Beijing Adventures With Adventure Korea
Monday 30 July
After two years of travelling locally with Adventure Korea, I and 20 other people got to experience an overseas adventure to Beijing, China, from 30 July to 2 August 2012. With an early morning meeting time of 6:30am at Incheon International Airport on Monday 30 July, many travellers chose to spend the night in the airport’s jimjilbang, Spa on Air.
While a good night’s sleep is hard to come by in most jimjilbangs, the 2012 Olympic Games currently being broadcast around the world guaranteed even less sleep than usual. However, a lack of sleep for most people on the trip hasn’t put a damper on our spirits as we check our luggage, pass through Korean Immigration and hurry to find something to eat before boarding our flight at 8:10am. Despite the 20 minutes delay on our 8:40am flight, we’re all in high spirits by the time we arrive at Beijing’s Peking International Airport shortly before 11:00am.
Once we’ve all cleared Chinese passport control and claimed our luggage, we meet our energetic and engaging Chinese tour guide, Amy. By 11:45am, we’re seated in an atmospheric restaurant enjoying Chinese dumplings, beef, spring rolls and a variety of other delicious foods while getting to know one another a bit better. With our appetites sated, we make our way to the first of the sites we’ll explore on the trip: the Summer Palace.
Built in the 18th century, the Summer Palace is the largest Royal Gardens in Beijing and is dominated by Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake. It covers 2.9 square kilometres of which 2.2. square kilometres is the lake. Part of the Palace grounds includes a covered walkway of 11,000 different hand-painted pictures depicting various traditional Chinese scenes and seasons. The timing of our visit is perfect as we get to see the lotus flowers in full bloom beside the palace before taking a short ferry ride across the lake towards the famous 17 Arches Bridge.
After a two hour walk around the Summer Palace, we’re treated to a foot massage in the city. For 45 minutes, we relax in tranquil rooms while Chinese masseuses massage away the tension in our feet and lower legs. Feeling rejuvenated, we make our way across town to enjoy a Chinese Acrobatic Show where, for an hour, we’re enthralled by contortionists, diabolo, umbrella juggling and displays of strength equilibrium. Forget the circus: if you’ve never watched a Chinese acrobatic show, you’re really missing out on something spectacular! This is a show that is guaranteed to enchant and amaze even the most critical audience member. Unfortunately, no photos may be taken during the show.
Our first day in Beijing ends with dinner at a Peking Duck Restaurant before we finally make our way to our four star hotel, the Broadtec Royal International Hotel. Once settled in our rooms, it’s great to relax after an eventful first day. With the promise of an even busier second day, and a 6:30am wake up call, we turn in early to get a good night’s rest.
Tuesday 31 July
By 7:30am, most of our group have managed to get themselves ready and are eating breakfast in the hotel’s dining room. By 8am, we’re all ready and waiting for our bus to take us to Tiananmen Square, the heart of Communist China’s political scene. Negotiating your way through busy tourist sites is, at the best of times, a challenge; doing so on a rainy day when everyone around you is armed with umbrellas requires skill – especially without losing anyone in your group along the way.
Located across from the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square is a large ‘70s construction with a heavy security presence. To the left of the Square sits Chairman Mao’s mausoleum outside of which hundreds of people are already queuing for their chance to see his coffin for the allocated two seconds each person is permitted. Our guide tells us that there are strict regulations for entering the mausoleum and that many Chinese people regularly visit the site. At the end of each day, his coffin is lowered into a secure vault and, in the event of some unforeseen disaster, can be immediately evacuated to an undisclosed location. It’s interesting to learn just how revered Mao is, even after death. From the Square, we make our way across to the Forbidden City, one of the highlights of the trip for many people.
Perhaps the most arduous site of all that we will experience in Beijing, even after 3 hours in the Forbidden City, it is incredibly difficult to find words that can truly reflect the awe and beauty of this city! Still fresh from it’s facelift prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, which took three years due to the limited number of artists who can do the hand-paintings that are found all over the city, the Forbidden City is a wonder in itself. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever living in such large grounds and the sheer magnitude of the city, combined with the detailed art work visible all over, is breathtaking! Not even the constant rain or the throngs of tourists and their umbrellas can detract from the magnificence that is the Forbidden City. It’s a must-see for any tourist and one could easily spend a day getting lost in the multitude of narrow passageways and courtyards that comprise the city. The history behind the city is equally overwhelming and despite Amy’s incredible knowledge about the emperors who live there, the quantity of information is simply too great to remember in detail when faced with the imposing stature of the city surrounding us. Walking through the Forbidden Cit is, at times, similar to walking through Seoul’s Gyeongbukgang – it’s like stepping back in time or visiting an extravagant movie set.
