Beyond the Beijing Fog


When I was offered the opportunity to visit China I leapt at the chance. I have always wanted to visit the Great Wall and the last vestiges of China's imperial past. I was also churning through a podcast recounting the period from the fall of the imperial dynasty to modern times.  Fair to say it was with anticipation plus that I embarked on this particular journey. It was all very rushed, as was the itinerary and very last minute. I had to say yes as the chance may not crop up again. Having committed I then started doing some more in depth research and found the weather may be inclement. It couldn't be that bad could it?!

Our group arrived early morning, courtesy of Air NZ, to be greeted by the thickest fog/smog imaginable. Our guide informed us that he was going to do us a favour by taking us straight to the Forbidden City. I failed to see how this was inspired when you could barely see your hand in front of you, surely waiting until the afternoon would have given us a chance to see something. Beijing Airport, immigration and customs is much like any other and no problem to negotiate.

We parked just off Tiananmen Square. The square in itself is unremarkable flanked by two imposing edifices straight out of a Cold War novel. However it is the largest of its kind in the world and the myriad Chinese tour groups, stylishly decked out in the latest headwear of the same colour, tried their best to fill it up. On the northern flank the beatific portrait of Mao surveys the area from the Gate of Heavenly Peace which also marks the entrance to the Forbidden City. I only saw one other public image of Mao, outside the Peace Hotel in Shanghai.

Don’t underestimate how many people visit the Forbidden City. It is not European or American tour groups but tens of thousands of Chinese. You need to get over this quickly and regard the crowds as a tourist attraction in themselves … as were we for that matter as requests for photos with the tall guy and the blond lady cascaded in, should have set up a stall!  I don’t think I have ever seen so many locals at a local historical attraction, how many Londoners go to Westminster Abbey, Parisians up the Eiffel Tower etc …? The city is vast, we basically just sampled a tasty morsel. Enough to figure out a day here with a packed lunch and one of the audio tours available at the entrance would be the way to do it, or a human guide with plenty of free time afterwards to visit the myriad museums we whisked by. The standard tour for us and the masses appears to be to head in a straight line north from the Gate of Heavenly Peace until you emerge out of the Shenwu Gate and the really impressive Palace moat. A good guide, human or otherwise, is essential to make sense of the buildings and their relationship to each other.

Back to the bus and the first of our ‘Chinese’ meals was flung at us. We had a free afternoon. I didn’t really want to waste the little time we had so after dumping my bag and trying to get a taxi for half an hour I wandered to the Temple of Heaven park about an hour away. Set in the grounds of a large park the chief attraction, the ‘Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests’, is a bit of a spine tingler, 38 metres high, colourful, loads of dragons (I like dragons) and not a nail or drop of cement to be found anywhere. This was Sunday afternoon so the people of Beijing were out and about. Along a corridor that runs up to the hall people were playing cards and other assorted perplexing games. In the greener parts small bands and conductors held small choirs in thrall as they banged out some Chinese opera tunes. It was one of those moments where you think you wouldn’t mind owning the CD but in reality you would never listen to it … there’s a time and context for everything and Chinese opera on a Sunday afternoon in a big park in smoggy Beijing was great. 

To be fair the lunch was ok but dinner was dreadful and we had to drive miles to get there. Little did we know this was the benchmark. There were a few restaurants around the hotel, it would have been much more satisfying fumbling our way through their menus and probably a whole lot more entertaining. The restaurant we went to just killed what little energy we had left. 

On the flight over I read an article in the Lonely Planet entitled ‘Badaling Blues’ highlighting the pitfalls in some tours offered to the Great Wall. To be fair our day wasn’t quite as devoid of interest but makes the point that you need to be certain of what you are paying for. If you are ever going to splash out on a private tour, do it here making absolutely sure your visit is focussed on the Great Wall. You would assume a day trip taking in the Great Wall and Hutongs would be just that but read on …

0830: depart the hotel for the Great Wall at Juyongguan. The fog/smog/sandstorm afflicting Beijing hadn’t lifted but I thought surely once we get out of the city it would be fine.

 1st Stop: Arrive at Juyongguan distraught that the fog/smog/sandstorm afflicting Beijing also shrouded this section of the wall. How many years had I wanted to come here? I’ve still got one of those Ladybird books about Marco Polo, so I would estimate around 35 years! Our guide was surely joking when he said “we will spend an hour here to enjoy the views”, due to fog you could only see 10 yards in front of your nose! It appeared absolutely vital to our guides that we pose for a group photo in the front of a section of the wall you couldn’t actually see. Never mind, for the 100 Yuan fee they photo-shopped out the reality and superimposed a lovely day complete with a view of the wall … bah humbug you’re not getting a Yuan out of me. Despite the visibility the wall was there and it had to be climbed. This was no picnic, it took at least 20 minutes of reasonably strenuous climbing to get away from the masses and still no view. Going on was pointless as the wall flattened out, my idea that the wall would miraculously emerge from the mists, clearly optimism gone awry. Over my disappointment I headed back down and back to the bus, we had spent an hour at the wall. 

