China - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 215 (25)

Beijing

Saturday 9th October

Despite the very hard beds that make you feel like you are lying on a hard board supported by springs, it was a surprisingly restful sleep last night. Before we finally turned in, I received a phone call from the English teacher that we plan on meeting in Xi’an. I had e-mailed her my new mobile phone number, which she received and immediately made use of. It was nice to finally put a voice to the e-mails. When we arrive in Xi’an in a few days, we will be able to put a face to the voice.

It turned out to be very fortuitous that Nancy called. During our conversation, the subject of our China visa came up and I checked to see for how long it was valid. I had originally planned on a good four weeks in China but possibly a few days more or less, depending on how quickly we travel. As it happens, our visas are good for exactly thirty days only so we will need to keep an eye on things closely during the second half of our trek through the country. The visas are double entry visas and this brings up an interesting possibility. After spending about a week right here in Beijing and surroundings, we could take a flight over to Japan for a week or so and return to Beijing to carry on with our China tour. This would give us another thirty days to play with and this should be more than enough to knock off the rest of our China itinerary. We called a travel agent listed in the guidebook and inquired about the costs involved. Sadly, the costs are quite considerable. The return flight prices quoted were around the $450 per person mark. We can still afford this but it is a considerable additional expense to the overall trip and that doesn’t yet take into account the cost of sustaining ourselves whilst there, which I fully expect to be considerable also. The jury is still out on this one.

As planned, we checked out of our room this morning only to check straight back in again into the room right next to the one we just slept in. We figured we were quite comfortable here being centrally located and with good access to the Internet with an Internet terminal room right here inside the hostel. The new room is actually identical to last night’s but is a mirror image and with just two beds instead of three. It’s the same in all other regards. I had not noticed when checking in yesterday that they give discounts for International Youth Hostel Association members. We signed up with IYHA especially for the purposes of this trip so I told the new guy at the front desk about this and explained that we had not been informed of the discounts. After showing him our membership cards, he reluctantly gave us the ¥20 ($2,50) discount for last night’s stay and we will get the same discount for the remainder of our stay here also. The price we will be paying for this new double room will be just ¥160 ($20). Our IYHA membership cost us £15 each and by the end of our few days here in Beijing, we will have already recouped about $15 of that in savings. Let the big bucks roll!

With all the logistical accommodation formalities out of the way with for another day, we set off with cameras in hand to tackle Tiananmen Square. With a rough map of the local area already in my mind, I knew which direction to set off in but it would be quite a trek with the promise of a lot more walking once we got there so we decided to hail a taxi. This took us all of about three seconds and with my guidebook open at the map page, I confidently asked the driver to take us to Tiananmen Square and pointed off into the general direction I though it was. This seemed to generate a fair bit of confusion. Naturally the driver spoke no English even if he did make a lot of noises but kept repeating something and pointing in a completely different direction. An old woman at the bus stop, equally fluent in making noise, joined the scene and the two of them seemed to reach an agreement on where we should be taken so we got in. The drive was only about ten minutes and on the way, I studied my map a little more intently when the epiphany hit me that I had the wrong mental map in my head and that the direction I was pointing to the driver was, indeed, the complete opposite direction to where I was asking him to take us. No wonder there was so much confusion. What must these people make of these stupid tourists, I wonder?

The avenues and boulevards of Beijing are very wide and spacious but this is nothing compared to the road system in and around Tiananmen Square. Save for the monuments inside the square itself, it’s essentially one huge open space. With only lines on the road to direct the traffic, there are no verges, curbs, posts or any other obstacle sticking out of the ground. I’d say that a jumbo jet could land here in pretty much any direction if need be.

