Beijing: Old, New and Olympic

Beijing was truly a mixture of the traditional, the modern, and the strange. From the beautiful old architecture of the forbidden city to the sleek glass shopping centres. It also had a tinge of the strange – scorpions to eat but no access to Facebook. A topsy-turvy world as we know it (although some would say that eating scorpions is preferable to being on FB 😉 ).

Tiananmen Square, BeijingOur first port of call was Tiananmen Square. You can’t help but be somber here, remembering the history of the place. In 1989 (which is not very long ago – I was alive then!) there was a student protest in the Square on 4 June. The Military cracked down on it and with tanks and guns killed many many people. The event is immortalised by the infamous photo of a man standing in front of a tank.

Today Tiananmen Square is a vast space, surrounded by government buildings and museums, with an ornate gatehouse at one end and the entrance to Tiananmen Square at the other. I would say that there is still a heavy military presence – you have to be bag-searched to get into the Square (there is a bag search / metal detector in every subway to get into the Square). However, weirdly, we just walked through and they didn’t stop us. We took the view that we’ll stop if we have to, but we’re not doing it voluntarily. And for the rest of the holiday, we weren’t searched.

A grand building stands in the middle of Tiananmen Square. This is Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum (or Mao-soleum – get it?). He died in 1976 but his body has been embalmed / preserved. We queued for ages to get in. The Chinese people were very reverent towards him, buying flowers to place inside the mausoleum, and bowing to him. Unfortunately they weren’t very reverent towards queue etiquette. The concept of queuing was lost on many people and they even had tactics to get ahead. A small Chinese man came up behind me and pressed his entire body up against mine. In any normal situation that would OBVIOUSLY make you uncomfortable and you’d move. But I’d had enough of people pushing in for the last hour so I stood my ground, channelling a solid immovable object like a Rhino, and before long he gave up. Score!

Once inside, the line had to keep moving so we only got a few seconds really – the time it took to walk around him slowly. It was dark and cool inside, probably to help preserve the body. He lay there like a waxwork. It was very surreal. And then before we knew it, we were outside again!  Tip: Get there early to avoid ridiculously long queue. Also, beware No Bags and No Cameras allowed so leave them at the hotel or buy a locker. Obv. No Food and Drink allowed either. On the upside, it is free! 🙂

Next on the agenda – getting into The Forbidden City. Very exciting! My boyfriend walked confidently up to the ticket booth and explained in Chinese how we would like to buy two tickets for the Forbidden City. Unfortunately the lady had no idea what he’d just said. My BF resorted to Plan B and said “Two” and held up 2 fingers. It made me laugh! At least he tried, and we got 2 tickets, which is the main thing!

Forbidden City, BeijingThe Forbidden City was the Emperors palace in the Ming and Qing dynasties (ie. the old days). It was much bigger than I imagined. You walk into a vast courtyard of ornate colourful buildings and marvel at each one…. Only to go through a gateway and find yourself in another massive courtyard just the same! After several of those you find yourself in tiny avenues like a maze, each leading to a temple, garden or tiny courtyard. You could spend hours and hours in there, and I would suggest setting aside half a day at least to explore this.

Close-Up, Forbidden City

Back of Forbidden City We also visited the beautiful Temple of Heaven. This is in a courtyard filled with other intricately carved coloured buildings and surrounded by serene gardens.

Temple of Heaven, BeijingIn sharp contrast to the beautiful wooden buildings, today’s buildings are the typical modern glass and brick offices and shopping centres with H&M, McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut etc. There is also an excellent and reasonably priced subway system which is easy to navigate, given the coloured routes (so fairly idiot proof!).

BeijingWe also visited the Olympic stadium  – the Bird’s Nest Stadium. Designed by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese Artist / Architect / Political Activist. He has spoken out about human rights etc and this has not gone down well in China, leading to him being arrested and held without charge for 2 months in 2011. I believe he is “free” again now. But before all this went down, he filled his time designing one of the most incredible Olympic Stadiums ever.  The Bird’s Nest is a beautiful piece of architecture.

The Birds Nest Stadium, BeijingWe paid around £5 to go around the stadium and I was pleased that you could just walk around it – you don’t need to go on a tour. There were segway rides along the 100 metre track where Usain Bolt set the world record for 100m in Beijing in 2008. But we decided that nothing could beat our last segway experience in Miami. Plus it would just be embarrassing if Usain Bolt could run faster than I could segway!

Inside the Birds NestNext to the Birds Nest was the Water cube – the Olympic Swimming facility for Beijing 2008. A sign outside set out the Rules of the Swimming Pool. Amusingly, one of these said “elderly persons aged above 60 must wear life jackets and be accompanied by an adult”. I found this hilarious as my Mum is over 60 (which everyone knows is the new 50) and she goes swimming every week and swims 40 lengths of the pool. The thought of her wearing armbands and being accompanied by “an adult” is ridiculous!

The Water Cube, BeijingInside the watercube, the facilities from the Olympics are evident but they have really done well to continue the “Legacy” / “Sustainability” aspect of the Games. (Please enjoy the Twenty-Twelve reference, for Brits who watched it – it was the highlight of the London Olympics for me!). The main swimming pool has now been converted into a water park, with wave pool, slides, fountains etc. This provides a fun and safe environment for kids and adults over 60 😉

The diving pool is still there, but they have drained it and they add a solid cover over the pool from time to time, so that this can be used as an events venue – the tiered seating and large space make it ideal.  The training pool is still there and used as a normal swimming pool.

I was seriously impressed with the facilities – they were top notch and I could not imagine better. I went to London 2012 and have visited the Olympic facilities in Barcelona and Berlin but the Chinese did it, if not better then certainly every bit as good as the rest. But I hate that way that Olympics facilities are disposable; used once and then discarded. Beijing obviously splashed out on the best facilities you could imagine – including the supporting infrastructure like roads and subway line. And although they are certainly making the best use of them – tourists paying to go into the Birds Nest, and swimmers paying to use the WaterCube – it still seems like a lot of investment for a few weeks of sport. This is particularly pointed in developing countries where poverty can be seen a few neighbourhoods away within the same city.

Anyway, putting this aside, for the tourist it is a lovely experience to look around this amazing Olympic complex; the grounds were spacious and it was a nice place to stroll in  the evening, watching the men flying kites in the breeze while trying to flog them. We had a lovely time looking around the Olympic area, and Beijing as a whole.

Next blog: Great Wall of China

Previous blog: Marina Del Ray, LA, USA.

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