China’s Greatest Hits: Sightseeing in Beijing

My overland trip through Central Asia was going to have one major difference from the rest of my travelling – I was going to be on a tour, travelling with a bunch of other people. After travelling solo for so long, I was actually quite excited to be returning to some sort of a schedule where there was a little less uncertainty at the beginning of each day. I was also going to be going through some countries where English is not as common as it is in places like Thailand and Vietnam – in that sense, they’re not places I’d be able to visit at all unless I was under some sort of guidance.

When I arrived back at the hotel after my trip to Beijing Zoo, I was greeted by our guide, a Chinese woman whose English name was Snow. She led me into another room where some of the other travellers were waiting, so I took a seat and waited for everyone to arrive. There were thirteen people in our tour group – two girls from America, two couples from the UK, and then four girls and two guys who were Australians. Snow briefed us all about the Chinese part of our trip, and talked to us about what we wanted to do. The tour I was on was a little different to most – there was no strict set itinerary, and each individual was allowed to chose whatever they wanted to do, and decide how they wanted to fill their time in between the train journeys between cities. However, there was a unanimous vote to see China’s most popular tourist attractions: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall of China.

***

The following day was supposed to be quite cool and overcast, so we decided to hold off on our journey to the Great Wall until we had better weather. So on our first morning as a group, we met Snow at the hotel and then walked to Tiananmen Square. We were told it was the largest city square in the world, and could hold at least one million people. There’s also a flag pole where a flag raising ceremony is held at sunrise every morning – Snow told us we could attend it tomorrow morning if we wanted, but I decided that after Angkor Wat I had already played my “awake at sunrise” card for this month. The square itself was an interesting space though, not dissimilar to places like Martin Place back home in Sydney, although exponentially bigger – I was informed that the vast space in front of us was only half the square, and that it continued on the other side of the central monument, a memorial dedicated to the people who died in the Chinese Peoples Revolution, and the mausoleum of Chairman Mao, which has thousands of visitors every day, coming to pay respects to the former leader. However, I was surprised to find that many Chinese people still don’t know about the fatal student protests that happened in that very square in 1989. For me, it was a shocking example of just how much censorship the Chinese government imposes on its population – and here I was thinking how terrible it is that they block Facebook!

Myself in Tiananmen Square.

Myself in Tiananmen Square.

The Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City.

After having a wander through Tiananmen Square, we crossed the road to the Forbidden City. The name sounds more intimidating than it really is – it simply comes from the fact that the Forbidden City was former the home of the Chinese Emperor, and therefore the common people were forbidden from entering. Snow took us through the City, pointing out some of the finer details in the architecture and design, and telling us stories about the history of the buildings and the people who once resided in them. The Chinese royalty haven’t lived in the Forbidden City since 1912, and it was opened to the public about a decade later. I also noticed that many of the buildings had scaffolding around them, indicative of reconstruction and repairs that were underway. It reminded me of places like the palaces in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, and the temples at Angkor Wat. When you see pictures of them, they look like impressive buildings that have withstood the test of time, but in reality they are in a constant state of upkeep and conditioning, something that you can only really see if you visit the places for yourself – or see amateur photographs that don’t make it into the advertisements or guidebooks.

Standing with a lion statue inside the Forbidden City.

Standing with a lion statue inside the Forbidden City.

The Imperial Garden inside the Forbidden City.

The Imperial Garden inside the Forbidden City.

After spending a couple of hours wandering through the Forbidden City, Snow took us to a garden behind the city called Jingshan Park, where there was a tower from which you could have a wide, panoramic view of the Forbidden City and the surrounding areas of Beijing. From that vantage point we could see just how bad the city’s pollution really is. Part of it may have been due to the overcast weather, but there was still an undeniable thick smog that clogged the horizon. It was still an interesting view in its own weird way, and didn’t diminish the enormity of the city – buildings and civilisation stretched on in every direction, as far the eye could see.

The view of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park tower.

The view of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park tower.

***

After lunch, we caught the delightfully efficient subway system out west to visit the Summer Palace, another ancient building that housed different members of Chinese royalty throughout history. We walked along the banks of the artificial lake while Snow told us stories and explained different aspects of the landscape and buildings. Within the Summer Palace was a building called the Tower of Buddhist Incense, a large tower which also provided us with spectacular views of another area of Beijing. Even though the air was thick with clouds and smog, we could still see quite far into the distance over the lake, and the weather gave the whole place a sacred and mystical feeling.

Inside the ground of the Summer Palace - an area about 4 times the size of the Forbidden City.

Inside the ground of the Summer Palace – an area about 4 times the size of the Forbidden City.

View from the Tower of Insence.

View from the Tower of Insence.

