A weekend in Beijing

Trip Start Jun 01, 2010
Trip End Mar 11, 2011

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Monday, October 11, 2010

The skies were still hazy when we opened the curtains of room 1601. Across the street from us is a bank building, and to our right we see the LG towers. We went to get some money at the bank. I found the first of many 'Chinglish' notifications there. The ATM was called a 'money recycling machine'. That is an interesting concept, how do you recycle money, isn't that called shopping?

We had an appointment with Monkeyshrine, our travel agent that arranged the trans-Siberia tickets for us. So we took a taxi and headed off to Sanlitun. This is one of the many trendy neighborhoods in Beijing. It took us a bit to find the office of Monkeyshrine, as it was tucked away in a small alley behind a bar, but eventually we did. The Dutch lady that arranged our booking was not there, she was on a trip of her own, to Australia. But the owner, a friendly Australian guy was there. We got a polo shirt and some money back as our itinerary was cut short a day in the Gobi dessert due to some booking errors.

After our short meeting we headed out to the Village, the big mall next door. We were both very hungry so first point of businesses was food. A Thai restaurant caught our eye, so we stranded there and got ourselves a lovely lunch. After lunch we walked around the mall for a bit and did a little shopping. Linda got some nice new hiking shoes, as her trainers are literally falling apart. And I found myself a nice shirt, which they surprisingly had in my size. We sat on the balcony on the 3rd floor for a while while Linda found herself one of her Hong Kong favorite snacks, a rice ball from a place called QQ. From the balcony we could see the kids, and crazy tourists, playing with the fountains downstairs.

After an afternoon of shopping we took the subway back to our hotel for a little rest. In the evening we headed out to a Shanghainese restaurant around the corner. We had a feast there as everything was equally delicious. The area of the hotel (SoHo) is a busy business district, but a bit deserted in the evening. There are lots of little eateries and cafes in the first layers of the building blocks to provide breakfast and lunch to the hungry working force. But honestly I expected a bit more work effort from the Chinese. You hear about the crazy hours and 24 hour economy. So I did not expect to find everyone running home between five and six.

The next day the variety and quantity of food had taken its toll on Linda. Her stomach was not agreeing this morning, so we took it really slow. We enjoyed a very lazy day in the hotel, watching some movies, sleeping and resting.

Later in the afternoon Linda felt a bit better so we headed outside to get some air. We had a simple lunch at one of the local 'Mc Noodles', this is how I call the many quick noodle chain stores that supply the workforce with their daily bowl of nutrition. Not far from our hotel there is the famous Silk Market. A little bit like the grand bazaar of fake brands. It's an eight story high complex filled with market stalls selling the latest LV bags, Polo shirts and Gucci belts. And me, being a big white tourist, I was the main target of the pushy sales girls. Every one of them was convinced that I needed a LV bag or some Calvin Klein underwear. All I can do is smile and try to avoid any form of eye contact, as this seems to be their trigger to go into even more aggressive sales methods. I did need some polo shirts though, as some of my shirts did not survive the days of travel. After the usual hassle we got three fake Tommy Hilfiger shirts for a more than decent price. On the upper levels of the market we found the true essence of it. The Silk Market is originally a place where people sell fabrics and tailor made shirts and suits made from there. As you might have read, one of my white linen shirts, the one I wore on my wedding-day, was ruined by the black oil on the golf cart of Biras Creek. So this was a good chance to replace this one. I got measured up, and the next day my shirt would be ready for pick up. On our way back to the hotel we stopped by a supermarket to get some simple food and some drinks for the evening, which we spend in the comfort of the lovely Fairmont Beijing.

The next morning I attended to some businesses, and we researched a good tour company for a trip to the Great Wall. Every review you read on the Internet warns you about the tourists traps jade factories where you will waste precious time on your way to one of the wonders of the world. We researched the different sections and came to the conclusion that Badaling was the place to avoid the most. It is closest to Beijing, so this is where the tour buses will drop their payloads of flag following tourists, not our cup of tea. We found some guides and drivers on the net and send out some inquiries.

