03 Jul - 31 Jul 2012 Beijing

East Asia
Beijing Zhan Xi Jie 1 - 5
City Central Youth Hostel +861085115050 reserve@centralhostel.com
Spacious and clean a/c twin room (no. 3046) with shared bathrooms (agony of choice: throne-style Western toilet or Chinese squat toilet) for the fair price of CNY ("Yuan") 140.- or US$ 22.05 per night. Friendly and professional young staff.
From the hostel’s written regulations: “No danger articles, guns, drugs into hostel. No smoking on the bed. No prostitution, gambling, smuggling or other illegalities.”
Beer: 600-ml bottles of cold but very light Beijing Beer aka 北京啤酒 or Běijīng píjiǔ (3.3 % alc./vol.) for overpriced CNY 15.- or US$ 2.35 per bottle in the hostel’s 3rd-floor Backpacker Club. However, 330-ml cans of luke-warm Tsingtao Beer aka or Qīngdǎo píjiǔ (4.0 % alc./vol.) for only CNY 3.- or US$ 0.45 per regular can from any of the nearby supermarkets (there is a community fridge in the hostel’s well-equipped self-catering kitchen).

Click below for an interactive satellite view of the City Central Youth Hostel in Beijing, which we would recommend, and for directions:
Note the random 0 - 500 m misalignment between Google’s maps and satellite views of the motherland, courtesy of the paranoid Chinese Communist Party.

Standing in the symbolic centre of the Chinese universe, sharing the Soviet-inspired and police-infested Tiananmen Square (the world’s largest public square: 450,000 sqm) with thousands of indoctrinated subjects who had arrived from all parts of Red China, many of them visiting their capital city for the first time, in order to check out the Great Helmsman’s waxy mummy for any signs of eternal life, and remembering the bloody massacre of 1989 CE when tanks and soldiers of the communist People’s Liberation Army brutally forced pro-democracy demonstrators out of the plaza and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians.

"Peking did not look at all like London."

Strolling through the vast and spectacular, crowded courtyards of Beijing’s Forbidden City aka Palace Museum (in former ages the price for uninvited admission was instant execution; admission nowadays: CNY 60.- or US$ 9.40 per person), appreciating the might and grandeur of the Imperial Chinese court during the height of its power in the Ming and Qing dynasties and gleefully rubbing our hands about the fact that the better part of Goliath’s museum collection is now safely located in David’s National Palace Museum in Taipei/Taiwan.

Learning about Chinese symbolism in the Forbidden City thus noticing (i) the distinctive colours of the glazed roof tiles (mostly yellow, the colour of the emperor), (ii) the different number of ceramic statuettes (led by a man riding a phoenix and followed by an imperial dragon) on the sloping ridges of the roofs, which represents the status of the building and (iii) the peculiar shape of the Kun trigram, symbolising the Earth, for the arrangement of the groups of six residences in the inner court.

Exploring the well-manicured Jing Shan Park (admission: CNY 10.- or US$ 1.60 per person, www.bjjsgy.com), raised (!) north of the Forbidden City (according to the dictates of Feng Shui it is favourable to site a residence to the south of a nearby hill, and it is also practical, gaining protection from chilly northern winds), thus (i) trudging up the 45-m high artificial hill (constructed entirely from the soil excavated in forming the moats of the Imperial Palace and nearby canals) to the elaborate Buddhist Wanchun Pavilion, (ii) rewarding ourselves with stunning views down onto the Gate of Divine Might and the hundreds of yellow roofs of the Forbidden City and later (iii) finding the locust tree where the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Chong Zhen, committed suicide by hanging himself here in 1644 CE as rebels swarmed at the city walls.

Circumnavigating the Forbidden City under its angular shaped, strong red wall (which has a 8.6 m wide base reducing to 6.7 m width at the top and whose bricks were made from white lime and glutinous rice while the cement was made from glutinous rice and egg whites) and exploring a few interesting, low-profile annexes: (i) the often overlooked Supreme Temple (aptly re-named into Workers Cultural Palace, admission: CNY 2.- per person) where a troupe of People’s Liberation Army marionettes prepared for the daily flag-raising/lowering ceremony at Tiananmen Square and practised, grimly determined, to goose-step at precisely 108 paces per minute, 75 cm per pace, and where dazzling brides-to-be posed for their wedding photos, (ii) the tranquil Zhong Shan Park (admission: CNY 3.- per person, +861066055431), a restful place to stroll around, where old folk practised taichi and young couples cuddled on benches, and, last but not least, (iii) the many unpretentious hole-in-the-wall eateries (where tipping is never done) selling cheap Beijing beer and lekker jiaozi aka (for us: vegetarian) Chinese dumplings.

