ANCIENT PEKING MEETS MODERN BEIJING
I was off to Beijing!
A budget airline carrier had a special of just $150 Australian for a return flight, and with value like that how could I pass up such an opportunity? To be blunt, China never held much appeal for me, but after just a week there, my mind was changed, I was blown away. Beijing was a wonderful city, steeped in history and I loved the time spent there. Beijing would have to be close to the top of all the Asian cities I had visited. I was not aware at the sheer amount of history the city holds. If you know me, you know I like old things and history and that was the main reason I had a fantastic time. I was in awe as I wandered around the Forbidden City, an ancient city of the Emperors that was centuries old, built in 1420 B.C. I also saw relics that were older than the time of Christ including vases, bowls and sculptures from the 11th century B.C.
Shang Dynasty (c 16th – 11th century B.C) Vessel
The trip to fly there was smooth enough; the only hiccup being security confiscated my spray on deodorant. I had flown many times before with it in carry-on luggage, but these guys didn’t like it. I let them have it, no use arguing. I was travelling light and had just the bare basics and my back pack was about 6 kilograms. This made for an easy exit from the airport in Beijing. The customs official stamped my pass and I was on my way. I laughed to myself that I could rate the customs officer’s performance. After we were finished a keypad lit up and I had four buttons to choose from, he could have smiled more, but I still gave him the best rating anyway.
Chinese Immigration Inspection
It was after midnight and the and the subway closed at 11:30PM. I withdrew some money and went in search of a taxi. The taxi stand seemed to be organised, with a marshal putting people in the next cab. I got in the one at the front of the line. I knew there would be some language barriers, so I had come prepared with a few maps printed off to show him where I was going. The names of the places were in English and also in Chinese. But he seemed to not know where to go. I pointed at Dongsi railway station, which was near the hotel, he then asked for 200 Yuan to take me there, which was about double what it should have been (pays to research). It seems that taxi drivers are the same all over the world. I didn’t budge and said I would only pay 100, he didn’t accept, so I got out and got into the one behind him. The second driver was fine, I showed him the place and he nodded. He then asked if I wanted the meter and I said yes. He would not let me put on my seat belt which was weird. I attempted a few times and he kept on stopping me so I gave up. As we rocketed down the nearly deserted freeway at 130 km/h, I should have stuck to my guns and just put it on. All was good however and I arrived at the hostel in about half an hour. The fare was 90 Yuan ($15) he was better than the first guy so I gave him 100 Yuan and told him to keep the change.
I stayed in a hostel for the first time in Asia. I still had my own room though and could not tell the difference between a cheap hotel and this hostel, other than it offered 4 bed dorms to some. The hostel was a win in my book. The staff spoke English and were eager to help. The place had a little bar area that had different activities each night. One night after a day of sightseeing a staff member knocked on my door and advised there was a free family party. I headed down and got to talking to two English teachers from a town in southern China. We chatted while we made these little dumpling types of food. It looked like tabbouleh we were folding into the pastry, but was told it was a combination of egg and some other vegetables. The staff then took them away and steamed them for us. We then ate what we had just created while we drank beer and talked about China, swapping stories. Meeting other travellers or locals is always great way to learn about where to go and what to see.
The hostel was also able to book tours for me. A friend had recommended a section of the Great Wall called Jin Shang Ling, however the hostel only offered tours to two sections of the wall, and I chose Mutianyu , as I had read about it from another travel blogger prior to leaving and looked nice and had an old, unrestored section. It cost 280 Yuan ($50), which included breakfast, transport, lunch and the entry fee.
I arrived on the red eye flight and got to the hostel about 2 AM, and had planned to have the first day as an orientation day to get my bearings and go exploring. When I awoke at about 9, I set off. The hostel was very close to the Forbidden City. I had 3 things I needed to do; find a pre paid SIM card, find some deodorant and have some breakfast.
