Tuesday, October 6, 2015

China: Life as a Beijinger for 8 days

It’s tough to describe a country that’s so complex and varied. In our experience, China was freakishly original, a tad alien, and fabulous. You read a lot of stories in the media and hear about other people’s experience and form an opinion. While I don’t contradict all, I do believe that each traveler has a unique experience so you need to go out there and find your own despite what you read and hear. China was like stepping out of our comfort zone into another planet. It was so different from any other country we had visited and the only country where we did feel like foreigners. China just blew our minds and exceeded our expectations.

Let me start where it all began. I chanced upon a poem written by me when I was 8 years old. When reading through the lines I realized that though my bucket list as an adult had changed, my wish to visit the Great Wall has remained.

So I went ahead and booked the tickets but it took me around two weeks to inform Joy. He is quite the reluctant traveler and I knew what his reaction would be, so had to build up a case that China was a place he wanted to visit, he just didn’t know it yet. So I started with the Great Wall, one of the seven wonders that’s a must see, moved to the Forbidden City, and then sold him on the idea of the bullet train (I don’t know whether we will see one in our lifetime in India), and the Terracotta Warriors. He was sold out on the bullet train idea because he loves technology but he still wasn’t fully convinced about the China trip right till we landed and began exploring. Now he wants to live in Beijing.

Let me start with places to visit in and around Beijing

The Great Wall: Construction first began around 221 BC by the first emperor of a unified China who ordered that a number of existing walls along the northern border be joined into a single system to protect China against attacks from the north. The best-known and preserved sections of the Great Wall were built in the 14th through 17th centuries A.D., during the Ming dynasty. However, it didn’t really prevent invaders as Genghis Khan, the mighty Mongol ruler did control most of China for a period of time. In 1987, UNESCO designated the Great Wall as a World Heritage site.

The best-known section of the Great Wall of China–Badaling, is very popular and receives millions of tourists because of it’s proximity to Beijing. The Mutianyu section is close and very popular too. There is even a cable car that will save you a hike up to the Wall at Mutianyu for those with limited time and it is said to be very scenic. However, I wanted something more challenging, so researched and found that Jinshanling is the least visited section of the wall because of its distance from Beijing and great for hiking due to its fabulous scenic views in the mountains.

Joy and I at the Great Wall Jinshanling

The Jinshanling Great Wall starts from the Wangjinglou Tower in the east and ends at Longyukou in the west and stretches about six miles (10 kilometers). So off we went to Jinshaling. It was a 3 hr bus ride through the scenic countryside on the outskirts of Beijing. There were such lovely orchards on the way and we even viewed a gorgeous sunset on the way back. Once we reached Jinshanling, we soon learnt the trek is not easy. Though it is very very beautiful and captivating, it is also exhausting as most of the trek is a steep upward climb. Phew!

You see a tower in the distance and think that's my destination which doesn't look too far but the climb to reach each tower is so difficult and once you reach that tower you see a view of more towers that are higher in the mountains. Very misleading. :)

Though some sections are restored, there are some unrestored sections so it is advisable to tread carefully and wear suitable hiking shoes. 

I did see folks in slippers and floaters and wondered how they managed. Some of the steps are uneven with loose stones. And some stairways to reach the top of the towers can be really steep and so narrow that you have to tread sideways. I have tiny feet and still had to struggle. It’s like climbing a high bar stool with your body and feet placed sideways on the step for balance. I crawled my way up through many sections as the next step was chin high for me. :D

In some sections, they have done away with steps altogether. So it’s just a steep vertical climb which can make you very dizzy especially when you look down. 

To sum it up, you will be really out of breath coz it’s like climbing a steep mountain which you are because this section does lumber along the Greater and Lesser Jinshan ('Gold Mountain') Ranges.

Also remember that while hiking it is important to look back. You get to see the way you have traversed so far and the most fabulous views.

Overall, the Great Wall is impressive and just took my breath away. Thanks to Vera and her stories about her Mom and Harbin that I had an entertaining bus journey to and fro. And also to Michael who waited patiently for me when I couldn't walk any more and the group had moved ahead. Travel is all about the wonderful people you meet on your journey and they will always be a part of my memories of the Great Wall.

