Visiting Modern Beijing
Our arrival in Beijing is frustrating. We picked a hotel from our guide book and found out which bus could take us there. So we just passed the guys offering hotels, tours and taxis, and headed for the streets to find the stop for bus 20. But after half an hour searching we saw 20 busses 20 and found 20 bus stops, but not the bus stop for bus 20.
Frustrated we looped back to the taxi stand, where the first taxi driver refused to take us. The hotel would be too far from the train station. Luckily, the second driver wanted to take us. But after the usual conversation (gwer you flom?) he started writing costs in the air while calling out our hotel name. Getting a bit nervous, we try to indicate that we will simply pay the amount the meter will show. And as he continues we threaten to get out of the taxi. In the end, he gets the picture, but we suspect he took quite a detour to get to the hotel. Our trust in taxi drivers has declined a bit further.
Our (budget) hotel looks fine. We even have a TV and a bath. But it appears to be difficult to heat up the room. The hotel clerk is very friendly, removes the decoration in front of the central heating and brings us extra blankets. There is also a small tourist office offering train tickets and tours, very convenient.
Our first excursion is to go out for a walk to find a bank. After trying the agricultural, commercial, and industrial bank of China, we find out we can only get money at the (plain) Bank of China. When we finally succeed, we visit a local market on our way back. They sell a lot of living fish and other more or less tasteful goods. We stick to a kind of meatloaf and a noodle soup. Meanwhile we seem to be a big attraction here.
Temple of heavenIn the afternoon we walk to the park of the Temple of Heaven, in the neighborhood of our hotel. On our way we see how modern Beijing is developing: large crowded ring roads, equally crowded roads from the rings into the city and many shops along them. In between are the hutongs, small alleys with houses and courtyards.
The park is big and first we wonder where the Temple is supposed to be. But soon we found out it is a complex of buildings, which we will visit one by one. As a whole it is the park where the emperors in the Ming dynasty would perform their rituals. They would request a good harvest or thank for it here. Even better than the temple buildings is the palace of fast, where the emperor would stay during the rituals. It is located in a natural environment where we see colored birds and even a woodpecker. It makes our day even better than it was. But our enthusiasm tempers when we get ripped off buying a cup of thee. Lesson learned (again): first negotiate the price, then start drinking.
The next day we rent a bike to find our way through traffic to the city center. We need to learn the traffic rules here (rule 1: there are no rules), but when we do, we cycle along just fine. Instead of giving way, we just take it and that works fine.
Tiananmen squareArriving at Tiananmen square we park our bikes and walk along. The immense square has a roaring past. Created during the cultural revolution, when a lot of cultural heritage was destroyed and opponents of the regime were killed, it is a huge tribute to Mao. His mausoleum is right in the middle of the square. It is amazing that such a dictator is still adored. Every Chinese poses in front of his enormous portrait at the Tiananmen gate. There is no sign of or talking about the bloody end of the student protests in 1989.
On the square we are approached numerous times. Obviously by souvenir sellers, but also by students wishing to practice their English. They describe the surrounding buildings or try to lead us to an exposition of art works. Meanwhile they try to sell the paintings made by their “professors”.
The Forbidden CityWe walk through the Tiananmen gate to the Forbidden City. Despite the low season it is pretty crowded here, especially at the central buildings. Every building shows thrones, beds and other emperor material, and contains a story. It’s impressive, but it gets better at the back-end, with a beautiful garden, and on the sides, where the concubines and eunuchs lived in a maze of alleys and buildings. We can wonder through those alleys, and visit the expositions in the buildings. Unfortunately, however, we learn little about life in the forbidden city.
Once outside we pick up our bikes and cycle around the complex to the Beihai Gongyuan, a park with a big lake where the emperors used to relax. All parks in the city were only accessible for the emperor and his servants. The death penalty was applied for those caught in the parks. Fortunately, they lowered the tariffs nowadays, but the parks are still surrounded by walls and cannot be entered freely.
