Beijing: Out of my comfort zone, into the freezing cold!

“You can see it for miles. Like, it goes over the hills and stuff ...but so does the M6?” - Karl Pilkington on the Great Wall of China.

If you want to skip the reading and just check out the photos, click on the link below:

I am not a Winter traveller. I may be born on the Day of the Explorer, but my forebears were definitely in search of hotter climates. They didn't look at a big mountain covered in snow and ice and think: 'hmmm, I bet that would be awesome to climb', they were probably more like 'I'm going to sail a boat South, discover the Caribbean and set up a Rum Factory'.

My first impressions of Beijing were from the window of the aeroplane. The outskirts of Beijing are stark - vast brown plains filled with warehouses, factories, industrial canals and what look like pools of frozen toxic waste. As you get closer to the city itself, thousands of identical ugly apartment blocks line up like soldiers in battle formation, surrounded by bare-branched trees. Everything is enveloped in a soft, yellow winter's light, making it seem surreal. It's a city of concrete and straight lines, with little on first sight to suggest the rich history and culture that draws thousands of visitors each year. The air is constantly punctuated with the sound of fireworks to the point that you don't notice it after a day or two.

It's a very sombre affair, and this may change in Summer when everything is blooming and the city is shrouded in heat, but Beijing in Winter is a fairly grey place. There aren't many Western tourists this time of year, probably because of the weather, but the city is packed full of Chinese who have come in from the countryside to celebrate Chinese New Year. The reactions to me have been extreme - on the positive side people who want to chat, and will always ask for my email to keep in touch, even if the engagement is only fleeting. I've had several people come up and want to take pictures with me because of my blonde hair! On the negative side I've experienced blantant staring curiousity, disdain, and almost outright hostility. People seem either completely miserable or deliriously happy, impolite to the point of rudeness, or absolutely endearing.

I learned very quickly that forward planning is necessary when visiting Beijing, particularly in winter. Here are a few tips:
- Make sure that your hotel staff speak English. Mine didn't, and even the simplest requests were met with 'no' causing endless frustration, merely because they didn't understand what I was asking. They wouldn't order taxis for me, meaning I had to go out and find them in the street which wasn't always easy.
- Unless you speak fluent Mandarin, pay extra for a hotel in a touristy area near all the attractions. Taxi drivers will try to charge extortionate prices, knowing you don't have a choice. Standing on a street, late at night in the freezing cold with no other way of getting home, I've had to barter down as low as I can and suck
it up. I've had a few outrightly refuse to take me in their taxi. Best way is to get a 'moving' taxi rather than approaching parked cabs, and ask them to use their meter. I was by the zoo, which is about Y20 from the Forbidden City by meter, but had to pay Y50 a number of times. If you are staying near the attractions, then
walking back to your hotel isn't a problem as Beijing is very safe.
- Have the name of everywhere you want to visit written down for you in Chinese, particularly your hotel name and address. This is imperative - none of the cab drivers speak English.
- Use the Metro (Subway/Tube). It's incredibly easy and ridiculously cheap - only Y2 per trip. The only drawback is that it closes at about 11pm and if you are enroute to your destination you will have to disembark and find a cab.
- Get to attractions as early as you can, particularly during Chinese public holidays where the city is jam-packed with tourists and you have to queue for a while to get in, and sometimes even out, of popular attractions.
- Pick your tours carefully. Many 'tours' mean that you will end up having to rush through the major attractions, like the Wall or the Forbidden City, to go silk factories, tea houses, and jewellery shops where you will be given a 'tour', or rather 'sales pitch', and then expected to buy something. This is how many of the tour guides make their money as they don't get salaries, only commission. As I didn't buy anything I had to pay my tour guide a tip on top of the tour price which I wasn't happy about, however I negotiated more time on the Wall which he wasn't happy about. My advice is to book ahead before you reach Beijing, and make sure you know exactly what you are getting.

Beijing in a nutshell - here are some of the low and highlights:

WEATHER: The term 'Soviet Winter' kept springing to mind. Beijing is bleak in Winter, brown and grey, and the kind of mind-numbing cold that keeps your nose running and gives you headachy-brain-freeze. I ended up wearing practically everything I owned, including the one thermal jumper I'd purchased for Nepal, and I was thankful that I had the foresight to pack gloves and my puffy down jacket! It dropped to below freezing most nights. Even bundled up in my minimal winter gear it was, frankly, torture. I packed for warmer climes. Apart from Chinese New Year I do NOT recommend visiting in early Feb if you are a thin-blooded person like myself! Needless to say I now have a cold and I'm looking forward to slightly warmer weather in Hong Kong.

THE CHINESE: I've never seen a nation so proud. To be there during Chinese New Year is a spectacle in itself. Thousands of people throng the streets, waving the national flag, and taking photos of themselves (or normally their unco-operative kids and/or lady love) in front of every national monument they can. Soldiers and police are everywhere. The soldiers tend to be strapping young men, solemn-faced, in well-pressed forest-green coats and black-fur hats. You'll be lucky to get a smile out of one and they try to look as intimidating as possible - succeeding for the most part. I wouldn't even chuck a lolly wrapper on the pavement in China. My friend saw a young boy of 12 being arrested on the street, and described it as a chilling experience - he just seemed to have the wrong ID and was surrounded by soldiers who eventually put him in a van and took him away. It's even a legal requirement for foreigners to carry their passport at all times. I commented that they seemed to pick the tallest Chinese for the army, he pointed out that those that aren't tall stand on boxes. Many of the police are armed with loudspeakers and bark orders at the crowds. I didn't have a bloody clue what was being said so normally just moved with whatever human river I happened to be in at the time. It's not uncommon to see a loudspeaker by itself, on a pavement, with a voice coming out of it repeating the same message.

