I have to admit that I was not exactly enthusiastic about going to China. Especially after the calm of Lake Baikal and a week spent in Mongolia, an immersion into the urbanized, crowded and highly-industrialized world scared me. Still, contrary to my expectations, China was the country that most impressed me, for its interesting history, culture and traditions that are so far from the stereotypes we have in Italy about this country. We also had a lot of fun thanks to the vibrant nightlife and the incredibly friendly attitude that the Chinese have toward foreigners. I especially liked the atmosphere of China, the people staring at us, asking us to take pictures with them, the Chinese men singing in the streets, playing chess and using umbrellas to cover themselves from the sun, even when there was no sun nor rain whatsoever.
July 2: the Arrival
While flying over China on an gigantic Air Mongolia plane, we passed above the enormous arid lands of the Gobi desert, the green forests of the North of China and finally, before landing, above an immense agglomerate of buildings that lasted for around 20 minutes. I was impressed: I had never seen such a big part of land covered by contiguous buildings.
Our first step into China was really funny. As we got off from the plane, we had to pass the medical control without even knowing it: an automatic machine measured our body temperature. After Paola and I passed, we turned around and realized that Gianmario had been blocked at the control, and was being forced to follow two little Chinese ladies in medical clothes. I asked him were they were taking him but he did not know. Then they entered a room with the inscription: “quarantine zone: do not cross” and, as soon as they stepped in the room, the two Chinese ladies put on a breathing mask and gave one to Gianmario. In that moment I started to panic. Behind the door was some sort of medical room, and I saw the Chinese ladies, that had become three, surrounding Gianmario, asking him questions and trying to measure his body temperature again. Since I hate not being aware of what is happening, I entered the room, asked for a medical mask and tried to help Gianmario escape the medical control. After all, his body temperature was only 37!
At some point Gian suddenly coughed, which triggered some sort of an alarm button in the Chinese ladies, who started asking him frantically how long he’d been having this caugh, and he stupidly answered “hm.. two weeks”. Another moment in which I became pale, as the three women opened their eyes at the same time, as if he had an incurable disease. I gave him a punch on his flank and said “two weeks? No, it’s two days!”. The three Chinese, whose English was really bad, started to look at each others, confused, and then looked at us, also at the same time, and asked “two weeks or two days? Two weeks or two days?”. On repeat. They looked like a computer in tilt. I said, again “two days, my friend does not speak good English”. Then another difficult question: “Do you have MERS?” they asked. Gian asked “what is MERS exactly?”, till they finally said “okay, you can go”, but not before we had to leave all our contacts, hostel address and such. What a strange experience! We later discovered that MERS is a disease that comes from the camels in the Middle East. For us Italians how many chances could there be that we were infected?
After this little misadventure, we passed the border control with no difficulties, apart from the fact that in the meantime another plane had landed and the line had become three times bigger than before. Once passed the controls, we explored the whole airport to look for an ATM that would let us withdraw money, but all the Chinese banks seemed to not accept our cards. Finally, only Gianmario’s Mastercad managed to withdraw money, while neither Visa nor Maestro succeeded. Thus, Gianmario was elected our daddy/cash-dispensing machine for all the trip in China. Fortunately, we easily found our hostel, located in a narrow dark alley at a Metro station that was impossible to pronounce: Zhangzhizhonglu. We even had a room upgrade for the same price and received a triple room instead of a dormitory room. Yay!
July 3: Walking Around
After a coffee and cookies breakfast at the hostel, we decided to walk to Tienanmen Square. Considering that our hostel was in the same district as the square, we thought it should not have taken more than a 20 minutes walk. It took more than an hour, a walk that I will never forget, with a destination that seemed never to arrive and in a temperature of around 35 degrees with a super high level of humidity. But at least we had the chance to experience the real Beijing: the traffic in the streets, the Tuk Tuks running in every direction, the fruit shops selling any possible variety of tropical fruit, the young girls walking with their umbrella not to get tanned, we even saw a dead body in the street: it was an old man, and an old lady next to him was asking for money to give him a funeral. I was shocked. We also experienced what would have accompanied us during our whole stay in China: Chinese people staring at us. Why? No matter whether they were young or old, men or women, they always turned around and stared at us, three Western guys, children catching the attention of their parents and pointing their finger at us.