The view over the lake towards the pagoda on the island is a bit blocked by the low sun. There are some nice Buddhist temples however, where we admire the statues and paintings. Unfortunately, there are no possibilities for warming up with a cup of tea. So after a quick look around we decide to jump on our bikes again.
Summer PalaceThe Summer Palace, where emperors used to spend the warm summer months, is located 12 km from the city center, so we take the bus to get there. Busses in Beijing are cheap, but always full. There are some more expensive buses for longer routes as well, where seats are normally available. We need one of both to reach the Summer Palace, but neither one offers a quiet ride. The driver has to pull up and break frequently in order to move forward in the anarchistic traffic of modern Beijing. All in all, the journey takes us 2 hours. Shaken and hungry we head for the big yellow M (which is a shame in culinary China).
Entering the park we are amazed. The Summer Palace is situated on a hill covered with forest, through which walking paths and canals run There is a shopping alley along a canal where the empress used to do her shopping. Obviously, it is lined with souvenir shops now. Walking over the hill we have a nice view over the frozen lake. In the middle of the lake is an island, with a beautiful bridge leading to it. The whole of the park is full of temples, palaces, and pavilions, everything in a stunning natural environment.
We take the route around the lake and over the bridge to the island. After visiting a souvenir shop there (and watching the prices go down without negotiating) we decided to walk back over the frozen lake. Very much fun but on the other side we needed to get off the ice. Unfortunately, the shore was very steep there and where it wasn’t, the ice was broken. Finally, with a lot of climbing we could get off and continue our walk.
On our way back, we take the metro to speed up the journey and to do some shopping in the city center. We get the hang of the public transportation here in Beijing. It is relatively simple, however, because of the straight streets and the street names in Pinyin. Pinyin is the roman writing of Chinese characters. It was invented by the Chinese government to fix the sounds of the characters. Reason is that it’s impossible for a Chinese to learn all characters. But the Chinese think it’s ridiculous and for foreigners only.
A Dutchman in BeijingAfter visiting the great wall of China we spend our last day with a Dutchman in Beijing. It is a former colleague of Sabine who moved here 4 years ago to start a flower company. It is Christmas and we agreed to meet each other at the only catholic church in Beijing. Unfortunately, however, there are more and we wait at the wrong one. But after a phone call we finally meet Sjaak and follow him to his office, since it is a normal working day here.
Sjaak tells us of his life in modern Beijing and shows us his office and the flower market of Beijing. In a large hall many flower stores are gathered, as everywhere in China stores of the same type are grouped together. Sjaak’s business does both wholesale (selling Dutch flowers to other companies) and retail, and judged by the activity here business is going well. A drawback is that he needs be innovative all the time, since the Chinese are good copy cats.
From what we see, the trade never pauses here. Chinese are working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day if they have to. They only have a holiday at Chinese new year. And here we see the expensive side of modern Beijing, if you do not have an expensive office and car, you are nobody in this world.
Merry ChristmasChristmas is not celebrated in China. Many restaurants have Santa’s and other Christmas decorations, but nobody has a clue what it means. Apparently, they like the decorations and think to attract extra tourists with it. But don’t expect one word of English in a restaurants full with “Merry Christmas” signs. So we celebrate Christmas modestly, with a Chinese dish.
The hotel has arranged train tickets for us to Xi’an. We check out and head for the luxurious modern Beijing West railway station. We store our backpacks and go out for a small walk. We arrive at the Science and Children park, which has a lot to offer. That is, in summer. But there is some skating and fishing on the frozen lake. A few Chinese women are feeding the ducks, but these agree with us that Chinese bread is no treat. And of course, some Tai Chi is practiced in the park, funny to look at.
But then it is time to go back to the station. We find out where the train leaves and take care of formalities. It all seems like we’re on an airport. Our luggage is scanned, then we look on the screens to find the right waiting room. When it is time for boarding our tickets are checked and we can enter the platform. And everywhere are stores, or better, complete malls. Shopping is not tax-free, however. This is modern Beijing in the 21st century. Lets hope some of the Beijing from the past will remain.