A mixed experience
20.11.2008 - 24.11.2008 5 °C
As the plane lowered towards Beijing our view from above reminded us of a real life version of the computer game Sim-City. The zones containing the buildings seemed to be exactly the same and unnaturally symmetrical. On the outskirts of town, there were large swathes of farmland with occasional small groupings of houses and grain stores. Further towards the city stood the low rise industrial buildings with chimneys belching smoke and the exposed pipeworks of processing plants, and further still high-rise residential and commercial blocks. It seemed as though the whole of the city was built higher upwards as it reached closer to the centre - almost like a stalagmite. The airport was pretty impressive, but then it had been completed a couple of months previously, in time to receive the expected participants and spectators of the Olympic games. We took a cab from the airport, and even the short walk to the hostel from where the cab dropped us off was quite an eye-opener. It was chilly but certainly not as cold as we'd been told it would be.
We arrived at our hostel and the staff were really friendly and their English was great. We found out later that this was something of a rarity, on both counts. We dumped our bags and went in search of some food. This turned out to be a lot harder than we had anticipated. We were looking for something, anything that seemed familiar, after all, doesn't every high street in the UK offer Chinese food? So we learnt pretty quickly that sweet and sour chicken, or crispy chili beef was not so readily available, added to the fact that nothing was in English and there were no picture menus. We ended up eating pizza and chips from a quirky, country and western styled cafe run by a wonderful girl called Lydia. Our hostel, 1Hai Inn, was in a hutong building, a residential structure built around a courtyard. On first glance it was a nice setting, it looked very traditional and seemed a good choice. However, to be honest it didn't look like the room had been cleaned since the last occupant vacated, or in fact since the last century. We realise that we're going to stay in some pretty dodgy places and hygiene standards are not going to live up to what we are used to, but we were given the impression by travel guides that Beijing is a fairly civilised modern city, and this hostel was the best rated in the area. It made our stay in the city more difficult as 'base camp' was hardly a home from home.
The promised cold awaited us the next day, and made it very difficult to get out of bed. We finally set off in the late morning to walk to the main train station to book our journey to Hong Kong which we had planned for the Wednesday, but by the time we reached the ticket office we had decided to catch the earlier train and leave on the Monday. We had got a bit lost enroute, wandered out of the tourist area and ended up walking through some excruciatingly poor areas, which were a total shock to the system. Again, this is something we totally accept will be part of our experience, we just weren't quite ready for it yet, and didn't expect it to this degree in the capital city of the country which is hailed as the new economic 'super power'. We wanted so badly to like the place; our research had been very flattering of the city and the people, but to be honest we just felt so unwelcome. The reports of the pollution were to us overstated. There was certainly a haze over everything, but it just seemed to be dust. After we booked our train we did feel a lot better and as we were so set on seeing the famous sights, we planned our short time in Beijing carefully. That evening we decided to visit a restaurant called Qu'an-jude, which was recommended in the Lonely Planet as being the place in which to experience the best Peking Duck in town, and promised kitsch surroundings. For once the Lonely Planet had it spot on. The restaurant occupied several floors of the building, which was bigger than most department stores back home, and as you entered the attendant at the front desk told you which floor to go to in the lift. As the lift doors opened a waitress with a headset was waiting and ushered us to our seat. We were a bit worried about the cost, given the outlandish decor, but actually it seemed pretty reasonable. We had soup, half a duck with all the trimmings and a couple of vegetable dishes. When the duck arrived, they very kindly gave us half the head, which was more gruesome than being given the whole head. It lay on a side plate half grinning at us as we ate. The waitress came and showed us the official method of eating duck pancakes, and we tucked in. Although it was very nice, and we really enjoyed our meal, we have to say that we still prefer it prepared the way we are accustomed to eating back home. We are discovering that we are more English than we would like to think. Our walk around the centre of the city that evening left us amazed at the sheer number of high rise, spectacular looking buildings springing up, especially after witnessing the unbelievable poverty earlier that day. The difference between rich and poor seems more of a gaping chasm rather than merely a divide.
Brads enjoying some Peking Duck at Qu'an-jude
The next day, after we dragged ourselves out of bed, we visited the Lama Temple. This is the largest Buddhist temple in Beijing, and had surprisingly survived the cultural revolution. It was very conveniently located less than a couple of minutes from our hostel and was very tranquil. We were very impressed - there were loads of intricately carved buildings housing numerous Buddhas, demons and guardians, but the highlight was the 18 metre Buddha carved out of a single piece of sandalwood, which certainly lived up to the hype bestowed upon it by the guide book.
