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September 27th 2012
Published: September 28th 2012
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Beijing, September 4-8





Why finally? Finally because I just wrote a long blog entry and travel blog took the opportunity to refresh the page and said entry is no longer, disappeared, non-existant and just plain gone. Oh well. But that's not the real reason. There are a number of reasons. I didn't actually write a blog while travelling. I usually do but this time I just didn't feel like it. Also my notebook from work proved to be great as far as checking mail, and watching videos and listening to music goes but I couldn't type with it. I did go looking for an internet cafe at one point but couldn't find one. I think that with everybody having a laptop or smartphone, internet cafes have just quietly faded away. So there was some doubt about if there was going to be a trip report this time at all. But here it is, the first entry and I sincerely hope that there will be more.



I love all things Asian but for some reason, had never had much curiosity about China. I never really considered it as a possible destination. It had a lot of bad press. People coming back from China always said that it was interesting. When pressed they might also say that the cities were crowded and polluted, transport was difficult, English was non-existent and the hotels were grim. My neighbors were horrified when we said we were going to China. They had visited twenty years before and had some pretty awful memories. They didn’t even say that it was interesting.



But then things began to change at a break-neck speed. The sleeping giant awakened and did a complete makeover. The 2008 Beijing Olympics were a real game changer. Sometimes, during our travels in China, I had the distinct impression that we were ten years too late, that it has been hopelessly changed and overrun by Chinese tourists, but that just meant that in the end I had a much smoother and easier experience with transport, lodging, sightseeing, etc. All in all, I didn’t mind the Chinese tourists. I even quite liked them.



We were lucky enough to be in China during September. It is between the return to school and the national holiday at the beginning of October. This is the time that has the least tourists. We never did see the huge crowds that we had read about. I was telling myself and Micha all the time that the masses of people everywhere are part of the Chinese experience and that it will be a unique experience to be among so many people. I was worried about sharing everything with thousands of others. But I was worried for nothing. Only one place came close to the masses of people thing: the Forbidden City. So I am sorry to say that we didn’t go in. It seems almost shameful to visit Beijing and not go to the Forbidden City. Well, in actual fact, we did go. We just didn’t go in.



It was our last day in Beijing. We couldn’t get a taxi and after the previous day’s efforts, we didn’t feel like covering the three kilometres on foot. We ended up in a rickshaw that took us on a tour of the hutongs (a useless exercise considering we had just spent four nights sleeping in the hutongs) and then dropped us quite far from Tiananmen (after the obligatory over charging). As we approached the square, we started to see more and more people and tour groups converging on the same spot. We walked with them nearly as far as the entrance. At that point Micha balked and refused to go on. Sheep that I am, I was initially surprised as it hadn’t even occurred to me that we wouldn’t go. Due to the thousands of other people that also wanted to see this national treasure, we decided not to join them. We will just have to come back. We certainly didn’t see everything on our list.



I started learning Chinese three years ago. This was my graduation present to myself. Micha was reluctant all along. Two years ago we were supposed to visit China but Micha wanted to visit India. I bought the lonely planet travel guide for China but we ended up in India for five weeks. This time I was determined to let nothing stand in my way. Micha started talking about South America. (What? Nice enough place, I’m sure. Spanish is probably a lot easier than Chinese and you don’t have to learn a new system of reading. Who knows? Maybe in the future? But not this time!)



I can’t speak Chinese but the little that I can and being able to write a bit gave a new dimension to our trip. People really opened up to us, it made an enormous difference. The Chinese people were mostly friendly and helpful anyway but we had more interaction with people and service was usually better too. I got the impression that people were never sure how much I actually understood and decided to err on the side of caution giving me a lot more credit than I deserved. When asking questions, I did usually manage to get my meaning across. I unfortunately rarely understood the reply.



Another reason that it took so long to visit China was because at first I thought that I would go there to study. That I would ask for a year of absence and study in Beijing. After deciding that this is totally impractical, I was trying to work out how to get two or three months leave from work and do a semester of study instead. It took me a while to reach the conclusion that I don’t really want to spend my summer studying Chinese in a small classroom (probably hot and stuffy). I could just go on a holiday instead!



Six or seven weeks budget travel around China, suits me! Doesn’t suit Micha. Not at all. We compromise on three weeks. Due to time restraints and because China is such an unknown, I ordered the entire trip over the internet. It all seemed really easy. Too easy even. I wondered what would go wrong? I had never done this before. I have just ordered a hotel, here and there. Usually we don’t book ahead in Asia at all. We just turn up and hope for the best. This time, maybe because of our advancing years (??) but also because of our new-found appreciation for comfort and the fact that we really do need a holiday, I just threw spontaneity to the wind and arranged a comfortable passage through China. Flights left on time, rooms were as promised, connections all connected. Hardly any complaints. So efficient.



I was really impressed with my travel agent skills but also with China. I think that China is changing so fast that even things written one year ago are no longer relevant. Just for the record, we stayed mostly in three star hotels. All were clean, with pleasant design. Nothing was broken: toilet, air conditioning, hot shower, etc., all worked.



