We’re back from our weeklong vacation and are comfortably home again in Baoding. Somehow, we’ve already been living in China for more than 40 days. Originally we were going to spend a day in Beijing and then travel to Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors with our friends but the plan changed and (after the brief consideration of making a trip to Pingyao) we decided to spend the week exploring Beijing. We made this decision mostly because of the difficulty of traveling during this National Day week, which has been called by some “The Great Migration” because of the huge numbers of Chinese people traveling during their weeklong vacation. During this holiday week, Chinese people from all over the country flock to big cities within the country and around the world making touring and traveling almost impossible without months of prior planning. Not only were tickets to Xi’an (or to Pingyao) prohibitively expensive, but there was literally no place to stay once we arrived (this includes all of the hostels and hotels). The only way we could have done a trip to Xi’an would have been if we took an overnight train from Beijing to Xi’an, spent the day there, and then, that night, took an overnight train back to Beijing, and that seemed stressful, expensive, and generally just not worth it.
So began our weeklong exploration of the city of Beijing. Beijing is the second largest city in China with a population (in 2012) of more than twenty million people and is also known as the bike capital of the world. Beijing, which means “Northern Capital”, is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China (the others being Nanjing, Luoyang, and Xi’an). Some say that humans have inhabited the area now known as Beijing for about 27,000 years, but Homo erectus fossils have been found in some Beijing caves dating back to 250,000 years ago. Not only is this city gigantic and a major international business hub, but there are thousands of years of history to wade through. We spent a little more than five days exploring this megacity so brace yourselves, this is going to be a long post!
Day 1 (September 29):
Sunday, after heading to the high-speed rail, picking up the tickets we pre-ordered online with the help of one of our Chinese friends, and arriving in Beijing, we discovered the joys that can come from a well-organized and efficient public transit system. I’ve been on the “tube” in London and I’ve been on the subway in New York City, but I have never been on a subway like the one underneath Beijing, China. The whole week, Duncan and I were raving about the convenience and efficiency (and high quality) of the Beijing subway system. It only costs 2 kuai (about $ 0.35 USD) to enter the subway and you can go anywhere in the city for the one entrance fee.
Since our friends had to work on Sunday (make up days for the National Holiday), we spent the day exploring the city and decided our first stop would be the Forbidden City.
The subway ride from the rail station to Tiananmen Square was an easy one but once we were out of the station we didn’t really know which direction to head. So we followed a tip we’ve learned since our time in China (to follow the direction the swarms of people are moving in if your destination is a popular one) and after a block’s walk, we stumbled upon the Forbidden City on our left! We decided to go underneath the road (yes, through an underground pedestrian crosswalk) to Tiananmen Square first before we entered the city.
Though normally a huge courtyard empty of anything but people, this week there is a giant (and I mean enormous) bouquet of flowers in the middle of the Square for National Day. After our stop there, we wandered over the City and prepared ourselves for the huge crowds we had been warned about.
But we were pleasantly surprised to find that once you were through the ticket lines and the entry gates, the City was only slightly crowded and we proceeded to spend five hours just wandering around. The Forbidden City, home of 24 emperors in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, was used between the years 1406 and 1911 when the Imperial Era ended. From http://factsanddetails.com/china.php?itemid=429:
Covering 178 acres, the Forbidden City is surrounded by a 52-foot-wide, two-meter-deep moat and a 30-foot-high red wall. Its 800 buildings contain 720,000 square meters of floor space, with 150,000 square meters of building space, and is said to have 9,999 rooms (the number 9 represents longevity), but actually there are only 8,707. Its chambers and storehouses contain 1,052,653 rare and valuable objects that aren’t even displayed. The walls that surround the court are 2,428 meters long.
When in use, only members of the royal family, their servants and housekeepers, and specially invited guests were allowed within the City, thus giving it its name.
I am only slightly embarrassed to say that we were those tourists carrying our Lonely Planet book with us through the City because the map of the Forbidden City in the book is way better than the one they sell at the park (and considerably cheaper if you already own the book).
