Our journey to Beijing was a long, 35-hour train ride from Hanoi, spanning two nights. It started off rocky when the person arranging our tickets was late dropping them off, leaving a cluster of us frantic and wondering whether we’d make our train. Our moods weren’t helped when the Chinese boarder immigration official deliberately ignored our polite pleas and written request to stamp on an already-used page, choosing instead to deface a pristine sheet and reducing our precious visa pages by one. It got rockier when we discovered that, while the cabins were indeed nonsmoking, the door between cars – where smoking was allowed – did not automatically close, and caused us to marinate in cigarette smoke for the duration of the ride. This left Jenn with a sinus infection, and both of us with a headache.
Upon disembarking from the train, we found a taxi who promptly tried to overcharge us by more than double after our short ride to the hotel. I argued with him for several minutes before he gave up and accepted my appropriately-priced offer.
Exhausted and desperate for a shower, we checked into our guesthouse, pleased to note the nonsmoking signs plastered all over the building. In the middle of unpacking, we noticed the room suddenly stank of smoke and I poked my head into the hallway to see it almost hazy. Over the ensuing few hours, the front desk alternately told me they couldn’t find anyone smoking, then they did find the smoker and told him to stop, then they couldn’t find anyone smoking and implied I was lying, then suddenly they knew exactly who the smoker was and would tell him to stop again. Sorry, hotel staff, but if you advertise your business a certain way, don’t be surprised when your patrons hold you to that promise.
Our week in Beijing got no better the next morning when the Russian consulate announced – though it was written nowhere – that they no longer took walk-in visa applications, and their appointments were booked out for 3 weeks. A mad dash to a nearby visa application center allowed us to spend hours nit-picking paperwork, attempting to read the Cyrillic letters on a photocopy of our tickets, and re-taking passport photos that had been accepted by 4 other countries but apparently, for Russia, weren’t “white enough.” For that privilege, we handed over a small fortune, were told to return in 3 days and left, bewildered, frustrated and wondering if we’d even be going to Russia at all. We walked out into the smog-filled city streets, heading back through a haze that made it difficult to discern the outlines of buildings just up the road.
Needless to say, we were not, so far, all that enamored with China.
While Beijing is an enormous, wealthy, and very modern city, it shows its roots in its center, where the Forbidden City lies. The site of the Chinese Imperial Palace for nearly 500 years (1420 – 1912), it covers around 180 acres in the heart of Beijing and houses many cultural artifacts inside its preserved wooden buildings. While leery of the mobs of people outside the entrance gate, we nonetheless paid the entrance fee and engaged in the time-honored traditional Chinese method of queuing – namely, congregating into a mob and relentlessly shoving everyone around you until you arrive at the front of the line.
While the Forbidden City was spotlessly clean – an astonishing feat given the masses of people inside – something about it seemed rather sterile and lifeless. We wandered unenthusiastically for a little while before finding our way to a nearly-deserted side area and an arrow pointing towards the “Temple of Literary Brilliance.” I’m not sure where the literary brilliance was, but we stepped inside to discover a nearly-deserted but wonderful exhibit containing a 10,000-year history of ceramics in China. The amazing display contained descriptions and pristine examples of ceramics and porcelain dating back to the Neolithic Era (8,000 BC), with a timeline and details of the evolution of the art through the 1700s. Each period was described, including examples showing the characteristics of the major kilns used, and the qualities that were important to the artists of the time. We left the exhibit amazed at its quality and detail, and shaking our heads at how few people seemed to discover its existence.
The rest of the Forbidden City was not particularly striking. Most of the buildings were empty or sparsely furnished, and could not be entered – you could only join the hordes of people crowding up to the barriers to peer inside. Many gates and doors were closed without detail, especially outside of the main gates, blocking at least half the total area and ensuring the throngs of people were tightly packed. After a couple hours of pushing our way through crowds, dodging pointy umbrella ribs left and right, and being backed into by overzealous visitors wielding selfie sticks, we fled the Forbidden City, seeking air-conditioned refuge in a nearby restaurant.
Our plans to visit Tiananmen Square were foiled on our first attempt, as July 1st is the anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, and the famous square was closed (we really have had a knack for timing in certain cities). On our second try, though, the square was open and buzzing with people. Along the edges of the square, multi-colored hedges have been elaborately carved into tapered cylinders and spheres, placed in among curving flower beds. In the center stands the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a large stone sculpture celebrating those that died in China’s rebellions during the 19th century. Along the back, the square borders the mausoleum of Chairman Mao, where the remains of the communist leader are on display for public viewing.
All in all, we really didn’t enjoy Beijing. Big cities tend to hold little appeal for us anyway, and the prevailing public attitude seems to be dismissive and pushy. At best, we had people openly staring at us, sometimes circling around as if we were zoo animals. At worst, we suffered the same indignities as everyone else, being shoved, run into or cut off in a culture where the assumption seems to be that each person’s individual agenda supersedes all consideration for the needs of others. Combine that with the pervasive smoking in ostensibly non-smoking areas, the horrendous air pollution, as well as the general unhelpfulness of everyone we talked to, and I don’t think we’ll be putting Beijing on the list of places we’d love to return.
To not end on such a negative note, we did find a couple quite nice parks in the center of the city, including a secluded area inside the Tiananmen gate with a forest of willow branches reaching down towards a small stream. Virtually nobody was inside the gates, and we found a little avian wildlife flitting among the trees – a small area of tranquility in the busy city.