China: Beijing for beginners

By Ewan McDonald

The Great Wall. The Forbidden City. Some of the world’s greatest sights but how do you get to see them? Ewan McDonald braves Beijing on his own. Almost.
The Temple of Heave. Photo / 123RF
The Temple of Heave. Photo / 123RF

First visit to China, and I'm jumping in at the deep end. It won't be a relatively Euro-friendly tourist city like Shanghai: I'm smashing into Beijing, the imperial past and present megapolis, on my own. Well, until my guide meets me at the hotel tomorrow morning.

Even before leaving the airport, preconceptions become misconceptions.

As I will realise during the next few days, the most surprising thing about China - okay, Beijing - is that it's constantly surprising.

Dirty? Toilets, floors, eateries and streets are scrupulously clean. Certainly more than Auckland and London. Crowded? Not like Hong Kong or even Sydney at rush hour.

Footpaths? It's easy to amble about the broad streets of inner-city Beijing. Yes, in the middle of the city - difficult to characterise where that is, because this vast, sprawling conurbation does not appear to have a centre in the way that Rome or Istanbul do - at pretty much any hour.

Discourtesy? Not in hotel lifts, restaurants, and certainly not in queues.

The reason being that was one preconception confirmed: there aren't any queues.


The first-time visitor feels welcome. The snake around the immigration desk seemed never-ending (it was only half an hour) but the officers smiled and said something that sounded like "enjoy your stay". Across the language barrier, shopkeepers were good-humoured and keen to communicate. Ever tried to mime buying a stamp for a postcard to New Zealand in Mandarin? It worked. The card arrived in Raglan less than a month later.

Oh yes, the traffic. My driver ferried my guide - come to that later - and I around one of the 12-lane boulevards, serpentine ring roads and tiny hutongs (alleys) in one of the world's biggest, busiest cities in a large, black, tinted-windowed, air-conditioned sedan at nearly all hours of the day and evening.

Like every one of the seeming millions of taxis, its nameplates identified it as an aged version of the Hyundai Elantra. Yeah, that's a South Korean car. I didn't ask.

Sure, there were some hair-raising lane-change manoeuvres to the left, right and front of us, but the motorways and boulevards felt rather more orderly than anywhere between Mt Wellington and Manukau on a Friday night, apart from obvious choke-points like exits and entries.

Locals actually ride bikes and scooters (virtually all electric) on those boulevards - something that's a near-death, or worse, experience on a much less crowded four-lane city street like Dominion Rd (trust me: I do that pretty much every day). And no, they are not 12-up plus a goat and a crate of chickens. Consign that image to the past, or at least a foreign country where they do things differently.

Beijing is - something that should not come as a surprise - a sophisticated city, with just enough rough edges to make it more than interesting.

Dusty, dry, brown? This first-time visitor walked in parks, even pocket parks in the centre of the city. Motorways from the airport to the port of Tianjin, 120km southeast, were lined with forests, fish-farms; okay, some masked derelict coal-power stations. Infrastructure - motorways, city streets, the metro - were, to generalise, stunning. Especially compared with the often potholed freeways and crumbling bridges in the United States. Cranes. Skyscraper projects. Everywhere.

And, no - there are not smokers on every street corner, or in every restaurant.

As I walked, alone, around the central streets, around the railway station - always a good barometer in a major city - on a Sunday evening, clearly an outsider, a first-world tourist, I felt safe and relaxed. Perhaps it was the uniforms on corners packing heavy artillery.

This was the only place I saw McDonald's, Subway, KFC. Everywhere else, those global trademarks, the Nikes and the Converses and the Sonys that have overrun Cape Town, Milan, Paris, Madrid and Queenstown nowhere to be seen. Apart from cars, China has its own brands. Unique and refreshing, especially when you can't read the text.

Late afternoon, looking down from my 15th-floor hotel room at the road lined with state ministries and enterprises, I saw the army had cleared the area and stopped the traffic and the buses and the electric rickshaws.

I took the lift down to the sidewalk to see what was going on. The few people around seemed curiously incurious.

Half an hour later black limousines and motorbike cops with flags on the fenders raced past. So that's what Vladimir Putin's limousine looks like. Twenty seconds later the 12 lanes were jammed again.

Even with the Russian president in town, there appeared a lack of bombast: fewer national flags flying than in an American post office or an Aussie RSL.

