1 August – It was an early start, leaving Kinglsey at 4:30am in 3 degree temperatures. The Air Asia flight to KL was very good indeed. We had organised a third empty seat through their “OptionTown” arrangement that bags us an extra seat for $28. However, it proved unnecessary as the plane was only about 60% full so there were loads of spare seats anyway. They did move us to their special “Quiet Zone”, with subdued lighting, no catering carts and no kids at no extra cost. Christine moved to the empty row of three seats in front and stretched out for a while.
Unfortunately, we had bought our tickets from KL to Beijing at another time so through carriage of luggage was not possible. We had to enter Malaysia, pick up and luggage and check it in again when the baggage check for our flight opened. Given that we had a 7 hour wait, it gave us something to do. It is amazing how quickly one tires of looking at shops, especially when every shop seems to be selling things at a heavy mark-up. We wandered into a computer shop that seemed to be selling 80% Apple products. I found myself wondering just what kind of person would by a new MacBook while strolling between Immigration and the Boarding Lounge. It’s not as though they were cheap or anything, they seemed to be the standard Apple price, which is way more than the cost of a couple of air tickets. I can picture the arrival at home with the small son rushing up and asking if Dad had bought him a present from his business trip to Malaysia. Dad throws him a MacBook and sends him to his room to play. Perhaps it is money well spent afterall.
You can probably tell from the way I am writing that I am utterly bored sitting waiting for our 6pm boarding to come around. We have splashed out on the next leg with Premium Flatbed seats.
The flight was bumpy but it worried us not, because most of it was spent in a pleasant sleep. Flat-bed flying is THE way to go, so much so we may have to start buying Lotto tickets again. The process of going through the formalities at the airport was painless enough and we were soon through customs and into the main area, scanning for some form of information on how to get into the central city area. It is usually best to try to avoid going outside and looking lost because you are setting yourself up to fall prey to touts.We were approached by one guy but we fobbed him off. Next was a woman in a smart uniform who tried to take us in tow. We protested and she showed us her airport badge and announced that she was airport information. OK. That sounded fair and looked kosher enough. She took our luggage trolley and led us outside, smack into the official taxi area (with rather long queues in evidence).
She waved the line away saying “Taxi lines too long. I get you better taxi,” and shot off towards the other side of the carpark. A man appeared soon after and took over. We protested but were reassured that it was “OK”. Realising that the woman did not actually have an ID badge on her uniform, I raced up and got agro and in her face. A shout actually got our luggage back and we departed for the taxi line, farewell by a string of abusive comments from our lady.
The official (wearing an ID badge) managed to get us to skip the queue and go straight to a private car. We paid around $10 more than we should have but by this time it was 2am and we just wanted to get to our hotel. The drive in is around 30km but was easy at that hour with very little traffic. Our hotel, The Prime Hotel in Wangfujing Avenue proved wonderful, as it should have been because we did a very unusual thing and booked a 5 Star. The bed was comfortable, the room spacious and the staff very friendly and attentive. Our adventure begins.
August 2 – 5th Beijing
Beijing was a real surprise. We expected a horribly overcrowded, heavily polluted and chaotic city. Instead, we awoke to relatively clear skies and clean air, a very reasonable traffic flow by Perth standards and a beautifully organised city. Beijing is nothing like the Vietnamese cities we are used to. Here the sidewalks are used for walking and the motorbike relatively rare. E-bikes reign supreme, along with ordinary pushbikes and all manner of tiny electric powered vehicles. Most buses are electric-diesel hybrids and the sight of trolley buses created a touch of nostalgia for us. The network of underground rail is beyond belief, covering an area around 100 km in diameter and consisting of twelve intersecting lines. We only used the subway once and found it highly efficient, although we did manage to get lost in a station.
Negotiating a road crossing is also different to Vietnam, where the incredible jumble of motorbikes and cars means you ignore all signals and just cross at a steady pace. Not so in Beijing. We used the lights at intersections to cross. In the main, the intersections are huge and the walk across anywhere from 30 to 80 metres. The green walk signal seems to mean you have less chance of being run over than the red but safety is not guaranteed. There always seemed to be a few rogue riders or drivers that would ignore the signals and run a red light. Despite this, we saw a lot of people crossing the street while texting or playing a game on their mobile.
On our first walk, we headed down the street towards the Wangfujing shopping area, once a famous mix of everything but nowadays a sanitized strip of glass malls and fashion shops. Very little in the way of English is displayed anywhere, even in eateries. Our saviour in the language stakes was Google Translate. If we wanted something, we would type in the words in English, translate to Chinese, rotate the phone sideways and the Chinese characters would fill the screen. The locals loved it and it always got results. The other way it worked was to go into camera mode and put the phone over the Chinese text. It would translate it into English. One time when we were buying bread, we tried this on a packet of strange looking bread to see if we could gain insights into the ingredients and found that the bread was described as “Woman’s Fluids”. The amazing thing is that we still bought it (tasted great).Once a waitress tried the same thing and looked up some words to use but came up with “pimp or “procurer”. When she realised what she had done she had the good grace to laugh with us.
