Ni Hao! Beijing and the Great Wall

Ni Hao! Beijing and the Great Wall

China is a country that has fascinated me since forever but it usually does not feature among top tourist destinations for most people, what with the fear of language barrier, unsuitable food, or the tight government control on communications including the (in)famous Great Firewall of China. Keeping all that aside I decided to make a quick trip to the Land of the Dragon in winter of 2014. I visited Beijing and the Great Wall of China all by myself without any local guides or help, and you can do it too.

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A little background before starting in Beijing. I got a Chinese single entry tourist visa from the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. It is a pretty painless process, just submit a few forms and flight tickets, and receive the visa a week later. My Chinese experience starts right from the United States as I am booked on Air China to Beijing. China has a ton of airlines, some sketchier than others, but being the national flag carrier, Air China is among the good ones in the lot. They operate all of their China-US flights on brand new Boeing 777s that are pretty comfortable. The in-flight entertainment is predominantly Chinese (I heard Chinese folk music for 10 hours!) and the meals, especially the vegetarian ones that I had requested, I will just leave this one pic here.

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Beijing Capital International Airport is humongous, and at the early hour when my flight arrived, it is pretty empty, looking like a giant movie set. As I walk towards Passport Control, the guy tells me that for stays less than 72 hours long, there is no visa needed! (If you are not a US citizen, do not rely on this) Immigration is quick and painless and the airport is directly connected to the city by Beijing Metro’s Airport Express line. One bummer is that this is a “special line” and hence at the airport you can neither buy nor use the Beijing Transportation Smart Card which will be very useful everywhere else. So I pay cash, get onboard and in about thirty minutes it drops me at Dongzhimen station which is a major transit hub and has connections to 3 subway lines going to different parts of the city. But before going anywhere else, I need the Smart Card. One can buy the card from vending machines but the instructions are in Mandarin only, but thankfully I see a manned ticket counter where a lady who understands just enough English sells me a card.

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Beijing’s Subway system is amazing. There are 15 (and growing) lines taking you from any corner of the city to another, and the trains arrive every 2-3 minutes so there is never a wait. Also, the maps and station announcements are in English too, so I have no problem navigating through it. My first target is to go to The Great Wall without needing any local guide or help, and the easiest way to do it is by train. There are several trains during the day that depart from Beijing North (Bei) railway station to Badaling, from where the Great Wall is a 15 minute walk. There are also buses from Beijing to Badaling but from all I have read beforehand, getting the right bus is tricky if you do not speak the local language (also, given a choice I always take train over bus!). To reach Beijing Bei, I have to battle the office commuters on one of the most crowded subway lines but it is a short 15 minutes ride and I am deposited at Xizhimen station. All this was underground and inter-connected and finally I step out in the Beijing cold, and freeze immediately while trying to look for the entrance to the long distance train station.

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Beijing Bei is the smallest and least crowded of Beijing’s four main railway stations, and as a result, there is almost no English signage. But I have read that all trains to Badaling have numbers “S2XX”. I see a queue forming in front of a sign saying “S2” and a lot of Chinese stuff so my best guess is this is the right place. With about half hour to the train’s departure I wander into a convenience store and play a blind date with snacks. I have no idea what any of the labels mean, so I pick up a couple of cheap snacks that look good and safe (no lizards or cockroaches!). Now comes the fun part- the trains to Badaling are unreserved, so the moment the door to the platform opens, everyone makes a mad scramble towards the train, running to grab the best seats. I join in it too half heartedly, but find comfortable seats nevertheless.

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The ride from Beijing to Badaling is pretty comfortable and scenic- starting from the suburbs of Beijing (that are not scenic) slowly climbing up the mountains. The journey takes about two hours and the station of Badaling is so basic and barebones that one might end up wondering if this is really where we get off to go to a wonder of the world? Turns out, yes. The temperature is below freezing, with strong cold winds and the 15 minute walk to the entrance of the Great Wall ends up being quite a challenge to keep myself alive. I quickly buy the ticket, walk up to the Great Wall, which is quite underwhelming in a way, I mean it is just a wall. Literally. What is fascinating is its history and the length of it which you cannot truly appreciate from any single spot. I brave the biting cold and freezing winds for a few pictures, been there done that, and right away start walking back towards the station. I reach Badaling station right as the train is pulling in, and I still need to buy a ticket! If I miss this, I have to spend the next two hours sitting in the tiny shed, but thankfully not. The staff at the station who spoke no English understood my plight and punched out a ticket for me as quickly as possible, ran out to the platform to ask the guard to wait and made sure I board the train. Phew! Thank you random Chinese guys!

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The train has a cafe, whose attendant does not understand a word of English either. I try explaining him I want tea, and after a lot of effort he gets it and hands me one tea. Iced tea that is! No! Not in this freezing cold. I had downloaded Google Translate with Chinese language pack for offline use on my phone. Time to put it to good use. I type “hot tea” and show the equivalent Chinese output to the attendant and he exclaims “Aa! Cha!” D’oh! I should have guessed every ancient language has a common term for tea! Another two hour journey later, I am back at Beijing Bei, successfully completing a half day self-guided visit to The Great Wall. It is lunch time, which means it is time for pictionary and charades to explain the staff at the food court that I want vegetarian food. I had no hopes of either them understanding or them having something vegetarian, but surprise surprise on both fronts! The staff showed me not one but three vegetarian (no meat) items on the menu- a tofu curry, a roti-like bread and a salad. Success!

