Beijing 2012

Day 1 — 2nd February 2012

Arrived safely in Beijing after an extremely long and tiring flight via Dubai. I had a six and a half hour stopover in Dubai which knocked me out as it was the middle of the night and my connection wasn’t until 3am. There was only so much to do in Dubai International and after the first couple of times of pacing from one end of the terminal to the other, I quickly got bored. I did find a smoking room which was essentially a tiny little room with no air conditioning and a big sign saying “Keep door shut!” I found myself smoking out of boredom but it was revolting dealing with all that second-hand smoke in the, quite literal, Smoking Room.

My connection eventually arrived and earlier in the day I had been quite excited about it as it was my first time of the Airbus A380 (double-decker super jumbo), but by the time it came to board I was so tired I just wanted to get on and sleep. It was however a very impressive aircraft.

Fast forward to Beijing Airport and I thought my luggage had gone missing at reclaim. I was the last person through immigration and my bags had been removed from the carousel for safe keeping. It made me panic though it was a false alarm, I started imaging having to go around Beijing buying woolly jumpers which I had been assured would not fit me.

I met Charlie, the driver Laura had organised, who had a big grin on his face (no doubt happy to finally see me after I took so long in Immigration). This was the first time I’d ever had someone looking for me at Arrivals with a sign with my name on it. I was happy to finally be on the ground in China and let my holiday begin. I met Laura at her school gate. It didn’t seem like it had been a year and half since I last saw her. We pulled up outside her apartment block which was far more modern and built up than I had thought it would be. In fact the drive in revealed to me just how big Beijing actually is. I had it in my head that Laura’s address was more suburban than anything else when she described it as being a fair way from the city centre. It was a fair distance but the city was enormous and completely un-navigational by foot. We stood outside the apartment for a few minutes while I ‘acclimatised’ and Laura explained what she had planned. As we were talking, another driver pulled up with a face pressed up against the window. And so I met Jess, one of Laura’s flatmates. She immediately reminded me of an old colleague. Nice girl and sure to be lots of fun!  I got settled in and rested for a bit dreading the onset of proper jet lag. I decided the best thing to do would be to power on and tire myself out, so we went out for a walk about local area.

We went to a local hutong and had some nice dinner. Jess’s purse mysteriously disappeared, no explanation as to where it went. I had pizza, Laura’s fish wasn’t quite cooked right and the chef gave it to her for free. The hutong was quite cool although the drains had been exploding out onto the street. The hutongs are essentially alleyways made up by the surrounding traditional residences in Beijing. They are typically not modernised or particularly maintained but ooze character.

We moved on to a cool little bar for a few drinks. I continued to drink Jack Daniels (as I had been during the flights – making sure I got my plane tickets worth!) and I was still waiting for jet lag to kick in. There were two guys in the bar playing incredible guitar at such a fast speed. Eventually became too much and had to request to be taken home as was exhausted. Really appreciated having a companion in Beijing as I don’t know how I would’ve survived getting around by myself. English speakers seemed virtually non-existent and even my attempts at Pinyin weren’t very successful. Pinyin came about from the Romanisation of Chinese language from Chinese characters into Latin script that we are more familiar with.

Anyway, jet lag having kicked in it was time to head back to [phonetically] “Chee Geo Baa” in the Lido district.

Day 2 — 3rd February 2012

When I got up, Laura and her flatmates had already left for work. I pottered about for a bit, procrastinating slightly and being a bit of a wuss about having to navigate the scary city outside on my lonesome. I eventually plucked up the courage to leave the flat, hopped into a cab and successfully was taken to Tiananmen Square. I wasn’t overly impressed by Tiananmen to be honest, it was just a big square with not much in it. If you didn’t know about the protests that took place back in 1989 then it would just be a massive slab of concrete. I suppose I can say I have been! I began to make my way over to The Forbidden City. On my way, I was asked to have my photo taken with some Chinese folk. It made me feel like a celebrity haha! I thought it would just be one photo but they all wanted their photo taken individually with me. I had heard this would probably happen to me while in China. I don’t know if it is because I am a Westerner, because I’m white, tall or what? Perhaps I’m just a bit odd looking!?

In contrast to Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City was very impressive. It was absolutely massive and amazing to think that the Emperor’s lived here and did their day to day emperor things. I had to start making lies up about having been to China before as locals kept hawking, offering tours and so on. This was the beginning of worse things to come!

