Even thought the airport of Beijing is at least 35 kms. from downtown, you feel the polluted air thick with humidity and soupy smog from thousands of poorly maintained cars. Arriving by train creates a worse impression. The grandiose train station is organized chaos.
(Picture from Wikipedia.)
Beijing’s international airport is modern and shining with new equipment but surly customs officers; who seem to regard their duties more as a nuisance than meaningful work.
Riding from the airport to the city takes longer than it should, as drivers must stop to allow goats, sheep and even cattle to cross the highway.
Traffic is always dense, difficult, occasionally dangerous, cyclists and pedestrians make driving even more difficult as no one seems to observe traffic rules.
The city, home to millions of cyclists with no regard for pedestrians and vehicular traffic, is flat as a pancake and looks as though city planners never gave a second thought to accommodate both. In short, traffic in Beijing flows by the grace of god!
These days, ordinary Chinese seem to have money to spend on consumer goods, and are obsessed with cars. Even though only 20 per cent of Beijing’s population own a car, in the city of 17 million the air quality is bad at the best of times. Part of the reason for such poor quality air results from poor quality gasoline, and intolerably high emission standards
Tienanmen Square framed by the Forbidden City (the seat of emperors and ultimately their governments) as well as the Soviet architecture-inspired People’s Congress is totally out of proportion; they were designed to impress the masses!
The walled Forbidden City is a tourist attraction complete with soft-drink stands and guides everywhere. It is a must-see monument and requires at least a good part of a day.
Just outside you can visit old, dilapidated buildings of old Beijing, which will soon disappear if they have not already. (In Beijing entire city blocks may be demolished from one day to the next without notice, legal procedure and compensation!)
Government-controlled and paid guides try to direct you elsewhere, but you should insist to tour such neighbourhoods. They tell the real story.
China is not a society of law and order. Any level of government seems to be able to do what it considers to be right. Corruption is rampant and absolutely nothing seems to help curb it.
After the Forbidden City tour, the obligatory destination is the Summer Palace located on an artificial lake only a few kilometres from downtown. It has rich history and glorious past, but access paths are so clogged with thousands of strollers that visiting this interesting place is a challenge. Close by are many restaurants, food stands and itinerant instant photographers from the previous century, still working with wooden box-cameras invented by Daguerre, himself.
Locals prefer the street food of stalls, and western tourists are “ guided “ to restaurants that charge three times, if not more, as much for the same food.
Service in China, except in western-chain-managed establishments, seems to be an alien concept. You are expected to order food quickly, get it within minutes (means the food was precooked and kept hot) with the tacit understanding that you must eat fast, pay and leave, since line-ups outside the doors are always long.
Practically all servers do their jobs with contempt. On the other hand, tipping is, at least officially, frowned upon.
September and October are the best months to visit, followed by May.
Every tourist to Beijing should visit Badaling, the renovated section of the Great Wall, some 30 kilometres from downtown. Take a taxi, or better yet have the hotel concierge arrange it for you. The Great Wall is such a massive construction that even astronauts as far as 400 kilometres above the earth can see it. Chinese Emperors used slave labour to accomplish the task using the crudest equipment imaginable.
Badaling itself offers many restaurants and innumerable souvenir stands full of kitschy stuff!
After climbing the “ Wall “, visit at least a few of the tombs of Emperors. You can learn more about Chinese history during that short visit than in one semester’s history course.
The visit to Badaling can be accomplished in a long afternoon, but a full day will allow you to enjoy the sight better.
taxi drivers lack even the most rudimentary knowledge of the city. Before you hail a taxi, have the address written. Better yet, drawn on a piece of paper, and written in Chinese.
Make sure to get into a red 1.60 renminbi ( local currency) taxi, or have the concierge arrange it for you.
Others will cheat you in a number of ways.
Eating from food stalls in Beijing may be adventurous, but is not for westerners with delicate stomachs. The food is tasty, but greasy and generally difficult to digest.
For souvenirs consider silk products, paintings, old Chinese pottery, embroidery, and lacquered furniture, which shopkeepers ship (at your expense) anywhere in the world. Be aware that you may end up receiving a different souvenir to the one for which you paid.
Chinese Travel Service (C. T. S.), a euphemism, is the official organization for incoming tourists and arranges all itineraries. You should be aware that all guides are indoctrinated according to government dogma, and will tell you convincingly, stories that lack any semblance of truth. Group travelling in China requires two guides – one for the duration of the trip, the other for each city. Be sure of the fact that you pay for the services and therefore are entitled to expect at least a courteous answer to your questions.
Tourists receive specially designed paper currency when exchanging convertible funds. Chinese renminbi lacks roman numerals; the official currency is inconvertible.
Several airlines fly to Beijing.
Accommodations can be arranged through the Internet. There are several western-managed modern hotels that provide all the amenities but charge exorbitant prices.