A Travellerspoint blog

The must-see's of Beijing

Sights I just couldn't miss

sunny 33 °C

Great Wall and Ming Tombs

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After waking up from a power nap on the hour long bus journey from Beijing to the Great Wall, I was surrounded by epic mountains that to me are the picture of rural china. The steep green slopes are filled with trees, and the occasional smaller village. This seems so strange considering the closeness to Beijing. Although I was fooled by this seemingly peaceful tranquillity, as we came round a corner on the highway, and I caught sight of the epic great wall. As it was raining, it shone out from the green hills with bright yellows, greens, reds, and other assortments of colours that make up tops of umbrellas. There was not an inch to spare. Although the wet weather, it seems that all of china wanted to embark on a great wall journey on the same day!
When climbing the steps to get up to the great wall, it was more of a battle field with elbows and umbrellas going everywhere than the ancient, history filled peacefulness that I imagined it to be; I couldn’t even tell I was on the wall due to the multi coloured sky filled with umbrellas. To escape the chaotic atmosphere, it was essential to climb up. When I say up, I mean steep, 2 foot high steps up, and coming down on the steep, smooth slippery rock steps was stomach turning... and I was told that this part of the wall is considered the ‘easily transversable’ section?? To my amazement, the many Chinese women did this in heels- here heels are acceptable in any setting. Once beyond the crowds, the views were incredible; through the mist, the extent of the wall was just beyond my imagination. Even in modern times I cannot see how humans could build something so huge on such steep and harsh terrain.

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Ming Tombs

The Ming Tombs was another destination that lay nearby. They lie in the centre of a ‘U’ shaped valley, following Feng Shui traditions where the bad spirits are blocked and the good spirits can enter from the opening of the valley. Apparently the location of the tombs was in a much sought after location. The building itself is something of traditional architecture, but the tombs 6 floors below ground level are really nothing more than big red boxes (as the actual tombs and the embellishments were destroyed during the cultural revolution). After exiting, the surrounding car parks are filled with trolleys full of fresh peaches laid neatly in pyramids. There was no shortage of these stands along the roads back to Beijing either.

Forbidden City

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The Forbidden City was a sight in itself that could easily be granted a full day to explore. After queuing for over an hour, I was struck by the size and incredibly detailed gate that we walked through to enter the city. I thought this was impressive until I managed to push myself through the crowds to a vantage point where I could see the vastness of the city; the description of ‘City’ is definitely not the overstatement that I expected. The enormous open spaces were packed to the brim with tourists. As we made our way through the city, exploring the size alleys as we went, we came across the ‘traditional Chinese garden’. It was beautiful, but again tourists overwhelmed the should be sanctuary for peace. It was hard to imagine how such a huge place was for the sole purpose of one emperor and his hundreds of concubines, who were there at his beckoning call.

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One of the strangest things I’ve found about china is the group mentality; never before have I understood the huge groups of Chinese tourist that seem to flock together as they travel around other countries. Here, it is the done thing. One of the many examples of this phenomena was set in Beijing; at the hotel, we were divided up into three different groups, each having 15 people. My group initially steamed ahead and beat the other two groups to the tube station. Instead of jumping on the tube and going to Tiananmen Square, we had to wait 10 minutes for the other two groups to catch up with us. Once in Tiananmen Square, the same thing happened except this time we waited close to half an hour. Finally, having queued and queued to get into the Forbidden city, we insisted to our guides that we would go into the city as smaller groups as we all got our tickets... otherwise all 60 of us would be waiting hours for each other to walk through a gate together just to split up at the other side. The guides could not comprehend this idea that we wanted to walk through as smaller groups or even individually. Coming from an individualist society, this collectivist ideal initially seemed foreign to me, but once I took a minute and looked around, I could see that this really was just the way of thinking here! In England we have a saying: The early bird gets the worm. Here in China, they have the saying: The first bird out of the tree gets shot. I think that sums everything up here!

Tienanmen Square

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If I had one word to describe Tienanmen Square, it would be BIG, and my second choice would be CROWDED. Both these choices are not dissimilar from those that I would have chosen for the Forbidden City, which lies just to the north of the square. One end of the square is dominated by a giant photo of Mao, seemingly overlooking and watching everyone. Apparently, this is the one place in Beijing where the 'No Spitting' rule is strictly observed; guards everywhere are keeping a watch on the crowds of people at this site considered by many to be a very special place as Mao's body lies in a building built right in the middle of the square. It was outside of this building that I witnessed the longest queue of my life... it just carried on and on and on. So many Chinese nationals flock to Beijing for the purpose of seeing Mao's body. Occasionally his body is not available to be seen because they need to inject chemicals into him (which explains why the queue was not there the first day I was in Tienanmen Square). Standing in the middle of this square, it's amazing to think about how central this location was to so much history within China.

