Beijing–Day 3 (The Great Wall)

Welcome back reader! This post will conclude the retelling of my shenanigans in the capital of China. We actually didn’t leave until the evening of the fourth day, but much of that day was spent sitting in the train station and wandering around through the biggest mall in Beijing. On the third day, however, we set off for the Great Wall!

Before leaving Kaifeng, some research was done concerning the Great Wall. The closest section of the wall to Beijing is Badaling making it the most visited section. There are many other sections you can visit, but they are further away and are much less convenient to travel to unless you’re with a tour group. Several modes of transportation are available to get to the wall, such as a handful of buses that leave from Tian’anmen to Badaling, a train line that only goes to the wall and back, and ridiculously overpriced taxis. We opted for the train because trains have never let us down in China before, and they’re usually a bit faster and more comfortable than the buses. To catch the train to Badaling, we had to go the Beijing North Station. While there, we ran into another fellow who was travelling to the Great Wall but spoke no Chinese. This was a problem for him at the ticket window because the teller didn’t speak any English, so we helped him out. The tickets were surprisingly cheap—each one was under $1! Unfortunately, we missed the first train and had to wait a few hours for the next one.

The train ride took about an hour or so, and we arrived at the Badaling station around 1 PM or so. From the station, it’s a good mile or so up to the entrance of the wall itself. It was surprisingly chilly that day: the sky was filled with clouds and there was a pretty constant wind blowing, but I suppose that’s better than unbearably hot weather. There was also a mist or fog that settled over the mountains that made photo-taking a bit frustrating. I was really hoping to get some nice, clear shots of the wall winding over and through the mountains, but most of them didn’t come out so well due to the obnoxiously passive grayness that stubbornly covered the landscape the entire time we were there. But it’s okay—I’m not bitter.

When we finally reached the entrance to wall, we decided to go to the right. Because the wall is, well, a wall, when you enter it at Badaling you enter in the middle and can choose which side you’d like to climb. I want to take a moment to briefly comment on the use of the word “climb” when in context of the Great Wall. Before I myself climbed the Great Wall, I always thought that people who used the verb “climb” to describe their journey on the wall were over exaggerating the effort required to tackle a big old fence. I mean, it has stairs, right? Right. But after visiting the wall, I can honestly say “climb” is the most accurate word to describe how this wonder of the east is tackled. There are parts of it that do not have stairs yet the surface is slanted at a 50 degree angle or so, and the bricks are quite old and have become slick and worn with age. At the sections where there are stairs, they are inconsistently spaced and are often not level. Some of the stairs might be only a few inches tall and others over a foot. The only thing more difficult than going up the wall is going down it—particularly on those stretches where the Chinese felt stairs weren’t necessary even though the wall was slanting at a 45 degree angle. In fact, most people just ran down those parts because it was easier than taking your time and trying to walk down it.

We hadn’t picked a specific spot to end at or specified a certain amount of time we wanted to stay on the wall, so we ended up turning around at North Tower 8. It’s one of the higher points of that section of the wall, and we were pretty tired by that point so after resting awhile and getting some photos, we turned around and worked our way back down. There’s a cable car that goes up pretty far along the wall, so that’s always an option if one is pretty tired and doesn’t feel like walking all the down. They also had something that looked like a little roller coaster that one could take down if they so chose. Dannysha and I declined these options but did take another way down: along one side of the wall, a newer and less intense path has been constructed that lacks the crazy dips and uneven stairs that make the wall a challenge. There are still many, many steps though.

We caught the 5:30 train back into Beijing, grabbed some dinner and then headed off to Wangfujie. We weren’t heading there originally, but I could find the street market I’d originally looked up and so we ended up at one of China’s biggest tourist streets. It was lined with many different stores and restaurants, some of which I knew and some I didn’t. We did find a little night market down one of the side streets, but it wasn’t all that impressive. Some vendors had live scorpions on sticks that they would cook for you if you so desired. I didn’t get any photos of this, however, because it was really all stuff I’d seen in Shanghai.

The next day we checked out of the hostel, went to the Joy City Mall, got some lunch and much needed Starbucks, then headed off to the train station after we grew tired of looking at overpriced American brands. This ended our trip to Beijing. I hope you enjoyed reading about it, and hope you enjoy the photos below! Again, the weather wasn’t perfect but that’s part of traveling. I hope to update again in a few days, so until then, 加油!


Beijing–Day 2 (The Summer Palace/The Temple of Heaven)

Welcome back! I hope you enjoyed my photos from the previous post highlighting my first day in Beijing! On the second day we set out to explore The Summer Palace and the The Temple of Heaven.

