Ni-hao! We’ve been in China for five days now but it feels a lot longer (and in a good way, we’re not missing Western life just yet). A few well known facts about Beijing to get you started:
• It’s the Capital of China
• There are approximately 15 millions inhabitants
• It was the host of the Olympic Games in 2008
• Beijing is home to the Great Wall and Forbidden City
First impressions of Beijing are of an almost inhuman vastness, conveyed by the sprawl of apartment buildings, in which most of the city’s population are housed, and the eight-lane motorways that slice it up. The currency is the Yuan (pronounced ‘Whan’). It’s roughly 8 Yuan to 1 Euro. Culturally, we’ve observed more than just a few differences in the past few days. The list below is not intended to insult! In fact, these differences are part of the attraction of China (even if just to observe them, if nothing else):
• Spitting – the Chinese think nothing of hacking up a massive spit, deep from the back of their throat (even during mid conversation). It’s not very pleasant and unfortunately there’s no escaping it. Expect to hear this at least a handful of times in one day, if not more.
• Smoking – even in restaurants where it says ‘no smoking’, the Chinese will ignore and puff away. It’s everywhere. The rumour that smoking ‘might’ be bad for you is like a little secret nobody has let them in on yet.
• Fashion – a good few men walk around with their t-shirt tucked up. It's obviously understandable with the heat.
• Food – most animal parts are up for grabs (hooves, tongue, the head etc.). Spiders, lizards, seahorses, cochroaches etc. are all available at low prices. We got to try some fresh deep fat fried scorpion on Thursday. It was delicious.
• Dining – I’m a big fan of traditional Chinese music, so I was disappointed that none of the restaurants had any music at all. It leaves the atmosphere somewhat flat. Coupled with the constant noise of chairs being dragged in and out of tables on the marble floor, dining is more a case of ‘refuel and get out’ rather than a sensual experience. Table etiquette… we’ve seen diners dumping tissues, rubbish and even cigarette butts on the ground after they’re finished. Indoors…
• Toilet – stories of having to squat in a public toilet without any privacy or toilet paper are not completely unfounded. Bring toilet paper with you everywhere you go. I don’t know about you, but I just want to be able to go to the toilet with some dignity so I was very happy that the toilet in our apartment allowed you to sit down. Unfortunately it’s not designed to take any tissue, so that must go in a bin and anything larger than a small marble requires multiple flushes and a toilet brush to help it on its way to sewer heaven. Apologies if you’re eating…
• Staring – the visa card you sign when landing refers to us as ‘aliens’ and sometimes you feel like one. One surprise in Beijing is the lack of Western people. You can generally count the amount of Caucasian people on two hands at any one specific area, even popular tourist spots like the Great Wall. The Chinese don’t consider it rude to stare. We’ve had our pictures taken a couple of times which was funny. I’d have appreciated it a lot more had I been drunk at the time.
• Language – as expected it can be very difficult to get around due to a lack of English (and to be fair our lack of Chinese). They rely, naturally of course on the Chinese calligraphy, and not the Roman alphabet. With some planning however you can get by. A Chinese/English translation phrase book is very useful, and we would recommend having a local contact you can use for help when you need it (in our case it was our Air Bn’B host who was fantastic). I must add that the underground rail is fast, very cheap (only 25 cents for a trip), efficient and easy to use. The only downside is it’s packed most of the time.
