Barmy Beijing

Barmy Beijing

The moment we arrived at Beijing Central Station, we were swiftly swept outside by a strong current of humans into the warm, smog filled air, where it appeared that the entire population of China had kindly turned up to greet us. As it turns out, there’s quite a lot of them. 1.35 Billion of them actually, with 20 million living in the Beijing Municipality alone. We said goodbye to our Trans-Siberian friends Maarten, Paulina, Megan and Steve, and swam off through the thick soup of Chinese people in search of our respective accommodations.

Looking at the map, it seemed our hostel couldn’t be more than 20 minutes away. Over an hour of trekking later, mainly down the side of a massive dual carriageway (Beijing is built in a vast grid), we arrived. This wasn’t the first time we would underestimate the utterly immense size of this City.  Being British, we have the peculiar habit (especially to Chinese Rickshaw drivers) of walking absolutely everywhere, and this had served us perfectly well so far on our trip. However, after quite a few cases of “Peking Knees”, we eventually conceded that our feeble legs alone were not going to suffice. We also now pay very careful attention to the scale on all Maps.

Beijing’s underground metro system is pretty impressive – if you’re the kind of person to be impressed by such things, which I am. The sheer scale, efficiency, and punctuality were mind-blowing. Being a simple northern soul, I still wonder at the London Underground, which seems to baffle impatient Londoners. After experiencing the Beijing Metro, I can now appreciate that there are better (although maybe not as charming) systems out there. The longest we ever had to wait for a train was about 3 minutes, and compared to our usual experience, this was a major inconvenience. An LED map inside the train shows you where you are and which direction you going at all times, and there are a load of TV screens in every carriage, beaming incomprehensible, mind melting Chinese pop into your trapped and vulnerable brain. We soon found there is very little in Beijing without a screen on it. A ticket for 1 journey (with as many line changes as were needed) cost just 2 Yuan, or 21 pence to you and me. No matter what the time of day the main lines were always totally rammed, and fitting on the train invariably required slotting 2 or 3 Chinese people under each armpit (My distinctly average height of 5’11” made me a comparative giant here, with Amy’s diminutive 5’3″ figure looking about average).

Sinisterly, the Government decrees that the Metro stops service at 11pm every night, which is amazingly effective at basically shutting down the entire city, with unsanctioned large congregations also being banned. The Government also keeps a watchful eye of the population with the aid of hundreds of thousands of CCTV cameras. Recently the Government announced all cinemas, theaters and music venues in the city are now required to install security cameras, and you can’t look up anywhere, inside or outside, without spotting one. I vaguely remember reading that per person the UK actually has more CCTV than China, I don’t know whether this is true, but the surveillance certainly felt more apparent in Beijing than anywhere I’ve ever been. Maybe we are just blindly oblivious in the comfort of our own country, which is slightly scary. It was also hard to find a major street or tourist attraction without a police or military presence. Anyway, it does seem that the Chinese Government is not without a sense of humour, with their aptly named state television network: CCTV (China Central Television).

Our hostel was a large impersonal affair in the Sanlitun district, but it was dry, clean, and fairly cheap. We were pretty well placed for the local markets and the metro to the rest of the city. A couple of the young female staff spoke excellent English, which turned out to be a life-saver in a city where it seems absolutely no one speaks a single word of the Queens. We often got addresses written down in Chinese so we could get directions from locals or occasionally a Taxi to take us there (also cheap, around £1 per kilometer).

Our first night we had arranged to meet up with Megan and Steve for some of the famous Peking Duck. This was before any of us had truly started to comprehend the sheer size of the city, and the necessity of getting addresses written in Chinese. As is the vogue in modern city planning, in Beijing, the areas of business, retail, food, and leisure frequently merge into one, and after much struggle we finally found this quaint little duck restaurant on the bottom floor of a vast glass office building, in the middle of a huge strange business and retail complex. As we only just managed it with a large dose of luck, it wasn’t surprising that Megan and Steve never found the place, and so the meeting failed. The duck was incredible though, and we did manage to meet up a few days later (outside a designated McDonald’s of course) in order to go exploring one of Beijing’s weird and wonderful night markets.

The night market was good fun, and felt much more authentic than the other one Amy and me had visited the night before, which was just a single long street of stalls, all seemingly owned by the same firm (all stalls looked identical and staff wore the same uniforms) where you were just constantly and unrelentingly heckled to buy all sorts of vile oddities like scorpion, snake, grubs, and most horrendous of all, smelly tofu (more on that later). It was a very bizarre, loud, smelly, unfriendly, tourist conveyor belt – as opposed to the second one we visited which was a jumble of narrow alleys, peculiar sights and smells, and just a much more genuine atmosphere…

Another night we successfully managed to meet with Maarten and Paulina for a surreal and incomprehensible dining experience at an immense 3 story mega restaurant, apparently very popular with locals. Due to our linguistic inadequacies, ordering anything involved a large amount of sign language, random guessing, and pot luck. In the end, we managed not to order anything too horrendous and it all went pretty well.

