On my 29th birthday, the first thing on my mind was ‘next year, I’m going to be 30!’ I’ve never considered myself deeply concerned about my age, and always thought that if youth is what you are trading on, you’re going to be in trouble. But I did feel that 30 was a landmark, that it meant I had reached an age in my life where I should be something, have done something, achieved something. Of course I had no idea (and still have no idea) what any of those somethings are, but I couldn’t let the day pass without something.
After fairly little deliberation – since I am an avid traveler – I decided I would celebrate my birthday with a trip. Not the usual weekend away somewhere in Europe (which I do very year) but one of the ‘big places’ on the list. Talking about this with my brother, who had recently been on a 9 month around the world trip, we decided on China and Tibet (getting to the latter before new high speed trains mean it will be overrun with Chinese tourist). We arranged to go as a group, me, my husband, my brother and his girlfriend.
A note for anyone thinking about going. First you do need vaccinations, and some of them are multi-shot vaccines that you need to get over a few weeks. So don’t make the same mistake as me and leave it to the last minute. In the end I needed a Tetanus booster and Hepatitus A shot, which were a single shot, and Hepatitus B and Rabies, which wee each three shots over a minimum of 21 days. I went to the doctor for an unrelated reason 22 days before the trip and discovered this – fortunately just enough time, but it did leave me feeling like a pin cushion! I was also recommended to get a Meningococcal shot, but I had one of those when I arrived in the UK. I was a bit skeptical about the Hep B and Rabies shots, since they were neither free nor compulsory, and Hep A is a sex and syringes disease so I felt pretty safe. But the nurse told me that over 100 million people in China have it, and would I really take the risk for the sake of £20? Similarly, Rabies seemed to me an out of date disease like small pox that only belongs on Dr Quinn Medicine Woman, but again I was informed that there have been recent outbreaks among dogs in Chinese cities, with tens of thousands being put down. Considering the disease, if caught, is always fatal, again did I want to take the risk for the sake of a few pounds and a sore arm?
Also you do need to get a visa for China, but I have to say easiest visa experience of my life! I needed to make two appointments at the Chinese Visa Application Centre in London. On the first trip I needed to drop off our paperwork and passports. I booked an online appointment – which were plentiful – for 9.15am, so arrived promptly when they opened at 9am, was given a number, and at exactly 9.15am was called up to the desk where I interacted with a pleasant girl for less than 5 minutes before I was told I could come back to collect my passports and visas in 4 working days. About a week later I returned without an appointment, and was again given a number and directed to a separate waiting room. Within less than 10 minutes I was called up to the desk to pay, and less than 10 minutes after that, given my stuff! When I got my visa for indefinite leave to remain in the UK, I spent more than 6 hours at the visa office!!
We needed a separate visa for Tibet, but this was arranged through the tour agency we booked with. We booked a tour for Tibet as foreigners are not allowed outside of Lhasa without a registered guide, so really it is the only way to see Tibet.
Arriving at Beijing Airport and getting the train into the city was a pretty generic experience, like it has become in most big cities, with pretty much all airports looking exactly the same, down to the advertising. We were the only tourists on the train, which suggested that most tourists (including my brother and his partner) got taxis into the city, but I was glad we did it: although it wasn’t a cultural experience, it meant we started off on the right foot, trying to imbibe as much of the local cultural experience as possible (although this is again tainted by the fact that the only landmark I can recall from the train ride is a massive Ikea).
We alighted the train at Dongzhimen station, which my brother – who has been to China several times – assured us was very close to our hotel, so we decided to walk. We needed to stay in a hotel rather than a hostel on our first night in order to register the address as part of our visa application. This turned out to be a mistake as we had no map, and couldn’t read any of the street signs. After walking around for about an hour, with our heavy backpacks and having turned down several taxis who pulled up to offer us a ride, the husband pulled out his mobile and turned on expensive international roaming to help us google map our way. We landed in Beijing at about midday and didn’t manage to get to the hotel until about 4pm – so a bit of a trial. When we eventually found our way to the Poly Plaza Hotel, which is attached to a rather lovely theatre, it was comfortingly swish, especially considering it was comparable in price to a Premier Inn in the UK.
