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terça-feira, 21 de agosto de 2012

5 days in Beijing


Beijing is a metropolis with more than 19 million people and central place in the culture and habits of the Chinese people. The city started to be formed in the 11th and 7th centuries BC and went through many invasions from the North. Having served as an Imperial capital Beijing shows a lot of symbols, architecture, palaces, etc. It's China's representation as a whole, from its peak as a strong economy and ancient culture, to its fall and resurrection in the last century. Everyone who'll have only a short stay in this giant country should put an effort to come here. Moreover, all those who wonder about exploring China should not forget about Beijing.

Important tips about traveling in China

Money

For now, some details. Chinese currency is RMB, also called reminbi or yuan or kuai and it means the people's money. 1 USD = 6.34 RMB. You can only change money at hotels, especial authorized dealers or banks. In practice, throughout the country, you will change it only at banks so it's better to change US$ 300-400 amounts since banks have specific working hours and the whole process takes at least half an hour each time. Hong Kong's money, HKD, it's not accepted in Mainland China. Besides that, at each exchange procedure you'll get a receipt which will entitle the right to change the money back if you have any at the end of your trip. It's not possible to do that outside of China thus do not forget to spend or change back all your kuai before leaving the country.

Language

Another important thing: in Mailand China, English IS NOT widely spoken therefore avoid getting lost. Buy maps and guidebooks in advance and avoid having to ask information in hours or places which would be unlikely to find random walking people on the streets. IN GENERAL, students (young people) are capable to speak basic to intermediate English, usually enough to tell you where to go, what to buy, what to do, etc. Do not be afraid to ask them. My personal experience showed that this was possible almost everywhere I've been through. If possible learn Mandarim basic stuff like numbers, directions, common questions related to train tickets purchase, etc. Everything will help you, believe me!

One solution I found frequently was to think about all the information I'd need before getting to somewhere and then asking the hostel's staff (who usually speak intermediate English at least) to write it down everything in Chinese in a little paper. Whatever you want if it's written in Chinese, ANYONE can help giving you indications.

Accommodation

Outside the big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'An, etc, it can be quite hard to find a hostel. Even if you can find it, it may be difficult to find an available bed for you without booking in advance. Therefore, I do recommend 1-2 days booking in advance through the internet to the big cities and 3-5 days to smaller places with less accommodation offer. The websites www.hostelbookers.com and www.hostelworld.com can help you a lot. Generally, a bed in the dorm should cost between USD 7-9/night and it's the standard cheapeast way of traveling. Do not expect your hotel to offer complementary services like bus and train tickets, tours or anything else. In general, hostels are exclusive for sleeping. 

Food

You can spend 1 month in China and have a completely McDonald's, KFC and PizzaHut based experience which you'd have anywhere else in the world OR you can have a rich gastronomic experience based in local food bought in small stalls in the street or small restaurants. The first could cost 30-50 kuai per meal while the second around 10-20. It's up to you.

Transportation

In overall the Chinese big cities have a big and efficient transportation system with modern subway lines. Theses lines will have English and Chinese identifications making your best ally. Prices may vary between one city to other but I always found something around 2 and 4 kuai with most places charging only as low as 2 - the benefit provided by this transportation option it's incredibly cheap when compared to what we pay in Sao Paulo. Do not try to catch buses if you don't know exactly what line and stop to be dropped at. Taxi drivers can't read or talk English so ask someone to write it down in Chinese for you.

Beijing's subway map
Communication

Mobile communication in China is quite cheap. Besides that, having a local number will make all your travel arrangements between one city to another, tours, etc., way easier. Therefore is highly recommended to acquire a local SIM card. Unfortunately I don't know exactly how to give orientations about that since Zhengyu helped but Google helps everyone! :)

Arrival

My, delayed, flight from Hong Kong arrived later than 1 am in the morning in Beijing. I was tired and was not expecting that Jony, my Couchsurf host, would pick me up. However, after going through customs there he was waiting for me. He helped me to carry my stuff and took me to his place where we chatted a while about my trip plans, his work at an airline company, etc. Unfortunately he could host one night only but he helped a lot and I left a Cambodian postcard in gratitude.

In the next morning I had my first challenge, to find a bank and the subway station around Jony's apartment. China's shock started right there. We were in a distant neighborhood, around the airport, however I felt like being in an American city. Wide well-signed and empty streets, with gardens and trees, buildings at a great distance to the walking path, and the rectangular shaped blocks. Hunm..

I ended up finding the subway after asking some people where it was and trying to pronounce it in Chinese: Dítié. I still hadn't booked my hostel in Beijing and it was almost 10 am. Therefore I had two options: take the challenge of carrying all my stuff for the whole day and at the end look up for a hostel OR, find a hostel first and practically loose a day. I weighted the risks and for my legs, knees, shoulders and back sadness I chose the first.

Main Circuit

Here I will describe what I think it's essential for the average visitor at the first time in Beijing. Besides that, I'd add The Great Wall of China, which will be discussed in the next post given its importance.

Tiananmen Square 


This square is very famous. It was the stage for the 1989 protests and since then has been a symbol of the Chinese regime authoritarianism. There are cameras everywhere and you'll have to go through an X-ray machine to get in. There are many identified and disguised cops. Political subjects should not be discussed here. A Belgian friend went through the experience of being checked by cops after starting a discussion about politics with a Chinese man.

It's the largest public square in the world, but, I didn't have such infinity impression when I was there. Nowadays there's a huge building in the center of the square that quite breaks the idea of endless extension. Anyway, it's one of Beijing's most visited monuments, and, for free.

This is one of the places in whole China where you can be sure about being targeted by scammers. Couples, girls, boys, lonely people, etc., everybody will show up to ask you about your trip, who you are and what you're going to do under the pretext of practicing English, learn something else, etc. If after 5-10 minutes of conversation these people offer you to go somewhere else to: a) see an art gallery; b) drink some beers; c) take part in a tea ceremony; d) etc; DON'T GO! This is the most famous scam with tourists in China. They are likely to target lonely travelers much more. Chinese people are often shy and in general will NEVER invite you to go somewhere else if you haven't talked or had any reason to share trust in each other. 

Forbidden City 

Meridian Gate seen from Tiananmen Square
The Forbidden City is a huge complex of Imperial Palaces built between 1406 and 1420 with 980 buildings placed in 720,000 m². It's accounted by UNESCO as the largest wooden made preserved complex in the world. The entrance tickets cost you 60 kuai per person - students, even with non-international students IDs, are entitle to the discount. It's possible to take a mobile guide device for extra 40 kuai which will explain you the complex step by step - recommended. The name "Forbidden City" derives from the emperors behavior of almost never leaving the place and the severe toll applied to those who were caught inside without invitation, death.

The view of the Supreme Harmony Hall
In fact, it's a very impressive and beautiful place. The complex exemplifies the Classical Chinese architecture with many aligned halls, gates and walls rectangular shaped in the North-South axis and secondary buildings places in the East-West areas (however following the same rules of rectangular placed halls).

Besides the standard circuit there are some extra-paid collections in exhibition. I went to two of it, of the clocks and the emperors jewels, and I think it was worth it. 10 kuai each.


The greatest challenge while visiting the Forbidden City is to keep your passe and do not fall tired. Even though if you look at the map the area seems to be not that big, believe me, it is. And after 2-3 huge halls in a row you may start to loose interest. Therefore it's better to have plenty of time to visit it allowing yourself to sit, eat and rest. If possible, also buy water and food before getting in since prices can be significantly higher.

Jingshan Hill


Just behind the Forbidden City there's a small park and inside, a hill with a Buddhist temple. However, the most interesting think it's not the temple or the park itself but the views over the Forbidden City at the top. 10 kuai to get inside.



Panorama picture of the Forbidden City







Temple of Heaven 


This is an area of religious constructions built at the same time of the Forbidden City. Besides the Temple of Heaven, as the main attraction, there's also the Temple of the Sun, of the Earth and of the Moon. Chinese emperors of Qing and Ming dynasties came here annually to ask for a good harvest. This place has also been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Place and definitely is part of the main tourist route in Beijing. The size of the park circles all the temples and cannot be understated so take at least half of day to cover the whole area. I cannot remember the prices exactly but it was quite cheaper if you buy a through ticket covering all the attractions rather than buying one by one. The place is easily accessible on subway.

It's also interesting to notice that from now on the blue lively color of the pictures will be replaced by the gray washed color. By one hand that means lower temperatures, by the other hand it clear states the pollution problem in Beijing. Called as smog (smoke + fog) this is a recurrent and modern problem originated from the quick industrialization process around the capital. As a consequence, many times one cannot see the horizon.

Summer Palace 

Suzhou Street

Tower of Buddhist Incense
Marble Boat
This palace was built with the purpose of offering a fresh and green environment to the imperial family during Beijing's hot and humid summers - temperatures can climb over 40oC. The most remarkable elements of the palace are the Longevity Hill and Lake Kunming. Since most of the scenery is artificial, the palace is taken as a fine sample of Chinese classical garden construction techniques. Like the Temple of Heaven, it's possible to acquire a through ticket with a total price lower than buying each entrance at the time. It's easily accessible through subway. As I had told you before, the smog makes an obstacle to look at the tower in the Longevity Hill. From the farthest point of the lake the tower would simply disappear.

Wangfujing Street


Wangfujing Street
This is one of the most famous shopping streets in Beijing, for tourists and locals. It's a huge street, bigger than 3 km, with a significant part of it exclusive to pedestrians, thus a good option to walk and relax after an intense tour day. During the night all the signs and neons are turned on and the street gains life with colors and lights. There's also a great collection of high end brands stores, trendy stuff in Chinese modern consumer behavior.



