Published: May 4th 2008April 25th 2008
On to the great big city of Beijing...we took a sleeper train from Bautoa to Beijing which was about 13 hours. They didn't have any soft sleepers available so we got hard sleepers, not totally sure how different they would be. The setup was pretty compact with 6 bunks in each little area - three stacked on each side. I got a top bunk and Trevor got a middle bunk. While it was a little tight getting set up and comfortable but, it wasn't that bad for sleeping and they provided bedding, although there wasn't much extra room for personal items in the bunks (and we didn't want to keep our valuable stuff like passports and money and stuff in the general racks).
Once in Beijing, we made our way from the Beijing West train station to the metro and quickly discovered this is a great way to get around the city. We found a hostel to stay in, although the price was much higher than we had hoped for and found this to be true in many of the places we checked. After getting settled, we had only half a day left so we decided to check out some
shopping at the silk street market. This was basically a big complex full of vendors selling everything from fake brand name clothes to souvenirs to suitcases, and much more that we never got to because we were so exhausted after bargaining our way through the first three floors. A tip to others...these vendors here really inflate their asking price so haggle like crazy, they will generally give you the price you want if you try to walk away, and many will physically pull you back. Yeah this was full contact haggling and so forget about your personal space if you haven't already.
The next day we went to the famous Forbidden City and Tiennamen Square. Both were mobbed with millions or eager Chinese pushing their way to the best view, especially the Forbidden City. We were pretty disappointed with the forbidden city nothing really worth mentioning basically spread out museum. It was interesting and there were some good exhibits, but overall many of the displays were repetitive, had little information, were dusty or behind dirty glass that made it very hard to see. Much of the city has been redone and a lot of it was being refurbished or
rebuilt (in preparation for the Olympics and the crowds soon to come no doubt) so we didn't actually get to go in all of the areas. It is a huge complex and much of the stuff to see is the same so after a while, we found ourselves zipping through many of the exhibits.
That afternoon, we headed to the Beijing zoo...actually we were going to go to the summer palace but realized we didn't have time that day and since the zoo was right there and cheap we figured it would be worth it just to see the Pandas. The zoo itself is pretty sad...very small enclosures, not well kept, and not much in the way of habitat for most of the animals, but the animals were really cool to see. They have a Panda research center there and that seems to be where they put what money they do have. The pandas were very cute and cuddly..okay we didn't actually cuddle with them. We also saw lots of Lions and tigers pretty close up which really put huge their huge size in perspective. It was feeding time so some of them were pretty restless waiting for their
food. The pandas and big cat were definitely the highlight but we saw lots of other animals too and the park where the zoo is located is really a nice area to walk around in.
On Trevor's birthday, we celebrated by planning a big outing to see the Great Wall of China. We figured we would keep it simple and go on one of the many tourist buses that leaves from near Tiennamen Square since it was close to our place and we wouldn't have to worry about transferring or figuring it out buses, plus it seemed like a reasonable price. One of the catches to these tours is that they bring you to a jade factory/museum where they give you a tour and try to get you to buy stuff. We knew going into it that it would be a lot of overpriced stuff so we just strolled through and waited for our free lunch that was included. The trip to the wall should have been about an hour, but took much longer due to traffic jams and an accident on the road up to the viewing site. The last couple miles literally took about an hour I
think. Anyway, we got there and had two hours to spend at the wall. It was a madhouse of tourists and buses and cars, but still impressive and a very worthwhile site to see. If we had it to do over again I think we would have gone to one of the sites a bit further out that is less touristed, simply to avoid the traffic issues. We climbed up along the wall for a ways and enjoyed amazing views. It was very windy and parts of the wall were very steep, making it a good workout as well. We were a few minutes late back to the bus, but it really didn't matter because we just ended up sitting in the traffic mess for another hour to get out of the area, then traffic in town took another extra hour on the usual travel time. So all in all the few hour trip to the wall ended up being a full day event. So our nice dinner and show (plan a) turned into KFC, because we were starving, and shopping because the movie room at our place was taken.
The next day we went to check out the
Olympic stadium and park area, which is still under construction. It is quite impressive, but will be amazing if everything is done by August. Unfortunately we weren't able to go in the stadium, but the outside was pretty cool anyway. Then we went to to the Summer Palace, which is where the emperors would spend their time when they weren't in the forbidden city. Talk about a nice summer home! The park is beautiful and the buildings were really pretty and more what we had pictured we'd see in the forbidden city. Great views of the city and the lake with really nice walking paths. I highly recommend allotting more time to see the summer palace over the forbidden city, if you have to choose. In the evening, we dressed up and went to a Chinese Acrobatics show, which was a lot of fun. The flexibility and strength of the acrobats is amazing and they seemed to be of all ages. It was very entertaining and definitely worth seeing...never a dull moment, well the magic card lady was a bit weird!
Overall Beijing was a nice city, but like most Chinese cities, the traffic is crazy and watching pedestrians
and bicycles interact with vehicles was sometimes pretty scary and everyone seems to go their own way whenever they want regardless of what others are doing. We had heard this is one of the most polluted cities in the world, but honestly, we didn't find it to be any worse than other places in China. If anything, it seemed a bit better (keeping in mind that is a relative statement). It may have helped that it was a clear, beautiful sunny day so we didn't have the fog/haze hanging over everything like in most of the other places. It was also very windy (and dusty at times) so maybe the wind blew the smog away I don't know. It will be very interesting to see how the city handles the crowds sure to show up for the Olympics.
Today we left for Hong Kong. That sounds so easy, but traveling in China is never easy. First of all China has been way more expensive than we thought and so our budget was quickly dwindled and on top of that we we now have a schedule to stick to because of the flights. So we did a lot of research
on the fastest and cheapest way to get to Hong Kong. We found out that if we drive to a city near Beijing and then fly to a city near Hong Kong the plane ticket will be half the price even after figuring in the ground transportation. So theoretically it would only take us 2.5 hours longer. Well we didn't figure in the the China factor, it actually took us more like 4 hours longer but we gained $150. So basically we headed to Tianjin, where we caught a flight to Shenzhen. We first got a taxi around 7 am to the bus station and checked with some of the taxi drivers because we were told we could hire a taxi for only a small amount more than the bus and get right to the airport versus having to figure out how to get to the airport once in Tianjin. Well, the taxi drivers saw westerners (or a walking treasure chest in their eyes) and inflated their prices about 5 times what several locals had said it would be. After some negotiating we finally gave up and hopped on a bus, as we were getting tight on time. The bus
was slow, again due to traffic, so we hopped in a taxi immediately upon arrival and tried to communicate that we were in a hurry. I finally showed him my ticket with the departure times and he suddenly stepped on the gas and we actually started to pass people, metered taxi are safer but much slower than taxis with negotiated prices. The traffic was horrible once again but what can you do, we got there about 45 min before departure. We flew off to Shenzen, caught a shuttle bus to the border and a subway into downtown Hong Kong by then is was 7 pm and we were hungry and tired. We picked up a map and found the "Golden Arches" downed a few thousand calories and hit the streets looking for a room.
There are more photos below