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 3: 18th National Congress Begins!

November 11, 2012 in China, Travel

The Great Hall of the People prepares for the opening ceremony of the 18th National Congress

8 November, 2012

The day is finally here. The opening of the 18th National Congress, which I’ve been writing about almost every freaking day for the last 8 months. And while the average Chinese person off the street doesn’t give a shit about this momentous five yearly event, the Communist Party leaders and the rest of the world certainly do.

I ended up leaving the hotel at 7:30 in the morning to walk to Wangfujing station and catch a subway (2 stops) to Tiananmen East. I was supposed to leave earlier but it took me a while to wake myself up after a less than ideal night of sleep. As it turned out, I probably could have left later. I got there by 8am, and it was still relatively quiet, with not a whole lot of press hanging around outside. I went into the Great Hall of the People (which really is a great hall — I’m just not sure it’s “of the people”) at around 8:30 and found a seat on the third floor, which is for writers. The second floor is for photographers and the first floor is for the 2,000+ congress delegates.

At 9am on the dot (those punctual communists!), the spokesperson for the congress officially declared it open, and out came onto the stage all of China’s political heavyweights, all those people I had been writing about for months, from outgoing leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao to new leader Xi Jinping, and ancient leader Jiang Zemin, who looked like he was already half mummified.

The whole point of the opening ceremony was for exiting party leader Hu Jintao to deliver his report from the 17th National Congress to the incoming 18th National Congress. Unlike previous years, they did not release the script to the press in advance — we were told we’d have to get them afterwards.

As the speech got underway, it became obvious why they did that. If the press had the script in advance, there’s no way they would have stayed for the entire duration of the 100-minute coma inducer (many didn’t anyway). Seriously, it was utterly brutal, not just because the content was 100% predictable and all about how great the party’s achievements were over the last decade, but it was delivered in Hu’s trademark monotone and with his expressionless face.  I had hear rumors that the dude has zero personality but my theory is that he is a cyborg born out of a secret Chinese government experiment (after Mao Zedong) to create a leader who has no risk whatsoever of establishing a personality cult.

The only thing that kept the 3,000+ people in that hall from falling asleep was Hu’s tendency to periodically punctuate the end of a section of his report with an exclamation, like “blah blah blah…FOR THE PEOPLE!” or “blah blah blah…INTO THE FUTURE!”  and everyone would wake up and burst into spontaneous applause.

I left the auditorium just before the end of the speech to get some water and to drag a copy of the speech. Even though people had been lining up for ages, as soon as the copies arrived the journalists just went crazy and rushed up to the front in typical Chinese fashion. The staff simply started tossing them out into the crowd like they were free T-shirts and the journalists started climbing over each other to get them. Naturally I managed to snatch one.

Before I left, the one other thing I was told by my bosses to check out was the so called “ritual girls” of the congress (essentially staff who serve water and stand around) who have the reputation of being the prettiest girls from all around China. I was told to see if there was a potential story to write about them, and to be honest, I was sorely disappointed with this year’s crew. Perhaps the party leaders made sure most of the girls were average looking to avoid officials from getting in sex scandals. They had more serious things to discuss, like how to convince the world they were working hard to stamp out corruption.

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.

 
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