and super athletic cousin, Nathan, who is a mortgage broker in Arizona. We have the quiet newlyweds from Chula Vista, CA that keep to themselves and two other couples: Jay, an American guy, and his Vietnamese girlfriend Ivy, and a fun couple from Toronto. We have two Jet Blue flight attendants, who are based out of NYC, and there are three older gentlemen who are en route to the Philippines to do missionary work. Then there’s Katherine and me, who are really new to this whole “group travel” thing.

All in all, we’re a pretty diverse and eclectic group. I hear the ‘Real World’ intro in my head, “This is the story of 20 people picked to travel China and have their lives taped…” It feels like a really interesting social experiment!

Bird’s Nest Stadium

Home of the 2008 Olympic Games

So, after breakfast, we all pile onto the tour bus and Michael (“Follow Michael”) greets us and tells us the plan for the day. Our first stop is a quick visit to the park where the 2008 Olympic Games were held . It’s a balmy 22 degrees, so we bundle up and make our way for a close up shot of Bird’s Nest Stadium, which hosted the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as the track and field events. Now that Beijing has been awarded the 2022 winter Olympic games, officials are trying to decide if they can re-use this stadium or if they will build something new. It’s a pretty neat steel structure and just behind sits the IBM building, constructed in the shape of a dragon.

IBM as seen from the Olympic Park.

We head back to the bus and Michael informs us that the next stop is to a jade factory on the outskirts of Beijing. This will be followed by lunch and then our excursion to the Great Wall.

Crafting Jade.

Less than an hour later, the mountain ranges surrounding Beijing become visible and we all start to peer out the bus window looking for glimpses of the wall in the distance. I’m anxious to get there… it’s one of the main reasons I booked this trip, but the bus makes a right turn into the parking lot of the jade factory, and we shuffle off the bus and into the entryway of the factory. We’re greeted by a petite Chinese woman, who takes us through a small hallway, where we can see artisans creating jewelry and trinkets from the jade stone. We’re then taken into a small meeting room where we’re taught about the various types of Jade and the different qualities that exist.

Jade for the Chinese is the equivalent of diamonds to Americans. Jade is given as an engagement gift, often as a bangle bracelet, which is to be worn on the left hand as it’s closest to your heart. The stone is thought to have healing properties and bring good luck, and Jadeite – the most precious type of Jade is believed to bring good fortune. Well, I would hope so, seeing as when we’re shuffled out of the meeting room and into the showroom, I see the price tag on the jade bangle… a mere $795 !! I won’t be bringing any jade home! But we wait patiently while others do their shopping. In my mind, I’m thinking I could do another China trip for the price of that bracelet…

Lunch is in a restaurant off to the side of the showroom and is a slew of unmemorable dishes placed on a lazy susan. Katherine and I have taken to buying chocolate in the mornings and subsidizing the lunches, which pale in comparison to our breakfasts.

Juyong Pass

A look out tower along the Great Wall.

Finally, after the shopping spree and lunch, we’re off to the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall. This is one of the most visited sections of the Great Wall, a) because of its proximity to Beijing, and b) because it is home to one of the wall’s greatest passes and forts, Juyong.

Michael covers our admission costs and sets us free. We’re told to reconvene at the bus at 2:30, which gives us almost 2 hours to explore and trek. Katherine, the boys and I trek up to the top tower at our own paces, stopping to savor the views in all directions.

The Great Wall of China.

The Juyongguan section of the Great Wall

While we’re standing on a part of the wall that feels massive to us, we look off in the distance to see pieces of the wall that look like specs. I follow the wall as far as my eye can see, and it looks like a little pencil thin trail hugging the mountains off in the distance.

It’s difficult to find words that match hundreds of years of craftsmanship from 700BC… not to mention 8000 kilometers of it. It’s a marvel and it’s awe-inspiring.

We begin the trek back down and explore the small courtyards and pagodas near the pass before heading back to the bus.

Michael informs us that on the way back to the city, we will make a surprise stop at the Institute of Chinese Medicine, where everyone will get a free 30-minute foot massage. This pleases everyone who has just hiked for the last couple of hours, but Katherine and I look at each other, wondering what other scheme we’re in for. “Don’t worry,” Michael says. “You no pay, just give them tip of $2 if they do good job.”

The Chinese Medical Institute.

Himalayan herbs.

So, the tour bus makes a right turn into the medical institute and we’re shuffled off the bus, into a building and further into a room filled with over-sized pink cushy chairs. A man in a white coat gives a short presentation on the importance of Chinese medicine and the history of the institute, and then one by one, workers come in carrying buckets of hot water.

Himalayan foot soak.

They line up in front of all of us and dump sachets of Himalayan herbs into the water and instruct us to place our feet in the buckets. Then the doctors begin to make their rounds, looking at everyone’s hands, and giving out their diagnoses, all while the workers begin our promised 30-minute foot massage.

The foot massage ends up being about 10 minutes, and no one comes to read our palms. They seem to know who to go to, and after selling a couple of “regimens” at anywhere from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand dollars, it seems our time is up.

Free foot massages.

I stop one of the docs, who takes my pulse and says, “Ah, it seems you have low blood pressure.” Well, no shit,” I think!?! No one collects a tip for the massage, and we’re shuffled out and back on to the bus as quickly as we were shuffled in. Pictures of Obama and Clinton during their visits hang on the walls, as if to give the place a bit more credibility. And don’t get me wrong, I’m the daughter of a naturopath, and I buy into all this stuff, just not at the rate of $2,000.

I get back on the bus and ask English Nick, who likes a good beer, what his thoughts were on all of that. He looks at me and says, “Well, my livers done, but that’s nothing I didn’t know.”

Peking Duck dinner.

Now, we have been given the option of a Peking Duck dinner, and since this was mine and Katherine’s plan anyways, we decide to join the group, as we both know if we get back to the hotel, we’d have a hard time dragging ourselves back out.¬† We begin the long drive through Beijing’s rush hour and arrive at the restaurant almost 1 1/2 hours later. The dinner is overpriced and a little underwhelming, and we realize we could have done better on our own, but we’ve checked it off the Beijing to-do list.

We arrive back at the hotel and think back on the day. All we really wanted to see was the Great Wall, and since hindsight is 20/20, we’re realizing we should’ve just organized our own tour separate from the group. We’re starting to understand how this trip is going to play out though. And we’re thankful that the following day’s events are optional. We have a free morning in Beijing before moving on to Shanghai later in the afternoon…. TBC.