Tuesday was a long, long day. Due to delays with both flights, our total travel time from leaving the house (thank you Barry for the lift at 7am) to arrival was just over 20 hours. We flew with Ethihad via Abu Dhabi. For both of us it was our first time to fly with them. Overall the service was fine, but nothing spectacular (it was no Virgin or Qantas). We arrived into Beijing just after 10am local time, Wednesday morning. We thought our bags had gotten lost as they took more than twenty minutes to appear, but thankfully they arrived. We booked an apartment via Air Bn’B and took a metered taxi out (our host told us in advance it was only 100 Yuan for an hour long drive, which is roughly €12.50). We decided to stay at a hutong, which is a traditional block of three to five apartments with a very small courtyard providing a common area. We would highly recommend it, and in particular booking with a local Chinese host. She helped us get from A to B and even booked two internal flights for us. You cannot book a flight using a foreign credit card unless you send a scanned copy of your passports and the visa card itself within two hours of booking. We didn’t feel comfortable sending copies of the visa, so thankfully our host booked instead and we paid her in cash. That afternoon, we had a sleep, shower and change of clothes before heading out to get acquainted with our surroundings. If you’re visiting Beijing (and I suspect a lot of China), bring a torch! A lot of areas away from the city are not well lit. We had a really nice meal for €5 including two drinks. We haven’t had it as cheap since mind you but there are bargains out there. We also got some free drama with this meal when a local refused to pay his bill. He shouted at the top of his lungs for a few minutes before eventually throwing his drink on the ground and storming out. Afterwards we took a walk around the shops before heading home for an early night. Beijing is at its best at night time. There are coloured lights dotted throughout most streets offering a Christmas feel. The little side streets and hot food stalls are really enjoyable to walk through.
We spent Thursday morning at the Forbidden City. During the five centuries of its operation, there were 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Ordinary Chinese were forbidden from even approaching the walls of the palace, hence the name. It’s one giant history museum and we really enjoyed the architecture, designs and side rooms filled with ornaments and relics. We only spent just over half a day here, but you could spend a lot more than that exploring the thousands of rooms.
[Not gonna lie, we stole this cool pose from two Chinese girls]
On Friday as we ventured out to one of the largest shopping areas in China, just by the Wangfujing station. We’d really recommend it, you’ve got a massive shopping mall with all the designer names including a BMW store (not that we spent a penny in the mall with our budget). The outdoor street section is a little like something you’d see in central London or New York. There is also ‘China Town’ style section filled with traditional cuisines and the previously mentioned insect dishes.
That afternoon we visited the Summer Palace. It’s a vast public park filled with traditional Chinese garden landscaping in addition to a number of temples.
Saturday was a 6am start, as we headed off to the Great Wall. There are three main sections you can visit. We avoided the most visited section, known as Badaling (too crowded, too many sales people and most of the wall here has been rebuilt in recent times taking away the authenticity of your visit). Instead we went to Mutianyu, a little further out, but much quieter and with most of its original structure still in tact. We took a cable car ride up (recommended given the steep ascent). With the heat and humidity, it’s challenging to walk even a small segment, but equally rewarding when you’ve climbed a good height. It’s impossible not to admire how spectacular the whole thing is, especially when you consider it was built in the 5th century BC. However it’s worth noting the thousands of poor Chinese people who died during the building process.
That night we ventured out to celebrate Alberto’s birthday (he turned 33 on Sunday). Our host recommended the Shicha Lake Area (aka Houhai). A wide range of bars and restaurants surround the lake, all lit up by coloured lights at night. There’s plenty of variety in terms of live bands playing e.g. Jazz, Rock, Pop etc. We failed to find a karaoke bar but a nice meal, a few mojitos and dancing with the locals = a great night had by all.
Overall and unsurprisingly, Beijing is a must visit. The pollution is obvious at times, but not enough to put you off. The Great Wall and Forbidden City have to be seen in person as pictures don’t do them justice. Despite the huge population, many locals we encountered were a friendly and welcoming bunch. One lady walked with us for almost ten minutes in order to show us to a book store we were looking for. ‘Welcome to China!’ at the end she told us. Love it. Another walked with us to a range of restaurants when we got stuck one evening. More than a few also know Ireland. It’s the ‘home of Westlife, and Riverdancing’, which is very cute.
There’s always downtime when you travel, and it’s important to relax as well. Alberto downloaded a few TV series and movies before we left. One show we have to recommend is called ‘The Strain’, which just recently launched on Fox TV in America. You can watch the episodes on the official website or download. It’s a cross between the Walking Dead, Salem’s Lot, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the videogame Resident Evil 4. If you like any of them, watch it now. Advertisement over (but do tell me if you watch it and what you think)! Today we decided to take it easy as we fly to Xi’an, our second destination. Originally we had planned to get the train down, but given that the price is roughly the same and you’re saving at least ten hours in transportation time, a flight was a no brainer. We’ll also fly to Shanghai but following that we’ll take a train south to Guilin finishing up in Hong Kong and Macau. So far so good, loving it China!
Lost in Translation: