Smog and other Wonders – Beijing Stories

I encountered Beijing first from it`s worst side: The smog makes one believe he just entered a smoldering hell. But after my lungs worked through their first shock – wow!

Highlights:
  • Uncountable sights: The Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Old Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Lama Temple, Confucius Temple, Tienanmen square, etc.
  • Chinese cuisine: Finally hot food of all kind, including animals you never thought of eating (you see all in one place at the Beijing night markets)
  • Tons of history wherever you look and set foot
  • Hutong areas, Beijing’s old quarters, now often turned into pretty areas – without skyscrapers (and private toilets) but wonderful courtyard hostels
  • Paradise for electronics – try Zhongguancun shopping area
  • The awesome Beijing smog experience – probably the ultimate on the planet!

Naturally, Beijing is one of the ending points of the Trans-Siberian Railway. I was also thinking about going to Vladivostok, skipping China completely. But honestly: Who skips China?? Thus, Beijing became my last stop on my first part of the journey.

When I approached the city from the North, the train slowly snaking and pounding through deep valleys, I noticed what should follow me at every turn for the next days: Smog! I actually remember that there was smog in Germany when I was a young kid (somewhere in the 80’s). But since these early days I did not encountered smog – not even in Mexico City where I was told I would die as soon as I leave the plane… But Beijing, hell, if one wants to tick the box for a smoggy encounter – go there. Most days I could see some hundred meters then everything vanished in misty clouds… One night, I walked a street and it had been relatively clear all day when suddenly a barrier of smog hit me – I felt my throat itch instantly and my breathing getting harder. It vanished as quick as it had come. So if you go to Beijing yourself – brace for it!

Besides this literally darkest part of Beijing I found it to be an exciting and entertaining city. So much can be explored! And people are mostly friendly. All those stories about them rushing up to you and asking for a picture – it IS true! I was not even safe in Beijing’s metro where one could expect people being used to the sight of a foreigner. I had pictures taken standing by myself, put young boys or old grannies beside me – but it was always fun to see the Chinese laugh about it.

Public transport is wonderful, the subway brings you basically anywhere but there are also loads of buses one may take – and as a last option, taxis are dirt cheap! One night I missed the last subway (mind you, they end service between 10.30pm to 11.45pm!) and was forced to ride a taxi straight through the city – it cost me 6 Euro…

I was so excited to finally get spicy and tasty food after quite a while of not so spicy stuff! Also concerning food, everything you heard is true and likely more: Besides the fact that I found “dog” on the first menu I saw (actually there is a big movement against eating dog, so the younger generation mostly neglects it nowadays) I also went to the night market where Lucia, Mark and I found fried scorpions, snake, beetles, pigeons, maggots, thousand leggers, and so on. We were satisfied with fried silkworm moth larvas (which were neither especially great nor bad), squid, as well as sheep’s stomach (rather not…), and cooked pineapple with sugar on top – yummy! Surely a highlight between all those noodles and fried sorts of rice was also famous Beijing Duck. Couchsurfer Gina took us to a specialized restaurant where we feasted on duck, seafood, mutton, etc. The pieces of duck were wrapped into a kind of tortilla (all Chinese out there, please forgive me) and tasted great. Also the french-style bakeries were on the go so I had no problem to eat something for breakfast when I felt like it. On my last night in Beijing, I tried among a lot of other interesting tastes bullfrog – pretty good, the only problem is how Chinese chop the meat, leaving dozens of little bones in nearly every piece you eat.

The first days I stayed with Leo, a great host who explained several things about Chinese thinking and living to me. One night his flatmate invited us to dinner, turning out to be a great cook. So we soon sat in his Leo’s room, feasting and talking about Chinese-Japanese politics, relationships between Chinese, and the change in Chinese society.

If you want to get your hands on some up-to-date electronic stuff, look for the huge electronic mall Zhongguancun in the north-west! Inexpensive stores that you will love to bargain with! Know first what the stuff will cost on Amazon China though…!

My new camera’s shots were done at Tienanmen square. Sadly not in Mao’s mausoleum but to be honest, the sight is not too appealing anyways. As Lucia put it: His head looks like a lamp – way too illuminated.

Some days later, I also made it behind another of his heads (his huge picture that paves Tienanmen gate): Inside the Forbidden City. It sure is very interesting and impressing: the dimensions are huge, the roofs striking, and the clock museum quite interesting (here I met Master Cox from England again who also made a huge and very interesting huge clock for the Russian tsars which I saw in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage). However, although the preparation of the Forbidden City’s construction alone took 10 years (!) it did not struck me with awe as I had been expected. That might be due to the heavy smog that wrapped everything like a light sheet of grey silk. But I thought the interiors of most buildings a little dull (as found in many house-museums in China) as even in the greatest halls there was no artificial light – meaning the great halls and rooms, walls, ceilings, paintings, thrones, clocks, beds and other furniture, vases and all other decoration mostly stayed in shadows – what a pity because there is a lot more to show and see (sadly my strong flashlight was broken right when I needed it). Despite the lightening, there is so much to be impressed by. Besides all the big buildings, palaces and splendor it is the little things: For example the interesting counter-measures in case if fire: Hundreds of huge bronze kettles standing on the compound. They were filled with water, even in winter, when fires were made underneath them to prevent freezing. They did not prevent fires completely though…

A huge problem in China are the many sites the Chinese government blocks when using the internet. After struggling several days with it, I found quite a good service that provides VPN for tablets and smartphones (also computer I guess) for free while being easy to use: Threat Spike Dome. I give no guarantee what they do with your data though, so better be aware all your info go via some servers, somewhere… Buying a SIM card is very easy however. Best go for one of the two big providers. I bought a SIM off China Unicom for 100 Yen, including 300MB of data. Charging again was very expensive though, so it is better just to buy a new one if you do not need a fixed number.

Many more palaces are to be discovered in Beijing! There is the Summer Palace, a huge compound of many big and small palaces, pagodas, and stairs – the center being a big artificial lake. Going there is worth especially when there is some blue sky as looking over this vast area in heavy smog is spoiling the fun somehow. The Summer Palace also has a predecessor which also has connections to German history: The “Old” Summer Palace, which was destroyed by allied western forces (among others England, the US and Germany) who did not want to be kicked out of China and attacked Beijing (German troops came to late, but if they would have arrived in time, be sure they would have done just the same as their “allies”), destroying several buildings and artifacts, for example the ancient summer palace. This became known as the boxer’s rebellion.

Very worthwhile was the Temple of Heaven, a lovely temple building south of the center. Especially it’s walls, pillars and ceilings are worth seeing. But besides several other palaces and buildings in the area, the park itself is just wonderful, especially in autumn. Ginkgo trees turning yellow, shedding their leafs thousandfold on the ground around them. Also you find groups of Chinese their, singing, dancing, playing music together or card games, practicing Thai-Chi and working out on the open-air gym machines (you see them everywhere by the way and being greatly used by foremost elderly people – it is amazing how they are able to stretch!). Also the numerous active temples like Lama Temple and Confucius Temple are well worth a visit. While Lama Temple is buzzing and crowded of worshipers burning incense and praying, Confucius Temple is a quiet place – great to escape the masses!

There is the common Scam going on in Beijing as well, but one is quite popular: Cute women start talking to western tourists finally inviting them to tea or coffee. When sitting in a restaurant, one of them orders some alcoholic drink. The end of this love-story: The tourists receive an huge bill (I met two Frenchmen who did not suspect anything at all and paid 70 Euro per glass of wine – for three girls and themselves…). So best avoid being invited off the street. And if that does happen. Do not pay. If you are forced to do so, call the embassy and return with some nice cops…

A wonderful part of discovering Beijing was surely visiting countless hutongs: Original Beijing streets that did not change too greatly in the past decades. Most houses do not have toilets, which explains the great number of public toilets in those areas (interesting approach by the way, how much space could be saved in Europe or the US by outsourcing our toilets…). Several hutongs nowadays are transferred in stylish areas for Chinese and Western tourists. One night I stumbled quite unexpectedly in the Nanluogu Xiang hutong area, being amazed by tons of people rolling trough the streets. It was fun though, seeing all those nice little shops around there. Also, great bars can be found in that part of the city.

Speaking of which, I was very happy getting a visit by my friend Janine from Munich who traveled to Beijing for business. Only a small adjustment had to be made to my plans in order to meet up. We strolled through the city (Janine was amazed by how much I ate during these days!), seeing some sights including the beautiful drum tower and opposing it the bell tower of Beijing. When deciding we wanted to visit a bar, I lead her to Mai Bar, an expat bar Gina had shown to me. It turned out that Mai Bar was exactly the one bar Janine knew from her previous trip to Beijing – how small such a huge city may become!

After some nights staying with Leo, I switched to a hostel – after about six full weeks of couchsurfing (putting aside two nights in Russia to get my registration as well as my 9-day trip in beautiful Mongolia). I looked a bit to find a nice and cozy courtyard hostel in a hutong area and finally ended up in exactly what I wanted. The Happy Dragon Courtyard Hostel turned out to be exactly that. There I had a great day of relaxing and found also great company: A whole bunch of guests found together as a group, touring during the day, drinking during the night. Killing the vodka bottle I had brought from Mongolia in my room in only five minutes was a joyful experience.

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