After an exhausting three hours exploring the city, we’re all starving and more than ready for the buffet lunch that awaits us before heading to the Pearl Center. There, we get to discover first hand just how many freshwater pearls a single oyster can produce as well as the variety of colours that pearls come in due to different minerals in the water. The pearl shop is a shopper’s paradise for women who enjoy timeless jewellery. With many wallets considerably lighter, and credit card bills a little heavier, we wound our way to the Temple of Heaven, a site that many emperors visited twice a year: the first to pray for good rain and harvests and the second to thank the gods/ancestors for the summer’s harvest. The importance given to the number “9” as the royal number is again visible everywhere at this site as at the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City.
From the Temple of Heaven, we make our way to Beijing’s Red Theatre to watch The Legend of Kungfu, an exhilarating kungfu performance where, again, no photos are permitted. Although this show was not originally on our itinerary, our guide had recommended it to us and, at RMB 180 (approximately US$27), the tickets are worthwhile so we decided to take in the show. It’s the perfect end to an amazing second day. By the time we return to our hotel at around 21:00, it’s clear that it’s going to be another fairly early night for most people.
Wednesday 1 August
Today, few people have trouble getting up early in anticipation of the first place on today’s itinerary. The Great Wall of China is, admittedly, the main reason many people signed up for this particular trip.
We once again leave our hotel at 8:00am and travel towards the Badaling section of the Great Wall. Along the way, we stop at Run-Ze Jade Garden where we’re exposed to jaw-dropping and intricately carved jade statues of various shapes and sizes. Jade has played, and continues to play, an important role in Chinese culture. It is generally considered to be good for health and is a pure stone.
Once again, our wallets considerably lighter and spirits high in anticipation of our next stop, we left the jade store with our purchases. So great is our anticipation and enthusiasm for the Great Wall that it takes nearly 30 minutes.
Built over several hundred years, 4 000 men built 200m of the wall per year. The Great Wall is also considered the greatest cemetery in China since many men died while working on the wall. When we exit our cable car atop the wall, it’s easy to understand why so many men died during its construction; carrying all of the building material up and down the steep mountains, without any modern conveniences such as those to which we are now accustomed, would have been treacherous. Only great loyalty, devotion or fear could accomplish what the Chinese population did with this world wonder!
Like the Forbidden City, the Great Wall is breathtaking and a wonder that few words can do justice. Each angle on just a small stretch of the wall provides an even more incredible view of the winding wall that snakes across the ridges of the mountains surrounding Beijing. This is the part of the wall that is still maintained and curiosity sufficiently got my attention as to what the ruined parts of the wall now look like. Walking just a short section of the steep wall, I can only imagine how determined an army would have to be to try to invade the city by crossing this imposing barrier; if the steepness of the mountains was not enough of a deterrent, the slopes of the wall surely must have caused many to acknowledge defeat. I have a newfound respect for the fitness levels of the people who built, guarded and invaded ancient China.
Just over an hour on the Great Wall is insufficient in the opinion of many people but it’s enough time to ensure that some silliness and general fun happens in our small and pleasant group where many new friendships have formed overnight. It’s also long enough for us to realise that we’re all really hungry and hundreds of tourists are now arriving for their chance to experience an impressive part of history. Thus, we soon find ourselves back on the bus and heading towards our touristy restaurant, as our guide calls it, that is attached to a Cloisonne factory.
At 15:15, after a filling lunch or assorted westernised Chinese foods and fire alcohol that, at 56% alcohol makes regular soju look like a juice box, we find ourselves at Beihai Park for a short walk. Across the river of the park is a clear view of the Chinese President’s home and parliament buildings located to the right of the Forbidden City. After two and a half days of exploring Beijing, most of us are starting to get our bearings with regard to the city’s layout. Another highlight at Beihai Park is the enormous Nine-Dragon Screen tile print. Again, the significance of the number 9 is emphasised and it’s impressive to see how accurately the colours of each tile in the screen are matched considering that the tiles were made separately.