One of the most interesting things about the Forbidden City to me was looking in the Palace Museum. It really is astounding to see, in person, artwork, documents, and calligraphy done by Chinese scholars from as early as 300 AD and then to compare it to European artwork from the same time. As astounding as the European artwork was in the 1300s for their history, Chinese artists really beat them hands down. The detail and intricacy of some Chinese ink paintings done in the 800s are, in my opinion, much better, more skilled, and more realistic than European art from the 1500s. We also saw the original painting of “The Three Sages” which Duncan was pretty much freaking out about. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take any pictures.
Once we walked out of the Palace and were astounded to find out we’d spent almost six hours in the City rather than the two we expected, we decided there was not enough time to visit the Drum and Bell Towers or Jingshan Park on this trip and instead we wandered around the hutong streets for a couple of more hours. Beijing hutongs are some of the oldest neighborhoods in the city having, fortunately, survived the never-ending construction to support the ever-growing population. One Beijing hutong (Zhuan Ta Hutong) has existed since the Yu Dynasty making it more than 700 years old! Though super packed and in some places very touristy, we had a wonderful evening wandering around through the old neighborhood streets, found a hole-in-the-wall restaurant to eat real, American hamburgers, and headed to our friends’ apartment for the night.
Day 2 (September 30):
This day was one of the smoggiest days I’ve seen. Considering that on the average day in Beijing, the air pollution is five times worse than the safety standard set by the WTO (World Trade Organization), this is even more concerning than it usually is. Desperately trying to ignore the damage I’m doing my lungs and body by breathing this contaminated air, I’ve started calling smoggy days foggy. So our second day in Beijing was exceptionally foggy.
Our friends had to work again this day as well, so Duncan and I were on our own for the day’s explorations. We decided we would start this day by visiting the Temple of Heaven Park.
The Temple of Heaven Park, the largest park in Beijing, covers 675 acres. We arrived pretty early in the morning and wandered around for a while just taking in the quiet calm within the park walls and watching all the older people play. Everywhere there were people fifty years old and older (all the way into their 90s and possibly beyond) dancing, playing badminton, doing Tai Chi, playing Chinese checkers, and doing about every other activity you can imagine throughout the park. If I’m ever old, I think I’m going to retire in China because here, not only are older people taken care of by their friends and family, but they basically just spend all day everyday exercising and playing in the parks with their friends. Their involvement and enthusiasm for life is so much fun to watch and I loved feeling like a part of the community just by being in the park with them at the same time.
After we found the Temple of Heaven and observed more strange Chinese picture taking behaviour (they never take pictures with the main attraction behind them!), we started hearing this strange chanting sound in the distance. We found this little dirt path in the middle of a grassy area with trees, and followed it as the sound got louder and louder. We finally stumbled upon a large group (probably 300 people or more) all gathered around one guy standing on a box and we were overwhelmed by the power of their synchronous singing. All of these people, all brought together from their different walks of life, joined together in this one spot in the Temple of Heaven Park for only about an hour just to sing songs together and be merry. It was extremely moving and once again I felt like I was part of a tremendous and joyous community.
We pulled ourselves away from the Park once the singing was over and headed toward the Lama Temple. Also called the Yonghe Temple, this Buddhist temple was built in the 16th century during the Qing Dynasty to serve as a residence for the emperor, but in the 17th century was converted to a lamasery to house Buddhist sculptures and which, consequently, is one of the reasons the Great Wall was never completely finished. Known as a place of peace and harmony, the Lama Temple is an extraordinarily beautiful and calm place to visit even with hundreds of other people. Incense hung heavy in the air as people prayed and monks chanted in the corners holding their prayer beads. It really is very difficult for me to describe the magic that is the Lama Temple. We spent a long time just wandering around in the different temples and wondering at the lavishly decorated statues. I wanted to buy some authentic beads but didn’t have enough money with me to make the purchase that I wanted. Even considering all the other places we’ve visited in China, the Lama Temple is still probably my favorite place so far.
We went across the street to the Confucius Temple and after the lavish beauty of the lamasery were somewhat underwhelmed. Probably the coolest thing to me about the Confucius Temple is a mulberry tree growing inside of a dead cypress tree in one of the many courtyards.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking through the Olympic park and saw the Birds’ Nest Stadium and the Aqua Cube. Though a very cool experience, I couldn’t help but think how sad it is that ever since the Olympic games in 2008 were finished, the square is all but abandoned by anyone other than tourists.
