The second is the image of the Beijing sky ablaze with fireworks set against the backdrop of the Birds Nest Stadium and Olympic Park in 2008. For me, it’s the second most iconic image of the 21st century thus far (Number 1 being 9/11 of course).
Beijing is a pretty relevant, hugely important, happening place. It’s been claimed innumerable times, the 21st century will belong to China, and Beijing will be the hub of the world.
It seemed a logical destination for our first trip in China, outside of Nanjing.
We were to travel at the beginning of the week-long National Day holiday, our new colleagues and friends had warned us it will be busy, “Of course it will, it’s Beijing” we said, the capital of the worlds most populous nation.
We set off early on the Saturday morning from Nanjing South Station, arriving in Beijing barely 4 hours later (quite an achievement considering we traveled 1000km in that time by train). It’s pretty interesting looking out the window, watching rural China speed by, a huge contrast to Nanjing, and later (as expected) Beijing.
First off, the weather was absolutely glorious. We have heard more times than we care to remember about how unbearable the smog and pollution is in Beijing. However, we were in luck – it turns out the Beijing government has decided there should be no clouds above the city during the National Week celebrations. Therefore they quite literally launch hundreds of rockets into the sky to disperse chemical(s) into the atmosphere, and presto, you have beautiful, clear weather. If you think I’m making this up, read this. In China, they really can (and do) control the weather! Let’s not concern ourselves too much with the environmental implications of that of course…
For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard, seen, and read so many things about Tiananmen Square. Almost all mentioned the June 4th incident (as it is referred to in China) in some shape or form, consequently I have always imagined it to be a dark, eerie, somewhat sinister place.
The Square itself is large, with lot’s of red communist flags, lined by the vast yet uninspiring Great Hall of the People, National Musuem, Mao’s Mausoleum, and the significantly more impressive Forbidden City to the North, the entrance of which is adorned by a large portrait of Chairman Mao.
Perhaps it was the glorious weather which affected my perceptions and judgement, maybe it didn’t, but either way it wasn’t what I expected. There were tourists everywhere, and more police officers than you’d see at an Old Firm football match, but it felt quite relaxed except for the throngs of people, and tour groups (Oh the tour groups…). It didn’t feel particularly tense or sinister at all.
Yes there were a lot of security measures in place, and a heavy uniformed police presence, all there on the ‘pretense’ of protecting the square and general public from ‘terrorists’. It all sounds a little familiar don’t you think?
The Chinese Governments idea of a ‘terrorist’ may or may not be slightly different to ours, but I guess it all boils down to one’s definition of a ‘terrorist’.
I always imagined I’d be able to play “Spot the secret policemen” but sadly it was actually quite difficult. I was unable to identify many with certainty amongst the huge crowds which congregate daily. I was left to merely speculating with Amelia, a disappointment by all accounts. We did however get to see lot’s of secret policemen and secret service people in other areas around Tiananmen later, much to my excitement, less so for Amelia.
Our first evening was spent checking out some of the night markets and the
gross ‘interesting’ delicacies they offer. I won’t say much about these, except for the scorpions you can see below were still alive and moving, despite being impaled on a kebab stick. Mmmm, lovely.
The Forbidden City is usually at the top of most people’s to do list in Beijing. It is an impressive, large palace, abundant with history and character. Chinese visit here in their tens of thousands daily, but fortunately the Palace is large enough to find a quiet spot and escape from the crowds.
On the topic of crowds, we were warned how busy Beijing would be during the national day holiday week, as mentioned previously. However, nothing could have prepared for us what we saw. It’s impossible to convey just how large, and how hectic the crowds were; seemingly everywhere, at times it felt like there was no escape. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. It was an experience in itself (although not a particularly pleasant one). It made walking out of Wembley Stadium feel like a relaxing walk in the park. Seeing it, is believing it. Never again!
We travelled out to the Summer Palace, but left within thirty minutes due to the crowds, spitting, pushing / shoving, and even fighting in one or two instances. It was very civilised….
A highlight of our trip was our day spent strolling through some of Beijings hutongs. For those of you who don’t know what a hutong is, click here.
These networks of narrow roads and alleys were one of our favourite things about Beijing. Most East Asian cities look relatively identical, with high-rise apartments, offices and shopping malls selling the same luxury brands everywhere you go. Beijing of course has these in abundance, but it was nice to see remnants of its heritage still standing, in spite of the rapid growth and development that has enveloped the city for the past several decades. For how long these areas remain, could be anyone’s guess, but they offer a priceless glimpse in to traditional Chinese urban life, pre-economic boom. They weren’t just tourist attractions either, a lot of them still serve a purpose for local people, which is nice to see. The contrast between these and the 21st century high rises that often surround them is quite profound.
A visit to the Birds Nest was always going to be high on the agenda. I love a good sports stadium, and few come more spectacular than the 2008 Olympic Stadium. It didn’t disappoint, and it blew the Walkers (King Power Stadium) out of the water. Sadly, (as is often the case) the stadium has barely been used since the Olympics, which is a terrible shame considering the grandeur of it, and facilities on offer. It is however, a huge tourist attraction to rival the Great Wall or Forbidden City. To have 100,000 visitors in a day seems relatively normal. The Chinese it seems, are incredibly proud of their Olympic Stadium and success of the 2008 Olympics, and rightly so.
Our final afternoon was spent wandering around the recently regenerated / newly created Beijing 798 Arts District. Whilst we’re not the ‘arty’ type, we thought it would be cool to check out some converted old communist factories and see how they have created a thriving, hip and stylish district dotted with trendy cafes, upmarket restaurants and spacious galleries. Again, it was actually a very cool area – and I got to enjoy a fantastic fresh, 12 inch, home-made Pizza for £3.50! Things then got a little ridiculous as we decided to play around with our camera, and be ‘arty’ ourselves. Here are some of the end results…
What surprised us most about Beijing was the greenery. I always imagined it to be grim, concrete and “communist”. It wasn’t. There are a lot of attractive, landscaped parks, wide tree-lined avenues and some majestic examples of striking early 21st century architecture. It was marvellous. Pollution may be a serious issue, but fortunately for us the CCP likes to play god during National Holidays.
Beijing is possibly the most interesting major city we have visited in Asia on our travels so far. It’s got grand, historical, and modern sights blended with charm, character, and a 21st century cosmopolitan vibe. It’s an exciting, vibrant and dynamic place, with lot’s to see and do. The crowds can be over-bearing at times, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend a visit during a National Holiday, but it’s a fascinating place. You would struggle to get bored there. If any of you are thinking about going, do. It’s also very cheap, unless you like 5* star hotels, Rolex watches and Armani suits.
One week in Beijing – including;
- All entrance fees to major sites,
- All travel within the city and to the Great Wall (Including numerous taxi journeys),
- Several expensive meals in upmarket restaurants, and medium priced meals in chain restaurants.
- Cocktails at one of the most upmarket boutique hotels in Beijing with majestic views of the Forbidden City and beyond.
- 7 nights accommodation (A mixed 4 bed dorm in a relatively decent, clean hostel) –
Total cost – £135 per person.
DO NOT GO ON A TOUR!