I am usually quite particular about at least picking up the basics of a local language before travelling somewhere: hello, thank you, how much, how to order basic food, numbers, etc. I didn’t bother this time first because I didn’t have time; second because I did study Chinese at school in Australia for a few years (compulsory) and, unlike European languages, I didn’t take to it at all and could remember very little; and third my brother’s partner is Chinese-Australian and speaks Mandarin (though her mother tongue in Cantonese), plus my brother speaks some Chinese, so it wasn’t particularly necessary.
However, they didn’t arrive until midnight, so on this first night we would need to fend for ourselves, and after a recovery nap, we were hungry. Having had so much trouble finding the hotel in the first place, we decided to have dinner in the small restaurant there. We also thought that being a posh hotel they were more likely to have English speaking staff, but we were wrong. A nice girl seated us, and then we asked her if she spoke English. She said no but that her colleague did, so she raced off to find her; but I actually think that her colleague’s English was worse – but perhaps it was just the pressure of the situation. We did eventually manage to order some dumpling, a beer and a diet coke, mostly through pointing. This wasn’t exactly what we wanted: we wanted more food (and what we had was pretty bland) and I was craving a glass of white wine, but we were happy to get anything really.
Actually white wine was generally scarce in China, though red was fairly readily available.
After dinner we did venture out of the hotel and walked around some of the nearby streets. We came across lots of restaurants and street vendors whose food smelt really good – so it definitely made me look forward to trying some better food over the rest of the trip.
On the way to the hotel we also needed to get money. Rich ordered a little bit of local currency from Travellex which he picked up in Heathrow, but I didn’t order any as my brother had told me that it was actually cheaper to get money out from the ATM as long as you were getting more than Y500 at a time: this was not a problem as it is roughly £1:Y10.
Throughout the trip I didn’t have any trouble getting money out of any ATM, possibly because I’m with HSBC. My brother and his partner were able to use most ATMs with their Australian cards, but the husband had a fair bit of trouble with his Barclay card, and the only bank which reliably gave him cash every time was ICBC.
We met up with my brother and his partner at 9am to check out of our lovely hotel and move to our significantly cheaper hostel, the Dragon King: about Y80 per night. We managed to walk over without getting too badly lost, and we were pleasantly surprised. We just had a standard four bed room, but it was clean, it had a nice bar downstairs, they offered tours, and the staff were extremely nice, and all spoke English: they told us that lots of people get jobs in hostels in order to practice their English to help them in other professions. It was too early to check in when we arrived, but they locked our bags in a secure store room and sold us water for Y2 per bottle to get our day started.
For breakfast I had my first taste of street food: a fried pancake filled with bacon for Y2 which was scrummy!
To get from our hotel to our first tourist destination we got the subway. It was cheap, only Y2 per journey, so about 20p per trip, which makes the London Underground look extortionate, Oyster Card or no.
The subway was busy, though probably no busier than the underground in London, nevertheless it didn’t stop me having a rather embarrassing experience. When the train stopped, everyone piled off and on in a hoard, just like in London, desperate to get on even though the next train is only about 2 minutes away. I was at the back of our group, and while the others had got on, I was still on the platform, the doors started to close. Instinctively I stepped back as they began to shut instead of stepping forward. This instinct to just step back and wait seemed even stranger when my brother, only a step ahead of me and so between the doors as they began to close, looked at me as if I was crazy as the doors started to close on him. He stepped back on the platform and waited with me. It was fine and we just met up with the others at the next stop, but we couldn’t get a train for the rest of the journey without someone making a patronising comment about me being left behind!
Our first stop was Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public square at 440,000m2. Of course it is best known as the setting of the 1989 democratic protests that saw the government declare martial law and led to the death of a still unknown number of citizens. It was also the location of protests during the May Fourth Movement in 1919, the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong in 1949, and further protests in 1976 after the death of Zhou Enlai. It is the proclamation of Mao Zedong that is most strongly immortalised in the square today in it’s monuments.
Highlights of the square, rather than being the National Museum or the impressive Mausoleum, where a police car with the most ridiculously cute cartoon police officers, and the toilet bus!
