Discovering China pt 2

Today was a day for meandering, and a beautiful day for meandering it was. The sun was shining, the air glistening with smoke, either from the shops or the various people smoking cigarettes. Walking around Beijing for 12 hours really gives you a sense of the scope of the city and it really requires you to be actually on the ground to truly experience just how dense everything is. When you’re in a vehicle, everything is just a blur but when it’s that “boots on the ground” type of exploration it gives you that extra moment you wouldn’t have had otherwise to appreciate and really take in the sights and smells, whether good or bad (try to avoid the public toilets if you can, I did.)

In retrospect, I definitely would have invested in riding one of those bicycles, my feet would’ve probably thanked me. You can find them practically anywhere on any street:


You can really see the many potential markets that have sprung up in the wake of the QR code boom in China, with this being one of them. What used to be a cash transaction between those who managed the bicycles is now just a quick scan of the code on the bike and the automated lock pops out. You then just pick your approximate destination on the map and away you go! If I wasn’t travelling solo and was more familiar with the traffic patterns here I probably would have taken advantage of it but I couldn’t justify the risk. That and the fact that I haven’t ridden a bicycle in years compounded my reluctance, and so I stuck to the sidewalk and performed the role of a pedestrian. EvenĀ  then – being a pedestrian is scary! A good term to describe the drivers and bikers (both electronic and regular ones alike) would be ‘ruthless efficiency’. Everyone drives as if they’re racing for a million dollars, and I pretty much never crossed the street unless I could blend with a crowd that’s also crossing. I’ve seen cars basically almost run over people that tried to cross by themselves – it’s amazing I’ve yet to see anyone get hit so far.

The morning was standard affair, grabbing a fast breakfast at the hotel before departing for the Olympic Stadium. I was afraid of a repeat of yesterday, with crowds everywhere so I wanted to leave as soon as possible.

Simple breakfast

Departing from the hotel I took the familiar alleyway, and was greeted by dogs. It’s difficult to tell if they belong to a family but they were roaming around the Hutong, either playing or scavenging. I’ve noticed a lot of dogs just running around without leashes, another strange sight that is rather uncommon in Toronto (most pets are leashed).

Speaking of animals, the major goal of the day was the Bird’s Nest, or the Beijing Olympic Stadium. Originally built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it stands as one of the most expensive stadiums ever built, costing approximately $2.4 billion CNY, or around $400 million USD. As with the Forbidden City, it was roughly the same distance from the hotel, this time going North instead. Time to go back to the subway.

Subway entrance

With another day of riding the subway it became truly clear how elaborate and sophisticated the system was here. The Beijing subway had approximately 15 lines:

Beijing subway map and ticket

Tickets were also all digitized, the cards had most likely a NFC chip so all you had to do was scan and the tiller would open and you could go. Each subway station was sort of its own ecosystem – the smaller ones were very compact but the transfer and specialty stations were huge, with their own sets of restaurants, shops, and other paraphernalia.

A subway station – believe it or not
Another subway station – with much less fanfare

Now maybe it was because it was a Monday, or maybe it’s just been like that now that the Olympics was over, but the place was actually deserted, at least by Beijing standards. The air was blanketed by this strange grey haze that surrounded everything – the stadium, the national aquatics center, the security guards who have nothing to do:

A lonely guard (ignore the finger in the corner)

Getting the sense that there really wasn’t much to see here, it became apparent that the Olympic park was built with very little foresight on usage of the grounds after the event was over. It’s pretty clear that all the space was definitely necessary for all the people that would have visited in 2008, but the usage of the grounds past that event wasn’t kept in mind. In fact, there were many people here telling you there was nothing to see here, but they of course had an ulterior motive, which was to whisk you away to the Great Wall and charge you what I assume would be an exorbitant amount of money. There wasn’t any activity anywhere really, a smattering of tourists here and there, some athletes training on roller blades for what I perceived as speed ice skating (Beijing is hosting the 2022 winter games). With the option between spending more time looking at empty space or moving on towards my next destination I decided to just walk across the whole park and moved on.

The next destination was 798 Art Zone in Beijing. 798 used to be the zone that played host to various major manufacturing plants that were eventually decommissioned. Ever since, galleries, cafes, and hip/trendy restaurants popped up, supporting local and foreign artists by hosting their various works. This is also where many art festivals occur. Unfortunately, my timing was again a bit off. Because the Forbidden City was closed for touring on Mondays, I had to go on Sunday, but as it turns out, many of the art galleries were also closed on Mondays, which severely limited the amount of places I could visit, so I just toured the entire zone. The place was primarily dominated by college students eating lunch or grabbing coffee, as well as various other tourist groups, but nothing of the same caliber as the crowds of yesterday. After speaking with some of them it became clear that it was just not the right time to visit that particular area – a few months earlier would’ve been best. I still enjoyed it though, there were certainly things you wouldn’t see on a day to day basis.

The last goal of the day was to try the famous Peking Duck, or Beijing Roast Duck. Essentially you take slices of duck and wrap them in either cornmeal or wheat pitas along with scallions, cucumbers, and various other side dishes and top it off with a secret sauce local to Beijing. Unfortunately, this goal was the least fulfilled of the day as the restaurants I went to were either sold out of duck or just closed. The ones that were apparently still open were all the way on the other side of the city and after walking the whole day I was way too tired to make that journey. I guess that will just have to be something I do next time!

As I was walking back, I saw a few familiar logos. The common western fast food chains, Pizza Hut, Burger King, as well as Starbucks have apparently all penetrated the Asian market. As we live in an ever “smaller” world, with ease of communication bridging the distance gaps between people and continents alike, it’s interesting to discover that a restaurant chain that’s almost dying in the West can easily make a resurgence if it can capture the Asian market instead, which is much bigger. Of course, they have to make adjustments based on local taste – you would never find the various food items they offer here in the west, and vice versa, but that flexibility is also a crucial part of what makes or breaks a company’s success in today’s global economy.

Various logos
But alas, my time in Beijing on this trip has come to an end. Tomorrow I head to Anyang to visit my grandparents. See you there.


[Note: This blog was delayed by a day as the internet was spotty.]

Oh and lastly here’s a time lapse of 12 hours of the same building I took:

Hard to believe it’s the same building, eh?

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