After months of careful planning, Internet research, and Lonely Planet guide-perusing, I was finally about to embark on my month-long backpacking trip to the world’s most populated country – and then my flight was cancelled. And then cancelled again. I was departing from Seoul, where the rainy season was in its prime and erratic weather had been occurring since July. The rainy season in Korea starts in mid-June, and, from my experience, it basically pours non-stop until autumn approaches and begs it to stop. I waited in my apartment for three days, packed but with nowhere to go, checking the flight schedules every few hours and hoping for some good news. Finally, it cleared up, and the day my flight was okayed for take-off was the most beautiful, sunny, day Seoul had seen in months! I contemplated the irony of it all as I boarded the flight that would take me to Shanghai, a city which was supposed to be experiencing scattered thunderstorms and violent typhoon rain for at least the following few weeks. *sigh* Was it so unreasonable to ask for a few days of sun and dry heat? (Yes, I know, first world problems!).
I arrived in Shanghai, and because my flight was delayed three days due to the approaching typhoon, I had to change my itinerary around. So, the day after my arrival, I got on a high-speed train and headed straight for Beijing.
Starting my trip in Beijing was an unexpected and overwhelming assault to the senses. I overestimated my ability to deal with culture shock, I guess because I grew up in a Chinese family and because I had been living in a giant Asian city for the past 7 months. So I thought that nothing could surprise me – but Beijing was like a congested, polluted, noisy slap in the face! The moment I went outside, I could feel my lungs filling up with car exhaust and smoke, and the August heat was enough to make any relatively healthy visitor start to swoon.
I started off with Tiananmen Square and the surrounding area, which is replete with political statues, museums, and other impressive historical sights. At every underpass, subway station exit, and museum entrance around Tiananmen, one has to undergo a semi-violating security checkpoint, where bags and bodies are thoroughly searched. However, I forgot that I was carrying around a vial of pepper spray (given to me before I left by a paranoid co-worker worried about my safety) and a small army knife. I only realized that I had two lethal weapons in my bag when I got back to my room, and I must have gone through at least fourteen security checkpoints without a single guard pulling me aside. I have no idea what the agents were looking for (an envelope full of anthrax? A copy of “The Black Book of Communism?”), but clearly a bottle of mace and a bladed weapon with the capacity to take a human life were not it!
The following day, I headed to the Forbidden City, which I wish was slightly more forbidden. It was a surprisingly beautiful day, so the City was flooded with thousands of tourists, all jostling each other to get a better view of the City’s various temples and screaming into their cellphones. Plus, as the sun was out at full capacity, almost everyone was carrying a colourful parasol, which would have been a beautiful sight if it didn’t mean that there was an abnormally large influx of five-pronged weapons, all held at roughly my eye-level, in a giant, crowded mass of people. Seriously, is there any stronger argument for the fashionable comeback of the wide-brim sun visor than “I don’t want to be stabbed in the eye by a giant pink parasol?”
Upon returning to my hostel, I signed up for a Great Wall tour, where I would see the Wall, the Ming tombs, and the Bird’s Nest (the Beijing Olympic Stadium) all in one day. I have mixed reviews about the tour. On the one hand, it was a convenient and cheap way to see these faraway sights in one go. On the other hand, our tour guide was nothing short of a well-dressed con artist attempting to make as much money off of shopping commissions as possible. When she came to my hostel to pick me up, she seemed professional and friendly enough. Immaculately made-up, carrying an expensive-looking designer purse, and possessing the spitefully confident attitude of a second runner-up in a high-stakes beauty pageant, she seemed like your average tour guide.
But after visiting the promised sights on the itinerary, she proceeded to take us to factory after factory, where she could make high commissions off of each tourist she brought in. The salespeople there attempted to sell us jade Buddha statues, porcelain vases, pearl necklaces, and other over-priced commodities that none of us were interested in purchasing. Of course, none of us bought anything, and we all expressed our irritation at basically being kidnapped and sentenced to a shopping camp against our will! Our group was made up of two Mexican hippies, a newlywed Norwegian couple, an irritable American, and… me. First step of salesmanship: know your potential clients! Clearly, newlyweds, hippies, and backpackers are NOT going to be your big money ticket.
But despite the unwanted detours and our wily tour guide, the Great Wall was AMAZING. There’s something extraordinary about walking along a structure that was created hundreds of years ago, and I imagined what Chinese life would have been like as the first stones were being placed along this impressive fortification system. As well, the stunning views of the surrounding mountains and the peacefulness of this place far outside the city were definitely worth being conned!
I found myself getting sick of Beijing after a few days of being there, and I was definitely ready to leave by the end of the week. The pollution was nearly unbearable. The masses of people everywhere had turned me completely claustrophobic. And I was adopting the me-first, elbows-out, pushing-and-shoving technique of entering the subway that Beijing-ites seem to have perfected. Although the sights were incredible, and it’s such a beautiful city filled with history, culture, and delicious food, it was time to leave. My last day there confirmed this fact for me. I rented a bicycle, as I wanted to see some temples and parks in different parts of the city and didn’t think I could handle the subway for another day. Things were going fairly well, until I got hopelessly lost. Then, it started to pour, and I had no umbrella. You might wonder why I didn’t think to bring one, but in Beijing, there is a wonderful, greyish, pollution-induced haze that perpetually hangs over the city, giving the illusion of sunlight – kind of like the setting of the Matrix after the humans decimated the sun to kill off the machines.
All I had with me at this point was a blue poncho. Taxis refused to take me with my bicycle, and the subway doesn’t allow bikes on it, which I only discovered after lugging the thing down nine flights of stairs. Several people saw me struggling with the bike, and not a single person bothered to let me know about this unfortunate regulation or offer any help. I had just about had it! I eventually made it back to the hostel, hours later. At this point, the blue dye from the poncho had seeped into my skin, and the sunscreen I had put on in the morning had run down my face and into my eyes, so I resembled a terrifying, blind Avatar emerging from the sea by the time I reached my destination. Yes, it was definitely time to leave Beijing!
Despite the chaos, pollution, and culture shock, though, I would still say that visiting Beijing is a must! It is a unique city with breathtaking sights that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. However, for those of you who are thinking of doing a trip to Beijing in August, I have compiled a list of ways that you can prepare yourself before travelling:
1. Go into a sauna and start jogging on the spot. When you feel like you’re going to pass out, keep going, and don’t drink any water. This will prepare you for the sweltering heat and dehydration you will experience.
2. Get on a bicycle and ride behind a large truck for a few hours. If you can find one of those trucks that spews out disgusting black smoke every time it stops/goes/turns/does anything, even better! This will prepare you for the pollution and the black lung you will develop after two days in Beijing.
3. Find a bunch of friends, get into an elevator with them, and have them push you incessantly for an hour. Then, as you try to exit the elevator, have them block your way with any and all of their body parts. If you can find some kids, have them scream and run at full speed around you as well. If you can exit the elevator without acting upon any homicidal thoughts, you are ready to take the subway in Beijing.
4. Have a few people stand in a circle around you with most of their body touching yours. Now have them each carry on separate conversations as loudly as possible on their cellphones, ignoring all forms of social etiquette and all visible gestural cues on your part to be quiet. Now you are ready to visit the Forbidden City in August!
If you can do all these things, you are ready to hit up Beijing in the dead heat of the summer! Congratulations!
Here are more photos of my trip to Beijing. Enjoy!