Forbidden City: The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from 1420 to 1912 from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty. It served as the home of emperors and was also the political center of Chinese government for almost 500 years until their reign ended. The complex comprises around 980 buildings and now houses the Palace Museum.

Joy at one of the courtyards in Forbidden City

We took bus no 82 from where we were staying for CNY 2 (CNY 1 is around INR 10) and it dropped us off at Tiananmen Square. We followed the large crowd till we reached the entrance to the Tiananmen Gate. Once you enter the square of the first building, there are ticket counters on the right for CNY 15 to enter Tiananmen Gate. We decided to proceed further to buy tickets for the Palace Museum which is Forbidden City. Foreigners in China need to show their passports in order to buy tickets for entrance to the Palace Museum (Forbidden City complex). It costs CNY 60 per person for the entrance.

When we were in the queue, tour guides who speak English started hounding us. If you are part of a tour group, you will not face that problem but for backpackers like us, they hounded us everywhere. :D  And well though it may be more convenient having a guide in a place that hardly has any English signage or people who speak English, it’s not impossible without one. I had done 6 months research and had information and maps in Chinese and English so I was confident I didn't need one but if you are a little lost, then maybe advisable to take a guide.

I had spoken to a lot of people on how vast the complex is so avoided going to the buildings on the right or left and kept walking straight from building to building. It still took us a little over two hours because so much to see and read. There are free English brochures available in the information center as you enter the main hall. The brochure provides not only a bit of history but also a map of the entire complex so you can choose which building you want to see. Outside each building, there are inscriptions describing what the buildings are in Mandarin as well as English for foreign tourists. So as I've mentioned before, if you are adventurous and confident enough, you can visit without a guide.

Do note that Forbidden City has a daily limit of 85000 visitors. So if you are not part of a tour group who would have bought the tickets online for you, do go early to buy your tickets before it reaches the limit. Since the day we visited was a Chinese National Holiday, by noon there were already 85000 visitors and they had stopped issuing tickets.

View of more buildings inside the complex

Some of the buildings were fascinating but I did get bored after a while. I mean there is a limit to how many of the Emperor’s ceremonial hall or courts, living quarters for the household, the hall where he selected his concubines, and the quarters where they stayed that you can view.

History is fascinating and the architecture is detailed and lovely but after a while it all got blurred and looked the same. My personal opinion aside, I still feel it is a must see if you visit Beijing. The Forbidden City is impressive and UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1987.

Jingshan Hill: Even before exiting Forbidden City, I could spy the Pavilion at Jingshan Hill and that fascinated me. I had read so much about the views that couldn’t wait to reach it. 

The view of Forbidden City from the hill is splendid.

Panoramic view of the old and new Beijing from the top of Jingshan hill

Jingshan hill is an artificial hill constructed entirely from the soil excavated in forming the moats of the Imperial Palace and nearby canals almost 1000 years ago. It is also known as Coal Hill, from an old rumor that the emperors kept a hidden stash in the park. The last emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Chongzhen, committed suicide by hanging himself here in 1644. The entrance ticket is CNY 2.
 The Jingshan Park is fabulous and well maintained. Since it was their national holiday, we saw groups of people congregating in various areas of the park, carrying the national flag and singing. It was a very festive atmosphere.

Lama Temple: The Lama Temple known as Yonghe Temple was built in 1694 during the Qing Dynasty. It originally served as an official residence for court eunuchs and was later converted into the court for Prince Yong, a future Yongzheng Emperor. After Yongzheng's ascension to the throne in 1722, half of the building was converted into a monastery for monks of Tibetan Buddhism. The other half remained an imperial palace.

Worshippers lighting incense sticks

The Buddha in the main hall

Gods, worshipers, and a monk charging at those of us with cameras

The entrance ticket cost us CNY 25 and they also gave us a CD, which we are yet to view. There are 5 main halls, and almost each hall had 3 statues of Buddha. 

Confucius Temple: After exiting the lama temple, we stumbled upon the Confucius temple quite by chance while exploring the lanes on the opposite side of the road. It’s just about a km from the Lama Temple and the entrance ticket cost CNY 30. It’s lovely. Don’t miss it if you visit the Lama Temple.

