On Beijing (Archive: 2. Aug 2010)

On Thursday morning, I flew to Beijing for a four day trip. On arrival, we were met by a suffocating combination of heat, humidity and pollution, like a dirty sauna. However, unlike Seoul, I was surprised to see very much greenery. We were sweating our way through Beijing, lost and confused trying to find the hostel. Compared to Seoul, where English is widely understood and signs in other languages are frequent, this was not the case here. We had a very limited vocabulary (Hello, bye, thank you, how much?, good, bad)and ten fingers each to communicate. Well, more than 2 hours later we arrived and cooled down at a very beautiful and calm hostel.

Day one was spent trying to figure out how things work and visiting downtown. Firstly, Tiananmen square. Getting in meant passing a lot of security checks – one in the subway station (every time you use the subway you need to get your bags scanned) and we were scanned a second time at the entrance of the square. The buildings around Tiananmen square were massive and grand (well, everywhere), and the square it had a soviet-feel to it. Big statues of revolutionaries marching, with determined faces, arms held out. We walked around the big square, full of not foreign tourists but rather Chinese national, out to see Beijing’s sights, including catching a shot in front of the portrait of the Great Mao. And there he was in his great glory, the leader who, according to public opinion nowadays, was 70% right and 30% wrong.
Later that night we wandered through “Wangfuching” district – modern China on display. We tried some different Chinese foods – but skipped the more adventurous ‘extreme eating’ options such as snakes, centipedes, beetles, bee cocoons, scorpions, silk worms… I think it’s more of a show-off rather than a taste thing.

Day two was the great Great Wall day. We hiked up the mountain and suddenly through the mist, there it was. It was a very misty and rainy day, but luckily we had almost 2 hours of visibility before everything closed up completely. The wall continued as far as we could see, and we walked along until the end of the walkable wall, until the part where nature took over. Seeing such a historic structure, built mostly in the Ming dynasty but as far back as 200 B.C., was truly amazing. Of course like most other attractions, it has become commercialized with many vendors selling “I climbed the Great wall” t-shirts – for some, there should be the ending “-wearing high heels”. By the way, the Wall, in contract to popular belief, is not visible from the moon. The apparent width of the Great Wall from the moon is the same as that of a human hair viewed from 2 miles away.
That night we went out to eat Peking duck – a delicious meal at a world-famous restaurant that has included guests such as Nixon, Kissinger, Kim Jong Il… It was more on the expensive side, but was delicious.

Day three we made our way back to Tiananmen square – the entrance of the Forbidden city. The Forbidden city was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty, and built beginning of the 15th century. It was a Saturday, and judging by the crazily massive crowds streaming in, it definitely isn’t a forbidden place anymore (although the toilets should have been…). The forbidden palace was so large and the detailed art of the buildings very beautiful and impressive. Once again, the almost suffocating condition of heat, humidity, pollution and huge crowds meant that rather than spending the whole day, we spent 2-3 hours there. The amazing race continued and we made our way to the Summer Palace/Yihe Yuan. Also many people (China just has too many people! ) but the grounds were huge so it felt more relaxing. If I had been Empress, the summer palace would also have been my number one summer hangout. The huge man-made lake, with many small row boats, surrounded by amazing palaces, trees, parks…

I had been to China once before, more than four years ago to visit relatives in Tsingtao, but this trip changed my impression. China has developed incredibly quickly – the Beijing city scene is full of spectacular (but empty-looking) high-rise buildings, living standards are increasing, more cars are on the roads. There are so many people that jobs include a massive amount of guards who do nothing all day, hotel entrance taxi-door openers, soap-dispenser pushers in bathrooms etc. Those trying to make an extra buck sell water bottles on the street, but when police come they all quickly pack up and run away. Once we wanted to buy water but before we handed the lady 2 Yuan, she disappeared.
Beijing itself is very beautiful as there are so many parks and trees, but unfortunately we never saw blue skies except little patches on the last day. English is very rare, and on the airplane English announcements still sounded like Chinese. My impression on Chinese food completely changed – it’s fantastic and has a variety of flavours. Beijing is definitely worth seeing – a great mix of ancient and modern, a slow life and a big hectic chaos, dirty street food and fancy restaurants. We had a great time!

Returning to Seoul felt like coming home – everything was very familiar again, less language barriers, blue skies, and top class customer service. However, it’s less than a month for me until I leave Korea, and a new chapter begins…

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