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gardkarlsen Beijing - A travel report by Gard
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Beijing,  China - flag China -  Beijing
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gardkarlsen's travel reports

A week in Beijing

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Beijing travelogue picture
This is a travelogue about the trip that my wife, Nikki, and I took to China (Beijing, Xi’an and Hong Kong) in the period from March 15th to March 29th 2003. We first spent 7 days in Beijing and we got to see the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and so on. From Beijing we took an overnight train to Xi’an and our main goal there was to see the Terra-Cotta Warriors but we also got to see a few other things. And from Xi’an we flew to the city of Shenzhen and from there we took the boat to Hong Kong (HK), where we stayed for about 5 days. In HK we visited Ocean Park, Victoria Peak, the Space Museum and so on.

Favourite spots:
Beijing travelogue picture
The best part of Beijing was of course to be able to walk on the Great wall of China at Simatai. The weather was great and the view was stunning.

What's really great:
Beijing travelogue picture
I was also surprised by the Forbidden city. This was also quite a stunning attraction. Once again we had great weather and the buildings looked majestic.

Beijing travelogue picture
Great wall of China (Simatai), Forbidden city, Temple of heaven park, Lama temple, summer palace, Chairman Mao’s memorial hall, Jingshan Park

Beijing travelogue picture
We stayed at the Radisson SAS Hotel. The hotel itself doesn’t have a great location. It is located next to ring 3 on the northeast of Beijing. But this was not really a big issue because there were always taxis outside the hotel and it was easy to get into the centre of town. It cost about 20-30 RMB to take the taxi into Tiananmen square.
I have posted a full review of the hotel on

Other recommendations:
Beijing travelogue picture
We wanted to fly SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) this time but they didn’t have the option of flying to Beijing and back from Hong Kong so we ended up on KLM. As I have said before, I think that KLM has gone down in quality in the last few years. When we boarded the plane it was pretty full and one lady didn’t know where to place her hand baggage and she asked one of the air stewardesses if she could help her out. And the KLM stewardess just said ”No”. Not much service to be found there. But hey, KLM do have a great home airport at least. Schiphol has become a really nice airport and you can do a lot of shopping there

When we were waiting to board the plane we hoped that there would be some empty seats but for the first time I got to experience an over-booked flight. They started offering people € 350 to go via Seoul instead and arrive in Beijing 6 hours later than first scheduled. It was tempting but we stuck to the original flight.

Arriving in Beijing
Having left Stavanger on Saturday and flown via Amsterdam, we landed at Beijing airport at about 9 am on Sunday morning. I was hoping that we would get a view of the city but it was so misty that we didn’t see anything until 5 seconds prior to landing. The airport itself looked nice and well kept and getting through immigration was pretty effective. The first thing I noticed when I picked up my suitcase (on its maiden voyage by the way) was that it was damaged as if someone had taken a crowbar to its side. I went to the luggage centre to report it and was refunded 400 RMB. RMB is the local currency and it is known as Renminbi (people's money) and is often abbreviated as RMB….the unit of Renminbi is a yuan by the way.

On the money topic: once again we travelled “without” any money. The only thing we had was our VISA and MasterCard. And as we had read on the net there are ATM’s once you get out of customs.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Beijing. Sure, I knew about the great wall and the Forbidden City but what would the city itself be like? And going from the airport to the hotel I got a bit sceptical. It was misty, raining and everything looked greyish and boring (just like it does here in Norway in the winter time). And the taxi was driving really slowly on the highway - as if the driver was trying to save petrol or something. But the drive didn’t take long and it only cost us about 50 RMB.

The Radisson SAS Hotel was nice but not centrally located. Getting around was not a big problem because there were always taxis available. If you would like further details about the hotel you can check out my review of the hotel here.

Tiananmen Square
Our plan was to start the sight-seeing right away but the long flight had worn us out. We ended up taking a short nap before getting started. The first place that we could think of was Tiananmen Square :-) 15 minutes in a taxi and 30 RMB later we got to Tiananmen Square. The Square is HUGE and it is quite impressive. Our late arrival to the Square meant that we, together with lots of other Chinese people, were able to witness the daily ceremony of the lowering the Chinese flag. It can be pretty cold in Beijing in March by the way. On most days it would be freezing in the morning and the evening and in the middle of the day we would have about 10-12 degrees Celsius. So I was glad that I had brought my fleece and Gore-Tex jacket :-)

