Friday, November 30, 2012

Whirlwind tour of Beijing

In many ways, China has always been an enigma - what little is known to the outside world of the Chinese way of life is often grossly misrepresented. In US, the rich and diverse Chinese culture is reduced to Chinese zodiac place mats and fortune cookies found in Chinese restaurants. In India, too, Chinese restaurants flourish, but eating in these restaurants is the closest that most people get to understanding China! Of course, China is opening up a great deal - the Beijing Olympics were almost a kind of unveiling, and the number of tourists visiting is increasing rapidly. Most tour groups to China cover 4 cities - Hongkong, Shanghai, Xi'an and most important - Beijing, home of the Great Wall of China!

So, in the short month that my parents were here, we planned a quick 2 day trip to Beijing. It was to be only three of us - Manasi was going to stay behind with Ajey. A big attraction was the high-speed CRH train to Beijing. Of course, there are slower, cheaper trains available - but who can pass up a ride on one of the world's fastest trains? Almost a 1000 kms from Suzhou to Beijing - a short 5 hour ride on the CRH! Sweet! At almost $170 per head, the tickets are pricey - but, totally worth it - at least once! As we waited on the platform for our train, a couple of trains thundered by - now you see it, now you don't - at 300 kph, the incredible force has to be seen to be believed! The train ride was very comfortable - really missed the food on Indian trains, though! It was a pleasant change to watch the China countryside - paddy farms, and small villages instead of the shiny new China!

After a quick lunch at the Beijing South station, we took the Metro to Tiananmen Square - the very heart of Beijing. The Forbidden City, Mao Zedong's Mausoleum, National Museum of China and the Great Hall of People all flank this enormous area. It is a spectacular sight, designed to impress - and impress it does. Unfortunately, we were on a very tight schedule, and we headed to the Forbidden City without even a walk around the Square! Well, got to save something for the next trip, right?

Tiananmen Gate - Gate of Heavenly Peace

The Forbidden City was built in 1420s during the reign of the Ming Dynasty, and continued to be the Chinese imperial residence until the last Qing emperor abdicated in 1912. It was at the very centre of the old city of Beijing, and is a huge complex - with an area of almost a square km, and over 900 buildings. A day wouldn't be enough to take in all the Palaces and Halls - and we had a mere 2 hours! We rented an audio guide, so we at least knew what we were looking at as we raced by! The names flow like music - Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Central Harmony, Hall of Preserving Harmony, Palace of Heavenly Purity, Palace of Earthly Tranquility, Palace of Tranquil Longevity...

Hall of Supreme Harmony
The Forbidden City is the pinnacle of Chinese traditional architecture - and the marble terraces and bridges, the gilded roofs, the glazed tiles and all the dragons and lions are absolutely wonderful. But this was the home of Emperors!!! The vastness impresses, but I didn't really get a feel for the lavish, luxurious lifestyles of the rulers. Compared to the stately chateaus of the French kings, or even our very own Mughal and Rajput Palaces, the living quarters and the assembly halls came off as decidedly spartan. Of course, we never made it to the Palace Museum - and its entirely possible that all the riches and glories have been moved there - again, something for the next trip!

We then headed to our hotel - conveniently located 5 minutes from the Tiananmen Square. It was good enough for 1 night, but considering that the Beijing Metro is so good, I would definitely recommend staying a little further away in a good hotel. The one we stayed in was an old house in the Imperial City - now converted to a hotel - a total 'Best Marigold Hotel' feel to it! I have to admit I was disappointed when we arrived, but it was clean, the beds were comfortable, and the room had running hot water. As I said, not bad for one night!

Determined to make the most of our short stay, we set off again - from the very old to the very new - Beijing Olympic City! We hit the rush hour for the Beijing Metro, and with 3 transfers, it took us a little longer than expected. Did I mention how great the Beijing Metro is? Wonderful connections - stations exactly where you would want and unlimited transfers for only 2 RMB! And this has to be the first time that I've actually seen people lining up at train doors - even during rush hour! So even with huge crowds, there was no pushing or shoving!

