As my short-term assignment is coming to an end, I finally got the chance to travel to Beijing. I only had two main sights I absolutely wanted to visit while travelling to the North Capital: The Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City. Based on my previous experiences while travelling through China, I knew that visiting the main sights during the Chinese summer vacations would guarantee large crowds, which would prevent me from fully enjoying my travel. Therefore, I strategically planned my visit in that sweet spot between the Chinese summer vacation and the Mid-Autumn Festival of early October. Finally making it to the Great Wall of China right at the end of my assignment was my way of crowning this amazing experience I've embarked upon three months ago.
The hostel in the hutongs
Given the far distance from Lushan City, I once again had two options to get to Beijing: Plane or Night Train. Given the substantial difference in price, I opted for a night train with a hard sleeper. This commuting option has proven to be very comfortable in the past, so I thought I'd use it again. On Friday morning, I arrived at the Beijing West Railway Station. My first mission was to find my hostel. As I was trying to purchase my subway ticket, I instantly grasped the dynamics of the metropolis that quickly brought me back to my travel to Shanghai a few weeks ago. I literally had to play a little bit of the elbow to make my way to the ticket machine, through the turnstile and into one of the wagons. Once in, I adopted the sardine position and tried to limit my movements as much as possible while avoiding getting stomped on my toes at every station. I finally got to my hostel which had a storefront on a "hutong". Hutongs are a type of narrow streets or alleys, commonly associated with northern Chinese cities, most prominently Beijing. Unfortunately, a large number of Beijing hutongs were demolished over the last century to make way for new roads and buildings, so I was quite happy to have the opportunity to live the Old Beijing life for a few days. The inside of the hostel was beautiful. It was a pavillion from an old temple which was converted into a hostel, but still preserved its inner garden which ensure it kept its unique cachet. The clock already indicated 10:30am. I didn't want to spend too much time there as I was eager to explore the city. I just allowed myself about 30 minutes to wear some fresh clothes, eat a quick breakfast, enjoy a casual conversation with an Israeli student and book my day trip to the Mutianyu to see the Great Wall and off I went to downtown Beijing. First stop: The Forbidden City!
Right out of the subway station I could already notice a large crowd of tourists making their way into the Forbidden City. An army of walking umbrellas trying to capture the perfect shot with the portrait of Chairman Mao displayed on the front building already gave me a taste of what to expect on the other side of the gate. My observations were right, despite being outside of the Chinese summer vacation season, a substantial amount of people took over the main axis from the main entrance at the South Gate right in front of Tiananmen Square to the main exit at the North Gate in front of the Jinshan Park. Funny story, the visit path setup reminded me of a sausage machine where tourists would mandatorily enter from one end and follow a predetermined circuit all the way to the only exit possible at the other end. Kind of a way to control the crowd if you will - a common them I have noticed throughout my time in Beijing. Even to take the subway must we go through a security checkpoint, including a full body metal detector and baggage scan. In many ways, the Forbidden City is a concept that exceeds the limitation defined by its walls. Perhaps these measures are nothing more than remaining best practices from the Olympic Games in 2008. I also noticed that people in China don't really take the time to truly enjoy their sightseeing. For instance, the main axis was filled to capacity. Everyone was walking at the same pace from one temple to the next while occasionally stopping to pose for a tacky picture. People had the possibility to wander around to the east and west sides of the City, but they did not seem to care about these parts as all that seemed to matter was to take a picture in their flower dresses, share it in their WeChat Memories and get the hell out of there before catching an unwanted tan. A sattelite view of this scene would have probably been very close to the one we have when we see ants marching from one end to the sidewalk to the other. Perhaps some of them should get a hold of a true jewel I always travel with - a book about mindfulness titled "Mindfulness on the Go". About halfway through my visit, a "Western Man" (as Asian call them) looked a little lost and did not seem to know where to go from where he was standing. The man was an Australian businessman visiting Beijing for just a few days. Today was his only day he could enjoy some sightseeing. I decided to assist him and brought him to the audioguide station where he could get a little more information about what was around him. Just before going my way, he asked me: "Do you know where to find the Terra Cott Warriors?". A very odd question to which my answer was: "Oh, those warriors are in Xi'an. A totally different city located hours away from here". He then answered very disappointedly and a little embarrassed: "Oh... no wonder no one knew what I was talking about!" Now, I know I preach not to research anything about a city before getting there in order to maximize the effect of surprise, but there are limits, right? After a few more hours of walking around each pavilion, I ended the tour at the garden where the Emperor's Mandchurian concubines used to be selected. I allowed myself just enough time to catch my breath under the shades of centenial trees before handing back my audioguide and exit through the North Gate.
