7 September 2011

When tourists become the attraction [Beijing, China]

As soon as I crossed that border in to China everything changed. The difference between Mongolia is like night and day. Coming from crammed jeeps and vans with no room, driving over deserts with no roads... I jumped on an air-conditioned sleeper bus, with a lay-down bed, driving over roads that felt as smooth as silk. While Mongolia was a lot of fun, I think I was ready for the change.

I arrived into Beijing at 4am, much too early for the metro system. So I found a random hotel and spent a few hours chilling out in the lobby. When they kicked me out at around 5:30am, I found a rickshaw to take me to the nearest Metro station. After he tried to rip me off, I made my way to my CouchSurfing hosts place. As I was walking down the road everyone seemed to be staring at me. I mean EVERYONE. And not just a glace, full on staring. I was wondering what was wrong... Did I have something hanging out of my nose? I later found out that a large number of the people in Beijing are Chinese tourists who come from tiny villages, and have probably never seen a white person in their entire life. Still, no need to be rude.

My hosts in Beijing were Berta and Edvardas, two awesome Lithuanians. Unfortunately I did not get to spend a whole lot of time with them due to both their and my crazy schedule, but they were invaluable with their help and recommendations for the city and were really hospitable.

I was in Beijing for four full days, and only on one of those did I get any fine weather. The others were cloudy, wet, hot, HUMID and sticky. I am not sure whether it is the pollution, but being in Beijing at this time of year is not nice. Five minutes after you step out of the shower you are covered in a thin film of sweat.

What did I see? Oh, well you know that big wall? Yeah, I checked that out. I met up with Anna and we took a bus to Badaling. It is the most famous, and easiest to get to from Beijing, therefore the most touristed. The sad thing was that they have turned the whole thing into a sideshow. Huge lines of stalls selling all sorts of crap, a big (ugly) entrance, and even some bears kept in a tiny wooden enclosure, just in case the wall wasn't entertaining enough. The wall itself was spectacular; stretching across the hills as far as you can see. With plunging dips and huge ascents, curves and steps, it winds it's way like a snake across the green hills of China. This was fortunately the day we had decent weather, so the view was perfect. But it turns out that Anna and I ended up being the main attraction at the wall. There were hardly any foreign tourists there, which as it seems this not uncommon . It surprised me; I expected a few more foreigners around, but they are almost non-existent. In fact at almost all the sights we went to we were the only non-Chinese there! So people were constantly coming up and asking to have photos with us/of us. One final comment; they have installed a sliding car and cable car up to the highest point of the wall. And people are LAZY, because those area's of the wall were uncomfortably busy.

Anna and I also visited the Summer Palace; a huge complex that the emperor used to hang out when it got too hot in the center of Beijing. It is made up of a large number of amazingly decorated buildings, as well as a lot of sculpture and artifacts. There is also a big temple up on the hill that looks out over the whole complex. The weather was shitty again, so the view was pretty average.

That same day we went to take a look at the Olympics site. The Birds Nest (National Stadium) and Water Cube (Beijing National Aquatics Center) were both very impressive. What we found interesting was that it seemed as though they have just carried on as if the Olympics never ended. Everything is still there in place, including the food hall which you can go and eat at.

While I did see Tienanmen Square, I did not make it in to the Forbidden City. The three full on days in Beijing were taking rheir toll, combined with the pollution; I was feeling pretty shitty. I think I am coming down with the flu again. Tienanmen itself is just a big square really. Apparently the largest in the world, and can fit over one million people. It contains 'Chairman Mao's Memorial Hall' with his mummified body, a monument 'to the peoples hero's', and a couple of huge TV's. That is about it. Unspectacular. I didn't go and see Mao as I have already seen one dead communist dictator; enough for one lifetime I think.

Last but not least, we checked out a couple of markets. The Silk Street market; a very popular tourist market with plenty of big-name knock-offs. Many of them blatant fakes, like two of the exact same jacket beside each other; one with Columbia stitched on the front, the other North Face. Here the haggling is brutal; it reminded me of the markets in Cairo.I ended up just getting a t-shirt for about €3, because as much as I would like to buy more, everything I buy I have to carry. The other market was the 'Night Market', which has all sorts of crazy foods including bugs, snakes, turtles (tear!), octopus, even live scorpions on a stick. I am sure it is not as crazy as some of the SE Asian food markets, but it was pretty awesome.

I think it is time for some random observations from China so far.
- As I mentioned, China is a huge contrast to Mongolia. I didn't realise quite how much until after a day or two. Beijing is a MASSIVE city, full of malls and sky-scrapers. You can literally get off at any stop on the metro and be surrounded by massive glass buildings and five malls. They have TV advertising outside the metro trains - like on the walls of the tunnel, and it follows you as you go along. No idea how that works but I have never seen anything like it. And they have the best air conditioning down there. London could learn a thing or two from Beijing.
- Food in general is cheap, but the street food is crazily cheap and really good. They make all sorts of noodles, pancakes, buns etc - all costing about €0.30. They have these big grills or cookers attached to their bicycles so they can drive around anywhere and just start cooking. BUT some of the food is just plain strange. I bought this sausage and bread thing, but the bread was a sweet sponge, and it was covered in sugar. Anna told me about buying a chocolate bun and it having tuna inside. Weird.
- The food is way more spicy than I thought it would be. All the Chinese food I have eaten before in NZ, Aus, America or Europe has always been very bland. Here it definitely has some kick.
- The bicycle is a main form of transport, but they have taken it to the next level. There are all sorts of mutant forms they have made to suit their needs - tricycles, big trays off the back, cookers attached. Most have tiny motors so they almost never have to pedal. And Beijing has gone electric in a big way. Most powered bikes (including scooters and motorbikes) are electric. Which is great! Except when you step out onto the street and don't hear them coming.
- The Chinese LOVE to honk their horns. Especially the bus drivers, who have these massive air horns. I have been on a few buses so far and not a minute goes by without the driver leaning on the horn. Not ideal if you want to get some sleep.
- It is easier to be a tourist in China than I expected. I was thinking the written language was going to be a huge problem, but they have English everywhere. Not only that but it is fairly easy to find someone that speaks English. I mean, I would not call it easy, but it is really not that hard.

My next destination is Xi'an - most famous for the Teraccotta warriors. Apparently the best comfort vs cost train ticket to get is the hard sleeper. But when I went to buy one there was none left. Not even any seating tickets for the next week! But they do one thing in China I have never seen anywhere else; they sell standing tickets. For an overnight, 13 hour + journey? Crazy. I had no choice really, so I manned up and bought the ticket. The train itself was worse than I could have imagined. It was crowded! I had bought a little folding seat and managed to secure a little spot just out of the isle so I wouldn't be bumped all night, but the seat was extremely uncomfortable, so I ended up just sitting on the floor. Across the aisle was a screaming baby. They don't really use diapers here, so every time the baby wanted to pee, the mother just held it by the thighs in a sitting position and let it go for it... all over the floor rght next to me. I learned one lesson from that trip - do NOT buy a standing ticket. But the way I see it - I have now experienced the worst. It can only get better, right?

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