Thursday, April 11, 2013

Summer 2012 - 18th Stop: Beijing

Beijing, hmmm... where do I start? I suppose it was kind of a mixed bag really. To sum it up in one sentence, I would say that it's not a nice city, but had some nice things in it. A very different atmosphere to what we just came from in Japan, and even very different to city life in Hong Kong. Even though it's the capital of the world's economic powerhouse, it just lacks the class of Tokyo or any westernised city for that matter. I guess the best example of this was on our first day, when we saw local kids taking a piss in public on four separate occasions. And I don't mean discretely behind a bush or something - one was on a busy street and the other three were in a temple! We even saw one girl dropping trou and letting flow right next to a toilet sign! You couldn't make it up! I would have loved to get a picture for the blog but it probably would've landed me on the sex offenders register. Hopefully nobody caught me Peking!

Before leaving Osaka, we stuffed ourselves with Subway as we wouldn't be arriving at our Beijing hostel til late that night, but onboard our 4-hour flight with China Eastern Airlines, we were given, not one but two full meals! We weren't even remotely hungry but who turns down free food?! No regrets!

The next morning, as we stepped outside for a new adventure, it was hard to tell whether we were greeted by traditional Chinese mist, a dull gloomy haze or infamous Beijing smog. Either way, it was a grey, grey day. And that wasn't even the worst part about our visit to the Summer Palace - there are 1.3 billion people in China and I think they all decided to pop over to Beijing for the day, as the place was full to the brim with tourists. As for the palace itself... it might have been nice, I don't know! It was hard to enjoy between the crowds and the weather.

One really nice part though was a place called Suzhou Street which was exactly what I imagine old-school China to be! And because of the narrow, windy streets on the water's edge, it was impossible for it to be too crowded!

Not the best start to our time here, but we certainly got a taste of the Beijing experience. And on the way back to our hostel later that evening, we also saw the best and worst that the local populous had to offer. As we were getting the metro back, two women were clawing at each other, both trying to squeeze into the already overcrowded train. As the doors closed and the train moved off, the pushing and shoving between them continued and gradually built up into a full scale screaming match. We were obviously staring at them, watching the whole thing unfold (and wishing we spoke Mandarin!).

And just when we started to lose faith in the Chinese, a young girl standing nearby, no more than 14 or 15, turned to us and in her best English, apologised for their behaviour, shook Aisling's hand, wished us a pleasant stay and hoped we didn't judge her people based on the actions of these two women. How cute is that!? Seriously though! I really wish I had pictures of all of these little moments!

And that little glimmer of light, on an otherwise dull day, really kickstarted the rest of our stay in Beijing! The next morning, the sun was up and so were we, ready to beat the crowds to the Temple of Heaven.

There were some really nice individual sights to see on the grounds, like the Temple of Heaven itself (above), and the Temple of Harvest; but the highlight for us was seeing the locals out in their droves making the most of the open space in every way imaginable. People young and old (well, mostly old) gathering in groups to do singing, dancing, aerobics, tai chi, tai chi with swords (!), the list goes on. A city that was so dull and grey the day before, just seemed to burst to life in the sunshine!

It was fantastic to see, not only from a spectator's point of view, but it's wonderful for the all the people involved too - socially, creatively, health-wise - it's great that there's an outlet like this. No wonder people live so long over here (even with all the pollution!). You'd never see old biddies back home trying out stuff like this!

Also, respect to the woman in the middle who obviously forgot her sword that day so just used a stick!

We took in a few more sights that afternoon - including the very beautiful Lama Temple and the Drum Tower, where we stayed for a performance - before heading back to our hostel to prepare for our trip the next day to The Great Wall. (I'll be doing a special bonus entry for our two days there, so look out for that one!)

On our return to Beijing, we had an early night as we wanted to be up to beat the crowds to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City the next morning. This attempt proved futile however. I guess that's one thing you'll just have to accept about Beijing - if you want to see the main tourist spots, be prepared to share them.

We arrived at 7:30am, with the Forbidden City not due to open for another hour but at that stage, bus loads of tourists had already flooded the scene. While we were waiting for the gates to open, we went for a wander around Tiananmen Square, just across the road. The square is probably most famous for this photograph of a student blocking the path of a line of tanks during the Beijing protests of 1989, one of the most iconic images ever taken.

Alas, no such excitement while we were there, typical! We come all the way to Tiananmen Square and this is the tanks we get!

Seriously though, there really was nothing to see there. It's just a big open square, and unsurprisingly, no mention of the protests. Being honest, the Forbidden City didn't really live up to its billing either. It was grand but nothing we hadn't seen on a smaller scale before. None of the buildings were particularly spectacular. The only real draw was the sheer size of the compound.

Afterwards, we just went for a walk around Beihai Park, before collecting our stuff and boarding the night train to Shanghai - our last stop of the summer. But before all that, we have our bonus Great Wall entry, so stay tuned!

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