Though a flight to Beijing would be my third visit to China (within a few weeks), the trip certainly confirmed how daunting and truly massive megacities can be.
I arrived in Beijing about as unprepared as I could have been. I came alone (planning to meet up with a few friends). I had no sim card. No working VPN. I had no map (online or offline). And I had no google translator. And…ah…no cash!
Though, I did have an optimistic attitude!
My plane landed around 2/3 in the afternoon. I had to make it to the city-center to meet my friends before dark.
I tried a variety of things…I waited in the taxi queue (for 30 minutes until I realized I should take the train). I ran to the train station (sounded like a good idea) but realized I did not have enough money (nor really knew what direction to be going). So I went in the ATM line, got some cash, and tried to buy a ticket. For some reason, the ticket dispenser was not accepting my money!
Luckily…so luckily…the nicest guy in line let me use his phone to search my destination and he even bought me a train ticket (I paid him back). He then gave me a hotspot for a few seconds so I could save the route on my phone.
I still have the screenshot!
So I followed his advice, took the train for 30 minutes to a particular stop, got out, and walked until I found the hotel!
The walk was amazing. And I do not say that sarcastically…the streets and highways in Beijing are really large (like nothing I had seen before).
CLOSE If you thought traffic was bad on a five-line freeway, can you imagine a 50-lane traffic jam? In Beijing, China…www.usatoday.com
The one stark thing about Beijing that I think most people will pick up right away…is that on a hot day…the smog is alarmingly bad.
Timelapse video shot from a Beijing bank on Monday shows a thick cloud of yellow smog swallowing buildings as it rolls…www.theguardian.com
You may read about it in the paper or watch videos, but actually experiencing it is a whole different thing. I kid you not, when the smog is rolling through, you can not see 100 feet in front of you.
Imagine a large, environmentally-dangerous and cancer-inducing blanket that covers the city all day.
Earlier this week, a thick layer of smog rolled into China's capital city, turning skyscrapers into shadows and clear…www.popsci.com
It is certainly a bad — something that people there just have to live with. I am told it is getting better, but wow I cannot imagine suffering with that on a daily basis.
Anyways, I made it to the hotel safely which was nothing short of a miracle.
This was my first trip staying in a hotel. In hindsight, though the location was good, it was a lot more expensive and, in my opinion, not worth the additional cost. Plus, hostels can be fun (like in Shanghai).
By the time I arrived, it was pretty much dark…
We went out for dinner to a traditional Beijing restaurant. It was good (nothing better than Xi’an, though).
One of the biggest thing that surprised me about Beijing, and really China broadly, was how incredibly large and nice the nightlife was. Following Barcelona and Seoul, I have to say that Beijing was probably the most wild nightlife I had ever seen.
The clubs are huge.
Anyways, we spent that night out and woke up surprisingly early the next morning. Given I was only in the city for a few days, I definitely wanted to make the most of it and see all of the unique sights.
So we had pre-booked a full-day, private tour of the city. I wish I had the link to the tour guide (she was awesome), but essentially they picked us up in a van and drove us around the city for the day.
Our first stop was at the Great Wall of China (which was surprisingly far outside the city).
Some quick facts:
- The official length is 21,196.18 km (13,170.7 mi) — (6+ dynasties’ worth)
- Badaling is the most visited section (63,000,000 visitors in 2001). And in the first week of May and October, the visitor flow can be up to 70,000 per day.
- Nearly 1/3 of the Great Wall has disappeared without trace.
- The Great Wall labor force included soldiers, forcibly-recruited peasants, convicts, and POWs.
To add some color to that last fact, more than one million people reportedly died during the construction of the great wall. It is often called the “longest cemetery on earth.”
I will say it was certainly an impressive sight!
We took the ski-lift up and rode toboggans down. The toboggans were underratedly fun!
Our next stop was the Forbidden city.
I recommend reading all about the history of the city here. There are lots of interesting anecdotes about the construction and occupation of the Forbidden City.
We walked through the city (somewhat in a rush) but it was definitely an awesome sight to see. It was interesting contrasting the style and architecture of Hue (Vietnam) with Beijing’s forbidden city. Both had similar characteristics, though Beijing was much larger in size.
Our last stop was to Tiananmen Square…after a long day…we decided to just drive through the square (which was still a great way to see the buildings and landscape).
The square has lots of history (good and bad)…the interesting thing about the history of the square (including the 1989 protests) is that the Chinese government has censored it from record. In other words, if you are a Chinese person who has been living in China your whole life, you likely have no recollection of the protests.
This is just one example of censorship taking place in China that may have serious long term consequences — also an important reminder about history…that we often only see one side of the story.
After our tour, we headed back to the hotel, took a nap and then went out for some Beijing Peking Duck. We had asked our tour guide for a recommendation and they came in clutch. It was really good.
Post meal, we rallied for another night out. It was another fun night…I remember two things in particular:
- We drank way too much disgusting Baiju (the scariest, cheapest form of alcohol)
- The locals loved us. They let us cut all the lines and drink with them — was a really fun experience!
After going out, we wandered back to the hotel and woke up early for our flight home. Two days in one of the largest cities in the world? Certainly not enough time to really experience the mega-city.
Beijing is one of the most massively impressive cities I have ever been to. The sheer size of the action was really amazing.
I do think I did a good job exploring the touristy parts of the city, but there were so so many parts of the culture that I had missed out on. I will definitely be back…
Thanks for reading!
This note is part of my travel series, Giant Leaps: a collection of my experiences from across the globe.
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