Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing (we’ll get back to Shanghai later). These cities are always mentioned in the same breath as being the largest and most important cities in eastern Asia. Beijing didn’t give me a great impression at first, but I think that’s mainly due to the insane crowding, worrying amount of police and security, and the not-so-happening neighborhood where my hostel was.
The day I was supposed to leave, after breakfast of “boiled egg and soldiers” with my friend Rachael, whose house I was staying at, I packed up and took a taxi to Ilsan to meet my friend and former co-teacher, Tiffany. Embarrassingly, I had only just discovered the wonders of the Kakao Taxi service the week before. I had waited this long to close out my bank account because my last paycheck hadn’t arrived until the day before. I didn’t want to close the account until I had all the money in one place, and I couldn’t have done all the complex bank manipulations by myself. This involved withdrawing the Chinese yuan for the trip and calling home to find the “swift code” for our bank, certainly upsetting my parents right before bedtime.
Afterward, I closed out my phone plan. I wanted to get a new SIM card for my phone once I got to China, and I’d already gotten the VPN so that I could access American websites and apps from across the Great Firewall of China.
It was hard saying goodbye to Miss Tiffany, since we formed such a strong bond while working together and stayed friends even after we both left the school. But, in a way, it felt like we had come full circle. My time in Korea started and ended with Miss Tiffany.
After a nearly-tearful departure from Tiffany’s house, I headed for Gimpo Airport. I made sure to arrive almost 4 hours early for the evening flight, but I couldn’t find sign of my flight anywhere. The reason, I learned after talking to the airline service desk, was that my flight had left at 8 in the morning and not in the evening. An expensive mistake, I had to pay for a new ticket the next day. For not the first time, I considered just staying in Korea for another week (despite not having a bank account or phone with service) or going directly home instead. However, I wanted to follow through on the trip more.
As some self-penance, I took the subway back to Rachael’s for one additional night. I still had no cell service to notify her of my coming, so I couldn’t tell her until I was back in Holly’s Coffee wifi later, after a sad McDonald’s dinner and a nap. I was quite dejected, but it was really nice to be at the house of a friend rather than staying in a lonely hotel room.
At times like these, I can’t turn my brain off or stop thinking about what I could have done differently. In hindsight, the problem started when I wrote down the flight times incorrectly. It was silly to assume that the “8:40” readout meant PM and not AM, but that’s what I wrote. However, that extra day in Bucheon reduced my time in a sub-par hostel, so it wasn’t all bad.
The next day I woke up stupid-early at 4 or 5 AM. There was no way I was missing this flight. Rachael graciously called the taxi for me and then went right back to sleep. Gimpo Airport has a lot less going for it than Incheon, so I had a seriously mediocre breakfast and a lot of time to kill before my flight left. Before you leave the country for the last time, they take your ARC (Alien Registration Card) away for good. The Beijing airport was a lot of walking but at least I had no problems with immigration this time, unlike the last time I slept over in Nanjing.
After a long train ride and a while being lost in the area of my hostel, I finally found it. Lots of things are in back alleys (hutongs) in Beijing, while big official buildings line the major streets. I was super unimpressed by this hostel, despite its cute courtyard. The bathrooms were gross, and the rooms were always cold and a little damp. I wonder if my opinion on the hostel would have been different in the summer, whether I could have better appreciated the cute rooftop patio in nicer weather. At the hostel, I got a nap, some tea (the one thing my hostel did well was keeping you filled with nice hot tea), and some wifi, I made the plan for the rest of the day.
The most doable thing for the rest of the day was to head to the Temple of Heaven (which is, apparently, not actually a temple). The original purpose of the buildings was for the emperors to offer gifts to the gods for healthy harvests and good weather. There were different temple buildings for each offering, but the most majestic was the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the biggest building up on a marble dais, looking out over the rest of the grounds. Even as late in the day as I went, there were still lots of tour groups going around, and apparently the done thing in China is for your tour group to wear matching hats?
After the temple, I headed to a Pacific Coffee (apparently they exist outside Hong Kong and Taiwan), where I had super trouble ordering an iced americano. I explored some malls and found a decent food court, where I got jiaozi dumplings, some kind of tomato-fish stew, and bubble tea. It seems that my tastes have become completely Koreanized with craving soup all the time and iced americanos. Dinner over, I returned home to the hostel for social media and sleep.