Another curiosity that we’ve seen a few times here is a strange new form of transportation I’ve never seen anywhere else. Some sort of hybrid cross between a bus and a tram travels the roads here and provides an option for getting around the city. It looks very much like an ordinary city bus, complete with a very crowded passenger compartment and rubber wheels just like any other bus with a driver to steer it in any given direction. Above it, however, are two electric lines that trace power lines overhead. These power lines provide the vehicle with the electric energy needed to propel it but it runs on wheels and not on a tram track and it thus free to move from side to side, weaving in and out of other traffic as it does so. The two lines are pivoted at the base and as the bus moves freely from lane to lane, these electric lines rotate to allow them to remain firmly attached to the overhead cables. Clearly, however, this ‘trus’ or ‘bram’ (these are our own made up conjunctions of the words bus and tram but we’re not sure which would be more appropriate) cannot stray too far from a given path as this would mean detaching itself from its umbilical, and the resulting loss of power would bring it to an immediate standstill.

Leaving aside for a moment the diversion of the strange looking trus-bram, Tiananmen Square is full of people. The vast majority of these people are Chinese tourists. Every so often we would see clumps of them following around a tour guide holding a bright, coloured flag for identification and wielding a loud speaker. They seem to instinctively follow the sound bellowing from the load speaker and the guide ushers them from one place to the next.

Having read the guidebooks thoroughly, we were not surprised to almost immediately be approached by English speaking Chinese women claiming immediately to be art students. It’s a very well documents scam and our persistence in ignoring them all seemed to work wonders. It’s not worth them spending too much time on people that clearly have no interest when there are plenty of green tourists to prey on.

At various points around the square and the various monuments, very smartly dressed military guards stood to attention with others still walking around in pairs. I wasn’t sure about whether I should sneak a few surreptitious shots of these. The guidebook warns against trying to photograph anything military or even things like bridges. Let’s just hope we won’t be deported (or worse) if the authorities ever explore my laptop and find the snaps I sneaked.

Chairmen Mao’s memorial stands majestically in the middle of the main square and there are some other interesting looking buildings framing the wide-open space also. We explored all the corners of this very busy and very symbolic capital of Beijing before heading in the direction of the Forbidden City. A huge portrait of Mao hangs above the entrance to the Forbidden City. I wonder what he would have thought as he looked down on the events that played out here back in 1989 when a huge student revolt was violently suppressed by the authority’s use of the military.

We walked through a series of courtyards and through huge arched openings in some very impressive buildings before we found the ticket window for the actually Forbidden City itself. The cost of getting through was ¥60 ($7,40) each and included a visit to the Museum in addition to the general entrance price, although we didn’t learn this till later.

The Forbidden City is essentially a collection of grand buildings with a series of wide-open courtyards. We traversed a path right down the middle, passing under and through many of the main buildings and archways and into successive courtyards, one after the other. All of these buildings are very grand and epitomise all that is Chinese with their very intricate and distinctive, slanted roofs and elaborate slate tiles and figurines adorned at the tips of where the roof surfaces meet. For the most part, we were restricted to about the centre third of the entire length of the complex. Building and renovation works were under way along either side and we could see the skilled craftsmen working their trade on these very distinctive roofs.

At various points throughout the whole complex, itself a shade under a Kilometre wide and a shade over a Kilometre long, stalls selling commemorative books, camera film, postcards and refreshments attracted a slightly denser clump of tourists than was otherwise generally the case. At one of these points, there was what looked like a rather nice looking restaurant. Despite the obvious placement of this establishment to catch as many rich tourists as possible, we were quite tired on our feet by now and decided to chance going in to see if we could get a spot of lunch. As luck would have it, the waitress spoke a few keys words of English and the menu had English translations. The menu items and prices seemed rather reasonable to we sat and ordered. It was a very nice meal with enough food being brought out to feed a large family and the bill for the two of us came to just ¥120 ($15) – not bad for a tourist trap even though this was probably quite expensive by local standards.

Our cameras were well and truly earning their keep and we snapped away merrily at one building after the next. It was largely much of the same as we progressed through the complex of spacious courtyards but towards the far end, we decided to veer off to one side and found a park-like section of the city with smaller alleyways and tree-lined avenues. All in all, it was a very enjoyable first day out in Beijing, even if it did make our feet a little sore.