In one of the crossing streets you can find the weird food area, actually the easiest place to find it in my whole experience in China. Shark, starfish, cockroaches, squids, scorpions, etc. Apparently, in China, everything can be put in a stick. You won't be the only person to get impressed and many other fellow tourists will take pictures and rarely try any of that. However, given that Chinese population is way bigger than any tourist group, you'll mostly see the Chinese people eating the exotic food in front of you. If that's going to be your first time in Asia or the first time with weird food, it's really worth it to go there and check even if you don't actually plan to eat it. No, I didn't eat any weird stick... haha


Seconday Circuit

This circuit applies more to the temple that have plenty of time or, energy to make things in a rush. Even though these places do represent the history and local culture, its impressiveness - my opinion - is inferior to the main circuit.

Lama Temple


This is one of the largest temples of Tibetan Buddhism in the world. It started to be built as an official residence but in 1722 it was converted in a Tibetan lamasery. Tibetan Buddhism was practiced in Mongolia and Tibet and thus explains why a significant part of the religious signs were written in three languages - Chinese, Tibetan and Manchu. The access is possible through Lama Temple subway station.


Confucius Temple

Confucius statue
The most interesting thing about Confucius Temple is not the architecture, objects or anything else. It's the own history and concepts about Confucius philosophy. Confucius was a philosopher, professor, politician and editor and left his mark in history and culture not only of China but from the whole world. Confucius conceptualized the idea of public examinations and college admission tests, the first because he understood that the best should be chosen to manage the public administration and the second since applying through a "blind" admission test to the participants characteristics would allow poor and rich people to compete in the same basis and thus creating a democratic way to access education. Moreover, education it's the root itself of Confucius philosophy. Seek for knowledge and improve. The concept of meritocracy thus was founded a long time ago. In the museum you can find also an analysis about China's economic power related to Confucius philosophy ruling Chinese society. So strong this culture was it has disseminated to other countries. Which other countries are famous for the educational achievements and competitiveness? Japan, Korea, Singapore, all places which had Confucius philosophy well established.

Uma associação local, qual o percentual de descendentes de japoneses, chineses e coreanos ante a população brasileira? E qual é o percentual nas universidades? Pois é, você já entendeu.

Hutongs


Chineses jogando cartas em um hutong
The hutongs are the essence of what allows Beijing to be a 19 million people metropolis and at the same time a small village with people riding their bicycles, rickshaws, etc, or buying livestock and cooking at small stalls in the streets. Thus, the hutongs are the popular part of the city. After the Cultural Revolution these areas which were built centuries ago started to be put down in order to make room to wide boulevards and avenues in perfect square and oversized Comunist architecture. However, what lasted in recent years is going through a different process. Given the touristic potential of the hutongs, now you will notice that Beijing is looking for restoring and even rebuilding this ancient architecture style.


It's interesting to walk through the hutongs without a closed itinerary, just walking and walking and getting lost and then finding your way again. Each corner reveals a different situation, people cooking, playing cards or drinking traditional and delicious Beijing yogurt. It's a free tour and very interesting and for those who like popular and local stuff it will be a blast.

Richard!










Since I already had stayed at Jony's house through Couchsurfing, I looked for another place in Beijing. I ended up staying in Richard's apartment. He's Australian, works for the embassy of his country and he's married to a Chinese from Hong Kong who lived most of her life in Australia too. He has been in Beijing for  many years and knows the city pretty well. It was a nice experience, I could talk a lot with him and understand through the eyes of a long term expat how's the experience and interaction with China and Chinese people. Besides that he took me to try some gastronomic delicacies in the region that I'd surely wouldn't find on my own - dumplings from Beijing, black eggs and "Dinossaur" legs... haha.

Buying a train ticket

This is one of the major challenges for the independent traveler who doesn't speak Chinese, buying a train ticket to your next destination. First thing: assume that no teller - including those appointed by the electronic panel - is capable of speaking English. Second thing: try to make that some English-Chinese speaker goes with you to the counter. Third thing: if the second thing doesn't work ask someone to write it down in Chinese what you want including all the details and alternatives in case your initial idea is not available. In case you have a closed itinerary - as I had - it's very efficient to book all the tickets at once and you can try doing that from some big city like Beijing or asking a travel agent. This website www.seat61.com (look for China) it's a very good reference about traveling by train.

Well, I needed to get my ticket to Datong for Friday night so I wouldn't need a hotel when I get there. However, at the counter I found that the only train available would depart on Friday afternoon. I mean, a Belgian - lost as I was but able to speak some Chinese - found that and helped my to book my ticket. It was my first (and last) time in a sleeping birth train, and by the way, I could not remember about taking a train anymore except when I was very young and little and trains still used to run in Brazil!

Next post: The Great Wall of China!

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