This is the first entry in my month long trip around the world! First stop: Beijing (from Boston).
I looked forward to visiting Beijing the way one would look forward to their first colonoscopy. That is to say, not very much.Why? Because China seems to have distilled every unpleasant habit or cultural behavior to its most basic form, removed any trace of civility and nuance, and unleashed these practices among the twelve million residents of the city. Take spitting. It’s everywhere. Kids, adults, the elderly, they all spit and they all spit all the time. Deep, lung-rattling, New England oyster-size spitting. Not into a tissue, or napkin, just out into the world, and letting it fall wherever gravity deems a good spot.
How about crowd behavior? Well, if you enjoy only-slightly subtle hand-to-hand combat with a 90-year-old woman, then you will love getting in line at a temple ticket booth. Or to check out at a convenience store. Or walking up the Great Wall. There are more elbows thrown here walking across a crosswalk than in all the kickboxing matches in Thailand. Really, line behavior is a misnomer, because often there isn’t line, just a mass of humanity, pressing, kicking, elbowing, and clawing its way to the front. Getting on and off the subway resembles a Game of Thrones-style battle, minus the swords. Probably minus the swords – I did see nunchucks.
Shouting? There is a lot of it. Yes, I know, it’s a cultural thing, and there are tonal and speech pattern differences that I should not assign a value judgment to, but when you have been screamed at by a night market vendor because he didn’t like the bill you tried to give him, you may see things a little differently. Everything here is just…louder.
Then there is the city itself. The Grey City it’s called, and with good reason. Not only is it covered in grey paint, or unpainted grey concrete, it’s also covered in grey smog. Lung filling, eye-irritating, throat-choking (okay, maybe now I understand all the spitting) smog.
Smells? Oh, there are plenty of rich aromas. The smell of fresh seafood, ripe fruit, raw sewage, rotting garbage, and urine waft along the air, blanketing the city in eye-watering scents that just can’t be missed. It’s a city that will make you feel something, without question, and you won’t leave without forming a strong opinion about it.
Visitors to Beijing who stay less than 72 hours are not required to get a visa, and this timeline matched my travels plans perfectly. We spent our first day touring the city, dodging puddles of urine or piles of human excrement (seems like the only thing forbidden inside the Forbidden Palace is to use the actual bathroom) Temple of Heaven, and the next day on a tour of the Great Wall.
I also sadly report that I struck out again in my unofficial quest to the see the preserved bodies of deceased communist leaders. Ho Chi Minh’s body had just returned from Russia when I was visiting Hanoi but wasn’t yet on display, and in Beijing, Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum was inexplicably closed the weekend we were here. I’m holding out hope for Russia and North Korea – fingers crossed.
The Great Wall turned out to pretty fun. We hired a private car and left early in the morning. If you have any plans of arrive anywhere before it gets busy with tourist, go ahead and bury those plans, because it won’t happen. At best, you can get somewhere before it gets slammed, spoons-in-a-drawer packed, but it will never, ever be free of people. The section we toured was built up at the base to resemble a large outdoor shopping mall, but the wall itself was still remarkable. It’s massive and inspiring, and worth every yuan it cost to get there. We took the toboggan down from the top, because FUN.
Beijing wasn’t all bad though, and there are signs it’s making progress on cleaning up it’s image. The subway was almost spotless, for example, and the area around the Forbidden Palace and Tiananmen Square were also clean, thanks to the Sisyphean efforts of an army of street sanitation attendants. We wrapped up our quick visit with some night market shopping and dinning, managing to avoid losing an eye to one of the thousands of skewers people were carrying around, snacking on. Tomorrow is an early morning flight to Taiwan, China’s more civilized neighbor.
How we got there: Boston to Beijing $423 on United
Where we stayed: Park Plaza Hotel – Decent, if over-priced hotel. Good location
What we did:
Temple of Heaven Park – It’s just like Disney! Ha.
Wangfujing street shopping and night market
Great Wall at Mutianyu
Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum
Dinner at Made in China and DaDong for Peking duck. Great at both places!