Olympic Green - Bird's Nest Arena
The day had been wonderfully sunny, but in the dusk as we walked towards the Olympic Green, it was cold, cold, cold.  Not a cafe or restaurant to be seen here - the place bears a unkempt, deserted look. I guess the authorities are having a hard time figuring out what to do with this huge space - meanwhile, maintenance probably costs an arm and a leg! That would explain the unreplaced light bulbs, and the for the first time in China, dirty toilets!

Nothing can take away the thrill of watching the Bird's Nest Arena, though! It is absolutely marvellous. Very easy to imagine the hordes of cheering people, the flags and banners, those blazing moments of glory! We walked around the arena, to see if there was a way to get in, but in vain. A quick walk around the Water Cube, and we were ready to head back. Next destination - Wangfujing Street!

Wangfujing street is one of Beijing's most famous shopping streets. It is home to numerous restaurants - of course, the famous Peking duck can be found here! Number of malls and boutiques line the street - again, a wonderful place to spend a day, browsing through the stores, stopping for lunch or coffee! By the time we got off the Metro, we had barely enough energy to stumble into the closest mall and eat at Pizza Hut! One more place to add to the fast-growing list for the next trip to Beijing! Our hotel was a scant 10 minutes away - although I was exhausted, I could barely sleep out of excitement!! Great Wall tomorrow!!!

The hotel had arranged a taxi for us to go to the Great Wall - after much deliberation, it was decided that we should go to Mutianyu and not Badaling. As the receptionist gravely informed me - Badaling is where Chinese people go to see the Wall, and for foreigners, it is best to go to Mutianyu. I didn't really care either way, so Mutianyu it was! About 80 kms away, the drive took almost 2 hours. Reached the foothills, and found there are 2 options to go up - climb up the trail, or take the cable car. People always talk of 'climbing' the Great Wall, so I thought, of course we're going to climb up - big mistake! The trail is pretty steep - flights of almost 30 high, narrow steps at a stretch. We were all completely winded by the time we caught our first glimpse of the Great Wall! Made it, finally!

There are times when you have to just stand and admire the spirit and resilience of Man! I had felt the same jaw-dropping wonder when I saw the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal - and now, the Great Wall of China! Luckily, the notoriously fickle Beijing weather gods gave us another beautiful sunny day! The piercingly blue sky, with nary a cloud providing a perfect background for the Great Wall stretching away as far as the eye could see - a giant serpent nestling in the autumn foliage of the mountains! What a sight - absolutely beyond words!

And here is the climbing - on the Wall, and not to the Wall as we had done - walking on the Wall as it winds its way up and down the mountain tops. Somehow, I had imagined something totally different - climb up, take a few pictures and climb down. If we had taken the cable car up, we would have been able  to spend all our time on the Wall - which was quite exhausting in itself! Well, you live and learn, right? And we did take the cable car on the way down! Considering that this a prime tourist attraction, the Great Wall is pleasantly un-touristy. No hawkers trying to sell you souvenirs, no restaurants - just the fresh mountain air, and the awesome views! Of course, all that changes near the foothills - a veritable mob, all selling something at the absolute 'best' price- can get a little scary!

Our taxi took us straight back to the train station, and on the way, we got to see a part of Beijing we had missed so far. There it was, the financial district, the gleaming skyscrapers, the immense flyovers, and in a surprising touch, the highways all lined with rose bushes, absolutely laden with flowers! The political power has a very palpable presence in Beijing - as it does in most capital cities! Beijing is a city proud of its heritage and  ancient ancestry, very imperious and stately - after all, it has been the political centre of China for centuries!

All in all, it was a good trip. Lots of lessons learnt for the next time - in a way, the first time to any city is almost a reconnaissance trip - so that all future visits can go off without a hitch! Until next time then, Beijing- I already can't wait to go back!!


  1. Sounds like an awesome trip. I hope you enjoyed your parents' visit! Can you send me your address somehow? The girls would love to write...

  2. China is in my mind for quite a few years and every time I see a post like this, the urge to visit increases manifolds.
    Thanks for sharing.

    P.S.- How expensive is it to travel there? Any pointers?

    1. Nisha, Thanks for reading! I would be glad to help you plan a visit to China - any particular places you had in mind?