I’ve already babbled too long, so I’ll just do a brief run-down of our activities and observations from 9 days in this mental city…

– How to ruin a tourist attraction. Beijing gave us an introduction to the immeasurable ability of the Chinese to suck the life out of almost any tourist attraction. We visited all the main crop of wonders: The forbidden city, The Tiananmen (gate of heavenly peace), Tiananmen square, Jinshanling park, the Temple of Heaven and various other things. The inclusion of large plastic signs, chrome railings, neon lights, digital ticket booth signs, and mammoth tour groups of Chinese pensioners in matching neon baseball caps (and guide with a megaphone) makes visiting these places, to put it lightly – a strange experience, especially the more ancient sights, most of which date from early (14th century) Ming dynasty.

– The sea of hats. In China, you quickly realise you have to learn to embrace the above mentioned tourist groups, otherwise they will drive you completely and utterly mad. Each group is like a giant, marauding, neon hatted entity, feeding on the despair of other tourists (particularly avid photographers) and generally hoovering up the last drops of authenticity from any experience. However, once you learn to appreciate the power and comic brilliance of these bizarre groups, life becomes much easier (and funnier).

– Avoiding the Paparazzi. It turns out there are not as many western tourists in Beijing as you might imagine, and for many Chinese the sight of one is quite an amusing experience. This seems due to the fact that something crazy like 1/3 of the population of Beijing at any time are actually Chinese national tourists, for whom a visit to their capital is the most exotic of holidays. Because of this, it was pretty common for Chinese tourists to approach us and ask for a picture with us. The shyer amongst them would try and covertly (and it has to be said, poorly) take snaps of us strange foreign beasts from a distance – something that certainly takes a while to get used to. It’s also interesting to think how many remote Chines mantle pieces and photo albums Amy and me will now be gracing.

– Park life. Probably one of the most endearing parts of Chinese life is their park culture. Despite the immense hustle and bustle of Beijing, it was surprisingly easy to find peace and tranquility inside one of the many city parks. In the parks locals enjoy themselves however they fancy with a totally charming lack of embarrassment of self-consciousness – taking part in group dancing, tai-chi, Jianzi (Chinese hacky-sack with a shuttlecock type thing), meditation, kung-fu, or whatever else they enjoy doing. The parks are just full of people genuinely enjoying themselves. It is interesting that the idea of letting nature run its course seems unheard of in Chinese culture, with nature being something that needs taming and controlling for purpose. Nearly all parks are spirit level flat, symmetrical, orderly affairs, usually arranged based on Confucian principles of symmetry, constraint, and order, or the Taoist balance of Yin and Yang. When done well, in combination with the stunning architecture and ancient Cyprus trees, this type of park can actually be quite an amazing sight.

– Hutongs. One of the highlights of Beijing is the Hutongs. These are the network of little alleys that form the capillaries of the city. Apart from the odd one which is window dressed for tourists, these are the genuine lifeblood of the city, where locals live and eat. Some of the best and cheapest food we ate was at little street stalls and ‘restaurants’ down the Hutongs. Although amazing for us tourists to see, I’m not sure what life is life for the actual residents, who often seem to live in small, cramped, overcrowded conditions, sharing public toilets and water access. Whether the state manages to maintain any control, or whether they are just run by slumlords I also don’t know. Regardless, some of the happiest looking units of family and friends we saw eating or playing together down Hutongs.

– A wee revelation. An unexpected bonus of the Hutong life for tourists is that you are never more than 5 minutes away from a public toilet, due to the fact that toilets are shared by Hutong communities. This was an absolute revelation after the miles trekked and millions of pounds spent finding and using public toilets in Europe.

– Asleep on the job. Everyone. Despite all the crowded commotion of the city, it seems that most people in Beijing are employed in the service of snoozing. Security guards, Rickshaw drivers, shop assistants, stall owners, police and generally everyone seem to be contractually obliged to nap time. It also appears everywhere is ludicrously over-staffed. Small shops staffed by 18 teenagers, tiny car parks manned by 4 sleeping security guards, or newspaper shacks staffed by 2 or 3 daylight slumberers are all common sights.

– Rickshaw rip-offs and scams. The list of scams targeted at tourists in Beijing is pretty endless. Even writing this far into South-East Asia, I don’t think there has been anywhere as ‘scammy’ as Beijing. The Rickshaw drivers are by far the worst culprits though, and we have found this to be true pretty much everywhere we have visited since. One guy took us less than 1km, told us it was 3 Yuan (a fair price), then dropped us down an alley near a group of his dodgy looking pals and said it was in fact 300 Yuan (about £30). We managed to walk off pretty quickly after he realised that he couldn’t threaten us (I’m about 3 times the size of the little guy) but he did stalk us for a while looking pretty sinister. Another time we jumped in a Rickshaw, and driver said he was splitting the hard work and the fair with his friend, so we were put into separate Rickshaws, and then predictably we were dropped nowhere near our destination and they demanded two fares. You’ve just got to be firm and walk away. Even some of the official yellow cab drivers will try and scam you by saying there is a surcharge as well as the metered price, or by refusing to put on the meter. Other common scams involve very well educated, charming, English speaking student types approaching tourists and offering to take them to a local tea house or art gallery, where they will then disappear and be replaced by a couple of heavies claiming the bill for the tea is a few hundred dollars. We got approached by a few of these hucksters but never got sucked in – although they’re so charming and convincing I could see how people easily do. If you’re sensible and keep your wits about you though, it’s not too much of an issue.

Beijing, China
05/04/13 – 14/04/13

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