When I saw a big ‘China Mobile’ shop I thought I had sorted out the SIM card, however it would not be that easy. I had a choice of phone numbers, and the cheapest was 380 Yuan, ($65) The Chinese are very superstitious about
numbers and that is why it was more expensive for some. Numbers with an 8 in them were more expensive than ones with a 4 in them. I didn’t care about the number and again explained I just wanted a pre paid in case they misunderstood me and they assured me these were pre paid. I only wanted it for data and asked if any was included for this price. The sales people looked at each other, then explained that these were only 2G SIM cards and if I wanted a 3G it would be 650 Yuan ($115) I smiled and thanked them, but it was way too expensive. Most destinations charge $2 for a SIM or even give them to you, but since I had free Wi-Fi at the hostel, I wasn’t going to be spending $100 for a week just so I could check in on Facebook. Finding a SIM card – Fail.
I had to try Peking Duck in Peking
Finding food was easy, however finding deodorant proved to be a challenge, but after finding a convenience store I thought I had succeeded, I found what I thought was the right section of toiletries and the like, but no go. I made some spraying sounds while miming the actions under my arms, and the clerk told me he didn’t have any. Giving up, I started to look in the fridge, but he took my by the arm and said ‘you leave now’ at first I thought he was kicking me out, but he took me out the front and into the store next door and he explained to them what I was after. The store looked more like what I was after, a sort of chemist with lots of white lights and perfumes. I thought he was being rude, but he was helping me. Like most places in the world, spray deodorant was expensive, but found some Nivea roll on for 10 Yuan ($1.80) I picked the deodorant on the way home, after a day of walking around the Forbidden City in 35 plus degree weather. I did not envy the people in the train on the way home. I must have stunk!
I used the subway to get around most of the time
The subway is very easy to negotiate, and I used it as a way to get around the city for days. It is great value at just 2 Yuan (35 cents) for a trip to anywhere in the city. I printed off a map before going and it was extremely useful. There are maps everywhere on the stations too, but it saved me time looking up the next stations I was going too while on the train. There are many different train lines that intersect, so to get to your destination, it might mean changing trains three or four times. The stations are well sign posted in English, as well as little maps above the train doors with lights to tell you where you are and where you are going. I even caught the subway to the airport when leaving, a bargain at just 25 Yuan. ($4.50)
Download and print your Beijing subway map here
It is easy to know when to get off the train with these light maps. Don't worry it was written in English as well.
Beijing is a very well organised city, probably had something to do with the Olympics just 5 years ago. The people are friendly and eager to help. It still amazes me that when people discover I cannot speak Mandarin, they will continue to explain things to me. I guess they have no other means by which to communicate, and they hope that at least some of what they are saying would rub of. I know I made a few people frustrated, just by the way they looked at me when I did not respond to them. Travelling solo in the city and only speaking English was not really as difficult as I had imagined with most of the time as things were also posted in English. Beijing is a very clean city, and the people are very polite. On numerous occasions I saw someone give up their seat to a person in more need of it than themselves. There are lots of public toilets which is handy, although don’t expect them to have toilet paper or sit down bowls, with squat toilets being the norm. It is a very efficient city, with most things done with an almost military fashion, although don’t expect people to wait in line some of the time, with queue jumping being quite common.
The famous tea scam is alive and well, especially in Tiananmen Square. On three occasions I was approached by these would be thieves. For those that do not know it is where well-spoken locals be-friend you, then invite you to have some tea with them. You sit down, enjoy the tea, then the bill is brought out which can be several hundred dollars, and you are expected to pay. Once you know about the ruse, it is quite obvious as the approach seems a bit out of place for this these usually reserved people. One group of three girls in their early twenties approached me out of the blue and started asking me many questions, such as where I was from, where I was going, how long I have been there etc. Then they asked if I want to go for some tea. They even changed it up a bit asking if I wanted a coffee on one occasion. I politely declined and continued on my way, however numerous foreigners have been stung.
There are quite a number of things to do whilst in Beijing. Of course home to the Great Wall, I also spent time wandering around the Summer Palace, The Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden Palace and the National Museum of China. I also made the 1200 kilometre journey via the bullet train to the city of Xi’An to see the Terracotta Warriors.