The next day was a packed-full day by my plan. I woke up early, drank more tea, and the hostel front desk girl helped me to get tickets for the Forbidden City online. You have to get somebody with a Chinese phone number to buy them in advance and then you can just show the proof that you bought them on your phone with a screenshot or picture. When I got to Tiananmen Square, I got super worried waiting in the long security line. The whole 2 hours standing in line, I barely saw any other foreigner tourists, there was no signage to guide us one way or the other, and I couldn’t figure out which documents I would need to show to get through the security. My time in Beijing was a little unsettling because you needed to submit bags for the x-ray scan each time you went into a subway station, train station, or museum, there were armed guards watching each entrance of the subway station, and there were volunteer guards with red armbands on every corner. You definitely felt like you were under surveillance at all times. In Tiananmen Square, you’re also under the watchful eyes of Mao himself, where his portrait stares seemingly-benevolently down from the high walls.
Before I even entered the Forbidden City, I was approached by some nice English-speaking Chinese ladies. However, I had read about this exact situation in this exact spot. They start by talking to you, complimenting you, and asking about your travels. Then they offer to take you around for a tour, and then for some tea. It’s your first day in Beijing, what better than to follow your trip to the Forbidden City with a nice pot of traditional Chinese tea? That’s the scam. The teahouse has no prices on anything, so they just politely advise you as to the best tea, and then markup the prices crazy-high. Luckily, I bowed out of the scam and continued on my merry way.
I don’t have much to say about the Forbidden City, honestly. It was a larger version of the same kind of palaces that you’d find in Korea and Japan. It was more ornate, and the tilework of the roofs and railings was stunning. The palace itself was a sight, but I enjoyed exploring the grounds around back a lot more, where the buildings and gardens are closer together and form interesting little pathways to wander through. The palace itself is a lot of just high walls and open space, no doubt just to hold huge crowds of people. Nonetheless, it would have been utter folly not to have gone.
Afterwards, I hopped right back on the subway for more sightseeing at the Drum Tower and Bell Tower, both in the same plaza. In every Chinese city were this pair of towers (that doesn’t look much like the typical picture of a “tower” at all, more like a big box-like building) to announce the time, the news, or any emergencies. The ones in Beijing were not necessarily the most magnificent specimens I saw, but it was a cool little detour. Since the towers weren’t all that tall, I didn’t see the use in paying to go up to the top when there wouldn’t be much view to speak of.
On the way to the next sightseeing, I stopped at a cool little coffee bar, called Hainan, I think. I got lunch at a place that had caught my eye in the guidebook, Punk Rock Noodle. Everything about this place makes you feel good. The cool music and décor, the good food, etc. Apparently it was begun by a punk-rocker, its staff all punk musicians, and after some time became something of a cult favorite, in addition to being popular with students. I should have gotten the Panda Brew (Beijing craft beer) there, since that was on my to-do list for the day, but I never ended up having that beer or visiting the brewery that day.
I had intended to go to both the Confucius Temple and the Lama Temple. They are right next to each other on the street, but I miscalculated how much time I had, so I only got to go to the Confucius Temple (again, less of a temple than a Confucian academy). I chose the lesser of the two, and should have gone to the resplendent Lama Temple. That’s apparently the temple you should go to if you don’t have time to make it to Tibet. Next time, I guess. On the way back, I stopped in some of the small little drink stalls on our street and bought some pastries. The pastry stand was one of the only good things about this location in Beijing. After a nap and a long wander around the neighborhood (there is seriously nothing in that whole area), I found some kind of fast-food-looking place, where I got some sort of noodle soup meal with donuts (youtian) and eggs. It was a very strange meal, but it kept me from starving to death, so I was satisfied with that.
On the second full day in Beijing, there was only one thing on the plan: The Great Wall. I had read up on recommendations about where to go on the wall, when to go, how to get there. About camping and hiking and restored versus “wild” sections of the wall. Over breakfast of leftover pastries and Emergen-C (fearing I was getting sick, my hostel roommate hooked me up), I decided to play it safe and go to the Badaling section of the wall. It’s the most heavily restored and crowded, but also the closest and easiest to get to. At the hostel, the front desk girls offered little help planning and scheduling the trips, so I tried to do this one on my own…
The guidebook listed the Beijing North Railway Station as a straight shot to this section of the wall. I knew that if I left too late, I would miss the last train there, so it was earlier. After getting off at the nearest subway station, I had to walk under an overpass and across a huge thoroughfare (luckily Chinese are not shy about walking on seemingly non-pedestrian-friendly roads so it wasn’t all that strange) to get to the station. Once there, it seemed that there weren’t any signs on how to get there. One sign would lead you one way and then the trail would die 15 meters later. Finally I got on a good path and discovered the north railway station, which seemed to have been defunct for at least several years. You would think you’d be able to take a train to get to the most popular section of the Great Wall, that would be common sense, right?
