After spending one week in Romania sorting out some last-minute things and visas, I said goodbye to my family at the airport and I jumped on a plane to Madrid. It was a quick three days stop before flying out to China, but enough to explore the city a bit and enjoy some good tapas. I also met with C, a friend that I made in Peru three years ago. It’s a good feeling to meet someone again after a long time on a different part of the world. Life can take you anywhere if you are open to opportunities.
Arriving in Beijing
I left Madrid on Tuesday morning on a 12 hours flight to Hong Kong where I had 7 hours layover. Fortunately, Cathay Airlines managed to put me on an earlier flight and I arrived in Beijing around 5pm. When I got out of the airport it was such a dense smog that I could not even see further than 300 meters. I took an express train and the subway and I arrived to my hostel, located in a very touristic area, near Tianamen square. I didn’t do much that night other than having dinner and drinking some beers with the people from the hostel.
Tianamen Square, The Forbidden City and The Great Wall of China
Next day I went with O, a guy from the hostel, to visit the Tiananmen square and the Forbidden City. We woke up early to get to the square before the crowds. It was also the day after the big communist congress that happens every 5 years and the security was much more strict than usual. In Beijing they X-ray your bags everywhere, even when you enter the subway. We queued for around half hour and we entered the Tiananmen square. It is one of the biggest squares in the world and it has an important role in the history of China. This is where Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of People’s Republic of China and the place where hundreds of protesters were massacred during a democratic revolt in 1989. Other than the historic significance, the square is not very impressive. It is surrounded by some huge communist buildings and it leads to the south gate of the Forbidden City.
On the other hand, the Forbidden city is quite impressive. It was the residence of the Ming dynasty and it consists of hundreds of traditional chinese buildings, a few rounds of gates, temples, gardens, theatres and everything the imperial family needed. Outside the city, in the north, there is an artificial hill that was created with the soil excavated during the construction of the complex. It offers nice view of the city from above.
One thing not to be missed in Beijing is the Great Wall of China. There are many locations that can be visited, but I decided to go to the most touristic one because it was easier and cheaper to get there. Like for the Forbidden City, I had to wake up very early to avoid the big groups of Chinese tourists. If you want to take good pictures without tourists you have to go far away from where the cable car stops. It gets very steep and difficult to walk on some parts of the wall and not many tourists go there. It is unbelievable to think about how they’ve built this massive wall on top of mountains back in the days. Unfortunately the day I went there it was not very good visibility due to smog.
Planning my itinerary in China seemed to be more complicated that I thought. China is a massive country and all the touristic cities are hundreds kilometres away from each other. My initial plan was to skip Beijing and arrive in Shanghai, then make my way down to Hong Kong. However, many people said that Shanghai is a big western city with skyscrapers and it doesn’t represent China very well. So a few days before my trip I decided to fly to Beijing instead. This means I now I have to travel even more to get to Hong Kong and spend more days in China.
In my first days in Beijing I finalized my itinerary and booked my trains. I will get an overnight sleeper train to Xi’An, spend a couple of days there and then another sleeper train to Chengdu to visit the pandas. From there I have a 16 hours train to Zhangjiajie, a beautiful area in China that inspired the creators of Avatar. My last stop before Hong Kong will probably be Guilin, a nice countryside area.
First impressions of China
For some reason, China was the country I was most afraid of. Maybe it was the language barrier, the pollution, the food or the bad things I’ve heard about rude Chinese people. After a few days spent in Beijing I’ve completely changed my mind. Beijing is one of cleanest and modern cities I’ve ever been to. I haven’t seen any litter on the streets. There are free public toilets everywhere. The subway system is very efficient and modern. There are separate bike lanes on almost every street and almost all the motorcycles and busses are electric. Trains are a great way to travel between cities and people are not as rude as I imagined. In these aspects, I think Beijing is even better than London.
On the bad side, the pollution is horrible. In the first two days I couldn’t even see the sun from the smog, but it got better the days after. Internet is bad. No google, no Facebook, no whatsapp. These websites and apps are banned in China and you need a VPN to be able to access them. Even with VPN, the connection drops a lot and it is not very reliable. Visa and MasterCard are not accepted in China. As a foreigner you have to pay everything by cash. However, the locals use WePay or Alipay to pay for basically everything. Each shop has a QR code that they scan and pay instantly. Very efficient and fast. And finally, very very few people speak english. If you need directions or you want to buy something, your best bet is sign language. Google translate helps a bit, but don’t trust it when ordering food.
Next week I will be visiting the terracotta army in Xi’An and the cute pandas in Chengdu.