11.01.2010 - 14.01.2010 -18 °C
A short blog for Beijing because even though I spent three full days there, I quite sensibly spent the first two recovering from the flu at the hostel. I was quite fortunate that I had a dorm all to myself for my entire stay because by this stage I had a heavy cough and it would have been pretty annoying for any would-be bunk mates. Not to mention that I didn't want to spread it to other travellers. It was also nice because there were two portable oil heaters in the dorm and I got to drag both of them right next to my bed - quite a bonus considering Beijing city was hitting around -22 C during the night.
I took a trip to a convenience store to buy several lemon based drinks as well as some Chinese throat lozenges. The latter I bought more for the amusing photo on the packet rather than to relieve my sore throat.
Chinese throat lozenges, only in China could a product be marketed with this photo on the packaging
The hostel was home to four cats which roamed freely around the courtyard and common room. Usually I'd be patting cats without hesitation, but I've become quite wary of animals while I'm overseas. It goes without saying I should keep away from strays, but even those with owners, you never know how well they are being taken care of with respect to vaccinations, deworming, fleas or other nasties. I did scratch one of them on the head but only because it sat and stared at me for ages with a tilted head and big cute eyes then meowed as if to say, "Why don't you like me?".
One of the resident hostel cats taking up the whole couch
At first, the people running the hostel weren't very friendly and appeared generally apathetic about their guests. But then all of a sudden they became really friendly and this mood change occurred only after I had a conversation with some other travellers in the common room about how I'd spotted some fake "good reviews" on the hostelworld website for some other hostels that had been obvisouly written by the hostel owners themselves. The staff members from this hostel were in the same room when I had that conversation and I noticed they had something that resembled a team-huddle afterwards. I also remembered that this hostel also had some really good reviews (hence why I picked it) that I though were a little undeserving. Hard to prove my suspicions, perhaps my imagination was running wild or they could have just been reminded that I was going to be writing a review on them.
Met a nice couple, Stefan and Sophie, at the hostel. They are students from Munich, Germany who are travelling around Asia during one of their breaks. They asked me to contact them if I pass through Munich so that we could at least catch up for a drink. Throughout my travels thus far, I have already aquired a long list of potential contacts in several European countries. I don't know if by the time I get there months from now, I'll actually feel comfortable contacting some of them. You never know if you will be greeted with a, "Josh who?", or "Josh! We've been waiting for you to get here!". Though I'm sure Stefan and Sophie will be of the latter category.
Stefan, Sophie and I at the hostel in Beijing
On my third day in Beijing I was feeling much better so I finally decided to get out of the hostel and see the main sights. Thankfully the Olympics had payed a visit to Beijing in 2008 which has resulted in an extremely foreigner-friendly transport system. Not only did railway stations in large cities have an English speaking ticket window (though almost always manned by the grumpiest, most apathetic person on earth) but also the Beijing Metro was really easy to use. It was even easier to use than the ones in Japan, and that's saying something.
The Xisi subway platform on Line 4 of the Beijing Metro
It was in Beijing when I finally had enough of the queue jumpers. I was buying a subway ticket from the manned ticket window because I didn't have coins for the automatic ticket machine, and a woman barged in front of me even though I was the only one in the queue and already up to the window. Up to that point, I was always either amused or caught so much by surprise by the queue jumpers that I had no time to react. Not only that but I am the type, or should I say, I was the type that liked to avoid confontations. This time, as soon as she started talking to the ticket man, I interrupted her by putting my hand between her face and the ticket window and said to her, "No no no. Wait your turn lady!", then I bumped her out of the way and finished buying my ticket. She didn't really react much, she just moved aside with a look on her face like if she'd just been slightly inconvenienced.
Immediately out of the Tian'anmen West subway station, I spotted the grandness that is the ironically named "Gate of Heavenly Peace" also known as just "Tian'anmen". It leads to the Forbidden City and faces directly on to Tian'anmen Square (which is where I see the irony due to that little incident just over 20 years ago). From there I could also see the National Centre for the Performing Arts (a.k.a "The Egg") and large flat open area that could only have been Tian'anmen Square. When I got closer and Tian'anmen revealed itself in all its grandeur, I woke up from my traveller's daze and truly realised I was actually in China. Flanked by four large Chinese flags on either side and still proudly displaying a large portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong in the middle, this gate has got to be the most classic and prominent symbols of Communist China.
First look at Tian'anmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace)
The National Centre for the Performing Arts ("The Egg")
Right outside of this gate, it was full of touts and scammers. Ignoring them completely seemed to work quite well around these parts, though sometimes a sharp, confident "Bu yao" would be required for the more persistant ones.
I have to admit, I was lucky it had snowed in Beijing because the Forbidden City looked quite awesome. I have seen pictures of it without snow and they don't compare to how I saw it.
Time for lots of photos now, which as we all know, each one tells a story of a thousand words. I won't bore you with the specifics of each gate, hall and building because there are so many of them that I would be here forever and you'd fall asleep. If you are really interested in the details, just google the Forbidden City and I'm sure you'll find the layout and names of each and every building, or perhaps you should actually visit Beijing yourself! All I will say, is that the Forbidden City, formally known as the Imperial Palace, was built around 1406 to 1420 and it was the permanent residence of the emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
First look inside the Forbidden City from the entrance
The snowy grounds within the Forbidden City
Walking through the central axis of the Forbidden city, it was a progression of gates and halls, each one with a specific purpose and a profound name (such as "Hall of Preserved Harmony"). Each of the halls in the central axis housed an Imperial throne, each one bigger and more grandious than the last.
Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest hall within the Forbidden City
The imperial throne inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony
The sun glistening through the statue decorations on the roof of one of the halls
The number of statues along roof ridges represented the status of the building. The maximum allowed was 10 statues and the only building in the Foridden City, and in fact all of China, allowed to have 10 statues was the Hall of Supreme Harmony. This hall was were the Emperors hosted their enthronment and wedding ceremonies.
The roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony with 10 statue decorations, the only one with this number in China.
Aside from the gates and halls, there were also plenty of ornaments and statues surrounding some of the buildings as well as the Imperial Garden at the very end of the main axis. The garden was probably my favourite part.
A Copper and Iron Lion Statue in front of one of the Halls, there was a pair of these on each side of the steps
A Copper and Iron Vat. There were lots of these situated next to the halls and they were apparently filled with water and used to fight fires, which occurred often due to their lack of lightning rods in those days
Huge lamps in Forbidden City
A 400 year old tree in the Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City
One of the four amazing looking pavilions in the Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City, there is one for each season, I forgot which season this one represented.
A gate along the side path parallel to the central axis
At this point, my camera started behaving strangely, showing almost no battery life left, to suddenly having plenty and at one point it shut down completely. I figured it was due to the extreme cold and I later read that my camera's optimum operating temperature is only between 0 to 40 C. Also, my fingers only have an optimum operating temperature of between 15 to 30 C so this combination made taking photos quite difficult on a -12 C day.
After leaving the Forbidden City, I headed across the road to Tian'anmen Square, the infamous site of the 1989 massacre. Before entering the square, you must pass through a metal detector and your belongings are searched and x-rayed.
The Tian'anmen Gate from Tian'anmen Square
Tian'anmen Gate and the National Flag on Tiananmen Square
Monument to the People's Heroes, Tian'anmen Square
Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, Tian'anmen Square
The Great Hall of the People (background) seen from the south side Tian'anmen Square
I can't say that Tian'anmen Square itself is much of a tourist attraction since it's just a huge open area with a building and monuments in the middle. For me, the interesting part was (perhaps a little morbidly) being on the spot where the massacre had occurred over 20 years ago. After leaving the square, I headed down the road a couple of blocks towards the Grand Hotel Beijing, which is quite a famous Beijing landmark.
The Grand Hotel Beijing
Intersection near the Grand Hotel Beijing
According to my calculations, the scene of the famous "Tank Man" incident during the closing stages of the Tian'anmen Square massacre, occurred at the above intersection, roughly where the silver car is located to the right of the bus. I wanted to take a photo from the famous angle at the Beijing Hotel (though from ground level) but I was already starting to attract funny stares from the police men patroling the footpath, so quite sensibly I decided to make a hasty retreat.
It was getting colder and darker, so I decided to head back to the hostel so I could get warm, have dinner and have an early night ready for my departure from China the next day.
Once again the subway saved the day for my trip out to the airport. A couple of really simple transfers and I was at the gates of the departure terminal. The Beijing airport is really quite flash. The departure terminal is a huge building with a dome-like roof supported by huge columns. The place is really clean and easy to navigate due to the English signage and the check-in counters are all set out really well in a long line of parallel counters.
The Beijing departures area, there is a whole other floor for arrivals right below this one
Well, that's that for China, a crazy country in which there was lots to like but plenty to dislike also.
My favourite parts were the amazing landmarks that I got to visit which had previously seemed almost fictional, like the Terracota Warriors, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tian'anmen Square and last but not least the incredible limestone hill formations around Guilin and Yangshuo in the Guangxi Province. I'll also never forget the surreal introduction I had to China as we sailed into Shanghai through the misty Pudong River. The local people that I did get to know were really friendly and welcoming, particularly the hostel staff in Guilin, Yangshuo and Badaling.
What didn't I like? Well that's easy, the queue jumpers, general rudeness, the traffic, blocked websites (youtube, facebook) and most of all, the constant spitting. I also have to confess that before I went to China, I didn't really like Chinese food, and now after a month of eating the real thing, my opinion hasn't really changed. There are certain dishes that I did like, quite a lot actually, but in general it's not my food of choice, especially their meat dishes which almost always come with lots and lots of chewy fat and/or bones still attached - Thanks, but no thanks!
Luckily I don't have to worry about offending the majority of the Chinese population because chances are this blog will be blocked by the sophisticated web filters employed by Chinese ISP's on orders from the Chinese government - I have after all mentioned the words Tian'anmen Square and massacre in the same page. This is not an exaggeration by the way, it is almost guaranteed to happen.
I only just barely scratched the surface of China, it is such a huge country and I was constantly reminded by people of all the amazing places I should have visited, but just didn't have the time to go - so perhaps I will return one day. One thing for sure, if I do return, it will definitely be in spring or summer! Though I really did appreciate the relatively small crowds at all the tourist sites due it being the low season.
Goodbye China! Onwards it is on to my next destination...