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Beijing day 1: Dumplings and a happy alley accident

After an early morning flight Tuesday, I reached Beijing midday. I'd had some phone troubles in Tokyo, but fortunately my free roaming data worked immediately, so I could text Mom with questions.

I only had about $20 in Japanese yen on me, but once I exchanged it for Chinese yuan, I learned prices here are quite cheap. A bottle of water -- at the airport!! -- costs 2 yuan, about 33 cents. My hour-long bus ride from the airport to our homestay cost 30 yuan, about $5.

I noticed the haze in the air almost immediately. Coming down the steps from the plane onto the tarmac, it muted the colors and subtly softened the edges of a nearby hangar. I coughed a couple times on the bus ride, though I've been completely healthy this trip, but fortunately haven't had any headaches from the air.

 Beijing haze outside my bus window.

Beijing haze outside my bus window.

Once I met up with Mom and Dad, we had lunch at a restaurant near the homestay that our host recommended. Dad had to get some help finding the place, but his Mandarin is good enough that, during a later Starbucks stop, he realized the staff had written his name on our cups as "Mr. Foreigner."

Lunch and an errand finished, we took the subway to the Olympic sports venue. Beijing seems to have a simpler train system than Tokyo, but here, too, you might have to transfer three times to reach your destination. A couple times already, I've missed the Tokyo system's guides for where to stand, based on your transfer plans.

Unlike Tokyo, you have to go through security each time you enter the system, but the bag-scan goes so quickly they must hardly glance at the screen. The Beijing train system appears to be one of the newest I've used, with gates along every platform to protect people from falling onto the tracks. The gates only open when a train is boarding.

From the Olympic stadium, we rode the train south to a dumpling place I found via Google search. Without knowing it, I'd found a place in a neighbourhood known for its many hutongs or alleyways. Just steps outside, we knew we were in an interesting neighborhood. Pedestrians shared the sidewalk with bicycles and street sellers of various wares. A block later, we came to a three-way intersection over which a large building loomed. (I later learned it's the Drum Tower.)

 A street vendor near the Drum Tower.

A street vendor near the Drum Tower.

After 10 minutes' walk through dimly lit hutongs, which utterly charmed us, we reached the restaurant. From our route, we seemed in the heart of locals' Beijing, but inside we found only foreigners, except for the kitchen and wait staff. The walls' many handwritten notes gave further evidence of the place's appeal with travelers. We made an excellent dinner, sharing pork, beef, vegetable and even banana-chocolate dumplings -- a great first night in Beijing.

 Visitors tend to leave their mark on Mr. Shi's Dumplings.

Visitors tend to leave their mark on Mr. Shi's Dumplings.