Saturday, 26 July 2014

First Day In China

Arrived in Beijing Airport on the 26 of July. The views from above were spectacular, and would ave been more so had the pollution not been in the way. Fortunately, we didn't arrive during one of the pollution waves, so we didn't need to wear masks. The airport provided a train service to central Beijing near Tiananmen, where we were headed. After the train ride, during which we saw many spectacular views, from deserts to old villages and farmland, we worked our way into the city centre, which was far more beautiful than I had imagined. Rather than a homogenous expanse of uninspiring skyscrapers, there were plenty of gardens, parks, trees and decorations to lighten the place up. It is said that Beijing became a new city in 2008, with the Olympics, when the entire world had their eyes on it. Of course, planting trees isn't just a aesthetic addition. In a city like Beijing, with its pollution problems, it's just common sense, as trees literally eat pollution and create healthy oxygen. 

We had to understand the map of the Beijing underground - normally, I am good at that stuff, but looking at that map was beyond me. We got help from a friendly member of security and were on our way. I didn't very much feel like taking the wrong stop, but in the end, way made our way underground to the city centre. We worked our way out of the station and ascended a massive stairway to where we got our first taste of Beijing air (9). The smell of Beijing was hard to describe - it's like a mixture of resin, petroleum, diesel, and what I would imagine a nuclear power plant smelling of. Nothing commonly encountered New Zealand resembles that scent, but sometimes, it does seem to come back to me like a memory.

The population excess wasn't quite as obvious as I expected - I was imagining streets literally overflowing with people, but it wasn't so bad for the most part. One reason is the easy, convenient and diverse forms of transport in Beijing means that as many people seem to be travelling by underground; bus; bike and other means of transport than they are by personal automobile. As a result, it appears that Beijing, with its 20 million population, has less traffic congestions than Auckland, with its 1.5 million population. It is also to be considered that China's population is very well distributed across the land, unlike New Zealand, where nearly a third of the population resides in Auckland.


Our Lodging - the Beijing Hyde Courtyard Hotel

We stayed at the Beijing Hyde Courtyard Hotel, located on Shijia Hutong. which is a fantastic experience at a cheap price. During the preparation phase we had made a decision not to go to any of these swanky, tourist oriented hotels. I would never go to, for example, the Hilton. I'm not criticising the Hilton - I'm sure the staff are all professionals who do what they are paid to do, and I'm sure they do it very well. I'm sure the entire hotel is in impeccable condition and provides a seamless hotel experience all the way through, but I would never go to the Hilton because it has no culture. I would not go travel all the way to exotic China in order to stay at an American hotel, just like how I wouldn't embark on an epic journey into the mountains of Nepal so that I can sit in a McDonalds in order to look at Memes whilst using the wi-fi. 
The Beijing Hyde Courtyard Hotel served to counter that. Built around a 100 year old courtyard (with a huge buddha in the centre), it was run by friendly, hard working youths, mostly students, who treated us like guests, not customers. We felt like a bunch of travellers lodging at the house of a bunch of good samaritans, much less like a group of clients paying for a service. They assisted us with virtually everything they could - from organising tours and arranging transport, to helping us with our luggage and assisting me with untying a particularly difficult knot on one of my bags. They were like friends. The fact that it's pretty much normal to fall asleep on the job in China without being fired almost adds a sort of homeliness to the hotel experience, and its something that the Hilton, with all their wealth, conduct and hospitality experience cannot match.
While we're on the subject, Hutongs are bloody amazing. The Hutong that the Courtyard hotel was located in was just as much of a part of the experience as the hotel itself - so if you do go to China, be sure to stay at a Hutong! For those who don't know, a Hutong is an ancient street - kind of like a cross between a street and an alleyway, unique to Beijing. Although many of them have been destroyed through the last century in order to make way for bigger, more commercialised streets, there are still plenty of them out there, some of which have been in existence for over 2,000 years! One has to wonder, when roaming about these Hutongs, watching the locals go about their business, just how long their families have operated within these roads.

After laying our baggage down at the Hotel, we tucked into some Beijing dinner at an all you can eat buffet located on the same Hutong as the hotel. This buffet was only open 4 hours a day - from 4pm to 8pm, and for good reason. For 15, which comes to about $3.30, you could have all you can eat - endless rice, beans, nuts, vegetables and sauces. The only meat was fatty pork, but that's okay - the food is not meant to be super-delicious (it did taste good), but mostly, it was such a wonderfully convenient way to get dinner. The buffet was in poor condition, but just like with Hotels, we weren't going for tourist-oriented places. When we walked in, everyone looked at us and went silent, simply because they never expected foreigners to come into such places. But they made conversation with us, and we had a lot of fun, (especially because of the 50 cent beers).

After dinner, we did a bit of exploring - visiting the museum and experiencing 'bartering'. Anybody selling to a foreigner will ask for more than they would the locals, because most foreigners have no idea how much their money is worth, thinking it peanuts to the locals as well as themselves. The first thing I bought was a fan, for more than I needed to pay, but I did barter the seller down from the original price, so I didn't mind - I had my first experience with bartering!