Beijing - Pea soup smog

Trip Start Feb 15, 2008
Trip End May 31, 2008

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Flag of China  , Beijing,
Monday, May 12, 2008

Pinch me, I feel like I'm in Sydney; there're Chinese people everywhere! Beijing is China's second largest city after Shanghai and home to over 14 million people. My first impressions were met by a completely new airport which opened in April 2008 in time for the 2008 Olympics. The airport lies around 35 km from the city centre and the best way to get into the city at the time of my visit was by taxi; however an extension of the Beijing metro to the airport will soon provide an alternative option. The city has what appears to be a new highway network and as I'm informed, car ownership is on the increase at an alarming rate which is somewhat disturbing from an environmental perspective given China's population of 1.4 billion. Average air pollution levels in Beijing are nearly five times above World Health Organization standards for safe living.

The air pollution on the day of my arrival was practically unbearable and seemed to give me a throat irritation which later evolved into a throat infection. Those familiar with Chinese street culture would be aware of the men's tendency to clear their throats and spit. This is common in Sydney and I normally find this disgusting and disrespectful; though I guess they're in their own country here and they can do as they please; and they do. At times the throat clearing and spitting could be comparable to a chorus of cicadas. China's inefficient use of coal, the country's main source of energy, is the major cause of this pollution.

I stayed two nights at the King's Joy Hotel in Beijing which is ok though the beds are like sleeping on an ironing board; this appears to be the norm in China. The currency here is the Yuan () which works out at around 7 to the dollar so being good at doing the old seven times tables in your head is useful. Most things that would normally cost one dollar at home will cost one Yuan; for example a small bottle of water = 2; Coke = 4; beer = 4; a meal = around 15 pp. If it costs more it is either considered a tourist service or you are being ripped off.

Friendly tourists should beware of young Chinese people who attempt to get the attention of tourists and claim that they want to practice speaking to them in English; they will 'invite' you for lunch or to have tea with them but it's a game. They will take you to the restaurant of a friend or family member and order for you and then expect you to pay the bill which will be astronomically inflated. I got suckered into some kind of tea house, I asked to see the prices which were 30 so I expected to see a bill at the end of 60 though it was actually 30 for each tiny cup and the plate of fruit and crackers which was bought out was not complementary and the 'room fee' of 150 also needed to be added. The total bill came to 500 ($71.40) which I thought was ridiculous and after a lot of arguing I ended up getting out of there for 300. From then on I ignored all locals. I later heard that this is a regular occurrence and some of these bills can come to 800 or even 1000 which is serious money in any currency.

I then joined a 10 day trip from Beijing to Hong Kong with travel group 'Geckos' and that evening I met our small group of 15, which included Australians, Americans, British, Kiwis and our Chinese guide Jenson.

Beijing is situated in the north of China and is one of the country's four Great Ancient Capitals. It is also China's capital and home to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven. On the first day of our trip we visited Tiananmen Square which is famous for an event in 1989 when a protest from a large group of students was dealt with by military police opening fire. The actual number of students killed is still unknown due to China's tight control on media. In fact whilst I was in China and writing this journal I had no way of confirming any details of this horrific event as internet pages relating to Tiananmen Square are controlled and not available to view within China.

Tiananmen Square is basically a huge open space with a length 880 metres and a width of 550 metres covering a total area of 44 hectares. This location is very popular with the domestic tourists. On the occasions I crossed through the square it was teaming with Chinese; in fact this is seen as some kind of pilgrimage for the locals and they will gladly queue for hours to see the tomb or 'Mausoleum' of Mao Zedong who was a Chinese military and political leader who led the Communist Party of China to victory against the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War. He became the leader of the People's Republic of China from its establishment in 1949 until his death in 1976. He's held in high regard though some of his strategies, such as the Great Leap Forward, were extremely controversial and resulted in a loss of cultural identity for China's people and the unnecessary loss of tens of millions of lives. There's also a huge picture of Mao at one end of the square which leads into the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City is the largest and best preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China. Over time it has been the home of 23 successive Ming and Qing Emperors. The structures were constructed between 1406 and 1420 by some one million labourers. It was off limits to commoners for over 500 years and was opened to the public for viewing in 1911. The buildings resemble a Russian babushka doll in that once one clears one set of walls and gates, one is met by an identical sight at the other side and this process is repeated 4 or 5 times before reaching the central palace. It is a shame that the Chinese have little concept of historical preservation; the historic buildings I visited were renovated to such an extent that it was difficult to tell the difference between the old and the new.

