Getting There
The closest train station was over a kilometre away but we decided to walk from our hotel to take in some of the residential sites as well as making a short detour pass the Drum Tower, however after that there wasn’t much to see. Catching the train was a breeze – get on at Gulou Dajie, change at Xizhimen and get off at Beijing Zoo. A taxi would have been more convenient but judging from some of the traffic we saw along the way, I dare say the train would be quicker (depending on where you’re coming from of course).

Drum Tower

Once there you’ll have to purchase your tickets, don’t go into the courtyard and expect to get tickets at the gate, look for a line of ticket windows with a mass of people looking like a cross between the stock market and the lines at a music festival. This isn’t London, no
one knows what queuing is, throw in wandering tour groups and masses of school excursioning kids and you’ll understand why I recommend
pre-purchasing your tickets if you can. Like most major attractions there’s rarely a quiet time but a week day visit may see a few less locals.

When inside there’s three areas roughly divided into amphibians, reptiles and birds; big animals and aquarium; and lions, tigers and bears (oh my!). Of course the star attractions are the pandas and the area, especially at the start of the day, was packed so we decided to head away from the crowds.

Things kicked off with the reptile enclosures but the first flag appeared when we saw a group of locals coaxing otters by feeding
them sausages and other snacks while staff stood by unconcerned. I don’t know about you but I have no idea what otters eat let alone what could potentially kill them! I for one definitely wouldn’t want no otter homicide on my hands.

Normally we love zoos especially the big ones where the animals have plenty of space to roam but as we continued it became more and more obvious and rather disheartening to see a lot of the enclosures in varying states of disrepair not helped by the original poor attempts at “authenticity” re: jungle mural painted brick wall.

Sporting a similar poorly simulated scenery was the penguin enclosure, which like several displays wasn’t included in the ticket price. A separate ticket had to be purchased for this enclosure and quite frankly it wasn’t worth it, even with our overwhelming love for the little tuxedo wearers.

Like the penguins, it was an extra fee to get up close to the giraffes but this time you could actually feed them by hand (leaves and other greenery, not the stuff from your bag).

The hippo, rhino, elephants, lions and tigers were all either off in the distance or not visible at all so it was a quick breeze through those sections. Back to the pandas, the crowd had waned a little but it was still at least 3-4 people deep in parts and quite a battle to get close to the viewing glass to snap a photo, but well worth it when you do.

Photo tip: battling the crowd is the easy part, getting your camera close enough to no get any reflection from the glass or 10 camera phones in your shot while dodging some parent holding their terrified scream protesting kid in between the rail and the glass is the real challenge. Just like waiting at a bar to be next in line for drinks you need to choose your moment and make a quick move to any opening spots. Keeping an eye on the movement of other background animals could help you lock in a good shot as well. Wide to mid range zoom with macro ability will be the best lens choice for the whole day, I found a long telephotos lens wasn’t necessary.

With that bit of disappointment done and the rest of the Beijing sights seen, there was only one thing left to do… SHOP!

More Beijing Zoo photos here.

Beijing 2011 part #1 – Arrival + Temple of Heaven, Forbidden City
Beijing 2011 part #2 – The Great Wall – Mutianyu
Beijing 2011 part #4 – Shopping

Beijing photo gallery here
Beijing Zoo photo gallery here

Temple of Heaven

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 na├»ve 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.

Temple of Heaven grounds at night

Kite pilot

Sword training

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.

Temple of Heaven

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.

Tiananmen Square

Forbidden City - Tiananmen Square entrance

Forbidden City - Tiananmen Square entrance

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.

Forbidden City southern entrance

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!

Forbidden City - outer wall (click for big)

Beijing 2011 part #2 – The Great Wall – Mutianyu
Beijing 2011 part #3 – Beijing Zoo
Beijing 2011 part #4 – Shopping

Beijing photo gallery here
Beijing Zoo photo gallery here