Monday, 13 February 2012

Days 160 to 163: Arrival Into Beijing

And so, enter China.

As Burness and I arrived in Beijing, we agreed: this is the big unknown. After over a month getting familiar with India, and the months before in the smaller unknowns of various south-east Asian countries, China was set to be a change of pace and a step into the unknown. Of course, it gets plenty of media attention these days, we'd spoken to a number of people who had been there recently, and for a few years I've taken a strong interest in its mid-20th Century history under Chairman Mao, but none of these gave us much of an idea of how it would feel to walk in its cities. Would Beijing be a chaotic mess? Would English be widely spoken? Would its alleged Wonders be world-beaters or the hyped hysteria of a billion-plus people? And would Burness be able to moderate his drinking during eight hours of flying?

The answer to these first few questions will make themselves known, but the last one was a strong "no". Upon arriving at Beijing Capital International Airport at 1pm, after an early morning flight from Colombo, which stopped over at Bangkok, Burness had found himself quite drunk after a sleepless overnight flight filled with Black and White Russians (i.e. the drink: Kahlua was served on board, he explained, thus giving him no other option). As he slurred his words, stinking of booze as we stood by the baggage carousel, I realised he had become a liability, and would have jettisoned him had I not just won a bet - winning two pints - for him not being up to date with his blog by the time we'd arrived in China. So entering into the unknown with my drunken associate, we hopped aboard the very affordable airport express, figured out the subway system, and found ourselves on the cold streets of Beijing.

Let it not be understated that this is February, and Beijing in February is very much experiencing winter. After months of warm temperatures, China is the first cold country we've visited, and it was quickly clear that Danielle's timely visit during India, bringing me a £10 jacket she'd bought in Primark, was the only thing saving me from being in a T-shirt in freezing conditions. Added to the cold was an unexpected stillness. Sure, Beijing is hardly a sleeping city, but the chaos of people and traffic were not immediately apparent, and to be honest, in our four days there, it never truly emerged. Beijing is not Bangkok, it is not Jakarta, it is not New Delhi. The streets are wide, the driving relatively orderly, the cars in good order, and the bustle was what the West might regard as civilisation. I'd expected Beijing to be fairly wealthy and efficient, but this exceeded it. Burness had expected something like a Chinese version of Delhi, and was in a mild state of shock.

We serendipitously found ourselves in the Jade Youth Hostel very near the Forbidden City. A hotel converted into a youth hostel, we'd actually been trying to find a Lonely Planet selection but unintentionally stumbled upon the Jade Youth Hostel instead. At 50 RMB (£5) a night for a four-bed dorm that only ever had the two of us in it, it was a bargain, especially with the spotless rooms, comfortable beds, and 6 RMB beer sold. Despite a slight lack of atmosphere, the sheer comfort makes it one of the best hostels I've ever stayed in, especially given its proximity to the Forbidden City, my next Wonder
And so, after checking in and checking on Burness's sobriety (slowly improving) we went for a meander by my next Wonder. And I can confirm that, yes, it's pretty big. After a good 20 minutes or so, we made it to Tiananmen Square, reputedly the world's largest square. It's pretty big, but not quite the jaw-dropping expanse of open space I'd expected. Apart from a few statues and a flag, there's not much except concrete and a load of people.

And there were a whole load of people there when we wandered by. Access inside was blocked by police too. What was this? Had our travels coincided with another famous display of Chinese rebellion? No, the crowds were just tourists, mostly Chinese, there to watch the sunset ceremony of the flag-lowering. A bunch of soldiers march out the Gate of Heavenly Peace facing the square and lower the Chinese flag. Lovely.

