Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Beijing - Our Introduction to China

We disembarked at Beijing main railway station filled with trepidation.  We had been led to believe that Beijing was chaos at the best of times but that this week it would be absolute carnage.
The mid autumn festival (also known as Mooncake Day) falls on the full moon of the eighth lunar month and National Day is held every 1st  October to celebrate the formation of the People's Republic of China.  This year, both holidays fell on 1st October and as a result there was a week long national holiday, second only to the Chinese New Year holiday.

We had been warned to expect booking hotels and travel to be practically impossible and that Beijing would be one of the busiest places full of Chinese visiting its many popular tourist attractions.

So as we headed out of the station we braced ourselves.  We followed the crowd and quickly made our way of the station, onto the square in front of the station, where Paul dumped me and the bags while he went off in search of a bank to extract some yuan.
One of the buildings in Baihei Park
As I waited for Paul to return, in the first 10 minutes or so I could see a few other western tourists milling around, and soon realised that I recognised most of them as they had arrived on the same train from Ulaanbaatar.  After that, however, I hardly saw any other westerners.  I stood quite happily in the square, watching the world go by.  It wasn't  particularly busy and although it was hardly quiet either, Beijing is the capital city of China and has population of about 20 million.  It was no busier than a Friday afternoon at a major London railway station. 

Paul returned armed with yuan and we headed off to the taxi rank. 

Unfortunately our first experience in Beijing was not a happy one.  There is a well known scam by unregistered drivers who will charge you 10 times the actual fare and you are advised to use the official taxis to avoid this.  We therefore ignored the several approaches by unregistered taxi drivers and duly stood in the long queue for about 30 minutes, tired after our journey, clutching the address of our hostel in Chinese.

Dancing in the park
Despite doing everything by the book, when we reached the front of the queue the guy in charge of the taxi queue motioned to a car (an official cab that had been parked up on the side for some time) and he pulled over.  I saw this and suspected foul play.  I had an inkling he had been waiting for us, (clearly westerners, ripe for scamming) and tried to head to another taxi but we were effectively forced into the first cab.  Our rucksacks were already in the boot and we were already in the back seat when the driver told us the fare would be 300 yuan because it was very far away (it wasn't).  

We tried to tell him to use his meter but he refused, saying the fare would be higher if he turned on his meter.

We were stuck.  We had just arrived in a strange country and most of the information we had was outdated but we were pretty sure we were being ripped off.  We could either get out and start again (but given that the guy in charge of the taxi queue was in on the scam it was likely it would be repeated or that we would have to join the end of the queue or worse that we just wouldn't be able to get a cab).  Our luggage was also in the back and we really didn't want to risk jumping out, for him to drive off with all our worldly goods.
The moat around the outside of the
Forbidden Palace
We had no choice.  Paul negotiated a reduction to 250 yuan and we set off.  I followed his route using the Lonely Plant map we were armed with (unfortunately for him, since 2008 all roads are also in pinyin) and he headed south east (our hostel was north west of the city) and followed a ring road anti clockwise, thereby taking about 40 minutes.  We estimated that if he had taken the direct route, it would have taken about 15 minutes. 

We were both really bloody angry and it was not a good start to our stay in China.  He dropped us off at the end of our hutong claiming cars were not allowed (they were) and at least had the decency to look sheepish (and a bit worried) before he drove off as quickly as he could.  We walked the last 100m to our hostel, the Red Lantern House, and when we arrived all was (almost) forgotten.

Tiananmen Square - quite deserted
The Red Lantern House is set in a traditional hutong courtyard house.  The rooms in the main building are all set off the central courtyard which originally was open to the elements but is now covered over and houses the bar, tables and chairs, comfortable sofas, fishponds and fish tanks and plants.  There are red lanterns everywhere.  Indeed, wherever you are in China you will be within view of at least half a dozen red lanterns, inside or out – they apparently signify happiness and good luck, have been around since 260 BC and were originally thought to ward off evil spirits.  I would have liked to have got that taxi driver and shoved a red lantern where the sun don't shine!  But that experience was becoming a distant memory.
At the hostel we were greeted by young staff, who were friendly, helpful and spoke reasonable English.  We were shown to our room and immediately dumped our stuff and headed to the fridge where we helped ourselves to two large bottles of Tsingtao Beer - 50 yuan each.  The beer (and the price) along with the beautiful surroundings improved our mood no end.