Spinning the Tibetan-Buddhist prayer wheels (“Om Mani Padme Hum”) inside the crowded but still reasonably atmospheric 1744 CE Yōnghégōng aka Lama Temple or Palace of Peace (admission: CNY 25.- per person), admiring the magnificent 18-m statue of the Maitreya Buddha, carved from a single piece of sandalwood and clothed in cheapish yellow satin, and calculating that the temple makes about US$ 2,000.- per day from the incessant stream of eager Buddhist pilgrims who feel the religious urge to bang the holy temple bell: “First strike for peacefulness, second one for fortune and handsome salary, third one for official rank, fourth one for great wealth, fifth one for the right partner, sixth one for persons of eminence...” - six big bangs for only CNY 20.-.

Visiting the nowadays brain-dead Imperial College, build by Kublai Khan’s grandson in 1306 CE and located west of the Confucius Temple +861084027224, where the Chinese emperors rammed the Confucian Four Books and Five Classics into an audience of thousands of kneeling civil servants - both an annual rite and a vivid example of top-down one-way communication (and probably the antecedent of the staged National Congresses of the Communist Party of China).

Looking for the happy medium between (i) Beijing’s claustrophobia-triggering maze of old and new hutong, narrow streets and alleyways formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences, and (ii) Beijing’s agoraphobia-triggering broad Stalinist/Maoist avenues (allowing for unobstructed line-of-sight fire and for rapid tank movements without costly house-to-house fighting, e.g. East Berlin 1953, Prague 1968, Beijing 1989) and finding it in the 15th-century CE Temple of Heaven Park (admission: CNY 15.- or US$ 2.35 per person), a tranquil oasis of peace, Confucian landscape design and religious (Taoist) buildings, where the Chinese proletariat kicks shuttlecock, plays cards and practises dance moves in order to recharge their batteries for another day of capitalist slaving for the fame and fortune of the Chinese Communist Party.

Frequenting the boisterous and well-organised Donghuamen Night Market and noticing that Chinese people eat anything that has four legs other than a table, anything that flies other than an airplane, and anything that swims other than a submarine (e.g. barbequed sheep penises and cooked chicken hearts, candied grasshoppers and deep fried scorpions, boiled baby sharks and marinated turtles) and afterwards relieving one of the local supermarkets of its last stock of excellent Dry Great Wall Red Wine (only CNY 10.- or US$ 1.60 per bottle - the more communist a country the cheaper the booze, cheers).

Staggering up the incredibly steep steps of the historic Beijing Drum Tower (admission: CNY 20.- or US$ 3.10 per person, +861064012674), losing temporarily our hearing during an impressive drum performance (the 25 watchman’s drums were regularly beaten between 1272 CE and 1924 CE to mark the hours of the day) and learning about ancient Chinese timepieces, such as (i) the well-known sundial where time is measured by the changing position of the sun, (ii) the rather wet outflow clepsydra aka water clock where time is measured by the regulated flow of water, (iii) the ingenious beilou aka rolling-ball device where time is measured by the speed of a rolling ball, (iv) the smelly incense mould aka fire-clock (of different shapes: calligraphy incense, coil incense, grooved incense stick) where time is measured by the specific burning speed of the used incense mix, and (v) the grooved time-keeping candle where time is measured by the specific burning speed of the applied candle wax.

Following the lead of the Chinese Imperial court, fleeing the suffocating and smoggy summer torpor of Beijing and exploring the gargantuan Summer Palace (admission: CNY 30.- or US$ 4.70 per person) at Haidian, a pastoral marvel of Chinese landscaping with innumerous palace grounds, temples, gardens, pavilions, lakes, bridges, gate-towers and corridors (…as if we were magically transported into the parallel universe of one of these delicate traditional Chinese paintings).

