China: Parting Thoughts

Beijing was the largest city I’ve ever visited with a population around 12.2 million (including the suburban areas which sprawl quite far it is probably as much as 20 million). It was truly fascinating to be there, knowing that it was where many historic events have taken place and where decisions are made today that affect China’s burgeoning populace of over 1.3 billion, which accounts for more than a sixth of our global population. The task to rule a country this large and maintain its unity is certainly no easy task. While it was the Qing dynasty that united China for the first time, it was Chairman Mao who truly unified China and paved the way for the modern development of the country.

As a Canadian, having been raised in a democratic and capitalist society, I was expecting shocking changes. The truth is that, nowadays, the big cities of China really aren’t all that different from the rest of the world. The only noticeable change is that everything is a lot cheaper. On the whole, Beijing is a very clean city, cleaner in fact than most European cities I have visited. Beijing is also a lot safer than most other cities I’ve visited. There was never a moment that I felt threatened, and aside from curious glances from the locals (partly because I’m white, and partly because my companion was a stunningly beautiful chinese girl), I never once felt uncomfortable. This was a pleasant contrast to say, Paris, which was not as clean as Beijing and a place where I often felt uncomfortable and tense due to the incredible racial tension that exists there (see me previous post about this). Aside from not being able to use Facebook and Twitter (which are currently blocked by the Great Firewall of China), I felt right at home.

Also, Chinese food in China is about 10x better than eating it abroad because all the ingredients used are fresh, whereas many restaurants in other places of the world use imported goods that are pumped with preservatives to give them a longer shelf life. It is well worth a visit to Beijing, even if just to experience the food!

I thank the many Chinese friends I made while I was there for their hospitality, and I truly hope to visit again soon!

Beijing in 11 Days

DAY 1: Tianamen Square, Snack Street, Wanfujing

A must see! I recommend eating Roast Duck in the large restaurant Quanjude in Wanfujing, and you really should venture down the snack street to see all the crazy food that is sold there. It’s probably one of the few places where you can see live scorpions squirming on a skewer waiting to be eaten. Other skewered oddities include moth cocoons, centipedes, a whole baby bird, and squid tentacles. I ate everything besides the scorpion and the centipede and lived to write this blog post.

DAY 2: Nanluoguxiang Hutong & Back Lakes

The Nanluiguxiang Hutong, Mandarin for “alley”, was absolutely beautiful! Not only was the streetfront view amazing, with an incredible assortment of boutique gift shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants, but it also provided a glimpse into Beijing’s past. Only a few hutongs remain, as the rest are demolished to make way for more skyscrapers. The back lakes are a pleasant break from the city, and are best enjoyed at night when the lake is lit up in colourful lights by the surrounding bars and restaurants. You can rent bikes to ride around the lake, or you can take a leisurely stroll around the lake stopping for snacks and drinks at the bars along the way!

DAY 3: Forbidden City, Opera, Market Shopping

The Forbidden City was another must see! We went up the mountain on the north side of the Forbidden City to first enjoy the view, and then walked through the city from North to South (most people enter from Tianamen Square and walk the other way). The central axis is quite crowded, but the east and west axes are less travelled and they also have some interesting sights. At the main gate, you can pay extra to climb up the gate for views of Tianamen Square, but the long wait discouraged us from doing so. Definitely stop by the controversial Opera House for some pictures.

DAY 4: Beijing Zoo, Markets, Olympic Park

You can pass on the Beijing Zoo, it wasn’t anything too special. The pandas, which were the main attraction, were quite lazy. Most of them were sleeping, and the one that was sent to the outdoor exhibit circled the perimeter and promptly started pawing at the door to be let back in.

If you’re feeling adventurous, venture into the underground labryinth of shops beside the zoo where, so I’m told, you’ll find the best deals in the city for clothing. I bought a few pairs of shorts for under $10 each, some good leather belts for around $5 each, and 10 surprisingly good “Calvin Klein” briefs for about $30.

The Olympic Park is definitely a must-see! You can take a nice stroll along the “Olmypic Green” and see the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Water Cube. I didn’t go into any of them, although if you had to choose, the Olympic Stadium would be more fulfilling as the Water Cube simply holds a standard olympic-sized pool.

DAY 5: Lama Temple, Factory 798,  Da Dong Duck, Chaoyang Bar District

The Lama Temple was one of my favourite to visit in China. As you move through the temple you progress through a series of pagados, each of which houses a statue of Budha larger than the one before. When You arrive at the last station, you’re in for an incredible treat! Inside is a 26-metre tall statue of Buddha which has won a world record for being the largest statue of Buddha carved from a single piece of wood.

Factory 798 was a truly refreshing experience! Similar to London’s SOHO district, it is a refurbished industrial area that features some spectacular contemporary art galleries and stores for craft goods. It is also host to a good many cafes, restaurants, and on any given day, there will be future husbands and wives taking their wedding photos there.

The Da Dong Duck chain rivals the roast duck of Quanjude. In my opinion the overall dining experience at Da Dong was superior to that of Quanjude. Not only was it less crowded, but the presentation of the dishes was exquisite, the service was excellent, and it cost roughly the same (around 100 Yuan per person).

After enjoying duck, we headed to the Chaoyang Bar District, which is most popular amongst foreigners and open-minded locals. For not much at all, you can inebriate yourself and bar hop in this area that doesn’t sleep. Once you get the munchies, you can take a seat at a streetside vendor selling a variety of skewers, which are either boiled, fried, or barbecued.

