Last Friday, my friends Stan and Sarrah, and I set out from Qingdao, north to Beijing, by train. This was my first time out of Qingdao since I arrived in October, so I was very excited to experience a new part of China. We took the bullet train, which was actually quite comfortable, for four and a half hours, and arrived in Beijing around 7:30PM.
Upon arrival at the Beijing South train station, we, as clearly foreigners, were accosted by taxi drivers telling us they could take us to our hostel for 200 yuan (~$32). What the taxi drivers didn’t know was that we live in China, and are aware of what a taxi ride should cost. Stan and I speak enough Chinese that we could negotiate, and after we continued to say “太贵了” (“too expensive!) and walk away, the drivers would drop the price to 180. One guy even went as low as 120, but we were having none of it. It should cost 30 yuan (~$5) at most to get to where we were going. Stan told them they needed to use the meter, and they kept saying “没有,“ claiming their cars had no meter (which was not true). One guy kept trying to tell us that our hostel was really far away, so I just shook my head and said “不远” (“not far”). At one point, Stan asked where a big road was where we could find a taxi that would not cheat us, and the guy kept saying “there’s no big road, there are no taxis, you have to go with me.”
Finally, we brushed them off, exited the train station, and, lo and behold there was a big road right outside. We walked down the street away from the station and finally flagged down a taxi. We got in, I told the driver where we needed to go, and he tried to name a price. I shook my head and pointed to the meter, and he shook his head. I pointed at it again and he huffed but turned it on. The taxi ride ended up being 26 yuan (~$4). We felt very accomplished after that.
Our hostel was deep down a “hutong,” or alley, more toward the center of the city and directly next to a metro station. The staff was very friendly, spoke excellent English, and the facilities were very clean–over all we were very happy with our choice of hostel. We stayed in a four person room with a friendly Japanese girl named Megu.
Here’s the hutong at both day and night.
At this point, it was 9:30PM, we hadn’t eaten dinner yet, and because of Chinese New Year, many restaurants were closed. We found one that was open, and ate some of the worst Chinese food I’ve ever encountered, but the staff all wanted pictures with us, which is always amusing.
The next morning we woke up, had a leisurely breakfast at the hostel, and set off into the metro. I’ve ridden metros all over the world now–Berlin, Prague, London, Copenhagen, Chicago, DC, NYC–and Beijing’s was definitely in my top metro experiences. It was very clean, sleek, and practical, which is not something you usually encounter in China. The only downside is that Beijing is a city of 23 million people–and so everything was insanely crowded.
We started with Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We had to shuffle along at an agonizing pace because of the crowds, but we’d expected it and crowds don’t bother me too much. Tiananmen is most known in the US for the 1989 student protests, as well as the massive picture of Mao. The guards make sure to push everyone by the picture. You aren’t allowed to stop. Chinese people have to have their ID cards scanned if they come through.
The Forbidden City lies just behind Tiananmen, and is the ancient palace of the Ming dynasty Emperors. No one could enter or leave the city without the Emperors permission, hence the name.
The gardens were very beautiful. Because of the Cultural Revolution in the ’60’s and ’70’s, there are no artifacts in the palace, only the restored buildings themselves. Its very sad when you realize why China has so little of its extensive history left.
Apparently, you aren’t allowed to take pictures of the soldiers at Tiananmen and the Forbidden City. I didn’t quite realize that, so I ended up with a medley of pictures of Chinese soldiers yelling at me.
During Chinese New Year, people go back to their hometowns to celebrate the holiday with family. This means that cities empty out, as most people originate from the villages. While there were fewer people in Beijing than usual, there were also more Chinese tourists than usual, which meant that I experienced the true definition of crowded in Beijing. There’s a Chinese saying, “people mountain, people sea,” which accurately describes our experience in Tiananmen and the Forbidden City. Everywhere we turned there were people.
The best example of this occurred as Stan, Sarrah, and I were attempting to take the metro from a crowded shopping area back to our hostel. We plunged down the steps into the station, only to be stopped by a roiling mass of people pressed up against a gate that barred people from moving to where the trains operated. A police officer was standing at the closed gate, shouting into a megaphone. Every few minutes, he would open the gate and let 30-40 people through.
There were too many people in the subway to let people in without it getting dangerous. In the US, New York City boasts 10 million people, but Beijing peaks at 23 million, all shoved into a similar sized space. As we waited, jostled by the crowd to wiggle our way through the gate and down into the station, I understood with a sobering and terrifying clarity how a tragedy like Shanghai’s New Year’s stampede could happen.
Sunday, we woke up early to begin the bus tour we had signed up for. We were joined by Anna Nickle, another Grove City alumni who is teaching in a tiny city in Hubei.
We were picked up by our Chinese guide, Harry, and a driver around 8:30AM. An older Philippino couple–Delores and Johnny–were part of our group for the day.
Our first location was the Summer Palace, the two month residency of the old Chinese emperors. The palace is situated around an 80 acre man made lake, and I found it to be even more beautiful than the Forbidden City.
After lunch, we drove out to the Great Wall of China, braving the horrible traffic. We made it around 2PM. Anna and I had a wonderful time running up the steep, uneven steps of the wall, and once we made it past the initial crowd of people, we came to a part of the wall that was almost deserted. The views were beautiful.
It was absolutely incredible to add such an icon to my list of places I’ve traveled. There is so much history in this wall, and it serves as a memorial to China’s ancient past.
On our way back from the wall, we drove past the Bird’s Nest, the center of the 2008 Beijing Olympics! As an Olympic enthusiast, I was very excited.
That evening, we went to a show of the Beijing Acrobats, who are world famous and put on an incredible physical feats.
The tour was an amazing value for our money, and a great way to see the city in a limited amount of time. We had a blast with our tour guide and the Philippino couple on our tour, and we were blessed with a beautiful, smog free day for touring the wall.
The next afternoon, we took a train back to Qingdao, and Anna joined us. We had to pick up our tickets at the train station. Anna’s Chinese is pretty good, and we were very thankful for her because otherwise we would have been very lost in such a huge building.
Anna and Stan went up to the ticket window to pick up our tickets. I had pre-purchased them about a week before. They received me, Sarrah, and Stan’s tickets without a problem, but I had accidentally entered Anna’s passport number in wrong. China is big on the red tape, and would not give her the ticket. She argued back and forth with the lady at the window in Chinese, with Stan asking her what was going on in English. Meanwhile, the people behind them in line were watching in fascination. In the middle of the commotion, a Chinese man sticks his head toward Anna, points at Stan and asks, “Is his hair real?” Anna just gave him a look like “really, you’re asking me that right now?” We laughed about it for a long time after. Only in China. Thankfully, we got the ticket fiasco sorted out and made it safely back to Qingdao.
I’m so glad I got to go on that trip. Beijing is an utterly different city than Qingdao, more developed and more crowded and with worse pollution levels. But, it feels far more western too, as are its people. Beijing retains a little more of the old Chinese culture than do most parts of China, so it was cool to experience that.
If you come all the way to China, I highly recommend visiting Beijing, especially for the Great Wall. Climbing one of the wonders of the world will remain a highlight of my time in China.