Beijing is a marvelous city, there is an unending stream of things to see and places to be. It all costs a bit more than in the smaller cities around China, but then it is a modern first world metropolis of the first degree.
Chengdu to Beijing marks my first flight within China, the extreme population means that train tickets can be hard to come by, especially if like myself you leave things to the last-minute. Train tickets in China go on sale 10 days (most trains) before their departure, and these, especially the sleepers, sell out pretty quickly (check out seat61 for times and links to trains in China, very helpful site). So rather than stand on a train for 30+ hours, I decided to fly. $300 later (ouch), I was heading to the sea of people that is Beijing.
Beijing is estimated to have around 22 million people, around the same number as the whole of Australia, all in one city… The most surprising thing though, is how well a place with so many people manages to run. The streets are clean, more so than many places I have been in Australia. The subway network is fantastic, less cramped than London’s and it has air-con! The roads seem to run pretty well, traffic flows faster than Perth with its 2 million people, Only electric bikes are allowed in the cities, and so far the air has not felt as polluted as has been suggested. In fact, I have not had any issues with it whatsoever (although this could be because of my already smoke damaged lungs). I am sure, like all cities, it has its problem areas, but I have explored a number of places, and am nothing short of impressed with this marvelous rat race, and the cool, friendly people who inhabit it.
I don’t really do shopping, I do however enjoy wandering around shopping areas, I have no idea why, by the end of the day my feet hurt and I am inevitably empty-handed, but there is just something about it. Maybe it is the people watching, or the thought that I could buy something if I wanted to, or even that I might find that magical product that will be exactly what I always wanted. Whatever the reason, I decided on my first day alone in Beijing to head out to Xidan, a shopping area in the city, and peruse China’s capitalist side. Xidan is huge! Take one of Perth’s shopping malls, stick another 10 or so of them next to each other, and that is Xidan. I spent an entire day just walking around looking at stuff, watching the never-ending wave of people buying this, that, and “who the hell knows what that is”. It is a great place to find, well, anything.
In “Joy City” (a big mall thing in Xidan), I walked into a Sony event and got to witness first a break dancing show, and then, a group of girls, dressed in comic styled outfits, doing a, umm, well kinda cool/weird dance thingy. Obviously standing out in the crowd, I was approached and told I could have my photo taken with them “for free!”, gangsta, how could I not? The result is below…
Another awesome first for me, the worlds longest escalator! Here I was, just wandering around the shops, and BANG, there it is, the worlds longest escalator, and I have to admit, it is pretty long, maybe too long as suggested by its jerky movement up to the 6th floor.
After all this excitement it was time to eat! In Joy City there are 3 floors (well 2 and a halfish) of eateries. I walked past a poshish looking place and was almost overwhelmed by the amazing smells emanating from its skilled cooks, there was however a line of people waiting, so I headed down a floor and pulled up a seat at Burger King, although probably not as skilled as the cooks at the posh place, these burger emblazoned apron wearers were putting out some delicious smells, and I could not have been happier with my spicy whopper meal. As if things couldn’t get any better, they were playing a live Avril lavigne album to accompany the meal! (one of many guilty pleasures, I actually like her music). What a day…
The Forbidden City
There are many sites to see in and around Beijing, and after picking Sarah up from the airport, having a sleep, and then deciding to get right into the thick of things, me made our first site The Forbidden City, a huge walled “city” most often pulsating with local tourists. Although we only spent a couple of hours wandering its well laid out alleys and courtyards (it was hot as hell), it was interesting to envisage denizens of another time creating such a place, and the privileged few who would have walked its hallowed pathways. The most interesting part of a lot of these places is most definitely the people, they sprawl across every inch of anything worth looking at (and a lot of things which aren’t), taking photos of the most random things, and of course of the funny looking foreigners (I must be in so many Chinese photo albums by now, I can imagine someones great, great grandchildren looking through the family photos, and wondering at the funny looking bearded white guy holding bunny ears over great, great grandmothers head).
I would be remiss not to mention the ice-creams, I did not try one, but was fascinated to see boxes of them in the sun, still solid, without ice! I even witnessed a half eaten one lying on the ground, without melting! What sort of genius came up with an ice cream that doesn’t melt?! And why has his brilliance not been recorded for all the world to acknowledge?
We are staying in the Hutongs, old style lodgings left over in the middle of Beijing’s bustling modernity. These are marvelous to wander around themselves, and we have spent many hours doing so, stopping occasionally in an ultra modern cafe for ridiculously overpriced coffees, fumbling through conversations with excited Chinese youths, or eating mouth wateringly tasty Peking Duck in a posh restaurant alongside an inner city lake.
