The Beijing Diaries, Day 10 (Part II): Forbidden Tourist

December 1, 2012 in Best Of, China, Travel

November 15

I was very impressed with myself for killing off my final article of my Beijing assignment, and so I decided to reward myself by seeing some of the sights of Beijing that I had been dying to visit since the day I arrived.

Of course, the must visit attraction, apart from the Great Wall (which I visited yesterday), is the Forbidden City (otherwise known as the Palace Museum). I had apparently been there once during a trip with my parents when I was a kid, but I only remember the outer wall and have no recollection of actually going inside.

According to a friend I spoke to, the Forbidden City should first be enjoyed from afar, so you can truly appreciate how massive and majestic it really is. The best place to do that, apparently, is Beihai Park (translated to North Sea Park), which is situated to the northeast of the Forbidden City.

With little time to spare, I caught a cab straight there, and when I arrived and laid for my 15 yuan entry ticket, went directly for the Baita (meaning ‘White Tower’) in the middle section of the park.

The floral peacock at the entrance of Beihai Park

I must admit though that Beihai Park was surprisingly beautiful with it’s pristine lake and flowers, which made me stop more than a couple of times to take some photos.

Views from Beihai Park

The Baita is that phallic thing in the distance

The annoying thing with Baita is that you have to pay for another 10 yuan ticket to go up on the platform where the tower sits, and once you do, you need to pay again (2 yuan) for the opportunity to climb up to the lookout platform. Since I was there already, I didn’t hesitate in forking out the dough, especially as you can’t see anything without going all the way up to the highest point. Very clever, these Chinese businessmen.

From atop the viewing platform you do get a fascinating view of the Forbidden City from a distance, with it’s dozens of traditional Chinese roofs clustered together amid the misty haze of Beijing’s skyline. It’s quite a sight, although admittedly the angle was not as spectacular as I had expected because the tower wasn’t nearly tall enough, and Beijing’s pollution meant anything but a crystal clear view.

View of the Forbidden City from the highest point of Beihai Park

So in all honesty you can probably skip Beihai Park if you’re thinking of going just for the Forbidden City views, but it is a worthy place to check out if you have time because it has plenty of other quality things to see and experience.

Beihai Park looks like it’s within walking distance of the Forbidden City, and it is, but unfortunately only to the back gate (on the north side) where people can only exit and cannot enter. To go in, you must travel to the front gate (Wumen, or the Meridian Gate, facing south), which you can get to through Tiananmen Gate all the way on the other side, or through the east side which allows you to cut through by circling around the moat surrounding the Forbidden City.

On the way from Beihai Park to the Forbidden City

The signs there advise visitors to catch a local bus from the back gate to the front gate, but one look at the lines and the crowded buses made me realise that I would die if I tried that route. But catching one of the dozen or so cabs camped right outside was not so easy either, as most of them are sneaky locals trying to make a quick buck out of tourists by charging double or triple the price rather than going by their meters. One driver I spoke to wanted to charge 20 yuan but was only willing to take me about halfway.

The back gate of the Forbidden City — you can’t go in from here

So I said stuff this and walked instead, which in hindsight proved to be a critical mistake because it took a lot longer than I presumed. I eventually made it to the east entrance but had to then make my way to the Meridian Gate, which was another lengthy walk. Not wanting to waste any more time I caught one of the regular tourist buses from there which cost 1 yuan, and got me there in 2 minutes as opposed to 20.

After buying a 40-yuan ticket I finally made my way through the security check ahead of a bunch of very eager Chinese women who kept pushing me as though it would somehow make X-ray machine’s conveyor belt move faster.

But in the end, any hassle I encountered was worth it, because the Forbidden City is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen. I don’t need to explain it. See below, and remember it’s 10 times more amazing in person.

I wish I had more time there but I ended up going pretty much in a straight line through the various rooms and chambers (there are plenty more on either side). I also didn’t get much time to read the explanations of the buildings — apparently if you have a three or more hours to spare you should absolutely hire one of the professional tour guides (for about a couple of hundred yen) who will enhance the experience significantly by giving context to what you’re seeing. Maybe next time.

I rushed out of the Forbidden City with every intention of checking out another supposed must-see, the Temple of Heaven, situated southeast of the center of Beijing. Unfortunately, it was around 3:30 by then and the taxi drivers I spoke to told me that they stopped selling entry tickets at that time. Maybe next time…again.