After a few hours mooching about inside the walls of the Forbidden City, I left the building and was immediately pounced upon by young lady who wanted to go for coffee to practice her English. The Londoner in me made me immediately suspicious. What did she want? Surely not really coffee?! I was genuinely on my way to meet with Laura, so I politely declined and said I was meeting someone. She persisted “perhaps you and your friend can have coffee with me?” “No, it’s okay!” “Please have coffee with me!” *Runs away!* Maybe she was genuine and really LOVES coffee, but a little voice in the back of my mind was screaming “SCAM!”

However, I didn’t get much further before making a silly mistake and agreeing to get in a rickshaw instead of a taxi to take me to meet Laura in the Ho Hai Lake area. I taxi driver could not understand my [practically perfect] Chinese vocabulary and so he directed me to the rickshaw instead. I got on and thought to myself “actually this isn’t too bad, a genuine Chinese experience”. Then a hundred yards up the road, the rickshaw driver got off and swapped with some other dude. He took over and started up some side road only to turn into a hutong and peddle away. I started to get nervous as I had no idea where he was taking me and could quite easily have killed me or sold me into slavery. We cycled past ducks hanging from washing lines, which would no doubt eventually be made into Peking Duck, and saw some pretty hutong type things. Very authentic! Eventually he pulled up and got off the bike insisting we were in Ho Hai Lake area. I saw no lake! He began asking for payment. The original dude had simply said “3” which I assumed meant 30 Yuan but was quite prepared for 300 Yuan (£30) He got the 300Y from me and then proceeded to ask for 300 more producing a little laminated card showing the prices, pointing at hutong saying 300 more “very hard on legs”. On top of being offended by the fact he essentially just called me a lard arse for making his legs hurt, I never asked him to take me through a hutong and was certainly not going to give him £60 for a 10 minute journey. I walked away from him and felt a bit shitty for being stupid enough to get in a rickshaw in the first place and then having a broken English argument in the middle of who knows where with a poor Chinese man. To make matters worse I still had no idea where I was and had no map to get my bearings, no Google maps, and then I noticed I had a paper cut on my hand which had bled all over my hand and arm. I started walking the streets looking for signs and was convinced my face was covered in blood from before I had realised I was cut. Fun times! It was quite a daunting experience, none of the street signs are even in Pinyin, they’re all Chinese characters, so I had no chance of discerning where I was. I was lucky to spot two Westerners with a map walking towards me and thankfully they turned out o be American. English speakers!! They helped me out and directed me to the lake, which was a good fifteen minute walk. I didn’t feel too bad about not giving the rickshaw man more money now as his little legs didn’t take me where I had asked them to! I eventually met Laura and was impressed by Ho Hai Lake. Laura was sympathetic and showed me around Ho Hai where fireworks were being set off in the lake and pavement. The lake was frozen over so the locals were out skating. We went for dinner in a really nice Chinese restaurant, where I tried to master chopsticks and did pretty well. I ate lots and it cost next to nothing. Laura used her Fapiao thingy for the first of many bills.

To round the night off we went to the 798 district on the way home and had cocktails to help me sleep. They certainly did!

Day 3 — 4th February 2012

Early start today: it was the day of the road trip out to The Great Wall. Laura had arranged for Charlie to drive us out to Mutianyu, which is one of the regions where the Great Wall has been developed for tourists. Laura informed me I had been extremely lucky so far in my trip with the pollution being so minimal, and today was no different with a beautiful crisp blue sky greeting us in the morning. A good day for photographs! Thinking back I have been lucky with the weather on all my holidays. It snowed in Chicago when I wanted it to and New York had perfect winter sunshine too. Hong Kong was the only trip when it wasn’t ideal, but that’ll teach me for going in monsoon season! Anyway, back to the Great Wall and our road trip with Charlie. I hadn’t expected it to be as far out of Beijing city centre as it was and the journey took about an hour down the expressway and through some charming little Chinese villages all with their red lanterns hanging out for the Lantern Festival. One of Laura’s flatmates and another friend from work had joined us for the trip. They were going for a run along the Wall as part of their training for a half marathon they were taking part in later in the year. I have the upmost respect for them as the Wall turned out to be tricky to walk along let alone run! Back in the car and I was sat up front next to Charlie for the duration of the drive. Laura started up a conversation about how Charlie was a traditional Chinese singer. He asked if I’d like to hear some and started to fiddle with the cars stereo putting in a CD. The music started up and I waited for his vocals to come through the speakers. Instead he scared the crap out of me by give me a live performance (really loudly) right from the driver’s seat! I’ll give him his credit it was very authentic and he clearly got a lot of enjoyment from it. The girls giggled away in the back. Charlie told us what the song meant, it was a story of a boy and a fish apparently.

