We expected Beijing to be crowded and polluted, but surprisingly we found neither to be entirely true. Perhaps the rain we received cleared the air, but throughout the week we also got some beautiful blue skies, and apart from the tourist spots, Beijing was not as crowded as we had feared and was well laid out for such a large city.
Our hotel room was facing in-ward towards the atrium so unfortunately we didn’t know the sky was falling until we got outside on our first day and we hadn’t dressed for it. We first visited Tiananmen Square, which was pretty much just a big rectangle and unfortunately the rain and thousands of tourists with umbrellas didn’t really do it for us. We headed into the Forbidden City Palace, which was certainly larger than we expected and in amazing condition after the renovations for the Olympics. It is called the Forbidden City because no common people were allowed inside during the emperors rule. We’d like to tell you more of the Palace, but to be honest, there was so much and the rain really took way from it. Nonetheless, it certainly was impressive.
The next morning we drove about an hour and a half to visit a section of the Great Wall! It was built by the first emperor of China who also built the terracotta warriors. We marveled again at his amazing vision and ambitions. We were overwhelmed by the number of tourists visiting, but we took the route with less people, even though it was very steep. There were mountains all around, and even though the day was hazy, it was beautiful and much cooler than it would have been with the sun blazing. The wall was remarkable and unbelievably steep at times. We both really enjoyed the hour or so that we walked along the way and it was probably the highlight of Beijing.
Around the corner from our hotel was a snack market and a bizarre that lived up to all our expectations of Chinese markets! We saw snakes and starfish on sticks as well as LIVE scorpions on sticks as well as many other things that scared the shit out of us. We were not brave enough to try the more shocking items, but we did sample a few tamer snacks like pot stickers and balls of fried banana. We also put our crazy bargaining skills to use in the market and picked up some gifts. Our bags are getting really heavy now! I think it’s time to throw out some clothes to make room for souvenirs!
Other tourist attractions we visited were the Tombs of the Emperors and the Summer Palace. The 14 tombs were built very deep underground with Feng Shui in mind. It was an impressive engineering project especially considering when they were built. Only one has been open to the public and the others are still closed. The Summer Palace was built on a lake and “palace” does not really describe it accurately; as with most Chinese architecture, it was more about the grounds than the buildings. There were some pretty elements to it, but once again, the overwhelming number of tourists really just left me wanting to run away.
One of our favorite things about China was all the public Parks. In every city there were beautiful parks and the people certainly take advantage of them, retired people in particular. All throughout the day people come together in big and small groups to dance, practice Tai Chi, sing, play cards and Chinese chess, fly kites, dance with ribbons and more. We also saw a lot of very talented Calligraphers writing and drawing on the pavement with large water brushes. As we were walking by, one artist looked up at Raj and decided to draw him! In about 90 seconds, he drew a fantastic image of Raj (see video). Overall, walking through the parks was a great way to see how the people relax and enjoy life, how artistic and vibrate they are. and how content, and social Chinese people are. What we saw in the parks/public areas seemed unique to China and not something we would expect to see anywhere else in the world.
For about a month we have been discussing the last few weeks of our trip which originally included a week in Japan and a week in Thailand before finishing up in London. Between the riots in Thailand and the feeling that a week was not sufficient for Japan, we decided to change up our trip a bit. After considering spending the two weeks in only Japan or going to Cambodia, Vietnam, Egypt, Mongolia South Africa or Morocco, we finally decided on skipping Japan for this trip and instead going to Vietnam and Cambodia with only 2 days in Bangkok (which we had to keep in order to get our international flight to London because our OneWorld pass didn’t fly to London from many of the places were considering. After some research into visas for Vietnam and Cambodia we found we could get our Vietnam visa in Beijing and our Cambodian visa upon arrival. However, in Beijing we were confronted with some ridiculous complications. First of all, if we were going to be flying to Vietnam from any other country, we could have just applied for a visa upon arrival, but China does not allow passengers to board a flight without a visa in hand. So, we had to surrender our passports to the Vietnam embassy for them to process our visas, but doing that meant that we couldn’t travel or check in to new hotels because they are very strict in China about having a passport at check-in and a photocopy would not suffice. So, we not only had to pay extra for rush delivery for our visas, but we had to cancel our overnight trip from Beijing to Datong which included seeing a hanging monastery and an overnight train journey back to Beijing. Despite our frustration, our travel agency was super nice and took on the expense of re-booking our Beijing hotel at no additional cost to us, and in the end we left China with our Vietnam visas and great anticipation for visiting Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and a four night stay at the beach in Mui Ne, Vietnam!.