2nd Stop: OK lunch at a ceramic factory then an hour to shop … you can’t be serious we still have to get to the Olympic Park and Hutongs.

3rd Stop: Bird’s Nest Stadium … been there, done that, bought the kite.

 4th Stop: Silk factory … pardon, when did this become part of the itinerary. Thought oh well might add to my wife's silk scarf collection. Unfortunately not, this place specialised in duvet’s and pillows, just what I came to China for. Two hours later and with light fading I asked the guide if we were in fact still going to the Hutongs … “yes, yes plenty of time”. Somehow they managed to fob off half a dozen duvets and as many pillows to our group.

5th Stop: The Hutongs at last, touted as one of the highlights of the trip and confirmed by other people I had talked to about it. I would love to tell you more but we spent 10 minutes in one of the oldest parts of Beijing on a rickshaw. My understanding is that most tours would at the very least visit the interior of one of the dwellings but no we had to dash off so we could have a shop at the Pearl Market. 

6th Stop: Pearl Market. Resigned to the fact that this was not going to be one of the best trips I have ever done decided to have a laugh in the replica market. The market is really well organised, some of the vendors can be a wee bit aggressive but the majority are really good humoured while trying to extort as much as possible out of you. The prices start really high, you need to start at 5% of the asking price and stick to your guns, they will eventually come down but allow some time. If you can’t deal with it there is a bar on the 6th floor for a cheeky Tsingtao.

7th Stop: Peking Duck dinner, something I was really looking forward to only to be dismayed when I realised we were heading to another food factory. The group by now were treating the food with derision. Each of us received a couple of tiny slivers to gorge ourselves on, oh well the beer was cold.

Back at the hotel late and we had spent an hour at the Great Wall and 10 minutes in the Hutongs.      

Shanghai awaited us today. I have to say I was quite looking forward to getting out of Beijing. I would love to have stayed longer, to have a decent look at the Hutongs for one thing, but the all pervasive fog/smog/sandstorm was just depressing in that English winter kind of way. The Beijing train station is lovely, more like an airport terminal. On arrival you go through security before purchasing your tickets. Would strongly recommend purchasing these in advance, the train we were on was full. If you can’t then using the kiosks at the station is easy providing instructions in English. Don’t hang around thinking you will meander to the train in your own good time if you want somewhere other than under your feet for your suitcase. The train itself is exactly like the Japanese Shinkhansen, just as fast (+300 KPH) and smooth. There are 3 classes, economy is fine, plenty of leg room, business class adds some more room and lusher seats while first class offers a fully flat pod like arrangement akin to business class on aircraft. There is also a first class plus at the front of the train providing a work area and full surround view. The journey itself wasn’t full of pictorial highlights but the first sighting of the sun in 3 days bought out a few whoops from our group.

The evening was dedicated to an acrobatic show. To be honest I was fairly knackered at this point but staying awake was well worth the effort as the acrobats seemingly missing ribs contorted themselves into an array of positions and configurations. However the highlight was 6 motorbikes and riders confined in a sphere and going hell for leather, this was exhilarating stuff.

Well the fog/smog/sandstorm was gone now it was pouring. First stop of the day was the cruise terminal, just so we knew where it was, then our tour of the Bund consisted of driving past it to the Yu Gardens. Our guide transported us from one dry spot to the next as best he could while explaining the extensive history of the Ming era gardens. It was really difficult to form an opinion of the garden given the weather but looked to be worth a couple of hours rummaging. I expect they would be transformed in the sunlight to something more mystical and appealing. At the entrance to the garden is the Oriental Bazaar a recreated Ming era mall with all manner of tack, especially liked the communist era replica mugs and posters.

From here we went river cruising on the Huangpu to view the Bund and Pudong. Unfortunately the rain had really set in so ended up being quite miserable. However could see how this could be a highlight.

