By: Daniel Otero
I recall in my memories…
It was on the ‘D’ train and a 13-hour journey to Beijing. Nightfall and too excited to sleep… Even had a party of wine, song/dance and sharing in the cabin with those I’d met! Almost wild!
Ending on the southern portion of the city, very-early in the morning and too nervous to know where to go, I exited for a taxi and was quickly ‘hustled’. The taxi ride that should’ve taken me no more than 10 minutes, took me 25!
Upon my arrival at the hotel I decided to leave the room on a ‘dreamy high’. Since it was only five days to get the most out of Beijing… ‘I’m in love’ and know what I want to do first.
Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square… The local cop near the hotel is telling me to take a taxi to the sites—since they are too far to walk. I refuse and quickly looked around to find a Metro System, it’s my liberation. And after a couple of stops, I’ve found it!
In a silly tradition I have of lifting my arms and expressing, “I’m here, baby!” Curiously many Chinese stared at me, not understanding and feeling a bit lost. ‘It’s all good!’ I quickly brace my jacket on to what’s turning from autumn to winter. And see the iconic photo of Mao Zedong at the entrance of the Forbidden City wall and want to cross the Avenue, but ‘no can do!’ This New Yorker is gated.
I get back down into the subway and find my way across.
I’m here, in front of this marvelous site. Entering to feast my eyes on the wonders; a dream has come true!
I’d always wanted to come to China. The opportunity was just not available. Now with the openness between the U.S. and China; it’s accessible to live and do a career in Teaching. I love my job and wanted to learn more about the food, culture and language. That’s why I’m here to quickly enjoy the walls of the city. What fun!
I avoid the hackers, hustlers or those after my ‘hard earned money’. By learning to say ‘Bu, xie xie!’ it’s a simple, ‘no thank you’ and with some serious firmness to keep the troublemakers away. However, most Chinese are good people, a little rude out of ignorance but they usually do want to help!
I’m in and it’s magical! This mysterious place takes me into its ‘inner belly’. It’s mine and I want it!
This long lost city, where Emperors ruled for more than 800 years; these walls are in pastel-color red, trims of gold and just gorgeous–with doors that have been a fixture for the past 100 years. Symbolisms of this once ancient and mighty Empire… For this reason, they still call China, Zhongguo (the Middle Kingdom).
Walking around, it just was to spend a couple of hours being mesmerized by it all. As the cold air did chill my lungs but felt this sense of accomplishment! Living in an amazing-historical moment!
The next day, I went to the Great Wall.
Did you know that China has nearly 60 million visitors a year! Most of these visit Beijing and the Great Wall. But others enjoy cities like Shanghai and Xi’an.
The Great Wall is a 90 minute bus ride into the Badaling side or 1.5 hours via rail.
Tramping takes a good 45 minute walk up the Wall to view this amazing site.
*(1) The Great Wall nears 9,000 kilometers in distance. The structure was erected some 2,200 years before and completed by the Ming Dynasty in the last 1,400 years of the Common Era. But it was built on the backs to the peasantry. Millions of the bones of these poor souls are under this great structure throughout Northern and Western China. Amazing to look-up into the mountains and see how this wall serpents its way and zigzags from top to bottom. In one word, outstanding! Having that feeling, like my British friends always describe as being ‘God smacked!’ Totally awesome!
On the bus riding the thoroughfare [on the way back from the Great Wall] comes the image of the Beijing National Stadium, commonly known as the ‘Bird’s Nest’. It was the main ‘playground’ for the competitions during the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
What holds the touch of class was the Old Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan Park). Sadly, it was destroyed by foreign troops and with a unique style, the Emperors decided for a ‘New’ Summer Palace to rival the old in the 18th Century. The advantages of visiting in the winter were the lack of crowds!
It was after, as life continued taking me as if hypnotized to see one of my students. I rode into the gates of the famous Tsinghua University. Already [the University] was celebrating over 100 years, Mindy was there waiting for me! A student in Journalism, she was about to give me the treat of my life!
I can recall that day, Beijing being bitterly cold and the Summer Palace was empty. She had brought me here to give me this gift and surprise. With a marble floating boat, temples and palaces over the lake to indicate grandeur, every single moment of cold was worth it! It was a treat to watch the patrons skate in the icy lake.
