A Great Wall and a Forbidden City

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Asia » China » Beijing
March 19th 2007
Published: August 6th 2007
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The soft sleeper to Beijing was awesome. They give you little slippers to wear and serve dinner, plus there's a western toilet in one of the two lavatories in each car. Very nice. Too bad it's too expensive.

We got in to Beijing around 7 and I headed straight to the Saga hostel. It's located down a "hutong" (small alleyways that are quickly disappearing in Beijing) and in a very local part of the city. Once I got settled in I set off for the Forbidden city, but I decided that I would save it for later in the week and so I continued into Tienanmen Square. The weather (or was it smog?) was really foggy so I couldn't even see across the square. I walked around with the intention of seeing the Chairman, but his mausoleum was closed for renovation until September.

While I was wandering around I managed to foil some sort of pickpocket attempt. I got a really bad vibe from a guy who was standing around looking at people. As I walked past him he started following me really closely, so I turned around and glared at him and he hurried away. He was actually the first person I've got a bad vibe from in China. Most people seem very honest, even if they do tend to stare at you! Whether he was actually trying to rob me is unclear, but he sure hustled off as soon as I turned around.

After some more wandering I headed back to the hostel and hung out for a bit before going to look for lunch. Right around the corner from the hostel I found a place with steam pouring out of a vent. As I walked past I noticed a wonderful smell emanating from the little shop so I decided to get in line. The shop was doing booming business selling large rice buns with various fillings. I bought two for 13 US cents(!) total. I kept walking, and ate as I went. I eventually found a place that had some sort of bread that looked like pizza dough so I got a bunch of that as well. It cost me about the same as the dumplings. So, for less than 30 cents I ended up getting a very filling meal. I actually spent more on the soda I bought back at the hostel than the food. Chinese food can be very good and cheap, when you can find the local places and figure out how to order!

In the afternoon I took care of some errands. I managed to get a train ticket in hard sleeper class to Xi'An! Finally! It was amazing dealing with the "lines" at the train station, though. I managed to get up to the counter and the entire time I was talking to the agent these two women (one on each side of me) kept pushing closer and closer. When I finished and stepped back they both lunged for the counter. Sheesh! God forbid one of them would have to wait in line behind the other. I mean, seriously, she might have to wait an extra 3 minutes. I just can't understand why lining up is such a difficult concept for a lot of Chinese people. There are places where they have put up metal barriers to force people to get in a line otherwise they would just swarm. I find it really frustrating, but I'm learning that standing nicely gets you nowhere -- you have to play their game. The good news is that I'm big enough in relation to a lot of the people that when I play the game I do quite well!

Once I got my ticket sorted out I printed out some forms for the New Zealand working holiday visa I'm applying for and then used the internet for a bit. By the evening I was feeling like I had a cold so I got some more rice buns for dinner and called it a night early.

The next morning I woke up feeling marginally better, but with a really annoying runny nose. Since I only had a few days in Beijing I didn't really have the luxury of lazing around in bed, so I immediately set of for one of the "approved" clinics to get a chest x-ray. Since I've been in "high-risk" TB countries for about 3 months, NZ requires a chest x-ray. The procedure was easy, and I have "no abnormalities". Woohoo! I got all the paperwork filled out and headed to the post office to send it. The walk over was pretty miserable. I think the "fog" is mostly pollution, and you can feel how bad the air quality is. So many people are coughing all the time (myself included) that it has to be the air.

When I got back to the hostel I talked to their travel agent about doing a great wall tour, but what they had on offer didn't sound very appealing so I figured I would do it myself. I went to bed early again to see if some sleep would help with my general feeling of malaise.

The next morning I got up bright and early and headed off to the bus station. The LP mentions that you can catch a bus direct to Simatai (one great wall location), or go to Miyun and then catch a bus from there. When I arrived at the station I was approached by a minibus driver who said one of the destinations was Simatai so I hopped in. We waited for almost an hour for the entire bus to fill up and then we set off. Of course, the bus wasn't really full. We managed to pack another 8 people in along the way. When we reached Miyun I was told that I would have to switch buses, so they lied to me when they said we'd go to Simatai. I had pretty much figured that out before we arrived so I didn't sweat it, though. Of course, when they told me to get out I was met by some taxi drivers who insisted that there wasn't a bus to Simatai. I started asking other bus drivers, but everyone was going to Beijing, so either the bus didn't exist or they purposely took me to the wrong station. So, left with the choice of returning to Beijing or paying for the cab I started negotiating on the cab price. I managed to talk them down from 200 to 120 and so I was happy enough with that given the circumstances.

