21 July 2009

Travel: Beijing, from Bird's Nest to the Great Wall

After surviving the frigid Forbidden City, I was only too happy to be back in the car, out of the wind and chill, and my guide pointed us to some traditional Beijing (Peking) Duck (at my request). Bian Yi Fang is a traditional Peking restaurant, more than 140 years old, where the hostesses wear the beautiful qi pao, the traditional Chinese long dress, complemented with fur stoles to help keep out the chill. It was a perfect first meal for the holiday. And it gave me just enough energy to visit the Bird's Nest, the stunning Olympic Stadium. Beside it is the Water Cube, site of the aquarian events. These are both interesting architecturally (including this interesting hotel within walking distance of the two), but without being able to go inside, you don't spend too much time there. So, I was back to the hotel for my previously mentioned nap.

It was dark and cold outside when I awoke, but also still and quiet. Perfect for a stroll down Chang'an Avenue and a quick ride on the subway. It is a short ride between stops east and west of the Tian'anmen Gate, and I wanted to get a feel of the subway for the rest of my trip. When I emerged on the west entrance, I was greeted by the sight of the National Performing Arts Center, illuminated - chameleon-like - in colors changing from white to blue to purple. The walk back down the Avenue of Eternal Peace (more on that later) took me back by Tian'anmen Square, the Great Hall of the People, and the Imperial Palace, all alight for the holiday, with the dozens of red Chinese flags stiff in the night breeze. Quite a sight.

It was an early start the next morning - New Year's Eve - for a trip to the Great Wall. It was still frigid outside, but the trip up to Badaling was pleasant inside the heated car. It took a while to get out of the sprawling city. Beijing is circled by a series of "Ring Roads", indicating how much the city has grown in recent times. I was staying in the heart of the city, near the Imperial Palace, and we would travel past the Sixth Ring Road before we left Beijing proper (it is actually the fifth of the ring roads, and the farthest one out).

Once we were out of the city, we began climbing into the hills north of the capital, and soon we were to see the first ramparts of the Great Wall. As one of my guidebooks says, it is like a long serpent, seeking out the pinnacles of the hills as it winds over the countryside.

Badaling is one of the most accessible portions of the Wall, with a low-level entrance as well as a cable car that takes you towards one of the peaks of the nearby hills. We took the cable car up, through the freezing wind. The gap in the car's door did not quite keep out the wind, so we were fully acclimated to the outdoor temperature by the time we arrived. It was perhaps colder than the previous day, although at those temperatures, it really doesn't matter. Our early start had gotten us there before the crowds, so we had this entire section of the Wall nearly to ourselves. It was fantastic! From the exit of the cable car, it wasn't a far walk to the highest point, with a great vista. From there, we could walk back down the entrance at ground level, with a mixture of easy slopes and very steep stairways. Along the way, you pass through a number of towers and guard houses (the towers were placed two arrow shots from each other, so that enemies storming the Wall would always be in arrow shot range). As I was walking down, I had to think what kind of terrible assignment it would have been to have guard duty on the Great Wall during the dead of Winter. I thought I might never be warm again.

Of course, a Honey Orange Latte from Starbucks helped. I finally was able to feel my feet on the drive back into the city, and was warmed up by the time we were back to the hotel. I said goodbye to my driver and guide with a traditional New Year gift, hong bao, or little red packet. It had been a good start to my New Year's Eve.

09 July 2009

Travel: Beijing, Winter and Spring

For Chinese New Year, I took my first visit to mainland China. Now, most Chinese will tell you that I have been to China several times, with my trips to Hong Kong and Macau, and even Taiwan. But, this trip to Beijing would be my first to the People’s Republic. And I loved it. So much so that I made another trip in May, to get a feel for the city without the bitter cold of January and visit some places I missed the first go-round. The following entries are the story of my visits to the Chinese capital, one in the dead of Winter, the other at the tail end of Spring.

Americans need a visa to get into the country. I of course waited until the last moment - the Tuesday before the Saturday I was to leave (still within the four-day period). I was impressed with the visa application process. I waited in line for five minutes at the Chinese Embassy in Singapore before everything was handled. They took my passport and application and told me to come back on Friday. On that day, I was dismayed to find a queue of 40 people. But, it took me all of seven minutes to get to the front, where I paid my S$190 (it is S$25 for Singaporeans - reciprocity for the US's high fees for Chinese nationals) and collected my passport with its shiny new multiple-entry visa. And a microchip telling the Chinese government of my whereabouts at all times, I am sure.

