I arrived in China the night of May 28. Elaine, who had already been in Beijing for 10 days, had told me she would have a full schedule that day, and would not be able to meet me at the airport. No problem - I'd just take a cab, and had a Chinese colleague write out the hotel name just in case.

When I got through customs (which was surprisingly quick), I checked to see if Elaine was there to surprise me - just in case. No such luck. Double-checked. No Elaine. Someone offered to take me to the Jimen hotel for 100 yuan ($12). Sounded fairly reasonable (I knew it was a long trip), but I'd look around. Someone else offered to do it for 200. Another person for 400. I was looking more and more like a dumb, rich American.

I went with the 100 guy, not even bothering to look for any sort of "official" taxi service. On the walk down to the taxi, he said there would be some sort of 50-yuan additional charge. I said no. He didn't really understand me, and I figured this was a good chance to practice my Chinese. I got it back to 125, which I figured was too high, but I just wanted to get to the hotel, see Elaine, and get some sleep. I wasn't going to sweat over a couple bucks.

Turned out there was a streamlined operation: one guy who speaks a tiny bit of English to sell you, and then a (non-licensed) cab driver who doesn't speak any. That was good, though - he humored me by having a simple Chinese conversation with me, and I got to sample for myself the inelegant Beijing accent.

When I got to the hotel, I greeted Elaine. It turned out that she had indeed come to meet me at the airport, but had missed me. Sigh. She'd gotten there after I left. Sigh. She'd taken a much faster taxi, though, and still made it to the hotel before me. Sigh. And her taxi had been a legitimate, metered one which cost her only 70 kuai. Sigh.

The first real day of my trip was a little more exciting. We went for a run in the park, and the air was a lot less polluted than I expected. It wasn't a great run - we had to dodge people left and right, and realized that running is not a common pastime in China - but the environs for it were better than I thought they'd be. After a so-so breakfast at the hotel, Elaine and I cabbed over to the Forbidden City, to dutifully perform our role as ants in the giant tourist sand mound. I was, however, quite excited to see the imperial buildings first constructed in the fifteenth century.

First picture in China! Lots of tourists, and an amazing percentage of them are Chinese. I'm not trying to be facetious, here - at most major tourist spots I've been in the US, Thailand, Scandinavia, and Australia, I've seen a more substantial international contingent. But none of those countries have a billion people, and for a variety of reasons (language, infrastructure, openness), they're probably a bit more friendly toward foreigners.

I will only embarrass myself if I try to write down the names of the individual buildings.

Whew! Good thing the communists took over in 1949 to safeguard these buildings!

You have to love the flags denoting people's assigned tourist groups. Wouldn't want to accidentally do a little bit of independent exploring!

Ah yes, the umbrella - a great fashion statement in China. I suppose it's understandable if it's raining (it wasn't), or if it's really sunny (it also wasn't).

I think this is the difference between the view looking through the viewfinder and the actual digital view. Grrr...

Apparently this long pathway was used to carry the emperor to and from his palaces. He was the only person allowed to occupy the central part of the pathway. I can certainly see how a visitor - either a Chinese person or a foreign dignitary - would be pretty overwhelmed by his majesty.

I have a feeling someone is going to make me remove this picture.

Hopefully this gives a sense of the sheer size of the Forbidden City. Pretty intimidating, I'd say. Lxurious though it may be, it doesn't exactly evoke a sense of paradise.

This is still inside the Forbidden City. If it doesn't make you cry into your coffee...

Finally, in the back part of the Forbidden City, we found some real, live, plants. Some pretty cool rocks and trees, actually.

After we left the Forbidden City, we met back up with Dan. I should probably mention that Elaine was in China as part of a group of UVA aspiring architects, landscape architects, and architectural historians. Dan is a fellow first-year grad student studying landscape architecture. Over the course of the trip we traded many a sarcastic comment and Dan tried to humor my silly and/or naive questions about Chinese plantlife.

A church in Beijing. They are relatively uncommon.

Ah yes, China is definitely part of the world economy.

The first of many temples I saw, in Beijing and elsewhere.

The all-too common sight (and smell) of burning incense outside a Buddhist temple. I can't stand that stuff, but slowly got accustomed to bad smells in China. Between the cigarette smoke, the exhaust from cars, and the incense, that's something you need to do to survive.

At this temple, a whole bunch of kids were making watercolor paintings of the various attractions. It was mainly done in a coloring book style, but still cool to see. The highlight here, which I was prohibited from taking a picture of, was a huge Buddha sculpture inside a temple. The Buddha is 18 meters above ground, plus another eight below. That makes it (supposedly) the largest structure carved from a single tree. It's pretty impressive.

Cool spinning thing, at a slow shutter speed.

Elaine and I ventured out to Quan Ju De for dinner my first night. It's a small chain famous for its Peking Duck, and it's really good stuff. The dining arrangements are a little cramped (at least in this branch - supposedly the original), and we shared a table with two Japanese girls who communicated with the waitress using only kanji characters.

Tiananmen Square at night. The following week was the fifteenth anniversary of the massacre there, but we heard not a peep about it.

The square is basically a big, open space, surrounded by imposing state buildings. Definitely the most "communist" area I saw in China.

This was after Elaine had had like 18 beers.

More from Tiananmen...

The large row of red flags, at slow shutter speed for your viewing convenience.

Though it may seem like a surreal tourist paradise, Tiananmen Square does have to deal with the harsh realities of life.

