Beijing, literally meaning “northern capital” is the capital of China with around 19 million inhabitants. I happened to arrive here by a high speed train from Qingdao, which was an achievement itself regarding the pure Chinese information board hanging at the train station.
Beijing itself is much more modern than a lot of us would imagine. I heard a couple of stories from my father who was there 20 years ago, when cars were scarce and everyone used the bike to get around. Well today, the city has millions of cars, but scooters and bikes and all kind of funky vehicles are still plenty. The public transportation is one of the most modern you can find in Asia.
If food is your main concern, fear not. Many places offer English menu, but even if not, with very little vocabulary you can manage quite well. I managed to get along with only one word/symbol I learned (and the translation is not accurate):
beef – 牛
If you are veggie, you must do your own homework:)
Nevertheless a couple of times I had no idea what I was eating, but simply by avoiding food sold on the street and greasier pork dishes, I had decent meals every day.
The two most important sights to see in Beijing are the Tiananmen square and the Forbidden CIty. Tiananmen is worth a separate blog entry so I will discuss it later.
The Forbidden City is basically the palace of former Chinese emperors. As in Beijing generally, do not believe the small scale of the maps. The place is huge! You can easily spend a whole day here without seeing it in total. Apart from the vast amount of domestic “let’s photograph everything” tourists, the funniest thing in the place is the name of the palaces and sites. Just to name a few: Hall of Military Eminence, Hall of Literary Glory, Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Mental Cultivation, Palace of Tranquil Longevity, Hill of Accumulated Elegance, etc.
As I mentioned in my earlier article about Qingdao, when visiting less frequented sites, make sure you get enough information before. Guidebooks, even Lonely Planet can be painfully outdated in just a few years. That’s how we found out the underground city has been closed…after having a hard time finding it at all:)
Beijing is also the capital of counterfeit goods. There are huge malls selling only fake stuff: first floor for Luis Vuitton bags, second floor for Rolex watches, third floor for pearls, etc. The demand is so high that there are organized buses bringing and taking groups of tourists and hotels are built up next to the malls. Remember: the quality of the counterfeit items also varies a lot. The cheaper the crappier, Fake or not, make sure you bargain a lot, even if you feel you are way undershooting the real price. My personal experience is that nothing costs more than 10 yuan (around 1.5 USD) in China!
Another word you might want to learn in China is for internet cafes: 网吧
Internet cafes are not difficult to find. The audience mostly consists of local kids playing some online games. Do not expect to see a lot of foreigners, and at check-in you have to leave your passport at the operator’s desk. Some places might even refuse to provide the service to foreigners. Internet explorer 6 browsers are considered extinct everywhere else in the world, but here they are the favorites, thus in order to actually use any websites, your first thing will be to download a normal browser. Lots of services, like facebook are blocked, nevertheless everyone knows what to download to bypass the block. Other services, like twitter, have Chinese copy-cats that are not blocked, thus more widely used. Weibo, the twitter clone is the same as twitter, but can actually be censored by the state.
And to close this post, let’s talk about the naked baby bums you can see quite a lot in Beijing:)
In order to save on diapers, thus directly contributing to preserve our fragile environment, a lot of parents opt for baby panties that are split in the middle. When nature calls, they simply hold the baby above a trash bin, or grassy area, and the job is done. And in winter? Babies have cold bottoms.