Even more lovely was the popularity Burness and I suddenly attained by duos of lovelies. Lovely Chinese girls, upon seeing us stride handsomely by, engaged us in conversation. Their English pretty good, first one pair and then another, began making friendly conversation, which eventually led to an invite to join them for a coffee. This was despite my not-indistinct lack of interest and Burness's sobering-up surliness. The second pair I eventually had to fairly abruptly walk away from despite their pleads - yes, pleads - to join them for coffee. "What harm could it do?" Burness said to me, a little agitated by this flagrantly squandered opportunity. "Read the Lonely Planet," I told him, and upon getting back to the hostel showed him a small boxed section detailing a scam in which alleged students of English entice men into tea or coffeeshops that end up having absolutely extortionate bills. I'd heard about the scam independently about a year ago, and after months of travelling and developing a wise cynicism, was fairly sure that if two sets of pretty girls, in very quick succession, had immediately latched onto us next to a major tourist attraction, then we might safely be suspicious. Burness looked displeased, suggesting that they were just being friendly and had just been instantly attracted to our rugged good looks. Even he, surely, was not convinced by this argument. I suggested to Burness that if he wanted to recapture this unique opportunity, he need only return to Tiananmen Square the following day for the flag-lowering, and he could see how much this friendly coffee and chat really cost, but so far he has declined to do so ("No, I will not be your wingman.").

The following day, our first full one in Beijing, we returned to Tiananmen Square, now free of English students desperate for our company. Facing the huge square is the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the large portal leading to the Forbidden City, first built 600 years ago but the current incarnation from a mid-20th Century reconstruction, which we entered, to begin our first glimpse of the Forbidden City.

We made our return visit two days later, and a full review of this candidate Wonder will follow. In between was another Wonder, one of the big ones - the Great Wall of China. Being so large, the Great Wall has several trips scheduled to several different sections of the Wall, but for our debut we selected the most touristy part, about an hour north of Beijing, called Badaling. Again, full details will be forthcoming on my eventual review, but I will say that we were both seriously impressed. Badaling might be the tacky part, that in summer is packed solid with tourists, but I found the tackiness oddly appealing, and when on the Wall itself it didn't really matter. Plus, being freezing cold and winter, as soon as we moved away from the entrance to the Wall, the crowds quickly thinned. At one point, we were the only people there. Alone, at the most visited section of one of the world's premier tourist attractions!

Foodwise, Beijing has been a mixed bag, with mixed being the key word. Every meal we've had has been different. Beijing has a whole load of different foods and styles, with many of them being entirely different to what we're used to, despite having travelled throughout much of Asia. Added to this is the distinct lack of written or spoken English. The very first restaurant we tried had a menu only in Chinese, with staff speaking only Chinese. We'd barely had a minute to gather our thoughts when the owner chucked us out! He gestured wildly for us to get out and we stubbornly pretended to not understand what he was getting at until another guest explained to us, in decent English, that he was busy and didn't want foreigners in his restaurant. Don't worry, I petrol bombed his restuarant later that evening. But it has taught us to at least go for restaurants that look as though they have pictures, and this has done us well since. We still have little idea what we're ordering, and have frequently got the quantities extravagantly wrong (don't worry, always on the excessive side - we haven't gone hungry), but have at least managed to point at a picture and receive food. And it has, overall, been good, and occasionally excellent. But because I'm not a food blogger and have no idea how to write about food, I'm not going to describe any.

And that is our first few days in Beijing. Some cold weather, some good food, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, and a decent hotel underpinning it all. But, for now, it's a wave goodbye to Beijing. We'll be returning soon enough, in around a week, but suddenly an even greater mystery awaits: North Korea. China, the Big Unknown? Never. North Korea, with its doors virtually closed to the outside world, is surely one of the most mysterious nations in the world. And so for a week, a tour awaits, the only way someone like me is able to visit as a tourist. Goodbye to the cold streets of Beijing, hello to the Cold War relic of the streets of Pyongyang...


  1. We were at the Great Wall in August 2005... so humid, it almost murdered me climbing up some of the steps. I've no idea how anybody wearing armour ever managed it.

  2. They didn't, or at least not much. The history of the Ming Wall parallels a time of military incompetence and corruption. When the dynasty fell, only 10% of the roster were actually fit for duty (or even real people).

    That said, I can only imagine that August is a tough time to visit, with the crowds and the heat. I think I've been lucky to come during winter.

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