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

A Few Quick Thoughts on Italy and Vatican City

March 24, 2009 in Food, Religion, Travel

Note: Travel Diary has been updated!  Pictures to be added

I’m having the time of my life on this awesome 3-week European journey, and I’ve tried to put in the effort to write as much as possible during this time, even if it’s just to keep the creative juices flowing and so I don’t ever forget this amazing adventure.

However, I’m falling a little behind with my Travel Diary entries.  I just completed my lengthy entry on Rome (still no pictures, unfortunately, but I’ll try and add some soon), though I have been in Switzerland the last couple of days and from tomorrow will be in Germany!  I’ve finished listening to Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing but I’m still yet to write a review (but more importantly,  jot down some helpful tips from King that I’ll want to employ in my own writing from this point forward).

In my last post I wrote about this wonderful little cake store near the Colosseum called Cristalli Di Zucchero.  Anyway, I thought I’d add a few more thoughts about Italy and Vatican City before I forget it all!

Must-see attractions

I visited 4 cities in Italy: Pisa, Florence, Venice and Rome.  I’d say Venice is the prettiest, with its beautiful turqoise canals, clean, narrow streets and lack of modern architecture.  Rome, of course, is a must visit because of its history, the abundance of attractions, and Vatican City.  Florence is very nice, kind of charming and relaxed in its own way, and Pisa is just good for the Leaning Tower.

Of all the places I visited in Italy, my top 5 attractions (in descending order) are:

5. San Marco (St Mark’s Square) – a massive square and a world heritage site in Venice and home to Basilica Di San Marco.  Moreover, the journey through the canals to get there may be as amazing as the place itself.

4. Galleria dell’Accademia – in Florence, home of Michelangelo’s David, a truly magnificent masterpiece.  See it if you plan on seeing just one sculpture.

3. National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II (or Altare della Patria  or Il Vittoriano for short) – in Rome, very close to the Coloseum.  Big, white and not ancient, but amazing to look at nonetheless.  Plus you can walk up all those stairs to the top where you can enjoy the best views of Rome!

2. Vatican City – corridor after corridor of art in the Vatican Museum (and the most famous ones in the Sistine Chapel) and St Peter’s Basilica are unforgettable regardless of your religion.  Just make sure you buy tickets in advance for the Museum if you want to avoid the long queues.

1. Palantine Hill – the archaeological site next to the Colosseum in Rome.  Head around the walls to the North-Western side and look down from above.

Pizza

Pizza is everywhere and we had it at least once a day (fat city).  It’s difficult to find BAD pizza in Italy, but some are clearly better than others.  Prices can also vary significantly, from a couple of Euros a slice in corner stores to twenty-plus in posh restaurants.  Chances are they won’t taste all that different.  The best ones we had were actually from the small shops where you buy a slice and eat it standing on the side.  The worst would be from chain store restaurants that look too neat and touristy.  However, the most amazing tasting ones we had were actually from a takeout joint called Spizzico, at Roma Termini station.

Most pizzas we came across were pretty authentic – meaning tomato base, cheese, and one or two simple toppings such as mushroom, prosciutto or sausage.  None of the crazy toppings you’d find at Pizza Hut or Dominos.  However, a common problem (for me at least) was that they were too salty, especially the tomato base.  It seems they are a bit inconsistent in this regard.  You can get two pizzas from the same place and one could be just right and the other too salty.

Gelato

We (well, my wife) are big gelato fans.  There are plenty in Italy, just about on every touristy street.  The majority taste pretty similar, to be honest, but prices vary.  €2 for a small cone would be a decent price, but some can charge as much as €3.50 for a single scoop.

The best and cheapest we had was at Old Bridge Gelato (address: Viale dei Bastioni di Michelangelo 5) just around the corner from the Vatican Museum.  The smallest cone is just €1.30 (and the next up is €1.50).  The gelato is top notch and you can get up to 3 flavours regardless of size of cone – plus you can get free cream on top!  Here is a review of the place.

The crepe place next door is very good too.

Coffee

I’m not the biggest coffee fan but my wife likes to look for good coffee places.  There are quite a few in Italy, but some can be quite expensive.  The best one we went to came highly recommended, and it’s very close to the Pantheon.  It’s called Caffé San’ Eustachio and it is quite small and seemingly always crowded.  You order at the counter then give your receipt to the coffee makers.  Most people stand and finish their cup, though a few take them to the limited seats outside.  I found this blog post about the place.

Safety

Before I came to Italy I was warned by family members that it was a dangerous place.  People get mugged all the time.  If you don’t keep an eye on your bags they could disappear any second.  Hoards of kids crowd you in and pick your pockets.  Stuff like that.

Fortunately, I experienced none of the above.  Not even close.  For the most part, I found Italy to be seemingly quite safe.  Of course, I took the necessary precautions, such as not going out too late, keeping my belongings zipped up when I go out, and keep to the main streets.  The street vendors were actually quite nice and polite, totally unlike the thugs we encountered in Paris that try to force you to buy their crap.

Vatican City

Visiting Vatican City was a dream come true.  I’m not a Catholic, but I had always been fascinated by its history, and more importantly, the amazing architecture and priceless art works.  In that regard, the visit was everything I had expected.

What I didn’t expect were the long lines (silly me) and the number of people who tried to push in and sneak to the front.  When everyone’s waiting patiently, seeing people who blatantly break the rules can be frustrating.  So be smart and purchase tickets in advance to avoid the hassle.

Another thing I found disappointing was the over-commercialization of the place.  Sure enough, the tickets were expensive, but I didn’t expect there to be so much merchandise everywhere I went!  And people (I assume mostly the religious ones) were lapping up the over-priced products like Pope pens and pendants like crazy!  Don’t they make enough money from the entry tickets already?  It almost felt like they were exploiting people’s faiths.

Most troubling were the school groups, where the guides would point to various paintings like The Last Judgment and try to scare kids into Catholicism by telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t do this and that.  Surely there has to be a better way to teach religion to children?

 
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