Posing with Confucius

Joy at the Confucius Temple complex

Interesting tree in front of the structure at the Confucius Temple complex

Summer Palace: The Summer Palace is a vast ensemble of lakes, gardens and palaces in Beijing, China. In December 1998, UNESCO included the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List. The day we visited, it was a Chinese holiday, so it was crowded, and no buggies were plying to take us around so we were forced to walk. It was cold, windy, and the lake waters were choppy so we couldn’t even get a boat ride to get to the other shore. 

View of the Summer Palace from the entrance

Joy at the entrance. It was a cold windy day and we were ill equipped for the weather. 

Posing at the Willow Bridge. It was so serene and lovely

Funny signs at the lake side of Summer Palace

If you do visit, my tip is to take the buggy. Walking is all nice for exercise but in China all these places are so large that it can get tiring especially if you are trying to squeeze in other places in your itinerary. I’m exhausted even thinking of it because we walked for 4 to 5 hrs around the area before we could exit. Yes, it is that vast.

Temple of Heaven: Also known as the Altar of Heaven is a medieval complex of religious buildings. The Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties visited the complex for annual ceremonies of prayer for good harvest. The surrounding park is vast, well maintained, and you will see playgrounds, old folks congregating and doing tai chi and other exercises.

The Temple of Heaven complex

After booking the flights, next step was finding the accommodation. I went through reviews for hotels in several sites but just wasn’t happy. Then I chanced upon this listing in Airbnb and knew I had found the perfect place for our Beijing stay. This home is in one of the few remaining Hutong areas (alleyways) of old Beijing, with courtyard houses in traditional architecture. 

Entrance to the home where we stayed in the hutongs

View of the traditional Beijing homes from the terrace of our home in the hutongs

It was the most charming place to stay for two vagabonds like Joy and I. There was a lovely open kitchen where we could make our own breakfast and snacks. The kitchen was stocked with fruit salad, milk, different types of cereals, homemade bread, cakes, cookies, juice, tea, coffee, and even beer which we could help ourselves to whenever we wanted but we rarely did as we were out since morning. The residence was in a quiet lane and yet a 2 to 3 minute walk from the noisy and bustling restaurants and bars near the lake, less than 10 minutes walk from the Drum and Bell tower, and around 3 to 4 kms walk from the Forbidden City, Lama Temple, Jingshan hill, and other historical sites.

Our stay there was fabulous and we met some wonderful people. Andrew (visiting from Melbourne) was our unofficial guide to every place in and around Beijing. He also gave us helpful tips for the next part of our journey to Xian for the Terracotta Warriors. Andrew and Yang Zhi (our host) were kind enough to make last minute reservations for us at one of the popular restaurants that served Peking Duck. So off Joy and I went with Jag (an artist from Jamaica) and Andrew for a delicious meal with wonderful company and interesting stories to share. 

View of the Bell and Drum Towers from the terrace

A bar overlooking the lake. At night it is crowded with music streaming. Most bars around the lake have entertainment with their in-house band

Our taxi driver dropped us till the Yandai Xiejie hutong known as Crooked Street in English, our host came to receive us and we wheeled our luggage through tiny alleys for about 5 minutes to reach their gorgeous home. Quite an adventure! 

Crooked Street - entrance to our hutongs where the taxi dropped us off

The lanes are quite tiny and vehicles cannot enter but they do have rickshaws that charge an exorbitant amount to take tourists around. There were two subway lines 6 and 8 around five minutes walk from their home, and depending on which part of the city we were visiting, the subway was what we used the most to get around Beijing. It was a time-saver, inexpensive, and very convenient.

Well, like in India, there is the good and the bad. You read a lot of the taxi and rickshaw scams and just like any place in the world you need to be careful. In the stations and airports, it is advised to go to the designated taxi stands and take the metered cabs to avoid getting cheated. There will be touts trying to get you out of the queue but do not go with them because there are horror stories of passengers being fleeced for astronomical sums.

The only times we used taxis in Beijing was to and fro the airport, and on the way to Summer Palace when we accidentally got down in the wrong subway station and were totally lost and couldn’t figure out where to proceed. However, must say the three cab drivers we got, though they didn’t know a word of English, were nice and didn’t fleece us. We carried a tourist map with us that had listings of all historical places in Chinese and English, so we communicated by just pointing out the name in Chinese whether in the subways or cabs or the bus.

