CHINA Oct 11-13, Oct 19-Dec 15
Visa. This must be applied for outside the country and in Canada, a visa service had to be used as I was applying by mail. Itineraries must be given but these are easily made up and seem to satisfy the Chinese even though no bookings are made and entirely fictional. Entrance and exit flights must also be supplied. Visas are issued for 30, 60 or 90 days and multiple entry visas are easy to obtain (at least in Vancouver but with half the city Chinese, they have big volume). I obtained a double entry (as I was going to N Korea) and was surprised that I had 60 days on each entry, so instead of having to leave China on December 10th, I now have till December 18th (60 days from my reentry on October 19th).
Money: 6 RMB (renminbi or people’s money) per US$. The basic unit of RMB is the yuan with 100 yuan, the largest note.
Blocked Internet. Gmail, Google and Facebook are blocked in China. I was able to log into Gmail sporadically but then couldn’t send messages and it was very dysfunctional. One can use VPN channels to bypass the blocks and I was able to sign onto Expressvpn.co with no problems so instead of using my second nonGmail account, I am back on Gmail which makes things so much easier. I used Los Angeles 2 as it is better for North China. The cost is $12.95/month and I will cancel it once I get to Hong Kong.
Arranging flights and trains in China. The best website is www.ctrip.com and it is brilliant. Easy to navigate, book and pay, it makes traveling a whole lot easier. But I have not been able to register and the fees are high as a guest. There are an amazing number of domestic airlines covering every possible route. The trains range from bullet trains to normal trains with the full range of sleeping possibilities. The two reasonable options are between soft and hard sleepers. Soft sleepers have 4 beds in a closed compartment; hard sleepers have 6 beds usually in an open compartment at a much cheaper price. The upper beds have limited head space but the lower beds are used by everyone in the compartment as seats during the day. The price goes down as the bed gets higher. Bedding is provided, bathrooms are squat toilets and air conditioning is turned on at night making for a reasonable comfortable sleep. Usually there are electrical plugs in the hallways. There are also narrow seats and small tables in the halls.
Language. Learning Mandarin is very difficult. Add different script and communication is usually impossible in this country. As Chinese is tonal, proper pronunciation is mandatory or Chinese cannot understand you. They often don’t even understand hand gestures, so getting one’s point across can be impossible. From talking to foreigners learning Chinese, learning the tones and grammar is easier than expected but the sentence structure is quite difficult. Becoming conversational would take at least 3 months of intensive study (and often longer). I don’t have the time or interest to do that. I am only traveling in this country for 2 months so taking that much time to learn a language I will never use again, doesn’t seem reasonable.
English skills are not as good as I expected. I was led to believe that all students take English in school and most young Chinese had at least some English ability. But that is not the case. It seems that the only Chinese with good English are those that studied in university.
Costs. Generally China is fairly cheap to travel in. Transportation is all inexpensive. Accommodation costs $5-12 in hostels if staying in dorm rooms. Hotels are obtainable in the $20-$30 range at the low-end. Food is also quite affordable. The one thing that is higher here than anywhere else in the world (with the possible exception of Sri Lanka) are admissions to attractions. Most national parks cost $35 and most places cost $10-$17. Student cards often get 50% reductions. As I am over 60, some places become free (Yungang Buddhist caves in Datong and Pingyao), some reduce to 50% but most age reductions are only available to Chinese citizens.
Mobile phones. I rarely have carried a phone when traveling but in China, one would be very handy. To access wi-fi in many places, the password is sent to mobile phones. As a result, it is impossible to get wi-fi in Starbucks and some airports.
Google Translate and Google Maps would have proved invaluable many times. English skills are often poor and it is impossible to communicate. Often used by Chinese, translating to Mandarin has worked well many times especially in hotels and with taxis.
My Plan to See Eastern China. When thinking about the best way to see China, I found all 41 Unesco World Heritage Sites and put them on a large National Geographic map of China. After reading my Lonely Planet-China, I added other places, mostly natural wonders, to that list. It seemed realistic that I would only be able to see Eastern China in the time I had. I then connected all those places in Eastern China with a highlighter. There was a big gap after the cruise down the Three Gorges Dam so I decided to fly from there to Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan and work my way east and north to end up in Macao and Hong Kong at the end. In that way, I would see all the “cold” places as early as I could and work my way to warmer places by December 15 when I planned on flying from Hong Kong to Palau to go diving at the end of my China visa. It looks like I should be able to visit a huge amount of this part of China and not miss much.