Negotiating the hutongs
There are hundreds of hutongs (alleyways) in Beijing but up until a few years ago there were thousands.  Many have been demolished to make way for progress but attempts are being made to preserve the hutongs that remain.  This is all very well in theory unless you are a poor family living and working in a hutong.  Many families have their business at the front of the hutong, and they live in the back around the courtyard.  Many of these buildings do not have running water or heating which is why there are always public toilets every hundred metres or so.  We also assumed there were public baths of sorts because we frequently saw people riding their bikes in their pyjamas, presumably off to have a shower somewhere (or maybe they just like cycling around in their pyjamas).
Our feast for Mooncake Day/National Day
Modernising these old buildings is an expensive business.  It is possible and many have been converted into luxurious homes, hotels or hostels, but for most families the cost is simply out of their reach.  Many families are happy to sell their hutong and move to a modern apartment in a block with heating, running water, and a bathroom to call their own.  It is one of those instances where we, as visitors, bemoan the disappearance of these traditional dwellings but the reality is that unless the government help the families improve their sometimes appalling living conditions, no-one can blame them for wanting to sell up to the highest bidder.

We spent many a happy hour sitting outside the hostel with a beer watching life in our hutong go by.  The hutongs are a world away from downtown Beijing and we really enjoyed our time there.  There were few westerners in Beijing, comparatively speaking, and obviously many of the Chinese we saw were tourists like ourselves.  The Chinese would sometimes just walk past and stare, sometimes say hello, or if feeling particularly brave ask for a photograph.  We found the Chinese to be friendly and keen to chat.  They are not afraid to stare but a smile usually elicited a smile in return or a "hello" or a "ni hao".
Children were the funniest (and so cute) and parents often encouraged their offspring to "say hello" – something we often commented would simply not happen in the UK anymore as people stopped encouraging their children to talk to strangers a long time ago.  We were chatted to randomly on the metro, in the street, at the main attractions, and in the parks.  The overwhelming impression we had during our time in Beijing was that the Chinese people were friendly, helpful and pretty happy most of the time.  Except for that bloody taxi driver of course but that was almost forgotten as soon as we arrived.

It was National Holiday week and we had braced ourselves for mayhem but life in our little hutong and the surrounding area was pretty chilled out really.  It was busy, but no busier really than any capital city anywhere in the world.  There were a couple of occasions where we experienced National Holiday madness but it didn't really affect our time there.
On our first day in the city we headed down to Beihai Park which was (according to the map) just a few blocks away.  It was indeed just a few blocks away but the blocks are huge and the map of Beijing we had was very small scale. 

When we reached Beihai Park we began to realise the extent to which the Chinese charge for entrance to everything.  There is a 20 yuan charge to enter the park and very little information is in English – just the basics i.e. the entrance fee.  There are other attractions inside the park and you have to pay additional fees if you want to visit them.  Quite frankly, it's no wonder China is such a fast growing economy – if you are a tourist you get fleeced.  However, 20 yuan wasn't much and we were looking forward to finding a bit of green space to chill out.

The park was lovely, had a large lake with various pagodas (pagodas are clearly going to go the same way as onion domes!), and lots of "keep feet off grass" signs.  There are lots of benches to sit on but clearly it is not the done thing to stretch out and laze about on the grass.  The grass is very much off limits and you are confined to the paved walkways.  Not the green space we were looking for. 

Instead, we spent our time watching all the people dancing everywhere (they were jiving), singing, playing cards or Chinese chess, or sitting down with impressive picnics.  You see most Chinese carrying round flasks of tea but it's the feasts they produce from their bags that is truly remarkable.

At this point we were still expecting the hordes of people we had been warned to expect and, still, we didn't think it was that bad. 

We left the park and wandered in the general direction of Tiananmen Square.  Surely now we would encounter the crowds?

After negotiating various underpasses (the roads here are too treacherous to attempt to cross without a death wish) and police security, we found ourselves in Tiananmen Square, which we found a little underwhelming to be honest (just a huge concrete space), but still not very busy.  Busy, yes, but about the same as Trafalgar Square on a normal day (obviously without the lions or Nelson's column or pigeons)

Maybe as Londoners we are used to big cities, but we felt at this point that the whole scaremongering about China at this time of year to be a bit exaggerated.  To be fair, we did encounter some of the holiday madness, but it was quite specific to certain tourist attractions, and I'll get to that in a separate post.

