Beijing at this time of year is sweltering wet hot with a mist covering the city so you can’t see the tops of buildings. I gave up trying to look cute because it is entirely impossible not to be constantly pouring out sweat. I really should’ve learned from the Chinese ladies who carry around umbrellas to block the sun and fans to cool off. It wasn’t so bad for me, though, because I am one of those weird people that actually really likes the heat, even at 80% humidity.
The first day I woke up at 3am due to my body still operating according to Pacific Standard Time. (Being time-zone confused is a great way to easily wake up early.) Luckily, I have a kindle full of books, so I was entertained until the sun came up. Then I set off down the street of my hotel with an idea to explore the city while going in the general direction of Tiananmen Square. I had no Internet, only a map in Chinese, and minimal English-speaking hostel workers, so I really had no idea where I was going. Sometimes just wandering around a city is the best way to figure it out. After 3000 miles of walking, I had walked all through the Dongcheng district and perused the major shopping street called Wangfujing, but still no Tiananmen. Finally, I ended up at this really massive important looking place that was surrounded by a moat and a huge wall. I had found the Forbidden City!
Unfortunately, all 20 million people in Beijing decided to visit the Forbidden City that day, so it was hard for me to get a historical educational experience from it. One thing about the Chinese is that they mob – I guess waiting patiently for your turn doesn’t really work when there’s so many people everywhere – so you have to push your way through to see a thing, see it for a second, then get pushed out. I was also getting really weirded out because people kept starting at me. Like staring, then nudging their friends, and then their friends would stare. I thought I had sunscreen or dirt on my face or something. Then two young teenage girls asked to take their picture with me, so I think the staring was just because people weren’t used to seeing blondies. I THINK. It also could have been my super shiny sweaty face.
It was cool to see the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties and to imagine what it would have been like to live there. The complex is made up of tons and tons of buildings where the emperors and their family and staff lived and ceremonies were held. It was built in the early 1400s during the Ming Dynasty when the capital of China moved from southern China back to Beijing and served as the political center of China until the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in the early 1900s.
Tiananmen Square is right across the street from the Forbidden City, but at this point my used-to-sitting-down legs were about to give out, so I just walked into it, took some pictures, and walked out. It is the second largest square in the world, and I think I could have spent hours walking around it. But at least I can say I was there. :)
There was no way my legs could carry me the couple of miles back to my hostel, so I decided to master the subway system. Plus, the whole cars-have-the-right-of-way-not-pedestrians thing really makes it hard to cross the street. I also really love subways. It’s the one thing San Francisco is missing. While traveling, I think it’s a great way to get a feel for a city and see what it’s like to be a local. It’s much harder to figure out, however, when the ticket machines and all the stops are in Chinese. Thankfully I was able to point on the map the spot I wanted to go, and some very nice subway workers helped me buy the ticket and figure out which line to take.
The next day was a great day – a tour bus took me, along with an Argentinian diplomat, 3 microbiologists from Texas A&M, and a newlywed couple from a town in Israel on the Gaza Strip, on a day trip to the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall of China. Seriously, that was the group I was with! I felt like such a boring person compared to them all.
The Ming Tombs were cool to see, but I was picturing them as being stone structures in the basement of an intricate stone building (I must be thinking of Egyptian tombs – I don’t know, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a tomb before). Instead, the emperors of the Ming Dynasty were buried in this huge grassy hill, in order to be closer to God. Something that I thought was absolutely absurd is that out of the emperor’s 3000 concubines (that is not a typo, each emperor had several thousand girlfriends!) he’d pick the prettiest ones to be buried with him – as in, he was buried after he died, and his live girlfriends were buried with him. Crazy. They also buried all his servants alive in a separate area. I guess the new emperor didn’t want any of the old emperor’s peeps around when he took over.
Our tour guide Harry was a lively young Chinese guy and a great guide, but it was hard to hear him talk about the significance of the surrounding buildings and associated ancient Chinese beliefs because of the huge mobs everywhere, just like at the Forbidden City. (I guess July and August are holiday months and people from all around China come to the tourist attractions around Beijing, resulting in crazy crowds and ridiculous traffic. I can’t imagine what Beijing was like during the Olympics.) You can’t really stop to look at anything because you just get pushed away. I did learn that when you exit the tomb area through a gate you cannot look back or else your spirit will stay in the tomb area and bad things will happen to you. Phew, glad I didn’t look back!
After a stop at the Jade Factory so they could try to get us to buy some jade (which I probably would’ve if I wasn’t on a budget), we started out for the Great Wall. The drive was supposed to take only an hour, but it turns out Beijing-area traffic is absolutely insane. Part of it was due to the holiday season, but I guess it’s pretty bad year round. According to Harry, they even have rules restricting driving times – specified license plate numbers are prohibited from driving during certain days of the week. This hasn’t helped the traffic, though. Not only are there millions and millions of people on the roads, but the drivers are very aggressive. On a two lane road, cars will drive the wrong way in the other lane, and then cars will come from the other direction and everything gets snarled up. I have never seen anything like it. We were stuck in one place for an hour. It was literally like a parking lot. (It made Seattle traffic seem outright luxurious.) We all decided to get out and walk the last half hour, so we could spend more time at the Wall. I am so glad we did, because I absolutely LOVED the Wall. I could’ve climbed around it all day. From the pictures I’ve seen, it looks like a nice gentle sloping wall that you just leisurely walk around. But when you’re standing at the bottom looking at a 40 degree set of unevenly spaced stairs – some only six inches high, some as much as 3 feet high – the climb is much more menacing looking.
But it is AWESOME.
The craziest thing happened to me at the top of an especially gruesome stair climb – I was stung by a bee for the first time. I have been nervous about bees since childhood because I was under the impression that they hurt really bad. Or maybe it was that Macauley Culkin movie that did it where he dies at the end from a bee sting. But it really wasn’t so bad and now I can no longer be scared of bees.
I wanted to spend another day in Beijing so I could try Peking duck and check out the Olympic stadium complex, but there is no more room at my hostel and I don’t feel like trying to find a new place to stay for one night. So, tomorrow morning I’ll be off to the train station to try to catch the new high speed train (just opened June 30!) to Shanghai.