Summer Palace, Beijing
I was really lucky to be able to visit Beijing for business last week and stay for two extra days of sightseeing. Beijing and China did not look at all like I expected. Here is what I learned:
Ground floor of the office building where our company has its Beijing offices.
1. I did not expect Beijing to be so... green and clean! There are trees and flowers (mostly roses) everywhere, and there is a sense that the city is well taken care of, something that cannot be said about American cities. It looks a lot like a modern European city. The traffic, however, is truly horrendous and our Silicon Valley traffic feels tolerable in comparison. The air quality is, unfortunately, still poor, 7 million cars on the streets every day are not helping with that.
2. Modern art of Beijing is as amazing as its traditional art and architecture. This is a water installation in an underpass between office buildings - these fountains are moving to the music and they look amazing. It's not really done to attract tourists, but just to offer relaxation to people who work in these buildings. The fountains work during lunch hour and, I think, from 5 pm to 6 pm, to give everyone a jolt of good mood before their ride home.
Squirrel fish dish
3. I love Asian food, but I got to try dishes during our team dinner that are hard to get in US. For example, I have never tried squirrel fish before, and it was delicious. Peking duck was really good too, and far not as greasy as the one I tried once in a local Chinese restaurant. My two other US coworkers who came with me are vegetarians, but they could still find a variety of dishes to try, especially different sorts of mushrooms.
4. You have to give up on the idea that Chinese people speak English. They don't, not even in Beijing, not even when they are waiters in an international hotel. That part surprised me quite a bit - I expected that most people speak decent English. On the positive side, subway maps and stations do have English signage, and subways are reasonably easy to navigate. They are also clean, both the stations and the trains, and not a sign of graffiti, so ubiquitous in any subway of the West.
The Forbidden City, Beijing
5. If at all possible, it's best not to do sightseeing on the weekend. I went with a tour to The Forbidden City on Saturday, and it was very crowded (reminded me of a tour of Versailles in 2016). My colleagues said that it's still "practically empty" in comparison to attendance during Chinese holidays. They mentioned that they had a 4-day Labor Day weekend the previous week and one had to wait 5 minutes to even be able to make one step inside of The Forbidden City or on The Great Wall. In comparison, when I went to The Great Wall on Friday, it was "almost" empty:
Mutianyu section of the Great Wall
6. Speaking of The Great Wall, there are tours of two different sections of it offered through many companies. I was glad that I chose Mutianyu - it is very scenic, beautifully restored, and a lot less crowded than Badaling. And, I was super happy to take a cable car up and down even though it cost extra (about $20) - one can walk up, but... it's really steep, and the day was quite hot! I was exhausted just walking up to the cable car station.
The view of Mutianyu section from the base.
7. I also learned that one does not need a tour group to visit Beijing highlights (except The Great Wall, which is too far and does not have public transportation options). The Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and Summer Palace are all available through subway and one would avoid annoying stops at "tourist traps", such as silk-making (5 minutes of looking at how silk is made, 55 minutes of shopping), jade "factory" (same procedure), and so on. At least "tea ceremony" stop was interesting - I learned a lot more about a proper way to drink green tea and even bought some ginseng tea to bring home.
Chinese Tea Ceremony
8. It was interesting to meet other world travelers during my tours. I booked them through the hotel, and the bus spent at least an hour and a half driving around and picking up other tourists from their hotels. I was the only American on both tours, but I met people all over the world - India, Nepal, Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, Indonesia, and, of course, Russia.
A very amusing translation of Ming Tombs into Russian - my parents will appreciate the humor ;)
9. I ate two dinners in my very luxurious hotel - one, because I did not know any better and naively assumed that dinner will be as good as it was in the restaurant that my coworkers took us (it was the worst dinner in China), and the second time when I came back from The Great Wall and was too exhausted to venture out. At last, on my last night, I asked a concierge to point me out to a restaurant where locals eat local food. The restaurant turned out to be within 2 minutes from the hotel, and it had a "picture menu" where I could point to what I wanted to try. Chinese "street food" is delicious and the dinner cost just a third of what the hotel charged. So the lesson is - get out of the comfort zone.
Street food in the "hole in the wall" local eatery. Freshly made noodles and chicken gizzards and feet.
10. I also learned that Beijing residents are welcoming and willing to help. On the way back from one of my tours the bus dropped me off at the subway station... except, as it turned out, they dropped me off almost half a kilometer away from it, and I could not see it. I approached a passerby for help and, even though he did not speak English, he pulled out his phone, looked up the subway location and walked me there, then waved goodbye and went back to where he is going. This is how I am going to remember China - as a country where people will literally go an extra mile to help a stranger. I really hope that I will get an opportunity to come back... even though Smarty insists that her dream country to visit is Japan :)
What was the last place you visited?