One thing I began to notice, after having it pointed out by some of my other companions, was that Chinese people just love to get photos with white people – whether or not they have your consent isn’t really even an issue. As I stood at the top of the tower, looking down at the scene beneath me, a noticed someone standing a couple of steps below me. She was a Chinese woman who had been standing next to me just moments ago – she had repositioned herself and was now holding her camera up to take a photo of herself, clearly angled to have me in the background. My reaction was one of both amusement and annoyance, and I rolled my eyes as I side-stepped out of the picture. It wasn’t the first time it had happened – sometimes they’re even quite direct and simply approach you and ask if they can have their picture taken with you. Sometimes I oblige, other times I can’t be bothered, but I found it kind of rude to try and take pictures like that without even having the decency to be discreet about it. The local Chinese tourists love to pose and have their photo taken in front of everything – from the biggest landmarks to the most basic and insignificant details. I just wondered how they would react to one of us coming up and shoving a camera in their faces and calling it a holiday snap.

***

Our second day in Beijing would see us headed to the Great Wall of China, which is about a two hour drive out of the city. There are a lot of different locations where you can visit and climb the wall, but Snow had suggested we go to an area called Mutianyu, which was a little further than the other more popular tourist section of the wall, but was supposed to be one of the most beautiful spots. All I can say is if Mutianyu wasn’t the most popular section, I’d hate to see how many people were at the bigger tourist area. There were lots of groups of Westerners, but there was also huge amounts of domestic tour groups from other parts of China, including a massive group of school children.

There were two options for getting to the top of the Great Wall – riding a cable car or climbing the steps all the way to the top. Most of the group wanted to get the cable car, but I kind of wanted to walk. “I want to be able to say ‘I climbed the Great Wall of China’, not ‘Yeah I took a cable car to the top ’cause it seemed like a lot of stairs'”, I had said, and luckily Kaylah, one of the American girls, had shared a similar sentiment. So the two of us set off to climb the stairs while the rest of the group piled into the cable car. I quite enjoyed the walk up with Kaylah, because it was the first time I’d really gotten to get to know someone from the group one on one. Since we had an uneven number of people in our group, I had ended up being by myself in my room at the hotel. While I loved the little bit of privacy, it meant that I’d only really interacted with my group members in group situations. I hadn’t really made new friends or gotten to know anyone since meeting Laura back in Cambodia, so it was fun to talk to Kaylah and get to know a little more about each other, making jokes here and there and motivating each other as we made the steep ascent up the hill to the Great Wall.

Snow had said it would take about half and hour, but together Kaylah and I managed to conquer the steps in just under twenty minutes. We thought it was an impressive achievement, regardless of how out of breath we may have been once we reached the top. We stopped for a moment to catch our breath, and take some photos of the magnificent view. It was completely different from the kind of views we’d had back in Beijing – the sun was shining brightly in a clear blue sky, and you could see the Chinese mountains and countryside stretch on in all directions. The wall itself was an interesting structure – after the trek from the ground level up to the top, I hadn’t expected there to be more stairs. But as the wall snaked up and down the contours of the hill, there were old flights of stairs going up and down, made even more peculiar by the fact that many of the flights tilted either left or right, as well as having vast variations in steepness from flight to flight. It made for an interesting and somewhat challenging walk along the wall, though the real challenge was trying to take a photo without a horde of other tourists in the picture.

Feeling very proud of myself after claiming the Great Wall of China.

Feeling very proud of myself after claiming the Great Wall of China.

At the highest point of the wall with our guide, Snow.

At the highest point of the wall with our guide, Snow.

We walked along a section of the wall, enjoying the views and taking photos, until we caught up with the rest of the group who were on their way back down. Kaylah and I continued on until we reached the highest major outpost that was accessible to tourists, and then made our way back to the bottom of the wall. However, instead of walking down, we decided to take the fun option and ride the toboggan down. It was a similar set up to theme parks in Australia like Jamberoo – a metal half-pipe tube that snaked down the mountain, which you rode down on a toboggan with a single lever to control acceleration and breaking. It was a fun way to reward ourselves after all the walking we’d done on the way up, even though we were slightly stifled by the Chinese tourists who weren’t as enthusiastic about gathering speed as Kaylah and myself. We just laughed it off and puttered along behind them, enjoying the fresh air, amazing views, and the fact that we’d just walked along one of the great wonders of the world.

***

The last stop of the day was the Ming Tombs, a huge mausoleum complex where thirteen of the sixteen emperors of the Ming dynasty were buried. We went down into the tombs to see the coffins, and visited the several exhibitions and museums, before piling back onto the bus and heading home. While we’d had two full days of sightseeing in Beijing, looking at maps and guidebooks and seeing all the other things we didn’t see made me realise just how huge a city Beijing is, let alone the enormity of the country of China. I’d had a couple of unpleasant experiences, but on the whole my visit to Beijing was interesting and enjoyable. Despite that, I definitely felt I was ready to get up early the next morning and begin our trek to Mongolia.