It was right around closing time that we decided we’d seen enough and left through the North exit, more than a Kilometre from where we entered under Chairmen Mao on the South side. Like hounds to the hunters, we had to pass through a relatively narrow exit gate and through a hoard of waiting touts willing to sell us anything from watches to photo books. Ever so briefly, it felt like we were back in India being hassled on the streets again. This particular mix of entrepreneurs were a fair bit more persistent than those in Tiananmen Square and some took a little bit more shaking off. This is exactly what we did however and set off down the street with the goal of hailing an already moving taxi as opposed to one of the waiting tourist seekers.

Even though we had a rather nice little laminated card that explained in Chinese where our hostel was, our first hailed taxi either didn’t know where it was or didn’t want us as passengers. Either way, he sped off after giving me back my card and we hailed another. This time we were more successful and were brought swiftly back home, safe and sound. The taxi meter starts after the car starts to move with an initial meter value of ¥10 ($1,25). This is good for a couple of Kilometres or more when it starts to slowly increment. Our fifteen-minute ride didn’t make it past the initial couple of Kilometres and we handed over our ¥10 at the end of the journey.

Back at the hostel, we spoke with another new English speaking staff member about a possible trip to Tokyo but her inquiries also came back with a similarly expensive $445 per person fare. This is a desperate dilemma for me since I very much would like to visit Japan but sandy is by no means convinced, not knowing anything about the place, and she thinks it is too expensive. Once again, this issue remains unresolved.

I did spend an hour or so on one of the Internet terminals, looking for flights but they were even more expensive online. Some of them by a factor of two and even three times more than we’ve already been quoted. I did think I’d struck gold at one point with a return fare for just $225 but it turned out to be only available for residents of China.

We decided to put aside the problem of whether or not we will go to Japan and decided to head out into town to find a restaurant. The hostel here does have it’s own little restaurant but no kitchen facilities for the guests – many hostels do. We figured we’d be adventurous, however, and given that there were several nice looking places that we past yesterday on the way to the KFC and the bank, we though we’d give one of these a try.

After a few minutes walk, we stopped at a very respectable looking place and asked if we could see a menu with English translation. As luck would have it we could, and found many of the items to be quite palatably described so we went in and were seated in our own little cubby-hole. The table was nicely laid out with very clean table dressings. There were some interesting things on the menu such as dog and vegetarian chicken, which made us both chuckle. The head waitress seemed intent on standing at our table with little notebook and pen in hand even though we’d only just been given the menu and were still looking through its many pages. I tried to tell her that we would need a few minutes but, as I’m quickly learning, these sort of non-critical interactions only serve to generate confusion and I gave up after a while in favour of continuing to study the menu.

The prices were very reasonable and we ordered several things from the menu that took our fancy, including vegetables and two types of mushrooms, vegetable fried rice, sizzling steak, sliced potatoes pancakes and bread rolls. The waitress seemed to want to confirm the number of items that we ordered, which I though was prudent, if a little odd of her.

Although we only ordered a few items, it soon became apparent that this would be enough food to feed five if not six very hungry people. We had a lot of fun figuring out just how to eat the various things and one of the younger waitresses that hovered in the wings was keeping an eye on us. She would come over every now and then to give us directions. When sandy was having trouble picking up the small strands of sliced potato with her chopsticks, for example, she would assist with deftly picking up a huge mound in a single go and placing it onto Sandy’s plate.

We were already well into the meal when we noticed that the platter of sizzling steak pieces tasted a bit rubbery and rather odd. Id then dawned on us that we were actually eating in a vegetarian restaurant and that the steak was nothing more than some sort of meat substitute. This would explain the vegetarian chicken but I’m still at a loss to explain the dog. Quite amazingly for all the excellent food and drinks that we were presented with, the bill came to just ¥90 ($11).

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