Enter the dragon: I arrive in Beijing

Distance Travelled: 7573 miles
Date: 17-22nd July

I wrote briefly about coming into China on the Trans-Siberian post here, so I’ll just skip ahead to Beijing.

Coming from London, I thought I knew what a big city was like. Beijing, though, defies any European sense of scale. The municipal region is the size of Belgium, and it has a higher population than Australia. I only got to see a small section of the city, and not even all the most famous and important landmarks, but what I saw of the city I really liked.

I arrived off the train in the early afternoon, and headed straight over to my hostel. Not having internet on the train, or the ability to plan ahead, I hadn’t booked anything. The first hostel I found was entirely booked up, with the exception of a couple of economy rooms. I looked outside, at the heat and smog, and at my heavy backpack. I took the room.

This turned out to be a great idea. Given the discount rate offered, it was excellent, but it would’ve been a wise investment regardless. A double bed, space to hang washing, my own plug sockets and a sink in my room. Now, this may not sound like much, but after the train and the Mongolian accommodation, this was seriously luxurious.

Also, all the corridor walls were covered in cool graffiti.


A pretty effective hangover cure

After getting myself settled, I wandered into the centre of town. Despite the fact that Beijing is huge, it’s set out in a grid system, with the cardinal directions written on nearly every street sign, so it’s very easy to find your way around. I learnt the chinese symbols for North, East, South and West fairly quickly.

My first destination was Wangfujing snack street, which as the name implies is the place to go for lots of street food. It’s quite like a Chinese Camden Market, with the associated touristiness that comes with that. A set of two or three streets have been taken over by street food sellers. Passing through the ornate arch that signifies the entrance you are immediately assailed on all sides by the smells of strange spices, and unfamiliar foods, the barks of cooks shouting their wares, and locals and tourists alike taking dozens of photos and buying their dinner. I returned a few times during my stay, and never found the area anything less than packed.

It was always thronged with hundreds of people

Almost the first stall on the right sold skewers of fried meats. They had a large selection, chicken, pork, intestines, squid, fish. But what drew my eye was the scorpions. Small and yellow, they had been skewered three to a stick, and the owner hadn’t bothered to kill them before frying, so they wriggled around in an attempt to free themselves, or merely twitched in the throes of death. I had to get some. To date, one of the strangest things I’ve eaten- in concept anyway. They didn’t really taste of much; crunchy and salty mostly, although the claws were a little awkward to eat, getting stuck between my teeth. After grabbing a couple of more normal (and importantly, cheaper) skewers further down the street, I headed over to the Forbidden City.

A still photo doesn't really do justice to the sight

Seriously, the Chinese seemed to eat anything that would fit on a stick

These are pots of milky yogurt that you stick a straw into and drink. China's answer to the milkshake

Unfortunately, the Forbidden City turned out to be closed for the day by the time I arrived there, so I walked around the outskirts along the moat and palace walls. I’ll discuss the Forbidden City later, so for now let’s just say that it was a pleasant walk, and it lead me to Tiananmen Square, at the immediate south of the Forbidden City.

Tiananmen Square to me, and most Westerners I suppose, isn’t a place so much as it’s an event. The place is the third largest public square in the world in the heart of Beijing, and a centre of the political and social life of a lot of Beijing. The event is that fateful Spring day when the tanks rolled in.

Tiananmen Square
I’m certain that most of you reading this will have a pretty good idea about what Tiananmen was about, but for those that don’t, a history lesson is in order.

I’m obviously glossing over an important time in China’s history, but the basic situation that led up to the Tiananmen massacre was one of huge tensions in the political sphere after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976. Reforms had led to a more market driven economy, but this had not been accompanied by sufficient political reforms, and so corruption and nepotism were rife. Students and intellectuals were particularly disaffected by the political situation.

The situation was exacerbated by the ousting of Hu Yaobang for his support of liberalization, leading to minor protests. After his death from a sudden heart attack in 1989, some 100,000 students and intellectuals gathered in Tiananmen Square on the eve of his funeral. They “demanded economic liberalization, political democracy, media freedom, freedom of speech and association, rule of law, and to have the legitimacy of the movement recognized” (from Wikipedia). These protests lasted for seven weeks, at which point Li Peng, the premier at the time having already declared a state of martial law, gave the order for the army to move in.

On the Fourth of June 1989, tanks and troops of the Chinese Army moved through the streets of Beijing, clearing Tiananmen Square and the surrounding area with live fire. Incidentally, calling the incident the Tiananmen massacre is a bit of a misnomer, as the majority of deaths were around three kilometers to the west. The number killed is unknown, with estimates ranging from ~250 (Chinese Government) to ~7000 (NATO intelligence). The Wikipedia article on it is pretty good, found here.

Every time I was at the square I couldn’t help but think of the tanks. The architecture of the area helped to give it a bit of a correspondingly repressive, soviet air, although that feeling could easily have been influenced by the things I knew had occurred there. Nevertheless, it does have a number of similarities with Red Square. Tiananmen Square contains a “Monument to the People’s Heroes”, and Chairman Mao’s mausoleum, with accompanying communist style statues, and in the centre currently stands a temporary monument in the shape of a giant hammer and sickle, commemorating the 90th anniversary of the communist party. I fully intended to visit the mausoleum, but like Lenin, I either didn’t get to the area early enough in the day, or I would be put off by the extensive queues. Later in my travels I would be told that I hadn’t missed out on much; the body looks like a waxwork, and I wouldn’t ever have the same reverence that brings hordes of Chinese pilgrims to visit him. The best part, I was told, is the decidedly capitalist giftshops selling Mao branded kitsch- from postcards to erasers, flags and masks.