While there a young girl, maybe 15 came up to my husband. At first we thought that she was trying to sell us something, but eventually realised that she wanted him to pose for a picture with him, which eventually he did. This was the first of many similar experiences throughout our trip, which was rather surreal. Everyone was always so polite and excited that I could never say no to posing, even though I absolutely hate myself in pictures – I just never feel it looks like me – and I am pretty uncomfortable with my face appearing in random places in people’s homes, and on their Facebook pages and blogs, without my knowledge. Oh well.
From the square we went into the Forbidden City, the Chinese imperial palace constructed under the Ming Dynasty (early 1400s) and home to the emperor for over 500 years. The site today still includes almost 1,000 buildings, of which, of course, we only saw a handful. The city is surrounded by walls almost 8m tall, and a moat about 50m across. Looking out over the city it is a sea of yellow as all the roofs are made from yellow glazed tiles, decorations in the precinct are painted yellow, and even the bricks on the ground are yellow!
Apparently the bricks used to build the majority of the city were made from white lime and glutinous rice, with the cement rice and egg whites: edible!
We had a little trouble finding our way in. After we passed through the Gate of Heavenly Peace and the Meridian Gate, there was a ticket office, but this only sold tickets for the impressive gate building we had just passed through. Unfortunately they did not let you take bags into the gate house, so we decided not to go in, but fortunately an eagle eyed local seeing us walking away offered us Y10 for each of our tickets originally purchased for Y20 – which was actually a bit of a highlight of the day! To actually get in we needed to transverse another lengthy courtyard. Tickets were sold about halfway down the courtyard (of course we missed this on our first pass) and say they are for the ‘Palace Museum’, and then the entrance is at the back through the Gate of Supreme Harmony, leading to the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
Each gate had a foot high threshold running across the bottom to keep out ghosts, and 9 rows of 9 door knobs for good luck. Refreshingly there were no ‘watch your step’ signs of yellow tape to warn of trip hazards. It was refreshing that people were asked to take responsibility for their own well-being and that all the joy was not sucked out of everything by excessive health and safety. In general this was something I liked a lot about China.
Inside we also visited the Hall of Middle Harmony, where the emperor would have conducted ceremonies, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony, where official banquets would have been held. We passed though the Heavenly Purity Gate into the inner court and to the Palace of Heavenly Purity, where the emperor slept, and then went through to the Imperial Garden. Despite all the magnificent architecture, my highlight was in the garden: an amazing rock wall held together by lime, water and sticky rice.
It is clear to see that the palace would have been an excellent performance ground for politics. Today the buildings are imposing, and combined with the pomp and ceremony of kingship, the few visitors allowed into the Forbidden City would have been in no doubt of the emperor’s power.
After a nice lunch at a nearby restaurant and some rock melon on stick – which was a refreshing revelation – we climbed the 47.5m artificial hill in Jingshan Park to take in the view. It was surreal as you could look in one direction and see a city of classic architecture typified by the Forbidden City, and on the other the densely built up skyscrapers of modern Beijing.
From there we descended towards some water where we could see people in boats, as it looked like a bit of fun. Our journey took us through Beihai Park, which was fascinating. The park was very noisy, and as we entered we encountered lots of small groups of people singing together, either using karaoke equipment or together as a choir. Further into the park we found a square where people were dancing together, nothing fancy, it actually looked more like a Zumba class or something with everyone doing the same moves.
My brother said that because houses are so small, on nice days (like that particular day) people came into public spaces to spend their time, and some of their favourite past times happen to be singing and dancing. Most of the people dancing at the park were on the older side, but later in the day we came across some kids breakdancing together in a square near a shopping centre; it was a nice contrast. This communal attitude and culture was another thing that I really liked about China, though I don’t know if I would be willing to give up the privacy of the space I have in my home in order to get it.
In the park we did end up renting a paddle boat, and took turns cycling our way around the lake. This turned out to be rather unsatisfying as we had to work pretty hard to get the boat to move very slowly, and we were appallingly bad at steering.
For dinner we decided to head to Wangfujing Night Food Street. Open from 6pm-9pm daily, there are over 100 stalls selling old staples – noodles, soup and dumplings – and the more exotic – fried sea snake, scorpion and spider! I took to calling the place Stick Food Street because 96% of the offer came on a stick, which is perfect for buffet dining, Chinese style.