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Asia » China » Beijing
January 11th 2009
Published: January 21st 2009
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Beijing (January 2nd - 10th 2009)

Main sights:The Great Wall of China, The Forbidden City, Olympic Park, Tian'anmen Square, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution

Top 3 experiences:

1) Sitting on a frozen lake in the Summer Palace
2) Walking on the Great Wall of China
3) Separating fact from fiction in the Military Museum

Daily budget (travel, food and accommodation): 200 Chinese yuan = 21 pounds

My rating: 7/10

Overview:

It's a cliche of travel blogs everywhere to start with a sentence like 'Beijing is a city full of contrasts'. Bleurgh. But that's exactly what I'm going to do...

Beijing is a city full of contrasts. Specifically, I'm thinking of the weather. When we booked our trip last summer, the British newspapers were full of talk about how hot the city would be for the Olympics. Would our marathon runners cope? And our cyclists? And our rowers? But come January and the moment of our arrival, one thing is immediately clear. Beijing is cold. Very cold. The sort of cold even a John Motson fleece can't quite keep out.

To give just one example of the conditions, let's look at the markets. There are tempting food stalls dotted around Beijing, such as at the vibrant Wangfujing Snack Street right outside our hostel in Donghuamen. However, when you take off your gloves to grab some chopsticks, your fingers start tingling. 5 minutes later, after your noodles are demolished (or juice soup and sheep's penis, for the more adventurous) your fingers are totally numb and you begin to wonder vaguely about frostbite.

When you see that the moat around the Forbidden City has frozen solid, you suddenly realise this is going to have a massive impact on your holiday. Sometimes the cold changes things for the better, sometimes it doesn't.

The Summer Palace:

So when exactly are you glad that Beijing is well below zero? My favourite memory of Beijing comes from the Summer Palace, where the vast lake taking up most of the complex had completely frozen over. Ok, in the summertime you can hire pedaloos and coo over the greenery but in the wintertime you can walk on a lake. Or lie down. Or hire skates from the canny entrepreneurs who have set up an impromptu ice rink around signs stating 'Don't Step on the Ice'. The Summer Palace, former retreat of emperors and their entourage, actually becomes more impressive when the weather turns.

The Forbidden City:

But inevitably not all sights benefit from frostbite. So which suffer the most? Oddly enough, the Forbidden City was not quite as overwhelming as expected. This imperial city within a city, where emperors lived for 5 centuries and only imperial guests were allowed in, is amazing in size and attention to detail. There are over 900 temples and a seemingly endless collection of imposing gates followed by epic courtyards and ceremonial buildings. Yet, crucially, there's very little shelter from the elements!

The Clock Exhibition Hall, where hundreds of intricate and immense mechanical timepieces are kept, benefitted both from some jawdropping clocks and a covered roof. I'm also pleased to report that the Starbucks which opened in the Forbidden City has now been replaced by a less sacriligious cafe. In spite of these respites, most temples were of the 'no entry' type and shivering tourists are left to peer through misted windows at a bewildering array of ornaments, pots, jewellery and other treasures. There are over a million artifacts, apparently. Sadly, all of these are given no context or background colour and left me feeling a little cold. Well, colder.

Don't get me wrong, the Forbidden City is an amazing place, a unique fully-preserved temple-city. But be warned that visiting in January may leave you pining for a warm hostel room after half a day.

The Great Wall of China:

Another sight you might expect to be affected by the cold is the Great Wall of China. However, I don't think even a blizzard and a herd of rampaging polar bears could realistically overshadow such a monumental spectacle. The 5,000-mile long stone wall was built over 2,000 years ago and large parts of it have now fallen into ruin. Several sections near Beijing have been restored, though, and offer more than enough for tourists to explore in a daytrip.

Well, I say daytrip. It was actually more like 2 hours. Despite taking every conceivable precaution, and following Lonely Planet to the letter, we still found ourselves using a bus tour that included unscheduled stops at a jade shopping mall and the Ming Dynasty Waxworks Museum. So the journey time from Beijing to the wall, which should have been under an hour, actually took 3.5 hours!

Sometimes, you've just got to accept that if you want to see the great wonders of the world, first you'll have to waste an hour at the waxwork's museum.