Birds Nest

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I also had a chance to see the Olympic Park, including the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. Being non sporty, it was a pretty impressive sight; it was a city to itself! There were huge highways running through it that had obviously once been choc-a-block with traffic during the Olympic games, but on this day the wide roads were dead quiet; a pretty eerie sight considering we were in the centre of Beijing. I couldn’t help to be sadden by the idea that so much history in the hutong’s (the little pedestrianised neighbourhoods) were knocked down in order to build these huge, massive, modern, impressive buildings.
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Lama Temple

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I spent an afternoon at the Lama Temple which was a different world from the hectic, shoving, elbowing Forbidden City. Although still full of tourists, we managed to catch it at a time when the peace and tranquillity of the Buddhist temple were permeated far above any of the tourist commotion. In my mind this temple will forever be painted with the smells of incense matched with the image of metal tubs full of burning incense and people praying with three sticks of incense held vertically to their foreheads (and the awkward westerners obviously confused by this concept, as they held them unicorn style to their foreheads to pay respect). The looks resembled that of a miniature Forbidden City with its brightly decorated traditional buildings. Perhaps the most amazing sight here was the 26 meter (yes, 26 meter) tall goddess built out of a single piece of wood, standing tall with one of these traditional buildings built all the way around her. Even here the western world cannot be escaped with a gold plack placed outside advertising the world record achievement for the larges statue built out of a single piece of wood.

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Summer Palace

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The Summer Palace, aptly named for the emperors summer escape from the Forbidden City, was another amazingly worthwhile sight, however it was much greener than any of the other tourist sites, as it’s based on and around a hill and a beautiful lake. Its amazing that in a place so popular with tourists, you can still wander in the green trees without passing (too many) people. There is a little tradition shopping street there (as pictured above) for the emperors use which he apparently used to hire actresses and actors to pretend as though they were townspeople so when he had visitors, they could view what the ‘real’ China was like.
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Even in these crowds of people, us westerners are still considered a tourist attraction; we’re ok if we keep walking, but the moment we stand still we are flooded by photo requests. It amazes me that even within one of the most famous sites in the world, people still want pictures of us. Mostly, they like jumping in the pictures as well, and if they have a child with them, the child is ushered in the middle of the photo to hold up a ‘peace’ sign to the camera.

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Posted by Anna1289 23:12 Archived in China Comments (1)

Hazy Hazy Beijing

My first week impressions and funny times

30 °C

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Groggily looking out my 15,000 feet high window from the massive, two story, airbus plane, my first sighting of China on the approach to Beijing International Airport was the enormous 'Yin' and 'Yang' symbol inscribed into the fields below. It was easily the size of a small town. This was my first taste of how different this country actually is to the familiarities of small town Ohio, USA, or even to the vibrant city life of Liverpool, England.

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When looking at the 'front view' camera on my tv screen in the plane, the skyline image of Beijing never appeared as it was impossible to differentiate where the sky stopped and the ground began. This was my first taste of the infamous haze that we heard so much about in the 2008 olympics. I thought that maybe it was just a groggy day, but the local beijing-ite sat next to me on the plane assured me that we were flying in on a beautiful day! When walking in the city, I could feel my eyes and throat burning if I'm out in it too long. One of my teacher's told us that us contact wearer's would soon become daily glasses wearers once again due to this consistent discomfort, and I can see exactly what she means.

It hit me immediately upon landing in the airport that I actually do not speak one word of Mandarin (ok, I lie, I could say hello, or 'nee-how'. But that is it). I am having major communication difficulties, and this is the 'easy' part of my year as I am lucky enough to have two CEAIE workers in our hotel acting as translators and helping us out. What on earth am I going to do when I'm by myself in Guangzhou without this support??! And down there, they speak Cantonese, which has 9 tones, instead of Mandarin, which has 4 tones and is thus meant to be 'easy'. I didn't even know what tones were, and how much of a difference they make to the language. I've recently learned how to say "hello, my name is Anna. What's yours?"; I've tried it repeatedly on locals I meet, and they seem to think I'm speaking English or something and have no idea what I am saying!

It's not only the spoken language that proves difficult, but the Chinese characters! Of course, I never expected to be able to read any of them, but the real difficulty comes when I have a restaurant that I want to find written down in Pinyin (which is using English characters to write the sounds of mandarin; it's essentially used for westerners to try and get by). Even if I know what the address is, I cannot show it to a taxi driver because most local people can't read Pinyin; and I have a snowball's chance in hell of sounding out the word with tones and all to make any sort of sense. So, without a translator at hand, the only real method I have is the metro system.

