We try not to rely on guidebooks for three main reasons: a lot of the information is inaccurate, probably because it was researched years ago; much of the information is very subjective because of diverse reasons and according to who wrote it; and mainly because if it’s in a guidebook it means it’s a very touristy place lacking authenticity. As well as that guidebooks are expensive and weigh a lot. Anyhow, I try to research different sources before arrival, ask other travelers, and mostly rely on the local tourist info offices and especially seek the advice of the local people. We did finally find a tourist info office and it was as useless as not having a guidebook, the info in our hotel was also not so reliable as they only wanted to recommend the places they got commission from. We had no choice but to buy a guidebook. We went to many bookstores that sold English books and Western guides from all over the world, except the China one of course. Western guidebooks on China are banned, probably not only because they want to sell their own publications but because of the Western opinion on the Tibet issue. We definitely did not want to buy a Chinese produced biased guidebook, so we kept visiting all the bookshops in Beijing hoping to find one. We got lucky when an Irish guy heard us asking the salesman for a Western guidebook. He told us that his hotel sold LP guidebooks on China, so on we went to his hotel and we finally got it…an illegal copy of LP China. It is exactly the same as the original one, if it were not for some pages where the photocopy is a bit blurry and half the price, we would have never known it was a fake. Welcome to China!
Our first impression of Beijing was that it was very modern and expensive, it kind of felt like USA: 3 Starbucks, 3 McDonald’s, and 3 KFC per block. Seemed like capitalism was in full bloom and socialism nowhere to be seen. That was because our hotel was in the Wangfujing area, we did not know it then, but it is a very exclusive part of Beijing, therefore all the modernization, and lack of socialism on display. After spending some time in modern Beijing, we ventured into the heart of traditional Beijing, the real China, which is full of hutongs: old traditional neighborhoods in between narrow alleyways, a sort of maze that encompasses single-story, same-design, small houses with common courtyards. Sadly many of them are being destroyed to build massive buildings. In the hutongs we explored with all our senses the traditional way of life in Beijing, our favorite part of our Beijing visit. We took a pedicab through the hutongs and lakes of central Beijing, also savoured authentic cuisine, much tastier and for a tenth of the price than the “street markets” in Wangfujing area, which obviously caters for tourists only. We of course had Beijing Duck at the very famous Quan Ju De, where presumably Mao enjoyed his meals. They bring the duck to your table and start cutting artistically its different parts and instruct you how to eat them. Last they bring the duck bone soup. We also enjoyed plenty of noodles, steamed buns, dumplings, strange vegetables (veggie’s paradise), soups, rice, etc. and Tony had his try at scorpions and silkworms.
On a Sunday (bad choice of a day) we visited the the world’s largest and most infamous square, Tian’anmen. It has not much beauty of its own as other famous squares do, but its splendor is that it holds up to (and has had) a million people, for occasions such as Mao’s death. Maybe there were not a million that day, but to us it sure seemed like it. From there you can see the wall of the Forbidden City with the big photo of Mao on it. In China we have run several times into Chinese people who want to take their photo with us, we of course reciprocrate and do the same. Although most people in Beijing don’t have a clue about English, they are willing to give it a try and help you, and they always smile and giggle a lot. Oh and the Chinese love scandals, you see and hear a lot of yelling constantly.
After the snapshots and clearing security (in Beijing every metro station has a security check) we made our way into the majestic Forbidden City. And indeed a city it is. We spent half a day admiring it and it felt like we had seen nothing yet. You could probably be there for a week and not see it all. It was the home of 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, along with their many concubines, and the political and ceremonial headquarters of China for almost 500 years, until 1912 with the abdication of Puyi, the last Emperor of China. It is composed of an outer and inner court containing 980 buildings in an area of 720,000 m2. The main attractions are its halls, temples, and its garden. Its construction was started in 1406 and it took 15 years and more than one million workers to complete it. One of its highlights is the Hall of Supreme Harmony which was used for ceremonial occasions. Unfortunately you cannot visit the inside of the halls and can only get a peak at them from behind the overcrowded windows. There is no doubt that the Forbidden City is a magnificent site in itself, but we have to admit it is not as well preserved as the important palaces and castles of Europe, especially the interiors, as it would be nice to go in and have a look at what their life was like in the day. However apparently there are efforts being made to restore it to its glory era, before 1912. Personally what impressed me the most is the architecture of the roofs.