The morning started off a little rough–the old woman living in the same room as us woke up around seven and began rifling through all of her bags for something. This was a task she did on a constant basis. When she would get back to the room she would look through her bags, when she woke up in the morning she would look through her bags–and these weren’t even the bags she left in the hostel! They were the ones she had with her the entire day! I think Mary Poppins could learn a thing or two about magic purses from this woman. Anyway, we left the hostel and found the weather to be less than desirable: it was raining. Just harder than a drizzle and enough to get you pretty soaked if you were out in it long, but not hard enough to cause us to want to change our plans. While walking to the subway station, we stopped at a local restaurant to try some dandan noodles. They were not as tasty as I thought they were going to be, and seemed a little bit overpriced. After breakfast we bought a large umbrella to share that we didn’t end up using because by the time we got off of the subway at the appropriate stop, the rain had subsided.

I want to talk about the Beijing metro system for a minute. It is absolutely huge, and can be very convenient. Every single stop is only two kuai, which means one ticket costs about $0.33, and the price is constant whether you’re just going one stop away or twenty. I found that to be very nice. Some of the trains had AC and others did not. Some of the lines were consistently crowded while others were not. The biggest problem I encountered with the metro system was purchasing the tickets and the machines you put your ticket into to allow you in and out of the system. The machines to buy tickets would only take the one kuai coins, so any one kuai paper notes were essentially useless. They were often out of change, so you could not use anything other than the coins at times. Towards the end of our time in Beijing, the almost all of the machines were broken and we had to go to the women at the counters and buy our tickets there. When we were exiting the system, sometimes the electronic turnstiles would eat our cards, emit a high pitched screeching noise but not let us out. Other times they just wouldn’t accept the card. It was a bit frustrating, but mostly just an annoyance. The metros in Shanghai and Taipei were much better.

When we got to the Summer Palace, the rain had cleared up but a sort of mist or smog had then settled around Beijing. I say smog because the US Embassy reports that the level of pollution in Beijing is usually around 180 or so, which is pretty bad. So the weather wasn’t as nice as I’d hoped it would be, but at least the umbrella wasn’t necessary. The Summer Palace was built for Empress Cixi and she would go there in summer to relax and hold parties. It is without a doubt the most glamorous and exuberant summer house I’ve ever seen, but I suppose that’s what one would expect after living in the Forbidden City. We only ended up going through about half of the gardens, and that alone took around four hours. Parts of it were very confusing–I recommend buying a map once inside. I would also recommend buying the comprehensive ticket at the front gate. You’ll end up saving yourself a few bucks. The gardens were absolutely wonderful. In the middle of the lake is a small island that you can either walk to via a bridge or rent a paddleboat and paddle your way to it. There are many structures surrounding the lake, along with different shops and monuments and structures. We visited the Buddhist temple and some other buildings along the way. All of them are absolutely wonderful, built in the traditional Chinese style with trees and flowers all around. After about 4 hours, though, we were ready to move on.

We grabbed something to eat and then headed out for The Temple of Heaven. The park surrounding the temple came as a bit of a surprise, because it very much reminded me of American parks in the sense that there were large manicured areas of nothing but grass. They have grass in China, but it is very coarse and they cut it maybe once every two months, so it’s not like what most people have in their lawns. Besides the grass, there wasn’t much going on in the park. It was very flat and very boring with lots of people yelling “HELLO! LOOKY!” as they waved novelty items in your face, but they thinned out as you got closer to the Temple. The entrance cost was pretty low, which is fair because there really isn’t much to see at the temple. It’s famous in China partially because of it’s shape–I’ve seen at least 20 other temples by this point, and their shape is always rectangular, but the Temple of Heaven is circular. Inside is a beautiful sculpture of a Buddha, but they said that photo taking wasn’t permitted so I did not grab any photos of it. Inside another building off to the side of the temple there was a description of the sky worshiping process. What I gathered was that the people would sacrifice gold, jade, and other people to the gods and light seven fires and do some other spooky stuff. The Chinese description seemed to be more in depth than the English translation, but I couldn’t comprehend much of it.

We left around 5:30 or so and headed back to the hostel to eat dinner. Our hostel was a good half mile away from the nearest subway station, with lots of restaurants and shops in between. On our way back we stopped to get some authentic Chinese wonton soup. Unlike the dandan noodles, I was not disappointed. It was amazing. Because they’re essentially jiaozi in a broth, you can get may different kinds of wontons. I had some sort of pork wonton that was reminiscent of those that Chinese restaurants serve in the States. After dinner we were pretty exhausted and quickly passed out in the hostel, thus ending our second day in Beijing.

A word for those planning to visit Beijing–most of the tourist sites close around 5 or 6 PM, so plan accordingly. Enjoy the photos below, and be sure to come back tomorrow to read about our day at the Great Wall!