Later that morning we went out to see the big thing in Beijing, the Forbidden City. We took a taxi and enjoyed the Beijing traffic for about half an hour. The traffic is busy and the many roads are mostly congested. I noticed that Audi must be doing big business here. You hardly see any Mercedes cars driving around, except for the occasional top end S class, or the C coupe, that probably comes with the S as a gift for the mistress. But the main 'black car' in Beijing is definitively the Audi A6/L, everywhere you look you see and hear them loudly honking their way through the dense collection of taxis, bicycles and pedestrians.

When we arrived at the Forbidden City we realized the size of it all. We were dropped off in the middle near the North entrance, and we had to walk quite a bit to get to a street that had some food. We figured first to get a small bite before heading out on our endeavor to see the thousand rooms of the palaces. In a small side street, not far from many tourist buses and flag followers, we found the cutest little dumpling store. The man had four or five tables and served us some awesome beef dumplings.

Fueled and ready to explore we headed out to the North gate of the city. First we climbed up the hill of in the Jing Shan park. On the top of this hill is a temple from where you have a great view of the forbidden city, and the rest of Beijing. Unfortunately the view is southwards so against the light and is not the best spot for photos in the afternoon.

Now it was time to enter through the North gate. First we got ourselves an audio tour. We read mixed reports about these things, from absolutely useless, to great! So we decided to find out for ourselves. The audio tour is a bit awkward. It's a GPS activated tour, that starts to talk as soon as you enter a specific building. There is no option to replay the introduction, which makes it a bit user unfriendly. We found that you have to have some luck with this device. Mine started talking about a site when we did not even enter it, the GPS was bot properly calibrated. Linda's worked a bit better, only starting to chat when she actually entered the room or square. Our first stop was the Imperial Treasure Room, the collection of jeweleries from the emperor. You have to pay a little extra Yuan to see all of this. I was not too impressed with the size of the collection. There are only a few artifacts shown, mostly jewelry or beautifully crafted objects. But it is quite something different than the usual royal treasures, and therefore worth a visit.

After roaming through the treasure rooms we wandered around the palaces, seeing the wall of dragons, and most of the important palaces. The city made a lot more sense when you walk through it. On the west side there are the palaces for the females, on the east side the palaces for the males, and in the center the buildings for official functions. There was a lot of focus on Ci Xi, a concubine that rules the empire by giving birth to the son of emperor. A lot of the stories around the palaces focused on her live and her reign over the empire.

We explored for a couple of hours in the forbidden city and we reached the south gate. For many the starting point, for us the exit. Here we climbed up the stairs of one of the gate buildings, from where we should have a great view of Tianamin square. We climbed up one too early, as there was still one more gate to come. Here I was approached by some giggling Chinese girls that wanted to make a photo with me. Foreigners are still some sort of attraction here, which surprises me as there are plenty of them roaming around the streets of Beijing. When we reached the second gate, it was closed for the public already, so we did not have a chance to go up there.

Outside of the forbidden city we ended up on Tianamin square. Indeed a huge square, with one main attraction, the flag. Hordes of people come to see it going up at sunrise, and more hordes of people see it going down at sunset. We had about another half an hour or so before sunset and did not feel like waiting amidst the pushing and screaming Chinese man and woman, fighting for a spot on the first line. So we headed off, back to Oriental Plaza. Here we had some nice food in the food court. We stranded in a place with Taiwanese sausages and nice noodles.

Back in the subway on our way back to the hotel there is one song that comes to mind and keeps sticking in there like a piece of pink bubble gum under your shoe. This song is Michael Jackson's 'You are not alone'. As it is extremely busy in the underground world of Beijing, and people push and elbow their ways into the subway carts. I must be very careful here not to seriously injure anyone.

About six or seven stops later we escape our tin of sardines and surface at our station Yonganli. This is attached to the Silk Market, so we quickly went upstairs to pick up my shirt that I had ordered yesterday. It was skilfully put together and fitted perfectly, but I was just too tired to go in the process of ordering some more.

Back at the hotel I made Linda a nice bath and we both relaxed and rested. Tomorrow we will visit another highlight of Beijing, we still have about a week left here. So far I love this city, its great!.
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