Discovering (some) of China solo pt 1

Well, I did it! I crossed the great wall of China! Well – the great FIREwall of China.

I guess when you put it that way it makes it a lot less impressive…

I’m currently on leg 1, day 2 of my two weeks in China, visiting a few major tourist cities and family along the way, in particular hitting Beijing, Anyang, Xiaogan, Xi’an, Kunming, Lijiang, and Shenzhen – in that order. Now if you go, “Geez, that seems like a lot of places for 2 weeks.” – it definitely is if your party consists of multiple people, but since I was travelling alone it seemed like a good goal to push towards, seeing as travelling solo allows you to have very little delay between each location and action.

And so since it’s the end of the day, I’m once again at the hotel. I returned at around 8 PM – since China shares one time zone by the time it hits 4 PM it’s already quite dark outside in Beijing this time of year. Exploring the neighborhood around the hotel does have its advantages at night though. A million colors of LED and neon lights hit you at every angle, the bustling shops, some packed to the brim while others look empty and desolate, it is truly a sight to behold.

Beijing after dark

If you ever do on coming to Beijing or any city in China for that matter, make sure you obtain a new SIM on an unlocked phone as soon as possible – or buy a phone, both are fine. Mobile data here isn’t so much as a luxury as a necessity, and that is mostly due to two factors – the prevalence of vendors accepting (and in some cases, requiring) payment via mobile QR code, as well as the ability to navigate the city without getting lost and ordering taxis, renting bicycles, all apps that require 2-factor authentication using a cellphone number.

To elaborate on the payment point, basically China has sort of bypassed the whole ATM/PoS/Credit/Debit Card system that the West has developed in the 80s and 90s and embraced the smartphone boom in the 2000s. Essentially every store, restaurant, and random street cart has their QR code that you can scan using the WeChat app or AliPay app (imagine Paypal on steroids and the rough equivalent of Apple/Android pay) and either send money to the vendor for the amount requested, or they scan your wallet QR code and charge it automatically. It is impossible to ignore the sheer convenience of this payment method, but this is not to say that cash is obsolete (at least not yet). It is however slightly slower than the instant tap feature of certain debit cards, but that feature is definitely still limited in scope even in Toronto and restricted to larger merchants, whereas this is almost ubiquitous in Beijing as far as I can tell due to everyone being able to generate their own QR code.

Because of the simplicity for both the consumer and the merchant, it is a huge incentive for both parties to use the app. The government of China also has an incentive to promote this – because all this data is agglomerated by two companies, it becomes easier to track. All things considered, China remains a police state, where a show of force is ultimately what the party wants to display to the rest of the world, as well as keeping the population in line. Because of the sheer amount of people that reside here, it definitely feels necessary, and it shows. Around every corner is a police station, with patrols on practically ever street. Subways have baggage checks, as well as tourist attractions. It gives off an air of perceived safety, but also an air of “Don’t try any funny business.”

But I digress. Let’s talk about what I did on day 2! Reason I don’t really mention day 1 was because I arrived at Beijing at around 5 PM, took the subway and found the hotel (got sort of lost because it was actually in an alleyway and I didn’t have data yet – more on this later) and at that point it was already pretty dark. Since I didn’t want to get lost again I just went to sleep.

Day 2 was a fairly early morning. I wanted to obtain a cell phone plan and a secondary mobile device as a backup. It wasn’t too difficult, there’s many telecom stores around, a brisk walk and you’re pretty much there. The one real destination I had in mind for the day was the Forbidden City. Navigating the city is surprisingly easy, even if you don’t really speak Chinese. As long as you can get past the firewall and use a navigation app that you are familiar with, Google maps and such, taking the subway, bus, or other modes of public transportation is very straightforward. Just be ready for the sea of people that will be in between you and your destination.

Speaking of people, I’m sure you’ve heard that China is one of the most populated countries in the world.

It’s no joke.

Arriving at Tiananmen I was greeted with a huge line of people wanting to get into the square and subsequently the forbidden city. If you were a Chinese national, they wanted to see your citizen ID, and if you were a foreigner, some proof. As such, it’s necessary to bring your passport with you.