As far as the obligatory visit to the Great Wall of China went, we knew that the Badaling section of the wall was going to be loaded with tourists as it is the most accessible, but we were too lazy to make the extra effort to go to a less visited area, so on we went in the modern fast train to Badaling. Oh boy it was crowded, even on a weekday it was mobbed with tourists, 99% local internal tourism. Well, we wanted to see the Great Wall and we did. Badaling is suppposed to be an easy climb as it has been restored, but it was quite steep and the steps are quite high as well. I’m glad we decided to take the cable car to the highest guard tower and take it from there. It is quite a sight to appreciate with your own eyes how the wall snakes through the territory. The different sections of the “Long Fortress” – literal translation from its Chinese name were built by different rulers in different periods of time. It is said that all the sections together add up to 8,851.8 km. Its purpose was to defend the territory from invasions, although it failed to keep out Chinggis Khan, but what it did achieve was to communicate different parts of the territory enabling transportation of goods and people.
Our highlight while visiting the Great Wall had nothing to do with the majestic wall in itself, but with the Amazing Race. The Amazing Race is my favorite show in TV since it started about 8 years ago. I introduced Tony to it and he has been hooked since. It’s about teams of two traveling the world and fulfilling challenges along the way. At the end each leg of the race (an episode) the last team to arrive at the pit stop is eliminated. The winner of the last leg takes a million dollars. The original version is from USA, but as well there are versions from Asia and Latin America, and some similar programs in Europe. Unfortunately we can’t apply to participate because we would both need to have the same nationality. Anyway this trip is our own amazing race, as repeatedly we are trying to get to places in a hurry and break the cultural barriers. Naturally during our trip we download every episode. The night previous to visiting the Great Wall we were watching one of the episodes in the USA version and it was in China. Just as we were going down the wall to the exit, Tony screamed: “Waoh… it’s the Amazing Race!” We couldn’t believe it, The Great Wall was the pit stop for a leg in the Asia version, the whole crew was working and the presenter was there ready to welcome the first team that was coming in. We waited of course to see the first team check into the pit stop. Although we could tell it wasn’t all as spontaneous as it looks once edited into TV, it was really cool to see our favorite show live! This is the second time we had en encounter of this kind in our RTW, as we saw Charlie Boorman, a very famous travel writer and actor, with his full entourage arriving into Wadi Rum at the same time as us. Just before leaving for our trip I was reading his first book on his travels around the world. We wouldn’t go as far as to ask autographs from anyone but it was still cool to see them live.
So far we have been to two of the greatest and most populous capitals of the world: Beijing in China and Moscow in Russia. Both are very far from Western culture and standards, but inevitably globalization is here to stay. Although Chinese women do not dress to kill as the Russians do, both love Western fashion. I would have liked to see more traditional dresses, but not even in the countryside did we see much. Hopefully we will be able to reach more distant places that preserve better old costumes and traditions. So far in the trip, the place where we have seen a more intact culture and less influence from the West is the Middle East. China is very different from the Middle East, it seems that in China women are treated as equals, they do all the jobs men do, from taxi drivers to construction workers.
The Beijing metro is not as impressive or extensive as the Moscow metro, but it is still the cheapest and best way to get around, especially with the additional lines built for the Olympic Games. Even in weekends and not in rush hours, the metro is always congested, making it even hard to breathe. You better learn to shove and push or you won’t get in.
Cultural differences between China and the Western world are so enormous that we would have to study much to understand them. I know in business this is important, as many deals don’t get closed with China because barriers are created with the lack of comprehension we have on their way of thinking. One thing we will never comprehend is the lack of hygiene. People fart in mid-conversation (and I saw worse), constantly sneeze, cough and spit at will, not even covering their mouths, it seems the loudest and biggest the better. It’s a never-ending chain, they all are sick because they keep spreading it this way, no wonder there have been widespread epidemics causing pandemonium. I’m not saying that some people don’t do it, but spitting in public is illegal in Ireland. This was a law passed to stop the spread of tuberculosis. In China, tuberculosis is still very present. Adding this factor to the contamination, wind and dust in Beijing, it came as no surprise that we both came down with a strong cold and chest infection, forcing me stay in bed for two days. It’s not easy to get Western medicine (in English writing) here, so thankfully we were prepared; what we did add to our diet was plenty of Chinese teas. Soon we had adopted the face mask to avoid anymore contamination. Another cultural difference that I still don’t get is their toilet system, they are very dirty in every sense. If they have adopted so much of the West, they should adopt Western toilets ASAP. I thought the Middle East would be the worst in toilets, but so far China wins the prize.
Beijing is a metropolis and in 5 days we experienced only a tiny bit of it. At least two weeks are needed to discover more of its culture. We enjoyed our first glimpse of China in Beijing and as well we got to see our friend Manuel, a colleague of mine from Brussels who had just been transferred two days ago to Beijing. Once again it was time to board our next train, this time a 13 hour overnight journey to Xi’an. When we booked our tickets the only class available was “hard sleeper”, until we actually got on the train, we were unaware that this was equivalent to Russian third class…and even worse… as the Chinese stack three beds (Russians only 2) on top of the other, so in total about 60 people in an open compartment, and the two of us were the only foreigners. We both got a third bunker bed, the space is so limited that the only position is laying fully on it. What a journey awaited us…