DAY 6: Jinshanling Great Wall

The Great Wall of China is around 8000 km, which protected historic China and its Silk Road trading route from the Mongolians and other barbaric tribes. Close to Beijing, there are a number of nearby access points on which you can hike the wall, after which, according to a common Chinese belief, you become a hero. I’m not sure if that applies to obese tourists who take a cable car to the top, take pictures, and promptly slide down, but each person can certainly become a hero in his or her own rite. While the most popular section of the wall is Badaling, it is so crowded that you won’t really get a chance to enjoy the wall. For a more relaxed experience, go to the Mutianyu section, which is also beautiful, but much less crowded. For the most fulfilling experience, you can venture to a remote section of the “wild wall”. I chose the path less travelled and paid a little extra (about $40 in total) to take a tour to Jinshanling where I hiked about 6 km towards Simatai. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hike all the way to Simatai because they recently closed the last half of the hike for renovations. However, it was still a very fulfilling experience and I was able to enjoy some relief from the crowds in Beijing.

DAY 7: Ghost Street

The Ghost Street is a cool place to visit at night if you’ve got time. Lining the streets are a great many restaurants. Baby Lobster, served by the trayful, are the most popular dish here. Another popular dish is white fish served in a spicy soup, referred to as “Spicy Fish”. As is custom in Beijing, the fish you eat is first brought to your table alive so that you can approve of it, after which it is taken away to be prepared for your meal.

DAY 8: Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven is not a Buddhist temple, but rather, one where the emperor worships the gods for a good harvest. It is an impressive site and definitely worth the visit. Aside from the main temple, you can also visit the Echo Wall, which supposedly lets you have a conversation with someone on the other side, but I wasn’t successful in doing so. Finally, there is another worshiping hill, at the centre of which is a special stone upon which your voice is amplified to allow you to pray to the gods, or so they say.

DAY 9: Day of Rest (Yugang)

After seeing most of Beijing, we needed a day to chill. Luckily for us, cheap DVD stores are rampant in China and for roughly $10 each, we walked home with our own library of movies to watch. Since both of us have been living in a cave for the past 8 months finishing our final year of engineering, there was a lot to catch up on!

DAY 10: Summer Palace

The summer palace was another one of my favourite places to visit! The park is truly spectacular. From the temple on top of the hill, you get an incredible view of Kunming Lake. At the base of the hill you can take a ferry to central island. When the weather permits, you can rent a boat for up to 6 people and explore the lake on your own. Of particular note are the magnificent arch bridges!

DAY 11: Geothermal Spa & Fly to Dalian

On our last day in Beijing, we headed to a local spa, where there are naturally heated pools. Each pool has a giant teabag in it that diffuses into the water. Some are for your skin, some are good for your soul, and others simply smell good. After the spa, I tried my hand at making Chinese Dumplings with Nicole’s family. My first attempt was an utter failure, but I eventually got the hang of it. A filling meal of said dumplings was enjoyed by the whole family along with various other dishes and washed down with homemade rice wine. Full and happy we headed to the airport ready for new adventures waiting for us in Dalian!

Check out my photos here!

First Impressions of China

As a graduation present to ourselves, Nicole and I spent the month of May travelling around China. Over the course of the month, I had the opportunity to experience a culture so vastly different from my upbringing and as such, have a great many stories to share with you. I wish that I could have posted these live, but it was difficult to access foreign websites in China, and so I will be gradually releasing my posts throughout the month of June. Enjoy and feel more than welcome to comment!

Raphael in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

After a long journey, almost 20 hours in total, our plane finally touched down on the runway of Beijing’s Capital Airport. Flying over the surrounding area revealed a great many installations, likely factories, clustered together throughout the rather plain landscape. The day we landed, there was a bit of a haze, which gave the impression of a rather smoggy place. We exited into Beijing’s new Terminal 3 building, which was completed several years ago to accommodate a great many travelers for the 2008 summer olympics. Needless to say, the terminal is a testament to China’s incredible growth in the past years. It is certainly an impressive structure providing a modern and open space to greet its visitors. We were met at the airport by Nicole’s cousin and Uncle, who had been anxiously awaiting our arrival. I was a point of fascination for Nicole’s younger cousin who was particularly amazed by the geometry of my nose and the shape of my head, as well as how big my eyes were.

As we drove through the city to the village where Nicole’s family lives, there were two things worth noticing. The first is that traffic in China is best defined as utter chaos. It is a miracle that I have never been in or seen an accident occur, because it is a common occurrence that cars will cut each other off and pass within inches of the other car. In China, the horn is used as a form of communication, rather than waking up a driver who fell asleep in front of a green light. The most common uses of the horn are to warn pedestrians that the car is not stopping for them and they should run out of the way, or to tell surrounding cars that they are merging into traffic whether they like it or not. Safety is certainly never a top priority in Chinese cities, and this is evidenced by the fact that nobody wears seat belts (in fact, taxis have seat belts, but no latch for you to insert the buckle). The second thing I noticed was the incredible development of Beijing. Imagine the central business district of a typical North American city (like Toronto or Chicago) and now multiply it by 10 or even 20! From end to end in Beijing, there are massive buildings! It provides a new meaning to the phrase urban sprawl, whereby Beijing sprawls into the sky as much as it sprawls over land.

At last our journey was at an end, and we settled down into a rather large restaurant in town where we were staying that night. Most big restaurants in china occupy multiple floors and have several dining areas. The fancier ones also have VIP rooms, which is where families and parties dine, as if it was their own home. Eating out is very affordable in China, and therefore it is more common for working-class people to dine out rather than eat at home, at least in the cities.

Next: Beijing in 11 days.