We concluded our busiest day in Beijing by grabbing some street food and returning to our friends’ apartment and spent the rest of the evening catching up.
Day 3 (October 1):
Happy October! And what a way we began the day! We were woken up on this first October morning in an exhilarating/terrifying fashion as someone in the apartment complex that we were staying in decided to set off fireworks in between the buildings. As I heard the whines and explosions of the fireworks, I was jolted out of a peaceful slumber and, unaware of what was going on at that point, curled up into the fetal position and hoped the building wasn’t collapsing. These were genuinely some of the loudest noises I have ever heard, as the normal loud booms and crackles of the fireworks echoed off of the apartment buildings and convinced me, in my half-awake stupor, that we were under some kind of bombing attack and that the foundation of the building was going to begin crumbling at any minute. After about ten minutes of this and as I gradually realized that were not being attacked and someone was just happily, if not inconsiderately, celebrating National Day and the beginning of a new month, the show was over and my fear subsided. Unfortunately, there was no going back to sleep after this rude awakening.
The day started out as a gloomy day and we all spent the morning hanging out and catching up in the apartment until we decided we were just going to go shopping and exploring for the day. We headed to the subway station wearing raincoats and carrying rain gear, only to emerge from the subway at our destination to a brilliantly blue and smogless sky. It really felt like we had traveled to a different world.
We were going to go visit the Dagoba Temple but it was closed for construction so we decided to go explore around one of the universities and to grab lunch at a place called the Golden Peacock, which is known for its variety of minority cuisines. After our late lunch we went to yet another part of the city and spent the time before sunset wandering around a park that is centered on an ancient part of the Great Wall and the only part that is actually within the city of Beijing.
That night, as Duncan and I searched for dinner, a nine-year-old kid came up to us and started talking to us in English. He had great pronunciation and, amusingly, asked Duncan if he liked fishing. His mother, in Chinese, explained that he is the best in his class and therefore can’t practice his English with his classmates, and so he was very excited to talk to us foreigners in English.
Probably the most exciting part for me about this little exchange is that I realized Chinese speech no longer sounds like a string of bizarre noises to me anymore. Though I still don’t understand what’s being said, I’m starting to be able to pick out the different words in sentences and I am starting to build a vocabulary that allows me to at least know the topic of many conversations. Earlier in the trip, I had a real conversation all my own with an older man while waiting outside a subway station. I didn’t know every word he was saying to me but I was able to catch the key words well enough to respond appropriately. I was very excited that I was able to communicate with someone conversationally rather than only in fragmented phrases.
Day 4 (October 2):
Awakening to another beautiful blue sky (and this time without fireworks), we spent the day at the Summer Palace in northern Beijing with our friends. Originally a summer vacation garden for the royal family, the Palace became a royal residence at the end of the Qing Dynasty. Though we didn’t see the crowds we’d been warned about at the Forbidden City, we found them here at the Summer Palace. But though it was extremely packed, we had a wonderful time exploring the gardens and climbing up the very steeps steps to the various temples. For some reason there was a yellow duck theme everywhere we went and we almost got suckered in like all the tourists to buy a stuffed yellow duck. The most impressive part of the Palace was the Tower of Buddhist Incense that, once at the very top, had an impressive view of the surrounding area and downtown Beijing.
A little reminder of home:
In one area of the Palace there was a performance, of sorts, meant to replicate traditional Peking Opera, as would have been a source of entertainment for the emperor and empress. I’m not sure how accurate this performance was to the original performances, but the noises that came out of the performing lady’s mouth (though I did start questioning if it was actually a woman) was weird, nasally wailing and we couldn’t stop laughing. We left pretty quickly after the “performance” started and headed out.
Once again we were astounded to find that we spent many more hours there than we originally thought, and so we were not able to also visit the botanical gardens outside of the Palace.
On our way back home, one of the local subway stations was closed thus funneling rush hour traffic from one of the busiest tourist attractions in the area into only one subway entrance. This resulted in an extraordinary amount of chaos with everyone pushing and shoving to try to get out of the sardine-packed hallway. At one point, Duncan hopped a railing just so he could buy us tickets to get through the turnstiles to get onto the subway. Unfortunately (and somewhat comically) some Chinese people tried to follow him but (with their much shorter bodies and legs) kind of got stuck on top of the railing and were left dangling on top until they kind of rolled off. As I write this I can’t help but laugh.