Another forgettable lunch followed but then we had some freedom. Not exactly satiated with driving past one of the planet’s premier tourist sites I and another of my colleagues decided we best walk along the Bund at the very least and it seemed natural to conclude the walk at the Peace Hotel. If the Bund were anywhere else in the Western world you probably would give the architecture a passing glance before moving on. However this was China and it represented the last vestiges of their colonial experience. This was the centre of the mercantile world for a period at the beginning of the 20th century and everything that came with it; from a den of inequity touting everything from opium to silk to the formation of the Chinese communist party and background sets for Indiana Jones movies. The Peace Hotel is an elegant reminder of those times, the opium dens, brothels and casinos have all moved on. Inside the hotel is a small museum recalling some of the earliest days of its existence and well worth 10 minutes before heading in to the bar. If you can afford it stay here, period! Recently reopened after a 3 year refurbishment it oozes 1920s art deco, absolutely magnificent. If you can’t afford it spend 10 bucks on a beer in the bar.

I was quite keen to have a look around another area carved out of during the early part of the 20th century, the French Concession. Boulevards lined with trees were classic Paris supplanted to Shanghai. Local entrepreneurs have built on this ambience creating top class renovations of the original housing and filling them with boutiques and restaurants. A small group of us took a taxi from the Bund to Xintiandi (a restaurant area within the concession). The taxis are fine as long as you have your destinations written in Chinese to show the drivers. If the taxi doesn’t have a meter get one that does, they should give you a printed electronic receipt after you pay. There is a small museum in Xintiandi (Shikumen Open House Museum) recreating one of the original shikumen houses built in the area, well worth half an hour, as is the teahouse that awaits at the exit. Sixty Yuan will give you an endless supply of tea and a perfect place to chill out. 

My impression of Chinese food and restaurants to this point had been formed by the food factories we had been eating in. Happily there are really good restaurants in China and there were more than a few around Xintiandi. We ate at a place called Kabb where the scowl was replaced by really excellent service and the happy hour was well worth the investment!

Really good day this leaving Shanghai by coach to visit the water village of Wuzhen. It was supposed to take an hour and a half but we got stuck in traffic. This was actually a blessing as it gave us a brief insight into rural China. Fields were being tilled but of more interest were the canals with barges transporting their cargoes from the interior to the ocean ports. On arrival in Wuzhen we had an early lunch which was probably the best of them. Wuzhen is an ancient water town over 1200 years old. Ideally it would be a place to get lost in, I don’t think you would get into too much trouble. There nothing in particular to get excited about but there is a real ambience to the place even after visiting the rice wine brewery. The town is still largely inhabited so still retains an air of genuineness despite the thousands of visitors it clearly draws each day. I really liked it here and would recommend this highly. It’s not too far from Shanghai as long as you don’t get snagged in traffic and the ride is interesting.

We couldn’t spend a day in China without shopping so on our return to Shanghai our guide kindly arranged for us to cross a few of the amazing bridges that span the Huangpu and deposit us at the Science and Technology Museum. No, not for any cultural gratification, well sort of … it just so happens that the best replica market in Shanghai is located underneath it. A bit flasher than the Pearl Market in Beijing the vendors were no less endearing. I would start at 2% of the starting price here having purchased a Yves St Laurent wallet for Mrs Boomer for 50 Yuan from a starting price of 1800 and still felt it could have gone lower. 

Used the metro to get from here into town and back to the French Concession area this time aiming for another restaurant district called Tianzifang. The metro was fine, I can’t think of any reason not to use it. Modern, clean and efficient it could have been anywhere in the world and was definitely the fastest way of crossing Shanghai. Tickets were purchased electronically which took a little bit to work out but easy after the initial experience. I didn’t like Tianzifang as much as Xintiandi but worth a night out if you have the time. Again the shikumen houses had been converted into a maze of restaurants. You could walk without fear as you would always come out on a main road. 

Spent the following morning wandering around an old part of Shanghai near our hotel where workers from outside Shanghai wait to make their fortune. To be honest this is what I expected much more of China to be like and I imagine it is in the less developed parts. The odours of street vendors cooking simple breakfasts, chickens in cages waiting to be slaughtered on the side of the road, impossibly constructed bamboo scaffolding, all contributed to the atmosphere of the area. These were determined people working damned hard to make their lives bearable for themselves and their families. 

The final part of our journey involved taking the bus to Longyang Road station to catch the Maglev train to the airport. Ideally you would take the metro if convenient to your hotel to save time. The Maglev is running at an enormous loss as the locals don’t tend to use it due to the cost. However at NZD8.00 one way with the chance to travel at 430 kph why wouldn’t you. We only got up to 300 kph due to the time of day but we still managed to cover 37 kms in 7 minutes!

My journey to China was rushed in many ways and given more time I would certainly travel differently at a different time of year. Nevertheless I returned with many memorable moments, I will return to Beijing to spend more time in the Forbidden City and I just need to go back to the Great Wall. I will never forget the home made opera in the park, the motorbike acrobats, the Peace Hotel and finally finding life in Chinese cuisine in Xintiandi ... sometimes the fog and rain only partially obscures.