Buddha inside the Lama Temple
That evening we used the subway to visit the Olympic sites. Most of the Subway was newly-built or renovated in time for the Olympics, so was very new and shiny. It was efficient and only cost 20p per journey, so after this we used it at every available opportunity. We were transported from a dusty, run-down, very poor residential suburb, to a brand spanking new, impressive, clean environment, and as it was Saturday night the place was packed - there still seemed to be scores of Chinese tourists coming to the area. The Birdsnest - the main athletics building, and The Water Cube - the swimming and diving arena, were both located here. A few hotels and not much else were in the vicinity. At one point we realised we were just milling about on a dual carriageway, that had been built to carry the traffic to the site, but now it was all over, we only saw two cars using it. The vast expanse of public funded nothing-ness with short lived use, reminded us of the Millennium Dome, but more worryingly, a similar group of structures springing up in East London in preparation for our own Olympic folly.
The Birdsnest Olympics athletics stadium
The Water Cube - the aquatic stadium
For dinner we thought we should try a street market and so another 40p well spent on our subway tickets and we soon surfaced in the centre of the city. Our guidebook promised a variety of food available, and we imagined, barbecue chicken and pork on sticks. How wrong we were. Crickets, live scorpions, lizards, rats, starfish, cicadas, intestines and other internal organs were all available on sticks from several stalls. There was a staggering variety of options, just none that we would want to eat. We settled for corn on the cob, some pastry balls, and toffee-coated strawberries, mainly because they obviously didn't contain meat. We ended up going to McDonalds for dinner.
Beijing Street Food
That evening, on our walk home, we met a student who sparked up conversation with us. At first we were on guard, as there is a well known con that takes place in Beijing, where a couple of students, usually girls, invite you to a cafe to drink tea so they can practise their English. When the bill arrives it is astronomical, both the students and the proprietor of the cafe being in on the scam together and taking a cut. This guy seemed genuine enough and we were quite happy to have a chat, and even though his invite of a drink seemed innocent enough, we declined to be on the safe side. His main topic of conversation was how rude and unfriendly Beijingers were. He was from Xi'an and we seriously regretted not going there instead. He spent a lot of time talking about his dislike for Beijingers. What ever the topic of conversation turned to, he brought it back to how rude and unfriendly they all seemed to be, compared to the rest of China. We really couldn't have agreed more. The lonely planet guide we had bought at the airport described Beijingers as having 'refreshing, unabashed curiosity'. We now realise this should be read as 'rude'. For the first day and a half we tried our best to keep smiling but as time wore on, the staring didn't stop and our attempts to be friendly failed. We tried everything, from smiling, to saying 'hi', to saying 'ni hao' (hello in mandarin), to simply staring back, but nothing abated the full on, and quite worrisome staring. We made lots of excuses for them, ranging from being down to a difference in culture; that they didn't have much to smile about; maybe it was us who was giving off unfriendly vibes or that as 1.5 million people had been displaced for the Olympics there was bound to be some sort of animosity. Whatever the reason, after meeting our student friend we could at least stop taking it so personally.
So, our final full day in Beijing started early and we headed out to catch a local bus to the Badaling part of The Great Wall of China. We knew that we could easily catch a 'tourist bus' but it was several times the price of the regular bus service. We felt very accomplished as we settled down on the bus and realised we were pretty much the only non-Chinese people aboard. Very soon a lady who acted as bus conductor and tour guide started talking into a headset, at rapid speed. Thankfully it turned out that one of the two ladies in the seats directly behind us couldn't speak Chinese and her friend was translating any important parts of the tour for her. This was a real blessing, as we would have assumed that a heap of important information was being imparted to the group due to the sheer pace and lack of pauses in her monologue. She talked for the entire journey, with both of us drifting in and out of sleep when we knew the lady behind us wasn't translating. We arrived at the Wall in good time and after a brief stop at the worst toilet on the planet, we set off to find the entrance. Once we had negotiated ourselves past the hundreds of tourist shops and strange food vendors, we chose to turn left once we were on the Wall and started our ascent. We knew Badaling was the best maintained part of the wall, and the part that most blogs and guide books recommended you avoided if you wanted a truer taste of the Wall. This gave us the impression that it would be a gentle incline, and we couldn't have been more wrong. It was surprisingly steep and actually required quite a lot of effort. We kept glancing back at the other side of the wall, and noticed that it was significantly busier. We suspect that the other side might not have been quite as steep, and so was the natural choice of the ladies wearing high-heels (a surprising number) and the grandparents. The Wall was certainly an experience and the surrounding views were quite breathtaking. The only smear on the view was the huge Olympic rings nestled into the surrounding mountains, and the slogan 'One World, One Dream'. Whilst all the Chinese tourists were making this their preferred backdrop to group pictures, we took great pains to leave it out. We made the choice to stop regularly to take it in rather than race on ahead. It was also bitterly cold, but as we were expending a lot of energy climbing, we were soon removing some of our numerous layers of clothes. In fairness, we didn't stay as long as we could have, but we felt that once you had seen half a mile of the Great Wall of China, well you've seen it all really. So, we headed back on the local bus, and were soon back in Beijing.
