Ni hao! :) I've just come back from a 6-day visit to Beijing where my girl friends and I had a great time. (To the ladies: if you have never travelled with your girl friends, do yourself this favor if you get the chance. It is an absolute ball! My recent trips to Hanoi and Bangkok are testaments to this.) It was a very educational and interesting trip for sure, but more importantly it was a week filled with lots of laughter and the type of moments that will be recounted many times over for years to come and perhaps even passed down the generations.
Now, I am usually opposed to hiring a tour guide because I like going about on my own pace and I actually look forward to the 'challenges' that cultural differences can present, such as the language barrier. It's all part of the adventure, part of what makes travel so exciting and seductive. But because we were only staying for a short while and none of us spoke a word of Mandarin, we agreed to hire a private tour guide and van to take us to the main sights so we didn't waste too much time lost in translation. (And after a freak incident with a bee -more on this later-, I am so grateful we did!)
It was autumn in the Middle Kingdom and the weather was lovely, chilly but sunny, and the leaves were turning. The citrus colors from the trees made lovely accents for the stark red found everywhere. In the mornings and evenings, it was cold, dropping to almost 2 deg C. So bundled up in jackets and scarves we explored the vast capital of this country whose history goes deep into the past well beyond 2000 B.C. (Some historians even claim the dawn of Chinese civilization to have been in 6000 B.C.). We trudged along the beaten path, but also made time for our own exploration and of course eating and shopping.
Beijing, which was once shrouded in mystery, protected from intrusion within impressively tall walls, is undergoing rapid transformation in a dizzying race to the 21st century. With the ball-and-chain of Marxism chucked over The Great Wall and the 2008 Olympics around the corner, vast changes are sweeping through the landscape. Today, the city is flanked by scaffolding while cranes seem to remove a piece of history with every pile of dirt they lift off the ground. But tucked into all this modernization are little pockets of the Old World. They can be found in the historic parks that surround grey skyscrapers, in the hutongs that slither alongside 12-lane freeways, beyond moats and walls across massive squares, in unmarked holes-in-the-wall serving traditional jiaozi dwarfed by western fast-food chains, and in the colorful and loud hawker alleys in the shadows of imposing department stores.
The architecture was a delight, feeding my fascination for doorways and locks (see first collage above). I found the locals to be generally nice and polite, and although they didn't speak my language, they graciously made an effort to understand us when we communicated with them.
Beijing was cleaner and more organized than I expected. But while the streets are quite immaculate, the smog is alarming. By the 4th day when it got worse, I woke up with a bad cough and with a better understanding of and tolerance for the Chinese pastime of spitting. Visibility outside was poor; so poor in fact that not-too-distant buildings looked like giant ghosts. I pity the marathoner who will have to compete in such air quality during the 2008 Olympics but no more than the little children with those young lungs. I do hope the government cracks down on this problem which is largely caused by the increasing number of cars on the road and factories within the city using cheap, low-grade fuel. I read that factories have been moved to the outskirts of the city where it is less-populated, and that they've imposed a temporary ban on car manufacturing.
I wil go into more detail on the places I visited and the food I ate in my succeeding posts. There will be lots more photos too. Each experience pretty special and deserving of their own post. :)