The Mao-soleum. I don't think they actually call it that.

Communist party headquarters, I believe.

Me and the Chairman. Yeah, baby.

My second full day, we did a little more exploring around our hotel, which was not located near most of Beijing's tourist attractions. We also visited Elaine's friend's boyfriend, who was studying Chinese at a nearby university. We got some cafeteria food for lunch, which was ridiculously cheap, and actually seemed to be reasonably fresh (much better than Chinese fast food in the US). He mentioned that though communist propaganda had subsided, there was still an undercover "monitor" in every class, making sure that nothing subversive was going on.

Beijing is actually fairly spread out, though it maintains a reasonably high density throughout. In this sense, it's a lot more like L.A. than New York City.

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of trees around Beijing, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City excepted. They've obviously made a conscious effort to increase the amount of greenery. The highways have a fair amount of plantlife, and we found parks all over the place.

Indeed, the government felt the need to remind people about the greenery on billboards all over town. Personally, I think the city would be more beautified by adding a few additional trees than by putting up those billboards, but who am I to tell them how to do things?

Very common sight: tree propped up by a teepee like structure. Try and contain your excitement, please. Start hanging out with a bunch of architects, and eventually you'll be taking pictures like these too.

A construction site in the midst of Beijing. There is a ridiculous amount of construction going on in China. Seeing the horses made us feel transported into another world.

Open sidewalk. There are a decent number of these in Beijing, and certainly fewer in the other cities we saw.

This is in the more hip, westernized area near several universities. We were amused to see the name of this coffee shop. You'll notice, though, that the name isn't written in Chinese.

People making their way through lots of bikes. This could almost be Stanford!

A brilliant photographer, hard at work taking shots in a random park we found.

Scoping out the area...

I think this picture works better with Elaine in it.

China is rife with cool little gardens complete with rock structures and little meandering pathways. We'd see lots more in Suzhou.

More cool rock structures.

More from this park. This is the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial, which we were somewhat surprised to see. We'd thought only leaders since 1949 were worth noting. Note the seasonal palm trees. Beijing's average highs and lows in January are 35 and 15, so it's safe to say they aren't growing any palms.

Take the other people out of this picture, and I think you could have some highly symbolic scene in a movie. Not sure what the scene would be, but it would definitely evoke profound, deep emotion.

-- Note to producer: switch camera angle here.

I think there would have do be some dialogue before this scene.

These trees have lots of character.

Is this getting excessive? :)

Elaine got very excited about many of the archways we found. I just thought this made for an interesting picture.

Looking across the moat to the Forbidden City.

For some reason, many of the woodchips were dyed red.

A typical urban scene in Beijing. Not exactly a beautiful picture, but it should give some idea as to the general landscape: lots of buildings, bikes, cars, etc.

My third full day, I went off to the new Summer Palace myself. Elaine and company had been there the week before, and her professor strongly suggested that I go and check it out while a couple of architects were coming to give a lecture. I think it was a good idea: it is a pretty impressive area, and a real contrast to the Forbidden City in the middle of Beijing.

Nice to check out some open space, even though there were quite a few tourists.

This is the aptly named long corridor.

More rocks and more umbrellas. At least that day was actually sunny.

Screw the cultural relics. HELP PROTECT THE RAILINGS!

A more palatial part of the Summer Palace.

Being built right on a large lake allowed for some cool views, and some cool shapes/spaces around the water.

Climb up the hill, and you find fewer people, plus some interesting, less manicured structures.

From the hills, overlooking the main buildings of the Summer Palace and out into Beijing.

Lots of gazebos up in the hills. Makes sense: there are lots of nice views to be enjoyed.

This gives a little sense of Beijing's sprawl. The city doesn't really seem to have an obvious center, but it also seems tough to "get away" from population density in any meaningful way. A little smoggy here, I guess, but I felt Beijing's pollution wasn't nearly as bad as Bangkok's when I was there in 2001.

A short corridor.

An amazing amount of detail went into all of this palace, and the place is huge. It's certainly not all fully maintained today, even though the revenue flows in from dumb tourists like me. Makes me wonder what they did when it was actually in use.

Walking down the hill, looking out onto nearby mountains. I was excited to see the green mountains, as they aren't visible from most of Beijing.

This animal looks to me like a cross between a chipmunk and a squirrel. In any event, I'd never seen one before.

The temple.

A cute little canal with shops. These are perhaps the only shops in China that don't hound you to buy stuff. Why are these shops different from all other shops? Probably because they charge you to along that canal.

Looking up the stairs to the temple.

Overlooking the entire palace village.

Lots more palace shots...

The stage where performances were held for the emperor.

That night, Monday, we headed to the Beijing Train Station to take an overnight train to Suzhou. Due to excessive paranoia on the part of the organizer (I have definitely been guilty of the same, as those I coached on the squash team can attest), we had two hours to kill at the station. So I dragged Elaine with me to try and find some jiao-zi (dumplings) for which Beijing is famous. We wound up getting terrible service and lousy dumplings right next to the train station - but I did have lots of other good dumplings later on in the trip.

The train ride was surprisingly nice. Elaine's professor bought a number of first class ("soft sleeper") tickets, and we got two of them. After some manuevering, Elaine and I wound up sharing a fairly posh room with a Chinese couple about our age. The man insisted on buying us fruit (works on me!), and asked Elaine how she felt about Taiwanese independence. This not being the world's freeest society, she politely declined comment.