A few days in Beijing
Last March I spent a few days in Beijing visiting friends and sightseeing during the days while they were at work. I arrived late on a Sunday and had to leave early Friday. That plus the fact that I’m a pretty simple traveler that does not rush from sight to sight meant that I had to really pick what I wanted to do and figure out how to get the most of it.
I decided to start with the Forbidden City. My friends lived about 40 minutes walk away from the front gates so after breakfast I wandered the smog smothered streets until I reached the gate. At the entrance to Tiananmen Square I realized my first mistake – I’d forgotten my passport. Strictly speaking, foreigners are supposed to take their passports with them everywhere so you should have it on you anyway, but I did not. My friends later told me that is very common in Beijing at all tourist spots. The guard waved me passed – annoyed but kind, and I got into the vast Tiananmen Square. After wandering to the gates of the Forbidden City I found them closed. I wandered to the right and around to another gate to find that closed as well. Take note friends, the Forbidden City is closed on Monday.
There, two people attempted to tea scam me. I’ve known plenty of men who have had this happen, but never experienced it myself. If you’ve never heard of this – it’s when people take you to an expensive tea shop, order a bunch of things and try to get you to pay the bill. Most often it’s men being scammed by women, but in my case it was a couple targeting me. We went to a shop and I had a cup of coffee while they ordered expensive pots of teas and snacks and even suggested ordering wine. I finished my coffee and left enough to cover that and nothing more. Note to those new to China – watch out for the tea scam.
I went to The Great Wall. Going alone, I opted to go with a tour group that bussed me to and from the wall but left the group there for 3 hours to explore independently and then meet back for lunch. The day started at 7:30AM in a hotel lobby waiting for the tour bus and got us to the wall by 10. The section I went to was the Mutianyu section and I had to take a gondola to the top. At first I felt a bit lazy doing that – shouldn’t I hike? Once I got there though, I was pleased that I had saved my climbing energy. The wall rolls over great mountains so to explore it, you have to walk up and down constantly. It is of course a sight everyone who ventures to China should see and I can’t believe it took me 5 years to make it. A structure more than 2,300 years old and is utterly awesome.
That evening my friends and I went to a jazz club in an old hutong house. Small, intimate, and filled with violet colors, it was the perfect end to a perfect day. My legs sore, my stomach full of dumplings, and cold beer to make me smile. I realized that Beijing is far more intimate than Shanghai where I have spent most of my time. It has small breweries and spaces for a crowd of 20 rather than the massive beer halls of the French Concession in Shanghai that have multiple floors and can fit hundreds of people.
Time to go back to the Forbidden City. My initial thought was to spend half a day there and then wander to the lakes to the north but once I entered I realized what an insane idea that was. I do not know why I was so surprised by the massiveness of the city, but I was. I was in awe of building after building from one end to the other and then when I was done with the primary buildings I explored the concubine quarters.
I didn’t leave the city walls until I had to and by then I was famished. Walking down a side street I found a vendor with some sort of sandwich for 10RMB and then a block later I found a shop selling scrolls that was manned by an old man and someone I assumed was his granddaughter. I wanted to buy five or six but tempered my desire to get more and just bought two. I walked to the subway in near twilight then met my friends for another brewery and some Sichuan.
I went to the lakes – Hou Hai they’re called. I started on top and wandered down the edges taking photographs of hutongs and bridges. It was misty and smoggy both that day and the crowds were small. This day was peaceful. If I were another traveler, I could have done two or three things on this day but instead I just walked and walked and took pictures and walked and walked.
Here is what I learned about Beijing as compared to Shanghai – it’s more intimate and has less bravado, even with the immensity of the sites you can see. It has more and better locally brewed beer, as well as better drinking establishments in general. It has worse pollution. I heard some people justify this somehow and possibly get annoyed by the comparison – but it is what it is. I also read in a magazine that it has a better local punk rock scene. While I didn’t see this – I did see enough to know that these days were only a taste. Beijing – I’ll be back.