We loved Beijing from the minute we got there.  And we warmed to Chinese people immediately.  When we encountered the Chinese tour group at Lake Baikal, they struck us as being generally quite friendly, happy, and easy going, and this seemed to be quite a reasonable conclusion – not a bad generalisation and although obviously Mr Taxi Driver was a complete bastard, he was clearly the exception rather than the rule (and we weren't going to let one dickhead ruin it for us!).

Ordering food was a bit of a lottery.  Unless there was an English menu (forget it) or pictures (when a certain amount of guesswork was still required) you pretty much didn't know what you were ordering.  We visited one restaurant with no English menu and no pictures.  Thankfully there was a Swiss couple eating there, one of whom just happened to be fluent in Mandarin and they were called upon by the waitress to translate the menu for us.  The Swiss girl very kindly helped us out but we just ended up ordering what they had because we recognised it and it looked tasty.  And it was.  In particular, the fried green beans in chili, garlic and a host of other spices was amazing.  If you ever get the chance, eat them.  We honestly didn't know vegetables could taste that good.

Other times we went to places with pictures.  Even then, we had no idea what the meat was, or how large the dish was.  On one occasion we ended up with enough food to feed a party of 10 (no kidding) and with beer the bill only came to about 80 yuan (£8).

Chopsticks took a while to master but after a couple of days, we had it sorted.  I still get chopstick fatigue sometimes (my hands aren't used to using those particular muscles) but I'm managing to shovel it in quite efficiently now.

The metro was amazing.  Any journey from anywhere to anywhere on the metro system (except the airport) was 2 yuan.  Trains ran every 2 minutes and you could always get on a train.  It was very busy on the metro, but as the system is so efficient, so reliable and so cheap, that everyone uses it.  And it was never as busy as the Piccadilly Line on a Monday morning.

During our 10 days in Beijing we did visit the usual tourist attractions like the Great Wall at Mutianyu (not as packed as Badaling but still pretty busy in the holiday), the Forbidden City (I'll come to that), the Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace.  There are countless other sites to visit but for us that would be cultural overload.  It's ok if that's why you travel, but it isn't the reason we do.  It's also very expensive to visit tourist attractions, especially in China, where you are charged at least once and sometimes extra to visit specific attractions within an attraction.  We came across many travellers with a tick box itinerary but we also met others with a similar outlook to ourselves.

We wandered about Beijing a lot, visited a few parks, walked around the lakes, and generally got a feel of the city.  We also used it as an opportunity to kick back and take stock after the first 5 weeks travelling through Europe, Russia and Mongolia, where we felt a bit rushed and on someone else's schedule.  Beijing was a perfect place to do this.  We reckoned after a 10 day break we would be ready to tackle the rest of China.


  1. hmmm think u been on the Genghis Khan vodka before u posted this as u allready posted the post though mate sounds if u are having a great time.keep the posts coming as much as u can now u are going into china good luck..

  2. Hi Dawn and Paul,
    We've finally caught up with your travels (courtesy of link from Mum). We're enjoying travelling with you and look forward to more.
    There are rogue Taxi drivers the world over - we had a similar experience in Athens a few years ago without the mitigating factor of being somewhere as exotic as Beijing (it was Euros for heaven's sake).
    RE the Hermitage my overriding memory is that John decided to 'feel' a piece of sculpture, happily ignoring the 'Do Not Touch' sign written in several languages (yes English was one), and was duly shouted at by 3 staff members who appeared from nowhere.... Highly embarrassed we skulked away .....

    I'd love to stay in a Ger.

    What a trip you're having.

    Gather there may be a hiatus in the news whilst your in China.....

    Hope all is well anyway, and look forward to summary when you reach next destination.

    Mmm. What do we do now. Press publish perhaps? Leave it set to Google account. I'll give it a go....

  3. Ooh. That worked - eventually. Interesting spacing though. Think i'll give paras a miss next time.

  4. That sure looks like a very peaceful place. I am sure it is so nice to go to that serene looking place. Putting it on the list now.
    for more info

  5. John - teething problems but vodka may have had something to do with it!

    John and Carol - thank you for your comments. I can imagine the Russian museum guards weren't impressed in the Hermitage! Some of them look like they could be ex KGB! I've been trying to update by email but it's a bit hit and miss (and finding the time to write the blog is a bit of a nightmare although I should probably edit it a bit according to Paul!). Can't believe we've been in China 6 weeks already.

    Hope is well with you all. And thanks for reading :-)