We made extensive use of the subway to visit all tourist destinations and even to the Beijing railway station to book our fast train tickets to Xian (which I will cover in another post). Our host provided us with smart cards that can be swiped in the Beijing bus and subway network. We filled about CNY 70 and still had around 30 remaining for their next visitor when we handed back the card. Beijing has an extensive network of around 15 lines and once you figure out the system, it is the most convenient, reliable, fast, and inexpensive way to get around. They even have English signs and announcements for the stations when you are in the train but always good to look at the map on top of the door and figure out. Do remember it’s hard to find anyone who speaks English so always good to know where you will be heading and what lines you may have to change to reach the destination station.

For example, even though we had to change 3 trains to get to Beijing West railway station, it just took us around 20 minutes. We had to swipe entry in the first station we entered on line 8, then get on the train and get off at a line 6 station, then we proceeded to another platform where we could get the line 6 transfer line, again board the line 6 train and get off at a line 9 transfer line. Again, when you reach line 9, proceed to the line 9 transfer platform, get on the train and get off at Beijing West railway station. At the exit point is where you need to swipe your card again and then it will display the amount debited and amount pending on the screen.

The names of the stations and transfer lines are provided in English too at the top of the door in every train. Tiantandongmen on line 5 was the subway station to reach Temple of Heaven

I know it sounds tricky but once you get the hang of it, it’s very simple and easy. There are trains every 1 to 2 minutes. The frequency is so good you don’t even need to wait very long and you can cover very large distances that may take 1 to 2 hours by road in just a few minutes. At the end of our trip, Joy and I felt like Beijingers because most days we would take at least 9 to 12 trains to and fro. That’s how extensively we used the subway.

Another important thing to remember when travelling by subway is to figure out the exits. When you exit the subway, there are signs and maps at the exit points telling you where the exit leads even in English. If you get off at a different exit, you may not be able to find the place or you may have to walk a lot to your destination as we discovered. We got off at a wrong exit when visiting the Military Museum. The subway too had only street names and no signs for the Military Museum so we went back, binged it (Google, facebook, twitter, YouTube and most other sites that we frequently use are banned in China) and visited again next day this time using the correct exit. We did find it but unfortunately to Joy's dismay, they had reached their daily limit of visitors.
Personal Opinions
People who have visited did warn us about racism, pollution, smog, cleanliness, the cuisine, and even the lack of English that is a big hindrance to communication when you move around. Some Twitter travel chat folks had some horror stories and wished me all the best. I do admit I was a little apprehensive but my desire to hike the Great Wall was much more than my worries. And while I do know that some points can be deterrents, like I've mentioned earlier, each traveler has a unique experience.

1) Interaction with the locals: We did feel foreign, which we were in their land but not in a bad way. In the subway, folks did stare but more out of curiosity as to who are these 2 brown skinned people and where are they from. And it's not an uncomfortable deadbeat stare that Indians have, they look away immediately. They would smile and even make room for us to sit once the crowd lessened. During rush hour in Xian, the subways were crowded and we let two trains pass by because we just couldn’t get in. The third train, this lady got in, gestured, and pulled us in. Despite the communication barrier, they would point at Joy’s watch, phone, or something on his T-shirt and try and make conversation. Most were obsessed with his Jeep cap. Though Joy had no clue what they were talking about, Joy would smile, nod back, and reply. People were very friendly and nice.

In Forbidden City, a middle-aged man who may have been visiting from out of Beijing, came over to Joy and asked him something. Joy thought he wanted his photo taken so offered. The man shook his head and pointed to Joy and then him. That’s when we figured out he wanted a photo with Joy. His friend came over and clicked a photo of them. In another incident, we were tired so sat down on the steps of a building when this group of women in their 20s or 30s appear, smiles at me, says something in mandarin, sits next to us, then I notice the selfie stick at the end with Joy and me included in their group pic, they click, say bye bye and leave. It was fun.