The cab ride was quite pleasant and my driver was actually a really nice guy even if he didn't speak a word of english. The ride took about an hour and when we got there we found that the parking lot was almost empty. Score. I paid the entrance fee and arranged to meet the driver in three hours. After we got away from Beijing the weather improved somewhat and I could actually see blue sky (barely) through the haze, so that put me in a good mood as I set off into the park. I hiked up to the wall, which follows the ridge line over some very steep hills. It took me about 1.5 hours to get to the end of the open section, which was on a hill top about 2000 feet above where we started. Along the way I passed maybe 15 people total which was awesome. I also managed to avoid one of the people hawking souvenirs by outrunning her. She started following me and it was a test of endurance up the wall. She was very persistent, but by the time she gave up following me she had fallen about 100 feet back. Finally, victory over the hawkers! I almost coughed up a lung when she turned around and I finally stopped, but he it's the principle that counts. Simatai is definitely the place to go see the wall. It has gorgeous scenery and seems to be missing the (notorious) crowds that Badalang suffers from.

I ended up spending 2.5 hours on the wall and I met up with the driver just before 3. He drove me back to the bus station in Miyun and I got on a minbus bound for Beijing. Incidentally, I didn't see any buses at the wall, so they may not have been lying to me about the bus after all. It might only run in the high season, or on weekends. Who knows. The bus ride back to Beijing was miserable. It took 2 hours to cover 70km and we spent a lot of time idling in really thick traffic. By the time I got out of the bus I felt like crap from the pollution and not being able to move at all in the very back of the bus. So, I headed straight to McDonalds for a pick-me-up! Once again I had an early night after getting some more rice buns, of course!

The next day I got up early and checked out. My train was due to leave at 5pm so I left my bag at the hostel and headed to the Forbidden City. I had very high expectations, and unfortunately, I don't think it lived up to them. In fact, if it wasn't such a famous attraction I'd say give it a pass entirely. However, I think a couple things conspired to lessen its impact on me. For one thing, it was crawling with tourists, which I just wasn't in the mood for. Also, the pollution was really bad again and I just was not feeling well as a result. So, I ended up wandering through the complex taking pictures, but not really enjoying the experience. Maybe if it had been clear weather, or if I had felt better it would have been nicer. I'm not sure. For whatever reason I was expecting something along the lines of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, and this doesn't even compare.

After seeing the Forbidden City I went out the back gate and into a rather nice park. The park has a large hill that was constructed with the dirt removed to create the moat around the city. I climbed to the top of the hill for a fantastic view of...drum roll please...smog. That's right, I was able to see about 500 feet and then it was just white haze. I can imagine how gorgeous the view must be on a clear day, but I didn't have a clear day so it was crap. Bah. After having a thoroughly disappointing morning I went to the post office to mail some post cards and then headed back to the hostel where I hung out until it was time to go to the train station.

I gave myself just over an hour to make it to the western station, and I barely made it. It took longer than I expected to walk to the metro, and then I was on the metro for almost 20 minutes before having to walk another kilometer. When I finally arrived at the station I discovered that there was a huge highway in front of it, and so all the pedestrians had to go over an overpass, which put you at the absolute wrong end of the station. So, once across I had to walk half the length of the station and then wait in line for the "security check". I was in no mood to wait patiently here, so I just followed the horrible example that the Chinese have set for me and pushed my way through to the front. Of course, the two women working at the x-ray machine weren't even looking at the screen as the bags went through. To top it all off, we walked through a non-functioning metal detector. I really don't understand why they even bother. I ended up jogging most of the way to the platform (no easy feat with 15 kilos on your back and another 7 on your front!)

I got on the train less than 10 minutes before it was scheduled to leave. One of the conductors insisted on escorting me to my compartment, which turned out to be a blessing because when we got there I noticed that a third of my bed was soaked with water. I pointed at it and the conductor made a face and then stormed off with the soaked sheet. Meanwhile, I set about dealing with the huge puddle on the floor (apparently, someone spilled the thermos of hot water). While the conductor was gone I took the blue decorative cloth cover off the mattress and proceeded use it to mop up the floor (much to the approval of the little old lady who was sharing the compartment with me). The conductor returned and discovered that the floor was no longer wet and that the bed cover was now wet and somewhat dirty. She made another face and grabbed the cover from me. She neatly folded it up and put it under the bed. As soon as she walked off again the little grandmother started gesturing for me to get it out again. I checked that the coast was clear and then put it under the thermos to prevent further problems. The conductor returned for the last time and put a plastic bag on the wet mattress and then gave me a new sheet. And so my first experience in hard-sleeper class had begun.

That's it for Beijing. Stay tuned for Xi'An.


17th June 2007

Good info on Beijing!
Thanks for all of the detail! I'll be visiting Beijing July 2 to 7. Wondering about the smog and what precautions I can take so I don't get sick while trying to experience everything.

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