We eventually arrived at Mutianyu and the runners disappeared up some steps to begin their training while Laura and I made our way to the ticket office. I was expecting it to be really busy but it looked like we were the only two tourists. The market stall holders pounced on us trying to sell us their wares. Another case of Bù, xièxiè”

Laura panicked when she saw the cable car that would take us up to the top was in fact an open air ski-lift. It was particularly rickety but she got in anyway and held tight. I refrained from telling her about the film Frozen where three tourists get stranded on a ski-lift and meet grisly deaths at the hands of wolves etc. Up at the top we emerged on to the Great Wall of China. It wasn’t as amazing as I had hoped but the views were nice. I’d read the wall had gone through several refurbishments over the years, brining the crumbling ruins up to a tourist attraction standard. I wanted to see the more authentic parts of the wall which meant walking past the ‘new’ parts and passed the signs that said no further admittance. Naughty!

 The difference between the new parts and the old is quite substantial. No more polished looking bricks, instead walking along dirt tracks with crumbling stones. The fort-like lookouts of the new being replaced by piles of rock. This was far more like it! I liked this part. It was so peaceful and the views were lovely. The rolling hills undulated out into the distance and not a sound from anywhere (except Laura munching on a packet of hula hoops). We sat and took it in for a while and the only sounds were the whooshing from bird’s wings as they soared past us.

After a little while we headed back to the lift to take us back down. I hadn’t realised how steep the Wall actually is. In some parts the incline required some crawling but it was definitely easier going downhill than up! Trekking back to the lift we stopped for a bit of light entertainment and Laura and I both did the Macarena, much to the amusement of a few tourists.

Getting to the bottom of the Wall was not by ski-lift in the end. Mutianyu have constructed a fun (and not at all tacky touristy!) toboggan slide that weaved it way back down to the foot of the mountain. It was good fun, albeit we were stopped from going hell for leather down the slide by some Chinese tourists who used their brakes far too much! I did find myself chanting “Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up…It’s Bobsled Time!” a la Cool Runnings.

So I can say now that I’ve been to The Great Wall of China. It was a good experience! It was back in the car with Charlie now, after a brief stop at a Western treat of Subway (meatball Marinara *nom nom*!

Back in Beijing, Laura, Leanne and I biked over to the 798 District for a walk about the galleries and shops. This was a really interesting little area of Beijing. It is an industrial area filled with gritty factory buildings, some of which have been converted into art galleries and museums. The whole area is dotted with art installations and sculptures which give the place a really bohemian vibe. I was feeling brave and convinced Laura to take me a little further afield on the bikes. Beijing’s roads are busy heaving traffic congested beasts, but the provisions made for cyclists are impressive. Most main roads had cycle lanes and the whole attitude to cyclists was completely different to her in London. Car drivers seem to actually take cyclists into consideration in Beijing, choosing to acknowledge them on the road instead of trying to kill them as they do in London. I felt fairly safe cycling about on the main road, despite the bike I was riding having practically no air in one of its tyres and no gears! Laura took me to another hutong to show me the other end of the scale for hutongs. The one we had been to near Ho Hai Lake had been re-developed as an upmarket shopping district with restaurants and trendy bars. This hutong we were visiting today was unbelievable. It looked as though a bomb had gone off. The buildings were shacks with rubble and crap lying about everywhere. There were chickens and donkeys roaming about, and plenty of stray dogs which Laura told me to stay away from as they no doubt had rabies. Behind all this stood skyscrapers made of steel and glass, highlighting the fact that despite China being a developed country a lot of it’s inhabitants were still living in third world housing. This hutong will no doubt be cleared and make way for more high-rise apartments in the next year or so. But this begs the question, where will the current residents be moved to? They will no doubt not be able to afford the prices of the new apartments!