Before entering the main square of Beijing we had to go through security checks, a long line where all people pushed us and we could not breath. Finally, when we entered the huge Tienanmen Square, we were so exhausted and it was so late that we decided to postpone our visit to the Forbidden City to another day. We had the huge square in front of us, a square we could barely see the end of. On the side of the Forbidden City, on top of the entrance pagoda building to the city, the majestic picture of Mao was staring at us, with several Chinese flags around him, while an enormous quantity of people was going up and down the square making a normal picture impossible to take. I was a bit disappointed by the Square actually, it was just so gray, controlled by hundreds of policemen under their green umbrellas and so terribly crowded.
We decided to go have lunch behind the city, another big mistake because we had to walk for another hour before we managed to find some restaurants. Still, we ended up in a nice district, full of restaurants around a lake, with many varieties of kiosks, street food and pedals on the lake. The prize for the funniest restaurant name had to be awarded to the “Shit restaurant”, that had a door made in the form of a shit and a big shit picture next to the name. Genius.
Our lunch in general was also quite funny, as we went to a place that only had noodle soups. First, the restaurant did not have an English menu and nobody spoke English, so we had to point our fingers toward the picture of the dish we wanted (or thought we wanted). When the soups arrived, we realized that the restaurant did not have forks or knives but only chopsticks and a spoon. How the hell could I eat a soup with chopsticks? We tried to look at other people and see how they used them, but the first attempts were not successful. Even when we managed to pull a noodle out of the plate, it broke with the chopstick pressure and the efforts were all in vain. We soon realized that all the restaurant’s waiters were laughing at us, and even the boss of the restaurant came to us to give us wooden chopsticks instead of plastic ones and to show us how to hold them.
After this lunch paid less than 2 euros, we walked around the lake in the narrow streets full of bars and shops, where they sold Buddhas, Mao’s pictures, scorpions, insects, coconuts and a strange beverage from which a smoke was coming out.
We then climbed up the hill next to the Forbidden City. We entered a wonderful garden with a rocky hill in the middle and we walked to its top, reaching a Buddhist Monastery. From there, we could see the whole Forbidden City from the top. A huge ensemble of red roofs was right below us.
In the evening, our hostel organized a “dumpling party”: a Chinese girl showed us how to make home-made dumplings with meat and vegetables. Quite easy once you understand the process. After making almost one hundred dumplings, she brought them to the kitchen and they cooked them for us, so we had our dinner fresh, served and above all for free!
We later went out to celebrate our first day in China. Some friends suggested us to go to Wudaokou, the University district, quite far from the center but really cheap and nice. After a taxi ride for only 5 euros since the metro closed before 11pm, we ended up in this amazing district full of bars and discos, most of them with free entrance and one with free drinks for girls. Sorry Gian, we couldn’t lose this great chance!
Outside and inside the clubs we met many people, both from China and abroad, till something really funny happened. We were bargaining for a taxi to go home, with almost ten Chinese men touching and staring at us and trying to offer us the best price. Some of them even kissed me and Paola on our cheek. When we got into the taxi, before leaving, the driver pulled my window down, so that the other drivers could put their hand inside the car and shake our hand. At least that’s what we thought. Then one of them, after shaking his hand with me… Literally touched my boob! And not gently, he pushed it violently! I started to scream and I begged the driver to leave immediately! I was very upset, but after all it was funny.
July 4: Lama Temple and Temple of Heaven
After a long sleep, we decided to visit the main temples of the city. First, the Lama Temple, a wonderful structure made of many Buddhist temples one after the other, with people praying and honoring the lamas and Buddhas.
We then went to the Temple of Heaven, an incredibly beautiful complex in the outskirts of Beijing. Unfortunately, the weather was really bad, the sky covered with dark gray clouds and as soon as we entered the temple it started to rain. We even split by mistake, and the park was so huge that each of us continued the visit on his own. The Temple was really worth visiting, with its multiple circular levels, its blue, green and golden decorations and the beautiful park around it.