Just outside of the Forbidden City, two ladies around my age approached me with their umbrella trying to engage in conversation. At this specific moment came back to my mind the episode from my Shanghai travel. I just ignored them and kept doing me. I still observed them working the crowd in seek of the perfect prey. Their next try was to a tall man with a very long lumberjack beard. He also didn't bite, but I thought it was my duty go and warn him about those types of scams in China. I got a little closer and asked him what these girls wanted. He said: "They asked if I'd be interested in a traditional tea ceremony". Well, well! Looks like I was right! At least, I know what to expect in the second largest city in China: another wasps nest and perfect scene for scamming tourists. A small side note, here it seems like people are used to frequent tourists and you can definitely feel it in the way locals interact with you. Even when entering a shop, owners get heavily unpleasant when you show start negotiating. I guess they are used to plucking tourists and don't like when someone with negotiating skills comes to their store. But, I won't bite! I'd rather keep walking until I find a sympathetic shop owner. They bearded man then used a phrase I also use pretty often in those situations: "Not my first rodeo!" I instantly knew I'd have a blast hanging out with him. He was an Australian reggae roots musician going by the alias of Jono (Jonathan was his real name, but Austalians shorten and add an "o" at the end of everything). He was also travelling alone, so why not team up and keep visiting the area together while exchanging a few nice conversations. It turns out that Jono's city of predilection was Montreal, so he was super thrilled to learn that I was from there. He spent a lot of time there jamming with local artists while trying to make a living and even learned a little bit of French. It was the oddest thing to hear a tall bearded Australian speaking a Quebec French with an Aussie twist in China. Talk about unexpected! From there we went to Jinghan Park to have a beautiful semi-bird's eye view on the Forbidden City we just visited under a heavily smogged out sky.
Accessing Tiananmen Square
We then walked to the famous Tiananmen Square, but it was no piece of cake to access it. Although the square is located just on the other side of the boulevard, the commute turned out to be quite the adventure it almost felt like a Dan Brown novel. The boulevard was barricaded on both sides. Therefore, the only way to make it to the Square was through the predetermined path prescribed by the National Police. We had to go through a security scan (just like at the airport), go down some stairs, walk through a tunnel with a police officer positioned every 10 meters and finally, go back up the stairs. Needless to say this crowd avoidance strategy is very effective. There was nothing much to do or see. It was nothing more than a vast area with a very tall pole with the national flag at the end of it. On one side of the Square was the National Musem and at the opposite of the Forbidden City was the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. The building hosts the embalmed body of the former Chairman that is exposed for visitor to come and pay their respect to the man who changed the face of China during his mandate. The Mausoleum was closed at the time we tried accessing it, so we changed plans and started walking south. Of course, same drill had to be made to get out of the Square (security, stairs, tunnel maze, etc.). Our initial plan was to walk to the Heavenly Temple, but finally changed our minds when we stumbled upon a lively neighborhood which seemed to host many shops and restaurants. We walked around the Qianmen Pedestrian District for a while enjoying the different arts and crafts exposed outside the shops. When the hunger started to build up, Jono decided to go back to his hostel and rest a bit before experiencing Beijing by night, and I looked for a nice restaurant to have a local meal. My initial idea was to try the Peking Duck (when in Rome, right?), but it was not really convenient to order a large portion just for myself, especially in a very touristy area. I walked a little further down the road and got to another hutong where I found a "mom and pop" cantine - full of locals - that served homemade and fresh of the day beef noodle soups for as low as 16 RMB. Done deal! I ordered a large bowl along with a Tsingtao, sat back, relaxed, and observed the social dynamics around me as I was waiting for the feast to be served at my table. And then entered Alejandro.