Smog and queues in Beijing - first 2 days...

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October 18th 2014
Published: November 3rd 2014
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Another flight. Another country - this one would take us to China where we were to spend the next three weeks surrounded by skyscrapers. We arrived in Beijing at the enormous airport, which opened prior to the Olympic Games in 2008 and is the largest airport in the world. Despite it's size, or maybe because of it, we found it ghostly quiet and very quickly we passed through immigration and soon had found our way to the BRT (metro) station. Stopping at an ATM to fill our wallets we were a little shocked to find that the exchange rate was lower than we were expecting....

It was an easy trip into the city but we did get confused when we walked out of the underground into the gloom of the late afternoon. We had booked a guesthouse in a hutong area close to Tiananmen Square and we were confronted with a maze of narrow streets packed with pedestrians. Thankfully the instructions we were emailed from the guesthouse included a McDonalds store and we were happy to eventually see those particular golden arches at the end of the street. The 365 Inn was in a pedestrian only street and was a great place to stay. Basic but clean we had a comfortable bed and a constant supply of hot water. The staff were very helpful and before we left Jerry added an Australian flag sticker to the graffiti that covered the walls and ceiling of the public area.

It was getting dark when we set out to walk across Tiananmen Square to Wangfujing Dajie (street) to find the night market. Beijing was covered in smog and we could see very little on the close horizon. Putting it down to late afternoon light as much as smog we were shocked when we woke next morning and realised just how bad the smog actually was. Walking across the square was also impossible as it is closed to public access at 6pm each evening and is now enclosed by a waist high fence. In 2005 it was a great place to spend the evening full of children playing, kites flying and families enjoying the atmosphere. Instead we walked along the length of it, stopping to admire the gigantic vase of artificial silk flowers.

When we did eventually walk onto the square we realised just how big that vase actually was! It was floodlit that evening though and glowed with vibrant colour. It was the only evening whilst we were there that it was floodlit so we were lucky to see it. I guess it was a remnant of the vast National Day celebrations from the previous week. The square is the world's largest public square - 44,000 sq meters of paving. On one side is the the ochre walls of the Forbidden City, another is fronted with the National Museum of China. Opposite on the other side of the square is the Great Hall of the People where the National People's Congress (the government) meets. The last side is the dominated by the arched Front Gate, one of the original city gates. In the centre of the square is the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall where his embalmed body lies in state.

Of course the red star was prominent on the front of the public buildings and Mao's large portrait looked down from his position fronting the Forbidden City complex. The Forbidden City is China's largest and best preserved museum and we were going to revisit it during our time in Beijing. It is called the Forbidden City because it was out of bounds to the public for 500 years of Imperial rule until China became a republic in 1949.

Soon we were lost in the crowd at the night market where we spent a happy hour exclaiming over the delicacies on sale. Everything possible seemed to threaded onto skewers - grasshoppers, snakes, frogs, scorpions. We sampled, though not the insects, before tiredness caught up with us and we began the surprisingly long walk back to the guesthouse. We stopped to admire the Forbidden City, which that evening was fronted with a row of green water filled fountains. It was very busy. We walked the circumference of the square, passing the quiet, dark surrounds of the People's Congress buildings. The area was dotted with soldiers in greatcoats on guard duty - what a boring job!

Next morning we visited the amazing 798 Zone, an old factory area which has developed into home for many art galleries. It was a fun place to explore and we thoroughly enjoyed the few hours we spent there. The streets were full of interesting and weird statues and art pieces and whilst many of the galleries were closed the ones we did visit were really rewarding. Our favourite was the Tibetan Gallery where an artist called Zhu Bingren was displaying his work. It comprised of art made from molten metal and many of the pieces were then enamelled. His creativity was astounding - I particularly enjoyed his field of rice and a gold chair he had created. The area itself was fun to explore - a lot of the industrial pipes, gantry cranes, old locomotives dotted the streets and the massive internal factory interiors were cleverly converted galleries and cafes. There were lots of people there (it was Sunday) and it was fun people watching. There is certainly a lot of disposable income here now as the young people were trendily and expensively dressed.

In the afternoon we visited Yonghe Temple which is more commonly called the Llama Temple. It is the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of the country of Tibet and it was busy with lots of people worshipping. The air was thick with incense smoke and though we saw nobody wearing Tibetan dress there we did see people praying by prostrating their bodies on the ground. The temple was built in 1694 and survived the Cultural Revolution due to intervention by foresighted the Premier at the time. In one of the pavilions is an 18 meter high statue of Buddha made from sandalwood. It was a very large complex and we enjoyed exploring the many smaller halls. I never tire of these temples - I love the colour, the flowers and just watching the people worship.