Beijing–Day 1 (Tian’anmen/Forbidden City and The Olympic Park)

Well hello there! It has been quite some time since I’ve updated my blog, and for that I sincerely apologize. After getting back from Taiwan, I began preparing for the HSK which is a Chinese Language Proficiency Test. Before Dannysha and I left for Taipei, the school told us we would be taking HSK level 4, but when we returned they informed us we would be taking level 5, which is much more difficult. We took the exam on May 12th, and until we reached that date much of our free time was spent studying, though I did take a little trip to Taiyuan to free my mind a bit (I’ll make a post about that later). So, again, I apologize for my absence, but I plan to post quite a bit before I leave, particularly since my departure is looming ever closer.

About a week ago, Dannysha and I jumped on sleeper train to head up to Beijing, the capital of China and probably the most famous city in the country. From Kaifeng, it’s about a 14 hour train ride to get to the thriving metropolis. Fortunately, this ride wasn’t so bad–we left around 8 PM on a Friday and arrived around 10:30 AM the next day. This was not my first time on a sleeper train, but I did take a photo for your viewing pleasure. They aren’t necessarily the most comfortable, but it’s way better than a hard seat. What I really enjoy about them is that people won’t bother you because you’re white–they’ll still talk about you, but people book the sleepers because they want to sleep, and sleep they do.

When we got to Beijing, the first order of business was to get to the hostel. We found ours off of and the cost per night was only around $6 per person. This is, of course, for the dorm style room which means you’ll be rooming with other people and using a community bathroom. But for $6 a night, I am absolutely okay with that. We took the subway to the appropriate stop, missed the entrance to the hostel at first but eventually stumbled upon it. The girl working the front desk knew very little English (not a problem for us, of course) and was not very helpful. She forgot to give us our key and gave us the password to the wifi begrudgingly. When we entered into the room, we noticed that there was indeed an air conditioner (just as it said online) but it did not work. There was also a 127-year-old woman that was apparently living there. She seemed nice at first and it’s always useful to practice Chinese–I found the Beijing accent to be much easier to understand than the Henan accent–but then she just became a bit annoying. She would ask us where things were in Beijing even though we explained we were just there to sight-see, and she would go to sleep very late with the TV blaring and then have the audacity to be the first one up the next morning, usually clambering out of bed around 7. The bathrooms were nice–but there was only one shower per restroom. This was apparently not a very popular hostel because this never became an issue, but the shower itself wasn’t too pleasant: the temperature options were Direct From the Arctic or Straight Out of Hell. Needless to say, I will not be patronizing that hostel again.

After checking in and putting our stuff down, we decided to head out for lunch at the fine American establishment, Burger King. No, seriously. It was in the gourmet food section of the mall instead of the food court. Burger Kings are much more difficult to find in China than McDonald’s and are far superior in quality in that they are less Asian and retain more of the American fast food feel. After dining on a delicious Western meal, we set out for the Forbidden City. Tian’anmen is located directly in front of the Forbidden City, so it’s essentially a two-for-one deal. It was a Saturday so the palace was pretty packed. I was a little bit disappointed, to be honest. The Forbidden city has three main palaces, and two out of the three were blocked off for renovation. It also wasn’t quite as tall and grand as I thought it would be, the Chinese movie Curse of the Golden Flower being the cause for my disillusion (which I highly recommend if you haven’t seen it). But it was much much bigger than I thought it was going to be. The spaces in between the palaces were absolutely huge, and it’s not hard to believe that there actually are 9,999 rooms within it’s walls. My favorite places in the Forbidden City were definitely the smaller alleyways in between buildings. The walls were maybe 30 feet high on either side, with random gates and intersections that seemed to have been placed there for the sole purpose of confusing the person wandering through them. After meandering through many of the palaces and smaller chambers, we exited into Tian’anmen. Tian’anmen also wasn’t too impressive, though it was also quite large. There were some nice looking buildings surrounding it, but because there was not even a sliver of shade to rest under and it was about 90 degrees that day we left pretty quickly.

That night we went to the Olympic Park to check out the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. Since the 2008 Olympics, the Water Cube has been converted into a large indoor water park. The cost of admission running on the high side, so we settled for some photos outside. The Bird’s Nest is still mainly a giant stadium, though a 5-star restaurant has been installed somewhere inside, and I’m fairly certain there’s a large gym in there too. You can take a tour of the stadium during the day, but, like the Water Cube, it’s a bit expensive. The park was nice though–lots of people selling cheap novelty items, many people were rollerblading, and most interestingly, there were some karaoke set ups. People came out with their own flatscreens, generators, microphones, etc and set up a little karaoke area. You told the guy what song you wanted to sing, paid him the appropriate amount, and then waited for your song to come up and sing. It was fun to watch, but looked very intimidating to participate in.

And that concludes day 1 in Beijing! Tomorrow I plan on writing about day 2 and post the corresponding photos!