While at the square we got in touch with some locals - a brother and a sister, and the girl spoke pretty good English. We conversed with them for a while, whilst waiting to see the flag lowering. Having seen that we continued to walk and talk with the two we had met. We ended up being guided through some hútòngs. Hútòng is the Mandarin word for an alley and describes the small alleyways of the traditional living quarters in Chinese cities. According to our ”guides” the hútòngs south of the Square are in danger of being demolished as a part of the preparations for the Olympics in 2008. We walked around in this area and ate at a small restaurant. I understand that there are quite a lot of old buildings in Beijing that don’t have any toilets and public toilets are the solution. So when I needed to go to the toilet, the restaurant only had a public toilet that I could use. I went into a dark hall with only a single light bulb illuminating the place. The ‘toilets’ were at the end of a hall where I discovered that there were not even squatting toilets, just holes in the floor. The lack of doors made privacy impossible. So one can say that it is quite different to what I’m used to back home :-)

The Forbidden City
The next day we were ready to check out one of the attractions that I was most looking forward to: The Forbidden City (Imperial Palace). This is located north of Tiananmen Square and the Palace Museum takes up quite a big space…the outer walls are about 1 km by 0.75 km in size and this was once the home of the emperor, the empress, concubines, eunuchs and so on. We bought tickets to the museum for 40 RMB (about € 5) and for another 40 RMB and my driver’s licence as a deposit, we rented audio-guides that helped us with information throughout the museum. It was kinda funny to listen to the audio-guide because the information was being narrated by James Bond….eh…I mean Roger Moore :-) It was certainly handy as not all the signs went into as much historical detail. We were lucky enough to have great weather this day - the blue skies made the yellow roof tiles looked even more majestic. The Forbidden City was overwhelming – in size and historical facts – which I could bombard you with but I think that I will summarise by saying that it was a great experience In my opinion, this place can be compared to other magnificent buildings such as Versailles. And with names like Gate of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Protective Harmony and Hall of Heavenly Peace you know that this was a place fit for an emperor.

The only negative thing about the Forbidden City, that I can think of, was that on a few occasions we were approached by ”Chinese Art students” claiming that they would have an exhibition in Norway soon and they wanted us to come along to look at their paintings to get feedback and new ideas. We never did go along to see what it was all about so I can’t really comment on it :-) I was also surprised to see that a majority of the Forbidden City’s visitors were of Chinese tour groups – either following a flag holding tour leader, or browsing about in matching hats.

Temple of Heaven
Still in high spirits, we made our way across Tiananmen Square in the direction of the Temple of Heaven (know as Tiãn Tán Gõngyuán). For 30 RMB you can get into this park and check out ”Hall of the prayer for good harvests”, ”Imperial vault of heaven” and ”Circular mound”. We entered the park from the west and it took us quite a long time just to walk to the centre of the park where we could check out the buildings. The ”Hall of the prayer for good harvests” is a circular temple painted in blue, green, gold and red and it was striking to see this temple against the blue sky background. From this temple we walked south to get to ”Imperial vault of heaven”. According to our guide book this has a perfect circular wall and just like the Whispering gallery at St. Paul’s in London one can stand on one side and talk to people on the other side. Our guide book also mentioned that trying this out may be tricky as we could expect quite a few loud Chinese trying it too*grin* Fortunately, it was not crowded that day. Nikki and I went to a side each and all of a sudden I hear Nikki’s voice saying ”G, can you hear me?”. I was quite surprised and said ”Yes” and I think Nikki was even more surprised than me because all she could say was ”Really??”.

Jingshan Park
It is quite hard to comprehend how big the Forbidden City is and we had read that if we wanted a nice view of the palace we could go to the Jingshan Park which is located north of the Forbidden City. The park is actually a little peak made up from all the material that were left over when construction the moat around the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, we went into the park on a misty day and it was actually hard to see the south gate of the Forbidden City - it was a nice walk though.