BEIJING (pop 20 million)
Arriving by plane, I took the Airport Express (25 RMB) and metro to my hostel. Like most metros in the world (except Moscow), it is a dream to navigate. I then walked to Fly-By-Knight Courtyard Hostel, finding it with no problems. It was in DengCao Hutong (narrow alleyway) – one leaves the hustle and bustle of busy Beijing and walk down a quiet side street of shops and homes. It is in the historic Dongcheng District of Beijing, one of the cities largest and by far the most interesting for visitors. There was a lot of pollution on the day I arrived but with some wind the next day, it improved and I woke up to blue skies on my third day. It was also warm – tropical by Mongolian standards – and I welcomed getting back to flip-flops.
Unfortunately, I was pickpocketed on the subway losing my wallet, no money but my credit and debit cards. After traveling for over 8 years, I should know better and only use zippered pockets especially ones in the front. Within an hour, new cards were on their way and should arrive when I get back from North Korea. The credit card had been used immediately after it was stolen.
The second unfortunate thing was my dorm mates, four young Brazilians. Guaranteed to have a poor sleep, it was compounded by a Chinese fellow who snored loudly all night. Pardon my rant, but South American young people all behave identically. If they don’t go out at night arriving back in the room at 4am drunk, they stay up till 1 and don’t understand that most places have a lights out policy and quiet after 11pm. When they return at 4, they have no compunction to turn on the lights, talk and disrupt the rest of the people. In St Petersburg, 2 Brazilians returned at 4, left their phones on which rang and beeped with every email; they closed the window and I woke up in a sweat and then the snoring started, always worse when people are drunk. In Moscow, 3 young Chileans arrived at midnight, showered, unpacked and told me that I should stay in private rooms if I didn’t like it. In Beijing, these guys did not go to sleep until 1:30, then their alarm went off at 5, they all showered, talked, and zipped their suitcases. I appreciate that tolerance is required in dorms and that people can continue their culture wherever they go. But why South Americans are so consistently inconsiderate must say something about them and simple respect for others. 95% of my dorm stays go great. I was thankfully able to change rooms. The Brazilians went to a football match between Argentina and Brazil in Beijing on October 12 – they paid US$170 per seat! And Brazil won 2-0.
Forbidden City. Ringed by a 52m wide moat and imposing high crenallated grey brick walls, the Forbidden City is China’s largest and best-preserved collection of ancient buildings. With 9000 rooms and 35 Buddhist worship areas, it is also the world’s largest palace complex. It named ‘Forbidden’ as it was off-limits for 500 years and uninvited guests were executed. It was the reclusive home to both the Ming and Qing dynasties until overthrown in 1924.
I spent about 4 hours exploring most everything. Entrance is only through the massive south Meridian Gate. The crowds outside were huge and I thought it would take hours to get tickets and queue to get in, but it was amazingly fast as the lines really move. I can only imagine what it must have been like during National Holiday Week which I just missed (Oct 1-7) when it seems best to simply hunker down in your hotel as traveling is virtually impossible and the crowds massive as all of China goes on holiday at he same time.
Through the gate, you enter an enormous courtyard and cross the Golden Stream spanned by 5 bridges. I followed the suggested Lonely Planet walking guide and turned right to see the good Ceramics Gallery with pieces dating to the Neolithic period in 6000 BC. Then you pass through three great halls – the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Middle harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. You can only just peer in the door at some poorly lit thrones and the crush of people was intense. Aggressiveness is required to have a glimpse. All the side halls which often have exhibitions were closed.
Turn right here to visit the not-to-be-missed fascinating Clock Exhibition Hall (on your left after going through a gate – 10 yuan). This is an amazing array of hundreds of timepieces, many gifts to the Qing emperors. Time your visit for 11am or 2pm to see the clock performance when choice timepieces strike the hour. All are intricate masterpieces with pavilions, towers and terraces holding rotating flowers, trees and gourds, glass waterfalls, moving figures hitting gongs, and animals. Many are trifunctional showing days, months and lunar phases. The earliest are English and were imported after Guangzhou opened as the first port in 1684. Others are from France, Switzerland, Japan and the USA. Standout clocks are the ‘Gilt Copper Astronomy Clock equipped with a working model of the solar system, and the automaton-equipped ‘Gilt Copper Clock’ with a robot writing Chinese characters with a brush.
Continue east to the Complete Palace of Peace and Longevity where you first encounter the Nine Dragon Screen, a huge ceramic, one of three like it in China. Turn north or left to enter the Treasury Gallery, a huge series of halls showing stone drums, jewellery, jade, gold and gardens (built with massive pieces of volcanic basalt and trees). One a liked the most was three imperial stamps each connected by a chain all carved from a single piece of jade. View each building in its entirety before proceeding north as you eventually exit at the far north end of the complex. Return south to visit several more halls, many of which served as the living quarters. Exit through the North Gate.