In recent years, the presence of commercial enterprises in the Forbidden City has become controversial. At the centre of the controversy was a Starbucks store which opened in 2000 and sparked great public objections. The store was eventually closed on July 13, 2007 which is a bit of a shame as I would've loved a Starbucks coffee at the end of this tour... no really, China is overwhelming and there's nothing like a bit of a western escape. Additionally the tea house located in the Forbidden City was a rip off with a very small and tasteless tea or coffee costing 30 whereas a large Starbucks is around the same price.

That afternoon we also squeezed in a visit to the Temple of Heaven which was originally conceived as a place where heaven and earth meet and were constructed during Ming Dynasty, or 1400s. The buildings which make up the complex are set among parklands and gardens and feature circular roofs on square bases to resemble the belief that the heavens are round and the earth is square. The complex is definitely worth a visit though again the structures have been re-rendered and repainted to the point that their age is not evident.

The following day our group charted a small bus to visit a section of the Great Wall of China at Simatei. Contrary to popular belief in Australia, the Great Wall of China was not built during the reign of Emperor Nasi-Goreng to keep out the rabbits. This great moment in Australian advertising history became the catalyst of an amusing moment where our guide revealed this Aussi myth to our British and American travellers who were naturally dumbfounded.

The Great Wall of China is actually a series of stone and earthen fortifications in China, built, rebuilt, and maintained between the 6th century BC and the 16th century to protect the northern borders of the Chinese Empire during the rule of successive dynasties. Several walls, referred to as the Great Wall of China, were built since the 5th century BC. The most famous is the wall built between 220BC & 200 BC by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. Little of it remains. This wall was much farther north than the current wall which was built during the Ming Dynasty. The Great Wall stretches over approximately 6,400 km from Shanhaiguan in the east to Lop Nur in the west. At its peak, the Ming Wall was guarded by more than one million men. It has been estimated that somewhere in the range of 2 to 3 million Chinese died as part of the centuries-long project of building the wall.

The stretch of wall we visited was a little less touristy and more rustic than other more popular sections which are closer to Beijing; however it does have numerous souvenir vendors who roam the car park, entry and the wall itself. In addition there's a cable car for those who don't want to walk all the way up, though it is actually quicker to walk. The wall is basically a brick wall; I think that what makes it so interesting is the history which surrounds it and the wall's inconceivable length. The views of the wall twisting its way along the mountain ridges are spectacular. You actually hike for two or more days along the wall which would probably be comparable to hiking the Inca Trail.

That afternoon our group enjoyed the TianQiao children's acrobatics display. This show is beyond words, I've seen a Cirque Du Soleil show once which was pale in comparison to this. The performances included plate spinning, contortionist acts and boys completing amazing gymnastics stunts. This show costs 180 and is an absolute must see for any one visiting Beijing.

During that afternoon, 12 May 2008, at around 2.30 pm one of the worst earthquakes in history, measuring 8.0 hit the Sichuan region of Southwest China killing around 70,000 people and leaving at least 5 million others homeless. This became a focus of our thoughts during the rest of the trip with our hearts and some of our cash going out to these people.

We spent the night travelling from Beijing to Xian on a sleeper train which is actually quite a comfortable way of travelling. The bunks stack three high and the mattresses are no harder than those found in the hotels.
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