Ni hao from China!
Another postcard from China? Well, it’s a pretty big country with a lot of ground to cover. But also I’ve been buying myself some time lining up a plan for Mongolia and the iconic Trans Siberian railroad.
I was excited to get back to Beijing because it would be the second time on my trip that I would get to meet up with my friend Levi – he was in town for work and though we couldn’t do anything as exciting as visiting North Korea, we had a plan to see a soccer match. I would also be picking up my new, second passport, and meeting up with a high school friend I hadn’t seen in far too long.
Beijing is the capital in terms both politically and touristically. Fair, I just made up that word. But I was surprised by how much of the things I knew of in China were in, or nearby to, Beijing. Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, Peking duck, the Great Wall – all Beijing. Plus, I could finally take an obligatory picture with cherry blossoms.
For being a huge city (at a mere 11.5 million), it feels pretty, well, tame. It’s spread out enough that it has a completely different feel to the towering Hong Kong. All of Beijing is spread into the little neighborhoods and the alleys in which you navigate them (hutongs).
I got a lot of days of blue skies and sunshine, which I was quite surprised about, expecting smog and face masks. Though I did wear my face mask quite a bit for at least keeping the cigarette smoke out.
I visited Tian’anmen Square, which, without its history, would be generally unimpressive. It is a massive square, full of flags,, guards and tourists. I had to show my passport to get in (everyone had to show IDs), and got extra questioning. When I asked the guard why he was asking me, and no one else, questions, he responded simply, “because you’re a foreigner.” Fair enough, at least he was honest.
From there, I headed to the Forbidden City. You can go through, expensively, Tian’anmen to get there. Or through one of the parks to the sides. I opted for the park, which was pleasantly devoid of cigarettes, and generally people. A surprising natural respite in the middle of the city.
I got to the Forbidden City near closing, which was great because there were very few people there. This walled-in city was home to the Ming and Qing Dynasties for a cool 500 years (1420-1912). Most sources will say it’s a palace, but it is so massive and has so many ins and outs, I’m going with city. I wandered by myself, while other groups used self-guided audio tours, and even others followed guides to get all the history.
Our plans to go to the soccer match were scrapped when everyone was just kind of tired and not in the mood to bargain with scalpers in another language. Instead, we enjoyed a night out on the town in Beijing – bar hopping with expats. Interesting to see the city through eyes of people who had lived there 1-5 years. Plus I had gotten a chance to see the soccer culture at a match back in Shanghai, which was incredibly shocking. The fans were totally into it, even though they didn’t seem to have much of a clue what was going on.
The Great Wall is so big and beautiful and important that it warrants its own post. I had seen a picture from the wall in an article of pictures comparing expectations vs. reality and I was terrified of going there and fighting crowds. In that light, I then researched all the most popular places and ways to go to the Wall, and immediately scratched them off the list. I knew I wanted to go to the “wild wall,” but wasn’t totally sure how. Then I found a tour with China Highlights that starts on the wild wall, finishes on restored wall and is a hell of a hike in between. Perfect. Because it included transportation and an English-speaking guide, I knew that I had nothing to worry about. Usually I’m all for taking the cheapest way, but everything I’d read on transportation to and from, and self-guiding, looked like I’d be set up for failure.
And I generally hate tours, but this was perfect. A small group so that I wasn’t hiking alone. People to talk with and more importantly, a knowledgeable guide who answered our million questions. My legs were sore for days after, but it was really cool to see the “wild” side, rather than just the restored part. Plus we got to take a toboggan down.
I spent the rest of the time getting ready for Mongolia and Russia. Thankfully staying at a friend’s apartment and enjoying the focused environment to get stuff done rather than feeling surrounded by the crazy of China. And thank you Facebook, so that when I posted a picture of Beijing, another high school friend replied, Dan’s there too!
For so long I was ready to move on to Mongolia – after all the frustrations and set backs in China. But as time dwindled down on the last day, I was surprised to feel just a little bit sad. Guess it’s another one I’ll have to come back to.
Preparing for a trip to China? Don’t miss the 10 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting China, with tips and video.