Huge coffins in the Ming Tombs.

Huge coffins in the Ming Tombs.

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Back to Square One: Life Lessons in Beijing

As the captain announced our descent into Beijing, I peered out the window and down at the thick layers of cloud that the plane was heading into. As we emerged from the other side of those clouds… well, it’s hard to be sure if we ever did. I’d heard about the high levels of pollution in Beijing, and as I stepped off the plane and looked out onto the smoggy runway, it was clear – unlike the air – that these tales had been no exaggeration. It took me a while to get out of Beijing airport, considering you have to take a short train trip to get from customs and passport check to the baggage claim area, but after about an hour I was on my way in a taxi. As we drove along the highways and into the heart of the city, I sat staring out the window in something close to a state of shock.

The sky was a distant memory, hidden behind a thick layer of cloud and pollution. It could simply have been overcast, except there was no chill in the weather, nor did the air feel particularly humid. But it was a different kind of heaviness, a weight that hung in the air unlike anything I’d ever felt before, and something that I have great difficulty trying to explain. But every now and then the blanket of smog would ease up a little, and the glowing disc of the sun would be visible through the haze, burning a deep, demonic orange and bleeding into the sky around it. Buildings and warehouses and construction sites whizzed past me on the roadside, and even the regular clusters of trees and other greenery didn’t help to diminish the feeling that I had landed in some kind of post-apocalyptic industrial realm. Even with a population of some 18 million people, all I could see was the gridlock vehicles on the highway, feeling slightly alone in the big grey smog. As far as first impressions go, I guess Beijing was living up to its intimidating reputation.

The view of the smoggy streets from my taxi.

The view of the smoggy streets from my taxi.

***

The next leg of my gap year was going to be a tour – the bucket list-worthy Trans-Siberian Railway trek, starting in Beijing and ending in St Petersburg, Russia. I had flown into China a day early, and had a full 24 hours to spend in the city before meeting my guide and the rest of my tour companions the following afternoon. After settling into the hotel room and taking a quick rest, I decided to go for a wander and see what I could discover, and make my comparisons between Northern and South-East Asia.

A short walk from where I was staying found me at the beginning to Wangfujing Street – one of the most famous and busiest areas in Beijing. Though of course, I had set out into the streets with nothing more than my trusted sense of direction and definitely without a map, and had stumbled across the strip by accident. I have to admit, it didn’t look much like what I expected from China. There was obviously a huge Western and/or American cultural influence on this particular street, with an Apple Store, Forever 21, and the Beijing Foreign Language Book Store. It kind of reminded me of the main strip of Pitt St back in Sydney, except it was four times as wide and probably at least ten times as long – I can’t say for sure, since I never made it to the end. There was the occasional car or bicycle nudging its way through the crowds, but for the most part it was a street heavy with pedestrian traffic.

The corner of the main crossing at the start on Wangfujing Street.

The corner of the main crossing at the start on Wangfujing Street.

Wangfujing Street.

Wangfujing Street.

After a short time I was approached by a small Asian woman, probably in her mid-twenties, asking me where I was from. The cautious, mistrusting nature I had developed in South-East Asia suddenly kicked in. Until now, I had just been thinking how less geared towards tourists this place had seemed. There were a few souvenir shops and English speaking shops and restaurants, but there wasn’t someone on every street corner trying to sell you things or screaming at you to get into their taxis. I’d also read that Chinese people are often just naturally curious about Western people, so as she asked a few more questions about myself, I began to slowly warm up to her. She told me her name was Charlie, and offered little bits of information about herself in return to all her questions. I let her walk along with me as wandered down the street.

“What are you doing? Are you shopping?” Charlie asked me as I gazed at the buildings round me, the neon lights developing their own glowing aura within the clouds of low-hanging pollution.
“I’m just looking for something to eat, actually.”
“Ahh… You want to try the night markets? They have some very good street food.”
“Umm…” I hesitated for a moment, but so far Charlie had seemed relatively genuine. Surely there was no harm in going for a little walk, right? “Sure, okay.”

Wangfujing is a busy street full of lights and colours.

Wangfujing is a busy street full of lights and colours.

Charlie lead me a short way to a street joining onto Wangfujing, lined with market food stalls on their side. The delicacies were like Khao San Road on crack – there were starfish, dried seahorses on skewers, and even scorpions that were so raw that their legs continued to wriggle and twitch. While I’d been game to try tarantulas served in a Cambodian restaurant, the street food is just one step too far for me, so I settled for a cob of corn. We wandered for a little bit longer, and Charlie suggested finding a place to sit down for a cup of tea or coffee. By this stage I was starting to feel a little more comfortable, so I followed her through another street and into a small tea house. There we sat and chatted for quite some time – we talked about ourselves, the kind of music we like and our different hobbies, about travelling and where we’ve been, and where we want to go, about China and the differences in our cultures. We had two pots of tea, and Charlie explained to me the subtle differences in the flavours, and the Chinese delicacy that is a good brew. Afterwards we also had a glass each of Chinese wine.

