Scene from across the street, taken from our hotel entrance. The big building in yellow is a karaoke centre. Raucous singing could be heard until the wee hours.
Picture from Day Two, taken in the gardens of the Imperial Palace. The tall guy on the right, clad in dark jacket and light-coloured sneakers, was our soft-spoken, courteous guide Lu Qiang.
Ann & Awwa hamming it up for the camera.
Paraphernalia for tea making.
The girls' hotel room. On the bed was Ann, knocked out cold from all the walking.
Lunch came and went in double-quick time. We were always hungry!
Chicken kebab that was part of our last dinner in Beijing. Dishes served in this particular place were rather spicy, which was unusual compared to all the other Muslim cuisine restaurants we had been to. In all, we were taken to seven different restaurants. The types of dishes didn't vary much; it was the piquancy that differed.
Collection box for 'sadaqah' (alms) at a Beijing mosque where we stopped to have our solat.
Hostess with the mostest at Dr Tea Teahouse.
Abu's Angels at Dr Tea Teahouse.
The Bird Nest Stadium makes a good backdrop.
"Halal" certification in a Chinese Muslim restaurant.
Looked like Starbucks and the frothy cappuccino even tasted like the one served at Starbucks but hey...... it's Ley Mo Coffee. Pak Abu and I chanced upon this little cafe, a few metres up the road from Hongqiao Market, when we decided to check out if there were shops selling Mandarin karaoke CDs nearby. As it were, there was a small store but none of the CDs had Hanyu Pin Yin (Romanised Chinese), and I don't read Mandarin.. :(
All these years and I never knew my daughter Nawwar could bargain like an old pro while shopping. It took a trip to 'haggler's heaven' Beijing to know she has indeed inherited her grandmother's enviable haggling skills.
'Tok' (grandma) was known to wear salespeople down. As her frequent shopping companion-cum-basket carrier in days of yore when I was her daughter-in-law, there were times when I had wished for the earth to open up and swallow me whole.
This usually happened when she started haranguing hapless salesgirls into giving in. She never backed down nor took no for an answer. For the record, she won each time.
On the other hand, my other daughter, Ann, was a carbon copy of yours truly in traits and personality. Neither of us had the ability, zest or staying power to argue with aggressive salespeople.
We were inclined to either cave in or beat a hasty retreat. Worse, while retreating, we would be racked by feelings of guilt for depriving them of business.
Day Four was the designated "Shop Till You Drop" Day in our packed itinerary. Pak Abu's darkening brows notwithstanding, we were not going to waste a single minute of it. After all, by this time the following morning, we would already be on the flight home.
But first we had to find an ATM machine for our yuan was depleting fast and neither Pak Abu nor I had the foresight to bring enough ringgit with us. Again we had underestimated Beijing's lure, when we naively thought the yuan we had brought from home would suffice.
Credit card is history to Pak Abu and I for we had weaned off them long ago. Only the girls carried them. I swore off them when my consultancy went under during the 1997 financial crash, while Pak Abu made the same decision when he went into voluntary retirement a year later, in 1998.
In Beijing, the debit card was our preferred choice while hard cash was the best as far as shopping went. Unfortunately, we had issues with the debit card each time it was presented for payment, and this drove an irate Pak Abu stomping into Maybank's representative office in downtown Beijing for an explanation.
Pak Abu took it as the gospel truth when he was told, upon collecting his debit card from Maybank two years ago, that he could use it anywhere in the world from thereon without any hassle.
Well, we only managed to use the card once in Beijing. Calls to KL for clarification went unanswered. An e-mail sent to Maybank enquiring the same was only answered a day after we returned home (pull up your customer service socks, Maybank!)
I had, however, guessed correctly that Pak Abu should have alerted the bank of his overseas travel intention (this very explanation was relayed to him when he finally got through to KL from the Beijing office). The way I look at it, what the bank had said two years before has no bearing on what it says or does today.
I understood only too well why the bank (or any financial institution for that matter) was being extra-cautious when dealing with transactions by its clients and customers abroad. They were just covering their arse should anything untoward happened.
Still it did not excuse their unavailability when we needed them the most. What good is a hotline on the card if no one attends to it 24/7? We only got through after two days of trying and a frantic search for the bank's Beijing address on the Internet. All these had vexed us somewhat but the feeling, thankfully, didn't last very long.
As it were, cash was king; an ATM machine was duly located on the ground floor of the skyscraper that housed Maybank's office. While Pak Abu and Ann went to stock up on cash, Awwa and I stepped into a nearby Starbucks for frappuchino and hot chocolate.
Wallet and purses well-padded once again, we swung merrily to face the biggest challenge in our Beijing vacation - how to shop without turning into a pauper overnight.
But first, to the 'must-visit' places. These were destinations pre-determined by the Chinese government for all tourists visiting China. They were mostly state-run centres or shops for silk, jade and precious stones, tea and herbal products, cultural attractions and the like.
