This is the first post out of three describing my trip to Beijing-Ulaanbaatar-Shanghai during October 2010. I traveled to those places using a multi-city flight operated by Air China. The concept of a multi-city flight comes handy when in order to reach your final destination you need to transfer at a certain airport. In a nutshell, since you are going into the effort of transferring at that place, you may as well stay there for a day or two without incurring extra flight costs. Since I have Spanish passport I needed to obtain visas both for China (double entry) and Mongolia. They were almost as expensive as the flight tickets!
Although I didn't plan it ahead, I arrived to Beijing on the National Day of the People's Republic of China. This is probably not the best time to travel in China since most people get holidays (similar to Japanese Golden Week) and the transport system becomes saturated. Tiananmen Square was packed to the rafters and Chinese were taking pictures of supposedly VIP people passing by in their luxury cars. Only once I got to see Mao's giant poster did I finally realize that I was in China.
Needless to say I did a lot of wandering that day to immerse myself in Beijing's extraordinary cultural diversity. Wangfujing, in the center of Beijing, is a must-visit street full of many kinds of food. By the way, being a pedestrian is dangerous in Beijing. Nobody seems to give a s*it about the traffic lights!!
Practically everybody has seen them in China's documentaries so I was ready to see scorpions being sold as a snack. What I wouldn't expect was to find out that they are all alive. Actually, scorpions were just the top of the iceberg.
China is the homeland of thousands of electronic gadgets. Although one could be critic about their lack of concern regarding to violation of copyrights, I have to admit that I've always appreciated the freedom of use present in Chinese gadgets. By recommendation of a Chinese lab mate, I went to Beijing Northwestern electronic district, Zhongguancun. Originally, my intention was to bargain the price of an Android's powered SmartQ MID. However, I soon realized it was not the best idea (eventually I would buy it through the Internet at allpmp.com if you are interested). Compared to Japanese people, Chinese do have Spanish picaresca and I'm pretty sure I would lose my money if I tried to bargain hehe. Other situations where I witnessed picaresca was on the subway. Some people would literally step on me just to enter first!. Talking about the subway, it was modern, fast and very cheap. Though they had controls at every entrance and sometimes I saw officials recording the passengers with a video-camera.
I spent the night at Happy Dragon hostel which was quite recommendable. If you wake up early in the morning, you will have the chance to get some fresh fruit and vegetables in a nearby street market. To tell the truth, some of the stands in that market where a bit shocking (in particular open-air "dentists"). But generally speaking, my impression was that Chinese people are very hard working and they love making business.
The next day I woke up early to take a bus to the famous Chinese Great Wall. Unfortunately, I was not the only one. Thousands of people were queuing to get on buses that looked like a can of sardines. I gave up the Wall and decided to wander around and see what Beijing had to offer.
Actually it wasn't a bad idea, not at all. Perhaps some of the most interesting views of Beijing I had happened while I was walking through its back streets, out of the beaten path. By the way, I loved Chinese electric motorbikes! They don't make any noise at all!
I arrived by chance to Beihai lake park. I felt it as an Oasis in the middle of the desert.
As I made my way into the park, a beautiful traditional Chinese melody came out of nowhere and filled the air with epic and exoticism all at once. Soon I discovered the source of that pleasant melody. A group of Chinese senior people were gathering around and singing old Chinese songs. I sat down nearby for an hour or so, closed my eyes and tried to imagine China a few centuries ago.
A few meters from there, I found these two amazing guys writing Chinese symbols on the floor with water. Seeing the written symbols fade away as the water evaporates is quite metaphoric. Although Chinese simplified symbols are a bit different from the ones used in Japan, I was able to guess the meaning of many words on signs, etc. I bought a book to learn the Chinese language (Chinese clerks were really persistent!) but I haven't made any progress yet.
It was time to make a brief stop and have some Beijing duck for lunch. I was told by Chinese friends that eating out is not a very extended custom in China and it might get risky for a foreigner. I decided to watch my steps on that so most of the time I was eating food bought at the supermarket. As for the Beijing duck, I went to an "expensive" restaurant which looked more or less safe. Also I found a Saizeriya restaurant in the center but I was disappointed when my soup came almost cold! (could it be that the Chinese like it lukewarm?)
I spent the rest of the day enjoying the Forbidden city, a must-see in case you visit Beijing. At night, I went to see a Kung-Fu show in the Red Theatre of Beijing. I wouldn't recommend it. If you want to see a good Kung-Fu show, you have to go and see the Jump show at Seoul!
Despite the overwhelming modernization process (e.g.: I was impressed to see people calling inside the subway, while here in Japan there is no signal), Beijing still conserves its personality and traditions. The culture is different and so the way of thinking. Sometimes that opened my mind about things I used to take for granted.
Next destination: Mongolia!!