Ni Hao Beijing!

China has never been a destination on my travel wish list. I find Asian languages tough to navigate, my knowledge of Chinese culture is elementary, and the actions of the Chinese Government to deploy their army to dissipate the student protests in Tiananmen Square on 4th June, 1989 left an indelible scar on my perceptions of China.

More recently major cities have become renowned for being a steam bath of pollution, and modern politics continues its oppression of dissident views (cf. arresting outspoken voices like artist Ai Weiwei, blocking internet access to news and social media sites). Ignorance, Chinese officials must hope, is bliss. Knowledge is power. And clichés come in threes.

What lured me to Beijing were the favourable reviews from friends who worked there during the Olympics, and the increase of (cheap) flights between Australia and Europe via China. I love travelling to Europe, and getting there via China can now be had for a sub $1,500 price tag, even in peak season.

Sure, I was wary about Chinese airlines, but that’s where handy resources like Skytrax come in. Skytrax is the world’s leading airline and airport review site, and I know that because it says so on their website. They provide an official star rating system (out of 5), as well as allowing you and I the chance to review the airlines we fly. Air China gets ★★★★, which is on par with Qantas, Emirates, and Etihad. As most Europe flights are via Asia, I usually take the opportunity to stop over, and so on my most recent trip to Europe, I spent a week making my acquaintance with Beijing.

In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing underwent a significant overhaul and increase in its public transport infrastructure. The subway doubled in size. Doubled. It wasn’t insignificant to begin with. Now it’s like a shiny new version of the London Tube. From the airport, the train takes downtown in 4 stops and about 15 minutes. Signage and audio announcements in all carriages are communicated in both English and Chinese which makes it a breeze for locals and tourists alike.

A standard trip anywhere on the subway will cost you the princely sum of 2 yuan – that’s about $0.35USD – and is if to emphasise how good the subway is, carriages have TV screens on board showing live footage of the congestion on the roads above ground. Despite the advantages very few international tourists ride the subway. Small children looked in wonder upon my person. Most tourists stay with the familiarity of the taxi, which despite the traffic and sheer size of the city, still offers a cheap ride to where you need to go. But for value, efficiency, and hanging with the locals, I took the subway wherever possible.

Size is something you learn to appreciate quickly in Beijing. I emerged from the subway fresh from the airport, map in hand, eyes wide with wonder. Street signs in Chinese and English – win! I headed south on foot, walking for a few minutes trying to match the roads on the city map with those on the street signs. No dice. Turns out that Beijing is so vast that only the major roads are included on the downtown map, which meant that after walking 15 minutes, I’d covered one of the four blocks required to reach my hotel. Rookie error – it took me an hour to cover those four blocks and find my hotel.

The Forbidden City stands at the centre of the city, inside the first ring road, which marked the original city of Beijing (at last count there were six ring roads, each one doubling the previous size of the city). The complex is vast, consists of almost 1,000 buildings, and they knocked it up in 15 years between 1406 and 1420. Incredible. It was built to be the palace of the Ming Dynasty, and remained an imperial palace until the demise of child Emporer Puyi and the Qing dynasty in 1912. The palaces are well preserved and the displays of artefacts and works of art offer an insight into the majestic lives of Government and the rulers of Chinese dynasties.

Opposite the palace gates sits Tiananmen Square, established in conjunction with the palace, a site historical for the pomp and ceremony of military displays, and for hosting important politics events such as Mao’s proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. For Westerners the connotations of this place invoke words like ‘protest’ and ‘massacre’ attached, but they don’t like to talk about that too much. A mausoleum for Chairman Mao exists at the edge of the square and locals queue for hours to get a glimpse of the waxwork. The square is an intimidating space filled with armed guards and hundreds of security cameras.

The Forbidden City is enclosed by a moat some 50m wide, beyond which lie three imperial gardens. Beijing harbours many tranquil green spaces and a thoughtful use of both natural and created waterways. The city is rich in a variety of flora and in my meanderings I stumble on a fabulous butterfly flight aviary in Jingshan Park, one the  three imperial gardens. The many city parks offer a great respite from the humidity of the city and are well kept by perhaps the world’s largest team of gardeners – squadrons of them can be seen tending to plants around town. The occupation counted among its number Puyi (you don’t know him by name, but you do know him as The Last Emporer), who humbly tilled the grounds of the Beijing Botanical Gardens after being released from prison in later life.

The competition between the natural and the built environments is fierce. The air is a thick steam of air pollution – on a good day you can see as far as your coffee. Older men sit on stoops smoking, coughing, and spluttering, and I muse about the extent to which the pollution impacts on illness and life expectancy among Beijingers.

A friend of mine, Dinny, lives and works in Beijing, and it’s a real treat to catch up with him. We meet in Bei Luogo Xiang, a great part of town thriving with restaurants and bars, and we head for a restaurant specialising in Yunnan food (Yunnan is a Chinese rural province). One of the specialties is a flatbread topped with shredded potato – essentially a French fries pizza – but it’s surprisingly good! We also dig into some Qiguoji (similar to the Vietnamese Pho), some fried goat’s cheese, and tender braised beef. I ask him how long it took living here to acclimatise to the air quality, and he smiles about special days when he leaves home to find the sun out, shining down in morning glory as he cycles to work.