We had covered most of the customary ones like centres for silk, jade, cloisonne, pearl, crystals and herbs. This morning it was to a tea house, a centre specialising in traditional treatment for burns and scalds, and a jewellery shop across the multi-carriageway from the Beijing Olympic Village.
The Beijing National Stadium, colloquially known as the "Bird Nest Stadium" for its unique design, was indeed an imposing edifice. Built to accommodate the 2008 Summer Olympics, the US$423 million stadium ranked as the world's biggest steel structure.
Onwards to the jewellery store nearby we marched, although our collective minds were already dwelling on the bazaars and the shopping malls to come. Still, purchases of pale jade bracelets and a matching necklace were duly made, because ... gee, I don't know.. but the lady manager was pretty nice to us.. (I'm running out of excuses, truly).
Dr Tea, a well-known teahouse where hostesses prepared different types of tea and led one through the history of tea and an interesting session of continuous sipping, slurping and lip smacking, came next.
Because we are a family of tea-lovers, it was no surprise that we gladly spent a fair bit here; jasmine tea, aromatic and strong; litchi tea, my favourite for its strange piquancy; and golden green tea for Pak Abu who habitually drinks Japanese green tea at home.
Our last stop before lunch was Beijing Bao Shu Chinese Herbal Medicine Co., formulator of the well-known 'baofuling', the compound camphor cream mainly used in the treatment of burns and scalds.
It was here that we got acquainted with 'bianshi', the energy-giving bian stone that pre-dates acupuncture in Chinese traditional healing. Bian stone therapy is one of the more popular, non-invasive medicinal treatments in China today.
Lunch was good but we couldn't wait to get back on the streets to shop. Our Malaysian tour agent's itinerary provided three options; Russian Bazaar, Wangfujing Street Market and Yue Xiu Market.
But for our last hurrah we decided upon Hongqiao Market, commonly known as Pearl Market; a misnomer really, because only a small fraction of this market dealt with pearls.
This multi-level shopping mall had everything from clothes to handbags, hats to shoes, household items to electronic products of every conceivable kind, accessories, trinkets, souvenirs, silk and other fabrics, carpet shops and 24-hour tailoring service, antiques real and fake, toys and all kinds of gadgetry.
It was chaotic and noisy in there, like Ampang Complex, Ampang Mall, Sg Wang Plaza, Pertama Complex and Subang Parade combined. It was the heaven for fake products and the abode of aggressive salesgirls, the kind who who run after you.
A well-made but fake Pr*d* handbag was priced at 850 yuan (abt RM400). I took a fancy to it but absolutely refused to go beyond 100 yuan (abt RM50). The salesgirl gave me an exasperated look, muttering "You madam tough! You madam tough!"
I glared back, pointing to Pak Abu and saying "And this is Mr Tough!" While Pak Abu was trying out his newly acquired 'Mr Tough' look, the girl finally backed down and I got my Pr*d* for RM50!
At another stall, Awwa was haggling over a pair of cute flannel pyjama bottom, from 120 yuan to 40 yuan. The salesgirl shouted, "You, you crazy!" The usually unflappable Awwa roared back, "You are crazier! Why would I want to pay RM60 for one pyjama bottom??" The girl gave up; Awwa got it for RM20.
I noticed that Caucasian tourists had it worse. I guess it was because, unlike Asians, haggling wasn't quite the 'white man' thing. Also, when compared to their Euros and US dollars, everything priced in yuan seemed ridiculously low that they had no qualms forking out the asking prices.
We chanced upon a stall manned by a Malay-speaking Chinese girl. Her Bahasa would put videographer-turned-politician Gwo Burn to shame, believe me. Her lilt was charming enough for us to give her a fair bit of business that afternoon.
She had never been to Malaysia but had friends who had studied in Malaysia, from whom she learned to speak Malay, said she. She also picked up Bahasa from Malaysian tourists, she added.
We returned to the hotel at 3pm to rest awhile before going out again at 7pm for dinner, after which we took a stroll along the street where the hotel was, just to see what the stores and the shops had to offer.
Awwa put her bargaining skills to good use once again in one of the shops when she haggled the price of a cashmere long scarf from 280 yuan (abt RM140) down to 50 yuan (RM25).
By the way, there was no snowfall the whole day. Instead freezing north winds blew continuously, from dawn to dusk. We finally called it a day around 10pm.
Day Five saw us awakened from our deep slumber by the hotel wake-up service at 4.30am. We left for the airport an hour later to catch our 9am flight home.
Since the hotel's coffeehouse only started operating at 6am, the staff had thoughtfully packed our breakfast to go. It was a sweet gesture on their part, for which we were truly touched.
As we bid goodbye to our driver Jiang and guide Lu Qiang, I resolved to come to China again some day, to see more of Beijing and to travel further north to the Muslim provinces and the autonomous regions.
If there is one thing I had learned from this trip, it was that we should leave our prejudices, no matter how deep-seated, at home when we travel.
China is a vast country of more than a billion people. For every horror story that I had heard from fellow Malaysians about travelling in China, there were ten heartwarming ones that we had experienced personally, ones that would forever remain etched in our hearts.