I was curious to see what Customs and Immigration would be like. In fact, it looked pretty much the same as in any country. The first room was a huge space with counters and extra forms off to one side. There was a bit of a challenge at this stage because our airplane had not had enough forms in English and there were none in the racks. Luckily, I had taken a form with the questions in Chinese and was able to find out a partially filled out English form in the trash. I read those questions and made my answers on the Chinese language form, hoping that the questions were the same!
The lines moved pretty quickly, luggage came nearly right away, and currency exchange was easy to find. We road by bus for an hour or so into Beijing. The highway looked like a major highway in Europe or the US. It appeared well-maintained, also had signs in Chinese and English, and had a landscaped border. I was surprised to see that license plates use "arabic" numerals rather than the Chinese characters.
Our hotel, the Grand Hyatt Beijing would be a five star hotel anywhere. Some
noticeable differences between this level of US and Chinese hotel were the significantly higher number of staff (presumably due to the lower cost of labor but equivalent room rates) and the broader range of food choices (I was very happy with mis-matched dim sum, tea egg, and bacon breakfasts). It is located within a short walk of the Forbidden City and Tienamen Square and is just around the corner from the deluxe shopping of Wangfujing.
I did have a chance to do a little shopping and discovered another significant difference between the US and China. In China, clerks show you goods and then hold them after you make your selection. They give you a mult-carbon slip to take to a cashier. After you pay, you bring the receipt back to the clerk, who gives you a wrapped package. Although I wondered if there would be any bait-and-switch problems, I had none and heard of none. In Beijing, I bought the obligatory Beijing Olympics souvenirs, a Yixing teapot and many yards of traditional silk (from a company I today discovered has been in business for 120 years) for a quilt I'll make someday. I admit that much of the reason for shopping was simply to try out the small Chinese vocabulary I'd learned before traveling. Although I'm sure my tones were not always correct, most Chinese were able to figure out what I was saying and were quite good natured about helping me muddle through.
Some of the other joys of Beijing were: the discovery that a small ivory turtle-dragon I've owned for years is a Chinese mythical symbol for longevity (I saw this one at the Forbidden City); the surprised faces and giggling whispers of groups of old men whom I greeted with "ni hao" or "zao"; the street performance of a group of waitresses who appeared to be soliciting customers; the barbeque delicacy of scorpions on a stick; and the man who wiggled his girlfriend's foot at me in a universal explanation for why he was carrying her on his back.
I had the opportunity to take quite a few walks in the city, generally in the early morning hours. My favorite walks were through the long garden to the east of the Forbidden City and in the park surrounding the Temple of Heaven. The former is behind a high brick wall that runs along the street (Dongchang'an Jie) and I think most visitors miss it. It's a peaceful traditional garden with a meandering brook, arched bridges, a water lily pond, and large scholars stones. What I'll remember most about the Temple of Heaven is the primal yells in the early morning fog, known as kiap or ki-hop and used to focus the chi while performing tai chi. To me, it was reminiscent of the coyote calls at home.