Due to budget considerations, I had booked a seat instead of a bed on the train departing from Shanghai, and I would later regret this, as I hardly slept during the 14-hour train journey to China’s enormous capital.
After arriving in the capital in the morning, I quickly located a nice guesthouse in what is perhaps Beijing’s most atmospheric quarter of Qianmen, with its little alleys known as hutongs. The area has the intimacy of a village, even the sounds of the busy city all around it are reduced to a barely audible hum. The residents take advantage of the warm summer evenings and sit outside their houses, chatting to their neighbours, playing games, and as you walk past the small family restaurants, you smell the many different perfumes of delicious food. In the mornings, the appeal is somewhat less, with the locals performing their disgusting spitting rituals, and you try not to slip on the small pools of phlegm found everywhere on the streets.
As there were so many sights to explore in this city, with their historical, cultural or artistical importance, I allowed myself a full week to see as much as I could. My first stop was Tian’anmen Square, with its long and controversial history. The enormous square is surrounded by a fence, and there are guards standing on platforms, guarding every entrance to the square. To the south is the large Qianmen Gate, to the north Tian’anmen Gate with the famous picture of Mao Zedong, facing his mausoleum in the centre of the square. As you walk past the mausoleum, nearly half of the west side of the square is taken up by the enormous Great Hall of the People, home of the National People’s Congress.
Past Tian’anmen Gate lies the Imperial Palace, known as the Forbidden City, home to 24 emperors during five centuries of imperial rule. As everything in Beijing, past and present, seems to have been conceived and built on a grand scale, so was this Palace, a vast complex, and although a lot of the hundreds of buildings inside were unfortunately undergoing renovations in perparation for the Olympic Games to be held in Beijing in 2008, there was still so much to explore. As you enter the south entrance, you find yourself humbled by the sight of the Wumen, or Meridian Gate. The designation “Gate” doesn’t do it justice, for it is a huge building, from which the emperor would instruct his courts or inspect his army in times of war. Behind three of these gates, divided by large squares, there are several elaborately decorated ceremonial halls, before you get to the Inner City, a maze of corridors with the famous red walls. There are beautiful gates with at times a screen directly behind them, sometimes decorated with murals or Chinese characters. As you walk around these screens, you find yourself in a courtyard, and look out over living quarters of the emperor, the empress, the concubines or the eunuchs. Some of the buildings now have exhibitions in them, collections of artifacts or imperial possessions. In some courtyards, there are statues of animals for their symbolic power. At the north side of the Inner City is the Imperial Garden, which, after hours of walking, is a nice place to rest for a while, and admire the flowers, rock gardens, pavillions. After having left the Forbidden City through its north entrance, I crossed the street and climbed to the top of the hill of Jingshan Park, where I was rewarded with a beautiful view of the Forbidden City and the rest of Beijing. Unfortunately, due to the air pollution, most of the city is shrouded in a permanent layer or smog, resulting in a very hazy view.
There are so many interesting sites in and around Beijing that it would take too much time to describe them all here, but one of the nicest places must be the Yiheyuan, or Summer Palace, located in the northwest of the city. Its collection of stunning Imperial houses, halls, temples and covered walkways with beautiful murals, together with a large lake, makes for a pleasant retreat from the busy streets of Beijing.
Later in the week, I visited one of China’s most famous of objects, The Great Wall. A couple of hours north of the capital, I walked on a reconstructed section of the Wall, and admired the views of the Wall snaking around on the top of the hills as far as the eye could see, while gasping for breath from the steep climb.
As my week in Beijing was coming to an end, I had decided to go to the nearby town of Datong, and went to the central railway station to get a ticket. Due to the sheer number of people, and an astonishing lack of social etiquette, this can actually resemble a nightmare. At the station, all of the 30 or so ticket windows were open, and each had a queue of around 20 people, waiting to buy a ticket. As you stand in line, waiting for your turn, there are dozens of people simply ignoring the queue as they head straight for the ticket window. In many of the Western countries, this would cause an uproar in the queue, but here, nobody tells them to get in line. And then there are the attendants behind the windows, at times downright rude to the customers who have been waiting for half an hour to get their ticket.
Getting on the train, which I did at the biggest railway station I’ve ever seen in my life, the gigantic Beijing Xi Zhan (West Station) is a game of push and shove, with a dozen people trying to get through a single door at the same time, and at times trying to climb over people in the carriages to get to their designated seats. But once the train was underway, this all was soon forgotten, as I watched the beautiful landscape outside Beijing, of lush mountains and valleys with lakes and rivers.