After a quick dinner at the restaurant in front of our hostel, we prepared ourselves for another crazy night in the city of free entrance and free drinks. This time we wanted to try a real club. A friend of mine that lived in Beijing gave me the contact of a PR that arranges the entrance for foreigners in this amazing disco, called “Liv”, in Sanlitun, the Soho district. You just have to text this guy and tell him how many people you are and at what time you’ll arrive at the place, and you’ll find him waiting for you at the entrance of the club. Then, he will take you into the club, snap a picture of you and lead you to the table “for foreigners”, right in front of the dj set. Around us, other foreigners drinking, dancing and having fun. Fours Djs that were supposed to be famous were playing, dressed as the white guys of Star Wars. The place was amazing, filled with psychedelic lights, people dancing on the tables, cool music and… THE ALCHOOL WAS FREE this time too! Bottles of vodka, rum, gin, beer, wine, even Champaign kept coming! As soon as a bottle was emptied, a waiter would come and bring us a new one! To any who spent a school semester in Beijing… How could you survive and study in such a country?
We had a lot of fun that night, even if we all split and got lost, again. The next morning each of us had a different, funny story to tell the others.
July 5: the Silk Market
Try not to blame us, but as it was Sunday, we decided to eat at Mc Donald’s, too tired of Chinese food already. We decided to enjoy the day and take it easy, so we went shopping at the Pearl Market. It was a funny place, a huge shopping mall where you could find everything. Literally. All the (counterfeited) Western brands were there at half the price, and you would have to fight with all your forces to buy at an even cheaper price or not to buy at all. Mm, maybe this last option is not possible. Still, you had to bargain hard, that was the rule! The sellers would get angry if you didn’t! We did not want to buy anything in particular, but the Chinese sellers were so convincing and the clothes were so beautiful that we could not resist. There were so many items, distributed onto five floors, each floor specialized on something. Particularly nice were the silk clothes, so smooth and beautiful. Paola and I decided to invest in two very nice shirts, while Gian bought a customized shirt for only 20 euro! A guy measured his neck and body length and gave him an appointment for the following day to pick up the shirt. Great!
July 6: the Summer Palace
Today was devoted to visiting the Summer Palace, an amazing estate that used to be the residence of the Emperor during the warmest days. Since it was the only place where he could go around alone, he had everything he needed there: a park, a forest, his own temple, a theater and a huge lake. We spent almost 5 hours walking around the park but we could not visit it all since it was really huge. By walking on a hill we reached the top of the park, where we could enjoy an amazing view of the whole residence. Then, we entered into the Monastery that was a multilevel construction built inside a rock, with its yellow, blue and green colors. It was so strange to see the tall gray buildings right outside the park, they seemed to belong to another dimension, another country. This is what’s great about China: it is a fast developing country, but on the other hand it has huge traditions and history.
During our walk around the park, we split again by mistake, but this time we had an appointment at the entrance once we finished the tour. I remained with Gian, and again I have a funny story to tell you. We asked a Chinese woman to take a picture of us with the temple in the background, and she started to take a series of pictures of us in every position, telling us where to go and how to stand. Then she told us to sit on the grass and to hug each others, trying to show us the positions since she did not speak English. I guess she thought we were married or something like that, because the pictures she took seem those of a pre-marriage advertising! And that’s not all. Paola was waiting for us at the entrance, when a Chinese man came to her, gave her his baby and asked her to hold him and kiss him while he took a picture of them. We laughed when she told us the story, but apparently it is rather common in China!
