How can I follow Anita’s fantastic Japan post? Continuing with the Eastern theme, I’m going to share my experiences of Beijing. As a Communist country, I didn’t find the same magic Anita found in Japan, but China is captivating in its own right.
So here are my 10 things to know before you go…
1.Rules REALLY ARE rules!
I visited Beijing to trek part of the Great Wall of China, and was lucky to have the most amazing, knowledgeable local guides – we really needed them! On Day 1, a few us became separated from the group and took a wrong turn off the path. We realised our mistake within seconds, but as we tried to get back onto the path we were surrounded by angry guards. When our guide caught up he explained that the path we had taken was technically an exit, and although the guards had let us out (about 30 seconds earlier), they were refusing to let us back in. We found ourselves trapped in a car park with a massive highway to cross to get to the exit we needed – about 20 metres along the path. After nearly an hour, the head guard rang his superiors to get clearance to allow us back in. Apparently it was a security issue. Our guide explained that rules are rules in China, and everyone follows them.
2.Traffic jams are a way of life
My first experience of Beijing, was a complete anti-climax as we found ourselves in a massive rush-hour traffic jam. Beijing have a system of permanent ‘road space rationing’, so different cars can use the busy roads on different days of the week, determined by the last digits on their licence plate. It sounds crazy, but it’s kind of genius in a city with a population of more than 20 million people!
3.Vegetarian = Broccoli
After a full day of trekking, the discovery one night that the veggie option was a plate of broccoli almost broke me. I liked broccoli. Now I’d rather poke my fork in my eye than face it. After 10 days of rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it was six months before I ate Chinese food again. But the Chinese restaurants themselves were incredible – sitting at big round tables was fun and sociable, and gave us the chance to chat about the day we’d had.
4.A little something about Toilets (A tribute to Anita)
The high tech toilets Anita found in Japan are a world away from the holes in the floor I contended with in China. While squatting is pretty good for your thighs, it’s not easy after 8 hours of climbing steps. We were told to carry freezer bags (well you can’t leave your business on the wall!) and loo roll. If only I’d had my shewee! Any initial anxiety about weeing in front of people you’ve only known 24 hours quickly dissipates, and you get to know one another VERY quickly (and probably far too well).
5.Head off the beaten track for the best views
Trekking provided some of the most stunning views I have ever seen! Staying in hostels, with coach transfers, we were able to trek challenging, often derelict parts of the Badaling section, the Gubeikou Gateway and the Jinshanling Loop. On our final day we headed to the Mutianyu section – This is a reconstructed area, and attracts large numbers of tourists – up until then it was easy to forget there was anyone else in this hugely populated country. The trekking challenge finished with climbing (and descending!) the thousands of steps of the Heavenly Stairway. As we dragged our heavy feet up the steep steps, we were constantly overtaken by glamorous young Chinese women in stilettos!
6.Give yourself lots of time!
I would love to see more of Beijing. It is a fascinating place. If you’re short of time, I’d recommend the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and Tiananmen Square for starters. It’s a strange feeling standing in such a history-rich, beautiful place, while being surrounded by reminders of the more recent Communist history, and watching troops march through the square.
7.You really will become a celebrity!
Like Anita said, Western tourists are a novelty. Standing in the park one morning I had a feeling someone was close to me, and I turned to find an elderly Chinese couple standing behind me, pointing at my blonde ponytail while someone else took a photo! This happened a lot – most people would smile at me and keep their distance while they took photographs, but a surprising number stood behind or next to me and ran away when I turned around!
8.Don’t pay full price for anything!
The market in Beijing was a highlight for me. Bustling and colourful, with everything imaginable for sale, I loved haggling with the traders, and I picked up some gorgeous Chinese ceramics and gifts. The currency is the Yuan, and our guides had given us some basic haggling lessons, suggesting that we offer just 10% of the asking price. The response from the traders was brilliant, some laughed in my face, others were furious, but without exception every one called me back when I started to leave, and I rarely paid more than 25% of the asking price.
9.Take part in a traditional tea ceremony – but do your research!
You’ll be offered lots of opportunities to participate in traditional Chinese tea ceremonies. Some will be more authentic than others, and I’ve heard stories of tourists finding themselves in tricky – sometimes dangerous – situations after being approached on the street. The ceremony will inevitably be followed by opportunities to buy tea and souvenirs. It’s worth checking Trip Advisor to find out what’s out there, and what you might enjoy. I’m not a tea-lover, but taking part in a traditional ceremony was memorable for all the right reasons. It was so peaceful, and I learned a little about Chinese culture too.
10.Older people chill in the park
For a real taste of Chinese culture, head to the local parks. You’ll find every generation relaxing, socialising and exercising together. It’s entirely informal, everyone seems to naturally congregate, and it was a highlight of the trip.
I have fond memories of Beijing, and I’m desperate to visit again, but I think Anita has raised Tokyo on my wish list! Watch this space…