Another thing that I noticed was there are security checks everywhere in the entrance to all subways and even Forbidden City. Whereas the Chinese old woman in front of me was frisked to such an extent that she was almost dancing, I walked over and was just whisked through without a check. It happened too many times so am guessing they don’t frisk foreigners.

2) Pollution and smog: Beijing is a big city and am sure pollution levels are really high but we didn’t face the smog. Guess we got lucky coz it had rained before we reached and all we saw were clear blue skies. Smog does exist and I heard people need to wear masks and move around when the levels get high but we didn’t face it.

Clear blue skies

3) Cleanliness: Despite what I had read about the dirt everywhere in China, I found Beijing to be one of the cleanest cities I’ve visited. I heard that things started changing mainly during the Beijing Olympics when the government was on a mission to clean up China and showcase it to the world. The streets are clean, the subways, and parks are very clean but sometimes the public loos can be a little filthy especially outside the station areas. 

4) Cuisine: Before I left and after I got back from China, the first question most folks asked me was what am I planning to eat, or how was the food, and how did I manage. Many asked me whether I tried scorpions or snakes. While we did not eat creepy crawlies and bugs, which are available mainly in the night markets, it’s not the predominant food. China has so much to offer in terms of cuisine and we did have our hits and misses similar to any cuisine around the world even in India. While the famed Peking Duck may not have been my favorite, I loved the Fish Manchow, wild mushroom dish, and the serving of green leafy vegetables suggested by Andrew.

The famed Peking Duck, Fish Manchow, accompanied by some greens

Chinese cuisine is as varied as Indian cuisine depending on the regions so it's difficult to classify them all as one type. Joy and I always loved Sichuan cuisine (In India we may be familiar with Szechwan) for its spicy flavors resulting from use of garlic and chilli peppers. We also liked Hunan cuisine and the Uyghur cuisine from Xinjiang, the Chinese Muslim province. Joy freaked out on the lamb chops and kebabs in the Muslim Quarters of Xian. I will be covering Xian in another post.

Most restaurants serve lamb and chicken besides pork and beef. They also serve some tasty vegetable dishes. The menu is usually in Mandarin but they have pictures of the dishes, so it was easy to select and point to the side of greens that we wanted to accompany our main meal of fish and meat. Of course, at times, we didn’t know what meat we were eating till much later, but what we ate in China stays in China.

Dining at the Muslim Quarters in Xian

While sightseeing, Joy and I would pick up steamed dumplings or steamed buns for sustenance when we couldn't have a proper meal. This reminded me of the delicious Tangra breakfast that Pauline would pack for me on a Monday morning. I remember visiting one of the street markets in Kolkata early in the morning with Sandra and Julie where we feasted on one the most delicious breakfast of steamed buns, dumplings and so on. When in school, I think most of my education about China was from the stories Julie told us about her visit and how varied the cuisine was depending on the region especially for those who lived near the borders of Afghanistan, Russia, or Mongolia.

Another point to note is that fork and spoons are rare so if you are uncomfortable with chopsticks, you can carry your own cutlery. We got so used to chopsticks, that on the flight back home we were finding it difficult to use cutlery.

5) English: Most of the posts I’ve read complain about the lack of English but for god’s sake you are in China after all. :) China's population is almost 1.4 billion comprising around 20% of the world’s population so they can survive quite fine with their language. Also, unlike Hong Kong and India which were under colonial rule for more than a century for English to have made inroads, mainland China was quite untouched. The government has been taking steps so that the next generation learn English especially in Beijing and Shanghai and you may find folks at the information desk of airports and some stations who speak passable Chinglish. However, it’s still rare to meet folks who understand even a word of English when travelling across China. For us, that’s what made it more fascinating.

Those who visit with tour groups don’t need to bother about lack of English because your guide will shepherd you from place to place but for backpackers like Joy and me it was an adventure. Yes, we did face several challenges but that's part of traversing the road less traveled! China wouldn’t have been as fun if we hadn’t had the chance to discover things for ourselves. Yes, at times it was a merry go round but it was worth the merry go round.

There is so much more to this country and I wish to go back and explore the rest some day. But for now, just happy with the memories of my one and only trip. Will try and cover the bullet train journey to Xian for the Terracotta Warriors for travelers in another post.