Feeling Beijing’s artistic edge, under an impenetrable blanket of grey summer smog, at the disused former military factory site (flung up by the then still allied East German comrades in the late 1950s) of the 798 Art Zone aka Dashanzi Art District and browsing through umpteen feisty galleries where all sorts of avant-garde paintings, photos, installations, fashion design and sculptures get a viewing.

Enjoying an excellent and genuine performance of Peking opera, a colourful and ear-splitting blend of shrill singing, high-pitched speaking, theatrical swordplay, burlesque acrobatics and stylised dancing, at the Chang Ang Grand Theatre +861065101310 www.changandaxiyuan.com (admission: CNY 80.- or US$ 12.50 per person).

Having the scenic and authentic part of the Great Wall at Huanghua (closed to the public, CNY 3.- bribe per person for the warden), one of its most well built sections with crumbling watchtowers and breathtaking panoramas, very much to ourselves (no tourists from the west, no hawkers from the south, no raiders from the north, no police from the east), hoisting a brew below the wall (600-ml bottles of ice-cold Yan Jing Beer for only CNY 5.- per bottle in the beer garden near the dam wall) and marvelling at this engineering triumph of Lord Cai who employed meticulous quality control already 2,000 years ago but eventually got beheaded for its lame building speed of only one inch per mason per day; express bus no. 916 from Beijing’s Dongzhimen Bus Station to Huairou (45 km, ¾ hour, CNY 11.- or US$ 1.70 per person) and hereafter ordinary bus no. 936 from Huairou to Huanghuacheng (30 km, 1 hour, CNY 8.- or US$ 1.25 per person).

Matt: Revitalising my feet and putting that spring back into my step, luckily without being hit by an attack of yellow fever, at the professional Foot Reflexology Retreat in the basement of the Henderson Centre (Chinese foot massage: CNY 50.- or US$ 7.90 per hour, including a foot wash with genuine Chinese Tea, but no other extras) right opposite of our hostel.

Watching regularly CCTV News, the Goebbelsian oh-so subtle 24/7 voice of the Chinese Communist Party and the sole news channel in our hostel, and learning about the five strategic goals of Chinese foreign policy: (i) to dominate Asia, (ii) to isolate the United States, (iii) to buy up Europe (a bad investment), (iv) to drain Africa and, finally, (v) to rule the world; and later visiting but not cowering under the anti-Western propaganda machine’s 234-m high futuristic and intimidating headquarters (which is dubbed “Big Underpants” by many “counter-revolutionary” Pekingese).

Scoping for treasures at Panjiayuan Market aka the Dirt Market or Sunday Market, China’s biggest (fake-)antiques/arts/craft market which sprawls from ancient coins, elaborate ceramics and precious jade to Tibetan carpets, Buddhist relics, Maoist curios and beyond.

Consulting the stars at the Ancient Observatory (admission: CNY 20.- or US$ 3.10 per person) about Red China’s future and receiving the answer that there will be a Chinese Spring like the Arab Spring, probably sooner than anyone expects (but no specific date was given), because a modern market-based high-tech economy seems to be incompatible with an authoritarian one-party state that censors the internet, disallows free speech and quashes dissent: "May you live in interesting times, Red China."

Purchasing two single-entry/exit tourist visas (duration of stay: 30 days) for Mongolia (where about 20 % of the population live on less than US$ 1.25 per day) from the Mongolian Embassy in China, +861065321203 (CNY 270.- or US$ 42.- per visa for regular, fuss-free processing time within five working days, no bribes necessary; documents required were (i) a valid passport with at least six months to expiry date, (ii) one passport sized photo, (iii) completed application form).

Leaving the neo-mercantilist People’s Republic of Capitalism aka Red China aka Mainland China where survival of the greediest is the name of the game and taking the (overnight) fast train K23 from Beijing’s Main Railway Station to the booming border town of Erlian aka Erenhot (835 km, 12 ½ hours, CNY 148.- or US$ 23.- per person for “hard-sleeper, lowest bunk” tickets, bought 10 days before departure from counter no. 1 at the bolshie Beijing Main Railway Station’s ticket office: “Wǒ yào qù Erlian?” - “Wǒ bù míngbái!”).

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