By 17:00, it’s clear that we’re all winding down for the day. One of our final stops is the Hutong District, which is the oldest part of Beijing. Popular among the more traditional older generation, the houses in this area are an average of 200 years old and all built in the traditional style. The area itself is approximately 800 years and many of the houses have had to be re-built at various points in history. To call each building a house is a bit misleading as most of them are four “houses” surrounding a communal family courtyard. During Mao’s reign, many people handed over their ancestral homes to the government. These have since been returned to the original owners – as much as possible – and these families may live in these houses almost rent free but may never sell them. We’re fortunate enough to see inside the courtyard and one of the homes of these courtyard houses while taking a rickshaw trip around the Hutong District.
Dinner in a traditional home in this area is another highlight of the trip. Our hosts are friendly and interesting people who are extremely hospitable. The food here is probably among the best we’ve had on the trip as people reminisce over their favourite parts of the past three days. Once dinner is over, we continue our rickshaw trip around the lake and the rest of Hutong – a true cultural experience among many on this trip.
By 20:00, we find ourselves on Wangfujing Street, which is best compared to Seoul’s Myeongdong area. It is a famous shopping area where street snack stalls selling strange and unexpected foods will either excite or disgust you. It’s a great place for people watching and seeing how people respond to such significant cultural differences. While dog meat does not appear to be one of the options available at any of the many snack vendors, there is a wide variety of skewered scorpions, cockroaches, snake, sheep testicles, octopus and many other unexpected meats. For those with a weaker stomach, it’s not a street that you can spend a lot of time on without losing your dinner.
The shopping area is a curious mix of high-end designer fashion – legitimate stores, not the knock-off stores – and cheap trinket stores that will try to convince you that the jewellery is real and the electronics are high end. It’s a street where you really need to keep your wits about you but where you can also strike many an interesting bargain if you’re good at haggling. On the street corner where we agree to meet an hour later, there are three large department stores and two more within 500m of the three surrounding us. The incredibly wide sidewalks are further testament as to just how many people shop in this area and how populated the city of Beijing truly is.
By the time we arrive back at our hotel at 22:30, we’re all ready for bed. First, we have a request for our guide: we would like to experience as much of Beijing as possible so we present her with a few places that we would be interested in visiting the next morning before heading to the airport. After a quick consultation with the bus driver, it’s determined that we’ll stop at the Beijing Olympic Park and Yashow Fashion Market where all of the knock-offs are sold. Satisfied with the next day’s itinerary, we bid one another good night and make our way to the comfort of our beds for our final night.
Thursday 2 August
With a slightly later departure time, we can sleep in a little on our final morning. By 8:30am, we’re all assembled in the lobby of our hotel and ready to check out. Our final day’s explorations begin with a group photo at the Bird’s Nest, the stadium of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Once again, we’re reminded just how much Chinese culture is reflected in so many things around the city where ying-and-yang are so important. Beijing’s Olympic Park is balanced by a round stadium and a square pool area – shapes that are constantly emphasised in many other structures at various historic sites.
Our final stop is Yashow Fashion Market where Amy gives us a quick lesson on how to haggle with the vendors at the various stores – and how to pay the cheapest price – as well as giving us an indication of the maximum prices that we should pay for a variety of items. Many of us dread the thought of haggling because it’s not one of our strengths; others, however, relish the challenge of haggling to get great bargains!
Yashow Fashion Market can be intimidating for people who are not comfortable with haggling. For support, small groups form as we set out in search of specific items that we’re hoping to get for bargain prices. Having vendors shout at you or follow you down aisles with continuous price negotiations when you don’t purchase an item you’ve considered at their store is perhaps one of the strangest things I’ve experienced thus far in Beijing; it’s always one of the most stressful. After 30 minutes at the market, most of us find ourselves relaxing in the nearby coffee shop more than ready to head to the airport and make our way back to Korea.
Our last lunch in China is McDonald’s at the airport. The variety of Chinese inspired options on the menu is rather quirky and entertaining but most of us still order ‘safe’ burgers of some variety or other. Soon, it’s time to check our luggage, get our tickets and say our goodbyes to our fantastic guide before facing the intimidating area of Chinese passport control and airport security. It’s our final hurdle before we can relax for the next 90 minutes before boarding our flight – a period that is lengthened by an hour due to delays.
The pressure of arriving in Incheon International Airport by 20:00 soon starts to show as many people start considering their options for getting home one we arrive back in Korea. Fortunately, Korean Immigration is not very busy by the time we arrive at 20:00 and most of us walk through and collect our bags immediately before wishing each other safe travels home from the airport. We’ve already exchanged contact details with one another so that we can share the collective thousands of photos taken on what was an amazing adventure. Hopefully there’ll be more overseas trips like this with Adventure Korea!