What goes up, must come down, literally and figuratively. By now, we’d lost count of the number of flights we had caught and that first day in LA seemed like a lifetime ago. The concept of time and day had disappeared and jetlag had consumed us. I felt more like I should’ve be starting a Fightclub than hitting another country but sure enough we awoke after a restless flight in Beijing and zombied our way to the Airport express train.
Once you adjusted to the extra 10C degrees and double the humidity of Paris, the transfer is pretty straight forward to Dongzhimen station in downtown Beijing, Dong Cheng. I couldn’t believe our luck when we stumbled out of the station right into a waiting cab. But it wasn’t until we were at our hotel (after an unnecessarily long walk) that I had blindly handed over approx. $20-25AU to the cabbie instead of what should have been $5-10AU!
Travel tip: always be on your guard and suspect anyone and everyone are out to rip you off. Ok, its not that bad but keep your wits about you. (Honest) cabs are dirt cheap with a flagfall of only a few bucks for the first couple K’s then less than $1AU per km after that. All legit cabs have official markings and a sticker on the rear side window stating prices. If they try to pull a swift one on you just point to the sticker or ask for a receipt, if they try to haggle or give you excuses, just wave them off and move on. If they continue to hassle you, feel free to call them a “Zei” = thief and keep walking, they’ll get the point. This goes likewise for just about any store or market where haggling is used, if you don’t, you will be hit with the naïve tourist tax.
Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven is more than just the temple (Hall of Prayer), its nearly 3 square km’s of parkland and a good 15min walk from the street, even longer if you’re caught out after dark as there are very few lights and the spaghetti of paths are poorly lit. The plus side to visiting at dusk is seeing a number of kite flyers along the Imperial Walkway. Kites are lit with flashing lights and as more slack on the string is given, the operator adds flashing lights along the string. Definitely quite the spectacle with the typically older male “pilots” loving all the attention from on lookers.
There are also scores of classes at work for exercise, martial arts, tai chi, religious and even swing and latin dancing, all very interesting to watch.
For general viewing however as mentioned its very dimly lit for the most part and the temple area closes around 5pm, once night falls there’s very little to see so its best to go during the day.
Travel tip: check opening times as they vary through out the year. A fee is payable on entry to the park, you can also buy tickets to the temple and other buildings or buy them at the entrance to the respective areas.
Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square
Travel tip: If you’re coming from the Temple of Heaven on metro line 5, you can either take the interchange at Chongwenmen to the southern end of Tiananmen Square or if you’ve seen a square before and want to avoid the every present protestors, change at Dongdan and get off at either Tiananmen East or West stops which drop you between the Square and the southern entrance to the Forbidden City.
Walking up to street level you begin to get a feel of just how colossal everything is. Looking back towards the Square and up at (what you may think is) the gates and battlements of the Forbidden city, people are dwarfed to the size of ants with the sheer numbers of visitors compounding the effect. Even the stairs up to the streets look like they were taken from your city’s favourite sporting venue.
Thanks to the ever present “threat” from protestors there is a strong military and police presence which can be a little intimidating to say the least. Walking through the gates leads to a huge courtyard area full of hawkers, beggars, people trying to sell you tours and souvenirs and general shifty types. If your water rations are running low you will be able to top up here but just be prepare to haggle for that too.
After close to half an hour of walking you will get to the actual gates to the Forbidden City and when they called it a city they’re not kidding! 999 buildings await you inside, so a fair portion of your day will be taken up exploring it. If that’s not your thing or you want to escape the barrage of people, exit out of the courtyard area either west or east and follow the moat around the surrounding wall either north or south to one of the corner towers for a great photo opportunity.
Photo tip: in the afternoon, photograph from the western side so they sun lights the wall and tower. On the off chance the smog isn’t so bad and there is some colouring in the sky, you may be lucky enough to get some colouring in the sky and get a nice silhouette shot from the eastern side.
With a little time to spare (and after having already walked to the northern gate) we decided to continue walking the back streets to our hotel. If you really want to get an idea of the city, this is the best way to see it. Basically Beijing is growing so fast that the new buildings and construction are popping up all around the once slum-ish areas without enough time for the original inhabitants to leave so you will notice after 3-4 blocks from common business/shopping/tourist areas the quality of buildings and living conditions dramatically decreases to the point of families bathing in the streets and selling fresh produce from the ground you’re walking on. Definitely a real eye opener.
After a couple miss turns and dead ends we were back to the familiar Hutongs around Luogu Alley and grateful for the bed we had to sleep on.
Next up, we take on the Great Wall!