We also didn’t see a lot of pollution – at least not always where we expected to see it. The weather in Beijing was very pleasant. We stayed in the center in the hutongs next to Jingshan and Behai parks. For the first few days the sky was blue and it wasn’t too hot. The evenings were cool and fresh. Lovely. We liked the hotel. We had a nice sized second floor room around a courtyard in the Chinese style. The guesthouse was opposite Jingshan park. One evening I climbed to the top of the hill in Jingshan and watched the sunset. There was also a good view into the Forbidden City.



On our first afternoon in Beijing we went out to find an ATM and only found our way back to the hotel many hours later. We walked mainly through the town and hutongs around our hotel. We eventually found an ATM and had our first Chinese meal. The menu was only in Chinese and I am not really familiar with Chinese menus but we managed and had quite a tasty meal. We also managed to avoid the dreaded plate of bones (more on that later). I pointed a lot at the dishes on the adjoining table. They had ordered a big fish in ginger, they had a huge amount of food on the table. I was interested to see that the waitress wrapped the leftovers for them to take home. One of the diners appeared to be a hospital patient and during the meal was slowly shedding his bandages under the table. The treatment at any rate seemed to have been a success. They were toasting each other with copious amounts of clear alcohol that had bits of gold leaf floating in it.



China has a lot of green vegetables – all the usual ones but also a lot that I didn’t know. All seemed to make tasty side dishes. We ate a lot of broccoli, asparagus and cabbage while in China. Also eggplant with different sauces. You don’t really have to eat meat at all. You can just eat vegetable dishes and rice. Fried rice is usually quite tasty but it has little bits of meat in it.



On our second day in Beijing, we took a car to the wall. We told the driver that we didn’t want any stops at factories or tombs on the way. We wanted to spend most of the day on the wall. The weather was good so we hurried off to the wall as rain was forecast after that. We had nearly three hours on the wall with the sun beating down relentlessly on our heads. There wasn’t any shade so we made a mad dash from guard tower to guard tower trying to get out of the sun. It may have been better to visit on an overcast day after all. But it was wonderful, wall as far as the eye could see, blue skies, green forests all around, and very few people, made for a memorable day.



We had been warned not to go to Badaling because of the crowds. So we went to Mutianyu. This was a good choice. The wall has been restored and is easy to walk. You can see from the photos, that there were not many people there at all. We didn’t find the vendors as annoying as reported. In fact we weren’t overly bothered by people selling things anywhere in China. Maybe it was because we weren’t interested in buying anything anyway. I didn’t find many souvenirs that I liked. The starting price is usually outrageously high and every purchase involves a lot of bargaining. It wears you down. Most of the goods on sale are freely available in markets at home, usually at about the same price. Plus you don’t have to carry it. In any event, I didn’t find Chinese vendors to be pushy or rude at all.



We went up to the top tower by cable car. You can walk it of course, but we never for a moment considered doing such a thing when there is a perfectly nice cable car waiting to take you up. We thought we might walk down from the lower cable car station. We started walking down, from tower to tower, toward the cable car station in the distance. After about two hours we suddenly lost site of the cables and asked somebody where the station was. He indicated that it was at the very top and for one awful moment we looked back up at the long way we had just descended and thought that we were going to have to retrace our steps. It seemed I was going to have to die on the wall, as there was no way that I would ever have been able to make it all the way up again.



We realized fairly quickly that if we could see it before it must be around somewhere, so we just went back up to the last guard tower we had passed and sure enough there was the station on the side. We came back down on a slide which was really good fun. I had a brake and could control the speed. It was quite a long ride, about 10 minutes. Nearly every turn had a bored youth smoking a cigarette and playing with his phone. In China there is a job for everyone.



On the way back I impressed on the driver that we wanted to eat lunch where the Chinese people eat. So he promptly took us to a restaurant full of westerners. I ordered a popular tofu dish which I didn’t really like and Micha made it be known that he doesn’t like tofu at all. We also ordered a chicken and vegetable dish which when it came turned out to be a plate of bones mixed with a few vegetables and sauce. We were to have this type of meal more than once in China.



We got back to Beijing late afternoon and in the evening went to see the stands of strange and wonderful food on Wangfujing Dajie. We had been walking everywhere in Beijing, the taxis were busy so we walked the three or four kilometres there. When we got there we saw all the usual weird animals on sticks, the insects and scorpions were all there. We didn’t eat any of these things, even though it was right about the time to eat dinner and we were hungry. Just after that we turned into a small, stuffy, alley of more food stands and restaurants. I don’t know if it was the starfish on skewers or the all pervading smell of cooking and teeming humanity but we both started to feel quite ill and had an urgent need to get out of there as quickly as possible.



We beat a hasty retreat. We were really very hungry but just couldn’t face a Chinese meal. So our second night in Beijing saw us eating McDonalds. Yes, I know, unbelievable, but if you could see some of our other dining options out on the street, you would surely understand. Later in our trip we met a Danish family that had a similar experience in Shanghai. In their case, it was the barbequed bats that sent them running to McDonalds.



