I ended the first half of this story in the Shanghai-Hongqiao airport, boarding a China Southern flight, and that’s where I’ll start this half.
Our destination was the Chinese capital, Beijing. It’s just my wife and me now, since the rest of our Shanghai tour group stayed behind. Beijing is a two hour flight away from Shanghai, and I was excited to get a chance to have a domestic flight within China.
The China Southern plane was a wide-bodied Airbus A330, which looked brand-spanking-new inside. They served a full meal on our 2 hour flight, a rarity these days, with airlines scaling back on services they provide, especially in the economy section. The food was nothing special, but again where else can you have a domestic flight that serves a meal? Nowhere else probably. There were also quite a number of foreigners on the plane, so we didn’t feel out of place, and the cabin crew understood English.
The flight was calm for the most part, but it was rough sailing as we approached the Beijing Capital Airport. It wasn’t overcast, but visibility was poor due to haze, and I thought that it was very windy outside. Like in Shanghai, we didn’t disembark by tube (though there’s lots of them, this is a world-class airport after all). So again, the plane parked on a “remote bay”, and we had to go down through stairs and run to a waiting bus. This time though, it was much colder than in Shanghai. I could already feel the chill even as I was still walking towards the plane’s door. Once I stepped outside, my face got blasted by the very cold and strong wind…yes I was right, it was very windy outside, increasing the “chill factor” by notches. If Shanghai was the refrigerator, then this was the freezer.
This time, we didn’t have trouble finding our tour guide, and soon after we were whisked away to our hotel, to check-in. It was already a bit late in the afternoon by the time we got to the hotel, so after assisting us in our check-in, our tour guide left us to scour the area on our own, and find our own dinner. That was to be our arrangement for the rest of our evenings.
The Hotel was on a very ideal location, along Donganmen Dajie. It’s just a 3-minute walk away from the Wangfujing shopping district, and right at its doorstep is the night street market. The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square are also just a 15-minute brisk walk away.
The First Full Day
Our agenda on the first full day in Beijing was the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, and the Temple of Heaven.
We were taken to the Badaling section of the Great Wall. Those acquainted with the wall would know that this is the most heavily visited section, being the one closest to Beijing (though still not that close since it’s still more than an hour away by car, through an expressway).
You may have noticed in the pictures that the wall looks so smooth. Well, Badaling also happens to be the most “face-lifted” section. Being the section closest to Beijing, which makes it’s the easiest for visitors to reach, it has been renovated and polished to be more “tourist friendly”. For those who’d really like to see how the wall looked like centuries ago, when the hordes from the northern lands were still a real threat, there are other sections of the wall that have been less tampered, if not less well preserved, albeit it would take a longer travel time to get there.
The Great Wall may have been built by the emperors to keep foreign invaders out…but now it does the complete opposite, and instead attracts all sorts of foreign invaders, in the form of tourists. The Great Wall may as well be renamed as the “Great Melting Pot”. Nowhere else have I seen people from so many different races and nationalities converge in one narrow strip of land. Everyone around us was talking in different languages, and it was quite an experience.
It was also my first experience of below zero temperatures. Inspite of our heavy clothing, the cold would still manage to seep in eventually, so that after some time, my toes and fingers started to become really painful, even though they were covered with socks, shoes and winter gloves. Just as intense heat drains our energy, so does extreme cold, I learned first hand. As we left the Great Wall, I unintentionally fell asleep in the tour car due to exhaustion, even though I didn’t walk that far at all.
After the Great Wall, out next stop was the Ming Tombs, which we passed by on the way back to Beijing. This is actually a complex of tombs of 13 Ming Dynasty emperors. It’s a very large complex, and since the tombs are dispersed across a vast area, we weren’t taken to each one. Instead, we just walked part of the 7 kilometer long entrance, composed of the pavilion and the Spirit Way (yes, that’s just the entrance).
It was quite a long walk, in the freezing weather, and I was just so relieved to be back in the tour car since my lips were getting dry and chapped, the effect of cold air on my face. From there we headed straight back to urban Beijing, for our last stop that day, the Temple of Heaven.
The Temple of Heaven, located just within Beijing, was where the Emperor made his annual prayer for good harvest. It’s located atop a small hill, a high point within the city. On the way to the temple, one passes by a park where people, mostly seniors, do all sorts of stuff, from playing old musical instruments, to playing board games. The park is quite packed, with locals and tourists alike, and the temple itself is teeming with visitors, a large number of them Japanese, for some reason.