The street markets felt a little more touristy than the rest of what I'd seen of Beijing.

The street markets felt a little more touristy than the rest of what I’d seen of Beijing.

They have some bizarre street food in Beijing.

They have some bizarre street food in Beijing.

I was just thinking about how I hadn’t had wine in a little while, since the beer had been so much cheaper in South-East Asia, when our bill finally arrived. The waitress handed it to Charlie.”Oh, it’s not too much. Do you want to grab this?”
I have to take some of the blame – I wasn’t looking at the menu, so I failed to look the prices as Charlie had ordered. I was a little taken aback by the way Charlie just assumed I was going to pay, and when I looked at the bill and did a rough conversation from Chinese yuan to Australian dollars in my head, I nearly spat out my mouthful of wine.
“What the hell, Charlie? This isn’t cheap!”
She looked surprised, and stammered through her words for a moment. “This isn’t too much, this is what it usually costs for two people.”
I was skeptical. The total amount could have got two people blind drunk in a moderately priced bar in Sydney – it was a lot more than I was prepared, or willing, to pay for two pots of tea in China.

“Can we split it?” I’d asked her. Not for the first time on this trip, I cursed myself for going along with a girl on what could easily be interpreted as a date. I was not going to foot the whole bill for another night out, and especially not this one.
“Oh, I only have 100 yuan,” Charlie said as she offered me a few notes from her wallet. It was approximately $15, and only about a tenth of the total bill.
“That’s a start,” I mumbled to myself as I snatched the notes up, abandoning any pleasantries or niceties. The whole thing had gone pear-shaped, and only now – obviously too late – but my suspicions started to kick in. I even considered just walking out without paying, but I didn’t want to risk causing any more trouble for myself.

So I paid and stormed out of the tea house, Charlie hot on my heels.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” she said as she shuffled along beside me.
“Know what? How much if would be?”
“I’m sorry, I just thought that Australian are wealthy, I just wanted to show you some nice tea and Chinese culture.”
“I’m a traveller, Charlie. I’m on a budget. I don’t have that kind of money to waste on tea.” She almost seemed offended, as though I was devaluing her culture or tradition, but I refused to believe that Chinese tea should have costed so much in China.
“But, you can just ask your father to send you more money, can’t you?”
I was shocked. “Ahh, no? My dad doesn’t give me free handouts to waste on expen-”
“But you’re his only son!” Again, I was almost shocked into silence. Almost.
“Well I hate to break it to you but that’s not how it works in Australia!”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know Australia! I only know China!”

It was a slightly profound moment. Here we were, voices raised and arguing in the middle of Wangfujing Street, and suddenly I was the one who felt bad for Charlie. I was getting quite rude and annoyed, but I hadn’t even considered that maybe she was just acting on the limited knowledge that local Chinese people seem to have of Western culture and customs. Maybe all abroad Australians are very wealthy compared to her. The bill had been paid for, yet I suddenly felt guilty for berating her in an attempt to take out my anger to feel better about the situation.

I let out a long sigh. “Okay. It’s fine, just forget it.”
“I’m really sorry, Robert. I had a really good time chatting to you. Maybe we can go to karaoke, I can buy you a beer?”
I still couldn’t figure her out, but I wasn’t going to risk my wallet taking another beating. “I should really get back to my hotel now, I’m feeling pretty tired.”
We awkwardly bid each other farewell after our argument, and I quickly paced home through the backstreets of Beijing, the sense of excitement I’d had from being in a new city replaced with the awful feeling of having another country and currency get the better of me.

***

The following afternoon I met with the tour group I would be travelling the Trans-Siberian with, and our guide gave us a run down on the basics of the city. As she warned us about some of the potential tourist traps and scams, I hung my head in shame as she outlined a scenario so similar to the one I had experienced last night – it was almost as though our guide had been there and was recounting the scene blow by blow. I’d been warned that there are lots of false taxi services at the airport who will try to charge you exorbitant amounts to get from the airport to the city, and I had been so proud of myself that I had managed to spot and avoid them and make my way to the hotel in a legitimate taxi. So it was rather deflating to learn I had quickly fallen into the very next scam to come along after that.

It turned out to be more than just a shallow than a culture clash, but I guess I leant something from the experience in the end. In these unfamiliar places, learn to trust your suspicious instincts. Though I can only hope that every tourist trap I do fall for will better prepare me for avoiding the next one.