This made me happy and even happier when soon after we had Beijing Duck for lunch. I mean, I can’t lie. The night before, I had had Beijing Duck with a former colleague of mine, Irene Shen. One of the best and tastiest fatty birds on the planet: sweet in texture, soft and better in taste while having it with celery, wraps and a dark-sticky soy sauce was simply incredible!
This trip gave me two experiences. A taste of the best duck in the world and it can only be savored in Beijing.
Don’t kid yourself, there isn’t any other place! Roughly be prepared to spend between 300 to 500 RMB ($48 to 80 USD), table for two when eating this great delicacy.
Afternoon I went on my own journey to the gates of Peking University’s East Gate.
To carry on, till I had reached the Zoological Gardens; and honestly, when visiting China, unless you are with children that are interested, don’t bother visiting the zoo. The conditions are humane and in some instances, barely humane. People were throwing rubbish at the lions to wake them-up and provoke these poor animals.
Those responsible for the Zoo barely walked the premises and took little care of ‘business’, not worth the efforts for something that will break your heart. No pride whatsoever in maintaining these premises!
Rushing back to the hotel, I had a reservation that evening for a Kung-fu show. It has been known throughout its 4,000 year history [in China] as Gong-fu or Wushu. As I watched with gapping mouth the Children of Shaolin defying gravity with jumps that went beyond comprehension. Maybe it was the art of illusion and it still felt great to savor these purely-intense moments! The Shaolin Monks were truly spectacular, with choreographed fights, movements that mimicked animals in combat and swords that bent by using only the sheer force of their pectoral muscles. The show ended and I was in ‘Kung-fu heaven’!
The following day…
Now, one of the most controversial figures in history has been Mao Zedong. Politically I never did agree with him or his policies. And as a veteran, one of the greatest military strategist and poets in contemporary times; and for this reason I had to visit his Mausoleum in Tian’anmen Square.
*(2) Actually, it has been said that his body is a wax figure! Plus, what’s seen is not his actual height and the experience is to see him through a crystal sarcophagus. Many come to pay homage to the man with flowers, touch the glass, throw-a-kiss in honor to what they consider to be a great leader.
I came more for the curiosity, the legend of the man. And as a lover of history, opinionated and objective, I still had to come for the view and honestly, well worth the experience!
Another place for my visit was Yonghe Lama Temple and it’s magical. With the original touches of Chinese architecture dating back to 1694; it’s one of marvels of Beijing and only a block’s walk from Line 2 Metro System. It’s one of the best treats in all Beijing when coming close to the conclusion of a trip.
This Temple ‘pops’ out with gorgeous spiral roofs tops in multilayer-color. From a distance, the portions of the Temple can be seen and those smells of sandalwood come along. What’s even more impressive? Inside, the 26 meter sandalwood Buddha, one of the tallest in world made in this material and a plus, the sweet smells.
Sorry, no photos inside the Temple [please] and that’s a ‘no brainer’ in any holy structure. However, from certain angles on the outside one can get great shots of this wonderful national treasure. So, got it! Leaving with a sense of accomplishment and knowing my trip was about to end.
What’s another must do is the Temple of Heaven! Through its history destroyed several times. I had to prepare myself for a long walk and well worth the experience through the spacious gorgeous-tree lanes of Tian Tan Park. Just hypnotic to say the least and a great conclusion to the holiday!
Sidebars & Advice:
*(1) During winter take the cable-car on the Badaling side, the walk up hill is 45 minute and it can get chilly and rather windy super quick!
*(2) Visit the Mausoleum in the morning. It’s usually a 45 to 90 minute wait. The queues get worse during the afternoons. Mao’s Mausoleum is open from Tuesday to Sunday, Mondays are closed. Hours of operation are from 8 to 11:30 am and 2 to 4 pm.
Beijing is a big city. I covered it in five days, as inexperienced visitors should give themselves at least six.
Let’s move to the theme of safety. Beijing is fairly safe and two scams are prevailing around the city. Avoid ‘black cabs’, they are illegal and often will try to ‘rip you off’. Take the normal and identified taxi services, these cabs are usually in red and gold. The other is people identifying themselves as your ‘friend’. Strangers you don’t know and give you an invitation for dinner or ‘honey traps’, stay away from these people. They could end up costing a tourist hundreds of dollars or thousands of RMB in loses. Keep in mind, ‘Stranger/Danger’.
The currency exchange is right now, $1 (USD) for every 6.1 RMB.