Living in Beijing
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The best part about the trip to China was actually being able to live in a flat and not be tied to hotels and organised coach trips to all the sights. The worst part was, because we weren't tied to coach trips, we were subjected to the Chinese National Game of never queueing. Getting a ticket for the underground is such a laugh! And if you dare try to walk past the ladies at the top of the stairs who collect the ticket you have just bought literally 10 paces away, you get shouted at. And never, and I mean never, walk on the wrong side of the staircase because they will shout at you again!
When I was there, the city of Beijing was undergoing a bit of a change in preparation for the Olympics.
Beijing is a dusty place. This is probably due to all the building taking place. In fact, the city is one huge building site. And the work carries on through the night.
Beijing is also prone to smog days. I was on the 23rd floor of an apartment building and it was five days before I saw the mountains, which are less than an hour away! On the worst of the smog days you can taste the pollution.
But take away the building noise, the smog, the unbelievably mad driving (taxi journeys are white-knuckle rides), the spitting, pushing and unwavering stares of the older members of the population as if you were an alien, Beijing has many things to offer. Go as a traveller and not as a tourist and things will be fine. But, be warned . . . everywhere is really crowded.
Best Buys: silk, obviously; pearls, cashmere jumpers and cardigans, pashminas, jade, CDs and DVDs, table settings and runners, spices, and tea balls. (These are brilliant. You drop them into a glass jug and they open into a flower.
Wangfujing Street is a good place to head for. There is a shopping plaza on either end of the street. Good toilets in both! There are food halls, and both have large supermarkets split into two distinct areas: Western imports and Chinese food. Be prepared to see live toads and spider crabs crawling around! Fresh food food is relatively cheap. Obviously if you want Kelloggs Cornflakes, you pay over the odds.
However, if you're looking for a made-to-measure suit or dress , try out the haberdashers on Wangfujing. Choose your material and get it made into a dress or suit. A beautiful heavy silk brocade evening/wedding dress costs around £90.
Silk Alley Market (Jianguomen stop on underground) was once the main trading place for silk. Now it's a crowded tourist attraction with hundreds of stalls selling knock-off designer wear at bargain prices. But you MUST haggle. If you pay more than half the asking price, you have paid too much. Most traders speak a little English as in 'Good price here! Asda price!' so most transactions are with the aid of a calculator. The seller puts the amount into the calculator and holds it up. You then divide the amount by 10 and take it from there. If you stick to your guns, refuse to give in and walk away, they call you back and cut a little more off the price.
At most of the tourists sites, there are people selling arts and crafts. If something comes in a box, always open it. Do not pay and walk away. Look first, pay second. Paper kites are lovely things, not to fly but as a decorative items.
Places to visit
If you can, go to The Hutongs before they are pulled down. This is the only chance you will get to see how life has been in Beijing for decades, if not for centuries.
Lama Temple (Yong He Gong)** Closed Monday. You get a mini dvd with your entrance ticket. Really peaceful. Probably one of the few place is Beijing that has birds flying free... Easy to get to on underground. Go in the afternoon when tourist coaches have already left. Be prepared for beggars in the residential streets outside.
Confucian Temple (Kong Miao)*** is 5mins walking distance from the Lama Temple. Carved tablets honouring students from the time of Kublai Khan. Confucian classic texts carved in stone under a canopy. Very few organised tours. One of the few places without hordes of tourists. Vegetarian restaurant opposite.
The Zoo In need of modernisation. If you feel the need, pay your entrance fee and only see the pandas. They are the only animals that are kept in anything approaching a 'Western View' when it comes to captive animals. Pandas are well-looked after but the rest of the creatures look sad and disturbed. The approach roads to the zoo have vendors openly selling turtles, cats, dogs, birds and, occasionally endangered species.
Tian'anmen Square. The best place to buy Mao watches and kites. Sellers disappear when police cars drive past. Don't worry. Sellers will track you down to do a deal! Just off the Square is the Museum of the Chinese Revolution. This is all in Chinese with no English subtitles or explanations.
DO NOT get waylaid by students 'wanting to speak English with you'. They are all on commission. 'Come see the art exhibition' or 'Can I practice my English with you?' means give me 40RMB and I will get the cloakroom attendant to take your coat and bag and get you to part with even more money. We feigned ignorance by saying we were Welsh and couldn't speak English, not so far from the truth. They left us alone when we spouted gobbledegook (i.e. throwing out Welsh town names like Caerphilly and Aberystwyth and Llanfair, and they lost heart). There are some interesting exhibits in the Museum and well worth the few RMB and an hour of your time. Even going to the Revolution Museum is ok even if you don't speak Chinese as you can probably guess what is being said.
At North End of the Square is The Forbidden City. Wear comfy shoes and forget your manners. Expect pushing and shoving. The place is packed all year round, not only with tourists but with hordes of Chinese nationals paying their respects to their history and to Mao. Don't go at the weekend. This is something I cannot stress enough. You need three or four hours if you want to see everything. (Including the Forbidden City Starbucks, which is there. Honest...) Save the walk around the perimeter wall for another day as it takes ages, but you have the constant traffic to keep you company.