We eventually got home, ate dinner, and fell asleep early after a busy day of walking and exploring.
Day 5 (October 3):
The next day was chaotic and frustrating but ended up being a good day nonetheless. We left the apartment at 6 am so we could leave enough time to take the bus, and then the subway to the other side of Beijing, so that we could then find a single bus that only leaves Beijing twice a day to take us to Mutianyu, a section of the Great Wall that we were told is less touristy. Thanks to Duncan’s Chinese abilities, we found the bus, managed to get a seat on it (unlike the unlucky people who had to stand) and we traveled for two and a half hours.
Of course, as is usual in China, there are no actual lines and people get where and what they want by pushing and shoving and elbowing their way to the front. Well, Duncan and I are waiting behind one lady who is ordering her tickets at the ticket booth and on my left a guy comes up, shoves his arm around me and into the ticket booth holding four 100 Yuan bills. I look at him, say “that’s not how this works” in English, and grab his arm and push it back over my head and into his chest. I then scoot forward a little more. Then, a pushy Chinese lady throws her arm over my head, across my shoulder, and into the ticket window. I grab her arm and push it back and then we get into a fight. She starts screaming at me in English saying that she already bought her tickets and I just start screaming “OK, OK, OK!” back at her. She pushes further into my face, screams “laowai, you see nothing”, gets her tickets from the lady behind the counter as she pushes in between me and Duncan, and leaves. And of course, during this scene, the first pushy guy pushes his way to the front again by throwing his arm forward, he gets his tickets, and leaves. So not only was I the pushiest I’ve ever been in a public situation, I also confirmed for those around me the angry American stereotype, and I didn’t get anywhere in the process. It’s not my proudest moment but I was just so sick of all the pushing and shoving and general discourtesy.
We took a cable car up to the top of the wall and spent about an hour just walking on top of the Great Wall of China! Mutianyu was the section of the wall meant to protect Beijing and the Imperial tombs. Built in the mid 6th century, this section of the wall is older than the better-known section of the wall, Badaling, also north of Beijing but not as far as Mutianyu. Because very little of it is actually open to walking, unlike the Badaling section, we didn’t spend a whole lot of time on top and when we were ready, we rode a toboggan slide down back to the bottom. Normally I would have wanted to hike up and down, but since the cable car and the toboggan were offered at this site, I figured it’d be a fun thing to do.
We managed to get on a different bus than we planned for but it ended up being for the best because it not only took us to the same destination, but it also cost Duncan and I nothing, and was a little less than two hours long. Once back in the subway system, we realized that we are now the foreigners other foreigners follow because we look like we know where we’re going! We found a really good noodle shop for dinner and spent the rest of the evening hanging out with our friends.
Day 6 (October 4):
Friday we decided it was time to head back to Baoding. Once we were at the rail station it took us almost an hour to find out how to buy tickets because of how big the station is (it’s a subway station, a train station, a rail station, and a bus station all rolled into one) and then there were only two train options left for the day with only business class seats available because of the holiday. We eventually did find our way, though, and after spending twice what we normally would on tickets, we boarded the rail, and were on our way back home.
On the ride back, we realized Baoding has become home to us. We would prefer to live here, actually, rather than in a big city like Beijing. Despite all the trash and the laowai stares and the general smell of feces and the random piles of bricks, we have come to enjoy living here and see it now in an endearing sort of way. We honestly believe that this is the best place for us to live and that we are growing and becoming better people and learning more by living here than we could living anywhere else. We spent the rest of the evening hanging out, unpacking, and relaxing in the quiet bustle of Baoding.
October 5, 2013:
Today we slept in, spent a long time in QLH, and visited a local temple and the historic governor’s mansion within Baoding City. Tonight we’re planning to do some grocery shopping and to go eat at a new hot pot restaurant we found.
I’ve really enjoyed reliving our Beijing adventure as I’ve written this post and I’m very glad that we ended up staying in Beijing rather than trying to make a trip to Xi’an or Pingyao. We’re both feeling confident in our language abilities and in our travel abilities so we are going to start doing more traveling over the weekends.
But even with this week’s adventures swirling in my mind and our plans for future travel, it feels good to be home.
Thanks for reading!