Tiananmen Square from the north gate

Mao's Mausoleum

Detail on top of one of the columns in Tiananmen

The east and west of the square are flanked by the National Museum, and the Chinese Congress building, respectively, as well as lines of trees. The square itself is bare though, with neither trees nor benches. You don’t notice this until it gets dark however, as until then it is packed with people. I said above that the square is the third largest public square in the world, but this isn’t true. Not really anyway. This being China, the square isn’t what I would call public, with armed guards cordoning it off at night, and policemen patrolling the area during the day. Every lampost has a battery of video cameras monitoring the square, and it all adds up to give an impression that it’s less of a public space, and more the property of the government that they are letting you use for a while.

To the north of the square lies the imposing Tiananmen gate, leading to the Forbidden City. A large poster of Chairman Mao hangs below the famous balcony where he commenced a new republic in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution in 1966, gazing eternally and seemingly benevolently down upon the square. The poster has been defaced a number of times, most notably during the protests of 1989 when three students threw eggs filled with paint at it (and received jail sentences of 16 years, 20 years and life for it), but I was told that spares are kept on hand to replace it at a moments notice if needed. This hadn’t been considered in 1989 however, and the painting had to be covered in a black cloth until a replacement could be obtained.

Just one of many cover-ups in China that year

An interesting account of vandalism in April 2010 can be found here, and more on the photo itself, here (the latter is where I took the above two photos from).

To the south lies the double gate of Zhengyangmen, giving the square an unmistakable air of the grandeur and history of China; the square was originally built in 1651, although the Forbidden City through the Tiananmen gate has stood on that site since 1420, and it has been an important political and historical site for years before that. Zhengyangmen, or colloquially ‘Front Gate’, is a remnant of the old city walls, and made up of the gatehouse and the archery tower, which were once connected into a barbican, protecting the entrance to the city. It is the largest and most impressive of the old gates existing, and remains an important symbol of old Beijing. Later, I would go up to the top of the gatetower, but this turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, as the view wasn’t great, and the tower itself is far more impressive from the outside.

Zhengyangmen Gate

The view of Mao's Mausoleum from the top of Zhengyangmen Gate

I get scammed
Being a tall white guy in China makes you a minor celebrity. It’s a bizarre feeling. Within the first half an hour of leaving the hostel I had a kid come up to me and get his father to take a picture of him posing happily beside me. This was never more apparent than when I was in Tiananmen Square. People were coming up to me to take photos and just to say hello. I never minded this attention; it did get a little tiresome sometimes, but mostly it was fun. Sadly though, a lot of people didn’t want to come say hi to the white tourist, they wanted to take the tourist’s money. I’m a little ashamed to say, I managed to get myself scammed on my first day in China. Here’s how it happened.

I met a couple of Chinese girls outside the Tiananmen gate, who claimed to be visitors to the city too. Seemed nice enough, and we wandered around the square, chatting about the things there, and our respective homes. I assumed that they just wanted to improve their English, a not entirely unlikely assumption, and one that may actually be true, as a secondary motive. I had met, and would meet, plenty of people for whom that was very important.

However, they then asked if I fancied going and getting a drink, perhaps some tea, or a beer? One thing that I have learnt from my time in Beijing is that I find it extremely difficult to say no to a pretty girl asking me if I want to go get a beer, even if I’m certain she’s trying to scam me, and I wasn’t at this stage. So I said yes. For those of you who will visit China, the correct answer to that question is “no”. Or, possibly “sure, but you’re paying”, or if you know the city a little, “yeah, that would be great. I know this good place just around the corner”. Just saying yes and leaving it in their hands is a stupid thing to do. Learn from my mistakes.

So, we walked around the corner, and as we were passing a tea place one of the girls said “oh, this place is good. It does great tea: do you fancy it?”. “Sure”, I said, “tea would be good”. We went in, and were shown to a room, where an elaborate tea set was laid out. Red flag. I was asked what I’d like to drink, and given the surroundings I pretty much had to have tea. Note that I didn’t say I was offered a menu- there weren’t any. Another red flag.

The tea was actually really good. A waitress came out and showed us how to properly brew and serve the different types of teas, and the supposed “medicinal properties” of each. We were served a selection many different varieties, and provided with hot water so we effectively had as much of each as we wanted. There was oolong, keemum and labsang souchong; jasmine tea, rose tea and orchid tea; fruit teas, herbal teas and root teas. And then the bill came.

The tea

I don’t want to admit how much it came to, but I did at least get away with only paying a third. Others have been required to pay the whole bill, but I point-blank refused to do that.

After that, things didn’t go quite as I would have expected; were the girls purely trying to scam me I would have expected them to make an excuse and leave immediately, but instead they stuck around, and showed me around one of the main shopping areas. We later went for (relatively cheap) beers, before they left to head back to their hotel. An expensive day, but the tea was actually pretty fun, and they were good company so I wasn’t all that pissed off about being scammed. Lesson learned.

After that I pretty much just wandered around the city, and found one of the main shopping areas. Nothing too interesting, but it was pretty. Had some great (and cheap) restaurants too.

Look carefully. This is a Starbucks

This post is getting to be a bit long, and I haven’t even started on the Forbidden City yet, so I’m going to split Beijing into two posts. Three if you include the Great Wall. To be continued…

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2 Responses to Enter the dragon: I arrive in Beijing

  1. annehome says:

    Thought provoking comments about the vastness and atmosphere of Tiananmen Square.
    Also what was/is your favourite tea?

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