TUESDAY, JUNE 6, 2006. BEIJING, CHINA. Upon arrival in Beijing Capital Airport, Chinese immigration officials did not ask to see a return/onward ticket. I asked the official and he said they never check for a ticket. They only check for a valid visa.
I caught a shuttle bus into Beijing (16 RMB), dropping me just pass the hostel I wanted to stay at. Unfortunately, the hostel, located in a sporting complex, was closed for renovation. I found a taxi and went to my second choice. The taxi driver did not speak any English, but he knew the general area I wanted to go to. Enroute, we passed the entrance to the Forbidden City on the right and Tianamen Square on the left. Tianamen was smaller than I imagined.
My taxi driver let me off in the area of my hostel, the Far East International Hostel (4 bed dorm 60 RMB ~$7.50), where I walked to. Cycle rickshaw drivers wanted 20-40 RMB (ridiculous since I paid only 36 RMB for my taxi ride across town) to take me what turned out to be less than a 500 meter walk (I offered 4 RMB, but they wouldn't accept). This is the first time I'm staying in a hostel dorm in quite some time, both for the price and the fact that there haven't been any hostels in the countries I have visited in the past few months. The asking price for the single was 230 RMB, almost $30.
Beijing is very modern and spralling. The road from the airport into town had a lot of new landscaping, mostly orderly planted trees and fields of grass. The pollution is quite bad, at least this afternoon. You can literally feel the particles of pollution with every breath. They have a long way to go and not a lot of time, if Chinese officials want to clean up the pollution before the 2008 Olympics. Walking around my hostel, many older Chinese men were shirtless showing their pot bellies. A few were quite drunk. Interestingly, there are lots of bicycles, cars, and buses, but very few motorbikes or motorscooters.
I plan to explore Beijing and its environs the next few days.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 7, 2006. THE FORBIDDEN CITY, TIANANMEN SQUARE, AND THE TEMPLE OF HEAVEN, BEIJING, CHINA. Beijing's must-see site is the Forbidden City, so-called because commoners were not allowed in for 500 years. The Forbidden City lies at the heart of Beijing on a north-south axis. South of the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square, Chairman Mao's mausoleum, and the great Hall of the People. The Gate of Heavenly Peace, with a huge hanging portrait of Chairman Mao, is a potent symbol of China. From here, you can gain entry to the Forbidden City (60 RMB entry; 40 RMB audio guide). I got the audio guide because it came highly recommended for actor Roger Moore's narration. Alas, Roger Moore no longer does the narration. It's now a Chinese women who talks too fast and is sometimes hard to understand. I visited the Forbidden City with Rich, a Irish medical student sharing my hostel dorm. We spent a few hours wandering the grounds and trying to keep up with the audio guide. A few of the buildings were under restoration, almost certainly for the Olympics. Compared to my recent visits to Myanmar, Indonesia, and Thailand, there are hoards of tourists in Beijing. June begins the summer peak tourist season and I suspect it will just get busier throughout China during the next few months while I am here.
From the Forbidden City, Rich and I walked through Tiananmen Square to visit Chairman Mao's mausoleum. However, it was closed, so we ate lunch east of the Forbidden City before proceeding to the Temple of Heaven Park. The Temple of Heaven is considered the best example of Ming architecture, and has come to symbolize the city of Beijing. The temple, seen from above, is round with square bases, due to the ancient Chinese belief that heaven is round and the earth is square.
THURSDAY, JUNE 8, 2006. BICYCLE TOUR OF BEIJING, BEIJING, CHINA. Bicycles are still one of the main forms of transportation in China, including Beijing. (Interestingly, there are virtually no motorbikes or motor scooters in Beijin--I haven't figured out why, but this is a huge business opportunity, assuming there is no law against their import and sale). I rented a bicycle from a shop next to my hostel for 10 RMB ($1.25). Most of the bicycles are one-speed with a basket in front. Fortunately, Beijing is as flat as my stomach, so it's easy to peddle. Unfortunately, Beijing is sprawling, making for long bike rides (as well as walks). I followed the bicycle tour in my LP China book, starting at Tiananmen Square, circling the outer walls and moat of the Forbidden City, and proceeding through some of Beijing's oldest hutongs (narrow alleyways). I thoroughly enjoyed the bike tour as I went at my own pace and just enjoyed observing Beijing citizens at work, rest, and play.
As I am in Beijing, a visit to the Beijing opera is a must. There are many venues performing traditional Beijing opera. I selected Huguang Guild Hall, a theatre dating back to 1807 (200 RMB) and a five minute bike ride from my hostel. According to the ticket stub, Huguang Guild Hall was where Dr. Sun Yat Sen established the Kuo Min Tang (Nationalist Party). Dr. Sun Yat Sen was educated in part at my high school, Punahou School, in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Under the leadership of Chiang Kaishek, the Kuo Min Tang lost power to the Communists and fled to Taiwan in 1949. As for the performance, it was mediocre and overpriced. Chinese opera is an acquired taste and I have yet to acquire the taste.