Stickman Readers' Submissions May 11th, 2010

Peking Into China

I went to Beijing in April 2009 for 9 days; the following is a brief report of my time with some pictures taken with a basic ‘point and shoot’ camera. I have included a few comparisons with Thailand and Thais but please note these are only superficial comparisons from a tourist.

When I arrived in Beijing airports main terminal, after the annoyingly slow and extremely packed shuttle service from the landing terminal where I had been through customs, I followed the signs for the taxis. I walked for what seemed like ages, going further down into the airport. Then there it was, the outside world. Suddenly the cold went right through me causing my shoulders to hunch and my fists to clench. I should have worn more than a polo shirt, but I had no idea it would be so cold, my research had missed what to expect weather wise.

He Clinic Bangkok

I had bought a mini Lonely Planet guide to Beijing in Suvarnabhumi airport for something to read on the plane which stated I should have a map of the hotel and its address translated, with phone number. Check. I walked to the front of the taxi rank, the driver jumped out, said something (probably “where to”, or along those lines) then saw I was holding a piece of paper and in double quick time rushed over and took it off me. He looked at the hotel name/map, looked bamboozled then shouted something to the driver behind. The other driver got out of his car and joined us staring, looking just as confused, at the map. My attempt to make the airport transfer easy hadn’t been wholly successful. Words were exchanged between the 2 drivers, then an ok and off we went.

I noticed a sign in the taxi with how to say ‘Please turn on meter’ and where to contact if this doesn’t happen but I never needed the information, although, other then to and fro the airport I only used taxi’s sparingly.

As we travelled deeper into the city my first thought was how clean everywhere looked. Suddenly the taxi stopped, right on a junction. The driver turned to me and gestured (unfortunately no English) for the map/address paper. I handed it over and he scanned it, turning to me and motioning a telephone, he reached over to the passenger seat, picked up a mobile and called the hotel. I recognised “Hello” (nǐ hǎo)
then his phoned went dead. No battery power. He asked if I had a phone (again, gesturing) which I did. I had battery power but no SIM card. Long story short, we put his SIM in my phone (thank heavens for unlocked phones) and he got final directions
to the hotel. All this was done without us speaking each others language and was great fun. My first interaction with the people of Beijing had been very positive. However, it did remind me of Thailand, the fact he was happy to take me to my hotel
but didn’t have a clue where it was. It was a great start to my break.

CBD bangkok

I stayed in a small courtyard hotel near Beixinqiao subway station (literally 2 minutes walk) and just round the corner from Gui Jie or Ghost Street, which is sometimes known as ‘food street’ but it that depends what book you read. I arrived as it was getting dark and so grabbed something to eat then used the subway to go to Tiananmen Square as I had read that it was nicely lit at night.

Tiananmen Square at night

The subway was approx 10 baht per trip and reminded me of the BTS (I haven’t needed to use the underground in BKK so can’t compare) as it was easy to use and very clean. One significant difference was the amount of security, including those hand-luggage scanners from airports at all stations and exits that I saw. I rarely carry a bag of any kind, preferring to use my pockets or just not carry crap around, so this never inconvenienced me. The one time I did have a bag, when I exited the subway which leads directly onto Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, the security guards (young lads/girls in oversized coats) weren’t interested in checking foreigners!?

What some call the main shopping area/street is Wangfujing, shopping’s not really my thing but I had to buy a coat as I was freezing. There are lots of small shops in (for comparison) side sois just along the street which have lots of interesting food stalls selling bugs and allsorts but the main drag is like an outdoor Emporium shopping centre. You could be anywhere in the world. I sure there are hidden places to shop there but once I saw McDonalds, KFC, Armani, TAG , all the usual suspects, I decided it wasn’t for me. There are much more diverse places to shop in Beijing in all districts, to be found by exploring. There is also a large Antique’s market (Panjiayuan) and a ‘curios’ market which were interesting to look around.

wonderland clinic

Bridge in the Summer Palace grounds

If you read guide books they say you should walk through Beijing’s Hutongs (small side soi’s/alleys) to get a sense of local people, suggesting certain neighbourhoods. I was staying right in the one of these neighbourhoods. I loved just walking around these, taking pictures, trying my best to interact with people. Some Hutongs had basic gym equipment in them and another surprise was the amount of public toilets, not always clean but plentiful. I felt safe walking around very late at night exploring. In fact one of my abiding feelings of Beijing is of security. I never felt threatened at anytime. The areas suggested by the guide I had (Lonely Planet) reminded me of Covent Garden in London. Pedestrianised at certain times and full of boutique (read expensive) shops and art galleries. In my opinion these suggestions are safe to be missed.