The remainder of my final full day in Beijing was spending buying local produce and snacks at a department store on Wangfujing street. I was tempted to try the cheap food shops that were selling three big bags for 10 yuan, but it looked too good to be true. The department stores were selling each bag for around 30 yuan, but if the truth must be told, I’m not sure if they were any different. I’d try to explain what I bought if I knew what they were, but all I can say is that some of the stuff was nutty and a lot of it was chewy and sweet, and nearly all of it was totally gross and essentially inedible.

Just some of the crap that never got eaten

The Beijing Diaries, Day 2: The Day Before the Day

November 10, 2012 in China, Travel

What is Lebron doing in D-Wade’s jersey?

November 7, 2012

With a day to spare before the opening of the 18th National Congress, my second day in Beijing was supposed to be a relaxing one, scoping out the various venues I would soon be visiting on a daily basis. How naive I was.

When I woke up in the morning my initial impression last night that the cheap (US$46 a night) hotel was pretty decent took a bit of a hit. I must have been too tired to have noticed the broken cobwebs on the ceiling and it was way too dark, even with all the lights on, to see the stained walls and the chipped furniture. And when I wiped a bit of spilled water off the floorboards with a tissue, the tissue was all black. Yikes.

I began the day walking from my hotel to the hotel I was supposed to stay at (but got cancelled) to attend a small team meeting with the other reporters from my newspaper group. It was only 5 minutes by taxi but the walk was a long one. I didn’t mind it though because I got to go down Wangfujing, the famous pedestrian shopping street in Beijing. They say China has changed a lot and it sure has. Wangfujing has pretty much everything you could get at any other department store in the world. There was a Nike store, a Zara, branded luxury goods, and of course, an Apple store. The Chinese make most of their products anyway.

Yes, there is a Zara in Beijing

But first I needed to get a local sim card, which anyone can just pick up off the street from one of those dodgy looking grocery stores. In fact, I got mine from a little “adult shop”. It was only after I picked up my sim for 80 yuan that I noticed all the dildos next to it!

Anyway, the meeting was boring and pointless, as expected. We had a quick lunch at a nearby local restaurant which probably cooked everything with recycled gutter oil (it sure tasted like it) and I went off with one of my colleagues to Tiananmen Square, where a supposedly “more convenient” hotel was located. As it turned out, while it was very close to the Square and the Great Hall of the People, the hotel was a little on the expensive side for my cheap company’s budget, plus I would have had to travel quite a distance to get to the media center (where many of the press conferences are held). Oh, and I forgot to mention that they didn’t even have any spare rooms anyway.

So that was a complete waste of time. But after saying bye to the colleague I went through the big red gate (the one with Mao’s headshot on it) to visit the Forbidden City, and that was pretty cool. Interestingly there were lots of basketball courts inside. I don’t think people from the Qing dynasty played hoops, but perhaps the People’s Liberation Army cadets there make good use of them.

Nothing like a bit of pick up ball in the Forbidden City

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get into the Palace Museum because it was near closing time. Apparently I could have gotten in for free with my press pass (I hope so, or else it would be embarrassing to try and then get rejected). Mental note to visit the place again when there’s time.

I then tried getting over to the Great Hall of the People but was blocked by the guards, who said I needed some special invitation and not just the press pass. Whatever. I decided to walk back to the hotel, which took about an hour. I had been out all day and didn’t even have half a story to write, so I sent back some photos instead.

Later that night, I went out to dinner with my cousin’s husband who works in Beijing as an executive. He has his own personal driver and everything, which is pretty cool (I was impressed), and he and a colleague took me to a famous Peking duck restaurant. I’ll post some pics of that memorable meal shortly.

I was completely buggered by the time I got back to the hotel and I had to get up before 7 the next morning for the opening ceremony — so I just crashed.

I had a feeling then that this was going to be a very long trip.

The Beijing Diaries, Day 1: Arrival

November 8, 2012 in China, Travel

G’day, Chairman Mao

November 6, 2012

The last time I was in Beijing was 1990, merely 8 months after  Tiananmen Square. I don’t remember much of that visit apart from my sister enjoying a Forbidden City bento box no other member of the family would touch out of hygiene concerns. This time, I’m going as a reporter to cover China’s 18th National Congress.

