Way back in the day (over Thanksgiving), Chuck and I re-attempted our trip to China… and actually made it this time! We spent 4 days in Beijing, which were unexpectedly cold. We packed for 40-degree weather, as forecast, and it ended up falling below freezing… but we shivered through it and learned a lot about a place that has captured the West’s imagination for centuries, in all kinds of different ways.
So what was it like, to visit a country that rivals the U.S. as a world superpower and hosts one of the 7 Wonders of the World? Well, to be completely honest, we didn’t love it. The Great Wall was amazing, and the Forbidden City was pretty cool, but Beijing itself left a bit to be desired. You know how iconic cities all over the world have their own cultures that draw you in and show you a good time, regardless of how well you know the history, or how much you care about the monuments? Well, Beijing is not one of them. At least not for me. This was one of those places where the sites were cool, but the culture left you feeling… not great. Needless to say, this is not a place I would consider visiting twice.
You can tell that China is a country walking a fine line between communism and capitalism. Everyone is clearly out to make a buck, and no one cares how they get it. At the same time, you could sense the government control everywhere. You don’t realize how much you rely on Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, etc. until suddenly you are not allowed to access them anymore…
Day 1: Tienanmen Square, the Forbidden City, Behai Park
The first day was crisp and beautiful. After witnessing a verbally (and borderline physically) aggressive fight between our hotel’s concierge and a taxi driver – in Chinese of course – we nervously cabbed to Tiananmen Square. When I realized I had to pee again before starting our touristy adventures, I had my first cultural revelation: public restrooms in China don’t have toilet paper. Initially, I was delighted to find a few Western toilets in the facility, but then realized with dismay that there was no TP to be found. Luckily, it was just #1, but I am not one to “shake” it dry and then walk around all day, so I rummaged through my purse until I found the cloth that came with my Gucci glasses, intended to clean the lenses. I cringed as I used and threw out the most expensive toilet paper ever, annoyed at my own princessy ways. I am such a poodle…
Anyways. Cameras were everywhere in Tiananmen Square, watching our every move. Patriotically dressed children scampered about, and I wondered aloud to Chuck if the Chinese are generally aware of what Americans think of when we imagine Tiananmen: the iconic image of the man standing in front of the tank, in silent protest of an oppressive government. After Chuck glanced at the surroundings and shushed me, he said that if I were to search for that image on the internet here, I would likely not even find that picture. Later that night, I opened Bing (which is not blocked in China) and did an image search. Nothing to be found!
Unimpressed with the Square, we crossed the street to the Forbidden City. I had no idea it would be so large! Layer, after layer, after layer to that place. I would take pictures like it was my only chance, and then realize everything would repeat itself as we walked through new gates. it was strikingly beautiful, in addition to expansive. I was disappointed that we couldn’t actually go inside any of the structures, however. We later found out that there isn’t much inside anyway – Chiang Kai-shek ran off with it after the revolution, and it now sits in a museum in Taiwan.
After making it through each layer of the Forbidden City, we strolled up the street to see what we could find. We stumbled on a little gem called Behai Park, and then found the Hutong District, otherwise known as “Old Beijing.” I found both rather charming!
Day 2: The Great Wall of China! Oh, and the Ming Tombs and a few government-run sales pitches…
Day two was a mixed bag. It suddenly became very cold, and the smog rolled in, making for a shivery day with an inescapable yellow haze. But, this was the day we ventured to the Great Wall, and that in and of itself was exciting enough!
We decided to book a tour for this one, since it is about 45 minutes outside the city, and people weren’t friendly enough for us to feel comfy striking out on our own with any degree of confidence. Our English-speaking, young Chinese tour guide was rigid, but efficient. Our first stop was actually a jade factory, run by the Chinese government. This was not on the itinerary, as published by the marketing materials. Nor was the stop at the government-run silk shop or the government-run tea shop. The pressure to buy was immense, which was unfortunate, because if it hadn’t been for the hassles, we probably would have bought something. No one on the tour particularly appreciated the detours, though I did enjoy the tea “ceremony” at the end of the day. I love me some tea!
Anyway, the Ming Tombs were our first legit stop. We saw some pretty structures and jade.
But of course, the highlight was the Wall. I can’t lie – it felt pretty awesome to be on such a historic and incredible site. It was a daunting hike, too. Lots of steep inclines, which were equally difficult whether you were going up or down. Men, women, and children of all ages were making the effort, clinging to the sides so as not to slip. The cold air only added to the invigorating nature of it! It was truly exciting and the views – while arid and severe – were spectacular.
Of course, I couldn’t resist purchasing a panda hat… on the Great Wall of China.
Day 3: The Silk Market, Temple of Heaven, and Peking Duck
By day 3, we were definitely over Beijing and had already decided we didn’t care for it much. The negativity and hostility of the people had gotten to us, as well as the constant sales pitching we encountered virtually everywhere. It didn’t help that I had pending emails from my boss and professors that I was unable to even read, much less respond to. But we made the most of our last day with a visit to the Silk Market and the Temple of Heaven.
I had heard great things about the Silk Market, and pictured a lively, colorful place where you could get both traditional and modern goods at reasonable prices, not unlike Okinawa’s Kokusai Street. Instead, it was an overcrowded, austere discount shopping mall, with multiple levels and individual booth-like rooms filled to the brim with knock-off purses, watches, scarves, technological gadgets, and everything in between. It was overwhelming, especially since I was approached at every step with “Pretty lady, do you want a Chanel? A Prada? Whatever you like I can get it for you!!” Each booth was exactly like the other. If I did attempt to slow down and look at something, they swarmed in even thicker, assuring me it was real and offering me options in every size and color combination.
I couldn’t handle it! So we purchased nothing and promptly left.
The Temple of Heaven was a short walk away, so we ventured in that direction to check it out. It was neat, but felt empty. The weird thing about religious structures in China is that you can’t go inside. They are like relics – dried out and dead. You go to a place like Notre Dame in Paris, or the Buddhist shrines in Nara, or the cathedrals in Manila, and they are still active with spiritual activity, culture, and soul. The temples in China (at least this one, and a few more minor sites we found), are practically museums. Museums you couldn’t even enter, but only view from a distance, no less. It was another instance of China showing you a sanitized version of its past culture, but not allowing you to touch and essentially depriving it of heart. At least, that’s how it felt to me.
We walked the grounds for as long as we could tolerate the cold, and promptly left.
Our final adventure was to try the famed Peking Duck! I did a little independent research and confirmed with the hotel’s concierge that the best place to go was Da Dong Roast Duck. At first, Chuck and I were less than thrilled with the busy environment and cold service, but the efficiency also meant that we were basically told what to do and how to order. This was good because we were completely overwhelmed when handed a menu of Biblical proportions, 100% in Chinese and short on pictures. We enjoyed a speedy but tasty meal, and now we can say we’ve had Peking Duck in Peking!
All in all, Chuck and I are glad we went to Beijing, if nothing else than for the Great Wall! Plus, I had never been to place so starkly different from us culturally and politically. It was a learning experience for sure 🙂 Add it to your list, if you’re up for leaving your comfort zone.