North of the Forbidden City is Coal Hill (Meishan). There's a fifteen minute (very steep) uphill walk to the summit pagoda (The Pavilion of Everlasting Spring), and a really good view (smog permitting) of the Forbidden City. Many Chinese also trek up to the summit. Be prepared to be greeted by groups of locals wanting to have their photo taken with you. Especially if you are tall and blonde. Or small and brunette. Or just Western... It is known for Chinese men to manhandle a Western girl and hang on to her while his mates take a photo. Males in their thirties, as well as giggling gaggles of teenage females, want their photo taken with a six foot, blond boy.
(To the right of the Forbidden City is Zhongnanhai where the Communist leaders live. It's off limits to ALL visitors so don't stray.)
Temple of Heaven*****, directly south but a good half an hour's walk from Tian'anmen Square. Get a taxi if you are feeling brave! Taxis are really cheap; just a few renmimbi. Point to your destination on a map and you will probably end up where you want to be although this is not always certain as bad pronunciation of Chinese, which is a language that relies on inflexion, can cause an International Incident at worst and a scratching of heads at best.
This park is the best park in Beijing. Best visited at weekends as it is popular with families and locals doing what they do best: martial arts, ballroom dancing, pavement calligraphy in water with huge brushes, opera singing (both Chinese and Western), string quartets playing Mozart, traditional Chinese musicians playing on traditional Chinese instruments, brass musicians playing trumpets and trombones; kite flying, circus skills, acrobatics; and also walking backwards, coughing, and banging you head against trees... I jest not. Many medical ailments are 'cured' by such alternative therapies as walking backwards. Strange in our eyes, but who else has noticed an increase in traditional Chinese medicine outlets in our own shopping malls? And these remedies really do work.
This park is an absolute must. It gives you a real feeling for the Chinese way of life, both ancient and modern. Spend every weekend here if you can. It's amazing. Not only do you have all that zest for life going on all around you, you have the temples and astronomical calendars and the promise of always having a strong voice and the power of oratory if you stand on a particular stone and say your name. It's got everything. Definitely the best place to go in the whole of Beijing on a Saturday or Sunday. And it's so huge it can cope with the crowds.
White Cloud (Taoist) Temple **** (Bai Yun Guan) The Wind-Containing Bridge is where you throw metal discs at a huge facsimile of a Chinese coin. You have to pay for a voucher at one booth, and then walk 2 meters to cash in your voucher for a hundred metal discs at the neighbouring booth.
Don't bother with the Ancient Observatory if you are on a tight schedule.
Summer Palace**** is another must, but it can get really crowded with organised coach trips. Try going late afternoon during the week. The Long Corridor and The Marble Boat have to be seen to be believed. And the views across the lake are spectacular with the evening sun low in the sky. But you have to know the history to be able to put these things in context. Read up before you go and everything falls into place.
Fragrant Hills Park* Crowded. At weekends it's a no go area as you have to queue to get anywhere. When you get to the summit, Incense Burner Peak, it is a little disappointing. And then you have to queue, sometimes for hours, for the chairlift to get back down. In each five hours, you have to spend three hours queuing.
Ming Tombs*** combine this with a trip to The Great Wall. Best way to do this is to get a driver and car for the day. There are few tourist information centres so ask at a hotel. You can book an interpreter for an extra cost. (About £20 and lunch.) Be prepared to visit the Government Outlet on the way back, usually the cloisonne factory. But you can get a reasonably priced, if mass produced, meal here. (A bit like the works Christmas Dinner so don't expect Chinese haut-cuisine. And if you're vegetarian or have a dietary requirement, the interpretor comes into their own.) The Ming Tombs are best visited early, before the tourist coaches arrive. Most places open at 8.00, so aim to arrive just before and you will have at least an hour, if not more, virtually on your own.
Terracotta Army** Xian A short flight out of Beijing. Can be done in a (very long) day as part of an organised trip.
When you ask for chicken, you get chicken: claws, beak and wattle... Beijing is not a vegetarian friendly city. Unless you are lucky enough to speak fluent Mandarin or you get a waitress who understands your needs, you're on your own. Most restaurants have a menu with pictures of each dish and you point to what you think you would like. But when the English translation is 'Three Treasures', you really have no idea what to expect. Well expect tripe and offal... There was a really good Chinese restaurant in Oriental Plaza. Excellent Sunday Lunch with Dim Sum and loads of side plates and main courses. Helpful staff. Lovely surroundings. A huge meal for four for £25 including Chinese beer and mineral water. A real pleasure.
Soup, when offered, is a kind of everything thrown-in. And everything means everything. The Chinese eat what Westerners throw away, so innards are eaten regularly. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just that some people's sensibilities may be called into question.
There are many foreign restaurants: Italian, Indian, Thai, Greek, as well as the usual US suspects. And English/Irish/American bars serving steaks etc are to be found in most residential areas. There are also supermarkets and restaurants scattered throughout the new residential high-rise areas beyond the second and third ringroads.
China is changing. It's just the language barrier that stops us from making the most of Beijing.