As Charles Dickens said, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”. I don’t think he was talking about a trip to Beijing at the time, but if the glove fits…
We had some lovely meals in China. Provided we chose wisely, food was inexpensive and delicious. (See my blog on Food in Beijing).
China has the usual high street shops, but also a plethora of markets: from the designer market selling designer knock-offs to the pearl market where you can buy real pearls relatively cheaply. A real pearl necklace cost me £8. (You can tell it’s real by asking them to scrape the surface of the pearl off to see if it’s plastic underneath or solid pearl).
Glorious ornate temples, a murky historical past, and beautiful architecture all combine to make a very interesting experience. Read more about the temples in my previous blogs.
We had a laugh with many of the people we met. A man teased my BF that his crap watch wasn’t anywhere near as nice as the fake designer watches he was selling (which was probably true!). We were also frequently asked to partake in photo opportunities, which is probably confirmation that we look “a bit funny”!
The squeamish may struggle with the thought of eating scorpions, birds-with-heads and starfish. (See my blog about Food in Beijing).
I struggled with this. It is widely known that the internet is censored in China, and there is “the great firewall” around the country. But it went further – we were watching BBC World Service on the TV in our hotel room and the presenter explained something about China and went on to talk about protests. As soon as it became clear where she was going with the story, the TV went black. It stayed black for 1-2 minutes and then came back on as normal. My BF and I looked at each other in disbelief – we’d just been censored!!
There were lines of plain-clothes police / soldiers standing to attention outside the Forbidden City. At first I thought this was odd – why plain clothes? Everywhere else I have been in the world will always have soldiers in uniform, to proudly show off the pomp and circumstance. You can’t imagine soliders on guard outside Buckingham Palace wearing jeans and trainers! The only reason I can think of is that it is a way of saying “we’re always watching… anyone among you could be a policeman”. Which I find quite chilling.
Rightly or wrongly, this did affect me. We had some bother with our hotel and normally I will step up and make my complaints known where necessary. But this time I stopped short of being really vocal, as I’m genuinely not sure how it would go down in China. My rational brain says that I’m sure British Tourists are not really at risk there, particularly when some gobby woman is complaining about how fluffy the pillows are (just kidding!) but all the same, bearing in mind that in the 1970s, China was like North Korea is now, I did feel like I should tow the line.
We all know that some countries don’t like you taking photos of things like military / police/ planes. I was told off by a soldier because I took a photo of the entrance of a place which could have been a military building. I have no idea. It had a nice statue outside, so like any snap-happy tourist I snapped it! No-one likes being told off 😦
Having said that it is very modern and the Olympic facilities were obviously top-notch, there was extreme poverty even in Beijing itself. We saw people living in what I can only describe as a hut, minutes away from a major shopping street and tourist attractions. This was heartbreaking, and I suspect that if we ventured into more rural areas this would have been even more marked.
At first I thought it was an overcast day and there was mist hanging in the air. But the next day was bright and sunny… yet also misty. It was then I realised that it was smog not mist! Pretty gross when you think of your poor lungs. There is a statistic that says that spending a day in Beijing is the equivalent of smoking 21 cigarettes. Whether that is true or not I have no idea, but it ain’t good!
I’m sure this isn’t unique to China, but there is a tendency for men particularly, to cough up phlegm and spit it onto the pavement. I don’t think I need to elaborate on that. Tip: Don’t wear long trousers!!
Again, not the only country to lack queue etiquette, but one of the worst I’ve experienced. Queue-jumping is a major bug-bear of mine. Maybe cos I’m British and we’re taught queue etiquette before we learn the ABC (just kidding!). Experiences of poor queue etiquette in China include (a) a Chinese man pressing his entire body up against my back, in an attempt to make me move; and (b) queue-jumping occurring in such a great volume that after 2 hours we were still at the back of the queue, despite having arrived before most other people there.
Overall, China is an amazing country with so much going for it, from what I saw of it. There were a few moments which were very familiar in An Idiot Abroad, but that just made me smile. Don’t expect it to be the same as Western countries, cos it ain’t. But it offers a very interesting and rich travel experience. I’m so glad I went!
Next blog: Hanoi, Vietnam
Previous blog: Food in Beijing