After our McDonald’s dinner it was quite late and we decided to take a taxi back. For reasons unknown we couldn’t get a taxi to stop. We walked for a bit. The crowds were thinning out. The shops were closing up. It was about 10 o’clock. We walked past a famous Peking duck restaurant and we looked in through the glass like two hungry orphans, wishing we had had the good sense to eat there. We ended up walking all the way back to the hotel through the dark, deserted streets but we felt safe. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of crime here and we never felt threatened.



We spent nearly an entire day in the Summer Palace. The weather by now was overcast and grey but the Summer Palace was beautiful nevertheless. The area near the gate for the first kilometer into the park is quite crowded but then the crowds drastically thin out and you have hours of pleasant green walkways around the 11 kms of the lake. We walked about half way round the lake and then walked back. The park had many bridges, covered walkways, a great variety of trees and weeping willows dipping into the water all along the path.



The parks in Beijing are many and large. Beijing itself is very green. All the way to the Great Wall and back there were forests and tree-lined roads. On the way from the airport into Beijing, as we drove along a long, sunny road, lined with trees on both sides, I had the feeling, still slightly groggy from the flight, that I was driving through France.



We had our breakfast in the room on the second floor of the hotel where you can see the pagoda in Jingshan park through the window. I usually eat yoghurt and cereal, sometimes toast. You can also get Chinese food and pancakes as well as eggs done in different ways. It is always a bit too greasy for me in Beijing. They like the food that way. In the rest of China the food is less oily.



During our stay in China we usually ate quite a good Western breakfast and then Chinese food in the evenings. We didn’t snack very much. The street food looked quite good but is practically all fried. There is a lot of fruit, some of it looking suspiciously large. In many of the places we visited, vendors set up little ovens in the evenings and barbequed skewers of unidentified meat. We were never sure what the meat was so we didn’t try them. Chicken feet are a very popular snack here. You can get them in all sorts of variations everywhere you go. You can also get instant noodles everywhere. Here they don’t bother with the small sized cups they sell in the West, here they have giant sized containers. Very popular. Once we got a can of pepsi and a large container of instant noodles from an airline while waiting because our flight was delayed. Micha gave the noodles to the cleaner. He was so happy, he had tears in his eyes. Probably full of MSG, another favorite here. MSG is often placed on the table with the other condiments so that people can sprinkle it liberally over their food. In preparation for my trip to China, one of the first things I learnt to say was: I don’t want MSG -- Wǒ bù yào wèijīng – but I never needed to say it.



After our abortive trip to the Forbidden City and after not being able to take an iconic photo of the Gate of Heavenly Peace because it was partly covered by tarpaulins in preparation for National Day, we decided to take a taxi to the Temple of Heaven. For reasons that I was not able to understand the taxi driver wouldn’t take us there and only reluctantly agreed to take us to a shopping area which was the last choice on my list. (My list is made up of names and addresses in Chinese that I have written out in fairly large script. Most of the hotel cards and printed directions use ridiculously small print and neither I nor the taxi drivers can read them. I realized I needed something more when one of the taxi drivers nearly set the hotel card on fire with his lighter in an effort to better see the writing. Micha lent him his reading glasses and I started “the list”. )



So we ended up at Sanlitun. Most of the shops appeared to be big-brand name shops selling similar goods as at home, with similar prices too. This didn’t interest us but we eventually found the center with all the imitation stuff at vastly reduced prices and with questionable quality. Exactly what we were looking for. We only wanted to buy a few things that we needed for the trip, sport shoes and rain jackets in case of bad weather. Micha quickly bought all of these items, haggling fiendishly, paying 50 percent or less of the original asking price and revealing his inner shopper in the process. He ended up buying quite a few things. I went for a pedicure and foot massage and he continued his shopping trip buying all manner of useless things and finally snagging two “Gucci” bags on the way out. This last purchase really floored me because they were exactly the same, one in brown and one in black, made of hard “leather” that would take up a good part of my suitcase. Plus I didn’t like them. We ended up leaving them for the girls on the desk at the hotel. They were well pleased.



On our last evening in Beijing we took a taxi to the university area of Beijing to meet a friend for dinner. Ruoyun took us to one of the branches of the famous Peking duck restaurant, Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant. You can’t make a reservation there. She had to go two hours beforehand to secure a place. We had a wonderful meal. Apart from the delicious duck, she ordered a variety of other dishes, all very good. We learnt to wrap up the duck in little pancakes and eat them with assorted dipping sauces. Every diner is issued with the birth certificate of the duck that they are eating. Bit macabre. Should be a death certificate really. But the food was great and we had a nice time with Ruoyun and her friend. It was a perfect finish to our four days in Beijing and probably the best meal that we ate in China.


Additional photos below
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29th September 2012

NOW YOU HAVE TOUCHED THE SURFACE
Interesting to read your perceptions of Beijing as part of a tour group...touching the surface. Staying next to Jinshan Park would have been great. Maybe next time you can get under the surface...you'll be glad you did!
4th October 2012

Part of a tour group?
Not me. I travel independently.

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