The Military Museum:

One final sight well worth a mention is the Military Museum. In spite of the blatant propoganda on certain info boards, or perhaps because of it, this museum gives a fantastic insight into the last 100 years of Chinese history from a communist point of view. As a one-stop place to learn about the history of modern China, from the civil war via the Long March through the People's Republic to the capitalist reforms of Deng Xiaoping, it can't be bettered.

At times, the blatant spin does insult your intelligence when you read that Mao's rivals in the communist movement "failed because their policies were wrong"or see the nationalists casually described as "a bourgeois reactionary movement". Yet that just adds to the fun and tells you more about how the modern communist party sees itself than a thousand dry text books.

This sense of rewriting history is amplified by the exhibits. Harrowing paintings of suffering during the 2 year Long March, when communist forces in the south set off to meet their northern counterparts amid relentless hounding from the nationalists, sit uneasily alongside ostentatious displays of military muscle. As fascinating as it is seeing tanks, A-bombs and H-bombs, there's no doubt the indoor Deng Xiaoping gallery paints a different picture of a country rehabilitating itself in the eyes of the world. This is not a museum that concentrates on the catastrophes of the Great Leap Forward, the Hundred Flowers Campaign and the Cultural Revolution.

Random facts:

After being dethroned, the last emperor Puyi married a nurse and become a professional gardener.

The Gobi Desert is now only 70km from central Beijing

Because of overuse and excessive damning, the Yellow River frequently drys up before reaching the coast

Impressions:

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Beijing is a lot less prepared for Western visitors than you might expect. Admittedly, we arrived in the off-season. But a thousand little asides remind you that foreign tourists are a relatively new concept here.

All the teahouses display menus solely in Mandarin, even those in prime locations overlooking the Forbidden City and Tian'anmen Square. None of the taxi drivers or bus drivers or assistants at the train station information office speak a word of English. A few signs at the very biggest tourist hotspots have been rewritten by Australian volunteers in the runup to the Olympics but generally most are confusing or unreadable. Museums generally assume you speak Mandarin, as do tourist maps. Visitors from rural China stop you simply to get a photo of westerners with their children.

None of this is a criticism. I simply imagined that following the Olympics, Beijing would be well down the road to becoming an international city.

Ah yes, the Olympics. Even 6 months after the event, reminders are everywhere. This was less a sporting occasion than a coming-out party to the world from a country with 1/6 of the planet's population. Of course, Olympic Park is a must-see with the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube trading light shows across an enormous central promenade.

Yet for a real sense of how important the Olympics were to China, you need only look at the official 2008 merchandise shops still doing a roaring trade in, um, 2009. Meanwhile, the Olympics has bequeathed Beijing a new airport bus transfer service and a motorway on which to travel, as well as a revamped state-of-the-art metro system. These buses and tube trains have onboard TVs which, naturally, intersperse breaking news with 6 month old Olympic highlights packages.

The Olympics had a darker side too. Hutongs, Beijing's trademark narrow alleyways, were cleared to make space for the airport motorway and a hundred plush hotels. These hutongs are still being cleared at an alarming rate. Many more sit ominously alongside high-rise office blocks, painfully aware their days are numbered.

Beijing is building at an astonishing rate with skyscrapers as far as the eye can see in every direction. Chinas's economy has grown by an average of 10% per year for the past 30 years and Beijing is one of the main reasons. More and more Chinese people are buying luxury Western cars to go with their luxury western watches and clothes and foods.

Meanwhile, factories are springing up across the north-east. They may be largely out of sight here but you can't escape their effects. A permanent smog has settled over Beijing. Somedays, it isn't so bad. But most of the time it affects even relatively close-up photos of landmarks such as the Forbidden City and Tian'anmen Square. Commuters wear face masks even in the supposedly clearer air of winter.

Beijing is a really interesting place to visit - even when temperatures plummet. It gives a window into every aspect of China's growth from feudalism to communism and capitalism. But the modern-day problems of unbelievable pollution and explosive development remind you that it still has a long way to go.

Next stop: Hong Kong

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22nd January 2009

Great stuff
Really enjoying these, Rich. 'Sacriligious cafe' indeed. Keep up the good work man.
1st February 2009

Hi Kae, good to hear from you! Afraid that I know only too well the pain of jobhunting. I swear there must only be one journalism job left in Britain - everyone I know seems to be searching for it. I'm really enjoying travelling at the moment. Well, not right this second cos Im suffering from heatstroke in Cambodia. But generally it's pretty damn marvellous & allows me to put off the jobsearch for a while. Hopefully see you soon!

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