I arrived on the overnight flight (Beijing is about six hours from Singapore) and was greeted by freezing temperatures. It was about minus-5 C (in the 20s F), and the wind was ferocious. I had hired a guide and car, and the sight of someone holding a paper with my name on it (who wasn’t wearing a police uniform) was quite pleasing to this bleary-eyed traveler (I did not sleep on the flight). The trip into the city was shorter than expected; traffic was light, as it was Saturday and just two days before the start of the new year. Many had warned me that the city would be deserted – I was rather enjoying it.

A quick stop at my hotel (I love Asian hotels, because they let you check in at 8 in the morning), and we were off. I stayed at the Beijing Hotel, the landmark that was the only hotel where foreigners could stay for many years. It is luxurious in a Soviet sort of way - everything is big and clean and spartan - so I can see how it was the nicest hotel in the city during an earlier era. Regardless, it ended up being a perfect location for me. (I didn't quite have my wits about me when I arrived and only got a night shot later.)

While I was exhausted, I would have no problem staying awake outside, because of the extreme weather (the wind chill was minus-10, in the teens F). I brought my heavy coat, hat (that I thankfully bought in Santa Fe!), and new gloves and scarf. It wasn't enough. The wind reminded me of the Texas panhandle - just bitter. Our first stop was to be Tian'anmen Square, about a quarter-mile down Chang'an Boulevard from my hotel, but there was an official government/party function going on that day at the neighboring Hall of the People, and the square was closed. So, we headed across the street to the Imperial Palace and the Forbidden City, entering through the Tian'anmen Gate (which is a bit redundant, as men in Chinese means gate). This is where Chairman Mao announced the formation of the People's Republic of China on May 1, 1949, after the defeat of the nationalists and their flight to Taiwan. You can't miss the gate - it features a huge picture of Mao. Welcome to China.

Every step of the hundred metres to the gate was miserable. And I like cold weather. When we got inside the massive complex, it wasn’t any better. The palace is so huge that you never felt like there was any shelter. The grounds are massive, and the wind just howled. Even the exhibits inside the buildings of the Forbidden Palace offered little warmth. Which is too bad, because there is a lot of really cool things to see. As much as I wanted to soak it in, I lasted only an hour. We jumped back into the car and headed out for any early lunch.

We made it to only one more sight before I gave up. I had the driver take me back to the hotel, and I was in bed by 2pm. It may have been the best nap I have had in years, although I think it took a couple of hours for me to completely warm up. That’s okay, because I slept until well past 9pm. So much for my first day.

My return visit in May offered a completely different climatic experience. My familiarity with the city’s transportation system meant I could bypass the car and driver and take the airport train into the city. This is quite efficient, delivering you to Dongzhimen Station on the Beijing subway's Line 2 (five stops from my hotel) in just over 20 minutes. I took the same flight as in January, arriving just after sunrise. The train is uncrowded at this time, and it offers a pleasant, timely and cost-efficient way into the city (if you are prepared to then board a subway for the remainder of the journey).

My seatmate on the plane told me that Beijing had essentially skipped Spring, as the weather had transitioned from Winter cold to early-Summer warm rather quickly. This was apparent as soon as we walked onto the jetway – it was quite warm. I thought I might enjoy a little brisk weather (I am always for little escapes from the constant tropical climate of Singapore), but that was out the window. And I had not brought any shorts. It wasn’t too hot, however, to stop me from getting off the subway a stop early to walk the half-mile to the hotel, enjoying the hazy morning (the pollution absent in January’s crisp, windy days was back with a vengeance on that heavy Spring morning).

I had chosen another holiday to visit – May 1 is the start of the Golden Week holiday – and the infamous Beijing traffic was again non-existent. I stayed in the Raffles Beijing Hotel, which is connected to the Beijing Hotel of my previous stay. But, it's a Raffles, with a touch of modern class that the Beijing Hotel lacked. My “room” ended up being a sizeable suite with a killer king bed. So, remembering the experience of my previous visit, I thought it prudent to catch a bit of rest before heading out. It was only 8 in the morning, you know. Of course, the rest of my day wasn’t much more productive than my first day in January – I just found the relaxing too appealing. I would make it back to the Imperial Palace that day, enjoying the more temperate environment.