The Great Wall of Simatai
The next day it was time to check out another great attraction: The Great Wall. We bought a day tour (lunch included) for RMB 380 each in the hotel lobby with a company called ”Dragon bus tours”. We had read quite a bit about the wall and we had hoped to walk from Jinshanling to Simatai but our tour “only” included a 2 hour walk along Simatai. Most tourists seem to go to the part of the wall called Badaling but we were hoping to avoid the crowds and any queues. We were picked up at the hotel at 9 am and apart from our driver and our guide Judy we were accompanied by a couple of American girls. The drive to the Simatai section takes about 2 hours each way. The long drive gave us a chance to look out the windows and see how people live, people working along the road and so on. Once again we were very lucky with the weather and when we reached the wall the skies were blue. Getting to the wall is really a great moment. All of a sudden you can see the wall on the mountain tops stretching as far as you can see, like a never-ending snake. As it was so early in the season the cable car that usually takes people up to the wall wasn’t running so we all had to walk up and that was OK with me. It took us about 20 minutes just to reach the wall but all of a sudden we had our feet on a part of world history. At Simatai you can choose if you want to go to the left (I guess this takes you to Jinshanling) or to the right where you have 15/16 watch towers before you reach the end and it rise up about 1000 meters above sea level. We chose to walk on the right part of the wall. As it was still only early spring, we saw bits of snow left on the wall and in the landscape itself. The wall was really steep in some places and sometimes the steps were narrow. To start with we had some locals following us and they wanted to sell us different stuff, but they eventually stopped tagging along. Time constraints meant that I only got as far as tower 11, but the view just got better and better the higher I got, and I got trigger happy with our camera. The combination of a great view and the scarcity of other tourists made it a truly special experience. On the one hand it is amazing to have walked on something that I have read so much about and see so many pictures of. On the other hand it is hard not to think about all the blood, sweat and tears that has gone into building this wall (in fact it is not one wall but many walls that has been built in different dynasties). Our guide told us that lots of people died in the process of building it and many people were actually buried in the wall itself.

After walking on the wall we went down to the parking lot again. Here you’ll find lots of little shops and restaurant and we had lunch at one place. We just sat down and they brought out lots of food. Whilst eating lunch, we were quite surprised when all of a sudden a guy came running out of the restaurant and dumped a live fish on the paved walkway not far from us. Soon after a woman came out from the restaurant with a big knife and beheaded and de-scaled the fish :-)

On the way out guide Judy asked if we wanted to go to the pearl market because it was on the way. It turned out that the market wasn’t really on the way and it was not the market that we thought it was. It was a shop that only sold things made from pearls. When we got there we were more or less the only guests in the store but about 15 clerks that were just waiting to sell us stuff. So we walked around for like 5 minutes before we left. I guess Dragon Bus tours get some money from the store by bringing people over like this and we have experienced the same in guided tours in Thailand. But it makes us feel a bit uncomfortable.

Chairman Mao’s memorial hall
If you want to see the remains of Chairman Mao you can go to his Memorial hall located on the southern end of Tiananmen Square. We got in line together with hundreds of Chinese people one morning. We soon found out that we had to get out of the line due to our backpack. But after this was handed in (on the other side of the main road of course) we got back in line and we started walking in. Once we got into the memorial hall we were told to be quiet (yes, I was chatting away :-) and we were asked to show respect by removing our hats. You don’t really get a very good look at Mao in his glass coffin because people are rushed through the room so that the next group of people can come in. Visiting the memorial hall is free and it was a bit of a strange experience :-)

We also wanted to check out the Museum of the Revolution and maybe the Great Hall of the People (the parliament). The parliament just had a gathering, and the new President had recently been announced, so it was basically closed all the time. But we decided to try out the Museum of the Revolution. It seems like this has been changed a bit since the guide book was written. It has now been spilt up into different small museums and we went into two of them: one contains pieces that showed a bit of China’s long history and another museum focusing on China’s World heritage. It was not really easy to find out where to buy tickets to the museums because they were selling them on both sides of the entrance. This, combined with the fact that ”Chinese art students” kept on bugging us to come along to look at their work, made it a bit confusing.

What to eat?
So what can you eat in Beijing? Well, there is of course one dish that is famous and that is the Beijing (Peking) duck. We decided to try out this dish at a place that was recommended by Kinareiser. We tried to stick to the places that were recommended because there is a communication problem if you walk into a restaurant where they don’t speak English and where the menu is only in Chinese :-). King Roast Duck Restaurant served a pretty good roasted duck and we paid about 200 RMB (€ 25) for a meal for the 2 of us.
We also had lunch in a food court at a shopping mall. The Chinese dishes were pretty cheap and we paid like 15 RMB for one dish. But we also went to western restaurants in the Wangfujing area (the main tourist area) and here we experienced that the prices was more or less like back home. It is also possible to get stuff like KFC and McDonald’s in different locations around Beijing. It is always great fun to try to eat with chopsticks by the way :-)…we did manage it somehow in the end but I guess it is due to previous training in Singapore.

I mentioned the Wangfujing area where you’ll find some nice big hotels, big shopping malls and so on. The streets around here are very clean, well lit and look as if the Chinese are trying to appeal mainly to tourists. But you don’t have to go very far away from the main streets to find out that there is a different reality.

