Published: July 31st 2010July 30th 2010
Tap on the shoulder. I turn around to be greeted by my first wildly excited Chinese tourist looking for a “foreigner photo” on Tiananmen Square. I’m not going to pretend that the experience annoyed me. I really enjoyed the whole, “well, why yes, I am a foreigner, I’d love to have my photo taken with you and your family” thing. Even though you’re really only being appreciated in the same way as a zoo animal, it’s still quite ego affirming. Vain as this sounds, I now imagine myself on the mantelpieces and walls of the homes of dozens of Chinese families. Parents recounting to their children the time they met their first foreigner all those years ago on holidays in the Big Shmoke....
Well, maybe the Big Smog might be more appropriate. On arriving in Beijing, you are immediately blinded by the city’s omnipotent cloudy haze. For myself, the lack of sky had both advantages and disadvantages: On the positive side the smog was so thick that I could go out for an entire day without sun cream. Without a hint of hyperbole I can say that this borders on a minor miracle. I burn in Ireland for God’s sake!
This leads me to the negative aspect of blanket smog coverage; anything that can completely block out UV rays on a 35 degree day, as well as the outline of all buildings greater than 400-500 metres in the distance cannot be healthy. And, after witnessing the hacking coughs and continuous spitting of numerous Beijingians, living in the city must be the equivalent of smoking forty a day!
Well, back to writing of Beijing. I spent eight days in the city altogether. I only meant to spend five, but the Chinese holiday season meant that even getting the Auschwitz-style hard seat to Shanghai (standing tickets sold until crush point is reached!) was a monumental task. Not to worry, I was staying in a great hostel, and there was more than enough to keep me occupied.
The city itself has been the capital of China at various times throughout the country’s past. It is a fascinating mix of ancient palaces, gardens and monuments constructed by China’s imperial dynasties, juxtaposed with Mao’s embrace of grey imposing Stalinist architecture. One minute you can be walking into the past down a narrow winding hutong
brimming with traditional Chinese architecture; and then, suddenly, you
can find yourself thrust from this hidden world onto a wide open Communist-era boulevard which, in turn, has surrendered itself to a multitude of towering skyscrapers ostentatiously announcing China’s embrace of capitalism.
This city is an ever-changing, living monument to China’s history, and its future.
During my time in Beijing I visited Tiananmen Square, the Gate of Heavenly Peace (home of the famous portrait of Mao), the Forbidden City (home of the Chinese Emperors), the Temple of Heaven (a park filled with temples built by Qing and Ming emperors to honour the gods), the Summer Palace (the vast summer retreat of the royal family), the Chairman Mao Memorial Museum (resting place of the good (chair)man’s embalmed corpse), and, of course, the Great Wall of China.
I won’t bore everyone by recounting my visits to all these sites, so I’ll just pick out a few highlights:
My first mini-adventure occurred at the end of a day spent in the Forbidden City, which was filled to bursting with Chinese tourists (how I wished for an electric cattle prod). On the way out two Chinese women in their thirties began chatting to me. Now, I’m generally both sceptical and
wary of the kindness of strangers when travelling abroad. Scamming is an ever present danger. However, I’m ashamed to say that the previous day of photo-taking on Tiananmen Square had lowered my defences. I big-headedly assumed that these women wanted a photo with me, and were genuinely interested in Ireland etc. (I can hear people cheering at the prospect of my MADE-IN-CHINA over-inflated ego being burst!). They suggested that we go to a nearby tea-house so we could continue chatting, and so that I could experience some Chinese tea. Now at this point I thought things were a bit suspect, but I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and went along with them anyway.
I spent the next hour having a very rewarding time trying out numerous varieties of tea from all over China. At the end the two women said we would split the bill equally. Fair enough. My portion of the bill came to 900 Yuan (just over €100). I just laughed at them. I think they seriously thought that I’d hand over three and half days living money for twelve THIMBLES of tea! I told them: I am a student; I have 20
Y (€2.50) in my pocket, take it or leave it. Looking less than happy, they said that they would pay for the rest of my portion as a “gift”. Bullshit.
I felt I’d got good value for money though. The scammers became the scammed!
Moving on, it was my birthday while I was in Beijing. I’d met a really nice group of people in the hostel and we all decided to go out on Saturday night to the aptly named “Bar Street”. Now for some reason I thought Beijing night life would be tame. How wrong I was! The going out area was pretty big and a sea of revellers spilled out from the bars and clubs onto the street. A Tsing Tao pint bottle of beer was 4 Yuan (€0.50) when bought outside! Needless to say we stayed out until the early hours of the morning; and I finally managed to witness the changing of the guard on Tiananmen Square, albeit drunk, from a taxi window, minus my camera.
Now while I had a great birthday night out, I’d forgotten that I had booked the 10km hike tour to the unreconstructed part of the Great Wall,
leaving at 7.30 a.m. that morning. As it cost €30 I was determined to go. Unfortunately the alcohol from the preceding night, combined with the complete lack of sleep finished off the last of my already weakened immune system. The result was a pretty bad head cold for the next few days, and complete physical exhaustion after 5 hours of non-stop stair climbing on the Great Wall.
However my perseverance more than paid off. The Great Wall of China is spectacular. It was built and added to by successive Emperors as a means of holding back China’s enemies for centuries. We were driven three and a half hours to an unreconstructed deserted part of the Wall where there were no other tourists. The walk itself was actually quite steep and tiring. About a quarter of the group gave up and turned back after an hour. They were of course, shamed on our return, and forced to eat at separate losers table! The Wall seems infinite. It continues over mountains and down steep gorges in both directions as far as the eye can see. It really is a monument to what can be achieved through the miracle of slave labour
(much like the pyramids). My visit was more than worth the sickness and tiredness that ensued!
I really enjoyed my eight days in Beijing. It was the perfect mix of history, modernity, food and some night life. You can’t ask for more of a city than to arrive at its train station, sit down and tuck into a large plate of €3 Peking duck!
There are more photos below