There were many tour groups, mostly Chinese, each with their own coloured hats. I am always astonished at all the people who see museums by taking photos of each caption and exhibit on their phone and don’t actually look at anything.
I went around to the west side and eventually ended up in Zhongshan Park, south and outside of the Forbidden City. It is delightful with hundreds of 600 year-old and seven 1000 year old cypresses, flower beds, ponds and walkways. At the north end of the park, right next to the moat, I encountered a uniquely Chinese event. Sitting on little stools were many men and women, most over 50, with plasticized sheets in front to them. They were all looking for a partner and were advertising their virtues! I talked for a while to a guy who especially wanted a foreign woman with ‘double eyes’, a big nose and a buxom build. There were no foreigners there.
Expecting rude, unfriendly, spitting queue-jumpers (there is some of that too), I have been delightfully surprised by how much I am enjoying Chinese people in Beijing as they are significantly different from Mongolians – friendly, humorous, always willing to help with advice, and returning a smile with a smile. The women working in my hostel are more than helpful and joking with the touts around the Forbidden City was fun. Assume = ass-u-me (an expression I like).
After returning from North Korea, I went to the Summer Palace. This was the summer playground for emperors fleeing the summer torpor of the Forbidden City. Originally a royal garden, Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century used an army of 100,000 labourers to deepen and expand the lake. Anglo-French troops vandalized the place during the Second Opium War (1856-1860) destroying virtually every building. Empress Dowager Cixi rebuilt everything instead of expanding the navy. With the Boxer Rebellion, foreign troops torched the Summer Palace again in 1900, and it was restored. After falling into disrepair, a major overhaul was done again in 1949. The huge Kunming Lake takes up three-quarters of the park.
Take Subway line 4 to the Beigongmen Station, turn left and the North Gate is very near. Buy the ‘through ticket’ for 60 RMB (gives access to four additional places in the park, that I have marked with an *). Visit Suzhou Street* just inside the North Gate, an area of shops surrounding a small lake designed to mimic the famous Jiangsu canal town. I was intrigued by the Chinese name painting where pictures represent each letter in our alphabet. Climb Longevity Hill to the Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion* and the Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom for great views down to Kunming Lake through the smog induced haze. Walk down to the lake and turn right and walk by Cixi’s marble boat and the fine Qing boathouses. Continue to walk counter-clockwise around the lake making for a very pleasant 2 hour stroll via the West Causeway that goes over 6 lovely bridges. This walk is much better than taking one of the ferries that cruise the lake. At the far end of the lake is the domed Xiuyl Bridge just before turning north to walk along the east side of the lake. The graceful 17-arch bridge crosses over to South Lake Island and the Dragon King Temple. Just after passing through a large gate, turn right to see Wenchang Gallery* with ceramics and bronzes. Just inside the east gate is the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity with a throne and bronze animals. One can only peer in. Continue onto the north side of the lake to the Garden of Virtue and Harmony*, not a garden but a set of halls and a stage, often with short performances. One of the halls has a fantastic collection of 400 cosmetic cases donated by an avid Hong Kong collector. After the ‘garden’ turn right to go on the north side of Longevity Hill through a fantastic pine forest with several ponds. You will come back to the square just south of Suzhou Street and the north gate.
I didn’t see the Old Summer Palace which was also sacked during the Second Opium War and today has only ruins. Bus 331 goes between the Old Summer Palace and the East Gate of the Summer Palace and continues to the Botanic Gardens and Fragrance Hill Park in the northwest outskirts of Beijing.
Nanluogu Xiang Hutong.
This is Beijing’s most famous hutong. It is accessed from Nanluoguxiang Subway Station. I did the suggested walking tour in the Lonely Planet (impossible to follow in some parts) to walk the historic alleyways. There are many impressive gateways along with small bars and restaurants away form the bustling main street. The tour ends at the Bell Tower and Drum Tower. Both served as the city’s official timekeeper with drums and bells beaten and rung to mark the times of the day. Originally built in 1272, the Drum Tower was once the heart of the Mongol capital of Dadu, as Beijing was then known. The original was destroyed in a fire in 1420 and rebuilt. The Bell Tower is just to the north past the Drum and Bell Square and contains a huge 63-tonne bell. I returned down the touristy Nanluogu Xiang street bull of restaurants, bars, shops and throngs of people.