We found food outlets scarce on the main street that our hotel was on but once into the side streets wonderful eateries were in abundance. Sticking to the tried and tested method of following a crowd proved successful on every occasion and we never had a bad meal nor paid very much. I had read that Beijing food is bland by Chinese standards. Not so. The sauces used were always rich and flavoursome (Manu would have been happy) and the use of vegetables so clever that I could easily convert to vegetarian. Servings were always huge. One time, at a food hall in an electronics mall in Zhongduhng, we shared one plate of food costing 17RMB ($3.50) and barely managed to finish it. Generally, we chose dishes by picture, which proved fairly safe, although checking with Google Translate did save us once from a big plate of pig’s liver (it looked good in the picture).
We decided to take in three of the “must see” sights in one hit by going on a tour. A little travel agent stall next to the hotel sold us a whole day tour of The Forbidden City, Heavenly Temple and Summer Palace, along with the obligatory side trips to the silk factory and Chinese medicine place. It was a small tour, with a Spanish family of three and a young British woman escorting a pair of very young Chinese twin girls. The tour guide (Nancy) spoke very good English indeed and was very efficient at getting us through crowded checkpoints and ticketing areas.
The Forbidden City is everything that one imagines. The architecture and scale of the complex of palaces and walls is staggering. However, it must have been a very lonely existence for the Emperor and his many concubines, locked away in within the walls. The crowds of tourists were large but things moved smoothly enough. Entrance is limited to a mere 18,000 at any one time so things don’t get out of hand. Our tour guide lead us through the South Entrance, a process that only took around 20 minutes but later, we saw the crowds headed through from Tianamen Square and the line stretched nearly a kilometre. This is a time where a tour group is the way to go. What I found sad is that most of the structure, although built in the 1400s by the Ming, was rebuilt in the 1880s after the joint English/French forces burnt it down in the 1860s because the naughty Chinese refused to buy enough opium. Later, we found the same was true of parts of the Summer Palace, the Emperor’s summer retreat outside of Beijing. The most outstanding feature of the Forbidden City is the roof structure, an incredible piece of architecture. Unfortunately, the underlying wooden structure also proved to be its undoing as the invaders had little trouble in setting fire to the whole thing.
The Temple of Heaven is a beautiful round structure sitting on top of a low hill and is another Ming structure dating from 1420. The Emperors used it to pray for good harvests and other desirable outcomes. Again, the scale of the building would be impressive even in today’s terms, and the intricately carved white marble walls and balustrades that surround it feature as a wonder in any city in the World. By the time we had toured the site, we were developing a real admiration for the Chinese ability to climb stairs. Everywhere required the mounting of elaborate sweeping stairways and if no suitable hill was present, the ancient simple made a mountain by digging a huge hole and depositing the earth, thereby gaining a man-made lake alongside.
The Summer Palace was built by the Quianlong Emperor in 1749 as a birthday present for his mother. He expanded on some earlier man-made lakes to dig a huge expanse of water to cool the breeze in the heat of summer and create the 60 metre high Longevity Hill from the spoil. The very impressive palace sits atop this huge mound, surrounded by lesser buildings such as a library, reception halls and a restaurant/opera house. We crossed the lake in a ferry and took the 2km walk back around to the entrance, revelling in the wonderful maze of buildings surrounding the library. It was like working through an early computer 3D maze game, with every courtyard looking similar and access to the next through a simple doorway with raised step. I half expected ninjas to pop up as we progressed through the intricate maze.
A visit to a silk factory was fascinating and educational. An old machine unwound the continuous threads from several cocoons at once spinning it into skeins of beautiful soft silk. We watched four women stretching hanks of spun silk outwards into rectangles and layering them to create incredibly light but warm doonas. Surprisingly, these were quite affordable, although still coming in at around $150 for a medium weight queen size. Unfortunately, most shirts were the same sort of cost and a full suit was well into the thousands. We looked around for a bit and when it was clear that none of our group wanted to purchase anything, we made to leave. Our guide stopped us and said we had to stay for another 20 minutes so we all sat down and read things on our smartphones for another 20 minutes.