The Great Wall of China
That afternoon we took in the sites of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square was on the whole quite uneventful, but we appreciated the significance of the setting. We wondered how many of the surrounding Chinese tourists appreciated why this area was so famous in the West, and how many would have seen the famous photograph of the Chinese Student in front of the tank, an image that we had associated with China since we were children. There were lots of men in suits slowly strolling around, whom we suspected were secret police. We joked, quietly, that perhaps all of China's citizens had been signed up and spent much of their time furtively watching each other and reporting back to some shadowy organisation. It would be an understatement to use adjectives as 'huge' and 'impressive' to describe the Forbidden City. Even the concept of the ruling classes tucking themselves away in the amazing buildings whilst people were dying due to poverty less than 100 metres away, was inconceivable.
Inside The Forbidden City
The guidebooks advise spending a whole day there, visiting the numerous museums within the walls, but we found a couple of hours was enough for us. As we were leaving the guards were preparing to march to Tienanmen Square to lower the Chinese flag, a ceremony which happens precisely at sun-down each day. Unfortunately, we were just behind them as they left and were stopped from leaving whilst the ceremony proceeded. We were only held for half an hour at most, and during that time mused that perhaps the reigning dignitaries were as much unable to leave these city walls, as the surrounding people were able to enter them. However, we had no doubt who was better off.
The guards leaving The Forbidden Palace to drop the flag in Tienanmen Square
The Forbidden City front gate - with a huge portrait of Chairman Mao hung outside
That night, just before we left the centre of Beijing for the last time, we were approached by two young ladies. After a short chat, they asked if we would go and drink tea with them to practise their English. We had absolutely no doubt that this was the scam we had been warned about, as it had played out almost word for word. After turning them down, we walked away feeling quite chuffed that we had certainly been given the full Beijing experience. Plus we were starting to get offended that no one had approached us, wondering in true English fashion what was wrong with us and why they didn't want our money.
We weren't sad that we were leaving Beijing. We enjoyed the sights, and the staring was starting to seem quite comical. We put it down to experience and knew that we would no doubt look back on our time there with some degree of fondness.
After a few mornings of late rising, our early start on the day of our departure was particularly difficult, but we were spurred on by the fact that the following day we would be arriving in Hong Kong. Soon enough we were going through customs and boarding our train. We had managed to buy some food from the bakery the day before, but other than that we had neglected to bring any other food. Anna had suggested that we buy some pot noodles from the shop, suspecting that there would at least be hot water on board but as Brads was a bit dismissive of the idea, we never got round to it. There was hot water available through a tap on every carriage, and as Brads marvelled at Anna's correct assumption, she in turn wondered why she didn't have faith in her own speculations. The only thing we really had was a limited supply of PG tips so we ended up drinking plain black tea, which wasn't as bad as it sounds, and weirdly we felt quite sophisticated. With our last 30 Yuan we bought two lunches from the food carriage, which was better than expected, and for £1.50 each we couldn't complain. We had booked two beds in a four person cabin and as we waited to leave were anxious about our travelling partners. It couldn't have turned out better. Firstly they were a really nice couple called 'James' and 'Susan' - these were their English given names, and they had their young daughter with them. We had a very nice chat whilst waiting for the train to depart, at which point James disappeared for a bit, and when he returned announced that he had slipped the guard a few notes to take one of the unoccupied private cabins. As they had done this journey many times they knew it would be unlikely to be fully booked and this was a cheaper option than paying full fare for the luxury. We were certainly not complaining, having landed a private cabin at no extra cost. The train journey was something of an experience and we were so glad we chose that option over flying. There was less of a view than we had anticipated, in fact at one point we seemed to pass within metres of a nuclear power station, so we spent most of the journey watching the forth season of Lost and The Bourne Identity, before getting some sleep. We went to sleep in a cold and arid countryside, and woke up to sun and blue skies, quite a strange sensation. By the time we disembarked we had huge grins on our faces.
our cabin on the Beijing to Hong Kong train