We dined that evening in the good hall of the Oriental Tower shopping mall in Wangfujing Dajie. Beijing centre seems to be row upon row of glossy designer shopping malls all thronged with people. A great Japanese meal before the long walk home. That evening I wasn't well and we realised next day that both of us were suffering from toxic overload - the smog had been at the highest danger levels the previous day. Something we are thankfully not used to. The previous evening we had commented on the row of portaloos lined up in the dark beside the People's Congress Building. We discovered from TV news that they had been used during the Beijing Mararthon participants earlier in the day. I cannot imagine how exhausting it would have been running in that toxic environment.

So far the people we have met here are so different from the Chinese we remember. In 2005 the queue system was totally ignored but we've met no pushing, shoving or rudeness (except shop keepers - they still just all seem to grunt). Everybody just lines up patiently. And there are many queues - to enter every subway station you must queue to buy tickets, queue to go through the X-ray security, queue to get onto escalators to go into the depths of the underground. We've also seen very little smoking and virtually no spitting though table manners still are the same. Noisy eaters who leave scraps all over the tables. The streets are immaculate, rubbish bins are used - they now just have to sort out the air pollution!

We began our next day with a visit to the pharmacy and both bought face masks to wear. Surprisingly few locals were wearing them though a lot of tourists were. The smog levels remained at dangerous levels during our entire visit though that particular Sunday was the worst day.

A bus next day took us to the beautiful Temple of Heaven park - 267 hectare oasis of green in the centre of the city. Last time we were in Beijing the main temple was closed for restoration and we were really looking forward to seeing it this time. Some of the trees within the park were art pieces in themselves - 800 year old cypress trees with knotted trunks and branches held up on pole supports. There were many magpies in the trees - the Chinese version has much longer tail feathers than the one we see in Australia. You can't enter the main temple building but we joined the queue which lead up to one of the two doors which were open allowing us to see inside. The main temple walls in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests are round but the base of the temple is square. Painted a purplish/blue colour it has triple eaves and an umbrella style roof and is mounted on a three level marble terrace. Very beautiful to look at the paintwork is still quite vivid and includes lots of highlights in gild and aqua blue/green. It was originally built in 1420 but was rebuilt in 1889 after being burnt to the ground by a lightning strike.

We revisited the smaller temples within the Temple of Heaven grounds and watched the Chinese tourists line up to get their turn standing on the centre point of the white marble round altar. Sounds made from this spot undergo amplification from the surrounding marble so they all wanted to try out their vocal skills from there. We are constantly amused by the Chinese tour groups, most wearing tour caps or bucket hats, rushing along behind their guide and his flag. Never have we seen caps or bucket hats worn with so much flair and individuality.

We saw groups of women sitting along the edge of the Long Corridor (a long covered walkway within the temple complex) knitting and chatting together. I love this aspect of Chinese life. Everywhere people group together to play mahjong, embroider, sing, exercise, dance, play cards or just chat. On our way to the temple in an underground road crossover tunnel we saw a large group of people learning to ball room dance. They were casually dressed but most of the women were in heels. Sadly we've since heard that many people are trying to get this form of community get togethers banned - the noise is the main issue and some are very noisy. But Chinese people in general are very loud - they shout into phones and always appear to be shouting at each other. I think it is because their language is very tonal with heavy emphasis on high, low, rising and falling pronunciation.

Leaving the temple grounds we visited the Pearl Market where we survived the onslaught of hard sell dealers before unsuccessfully looking for a kite shop mentioned in Lonely Planet. We found out later that it had closed. In China I think the guide books would be out of date well before they were released. A big bowl of salad at Sizzlers finished off a great day. After only a couple of days in the city our hotel room is a welcome sight after eight or nine hours out in the smog, bitumen and endless metro tunnels.... Thankfully the face masks meant that we slept better that evening without the headaches we had experienced the previous day. They weren't the most attractive or comfortable things to wear though!

Additional photos below
Photos: 36, Displayed: 29


Everybody was throwing coins into this area at the llama Temple. Everybody was throwing coins into this area at the llama Temple.
Everybody was throwing coins into this area at the llama Temple.

I overhead one of the guides say that the money is swept up regularly during the day so people are encouraged to continue putting more there...

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