At major or often overlooked attractions, there were no hucksters and beggars, the folk who pester you at the Eiffel Tower or in St Peter's Square. They are not permitted, they are hustled away or arrested. Your social conscience will decide whether this is a good or a bad thing.

Visitors to the Forbidden City.
Visitors to the Forbidden City.


I wanted to write something here to describe the experience of walking on the Great Wall of China. I wanted to tell you about walking through the Forbidden City, and I would have liked to have shared the experience of visiting the Summer Palace and its lakes on the outskirts of the city. I can't; I don't have the words.

Someone will have put up a video on YouTube. It will give a snapshot. You have to be there.

So as my guide and chauffeur deliver me to the airport, what are my post-impressions?

I own that I may have drawn too many fast-twitch conclusions from a few days.

But I'm a first-time, maybe one-time visitor and that is how many will likely see this city.

Well, I didn't have to learn a tongue-twisting phrase or do the embarrassing mime.

There are clean, free public toilets on every street corner. Which kind of summed up my Beijing experience: everything was far less in-my-face than I'd worried it would be.

I wouldn't have missed it. It's one of the most alluring, fascinating cities I've visited.

Those fabled sights are no longer fabled but still fabulous.

But, as ever, Beijing has one more surprise. Perhaps the biggest of them all ...

It's a hot, cloudless blue-sky afternoon. I can see clearly now, the smog has gone.

Guides have the inside info

When to go
You may think it is hot but the temperature never gets above 39.5C - officially, because most workplaces have to close when it hits 40. Yes, it does get humid, and yes, thunder and lightning storms can break out without warning. Locals call it "Storm City". It snows in November and December. There are school holidays through July and August. Then there's Chinese New Year, Labour Day and the National Day holidays, when every sight that you want to see will be flooded with domestic tourists (well, it is their country) and the dates are not announced until about two weeks before these long, long weekends take place. Best time is September or October when there are warm, dry, sunny days with "clear" skies and cool evenings; second-best time, late March to mid-May.

How to get around
Look, I'm a relatively experienced traveller and not a shill for any company. You need a guide, you need a driver. The traffic, the "queues", the scale of the city and the distance between sights, the language, is bewildering. Guided tours are best and a bespoke tour is even better. Comes with the benefit of one-on-one local knowledge and insider tips. Source from a New Zealand-based provider before you go.

How and where to eat
Chinese caterpillar fungus stewed duck soup is a thing in restaurants, as is braised turtle and live snakes, starfish and wriggly scorpions in the nightly food market. Which might not be to your taste but you don't want to go to Beijing and eat really bad imitations of full English breakfasts and Italian pasta in your tourist hotel. See above: don't leave home without sorting a tour that offers a little more than a peking duck banquet. Trust me, you'll eat a better version any night in Balmoral.

Prices
Airport-downtown cab $22.25
Big Mac, fries and Coke $3.50
330ml local beer in hotel $9, supermarket $3.80
Apple 6S in mainstreet store $885

AND MY SPECIAL MOMENT

Walking through a hutong where the Last Emperor lived his last days in a humble house, and into a courtyard to meet a calligrapher, who grows vegetables and draws his art, his poems, on parchment and silk, with brushes and nibs. We couldn't speak each other's language but two middle-aged men from different sides of the world, different heritages, communicated in smiles, handshakes and an embrace.

PASSWORDS

Ni hao. Hi, how are you, hello. Which you probably know already.

"Hao" is okay and "Bu hao" is not good. And as my guide pointed out, when I tried them on him, "hao" is not pronounced how. "You say Chairman Mao like "Mow". We say "Mwa".

That's how you say Ni hao too."

Thank you. No, that's the next phrase. Xiexie, pronounced "sshyeah-sshyeah."

Now the really tricky one. I want to go to the toilet. "Wo xiang qu cesuo." I'm not sure I could master that one. Never mind; mime has got me through that uncomfortable situation before.

Greetings and Ni Hao from a young citizen. Photo / 123RF
Greetings and Ni Hao from a young citizen. Photo / 123RF


CHECKLIST

Getting there

Adventure World create tailor-made itineraries to China and beyond. An eight-day China Adventure Journey starts from $2985 per person and includes accommodation in 4- or 5-star hotels, sightseeing, private drivers, bullet trains, many meals, airport transfers, an English-speaking guide and more. 0800 465 432 or see your travel agent.

- NZ Herald

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