Head south from Bei Luogo Xiang and the road turns into Nan Luogo Xiang, a pedestrian mall teaming with bars, restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops, fairy lights and lanterns, and a healthy mix of tourists and locals. This is an excellent area to base any Beijing visit – there’s a vibrant nightlife, good value accommodation, and if you know the symbol to look for – 网吧 – you’ll find a couple of internet cafes in the district. Within walking distance are two significant buildings on the Beijing landscape: Bell Tower and Bell Tower.

The towers were constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries, and served to mark time in Beijing across three dynasties, being struck at dawn and sunset respectively. They sit at the head of a central axis, running north-south, that extend south through the centre of the Forbidden City and into Tiananmen Square. Both towers can be visited (6 yuan) – time your visit to be present for the closing drum ceremony.

Branching off Nan Luogo Xiang are some of a traditional hutongs of Beijing. Hutongs are narrow streets and are the traditional lifeblood of Beijing, housing thousands of courtyard residences. Dinny doubles me (I perch precariously on the handlebars like a teenager) down one hutong in search of Mao Mao Chong, a little bar opened up by a Chinese-Australian couple, Stephanie & Stephen. Wrong hutong dinny. We try another, and then a third, and just when I’m beginning to doubt his nose for local bars, we find it. It’s an expat hangout, gets a few artist types in (Stephen is an artist), is hole-in-the-wall small, open late, and most welcoming.

I am scheduled to spend a day cycling down the hutongs with a small Intrepid Travel group, however there is a steady drizzle of rain and our guide calls to say that the reminder of the group have withdrawn from tour. I may only be here once, so I throw on a poncho and we make a soggy start in the direction of the bicycle pick-up point.

It’s just the two of us so we forego the official route and instead divert off into another area of town where my guide grew up. We run into a couple of his buddies, talk about the class divides of old and new Beijing, and then call into a hutong residence to share lunch with a local family. The mah-jong tiles come out after lunch and I’m determined not to leave until I win a round. I’m lost at first and getting my Dragons confused with my Winds, but it soon clicks and I take out the 3rd round. If you’ve ever played any of the rummy group of card games, mah-jong is the Chinese equivalent; it’s slightly more complicated, and much more engaging – if you enjoy playing cards you’ll pick it up in a few hands and make new friends.

Back onto the bikes and we check out some lesser known temples, open to tourists but commonly visited by locals for prayer and to give alms, and we swing by my guides’ old primary school. He reminisces about growing up on these streets, about the Chinese education system, the structure of families within local communities, and the increased engagement by Chinese men in the ‘women’s work’ of the house, like cooking dinner for the family. This prompts us to make a trip to a local market where I offer culinary advice and help select tonight’s dinner menu for a family I will never meet. A damp but magical day out.

The 798 Art District started life as a series of massive inter-connected factories as part of a joint project between Germany and China post-WWII. Established on outlying farmland north of the city, the factories thrived in the 60s and 70s, before declining output saw the factories abandoned in the late 80s. Artists began setting up workshops in the disused site, and it quickly became a creative hub and a source of inspiration for Beijing’s artistic community.

The district houses an array of artists of different genres, some surprisingly subversive, is easily accessible by public transport (there’s a subway stop on the airport express line at Dashan Bridge), and offer an inspiring insight into many Chinese artistic movements. There are several cafés here and I warily tried one of the ceramic pots of drinking yoghurt that everyone else seemed to be digging. I’d had a less than pleasant experience previously with the Turkish equivalent (Ayran), but these pots were sweet tangaliscious. Highly recommended (the yoghurt and the 798 District).

My last day in Beijing was a chance to get out of town and visit the Great Wall. Sections of the wall run within 100km of downtown Beijing, making it very accessible from the capital. Its size and scope are everything you’ve heard and read about, but what is striking in historical context is how steep parts of the wall are. Walking sections of the wall is a tiring experience – stairs are steep, uneven, and numerous – I had rather imagined that patrol of the wall would be akin to walking along a bridge.

At Mutianyu, the site most accessible from Beijing, they’ve built a cable car to get you up and back from the wall; there’s a short queue and it’s a 5 minute ride in either direction. I chose to hike it to the top, but chose to join the other queue for the journey back down – that’s for the toboggan ride. Yep, toboggan ride – straight off the edge of the Great Wall of China. You don’t have to ask – it was awesome – especially the bits where officials yelled at me in Chinese as a whizzed by – 减缓 to you too friends!

A slightly surreal conclusion to my Beijing adventures. On my last night I find my way back to Mao Mao Chong. It’s late, they’re still open, and they want to know how I found this place. I explain that I have a friend living here – they demand names – and when they learn it’s Dinny, it’s like a password and suddenly we’re all friends and Stephanie is mixing me a local specialty. Go to Beijing – you try it you love it.

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