With this still being a guided tour, we of course had to stop along shops as we went about our destinations. Going to the great wall, we stopped by another jade factory, and on the way back, a cloissone factory. We didn’t buy anything this time though, save for souvenirs.
The Second Day
We started our second day with a short 5-minute car ride to Tiananmen Square. The rest of our agenda for the day will take us to the neighboring Forbidden City, and then to the Summer Palace.
Tiananmen Square is the world’s largest public square, larger than Paris’ Place de la Concorde and London’s Trafalgar Square, but thanks to a fairly recent event, historically speaking, people the world over may associate it with something else, but I’m not here to write about world history.
From the square, we walked directly to the Forbidden City, through the Tian’an Gate. Forbidden City is the Imperial Palace complex, composed of several buildings and gates. It used to be off limits to commoners, hence its name. It covers an entire large city block, and the walk from one gate to the other took more than an hour, but of course it was a leisurely walk, with lots of stops to take photos and videos. Similar to what we saw at the Temple of Heaven, it was packed with tourists, again with the majority Japanese (they really like China, don’t they?). Our guide wasn’t that much enthusiastic about the Japanese though…again due to world history.
It was already lunch time when we completed our walk in the Forbidden City, and as we headed down to the place were we were going to have lunch, we happened to pass by the City’s Olympic Stadium, known as Bird’s Nest. We came in December 2007, so the place was not yet open, but the structure was already complete.
After lunch, we were taken to the Summer Palace. Like the Ming Tombs and the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace is also a complex covering a large area, 2.9 square kilometers to be exact (everything in this country is large). In the middle is a large man-made lake, which actually covers around three quarters of the complex. In any other season, visitors can take a boat to tour the entire Summer Palace, but this time, the lake was frozen solid (so obviously, the boats can’t go), so we just had to walk a section of the lakeside.
Here also I realized what a frozen lake can do to its surroundings. It seems the ice in the lake makes the wind blowing over it even colder that it already is. It was cooolllllddddd by the lakeside as we were walking. We actually just walked a very short section of the complex…I wouldn’t endure being there for an hour.
The Summer Palace was the last stop on this Beijing tour, so right after we left, we were brought back to our hotel to prepare for the flight back to Manila the following day.
Since we were on our own every evening, we took it as opportunities to stroll around the vicinity of our hotel, as well as Wangfujing. We were not familiar with public transport, and it’s difficult to go on adventures at night, so we just stuck to nearby streets.
I was not really aware that there was a night street market in Beijing, and so as we went out on our first night, I was surprised to find stalls right outside our hotel selling all sorts of food, from the common (noodles, dumplings, fruits), to the totally bizarre (skewered scorpions, snakes, etc.). Seeing a tray of exotic skewered scorpions beside a stall selling common and ubiquitous noodles might send shivers, but nowhere else have I seen anything like it. Each time we pass by the place during evenings, I always take a peek at those skewered creatures, wondering if they have something more bizarre each day.
I never had the guts to try any of their “exotic” offerings though, but we did buy fruits and noodles every evening (corny huh?). The vendors don’t speak any English though, so ordering is done by pointing.
We had a favorite mall in Wangfujing, a stone’s throw away from the hotel, and we were there every evening. The name is APM and it was new. At the time we were there, some sections were not yet complete, and some shops not yet opened. Our favorite dinner place inside the mall? Yoshinoya! Their crew didn’t speak English too, but since we ate nothing else but the beef bowl, ordering was pretty easy. I just say “2 beef” and they automatically knew we want two beef bowls.
Beijing, like most capital cities in the developed world, is a large, sprawling metropolis. Like Shanghai, it is also thoroughly modern and westernized, but it has also managed to preserve the remnants of its past pretty well. Unlike Shanghai though, Beijing feels a little bit more conservative and “prim-and-proper”. If the two cities were sisters, Shanghai would be the party girl in a cocktail dress, while Beijing would be the one in an evening gown, heading to a ball room.
Just before I close this two part series though, I would just like to show some signs, that we found rather..err..amusing. =)
* all photos taken by my wife with her Canon ixus izoom.
This trip was made December 2007