These areas offer the weary traveller an easy place to do very little, just walk around enjoying the sites. During one of these sojourns, after a crazy Chinese breakfast with our new friend (Youhow), we were approached by an older Chinese man carrying an enormous infant, just wanting a chat he began talking in a frenzy of what to me, are nonsensical noises, not really acknowledging the language barrier at all. Fortunately, Youhow jumped in and we managed to have a “sort of” chat, the old fellow gleamed with pride at the size of his grandson, 8 kilograms apparently, and although proud, he was struggling to hold onto the giant youngster, the hefty fellow slipping slowly towards the waiting ground, while grandfathers arms tired from the exertion.
Seemingly out of nowhere he commented on what a great nose I have! Growing up I disliked my nose, chagrined at its somewhat oversized nature. I have long since embraced its voluptuous contours, but was nonetheless delighted at the old fellows observation, if only I had grown up in China, I would have been the bell of the ball. I was sold on the old boy.
The Great Wall
A few days ago we visited the Great Wall of China, an obvious must do for any visitor, Chinese or foreigner alike. Our days in Beijing had been marked with wonderful weather, if a little warm. Blue skies and low humidity meant shady walks were great, and had this continued, the Wall would have offered up a spectacle equivalent to the thousands of pictures one sees spread across the tinternet.
Unfortunately the foggy smoggy stuff came in and the day of our “10km” hike (it wasnt 10km, and it wasnt a hike) offered a viewing distance measured in meters. Oh well, we were booked in, and so we went. The views were as expected, less than stunning, but we had the wall to ourselves, and a great group of people to explore it with. We joked around and climbed up and down old steps for a few hours, appreciating that at least we were on the wall, and then made our way back to the start, where a great lunch, and great conversation were shared by all.
More and more, travelling is becoming about the people, yeah the sites are cool, but the people make the sites more enjoyable, less like visiting a photograph and more like having an individual experience. The great wall was pretty great, but perhaps more so because of its unexpected inadequacies.
We are staying at Home Youth Hostel, it is only about a month old and is a great place to stay, it does however exhibit a number of teething problems. The staff are über friendly and always keen to say hello and have a chat (somewhat limited depending on the whole english thing), they are new to the hostels inner workings thing, which means a number of no knock, door opening, oh my God he is naked moments. More funny than annoying, until it happens a few more times and then it gets a bit annoying.
It aint no thang though, as I am sure they will figure it out, in fact, after walking into a room with a hairy white dude spread half-naked across the bed, I am willing to bet that that particular lesson is forever etched in the most vivid parts of their collective memories, and that the story will be told countless times, as a warning to the innocent and fragile minds of potential employees.
A few days ago (22/07/12), we happened to see the heaviest rains in Beijing for 6 decades, at the time they did appear pretty heavy, but not knowing what was normal in Beijing, we just huddled inside the awesome communal area, which is entirely glass, roof and all, and watched the storm unfold with no real concern, until the storm entered the building!
This I guess, was its first rain test, and it failed miserably. Water flowed in from the doorway, whose construction insured a direct path into the room, a few places in the ceiling sprung a leak and it was game on. The staff were onto it, but there wasn’t much they could do, water was caught in containers and swept back out the doorway, but the storm persisted and eventually the floor and anything on it was soggy. To their credit, the staff kept things somewhat manageable and had a laugh while doing it.
Despite the damage it may have caused throughout Beijing, it was nice to relax under this glass structure and watch the rains wash away the days heat. Once it calmed, we even went out for dinner and had a fantastic meal of sweet and sour pork, and pepper beef, one of the best meals I have had in China. Top this off with a few cakes from the bakery, a movie in the air-conned room, and it was a damn good day.
The day before leaving Beijing we visited the Confucius Temple, just a walk away from our hostel, it resides in a shady street which offers relief from the blistering sun and its sweat inducing rays. The temple is pleasant to stroll around, and informative about the man it was built for, and they sell funny, tasty yogurt drinks outside!
We could’nt help noticing the almost ridiculous similarities behind Confusias and Jesus, both had twelve disciples, wandered around their respective territories preaching, and had remarkably similar messages, sometimes almost word for word (barring translation), I wonder where Jesus got to in those formative years?
Our last day was another journey to Tianemen Square, a few photos for giggly locals, and out to Joy City for lunch and an unexpected display put on by Calvin Klein (Dancing girls played violin to dance music, and models performed bad catwalk maneuvers for the crowd of local people with camera phones snapping away). Then watching the roller bladers pull off ridiculous tricks in the attached park.
This hectic shopping area was a fitting finish to the hive of activity that was our time here. The city stands as a great example of modern China, an obvious statement, but one that makes a whole lot of sense once you have experienced it for yourself.