July 7: The Great Wall
Finally, after four days in Beijing, we went to the Great Wall. We wanted to go there on our own, but after having studied all the possible means of transport, we realized that the cheapest and most convenient option was the guided tour. A bus picked us up from our hostel early in the morning, and after a couple hours drive we reached the majestic Mutyanyu section of the wall. The bus stopped and we had to continue on our own until the entrance of the site. We decided to take the funicular to go up so that we could save time. We only had three hours to walk around, and we wanted to get the best of it. Unfortunately, the weather was not so nice, the sky was gray and cloudy, and the farthest hills were covered by the disgusting mist that apparently is now a constant feature of Beijing. But the important thing is that we could see the Wall, right below us, around us and everywhere, going up and descending the green hills that it was supposed to defend. We walked North for almost one hour, on the part that has been restored as the original wall was. We were surprised to see that the wall was so civilized, with music coming from speakers, Chinese selling water every ten meters and even a Subway restaurant at the entrance of the funicular. After one hour of climbing and descending the stairs, and after a final climb that literally destroyed me, we reached the highest peak of the modern part of the wall. A woman gave us three golden medals to take a picture with and we took some time to relax and enjoy the view. We had been told that that was the end of the touristic path, and the following towers were not safe. Obviously, we did not care, and together with some friendly English guys that we met in the bus, we went up to the old part. It was amazing, with the wall half crumbling and the trees growing around the bricks…That was the real wall worth seeing! No tourists and no music, only us, the nature and the breath-taking view of one of the seven wonders of the world.
As we came down to have lunch in a restaurant with other people, I have to say for the first time I liked Chinese food! It was chicken, vegetables and rice, simple but very tasty.
In the evening we went to Shishahai, the place with the lake and the thousands of shops and restaurants where we had been on our first day. At night it was even better. There were so many people that it was difficult to walk at a normal speed, every pub had live music and cheap drinks. Before having a beer by the river, we bought something to eat at a kiosk, looking like fried calamari, smelling like potato and tasting like mushrooms, nothing easier to recognize! But the place was really nice and definitively worth spending a relaxing evening.
July 8: the Forbidden City
After the Great Wall, we still missed the Forbidden City, the ancient palace of the Emperors. We went there very early to avoid the crowd, and this time we took the metro to avoid arriving there already tired from the walk. Still, we had to stand in line for more than half an hour, because there were so many people and many of them were skipping the line in front of us. Once inside the city, we realized why it has this name: it is so huge that we spent half a day walking around it. It is so beautiful, with its pagoda houses with the orange roofs and blue and green paintings. And its story is so fascinating, since every single piece had a different function, there were the residences of the Emperor, of the concubines, of the servants… During our visit we also met Mathieu, a nice guy from Belgium that spent with us the following days in China.
After visiting the whole palace, we went to the park in front of it, and we climbed the high stairs of the hill to reach the white pagoda monastery on top of it.
At night, we went back to Wudaokou, where we met two friends of Paola that were studying in Beijing. It was another crazy night, with only 10 yuan for open bar at the famous Propaganda club. After having spent memorable nights at the Propaganda in Moscow, we had to try its twin in the Chinese capital. It was funny, we danced, drank and listened to commercial music and we enjoyed our last night in Beijing.
July 9: 798 Art District and Train to Xian
On our last day in Beijing we went to the 798 Art District of Beijing, a bit far from the center but a really nice place. It is an ancient factory that has been turned into a whole district of shops and art galleries, where various artists show different kinds of items, from pictures to jewellery to ceramic and so on.
The funniest part of the day was the night train experience to Xian. For 25 dollars we had bought hard seats – sleeping seats costed more than twice. The length of the trip was 15 hours. A Chinese friend of mine had strongly persuaded me to change the tickets, since according to her these wagons are “for immigrants”. We didn’t listen to her, and it turned out to be one of the craziest decisions of our trip. At the train station of Beijing we had to queue ten times for the security controls, to finally get into the huge station full of fast foods, supermarkets, shops and even a cinema. Every train platform had its own waiting room, full of small shops and of people sitting and standing everywhere, on the floor, one onto the other. We barely had room to walk. It looked like a refugee camp, with all these people keeping on staring at us! And the train was even worse… We barely had room to sit on the chair and no space at all for our legs – I had to keep them folded or on Gianmario’s legs. There were people sitting on the floor pushed one upon the other, in the corridor and in the space in front of the bathroom – the so called “standing seats”. It was crazy, there were even families with babies on the floor! In addition, we were not prepared for such a strong air conditioning, we had to wear scarves, jackets and something to cover our head – thank God I had my Aeroflot blanket. Everybody looked at us as if we were aliens. The train was so crowded that when dinner time came, the smell of noodles covered any other smell, and people started to eat them in any possible position – Gianmario found a guy eating his soup on his head.