Entrance to Tiananmen / Forbidden City and a picture of Chairman Mao Zedong

After getting past immigration – er, I mean the baggage check, it was time to enter the forbidden city!… or so I thought. Immediately after entering the square I was greeted with, yes, you guessed it, another giant line. This time it was to pick up the tickets to visit the museum, and although they say only 80,000 people are allowed to visit a day it didn’t seem like that was a hard limit because when I ordered it was already at 75,000+

Getting into the Forbidden city after two hours of intense waiting in line…

The ticket price was fairly inexpensive, a total of 60 CNY, which translates to about $10 USD. You get the ability to see almost all of the palace, but a lot of it is sealed off unfortunately to preserve the integrity of the furnishings. The first impression I got after entering was sort of surreal. I wasn’t sure if it was because of the dichotomy between the blue backdrop and the red/gold architecture but there was definitely something awe inspiring in recognizing that these buildings have been around over 600 years. The only real issue was that because the palace was so big it definitely felt difficult to visit the whole thing. In a whole group this problem would definitely be compounded by visits to the washroom and sore feet – definitely bring comfortable shoes!

People. People everywhere!
A much more peaceful section of the city

I also took the time to visit the gallery of clocks and treasures, but I definitely feel like they reserved the best pieces for special occasions. The displays were interesting but didn’t carry the same aura as that feeling you get when first entering the palace. Take a look for yourself at some of the displays.

There’s more pictures but unfortunately the internet here isn’t that great for uploading but you get the gist of it. Besides, less spoilers for when you visit! The funniest part was probably this gem right here:

If you couldn’t read the text, I’ll summarize. Basically, in 1900, the empress and emperor was escaping the palace, and one of the empress’ last action was to throw one of the emperor’s concubines into a well. The reason wasn’t explicitly given but you can imagine. Now the funny part is that the well is depicted in the picture above. It’s hard to believe that a person would fit in there, but I suppose stranger things have happened. There’s no banana for scale, but I can tell you that the hole is no bigger than your head.

Once you finish the east and west sides of the palace you move North to exit, and you’re greeted with another pretty spectacular scene.

After exiting the palace

I was already a bit tired after this point after 2 hours of waiting in line and another 3 hours in the city, so I decided not to hike up there. Definitely might be worth a visit if you had more time though. After that I wanted to withdraw some currency to use quickly in case they didn’t accept mobile payments, so I decided to walk to the nearest location of the bank, which was about 2 kilometers away. It gave me the ability to see some more of the city, as well as stopping by any food places for a quick lunch.

Northern sea
Food court at a supermarket in Beijing
3CNY Street Food (eat with caution!)

I found a place that sold noodles and some skewers, which I wanted to try to see if it was any different from Toronto – and I have to say, it’s actually not that different! Perhaps it has to do with the sheer amount of Chinese people in Scarborough that influences the cuisine but the taste was fairly similar.

Seasoning
Pulled noodles
Lamb skewers

Afterwards, it was time for more alleyway exploring. Oh, and this is the part where I elaborate on that. Essentially, a lot of this side of Beijing is composed of Hutongs, which are these narrow alleyways full of shops, restaurants, and in fact the hotel I’m staying at is smack dab in the middle of one. The residential ones are slightly quieter, such as this one:

A quiet hutong

while others, such as the one I showed you at the beginning is much busier and livelier. I will most likely take more pictures tomorrow as I forgot to bring the cable to my phone for the battery pack (I know right, rookie mistake).

After finishing lunch and exploring more and more alleyways, my battery was draining way too fast for my liking and I needed to return to the hotel for a quick pit stop. Luckily, I was already next to the bus station of the bus that stopped directly right outside the hutong I was living at – pretty lucky!

Grabbing my cord and battery pack I set out again, but at this point it was already dark and taking pictures just ended up being a blurry mess without using the flash, which I didn’t really want to do as there were usually people around and I did not want to draw too much attention. I walked in a huge circle around the neighbourhood, taking in the sights and smells. Two major gripes I had while exploring was the sheer amount of people on motorized bicycles and vehicles basically driving next to pedestrians as well as the amount of people smoking in the street. Smoking and drinking still seemed very prevalent in China, and most of the restaurants actually allow smoking, something that you would almost never see in Toronto. Also, honking your horn basically seemed like the norm while driving, not so much as to tell the other guy to move, but to actually announce that you’re there, as there are so many corners a moving vehicle can pop out of. It definitely gave off a sense that an accident is bound to happen at any minute.

Whew! That first day turned out to be quite the essay didn’t it? If you read this far I congratulate you and thanks for sticking all the way through. If you just skimmed the pictures I apologize for their quality but I didn’t bring a camera with me because I wasn’t too sure of what the sitrep of the city was and bringing too much equipment solo seemed like a risky proposition. Next time I’ll have vlogs – for sure.

Until tomorrow. Adios.

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