Chinese Buffet – Part 2: One Week in the ‘Jing

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

Although I planned to spend the majority of my time in China visiting with friends in Shanghai, it turned out that I tackled Beijing first — all on my own. This was the perfect travel challenge for me — a seasoned European backpacker visits Asia, alone, for the very first time. I arrived in China’s bustling capital during the heat of summer, with no knowledge of the local language.

There was little time to learn any Mandarian before I departed, but I made sure to nail down the very basics: “Ni hao” (hello) and “xie xie” (thank you). And then I just studied some maps, so I’d feel comfortable navigating the city.

Tour groups often whiz through the main attractions of Beijing in three or four days, so I knew that the seven nights I had allotted myself was a generous amount of time. I managed to see most of east Beijing and the Sanlitun area on my first day, tackled the Forbidden City and Tian’an Men Square on day two, and visited a variety of city parks, temples and other attractions through the remainer of the week. I put aside one day for the Great Wall, and allotted myself a free unplanned day near the end of the week, in case I was rundown or sick. (I was both.) That free day is a luxury many travelers can’t afford, but if you can swing it, a “spare day” can be a real lifesaver when you need a break. This was definetly the case for me by the time day six came around.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Another benefit of spending a full week in town was that it allowed me enough time to split lodging between two accommodations in different parts of the city. If time permits, a mid-week lodging change offers the opportunity to experience the atmosphere of multiple neighborhoods. I began by Couchsurfing for three nights with an expat in Eastern Beijing (an excellent way to learn about the city from a local’s perspective), then spent the next four at a hutong-based hostel in the Dongcheng district. (More on that later this week.)

The accommodation switch helped me feel even more comfortable moving about the city, which in general, I found easy to navigate. I tend to walk a lot in cities, and I wound up using my feet and the subway most often during my week in Beijing. I don’t regret passing on a bike rental (I’m just not good on two wheels!) but one regret I have is that I didn’t learn a little bit about the bus system — I probably could have saved myself some energy and time if I had hopped on a bus every now and then. The current subway system still bypasses chunks of downtown (more lines are being built ahead of the Olympics) and I’m sure the bus routes fill in those gaps, but I didn’t make an effort to investigate.

The taxis are cheap and it was often easiest to just hail one when my feet got tired. These rides (often accompanied by long stops in traffic) were especially delightful when I had drivers who’ve been practicing their English in preparation for the Olympic Games. One man I rode with was listening to English-language lessons as he drove, and he demonstrated for me how he could say “hello” and “thank you” in Russian, French, Spanish, Dutch and Italian. Most of the drivers, though, do not speak English, so I always carried the Beijing Tourist Map or a guidebook with Chinese characters and Pinyin for the major sites and streets.

I, like Ember, found the subway system to be a cinch. Signs are well marked in English, and I soon learned to stop at these handy area maps before leaving any station — They list the nearby sights and attractions for each of the exits and really helped me get my bearings before heading outside into the hot, crowded streets:

I had read that I would notice pushing, especially in public transport lines, but on the day I first rode the subway, I was impressed to see folks lining up in orderly rows to wait for the next train to arrive in the station. There were also attendants with whistles directing people to stand in line until passengers had exited the subway car.

Later that evening, I learned that my first day on the subway just happened to be an official Queue Day — since February, the 11th day of each month has been a “voluntary wait-in-line day” in Beijing, to practice civility in advance of welcoming the world to the city next summer. The 11 symbolises two straight lines — makes sense, and the straightforward approach seems to be sinking in. The initiative was clearly working that day, and I noticed people lining up willingly on other days as well.

Despite the fact that I found Beijing to be fairly tourist friendly and easy city to navigate, I still experienced paralyzing moments throughout the week when I felt like this:

I spied this little sweetheart getting doused with water by her parents outside the Forbidden City and wanted to stop and have a good cry along with her. It was just too hot and crowded to be able to really enjoy the siteseeing experience with the energy I had hoped. There were incredible moments I’ll cherish (these usually took place in the shade of a tree or pagoda, after a soft wind passed through), and then there were those terribly sticky, messy ones (when the ice cream melted before I could finish it, and the water I washed it down with was luke warm and powdered with a dusty aftertaste.)

If you’re headed to Beijing next year for the Summer Olympics, don’t be discouraged — just be prepared! It is definetly possible to travel through this city in the heat, but mental preparation can’t hurt — psyche yourself up just like the athletes do. It will be hot and hazy and you may not have the time (or stamina) to see everything you want. I didn’t get to some of the top sites on my personal “must see” list. I had to skip the 798 Art District, the Summer Palace and the Lu Xun Museum. But I was glad I had made a short list of what seemed most interesting to me. I’ll get to the rest next time…in a cooler season for sure.