Arriving in Beijing: First days in Asia
Round the world flights are a good money saver, but after stops in Dubai, Bangkok and then Hong Kong, it becomes clear why people pay more for something a little more direct.
I arrived in Beijing around 12 midnight, got through immigration without much fuss (surprisingly so, perhaps) and set off for the hostel I was staying at. The metro lines close at 11.30, and by this point the easiest way definitely was a taxi.
Though the Beijing highways were busy, traffic had died to almost nonexistent the closer to the hostel we got. I was staying near Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, in what felt like the heart of the capital.
The street that the hostel was on was a line of two or three story concrete shops, restaurants, houses and hostels, with small stores jostling with one another and street vendors filling the air with the scent of their produce. From gables hung red lanterns, it seemed almost farcical from the china towns of western cities. The predominant smell of the streets is meats, a staple of all the food. Around breakfast time, bouzi, a meat like stew with oval dumpling like dough dotted around a giant bowl, wafts across a sea of heads.
Tiananmen Square spreads over a vast area of Beijing, with the Forbidden City looming over one edge and two over sized official buildings (one now the national history museum and one of the largest museums in the world) block in the sides. The square when I got there was being prepped for a state function of some kind, the queues to go through the permanent security stations were enormous, presumably extra precaution being taken. I wondered the perimeters of the square, but it conjured up little of the awe as in a space like Red Square, Moscow. Perhaps the space wasn’t as connected to the Euro-centric schooling where it was always pictures of soviet Russia that filled our old school history videos. On this sunny Beijing day it just seemed like a nice square (although I’m pretty sure that anyone wanted to recreate the iconic shot with the student and the tank would not be received kindly…).
In comparison, the Forbidden City was enormous and immediately impressive. The gates comprised of enormous, impenetrable red sloping walls with a small arch in the middle. They also had great names like the gate of supreme heaven or the hall of prosperity. A lot of the area has a new vibe to it, as along with many other older sites it was destroyed or damaged during war. Paint seems fresh and buildings every now and then look a little too pristine. But a lot of the ‘authentic’ decor remains, and the gardens and courtyards retain their stories from imperial days gone by. This includes the story of a favourite concubine who, after having the ear of the King a little too much, was drowned in a tiny well, now a popular photo spot.
Some of the best parts of Beijing are their parks. Behind the Forbidden City is a Jingshan Park, with a hill offering an unparalleled view of the old and new in the city. Towards the outskirts of the city centre is the summer palace, large palace complex overlooking an enormous lake. It is almost possible from these places to feel like you aren’t in one of the biggest metropolises in the world. There is great pleasure taken in the upkeep of these gardens, filling them with flora and fauna and running water like mini national parks.
Another charm of the city is the abundance of cafés, bars and restaurants in the centre. There is never a feeling that a drink or food isn’t available just around the corner, or a place to take a break from the hot, close sun. One of the most touristy and upmarket of these places is Hutong, which probably boasts some of the most expensive beers in the city (£3–4), with rooftop bars overlooking the meandering river. Otherwise beer itself is cheap, and food all the better. Sweet and sour chicken and pork, juicy duck, fried noodles or black bean sauce prawns are all part of the plethora of meals we ate. Bouzi or meat filled naan-esque flat breads filled the street next to our hostel.
The city exceeded in my mind what I had expected. It bustled with the affluence of the capital of the one of the world’s largest economies, but was as easy to be a budget traveler in as it was a big spender. What is most telling is that the tourism and consumer trade in the city is predominantly formed of Chinese, not of (particularly though not exclusively) Western travelers, as in other cities in the world. It makes the whole atmosphere much more welcoming, there is no commoditising or hard selling; the city doesn’t need you.
A surprising but brilliant feel of the city was also the lack of overt gender discrimination. There were as many female security guards manning museums and metro stations as there were male — there seemed no discriminatory practices in terms of the inter-gender relations either. It was as common for us to have our photo taken with a woman as a man, which seems a really glib point, but there was no problem with contact, e.g. a hand on the shoulder, which can often be taken badly in certain cultures. Politics is still male dominated, as is the army from the soldiers we could see. But certainly there were no qualms with a workplace, particularly an official, state work place, employing either gender. It is difficult to properly gauge this, as I basically can’t speak or understand a word of Chinese and there weren’t many people to stroll up to as a fresh faced white student and discuss in depth gender politics with patronising nods and ‘good for yous’. I can only really go on what I could see.
The Great Wall of China seemed unmissable, but with limited time in the city I organised a tour through my hostel. I tried to keep it as free as possible, we were going to be dropped off at a relatively unpopulated section of the wall and left to walk for a few hours, before driving back to Beijing. I set my alarm for 7am, weary and happy to be going to sleep in my bed. I slept poorly, and being tired without a hangover seemed strange and confusing, my eyes were heavy but my head didn’t feel like it was about to explode and my stomach wasn’t threatening me with vomit. I can live with this, I thought, as I immediately fell asleep in an old beaten up salon car, without seatbelts, hurtling along Chinese highways.
The wall itself was rebuilt in certain areas and decayed in others, but true to my hostel’s word, it was nearly deserted.
Save, as I lumbered un-poetically with sweat dripping down me, for the Chinese family, grandparents, parents and children, who skipped happily along where I had crawled on all fours. As if to really kick me in the teeth, the ladies, whose arms were linked and were deep in talk, wore high heels. On the Great Wall. The Great Wall of China. The wall intended to keep out one of Asia’s most dangerous armies. High heels. I felt a high pitched squeal of air leave my heaving lungs as I looked at their hot pink and bright red heels. Was I really that unfit at 21?
I had started a diary, and had my kindle on hand. Although I was solo now, I would be travelling with a friend. Regardless, I knew from Burma that a book would be one of my best travel companions. As I read more on Cixi, I rested on the stones of the Great Wall. They represented China perfectly; the junction between old and new, the failure of restoration as parts of the wall gleamed with perfectly cut stonework. I looked down on keeps and watchtowers and those clean steps, and then upwards, towards worn stones and parapets of grass and moss. It seemed that above me lay imperial China, ruined and forgotten, dissolving under the sharpness of modernity. Then again, in one thousand years time, these sharp stones will be trodden by men and women who marvel at their age. The great dilemma of wanting to preserve history whilst not realising one’s place in it.
Not really a great dilemma at all. I don’t think anyone cares much. I just like to muse dramatically from the stones of the Great Wall of China. It seems suitable.
The silence of the wall was magnificent.
We left the city on a nice hard sleeper train — we were the third bunk which was pretty high off the ground, but luckily a bar kept us from falling onto the people below (but not our covers). The train station was enormous, so we put on our most pitiful looks and found an old lady to show us our train (it was the train she was on too). The queue was insane, and with our giant bags we did not make for good queue sneaking forward, but luckily we were carried to the train and onwards to Hohhot.