Transportation around Beijing
The best way to get around Beijing, in our opinion, is to take a taxi. The majority of meter taxis are red with a little sticker on the side with 1.20, 1.60, 2.00 and so on. This sticker indicates the kilometre rate, and I guess (in theory at least) the better the car, the more expensive the ride. The only challenge with the taxi drivers is that most of them don’t speak English so just getting back to the hotel can be a challenge :-) The best way to beat this challenge was to have the hotel’s name and address on a business card to show to the taxi driver.Another way to get around is taking the subway for 3 RMB. At the moment there are 3 lines: Line 1, Line 13 and the loop line. It was even possible to take the subway from the Radisson SAS hotel but it took about 15 minutes to walk to the nearest station (Liufang station on line 13). But the connection between the different lines was not all that great and you have to buy another ticket when you switch from one line to the other.

It is fascinating to see how traffic varies from country to country around the world. I’m sure that it is possible to write an entire book on the subject of driving patterns in different countries :-) China was certainly different than other countries that we have been to. Not only do you have to keep an eye out for other cars…you also need to keep an eye on all the pedestrians and cyclists. And let me assure you: there are quite a lot of bicycles in Beijing :-) The motorists and cyclists seem to have achieved some form of harmony because the cyclists seemed impartial to the somewhat dubious drivers next to them.

The Beijing drivers seem to think that the mirrors in the car are not for practical use. Cars change lanes without any hesitation (or indication) and it seems to be the car behind that needs to keep an eye out for this. Another fascinating thing is the use of the horn. After many rides in taxis I have reached a conclusion that there are at least three reasons for using the horn: the reactive horn use (you pulled out right in front of me and you are blocking me); the preventive horn use (don’t try to pull out in front of me…I’m coming with great speed and there is no room for you); lastly general horn use (there is so much traffic and I can’t change lanes or overtake any cars).

Acrobatics show
We bought tickets in the hotel lobby at 120 RMB (about € 15) each for the acrobatics show. The show was located close to the hotel and it started at about 7.30 PM. I haven’t been to a show like this in years and it reminded me a bit about stuff that you see in the circus. I was pretty impressed with the show itself. Some of the stuff that was performed was quite amazing. Just look at the picture on the right hand side. The man at the bottom is balancing on a cylinder and the boy on top is doing the same. Looks pretty dangerous if you ask me :-) The show lasted for about 1-1 ½ hours and if you get thirsty or hungry you can buy snacks there during the interval. We also thought about going to the Beijing opera but we never really got around to that…maybe next time :-)

The art of spitting
We soon discovered that coughing up great wads of spit is a natural part of the everyday life in Beijing. I’m not sure if people cough and spit because of the air pollution or because they have a lot of dust being blown in from the deserts in the north. It seems like there is quite a lot of downfall in Beijing. I read somewhere that an average big city gets about 8 tons of downfall pr square kilometre but Beijing gets about 18 tons. Well, I can tell you that it is noticeable…some days when I blew my nose the tissue ended up kinda dirty…I shall not go into more details :-)

I’m not sure how common it is to see western tourists in Beijing. In the Forbidden City, a guy came over to me and said something about taking a picture. I thought he wanted me to take a picture of him and his friend but it turned out that he wanted to take a picture of me and his friend. Another day while I was walking in a shopping mall I saw two girls and one of them had a camera. All of a sudden I was in the background of the picture and I tried to hurry up because I didn’t want to ruin their picture. But then all of a sudden the girls shifted position and once again I was in the background of the picture. So I went over to them and asked them if they wanted a picture of me and they said yes. So I ended up taking a picture with both of them :-) But the question is: are western tourists still so rare that Chinese wants to take pictures of them?

Summer Palace
Another attraction that is recommended is the Summer Palace. Since the hotel could only offer a guided tour which included 3 other attractions in addition to the Summer Palace, we went there on our own. The taxi ride took us less than half an hour and cost about 50 RMB. Once we got out of the taxi we were ”bombarded” by people that were selling stuff but we managed to get to the ticket counter and got entrance tickets for 40 RMB each. I do wish that we had gone for some sort of guiding here because we walked around more or less clueless. There is some information at some of the buildings but most of them just kept on repeating that the buildings had been burnt down by the Anglo-French army in the 1860s. We also found some information in the guidebook but it didn’t seem like enough. We walked around quite a lot and we got to see the long corridor where about 1000 beams contain unique paintings. We got to see the Tower of Buddhist Fragrance which towered over the lake itself. The steps leading up to this building are steep but the view from the top is quite nice. We also got to see the Marble Boat of Purity and Ease – Empress Dowager Ci’xi’s way of honouring the navy (paid for with naval funds). Many of the buildings in the complex are not open to the public. One can peer through the dusty windows to see the objects within – such as the Empress Dowager Ci’xi’s birthday gifts in her birthday room.