Lama Temple. This exceptional Tibetan Buddhist temple, the most important one outside of Tibet, is the one temple to visit in Beijing. After passing through a lovely garden, there are multiple halls culminating in the Wantu Pavilion with its magnificent 18m-high statue of Maitreya Buddha sculpted from a single piece of white sandalwood. All the halls have riveting roofs, frescoes, tapestries, and eye-popping carpentry. Small side halls have great displays of Buddhist treasures. Today it is an active place of worship attracting pilgrims from afar.
Just south of the Forbidden City, this is the world’s largest public square at 440,000 sq. meters. It was conceived of by Mao and during the Cultural Revolution reviewed parades of up to a million people. A 1976 near-riot that accompanied the death of Premier Zhou Enlai and most infamously, in 1989, the army forced prodemocracy demonstrations out of the square with hundreds dying in the surrounding streets. Contrary to widespread belief, it is unlikely that anyone was killed in the square itself.
Despite being a public place, heavy security reigns supreme: CCTV cameras, army and police officers everywhere, guys with megaphones directing the people traffic, and depending on the time of day, crippling long line-ups at the security check points (all entry is via underground walkways). Everyone is given a thorough search, bags X-rayed and all lighters confiscated. There is nowhere to sit in the square itself so it is not a place to chill out. It is illuminated at night. At the north end is the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Built in the 15th century, it has 60 gargantuan wooden pillars and 17 equally large lamps. It was the largest of the four gates of the Imperial City Wall, and can be climbed for good views. Continuing south in the square, there is the world’s largest vase with huge artificial flowers and then the large obelisk of the Monument to the People’s Heroes.
Lines start on the east side of this to see the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, the main reason to visit Tian’anmen. Closed on Mondays and open only until noon, the crowds are immense as the Chinese have an almost religious respect for the ‘Great Helmsman’. The day I visited, it took almost an hour to get through the security entering Tian’anmen as it was 8am when the Memorial Hall opens. After depositing my pack in the bag storage area (many arrive in tour groups and piles of packs are all over the place with a minder looking after them while the tour visits the mausoleum), I joined the staggering large queue that snakes back and forth endlessly. Moving at a constant slow shuffle, it took another hour to get to another security check point before entering the hall. Most natives buy a small bouquet of white flowers to lay before a large white statue of Mao sitting. His mummified corpse lies in a crystal cabinet draped in a red flag emblazoned with a hammer and sickle and lit with a reddish golden glow. Two lines form so he is only seen from one side. Surprisingly, there are very few statues of Mao left in the country – one of the few was outside the Railway Station in Dandong on the North Korean border. This is the fifth “dead guy” I have seen this year – Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, Lenin in Red Square in Moscow, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang, North Korea and now Mao. I believe they are all wax and the myth of perpetual embalming is a hoax. It was a long time to see such a whacko.
At the south end of Tian’anmen is the double Front Gate consisting of the Zhengyang Gate and Zhengyang Gate Arrow Tower. They date from the Ming Dynasty and were once the largest of the nine gates of the Inner City Wall separating the inner, or Tartar (Manchu) city from the outer, or Chinese city.
National Museum of China.
Across the street on the east side of Tian’anmen, this is China’s premier museum. The Ancient China exhibition on the basement floor is outstanding. Showing the best examples from prehistoric times through to the Qing dynasty, it is all beautifully displayed in modern, spacious, low-lit exhibition halls. On the top floor, I also visited a Chinese money exhibit, an ancient bronze hall and an exhibit of all the gifts given to Chinese leaders that I found quite interesting.
Temple of Heaven Park
This 267-hectare park is one of China’s busiest. Enclosed in a big wall, it was the place where the emperor prayed for good harvests and sought divine clearance and atonement. The temple halls are round and their bases square in accordance with the notion that ‘Heaven is round and Earth is square’. The highlight of the park is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests with a triple-eaved purplish-blue umbrella roof mounted on a three=tiered marble terrace. The wooden pillars made from Oregon fir support the ceiling without nails or cement which is astonishing for a building 38m high and 30m in diameter. South along an elevated pathway is the octagonal Imperial Vault of Heaven encircled by the Echo Wall, and then the 5m high Round Altar whose geometry revolves around the imperial number nine (odd numbers have heavenly significance with nine the largest single-digit odd number). A central stone is surrounded by 9 stones and the ninth ring has 81 stones. The stairs are in multiples of nine. These central structures are surrounded by a lovely forest of ancient cypress and pine trees.
