This Chinese train service has to be one of the most comfortable I have ever travelled on, apart from the frantic ‘queue’ getting on to it and the packed lounges at the station. However, once we settled into our soft sleeper carriage the journey was a real dream, the rolling stock is new and the tracks level which allows for a very restful evenings sleep. If you want a snack or need a drink there is a reasonably priced buffet car. There was a small table, with a tablecloth no less, in our compartment and free hot and cold drinking water available for your coffee and noodles. Each bed had its own TV playing movies, however the earphone sockets didn't work, even after we got earphones from the train staff. I don't know why they bothered to give us them as they obviously knew none of the TVs work, as they weren't the least surprised when we explained this to them.
The only downside for us is that these new trains are non-smoking so the only opportunity you have for a quick ciggie is a jump on the platform at some of the stops along the way.
Arriving in Beijing
We arrived in Beijing bang on time and emerged into the pouring rain propelled along in a swathe of bodies onto the station concourse. A cold wet weather snap had swept into northern China from Russia and it was bearing down on Beijing that day. We took refuge in one of the many international fast food outlets, only because it was located immediately at the exit of the railway station, and grabbed some breakfast to see if the rain was going to subside. It didn't.
Given the rain, the queue for taxis was about 600m long, or about 200m to buy your subway ticket, so we chose the subway line, got a bit more wet and eventually made our way into Beijing’s subway. You can avoid queuing by buying your underground ticket from the unofficial hawkers selling tickets at a premium rate to the locals who don't have time to queue.
On first impression was that Beijing was about twice as busy as Shanghai, with lots of pushing and shoving to get some space on the underground carriage. Eventually we arrived at our hotel at around 9am expecting to have to store our luggage and set out for the day . The good news, we discovered, is that most Chinese hotels allow check-in from 6am (providing its not too busy) so we only had to wait ten minutes and our room was ready. Bonus.
Beijing Tiananmen Square
We tried our first set of Beijing dumplings for lunch at a local restaurant, where we managed to order with the help of a language app and international hand signals. We weren't too sure what was going to be inside the dumplings, we are not fussy what we eat, but you would struggle here if you were a bit picky over food. While we ate lunch the wind blew and blew and with it came some glorious blue skies as the rain clouds continued their journey south.
We had an pleasant hours walk towards Tiananmen square through the shopping areas on Wangfujing Street
and past a rather pretty Catholic church (Church of St Joseph) where brides and grooms were having their pre-wedding photo shoots.
There is a tourist market with the Chinese buying bracelets and other tourist aimed merchandise It's fine to wander round but I have a much lower tolerance for these things than John does. There is also a food market aimed at the tourists here too where you can snack your way through authentic and at times exotic (think starfish and scorpion skewers) Chinese snacks. The food here costs about four times the price we have been paying elsewhere for street food, but if its your only experience of this way of eating it's still pretty cheap.
Not long after this I managed to fulfil one of my lifelong ambitions of walking onto Tiananmen square. Its historical and political significance is huge, the iconic tank image of 1989 and the continuing occasional smaller, lesser reported, demonstrations (in the form of self immolations
). We found this out after wondering why some of the guards had fire extinguishers next to them and tried to find out why, now we know.
As a result the area is teeming with security and army personnel. There are airport style bag screening at all entrances and random ID checks everywhere, more so for the Chinese and anyone with a ‘Tibetan’ look; us westerners were pretty much left alone. There are plain clothes security wandering the crowds too but they may as well have worn uniforms they are so easy to spot, as they follow and photograph you.
We arrived late afternoon and the sunset was an hour and a half away , its a great time to visit here to catch the evening sunlight for the photos and if you wait until 5.30pm you will get to see army inspections and the Chinese guard goose step across the square from the main gate, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, to lower the main flag.
We spent a good part of the first day here being overawed by the choice of things to do and see in Beijing and deciding how long to stay here to make sure we gave it the time it deserved.
Two of our many vices of booze and fags are ridiculously cheap here, as is food. However, like Vietnam
you do need ask the price of everything as the scamming tourist mentality is alive and well in many Beijing tourist spots, although not all. A large bottle of beer in a local shop tried to ask 10 Yuan when we knew it cost 5 in the price marked convenience store down the road, guess where we went?
Beijing Metro and Buses
Beijing subway is really easy to use and we found buying the prepaid top up card was the way to go here, there were always long queues at ticket booths and machines, so save yourself some time by topping up your card, they are valid on the buses too. The fares are a flat 2 Yuan to go anywhere on the subway, one stop or twenty and all signs and station announcements are in English as well as Chinese.
The system is packed at any time of the day, but becomes sardine like at the morning and evening rush hours. At this time you don’t need to walk between trains or onto the carriages you will be propelled effortlessly by the huge crowded mass of people.
We also used the buses a few time too and while announcements and signs within the buses are in English, the bus stop information isn't so you need to know what bus to get or spend ten minutes matching Chinese symbols of where you want to go with the ones on the bus destination signage.
I found google maps route planner did a pretty good job of telling me what buses went where. A large number of the buses here , like the bikes and mopeds, are electric and run off overhead cables, they are clean and a very pleasant way of getting about the city. Sometimes the subway connections mean too many changes over short distances and we found the bus option much faster, if a little more complicated.
Body Odour Dilemmas
We have found buying one thing in China very difficult indeed, deodorant. We thought this would be easy to find but it took us over two days to find a shop that stocked it, and then at a seriously premium price. We tried chemists, pharmacies, convenience stores all around central Beijing to no avail.
In the end we got lucky in the CBD area where we found a lonely can of Lynx on the shelf of a shop. We snapped it up and are now using it sparingly in case another one is not imported for the next few months. I don't know what the Chinese use, but BO has not been whiffed anywhere so perhaps they use some secret Chinese recipe.
Quality Control Chinese Style
In our Shanghai blog
post I mentioned the amount of building and how quickly things are made in China. We are also experiencing that things here seem to break pretty fast too and don’t get repaired very quickly, if at all. The TV’s on the train and the tube carriages all seem pretty new but at least half weren't functioning.
You see light fittings missing in architectural lighting displays and even one of the Olympic rings at the park had lost some of its lights. I suppose with so much going on quality control of existing structures suffers while the next new plaything is being built.
Train Tickets Two - The Hard way
The experience of buying train tickets here is proving relatively straightforward even at the little train ticket booths dotted about the city (it saved us a trek to the main railway station) . The staff have been helpful even with limited English language and also limited seats/sleepers available on our preferred trains. They spent time with us wading through the options and eventually after five different train options we are squeezed into the hard sleeper carriage for our next journey to Pingyao.
We are learning that soft sleepers are in short supply even in the relatively quiet period we are in at the moment, so if you are fussy and want the luxury of a soft sleeper book very early, especially peak seasons
We have been very lucky with the weather in Beijing, since that northern cool front from Russia swept through the region. The pollution has been washed and blown away for a couple of days, its a bit chilly but we will pay that price for the clear views we have enjoyed on our first two days here.
We are getting clogged up chests from the pollution suffered so far in Shanghai and Beijing and wearing contact lenses is a nightmare as you get sandy eyes within a few hours of venturing out. When you look at your contact lens case the next morning the colour of the solution is alarming to say the least, god knows what its doing to your eyes.
We expect the smog to return in earnest tomorrow so lets see how much of the rest of Beijing's treats we manage to see through its murky haze.