Lama temple
One day Nikki had a business appointment so I wandered of by myself to find the Lama temple. It was not really difficult to find: you just take the Beijing subway to Yonghe Gong on the loop line and there it is :-) This used to be an imperial palace but it was turned into a lamasery at one point. Today it is both a lamasery, a place of worship and a tourist attraction. There are quite a lot of Buddha images in this place and people are praying and lighting their incense. I always feel a bit uncomfortable walking around amongst people praying because I feel like I’m disturbing them in their religious act but they didn’t seem to mind. The most impressive part of the Lama temple is the Pavilion of the ten thousand fortunes which contains a 26 meter Buddha image supposedly carved out of one single tree. The Buddha image was enormous and there was even a little brass certificate on the outside that this was in the Guinness book of records.

But I have to say that it is hard to get impressed by Buddhist temples after visiting some of the temples that you can find in Bangkok :-)

Before I went to China I had heard rumours that you could get pretty cheap copies of different stuff. So like most tourist we went to something called the Xuishui Silk Market. The name is not very accurate by the way…there are not much silk for sale but you can get North Face Gore-Tex jackets, copies of watches, gloves…well, you name it. It is pretty easy to get there by the way because this street is located right by the subway station Yonganlin (if I’m not mistaken). Already before we entered the market we were offered fake watches (two Rolex watches for 50 RMB). Once we got into the market there were little ”shops” everywhere. Nikki looked at some pants and in the end she wanted to buy 2 of them. The woman selling it pointed at the price which was about 600 RMB per pants. In other words quite ridiculous because that is the price of a pair of pants here in Norway. So we just walked off but the woman came after us and dragged us back and asked how much we wanted to give for the pants. So I punched in 300 RMB for both pants on her calculator and she was acting away and saying that it was too cheap and it was ”killing” her. After a lot of bargaining we walked off again because she did not seem to want to go low enough but then she came after us, gave us the bag and took her 300 RMB and she did not look very happy. So the price went down from 1200 to 300 RMB and I’m quite convinced that we still got ripped off :-)

As I mentioned Gore-Tex jackets are being sold at this market. I doubt that they are real and hence it is hard to say anything about the quality. I came across Gore-Tex jackets of the Norwegian brand Norrøna. And I was wearing my own Norrøna jacket so it was easy to compare them. The jacket had been copied down to the last details and even the washing instructions were in Norwegian. So I have to say that I’m impressed but I could spot some differences.

If you want to buy fake watches this is also the place to go. Here you can find fake watches like Tag Heuer, Breitling, IWC, Lange & Söhne, Omega, Rolex and so on and some of them actually contain automatic movements…so it is more or less ”real fake” watches as one of my colleagues once said. But the price of some of these watches started quite high. I looked at a Lange & Söhne watch and the seller wanted 750 RMB for it.

We also went to some of the malls that are located in the Wangfujing area. But we felt that there really was no point in going shopping there. The prices were more or less on the same price level as back home and they didn’t really have a great selection.

Time went fast in Beijing and all of a sudden we had reached Saturday March 22nd. It was time to go to Xi'an by train.

Published on Friday April 18th, 2003

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Thu, Oct 27 2005 - 11:25 PM rating by vbx000

Great great report. You hit all the main spots and really captured Beijing life. It puts my report really to shame- and i've been living in beijing for 10 months!

Its good that you went to Simtai instead of Badaling, a much better more authentic wall expereince. And, as to the 'no money' thing, one of the most frustrating things about Beijing is that absolutely no where accepts credit cards except REALLY expensive places. If you use a credit card that means your paying a lot for something.

And, good work at Silk Alley! I pay about 100rmb for my jeans so 300 for two was really good work!

Feichang hao! (Excellent!)

Mon, Oct 27 2003 - 01:51 PM rating by lysdor

So complete, so lovely to read how you enjoyed your stay here!

A question: How did you manage to insert so much in the last part "accomodation" as I've been so frustated not beeing able to write about my experiences as restricted space on this site??!!

Anyway... I enjoyed your stories so much - thanks!

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