Hawking, or spitting, is commonplace, and the sound of people gurgling up a lurgy from their very core is as familiar now as the sound of fireworks. You would have to keep your eyes continually on the ground to avoid walking through it. It's disgusting, but it does seem to be a habit of the older generation, so hopefully something future generations of Chinese will abhor.

The Chinese one-child policy means that children here are incredibly well-loved and precious little darlings, bundled up in all manner of furry jackets and hauled around every national monument going. There are ways around the policy: someone was telling me that if you can have your child declared psychologically unfit, you will be allowed to have another child. Strangely there were a lot of toddlers and young children, but not that many pubescents and adolescents that I saw. Crap policy No 2: Married people are only allowed one property, so they will often get divorced, buy another property, then re-marry.

SHOPPING:  For a communist country commercialism is everywhere: Beijing is a shopping mecca full of fast food chains, high-street stores, and designer shops contained in huge glass-fronted malls. There is little sign of poverty, with most Chinese sporting brand-name jackets such as Kappa and The North Face. It's exxy too - I expected to be able to find a couple of cheap jumpers to supplement my meagre winter wardrobe, but was disappointed. The price of a GAP long-sleeved t-shirt was what I would expect to pay in the UK.

FOOD:  Food markets serve everything from fried scorpion to delicious vegetarian noodles. The Chinese eat EVERYTHING. Some of the items I saw skewered from end to end were flying foxes, octupus, squid, snakes (land and sea), bugs, crabs, the biggest kiwi fruit and strawberries I've ever seen, brains, testicles and lamb's dicks, but it was the beautiful seahorses that broke my heart. No filleting here - you eat the whole shebang from head to toe. The food streets are an absolute must, and a fascinating insight into the Chinese mentality. Shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of people, eating fried meat or candied apples, stall owners barking at the crowd, drawing attention to their wares, it's complete craziness. The different smells are overwhelming. It's not for the weak-hearted, and if you are an animal lover you may have a hard time taking in some of the sights. Luckily they no longer serve dog, although there were very few animals in Beijing that I saw so makes you wonder. Nothing would surprise me!

If you want to find the nightlife in Beijing head to Sanlitun Road, which filled with buzzing bars, restaurants, and dancing spots.

THE FORBIDDEN CITY:  I spent the first day wandering around, taking in some of the sights and exploring the Forbidden City. Home to the Emperors of the Ming Dynasty, The Forbidden city was originally constructed in the early 1400's. Built of wood, it has burned down several times, and the current buildings date back to the late 1600's. Large vats were filled with water to douse fires and several of these remain. The city is made up of one courtyard after another and most of the buildings are very similar on the outside. A couple were open to view, containing impressive thrones and gold statues, but most were closed off, keeping their historical secrets to themselves. In quieter months it must be quite something to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the ancients (the 30 Seconds to Mars video kept popping into my head), but it was absolutely packed and incredibly busy and noisy. I walked up the hill behind the Forbidden City, and it's only from up high you realise how vast the place is. It's in an area devoid of high-rises (although it's a shame they don't pedestrianise the surrounding streets) and breathtaking to behold. The red-rooves peeking through the haze give it a mystical quality, like stepping back in time to Old Peking.

THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA:  the Forbidden City was not my reason for coming to China. The reason I came to Beijing was to see the Great Wall. There has been a wall in China since around 200BC, and it was built to protect the Northern empire against roaming nomadic tribes. Most of the original wall was built by the Ming Dynasty. The area I visited, Mutianyu, was originally constructed in the mid-6th century and much of the presen construction is mid 16th century. It is considered one of the best-preserved parts of the Wall.

There is a forlornless about it, this vast paradigm of history, as it snakes away over the hills. Like the pyramids, the blood and sweat of countless men and beasts built it, and thousands perished in its making, and there is something ghostly quiet and secretive about it, particularly on the crumbling parapets, away from the tourist areas. Ignoring the 'no admittance' signs, it is worth a walk to the nearest unreconstructed watchtower to take in the view. To the right the orginal wall makes it's way over a desolate mountain looking like something out of Lord of the Rings and you almost expect to see a little party of hobbits trekking up the icy slopes. To the left the reconstructed areas provide some spectacular photo opportunities. The stairs are steep and it is quite a hike for the unfit although there were plenty of small children being dragged up the steps by their parents. There were also a few women in high-heeled boots (this is when I wished I carried a supply of medals). In the 3 hours I was there I did the entire section from end to end. It is quite addictive, puffing as you walk from one tower to another in the icy air, and then standing and surveying the terrain. I want to come back in Summer and do a few hikes and camp on the wall itself overnight.

BEIJING ZOO:   I left this for my last morning being as the zoo was next to my hotel, and apparently the pandas are more active in the AM. I had no interest in visting the rest of the zoo: I read reviews and heard that it is mainly concrete with little greenery, and that people throw garbage at the animals to try to get them to move, including glass bottles. If I saw anyone doing this I would probably end up rugby tackling them and spend the rest of my life in the pit of a dank Chinese Prison never to see the light of day again, so prudently I kept my visit short. The panda enclosure is huge, and the main highlight of the zoo, and I wish I'd left more time to stay and watch them. These creatures are unbelievably adorable. A panda could sit picking its nose, farting and belching and still be the cutest animal on the planet. There were adolescents playing and gambolling behind glass in one of the enclosures, one bear sat and forlornly ate a carrot and then curled up for a little kip, whilst another one went on its morning jog, pounding the same circuit again and again with what looked like a big smile on its face, to an adoring photo-happy audience. Definitely a must-see.

My time in Beijing has been out of my comfort zone, but it has certainly been interesting. The challenges have made me want to return with a more organised itinerary. I think sticking out like a sore thumb may be good practice for India though!