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15 Million and Still Going Strong

CHINA | Sunday, 10 April 2011 | Views [441]

Beijing is a great city, let's just get that out now.  Nerves were high as we left Hong Kong as we thought we would be leaving behind English writing, sit toilets, country music, ice cream, and good old fashion peace and quite.  Turns out we were wrong (though sit toilets are rare away from our hostel).

On the plane ride to Beijing (on a Chinese airline I will point out), we both were listening to the radio of which there were many American station to browse. While filling out our immigration cards who else but Mr. Garth Brooks came on and just about brought us to tears (well maybe just Travis) as this was not the anticipated welcome to the far east.  To boot we were served COMPLIMENTARY Haagen Dazs cups.  It is corny to say, but it was literally the tipping point when we knew we were going to be ok and have a great time in China.  Anywhere that plays the king of country and has good taste in ice cream sounds good to us!  Once we were through the dozens of immigration check-points full of cameras, thermometers, and unknown other propes, we found our driver (which is pretty amazing when you think that this airport serves the largest city in the largest country in the world) to the hostel and headed into town.

Over the last 5 months we had been working prety hard to dodge Old Man Winter and had been doing a darn good job overall but it was clear that in Beijing he was still lurking.  Trees are still mostly bare and the landscape is VERY brown.  It was a bit of shock for us certainly coming from New Zealand, but even Hong Kong.  Still, Spring was in the air and on the highway into town we passed guys out on their Harelys and a few cherry trees blooming.  With our eyes glued outside upon this new place, we kept thinking we would see the city skyline coming into view at some point as our hostel was called "Downtown Beijing Backpackers."  But the deal with Beijing is that its 15 million citizens live in a city that covers a landspace roughly the size of Belgium and thus there is not a prominent high-rise area we expected.  Instead we found ourselves pulling into a charming little neighborhood in a historic part of town that was dominated by one-story buildings and narrow roads that our taxi could hardly squeeze down.  We were warmly welcomed into our hostel, which is one of the better we have stayed at yet, and then headed out to hit Beijing.

There is a massive subway system that serves the equally massive city with something like 12 lines running around cris-crossing here and there.  Our book suggested that since buses are subject to major traffic jams the best way to get around is underground.  A single trip to any stop, no matter the number of transfers is 2 Yuan or about $0.25 and you get to ride on brand-new trains and emaculate stations (well maybe don't eat off the floor).  What a deal!  But then again, that is what everybody else in town is thinking too.  As we were waiting to catch our first train towards the epicenter of Beijing, Tiananmen Square, the station was very empty.  But then the train arrived and saying it was packed to the gills would be an understatement.  We have never seen crowded like that before.  When the doors opened, people literaly fell out from the human pressure within and it was a mad 10 seconds as some tried to barrel in and others worked closer to the door to get ready for their future stop.  Um, we will catch the next one... We did make it onto a "less crowded" train and used the subway system extensively over our next 5 days.  We were so appreciative of all the English signage in the stations and also within the trains, there was really no way to get too lost.  Physically getting off where you wanted to was another task though, and Travis can vouch that even if you can see clear over everyone's head, it offers no advantage for pushing through the masses towards the door. They are small but might people who will put up a good fight in the scramble to get on and off. 

But trains were not the only way we got around.  Believe it or not, Beijing is a great place to bike.  It is as flat as Kansas and no bike we saw has gears.  There are designted bike lanes pretty much on every road and most roads have a whole paved path that is seperated from the cars by a large median that is for bikes only.  Traffic lights have red and green lights in the shapes of bikes that control traffic.  And everybody else is on a bike too so when it doubt, there is power in numbers.  It was a rare occasion to look around and not see another biker cruising withing 100 yards.  Perhaps more astonishing though was the number of electric bikes that dominated the roads.  Why such things have not taken off in other parts of the world is a tragedy, they just seem so practicle.  Most people had built-in gloves that you could slide you hands into and grab the handlebars during the winter (which is a nasty one we gather). So this is all to say that we were by no means the only folks on two wheels as we saw the sights.  We biked to the Forbiden City smack in the middle of the city to see great ancient architecture.  This was the last palace of the Chinese dynasties and grand doesn't begin to cover it. We spent all day wondering around through massive marble thrones and small living quarters for the eunuchs. One the major highlights though was going to see a collection of clocks that the royal family had collected over the years.  You might say that "clocks" sound pretty boring.  Well, not when they are several centuries old and some are so big they would take up whole rooms but the actual face of the watch might not be more than 2 inches in diameter.  Most would have figurines that would dance every hour or perform other tasks.  Cool even for Victoria.

After seeing the old, we then biked on to the massive Olympic Park to see great modern buildings.  We decided that the Water Cube was just too cool not to pay and go in for a closer look.  The good news is that it is nifty on the inside, but they were also in the process of laying out a huge stage OVER the pool to host an automotive show on.  It was a little odd to think you could go off the high dive and land in a Mini Cooper. Just next door was the Bird's Nest that really did look like a mess of steel and although we did not go in, we can only imagine they were no doubt holding a cosmetics convention over the long jump pit.

So far we have taken planes, trains, bikes, and now we boarded a bus to go hike the Great Wall.  Following a recommendation from a lady we met in India, we booked a hike with a local company called the Beijing Hikers Club which started out as just a group of mostly ex-pats looking to escape the city and has turned into a full-time job for guides who lead hikes several times a week in the Beijing area and other parts of China.  They provided a luxury bus, water, and food for our full-day outing to a section about 2 hours north of Beijing that is not where the tourists get shuttled around to.  The touristy sections are equipped with cable cars to lift you up the wall which is normally on a high ridge, and the wall has been completely restored looking like a wide road.  That is not what we hiked on.  It was a scramble up to the "wall" which was at times more of a mound with a dirt path.  But you could see it coming from one end as far as the haze would allow and then it would again disappear in the other direction with towers ever 500 meters.  Our first reaction looking at the dry, barren landscape was why in the hell would somebody go to so much effort to protect it.  Had we been rulers we would have said, "Genghis Khan you can have this area as far as we are concerned."  But that is not how history played out and we found ourselves walking from ruined tower to the next trying not to get blown off by the dry wind.  Have we sold you yet for a hike here?  It was great to be there for a few hours and understand the magnitude of the wall and the history, but not a place you would want to spend your Spring Break.  It was also just a nice time to chat with other English speakers, we even met a family from Montpelier VT!  The whole state population of Vermont would probably not even cover the population on the subways in Beijing.

Back in the city we had seen the major sights and it was time to roam around and see what the current culture was about.  We were fascinated by walking up and down our local street to see the types of shops that the locals (particularly the youth) were flocking to.  Odd places selling quotes on matchboxes, t-shirts with nonsense English sayings on them, and fashionable housewares.  Also of huge amusement to us was the monster line at the churro stand. This place would give you 5 churros covered in chocolate sauce and frozen yoghurt and they could barely keep the stuff in stock.  We twisted each others arm and got one ourselves. Yum.

While walking around, we couldn't help but notice that a large number of the people had thick, black "nerdy" glasses.  Victoria then began to notice that some people did not even have lenses in them!  It was all a fashion thing to wear these clunkers.  It was also clear that American culture was the rage.  We were first introduced to this as we sat down for our first dinner and found ourselves listening to Beyonce. But apparently much bigger than Beyonce is Jack Johnson, a folksy younger singer.  We must have had 6 or 7 meals with his serenading.  Not expected, but honestly much better than the Chinese pop sound.

Beijing was a great place to start a tour into China, now it is off on an overnight train to the West for Xi'An and the Terracotta Warriors.


Here is a link to view our Beijing photos:



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