Here's the first part in a series of more detailed write-ups of my trip to China and Japan. The first city we stopped in was Beijing.
Our flight left Seattle around 2 PM on Friday and had one stop-over in Tokyo for a total flying time was about 15 hours. I was a bit worried about flying with Northwest Airlines because of their terrible reputation (worse than Comcast and Exxon, is that even possible?), but everything actually went pretty well. The flight was an hour late into Tokyo, but they held the flight to Beijing until everyone was aboard. We had to go through another security check in Tokyo before re-boarding, and I had to quickly chug a 1 liter water bottle which I had foolishly refilled after the previous checkpoint.
We arrived in Beijing around midnight local time, so it was difficult to see much. The first thing I noticed was how immensely huge Beijing Capital Airport is - it was expanded for the Olympics to be the largest airport in the world (size-wise). The tarmac went on and on for what appeared to be miles. I don't know how many people's homes were destroyed to make room, but it was probably quite a large number.
At the airport we bought a China Mobile simcard to get a local Chinese phone number and caught a cab without too much problem. We stayed in Haidian (the university district), nearby the competing Microsoft Research and Google offices, approximately here: map link. Unfortunately we had the wrong address, but we eventually found the right place after calling our local contact and having him talk to the cab driver. The total cab ride was about 30 km and cost about Y35, or around $5.
I was traveling with my friend Angela from work and we stayed at the apartment of one of her friends, who is running a software startup in Beijing. He wasn't in town while we were there, so we were able to use his room. Fortunately his Chinese-speaking roommate was around and was able to help us out. They live in a small apartment in a building which appeared to be some sort of student housing, run by the government (as far as I could tell from reading the signs on the doors).
Unfortunately we didn't get any pictures of the apartment, but I wish we had. The doors were particularly interesting - there was an outer security door which opened into a hallway for two apartments. The inner door used locking and latching mechanisms unlike any I have seen before. It used a 4-sided key (shaped like a plus symbol) and appeared to be descended from Soviet designs. The inside of the apartment had three bedrooms (one used as an office), and a tiny kitchen and tiny bathroom off the main room. The bathroom was European-style with no separate shower or tub region - instead there was a drain in the middle and you had to avoid splashing water all over the toilet, mirror and sink. Fortunately the bathroom did have plumbing and a sit-down toilet (unlike most public and/or older restrooms in China, which use "squat" style hole-in-the-ground toilets).
As soon as we arrived we went to sleep since we had been awake for about 20 hours. Fortunately during the entire trip I never had too much trouble with jetlag and I was able to sleep pretty well (possibly due to the careful use of some Tylenol PM sleeping pills ).
The next morning we woke up and took a cab ride to Tiananmen Square. During the cab ride we got our first glimpses of the city during the day, although it was difficult to see much of anything farther than 10-15 blocks because of the pollution. Without the pollution I'm sure Beijing would have looked much larger and grander.
Tiananmen Square was about what you'd expect - a large open square in front of the Forbidden City. There were a few buildings like the Mao mausoleum, but they were closed for renovations. One surprise was that there was a security check in order to get onto the square, with a bag-scanner and metal detector. The employees didn't seem to be too serious about their job, though - the metal detector buzzed when I went through it, but nobody checked me (there were two girls with wands, but they were talking to each other off to the side). At one point there wasn't even anybody manning the bag scanner at all. This seemed to be typical of security checks throughout China - they clearly did not care about someone who was obviously a tourist, but anyone who looked like a poor, local Chinese person seemed to get checked more rigorously.
Here are a few pictures from Tiananmen Square:
North of Tiananmen Square is the Forbidden City, the former palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was most impressive for its sheer size, which can sort of be glimpsed in this picture of a model:
Several times we walked across a large courtyard thinking we had seen the main buildings, only to find an even larger courtyard and set of buildings on the other side. The largest building in the center is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which is where the Emperor lived:
As you can see from the picture there was an immense crowd streaming up to the entrance of the building, where you could take pictures of the imperial throne. We didn't feel like pushing and shoving our way through the throngs of people, so this was the best picture we were able to get (the contrast for the indoor section has been adjusted):
Our Lonely Planet guidebook (from 2007) claimed that there was a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City, so we searched high and low but were unable to find it. Apparently in the run-up to the Olympics, the government decided to kick Starbucks out and replace it with a "China Coffee" stand.
Aside from the architecture, there was unfortunately not a whole lot else to see in the Forbidden City. The majority of the imperial collection was destroyed, looted, or shipped off to Taiwan during the Chinese civil war. That said, we were still able to find a few interesting things to snap pictures of:
Once we were satisfied that we had seen everything, we wandered over to see a "night market" that the guidebook raved about. There were still a few hours before night, so we checked out a nearby shopping mall. It had a lot of expensive Western and Japanese stores in it, so it must have been mainly for tourists or rich people:
Strangely enough, there was an "Ireland Culture Festival" happening at the mall that day, complete with harp performances and jig dancing. It was apparently put on by the Irish embassy:
Once it got dark, the Wangfujing Night Market opened up. It's famous for having all kinds of crazy foods, like scorpions and starfish:
Octopus on a stick, anyone?
Or bugs on a stick
Seahorses on a stick
I'm not even sure what these things on the left are, but they're on sticks
I didn't eat anything much crazier than something described as "fish balls." The most surprising thing about the night market was how extremely organized it was. Each vendor had a clean, organized stall, and everyone was wearing the same uniform. Our friend later told us that the Chinese government heavily regulates this particular market and forces it to be extremely clean and organized since it is a large tourist attraction. He even described it as "un-China-like" because a regular street market (for the locals) would be much different.
That about wraps up Day 1 in Beijing - I'll post Day 2 next.