The Chinese Medicine thing was really funny. Our tour group of 5 adults sat in comfy chairs and received a presentation of the wonders of Chinese medicine and diagnosis while soaking our feet in tea. Then, while the feet were massaged, a “doctor” came along, asked our age, and looked at our hands to diagnose our inner secrets. Amazingly, he suggested that Christine had joint issues and that her weight would make these worse. I had prostate issues (unusual for a 63 year old male) and would cease being able to urinate unless I agreed to further treatment. He offered to treat our terrible problems with secret herbs and spices (at a cost of course).
A whole day of touring left us leg sore and weary so we opted for a day off before tackling more tours. After a late rising and some work on the Internet with future bookings, we decided to track down an electronics mall to see if getting a cracked screen on my Asus phone was a possibility. An Internet search revealed a large complex of IT business in a suburb way to the north on near the 4th Ring Road so we decided to use this as a learning experience for tackling the subway. Our closest station was Dongsi, which is a transfer point for Line 2 and Line 5. We had to go through a luggage scanning checkpoint where even our water bottles were checked by a machine to make sure they were OK then descended into the depths of the Earth on two enormous escalators. At some point, we took a wrong turn and none of the maps we consulted bore the few words that we were seeking. Eventually, a very lovely young lady offered her assistance. It turned out she was going the same way as us so we tagged along with her. Her name was Gloria and she told us, in perfect English, that she was studying in Verona, Italy, something she was happy about because her boyfriend is Italian. Gloria guided us through the next change onto Line 4 before leaving us, a few stops before ours. We have found that where the language difference is not such a barrier, people are genuinely friendly and helpful.
Unfortunately, Beijing proved not to be the place to get my screen repaired (probably because Asus is a Taiwanese company) but the whole experience was fun. We even made our way back on the subway without assistance, except for buying a ticket which took a team of four. We knew we wanted to go to Dongsi and showed the assistant the name but she couldn’t read the English word. After much discussion with other officials, she eventually pressed the button marked “English” on the ticket machine and the rest was easy. It is what I wanted to do in the first place but then three people wouldn’t have had jobs.
The Great Wall of China – No trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to the Wall. There are many different parts of the Wall to visit, each offering a different experience. Some parts, such as Betaling, are relatively close to Beijing and the wall has been fully restored. Some areas have almost no restoration and are in near wilderness areas. We chose to go to Mutianyu, a bit of a compromise in that it is mostly restored but in a heavily forested part of the mountains around 70km out of Beijing. What was supposed to be a half day trip turned into a long day in a tour bus of around 20 people, many of whom were Chinese nationals, with long hours spent trapped in very heavy traffic. It didn’t help that a number of guests were late, probably also caught in traffic.
Once at the site, the uphill climbs commenced. Even the walk to the ticketing office was bad, not up steps but just up a long steep road.
We avoided the 800 step climb to the base of the Wall by buying cable car tickets, a really smart move because once at the top, we were presented with many more steps. Actually walking on The Great Wall of China is one of those moments in life, along with seeing Uluru for the first time or the Eiffel Tower. For a large part of my life, I did not think I would ever do it, with China being closed to us. The crowds on the Wall were heavy but manageable, although there were lots of crazies who insisted on stopping half way down a steep set of 500 year old stone steps for a selfie while everyone else behind tried not to think about plunging headlong down. The Wall crossed a particularly rugged area and snaked up and down. It didn’t matter whether it was up or down, the walking was strenuous, made worse by the hot and humid weather. We had entered the Wall via Watchtower 14 and had intended to walk to Watchtower 22, before returning, but the poor visibility made it pointless to push on to the end. The promised views would not eventuate. We were devastated that we had to cut the gruelling walk short but there you have it. Those who did make it to Tower 22 were rewarded with a beautiful plastic gold medal on a large yellow and gold ribbon. Who needs the Olympics?
By the time we got back down via the many steps and the cable car, we had little left in us but to find a place to have a beer and wait for the rest of the tour. When they had arrived over the next hour, some having made it and some not, we all enjoyed a Chinese meal together before facing the long bus trip back to Beijing.
We ended up loving Beijing. It is a bit expensive to live in as a tourist unless you head away from the central tourist areas. However, the rewards are great, with the sheer scale of the city blowing away any possible preconceptions. This is a city with a population close to the entire population of Australia. The figure stood at 21.4 million by the end of 2014. The building program makes anything else I have seen look ridiculous and the efficiency of the place is staggering. However, Beijing also represents what the rest of the World will become if we don’t start to do something about the population growth. Beijing’s growth has at least slowed in recent years. The pollution that the whole of China’s North East is famous for has reduced significantly since 2010. We experienced some clear days and some terrible days. I have seen lots of evidence to suggest that the Chinese are making more of an effort to reduce the impact of humans on our fragile Earth than we are. In Australia, we still seem to think that growth is desirable.