Beijing isn't a particularly pretty city but it has character. Initially I was rather overwhelmed with its bad points and oppressive smog. After four days it grew on me a bit and the really good stuff left me with a more positive view.
It's a bit of a culture shock. The weird communist vibe lurks around, with a bizarrely excessive military presence, pictures of Chairman Mao (Dan wouldn't let me buy a Chairman Mao commemorative plate) and Chinese flags everywhere. As typical Western tourists we were (unjustifiably) disgruntled that extremely few people speak English and most things don't have an English translation.
People stare. I'd heard this but nothing really prepares you for it. On several occasions they stopped in the street and turned around to get an even better stare. A woman followed me around a public toilet because she didn't get enough staring in at the sink. Maybe they think I'm famous but most likely it's just my ghost-white skin and reddish blonde hair. At the start I thought it was malicious and they hated my spectre-like appearance but then two things changed my mind. The first was two excitable teenage girls in Tiananmen Square asking for a picture with me, the second was a little four year old boy who came up and poked me in the arm (presumably because he thought I was, in fact, a ghost). When I waved good naturedly at him, his Mother (who I suspect sent him in to test the waters) immediately set us up for a photo. Both incidents were cheerful and deflated my previous bluster. It's a bit weird though and it's difficult to deal with.
There's no Google. That on its own isn't too bad. But no Google means no Google Maps. Bing Maps (Nokia maps) must be pretty close though right? Go type an address into Nokia maps. It can't find anything. It doesn't even suggest things that might be close to what you want. I almost had to narrow the address down to 'China' before it pinpointed anything. This is particularly problematic because there are also no English maps in Beijing. After an awful lot of exhaustive Bing-searching we managed to get a rough direction to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. To give myself some context I 'Binged' Tiananmen Square and read the Wiki page. Sometimes Wiki is available. Guess when it isn't available. When you try to click on 'Tiananmen Square Massacre'. Page Not Found. It's all very strange.
Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square
We went the wrong way into the Forbidden City. We walked for miles down a big street that a lot of hand waving by well-meaning locals had indicated but we couldn't actually see the city or the square. Eventually we thought we'll just take this side street lots of other people seem to be using and went in some sort of workman's entrance. We observed the entirely-Chinese map for a few minutes then purposefully marched forwards to absorb the culture. The architecture is impressive and the whole place is nice but it didn't leave much of an impression on me. There was a museum you had to pay extra for (nothing seems to cost more than a few euro) but it was full of chairs and dusty stacked items with no explanations. Dan still found the only English placard to read.
When we finally made it out, the entrance we should have taken was pretty obvious:
Opposite this is Tiananmen Square. It's a big square surrounded by military. I don't think I had enough context to get anything significant out of going there, but it's a very big deal for Chinese people to visit.
There are so many shopping malls. The street just beyond our hotel had 3, all within less than a kilometre of each other. They're enormous and identical and I can't see how there is possibly a market for this many of them, giant population or not. Disappointingly I recognised almost all of the shop brands.
The Laptop Fiasco
I had this great idea that I'd reinstall windows on my old laptop and bring it with us on our travels, because it wouldn't matter if something went wrong and we'd have easy accessibility to Bing and Nokia Maps. It died on our second day. Four years the damn thing held on, only to finally crumble in my greatest hour of need. I think it just didn't want to be forced to use Bing anymore. We had this vague idea that we'd buy a tablet anyway in China (because they're meant to be so cheap. Hint for the optimistic tourist: They aren't. Unless you go to a dodgy place where they won't speak any English and you'll end up with something that's entirely in Chinese). We spent our whole second day looking for a tablet and learned the following:
-Apple is the exact same price in China as in Ireland
-iPads have no USB input and no workable way of getting one
-Samsung Galaxies are the exact same price as in Ireland and if you draw an amazing representation of a USB adapter you can get one of those too:
It's mostly in English, but if you ever do this make sure they turn it on in the shop and set up the language for you. On our way back, Galaxy Tablet in hand, we meandered into a very Chinese looking alleyway off the main shopping street. Primarily a food market, they sold, among other local delights, little live scorpions on sticks. Do you boil them first, you ask? Nope. You just eat them. Seeing them saved us the pesky hassle of wanting to eat for the rest of the trip.
That night we met Cliff. He stopped the lift on our hotel floor and hopped in, asking how our holiday was going. Cliff was a friendly, American, Miami Dolphins fan (hat, jersey) staying in Beijing for a few weeks. He told us he'd leave some information about the Great Wall with reception the following morning so all we had to do was tell them his room number and say 'Message for Dan?'. We did. "There's no one staying in Room 1014," the receptionist replied, looking confused. Assuming we just got the number wrong we tried again. "Okay, well a man called Cliff said he'd leave a message for Dan." "Nothing here..." She started reading down through a page. "There's no Cliff at this hotel." Cliff died twenty years ago. No I'm of course joking, but that was pretty weird. We're almost certain we didn't imagine our ten minute conversation in the lobby. The next day we dropped into a district known as Electronics City which is a huge market of electronic accessory vendors and managed to find a HP power supply that matched my old one. The damn thing worked perfectly and now we have two fully functioning devices and no money.
Summer Palace is a big traditional Chinese palace about half an hour by Metro outside the city centre. It's beautiful. We luckily arrived early, as we always do, before the swarms. It's more a park with palace bits everywhere than an actual palace, which is nicer than a palace anyway because there's a limit to how much palace you want to see. So it's mostly outdoors. The colourful temples stack up the hillside, and if you don't realise there's an easy path (us) you climb up to visit them all. My favourite part was near the start. It was like a little village on the river. You would never see a walkway with a sheer drop into deep water in Ireland. We'd have a nice sturdy railing and a cautionary sign, if we even opened it to the public. The Chinese are a little less safety conscious but I bet no one has ever fallen in. The village was a bit tainted by the fact that all the shops were filled with tourist tat.
The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is about 9000km long, which is a bit too much of a trek even for Dan. You can go to different sections so we (Dan) opted for a slightly more obscure one where a guide takes you on a hike up a mountain to an old, unrestored and downright dangerous part, and then you walk it back down to the restored touristy area. Fitness February did not serve me well and my legs hurt for days afterwards. But in spite of my wheezing and complaining as we climbed the mountain, it was absolutely the right thing to do. We got to the top feeling immensely pleased with ourselves and went up a little ladder into the first tower. There were stones giving way, no railings, cavernous gaps everywhere. A rather stunning view though. Better still, the view wasn't hindered by swarms of tourists because most people go to a different, less treacherous part.
Once we got to the restored part, the tourists started building up. I always get very annoyed about huge crowds of tourists, in spite of the fact that I'm clearly making up the crowd myself. "Inconsiderate," I mutter.
The restored bit is also beautiful and scenic but there's something much more appealing about the old part.
We took a toboggan back down. It was very slow and mine stopped, causing much distress. Not happy.
Our lovely tour-guide Jimmy (gave himself his English name because of his admiration for Chinese singer Jimmy Lin) made us stop on the way back in a traditional Chinese village for authentic Chinese lunch. No burgers here, much to my dismay. I managed to eat some rice and a diet Coke which kept me going until we found a McDonalds later that night.
Beijing wasn't a particularly easy part of our trip. The language barrier was tough and the cultural differences grate a bit. Once you get over yourself and stop expecting everything and everyone to cater for you all the time, it's more enjoyable and the good bits more than compensated for my gripes. Also if you're a disgracefully picky eater (me) it's not hard to find McDonalds.