The Hutongs

I won’t bore you with details on every place I went, suffice to say there’s a lot to see and do. You can find out about the main attractions: Forbidden City, Great Wall, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace etc. online or in guide books. The only tips I can give are; Get a good map (I liked having a subway map as well but ‘up to you’), get out and about early as the tourist places can get extremely busy and walk around the city. I found walking was a great way to see all the life in between the great sites and they are surprising close to each other. Oh, and check the likely temperature before going.

Entering the Forbidden City

The people. Unlike the Thais I found the Chinese to be not outwardly friendly. If you smiled at someone it wouldn’t always be reciprocated. But they are very helpful and polite, except when it comes to queue’s. Being English I have very good queue etiquette. Pushing in and general pandemonium is ‘just not cricket’. I have been told Thai’s are the same but have never experienced it. Other than the queuing the only thing I couldn’t bear was the spitting. I mean real gurgling of the throat and emptying onto the street. You’d hear this from behind, automatically turn round and be amazed to see a teenage girl. During my short time I saw very only a handful of foreigners at the main sights not in tour groups and even less away from them. Quite possibly it could have just been the wrong time of year so few tourists, added to the fact I don’t drink so am reluctant to hang around bars where I would probably have seen more. Often I was given curious looks by locals, as if I was the first foreigner to venture into their quarter. I was taking a picture from a bridge in the Summer Palace grounds and the child on the boat was waving furiously at me for several minutes waiting for me to take a picture of her, so I had to oblige.

A fair amount can speak basic English but seem to lack the confidence, apart from a monk in Yonghe temple who had a better English accent then me. Only twice did someone approach me with purpose to practise their English, both times young ladies. I had read about 2 popular scams which are tried 1. Someone approaches you to practise their English and invites you to go and see some artwork and you are pressured into buying at an extremely inflated price 2. Someone approaches you to practise their English and invites you to go to a tea-shop were the bill will be astronomical and your companion gets a slice. I didn’t play along so I don’t know if it was attempted scams or my magnetic personality…

The Temple of Heaven

The food I enjoyed, probably not much as I like Thai food, but the change was nice. I would get the waitress to order for something for me forcing me to try new things, so often I had no idea what I was eating. The street near my hotel had probably 70+ restaurants on it, some apparently open 24 hours, all with young lads out side trying to get people in, but they seemed reluctant to talk English so made only half-hearted attempts to draw foreigners in.

What I liked the most were the Parks. Jingshan Park behind the Forbidden City was a nice place to relax and join in with the activities. Everybody was happy for you to join in what they were doing, be it line-dancing, Tai Chi or (my favourite) the keepy-up game with the oversized shuttlecock. The park surrounding the Temple of Heaven was a great place to see the blossom and listen to birds and people singing. I could go on and on about the different parks. My preferred was Longtan Park were you could see people getting their wedding photo’s, play table tennis or just sit back next to the lake and watch the office workers go by on their lunch time stroll.

Longtan Park

The things that surprised me most about Beijing where the scale of the city, the cleanliness and how safe I felt (Communism?). To me, all it lacked was that sense of ‘anything might happen’ that Bangkok has. I would recommend Beijing for a visit if you’re looking to get out of Thailand for a short break. Cost-wise I think on most things it’s comparable with Thailand (is that a good thing anymore?) except maybe hotels which, like for like, I would say are more expensive.

Me? I thoroughly enjoyed it. So much in fact I will be back there 2 months from now.

If you’d like to know more or want to see more pictures my email is below.

Stickman's thoughts:

Very nice report – and food for thought for the increasing number of Thailand-based expats who are considering elsewhere.

nana plaza