This dissection of Beijing is a bit late, but better late then never. In October 7th to 12th we (me, Patrick, Jeffrey, Anne, Craigh and Ben) undertook a fateful and predestined journey to the center of the Middle Kingdom – Beijing. Before the journey a vivid discussion of traveling or not traveling had taken place (read more at Dare or not dare, that is the question).
However, our group of six challenged our mid terms and went out on a prolonged weekend trip. We flew using China Southern and the flight was relatively cheap (in the whereabouts of 1700 HKD including return). Nothing to complain on there (as usual the in-flight food was delicious). We arrived at a clearly communistic airport and got a cab. They have dozens of taxis just lining up while uniformed taxi officers (looked more like the 1st Taxi Infantry Regiment) shout and wave. Going in to Beijing from the quite remote airport was an eye opener – a large, mostly empty and new motorway, with English and Chinese signs everywhere and enormous ads – a clear sign of capitalism winning the battle.
Our hotel showed to be somewhat problematic to find. We quickly found out that English was as well spoken as Latin in Beijing, that is not at all, not even an English name of a hotel was understood. We had a number though and got the taxi driver to call to the hotel for directions (a trick which we used more times to get right – the chinese address card we later got from the hotel didn’t always seem to help much). Out hotel was really nice though, especially considering we only payed about 90 RMB per person and night. Worth noticing here is that only me and Patrick went to this hotel – the others stayed in a backpacker hostel close to the city center.
And now, I’m going to stop being chronological and just tell you about the places we visited (and skip the boring parts).
Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Tiananmen Square is big, but not extremely big. I had actually imagined it slightly bigger. It was filled with chinese tourists, many of them uniformed military guys on leave – we guessed that they get the trips for free to see Beijing, because there were a lot of them. We of course checked out the normal guards, and made sure to be photographed in front of Mao – like millions and millions of chinese have done.
The Forbidden City was nice, but in the end, it’s just a big temple with very few displays. It was nice to see, but I couldn’t really be that impressed. We continued onto a hill behind the Forbidden City with a lookout tower and temple and realized just how flat and big Beijing is. The sky was incredibly clear, and for a second we thought that the smog of Beijing was just rumours. However, we found that every other day in Beijing was just as smoggy as ever, we just had a great luck that special day.
From the hill we continued through a park and down into the picturesque old parts of the city. We sat down at a small restaurant run by a family and actually managed to order quite decent food using our the mini-dictionary in the Lonely Planet. The wife of the family seemed to be the boss and did most work, while her husband kept persuading us of the joys of going by rickshaw. And there where rickshaws alright, in every corner. We started with a firm “no” and finished on a weak “yes” with a unclear price and tour plan. In spite of our hesitations the rickshaw tour was wel worth the money – the drivers where nice guys (our driver seemed to be older than Mao himself (yes, I know Mao is dead)) and we saw all kinds of narrow alleys, small parks, backyards and shopping streets. On the way we bought some small souverneirs to make the trip complete.
Cycling through Beijing
This, after the Great Wall, the most memorable experience of Beijing. We did what probably more than a million Beijingers do each day – take the bike through miles and miles of broad avenues, chaotic traffic and clouds of smog, on the way passing by incredibly old people dragging wheelbarrows, street crossing officers in love with their whistles, bakeries, merchants of all kinds, construction sites, slum and gigantic office blocks.
We rented the bikes for something like 10-20 RMB for one day. The quality of the bikes was… questionable (they kept loosing parts on the way so we finally had to stop by one of those bicycle repairmen that are all over the place and get it fixed – and almost paying nothing for the effort). Our goal was the summer residence of the emperor, which was surrounded by Lake Kunming and a big park. Navigating there was challenging but not impossible. We thought it wouldn’t be a very long way but the trip took far more than an hour and people got quite tired.
The summer residence was similar to the Forbidden City, and my reactions to it as well. Instead of looking at temples all day we chose to take a pedal boat tour of the lake – with us at the pedals of course. More excersise for the legs but a really nice thing to do in the sun. And finally, we went cycling all the way back and managed to get lost in a few places until getting right. We were the only western people on bikes I saw that day, and believe me, the statistical sample big enough – Beijing is crammed with people going by bike. The traffic situation is in itself one of the biggest experiences of the trip and a certain must-do for any serious Beijing travelers.
The Great Wall
The best experience of the whole trip, although leaving a certain bitter taste in the mouth (I’ll soon return to that). First problem we encountered were getting there. The guide books spoke of a bus going from a certain area. But that area seemed to be an enourmous block, with lots of buses, lots of signs in Chinese and lots of confusion. However, we were lucky enough to being manically followed by a chinese guy in a Maoistic red sweater who, without knowing a word English, kept trying to give us a ride to the Great Wall. We have to thank him for being so persistent, because finally we accepted his offer (totalling 300 RMB for driving us five persons to the Great Wall and picking us up later the same day and back to Beijing – that’s just insultingly cheap).
And we crammed into that cute little minibus and went for the trip of our life. We couldn’t know then what we had accepted. To put it firmly – this guy was an expert driver. And an expert risk taker. And an expert on using the signal horn. And an expert on shouting on the phone. And an expert on finding some extra time to cuddle with his wife – who also joined the trip. Basically, he was driving at insane speeds, in the wrong lane more often than not, not swerving unnecessarily for any danger, might it be a big cement truck or a tree and using his signal horn so much it still echoes in my ears. The traffic principle was probably based on the complicated theories of “Chicken Race” – the man with the least courage and the quietest signal horn will have to swerve. And although we saw death in the eye many times, we survived. And to be honest – I loved the excitement 😉
We finally got to the Great Wall and started our hike after buying a somewhat touristically priced ticket. We were glad to find out that we were almost alone on the wall. Until half an hour later, when a band of female mongolian farmers found us. They were very friendly and asked us in surprisingly good English where we came from, and they introduced themselves. Soon we realized that their plan was to go with us as self-appointed guides. We knew this wouldn’t be done for free, but we couldn’t do much to accept and enjoy the company – they were nice after all. What many people don’t realize – the Great Wall is definately not a Sunday walk, at least not the part we walked. And the wall isn’t very restaurated either. Parts of the hike consisted of climbing on a meter wide wall with cliffs on both sides. Falling was not an option. And it was one of the most tiring hikes I’ve done.
Now, the worst part of the wall. When we could see our goal in the distance two “guards” stopped us right in front of a tower, with cliffs on both sides. What? They want tickets? Sure, show them. No? New tickets? Why? This is another part of the Wall? How much? 70 again!? We don’t want to pay, nobody informed us. Go back? What the hell! … you get the idea. It got quite tense, with parts of our group trying to force their way through this improvised ticket office, and more “guards” suddenly appearing with a threatening look in their face. We finally payed the tickets – just to be able to exit the wall in another place than where we entered it. All soon-to-be Great Wall travelers – bring enough money for a couple of fees on the wall. While you are up on the wall, you can’t really do much else than paying the “officials”. Unless you are a Chinese policeman. It all ended with the mongolian farmers (strangely not very busy with farming) wanting to sell us the whole range of merchandies – gift books, post cards etc. When we declined, they started talking about their starving families. Our mood fell another step but we bought something from our guides because of them being very, very persistent. That’s the thing about China – everybody is selling you something.
Finally a video of us biking through Beijing. Enjoy!