Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China, lies in the northeastern part of the country, at the foot of the Yanshan Mountain and not far from the East China Sea. It was my introduction to China, a country reputed as being difficult for independent travellers.
The drive in from the airport confirms reports that anything that was derelict was carted away as part of a massive beautification program for the 2008 Olympics. The avenues are wide, the landscaping lush, the architecture daring. Today the city shines like a new penny.
A public awareness campaign has been going on for years to discourage people from spitting on the street, throat clearing, butting in line, staring at foreigners, tossing rubbish, and smoking indoors. A few people still do these things, of course, but I’m told “everyone knows they shouldn’t and young people in particular don’t want to be like that anymore”. It certainly is one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever seen. People are well dressed and young women in particular wear very stylish clothes and shoes. This is no longer a society with a uniform look.
The biggest obstacle for foreigners is the language; most Chinese don’t read or understand English so you always need to carry written notes in Mandarin indicating where you are staying, where you want to go, and how you hope to get there.
You also need to be a ‘smart’ traveller in Beijing. On my first morning a rickshaw driver tried to scam me, telling me I owed him 30 times the agreed upon price for a short ride from my hotel to Tiananmen Square. I didn’t pay it and our parting wasn’t friendly but I later heard that this behavior is common. Friendly people will ask you to have tea with them and then leave you with an extravagant bill. Others will try to scam you into buying a little bag of dried fruit for a crazy price. So you need to be alert.
What I found most difficult was catching a taxi. Even when a hotel doorman flagged one down, the driver usually took off when he realized the client wasn’t Chinese. For the driver, It simply wasn’t worth the hassle and besides, many others were always waiting for one. I took to bribery, jumping in the car and holding out double the fare before holding up the address in Chinese. Even though tipping is just about illegal, I always gave one as part of my own little public education campaign to encourage them to stop for westerners.
The city has an excellent metro system and maps inside the trains are in English and stations announced in English. When I found myself at the botanical gardens with no way to get back to the city but by bus, a young woman appeared from nowhere and helped me find one that would get me to the metro station and I pushed my way into it along with everyone else and survived.
Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Tiananmen Square is the largest public square in the world. It is famous because of the images flashed around the globe of tanks making their way down the street and onto the Square to put an end to student protests in 1989, a dark moment in recent Chinese history. The Square surrounds Mao’s Mausoleum, the Great Hall of the People and the Forbidden City.
Most visitors cross the Square to get to the Forbidden City (now officially called the Palace Museum) through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which is under the big photo of Mao. The Forbidden City is a must-see on everyone’s itinerary. It’s over 600 years old and during the Ming and Qing dynasties 24 emperors ruled the whole country from here. It took 14 years for 300,000 labourers to build it (all these great wonders come at incredible cost) and today is the most magnificent ancient architectural complex in the country and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
When you go through the first gate you will see a couple of lineups for tickets and probably be approached by people wanting to be your tour guide. Having a guide may be a good idea but I suggest you make the arrangement in advance with your hotel. If you don’t have a guide you can rent an audio tour, which you pick up after you purchase your ticket.
After you walk through the Gate of Heavenly Purity you enter the inner court, which provides three routes for you to take. There are 29 halls to visit, the three most important being the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Complete Harmony and Hall of Preserved Harmony. I can’t stress enough how enormous the place is and with more than 9,000 houses you do need to be vigilant so as not to miss sections.
There are lots of stories about the place, such as the Palace of Complete Happiness being the exclusive home for ‘common’ concubines. The whole place is surrounded by a magnificent moat.
The Great Wall
The Great Wall, known to the Chinese as the ‘Long Wall of Ten Thousand Li’, is one of the Wonders of the World and the most popular site in China for foreign visitors. They started building the wall 2700 years ago to protect China against invaders and construction continued up to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when the Great Wall stretched some 6,400km to become the world’s largest military structure. The construction of the wall is considered to be a masterpiece that required great engineering ingenuity and (again) the labour of many.
There are different ways to approach the Wall. Badaling, 60 km north of Beijing, is the most developed of all the wall sites and where most tour groups go. I chose to hire a car and driver through my hotel and go to Mutianyu, which is 90 kilometers from Beijing and where there are not many tourists. Some of the sections there have not been rebuilt. There is a cable car up to the wall and since Bill and Hillary Clinton used it I figured it would be safe; you can also hike up the 1,000 stairs.
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The very doable Shanghai, China
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I spent 2 ½ hours up on the wall and that worked well for me. You really do have a sense of awe just being up there. Like it is a picture you have seen for as long as you can remember and then suddenly you are touching it.
I bought tickets to the Beijing Opera and the Legend of Kung Fu at my hotel’s tour office and had two lively evenings seeing them. The opera was called “Havoc in Heaven” and I can only describe it as being ‘weird’ for aside from operatic singing it includes acrobatics, martial arts, dance, mime, and hilarious costumes and makeup. Seemed a bit like vaudeville to me but interesting.
I really enjoyed The Legend of Kung Fu at the Red Theatre, which they describe as being an extravaganza. It is a mix of ballet and martial arts and is a story of a young boy who wanders outside an ancient temple somewhere in China dreaming of becoming a Kung Fu master. The performance is an appropriate introduction to a country where martial arts as a method of self-defense goes back some 4000 years.
The National Museum of China, which is across the road from Tiananmen Square, has outstanding exhibitions of the history of China and provocative ones about the country today. Some exhibits (or lack thereof) are sure to raise lots of issues.
Other things to do
I stumbled onto Dr. Sun Yat-sen Park, which is on the western side of Tiananmen Square, and enjoyed a peaceful couple of hours recuperating from my visit to the Forbidden City. There is also the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, and the Botanic Gardens, although I would skip the latter even though it is a fun place to watch Beijing families on a Sunday afternoon. Everywhere people are taking posed photos of one another.
There is some hype about seeing the Hutongs, the “disappearing side streets”, but it is much easier and more real to visit traditional streets in Shanghai. There is lots of great dining and you probably want to try the infamous Beijing duck. I also had fun just being out-and-about, watching people come and go.
One of every five people on the planet lives in China and Chinese tour groups are everywhere, each person in a group wearing an identical hat and led by a guide holding up a flag. Beijing is a fine way for foreigners to be introduced to a country that has recently gone through an incredible transformation and deservedly swaggers a bit because of its achievements.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012