The metro system here is excellent. It cannot even be compared to the images I had of the urine-smelling, dark London underground. To begin with, you can travel anywhere for 2 RMB (which is equivalent of 20 pence- miles away from the 4 pound single tube tickets in London). Also, there are constant staff on hands and knees scrubbing every little corner of the shiny stations to absolute pefection. Even the signs are easy to read!! (thanks to the Pinyin translations for the 2008 Olympics). Let's just hope Guangzhou's are as good.

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I have ventured onto these so called 'Rick-a-shaws' a few times now. If you don't know what I'm talking about, they are man powered bicycles with two flimsily put together seats on the back. This is an experience of its own. Here, people have total disregard for the lights. There system is much the same as the push-in before anyone gets out of the elevator, where they fend for themselves! Except instead of it being person vs. person, it is rickshaw vs. car or bus. And trust me, the cars do not back down!! So when we pulled out into the 2nd ringroad around Beijing, I saw my life flash before my eyes as we dodged cars going 60 mph to try and cross the 5 lanes. These drivers are real thrill seakers to say the least!! When Roger and I got a ride alongside our fellow ELA's (English Language Assistants), we egged the driver on with 'Go Go Go!' and he was literally overtaking with only millimeters to spare while dodging oncoming traffic and pedestrains galore.

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Another massive 'culture-shock' is the difference in food here. To say that I've only had Chinese minimal times in my life, everything came as a surprise to me. On my first day I eagerly walked down to breakfast imagining branflakes with warm milk, a tall glass of fresh squeezed orange juice and a nice hot coffee. Instead I was met with pickled cucumber, spicy tofu noodlings, cabbage (which has something done to it but I'm not quite sure what) and some kind of porrige made up of grains floating in warm water, sometimes with beans added in (and I've heard fish is often used). On the non-fishy days, the porrige is positively nice tasting with a large spoon of sugar, despite it's offences looks.

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Dinner's are another experience in themselves. It's especially difficult being vegetarian as even when you point out the characters for "I do not eat meat", EVERYTHING seems to come with some sort of meat thrown in. It's a culture thing- if they have any left over meat, they will add it to anything, even if it's not on the menu. The entirety of restaurant staffs often come over to serve on us. When I say service, it is not the same as in England or even in America. I go to pick up the pot of green tea on the table to top up my glass and before I know it a waitress is taking it out of my hand and pouring it herself! This is a frequent occurence and sums up the service here. Apart from the meat, the restaurants have been extremely interesting. I've sat on rooftops over looking HoHai Lake in Beijing, and gone to 'hot pot' restaurants (which we didn't realise was a hot pot restaurant until we got a plate of raw chicken feet/heads/everything you can imagine int he centre of the table. We think the staff had a good laugh about this one. especially as we had insisted we did not want the individual hot pots infront of our seats!).

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I have had a chance to enjoy my own 'Peking Duck', at the best restaurant in the world!! Tucked away in hutong (a kind of pedestrianised neighbourhood), Still Thoughts Buddhist vegetarian restaurant is one of many buddhist run restaurants in Beijing and if you want to eat meat-free, these are deffinately the locations you seek. They have absolutely perfected the art of tofu and mock-meat. I went with 6 other meat eaters, and all of them left saying it was the best meal they have had in their lives.... I kid you not. It was AMAZING.

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Here are some other strange things I've encountered:

You must never wear a green hat in China. This is obvious to locals, not to myself. Apparently it means that your wife is cheating on you behind your back and you're oblivious... or something like that.

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They put wood planks over their wheels because it is bad luck for a dog to urinate on the car

I must never give my students an 84 for any grade, as that is the number for death.

Every house has a sort of ledge you have to step over to get inside; this is to keep the evil spirits out.

They sell tea flavoured Walkers crisps here.

Instead of saying "Oh my god". Chinese people think that god sounds like 'lady gaga', so they say "Oh my Lady Gaga"

Women have to match their purses to the men's outfit because men carry the purses around

In a restaurant, only one menu is given to the table (no matter how many people) and it always goes to a male

In Beijing, there is a law for how big your dog can be, so pomerians. miniature ginger-poodles, and shitzu's are like street dogs here! They roam without leashes or collars (although I am sure most are pets) around every corner. I've heard they eat the ones that get too fat for the law... I'd like to think this isn't true but after what i've learned, i dont think I'd put it past China!

So if any lesson's have been learned... I need to learn Mandarin (and Cantonese) and FAST!!!

Posted by Anna1289 06:36 Archived in China Comments (7)

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