Ming Tombs. 50km NW if Beijing at the base of the Tianshou Mountains are the Unesco listed tombs of 13 of the 16 Ming dynasty emperors and makes a reasonable half-day trip out of Beijing. Only three of the tombs are open to the public. Take bus 872 that leaves at 15 minutes after the hour all day from just north of the Deshengmen Gateway terminating at Chang Ling. This is the tomb of the first emperor, Yongle (r 1402-1424) with his wife and 16 concubines. The main site is the Hall of Eminent Favours with a vast interior with massive cedar columns. The burial mound is not excavated. Take the bus 5 minutes to Ding Ling, the tomb of the 13th Emperor Wanli (1572-1620). Many of the halls were destroyed but it is the best as you can climb down into the burial chambers with 5 large domed rooms. It is also recommended to visit on the road leading to the tombs, the Spirit Way with a triumphal arch and 12 sets of stone animals and officials. Catch bus 872 back to Beijing.
The Great Wall
One of the Seven Wonders of the World, and an obvious must-see on any visit to China, the Great Wall stretches 7,000kms from the Pacific to the Gobi Desert. The most renowned and easiest to see sections undulate over the mountains north of Beijing. It is not one continuous structure but exists in chunks interspersed with precipitous mountains that had no need for further bastions.
The original wall was begun more than 2000 years ago during the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC) when separate wall were linked together. Requiring thousands of workers – many political prisoners sentenced to years of hard labour. An estimated 180 cubic metres of rammed earth and the bones of deceased workers was used to form the core of the original wall. The beacon tower system used black smoke to signal the presence of the enemy and defences consisted of clatrops (steel spikes), an ingenious system of explosive mines, archers and bombs.
Ming engineers reinforced the eroding walls by facing it with some 60 million bricks and stone slabs over at least a century. The wall, despite the enormous effort used to construct it, ultimately failed as an impenetrable line of defence. Both the Mongols and the Manchus breached it to establish the Yuan and Qing dynasties. As the Europeans and Japanese arrived by sea, it eventually had no role and was largely forgotten. Mao encouraged the use of the wall as building materials for roads, dams and other construction. Without its cladding, lengthy sections were destroyed completely and were only revived by the tourist industry and several important sections have been rebuilt. Several sections are accessed from Beijing and I visited Janshanling.
Janshanling Great Wall. This is the section I visited. 142 km NE of Beijing, it winds through stunningly remote mountainous terrain. It is possible to hike 7 kms from Gubeikou to Simatai over 3-4 hours over both restored and non restored sections. The landscape here is drier and more stark but possibly more powerful. It is best to avoid the heat of summer. There is a cable car but the walk up is not long and I would encourage that. There are many guard towers and some steep sections but a reasonably fit person can do it. Long sections snake across the mountain tops for stunning views.
The tour I took cost 340 RMB including 2 meals but involved a 3-hour bus trip each way. Beijing Hikers offered a 2-day trip here with camping next to the wall that cost an astounding 1680 RMB or US$280.
The smog in China is confusing. Even out here, 150kms from Beijing, it is obvious and I assume that there are coal-fired power plants all over the place. The sky is a consistent grey, the sun obscured and visibility limited by a thin haze. It makes for poor photography. On the one day there was blue sky, it appeared out of nowhere with no obvious explanation, then was gone the next day.
Other commonly visited sections include:
1. Jiankou. Supposedly the most gorgeous section of completely unrestored wall along a mountainous ridge. Starting at Xizhhazi (bus 916 from Dongzhimen transport hub to Huairou, then a taxi), walk one hour through a pine forest to the wall, then east for 2 hours to Mutuanyu.
2. Mutianyu. This is a recently renovated 3km long section famed for its 26 Ming-era guard towers and views. A cable car and smaller crowds make it one of the easier sections. From the Dongzhimen Wai bus stand, at 7am and 8:30am, take bus 867 2 1/2 hrs to Mutianyu.
3. Huanghua Cheng. 77 km north of Beijing, it has high, wide ramparts, intact parapets and beacon towers and is relatively unrestored. West it leads to Zhuangdaokou and east it leads to Jiankou and Mutianyu over 3 days. It is steep and has slippery, worn smooth stonework.
4. Zhuangdaokou. Just 50km north of Beijing, this has a 2 km, rarely visited and completely unrestored section to the west and a one-hour restored, but very steep section to the east.
5. Badaling. 70 km northwest of Beijing, it is the easiest part of the wall to get to. It is heavily restored and completely non authentic with souvenir stalls, guard rails and mobs of people. The only plus is that the scenery is raw and striking. It sounds to me like it should be avoided with so many good sections to explore.
I reported my stolen credit and debit cards on Oct 11 and received my credit card by courier on the 20th, but still hadn’t gotten my debit card on the 24th. RBC, my bank, is unable to given me a tracking number and I am keen to move on. There is little more to see in Beijing.