I regrouped in a café near the shut-down old station. Coffee is considerably harder to come by in mainland China than in Hong Kong or Taiwan. I found a bus that would take me there, so I got back on the subway and headed to the new stop. I’d memorized the characters for basically “Badaling Great Wall,” so I was following signs to get to the shuttle bus from there. The last bus is supposed to leave at 12 or 1, so I was solidly within that timeframe. All throughout the walk, scammer taximen were trying to get us to take a super-expensive taxi to the wall. After a while, it became apparent that the group of Arabic-speaking girls behind me were also going the same way, and we teamed up. They were headed in the same way as me. It’s gratifying to know you’re not alone sometimes. Further along, we were also following a group of Chinese tourists, so all together it was not a small group. Once at the bus stop, we found out that the scammer taximen weren’t completely wrong. The buses to the wall really were done for the day. It was solidly 12:50 at this point. At the slightest sign of discomfort, I was ready to just go to a museum or something and give up, but together the team was tenacious.
With three different phones working on a wifi hotspot, Google translate, and one of the girls speaking a bit of Chinese, we managed to work together to secure taxis for the group to get to the wall. It ended up being only 150 yuan each, which sounds like a lot but is actually a steal for what we got, which was driving nearly one hour there, waiting for us to come down from the wall, and taking us back to where we started. Split between two taxis, the girls and one Chinese tourist got in one car and I and the rest of the Chinese group got in the other. “I’m gonna die, this is how I die today,” I kept chanting because this is, of course, how people get murdered all the time. Logically, though, that’s a whole lot of work with all the translating for the very little payoff of murdering little old me.
In the car on the way there, I was just consoling myself, but every few minutes one of the Chinese tourists would use the Chinese version of Google translate, assure me I was perfectly safe, and tell me the taximan’s plan for picking us up again. Since it was much later in the day than most people normally go to the wall (most people go in the morning), it was almost completely devoid of any tourists or souvenir-hawkers. The view was amazing and just so peaceful. It ended up being a great time of day to go. The steps were wicked steep! I can’t imagine being a soldier in full armor trying to hurry up those steps to get to your post. After I got back to the hostel, I found some kind of baozi steamed bun place for dinner and collected some snacks like taro ice cream and tomato Pringles.
The next day I was slated to leave Beijing for Jinan. I wanted to do something (like visit the Summer Palace or the National Museum) in the morning, perhaps stop in Tianjin on the way to see that epic library, and then end in Jinan in the evening. I was definitely ready to be out of Beijing by this point, maybe escape the oppressive smog and scary police at every corner.
After packing up, I went to the National Museum. I had had to wait in that insane long security line again in Tiananmen square to get in, but at least the museum was free. My favorite exhibits were the collection of gifts that Chinese leaders had received from foreign dignitaries and the display of Chinese money from throughout history.
The next phase represented one of the darkest chapters of my time in China. I returned to the hostel to get my bags and eat some pastries for lunch, and then took the subway with all my bags to Beijing South station. I waited in this line forever to get a ticket, any ticket to Jinan. Here, I had made several miscalculations. In Korea, you can take a train or bus from Seoul, same day, with very little trouble, as long as you don’t care about when you leave. I also overestimated how many trains would go there each day. Jinan is not that important a city. No trains to Jinan would leave that day, but they sold me a ticket for the next morning.
Dejected, I pouted awhile at Starbucks in the station. Without a Chinese phone number, I couldn’t use the wifi there. Again, I thought how easy it’d be to go to the airport, buy a ticket home (forget the cost), and surprise my family. In the guidebook, I found some hostel in the Drum Tower neighborhood, and after standing in an interminable taxi rank for what felt like ages, I finally got a taxi. That hostel was full and I couldn’t find the hostel they directed me to. I was sore and angry after standing in so many lines with my heavy bags, so eventually I checked into a James Joyce Coffetel. It was super expensive, like 10 times as expensive as a single night in any of the hostels I booked in the rest of my time there, but James Joyce + coffee was a hard proposition for me to turn down. It was a way-too-nice-for-me hotel, with cute little single-serve pour-over coffees included in the room. After a bit more pouting, I went out and ate some amazing mouth-numbing spicy noodles and had a few beers at a taphouse called The Beer Guys, watching some Chinese drama on the TV. I was still salty to have wasted more money, but the food, beer, wifi, and a call to my mom helped immensely.
The next morning I headed out to Jinan, which would prove to be my least favorite city in China.