For those of you who know jack, the national congress is a big deal in China — and these days, the entire world. It happens once every five years and every second congress they swap Communist Party leaders. This year, Hu Jintao is handing over his title of Communist Party General Secretary to his successor Xi Jinping. It’s gonna be very RED.

The 18th National Congress runs from Nov. 8-14, and it’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’ll be in Beijing for a total of 11 days, including 2 days before and 2 days after for contingencies. Not like I really had a choice in saying no, but for me, the only drawback is that I’ll be away from my wife and 10-month-old son. And it’s a major drawback. In the 10 years I’ve been with my wife (including before we were married), I had only been away from her for more than a week on two occasions — Hong Kong for a month in 2003/4 and Singapore for a week in 2006 — both for work purposes. And needless to say, I’m dreading being away from my son. What if I miss his first unaided steps or more new words?

Anyway, this was the day I travelled to the Chinese capital, and it was quite a journey. I had been battling the effects of a nasty stomach virus in the days leading up to the departure and my head was still stinging by the time I got to the airport, which was jam packed with Chinese tourists. One particularly memorable image was three Chinese tourists on a travelator heading towards their (my) gate. For some inexplicable reason, they stood about 10m apart from each other, though it did not prevent them from having a full blown conversation that sounded much more like a screaming match.

The plane ride was also an experience. As I had not selected my seats until check-in, I ended up smack bang in the Chinese tourist section right at the back. It was unlike anything I had ever seen or heard before. It sounded like a meat market and people were literally climbing over each other and testing the limits of the overhead cabinets by cramming in things that probably should have been checked-in. The middle-aged woman who sat next to me was quiet enough, but she kept encroaching onto my space while attempting to find a comfortable position to sleep in. In the end I basically just let her lie against me.

Luckily the Xanax I took for my severe flight anxiety mellowed out any intentions I had of biting her in the face.

I landed at Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International Airport (because it’s the capital, duh) at around 7pm. It’s supposed to be the biggest airport terminal in the world, bigger than all 5 Heathrow terminals combined. I must admit, I had some preconceived notions of Beijing despite everything I had heard about it, and my first impression of the airport was that it looked just like every other major airport in the world.

It wasn’t until I was waiting in line for my taxi to the hotel that I experienced my first real taste — of thick clouds of cigarette smoke in an area with 47 “No Smoking” signs (I counted)…and phlegm hocking on surround sound. Not to mention the little bald man who thought no one would notice if he just squeezed in front of everyone.

The hotel booked for me (by a colleague from a sister paper) is situated in the Dongcheng district and about a 20-minute walk from the Great Hall of the People where many of the congress sessions will take place. It’s a 3-star hotel. Not that I look down on 3-stars because most 3-stars are perfectly fine, but my fear was that it would be a “China 3-star”, if you know what I mean. I had been too pampered on former business trips working for a rich law firm where everything was business class, 5-star hotels and gourmet meals, so the type of travel “perks” you get from a poor news agency (well, maybe not poor, but definitely cheap) came as a rude awakening.

The ruder awakening, however, was finding out upon arrival that my hotel room had been cancelled. As it turned out, my colleague typed the wrong mobile number in the booking form and when the hotel called to confirm the booking the woman on the other end said she had never heard of me (because she hadn’t!).

A furious search for other hotels in the same chain ensued, and a moment later I was told that I had 30 minutes to get to this other hotel or that booking would be cancelled too. I was also told — while carrying a big suitcase and a massive backpack and all — that it would be difficult hailing a cab at that time of the night and I was better off catching a bus and walking.

I passed on that brilliant idea and found a cab. I grinned whenever the cab passed another bus with passengers packed like sardines.

At around 9pm, I finally checked into the hotel. To be fair, the hotel room is no worse than any of the 3-stars I stayed in during my Eurotrips. A flatscreen TV, a table, a big bed and free internet access. Notwithstanding that it was unnaturally dark in the room even with all the lights on, I though the room was more than good enough for me.

And so that ends the first day of my Beijing trip. I look forward to the rest of it with a mix of fear and excitement. If I don’t post on this blog again, I think it is safe to assume that I ended up like Richard Gere in Red Corner.