Back at the flat after our cycle ride, Laura and the girls got ready for a big night out which they invited me along to: a workmates birthday party. I was a little uncomfortable going along as I didn’t know anyone and didn’t want to be hanging off Laura for the whole night as I’m sure she wanted to let her hair down. We went for a bite to eat and a stroll down a food market street. This was the place that sold Chinese delicacies such as scorpions, seahorse, starfish, crickets and centipede, all on skewers and ready to be eaten. I was trying to build up the courage to try something but by the time we’d walked through the stalls, the smell was so overpowering and revolting that we had to get out of there. I caught a glimpse of some dog meat on sale too, and right next to it a Chinese man with a Chihuahua on a lead. It was obviously his pet, but where does the line get drawn? Why eat all these things and how can you consider eating them when you also keep them as pets? I couldn’t wrap my brain around this!

Laura and the girls had their fun night out at the club while I headed back to the apartment for a chilled out evening ready for my final day in Beijing tomorrow.

Day 4 — 5th February 2012

My last day in Beijing L The girls had planned to take me to The Orchard for brunch this morning. Laura got in somewhere around 4am last night from her friend’s birthday party. I think it’s fair to say they had some sore heads today! Me, fresh as a daisy, was looking forward to some grub at brunch. The Orchard is a rather swanky restaurant that offers a Sunday brunch buffet. I was very impressed by the grounds; the restaurant is set in a fully functioning orchard and is quite idyllic. The food was good and filled a spot. The girls found themselves saying hello to some of the parents of the kids they teach in town. It was laughable watching the kids pull out their iPads after they finished eating. These kids were about seven years old and it appeared they all had them! The girls looked on enviously wishing they had iPads. The family’s that send their kids to their school are seriously well off!

After brunch, we all headed back to the apartment and relaxed for a bit. I got a bit restless and decided I’d head out by myself trying to put my remaining time to good use. I decided to go to The Summer Palace. Equipped with one of the taxi guide booklets, I ventured out by myself to let the girls recover from their hangovers.

I jumped in a taxi and about 45 minutes later found myself at a very unassuming gate with a little ticket office off to the side. I’d seen pictures of The Summer Palace and it was enormous, so I began thinking that the driver had taken me to the wrong place, but sure enough I was where I was supposed to be. Stepping through the gates, I was presented with a huge lake and some beautiful views. The lake was partially frozen and there were lots of people out skating on it. The sun was low in the sky and the sunset was going to provide me with some great photo opportunities. Really I needed a whole day here to cover the expansive grounds but I’d just have to make do with what time I had. I walked about snapping the scenery with my camera and taking in the serene atmosphere. It’s a really nice tourist attraction and I think this was probably my favourite part of Beijing.

I’ll have to plan ahead next time and see more of The Summer Palace. After a couple of hours I jumped back in a taxi and headed back to the apartment. Laura’s head was clearer and she’d gotten her work (mostly) done for her lessons the next day. We headed into town for the last time, to grab some food near Ho Hai Lake.

I have learnt you get a lot of food for your money in Beijing. The portion sizes are big and excellent value for money. We ordered way too much as usual and couldn’t finish anywhere bear what we had ordered. It did give me plenty of opportunity to practice my new-found chopstick skills though. We strolled up and down the hutong again and had a couple of drinks in a cool little bar before heading back. I needed to be up at 4am to get to the airport in time for my flight to Shanghai, so after a couple of JD and cokes my brain was nicely fuzzy and I had no problems getting to sleep as my head hit the pillow.

Day 5 — 6th February 2012

I was up at 4am making sure I had done all my packing. Bless Laura, she got up to say goodbye and wish me well on the next leg of my trip in Shanghai. Jess also got up and said farewell too. I had a really good time in Beijing and I was sorry to say goodbye. I’d asked Charlie if he wouldn’t mind driving me to the airport this morning and there he was downstairs at 5.30am ready to take me. He was a nice person, very positive and had such a fresh take on life. The roads were empty and in no time we were driving into departures at Peking International.

So that was Beijing! I managed to see and do quite a bit in such a short space of time. I had such a good time here and it was great to see Laura and meet her flat-mates. It might be a cliché by now, but the best way I can describe Beijing is to say it is such a different way of life. From the strange choices of ‘delicacies’ to the lack of toilet bowls, the odd fascination with staring at white people and the love of spitting. In all fairness, this is didn’t bother me and it is part of their culture so it isn’t for me to say otherwise. I might well have struggled without Laura and her ability to just about get by with her Mandarin. The language barrier was so much more prevalent than I expected it to be. With Chinese characters predominantly used instead of Pinyin in Beijing, it can be a real struggle to get by. Regardless, it was an experience that I thoroughly enjoyed and hope to go back another time in the future.


See ya Beijing! Shanghai here I come!!

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