Beijing Day One

I woke up at about 8am, wondering what had happened to the plan to get up at midnight after a power nap. I had a shower and then some breakfast in the hostel bar while I did some writing. At about 10am I headed out to see some of Beijing.
My hostel is on a street just south of the Qianmen, the gate at the southern entrance to Tiananmen Square. There’s a traditional looking shopping street running due south from the Qianmen with trams running up and down and western brands like Uni Qlo and H&M. Apparently the whole area was newly built before the Olympics to provide western tourists with a sanitised version of traditional China.

While major train stations in China have airport style security, every metro station in Beijing and major tourist attractions also have the same level of security. To get onto Tiananmen Square I had to use a metro station as an underpass, so one set of security checks, then to get onto the square itself I had to go through more security. There was a lot of security on the square itself, with police everywhere. I wonder why [cough]wikipedia[/cough].

The square is huge. In the centre is Mao’s mausoleum, which would have been interesting, but it was a Monday and he’s closed on Monday’s. Everyone needs a break from time to time. I wonder what he’s up to. On the east and west side is the National Museum of China and the Great Hall of the People of China. At the north end is the Tiananmen, the gate of heavenly peace (‘tian’ = 天 = heaven, ‘an’ = 安 = peace, ‘men’ = 门 = gate). The square is mainly just a vast expanse of grey stone with very little shade, so I don’t spend too long there.

After the square I headed north through the gate itself and into the Forbidden City. As expected, the tour guide hawkers were out in force. I deliberated paying the ¥60 entrance fee, but decided it was worth it. Inside the Forbidden City are lots of old buildings. There wasn’t much explanation of what was what, so I just followed the crowds heading north and took lots of photos. It’s all very nice and the buildings are beautiful, but it started to feel a bit samey. It was like going to London and seeing five very slightly different versions of Shakespeare’s globe one after the other.

North of the Forbidden City is a beautiful park with a hill in the middle and a pagoda on the hill. It looked nice and shady and not too busy. The entrance fee was ¥2 which seemed like a bargain to get a high up view of central Beijing and the Forbidden City. The view was great, but I did get a sense of scale. I had been planning on walking due north to the Olympic Park, it didn’t look too far on the map and I thought it would give me an insight into a swathe of Beijing, but seeing how far away the Olympic Park was made me reconsider my plans and I went to find a metro station instead.

I consider myself a reasonably street wise person. The last time I was scammed was in Prague around eight years ago. That time, me and my friend Alistair got into a taxi that had a dodgy meter. The driver wanted a ridiculous sum that we didn’t have, and we eventually got away with paying him £20 in cash after convincing him that it was worth more than it actually is.

This time, I left the park by the east exit knowing where I was going. Turn right to the main road, turn left and arrive at the metro. Maybe it would take 15 minutes at most. But I was immediately accosted by a pedicab driver. “Where you go?” he asked. “I know where I’m going” was by now my standard response. “Metro?” he asked and I must have said yeah, because he then offered to take me for ¥3. It was hot, I was tired, but I still had some fight in me and I bartered him down to ¥2. Bargain. I hopped onto the pedicab and we set off. I have a good sense of direction, and even though we went down twisty narrow side streets I still knew we were heading in the right direction. I wasn’t worried at all, he probably just wanted to avoid the busy main road and I’ve never felt threatened in China. My mind did have a slight inkling that ¥2 might be too good to be true, but I was on the way now. I got the ¥2 out of my wallet during the journey so I wouldn’t have to open it in front of him.

A few minutes later we got to the main road and stopped. The driver said the metro station was just around the corner. Cheer’s mate, here’s your two kwai, to which I received a torrent of abuse. “Er kwai! Crazy! No! Fare san bai kwai, tip er kwai! You pay me three hundred!” He wanted ¥300, about £30. Fuck off mate, we agreed er kwai, here’s your ¥2. He mimed drinking and managed to stumble through saying he couldn’t buy a drink of water for ¥2. No, ¥2, you said two kwai, here’s your ¥2. He then said ¥200. I then remembered from the map that there was another main road to cross before the metro station. I also realised that this was a big guy, and we were down a narrow unkempt side street with lots of closed doors. One of the doors opened and a guy looked out to see what was going on. I thought that if I play this wrong it could go very badly indeed. I had to show a willingness to compromise, so said I’d give him ¥10 – 5 times what I thought we’d a greed and a 20th of what he now wanted. I also remembered I had a ¥20 in my pocket – I could give him that without getting my wallet out – so that was my mental limit. He said ¥100, and I said ¥20 and took out my note and gave it to him and walked off, he didn’t say anything after me.

I was simultaneously very pleased to be out of a potentially risky situation and furious at myself for being scammed for the first time since Prague. Still, ¥20 is about £2.

When he said that the metro station is around the corner, what he meant was that he’d taken me about a third of the way and it was still about a ten minute walk. By the metro station I saw a McDonalds and thought it was an ideal time for a spot of lunch, then I caught the metro up to the Olympic Park.

Coming out of the Olympic Park station, I passed some awful looking fake old buildings. Grey concrete bricks built to look like a little old Chinese village. Exactly the kind of fake twee that I hate in the UK. I caught a glimpse of the Birds Nest stadium. It doesn’t look as impressive as it looks on TV, but maybe I was too far away. One of the common themes of studying urban geography is the decay of disused Olympic facilities. Barcelona 1992, Turin 2006. It’s been less than 4 years since Beijing 2008, and already the park is getting a bit shabby. Despite all the talk of legacy, I expect to have to write the same thing about London in a few years.

There’s a tripod shaped building with glass pods and the Olympic rings on top, presumably a building for media organisations. The glass for the lift shafts looked dirty and discoloured, and there was rust coming through the white painted steel. Onwards I walked across the endless expanse of grey stone. The sun was beating down, heating up the stone, and the heat from the stone was rising up. Great bit of urban planning, well done Beijing.

I reached the landscaped area around the Birds Nest stadium itself. The grass and trees made a nice change, the area felt noticeably cooler. The stadium is impressive, no doubt about it, but it did feel a bit smaller than I was expecting. I wasn’t going to pay the ¥50 to go inside, but glimpsing the inside from some open passageways I realised that the athletic field is quite a bit lower down – it’s dug out into the ground, requiring less super structure for the stadium itself. I didn’t see any of the Beijing Olympics – I was cycling across Europe at the time – so I was interested to see a wall with a lot of the medal winners carved in. I walked along to rowing, and saw that Team GB won a few things. Nice.

Across the vast expanse of stone was the aquatics centre with its plastic bubbles. The plastic looked old and discoloured. Now the world’s media isn’t watching, there’s no incentive to keep them nice.

Leaving the Olympic Park, I took the metro back to the hostel. I had a table to myself in the bar and got on with some writing. Later on, a Swiss guy motioned to ask if he could sit with me so I said yes. He was cool. He’s teaching German at a university somewhere else in China, and we agreed to meet up the next day to do some sightseeing together.

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