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After lunch, I hop on the ubiquitous subway again to take me to the most famous landmark in Beijing- Tiananmen Square. I step out from the subway to a sight of wide clean roads, well manicured lawns and imposing government buildings. Yes, this is the heart of the capital. Tiananmen is a highly sensitive and politically significant location, so everyone has to go through tight security. Although technically it is just a big open public square, it is cordoned off from all sides and every visitor is screened and ID or passport checked by armed military before being allowed in.

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Across the street from the square is the Forbidden City, which shall remain forbidden for me due to lack of time to go visit it (and also it is freezing cold). Instead I decide to go back into the warmth of the subway to go one station away to Wangfujing Street. This is Beijing’s Times Square meets food bazaar. The main street is lined with swanky malls selling electronics (such as the jPhone 6 which by sheer coincidence happens to look like the iPhone 6) and food chains like McD and KFC, but the inner bylanes are where the brave go (not me) to try out the famous Chinese “delicacies” such as fried cockroaches, lizards, snakes and other such gag inducing things.

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I have to wrap up my quick Beijing sightseeing here and take the subway back to Dongzhimen and from there the Airport Express back to the airport, but, one more thing. Apparently my tryst with China is to be longer. So a few weeks later, thanks to delayed flights and missed connections (a story for another time), I find myself in Beijing again with a day to spare.

Instead of sitting in the sad complimentary hotel room provided by Air China, I decide to go out again. This time to see the marvels of modern Chinese engineering. A little research and I figure out I can make a quick trip to the nearby city of Tianjin and back riding the Chinese High Speed Rail that runs at 300-320 km/hr making it one of the fastest in the world. So I head out back on the subway, this time to the other extreme of the city to Beijing South (Nan) railway station that is the hub of the national high speed train network. If nobody told you what it was, it is easy to think you are inside a major international airport. It is huge, specious, swanky shops and restaurants and “boarding gates” with no trains in sight. Beijing-Tianjin is a very busy route and high speed “bullet trains” depart every 15 minutes all day long! I go to the ticket counter and try my best to explain the lady to give me a ticket to Tianjin. I write down the train number on a piece of paper and that does the trick. Thank God the Chinese use English numerals. All these trains are fully reserved and you get a coach and seat number, so you have to make it to that train or lose the money. I, in my infinite wisdom, ask for a ticket to a train that is departing in 10 minutes! As a result, I end up making a mad dash up a huge escalator, across a gigantic concourse to the correct gate and found my train and seat just in time. Phew.

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If you have never been on a true high speed train like in Europe or Japan, this is an experience worth doing. We cover a distance of 135 km in 33 minutes, with a smooth quiet ride rushing past towns at 300 km/hr. I get out at Tianjin, take one look at the city and turn right around to buy my return ticket to Beijing, and guess what- unlike Beijing where the fancy high speed trains use a whole different station, here in Tianjin they use the same station and same ticket counters as hundreds of other trains going throughout the country. As a result I have to stand in one of the dozen odd long queues, not knowing whether it is even the correct one since everything is written only in Mandarin. Also, I use the word “queue” loosely since apparently it is considered normal in China for people to shamelessly break into the front of the queue, buy their ticket and walk away! After half hour of waiting (I could not afford to jump the queue. If they yell at me what do I say?) finally I reach the ticket counter, once again write the train number on a piece of paper, and thankfully the lady understands and issues me a correct ticket to Beijing. Woohoo I survive another round of pictionary!

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Once again we whoosh to Beijing in no time and once out of the station, I need to buy a subway ticket and do not have the Smart card this time. Fine, I will find a manned ticket counter and hope the person knows English, but no luck. This station does not have manned counters, only vending machines! Great! I scan around to find people who look like they might know some English and see a college going couple. I ask them if they speak English, the guy backs out and points at the girl. The girl replies in affirmative (I had read somewhere that your best bet of finding English speakers in China are college girls since it is a recent fad to learn English. Don’t ask me why only girls and not guys, I don’t know) and she helps me navigate the Chinese-only vending machine to get a ticket to Dongzhimen. This was the only time in my entire stay that I was handicapped by language and had to ask someone for help. From Dongzhimen it is easy to take the Airport Express back to the airport and bid adieu to this wonderful city. Zàijiàn, xièxiè. (Goodbye and thank you)

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–> Going to Beijing? My TripRatings:

Paperwork                    5 / 10

Need to apply for visa in advance. Immigration at airport fairly painless.

Language                       1 / 10

Without knowing Chinese, it is very difficult to navigate or interact with locals.

Food                                3 / 10

Vegetarians have a hard time, meat eaters beware of unexpected animals.

Transport                        9 / 10

Excellent public transit, great inter-city train and bus options, modern airports.

Connectivity                   3 / 10

Google, Facebook, Twitter are banned. Whatsapp works. Wi-fi easily available.

Entertainment                7 / 10

History, music, arts you name it. Language can be a slight barrier.

Shopping                          8 / 10

Everything is Made in China, what more to say? Beware of fakes and bargain hard.

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