This morning I put the kibosh on any more walking, at least until we reached the Forbidden City. It’s far too easy to get distracted on foot, and besides, my legs are tired from all the miles we’ve put in. In addition, the thick grey smog continues, so we don’t want to breathe any more than is necessary.
Perhaps this is a good time to discuss the general superiority of the Beijing subway to any other subway we’ve been on (and that includes London, Paris, New York, Vienna, Berlin, LA, Toronto…). The stations here are so new and well kept, they’re often far cleaner and more pleasant than the street you’ve just left behind. There are ample ticket machines (no lines!) because they are simple and quick to use. Just press the number of tickets you want and put your money in. Hey presto, a ticket appears.
How much does it cost, you ask?
Two Yuan per ticket, which is approximately 33 cents US.
Each station has a clear map showing the whole line and each platform clearly shows which way the train is going and which way to go to get to your stop. This seems obvious enough, but it is not so in lots of other cities. Hello Berlin! On the train, the little map showing where the train you’re on is going lights up to show which station you’ve just left and which is next. Brilliant.
As a bonus, all the announcements are in Mandarin and English and are clear enough to hear and understand.
The graphic design of all of these elements is so well done that it’s completely clear where you need to go, where your connections are, and when you need to prepare to get off.
Yes, it’s crowded, but not like those videos you’ve seen with pushers squeezing you on the train. Possibly because there is a train about every two minutes these days.
It really is the simplest most user-friendly public transport I’ve ever used.
Not So Forbidden City
The Forbidden City is undoubtedly magnificent. It is also crowded. So so crowded. We are here in low season and yet this is what the entrance looked like.
The stream of people funnelled in with amazing speed, and even the ticket lines, which were a lot like Disneyland on a hot weekend in August, moved with remarkable efficiency. I’m starting to think the Chinese know how to get things done.
Despite the grandeur of the structures around us, it was tough to appreciate the forest for the trees. I tried to transport myself back to a time when Emperors lived here, and mere mortals were not allowed in, but it was a challenge with so many people streaming by and screaming in my ears.
Just to see inside any of the three great halls in the center of the city you have to join a scrum of people who all push and shove until they can reach the front.
It wasn’t unlike the Blur show we attended in Berlin, though the payoff was much less thrilling, since the halls were dark and almost bare.
Standing Up And Sticking Out
We are finding it a great advantage to be tall here, because any time we’re in a crowd, we tower a foot above everyone else, giving us a little more access to oxygen than your average local.
Being red-headed and blue-eyed is also garnering me a lot of attention. I now know what it’s like to be an uber-famous star-of-the-moment. When I walk by, people do a double-take, unsure they’ve just seen what they’ve seen. And then, when they think I’m not looking, they nudge their friends and point. That’s the moment I turn around and give them a big smile or a wave, and stare right back at them. So far, this has been quite amusing, but I can imagine it getting old long before we leave Asia.
As Caucasians, we are a tiny minority here, and I’ve been surprised at how few non-Asians there are, even at the huge tourist destinations. There are so few white people, that every time we see one, we openly gawp at them while they pass by, so we can’t really fault the Chinese for doing the same to us.
Unlike in Hungary, where we drew looks of disdain wherever we went, people here are all smiles and open amazement. If we shared a common language we would be chatting with hundreds a day.
As with any big tourist attraction, once you step off the beaten path, things are much quieter.
And if you look up, you see a whole different world.
The details are also quite stunning.
We found a temporary escape from the crowds at the Forbidden City by going inside the ceramics exhibition hall. This houses pieces from as far back as 6,000 years ago, and also includes several actual Ming vases. Surprisingly, they were not actually used as vases, but rather wine decanters, until they transitioned into being objets for display.
We knew Stephen’s mom would love the variety of shapes and colours here, so we took lots of pictures.
We hope these can give you some inspiration Elizabeth!
Yes, the Forbidden City was lovely, but I can understand why you might have wanted to keep the people out if you lived there.
Fast And Friendly Feeding Frenzy
In an attempt to get an early night before our Great Wall trip tomorrow, we decided to get dinner at a nearby fast food place I found on TripAdvisor. We walked in and stared at the all-Chinese menu board until a cashier called us over and handed me an English menu.
I scanned the list of steamed buns. Pork, pork, pork, chicken, chicken… Finally, near the bottom, I saw what I was looking for: carrot and vegetable. They came within minutes, and we marvelled at the speed with which fresh food is prepared here. When we bit into them, however, something that looked and tasted suspiciously like pork was inside, along with the vegetables. We’re still not entirely sure, but we ate them anyway, so as not to waste any perfectly good pork and/or pork-like tofu.
This is undoubtedly not the last time we’ll be accidentally served meat on this trip. In fact, not the last time this evening as it turns out.
Still hungry, we headed to a little street full of food vendors, where we picked out a handful of different veggie skewers. A man cooked them on a Mongolian-style grill for us and then brushed them with oils and sprinkled them with a bright red spice mixture. When it came time to pay, he held up 12 Yuan to show us what we owed. For under $2 we got six skewers of delicious veggies, and one of which we thought was tofu. Until we tasted the unmistakable flavour of squid, that is. Two non-veggie dishes so far…
Seeing a sign for a Mexican restaurant, and more than a little curious as to what that might look like in China, we stepped off of the noisy, neon-lit street and found ourselves inside a quiet modern shopping mall. The Mexican restaurant was just like a mall Mexican at home, so totally unimpressive. But, next door was a brewery with about 20 taps and a wall of beer coolers filled with many of Stephen’s favourite beers from around the world.
Of course we had to sit down for a glass.
As we drank we got chatting to Nathan, an American who has been living in Hong Kong for 6 years. He was a huge beer and coffee fan, so we had lots to talk about. He gave us several hot tips about beers and events in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Great to meet you, Nate!
When we left Natan we were still a little hungry, so stopped in at a noodle shop Stephen had spotted earlier. Even at this late hour it was packed. They had no English menu, so I dug out our flash card that says “We don’t eat meat” in Chinese and showed it to the waitress. She pointed to one thing on the menu and we nodded, not sure what we’d be getting.
Once again, we ordered and were served in less time than we’d have been left sitting ignored in an average Berlin restaurant. What arrived was a giant bowl of udon noodle soup with shredded tofu. It also contained a few hard-boiled quail’s eggs. Stephen couldn’t bring himself to eat them, but I had a few since I didn’t feel good about wasting them.
The soup was peppery, salty, delicious, and more than enough for two of us, though plenty of people in the shop were polishing off a giant serving by themselves. It only cost about $2.50.
Later than we’d intended, we returned to the hostel, hoping jet lag had finally left us so we can get some rest before our 5am Great Wall casting call. ♥