The Two Crabs and a visiting friend from NY recently popped over to China for a few days. Beijing is less than two hours' flight from Seoul - perfect for a long weekend trip out of town. However, it takes some advance planning as China has a complex, costly and time-consuming visa process. Once that was sorted, I turned to some first-hand advice from my A-100 colleagues currently stationed in Beijing, and some current colleagues who previously served there. Unfortunately, the week we visited Beijing was experiencing the worst pollution rates of the year. It finally cleared up...the morning we left! Oh well. Despite the hazy skies, it made for some eerie photography.
We stayed at a wonderful boutique hotel in the heart of the downtown Beijing and very close to the Forbidden City. Met some of my A-100 pals for drinks in a posh bar for a mini class reunion. The next day we hired a car & driver to take us to the Great Wall of China at Mutaniya, a beautful remodeled section of the wall. You can take a gondola or cable car up, and ride back down on a luge-style mountain coaster!
After tooling around the wall for a few hours, we headed back to Beijing and stopped at the Summer Palace. Unfortunately we arrived just an hour before they closed so we basically ran through the complex before they closed the gates.
The next day, we spent the entire day at the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. I knew there would be heavy security at the square but we were still surprised by the amount. All visitors must go through metal detectors and all bags and cameras have to go through Xrays just to enter the square or even a metro station in Beijing. For obvious reasons, there are uniformed and plain-clothes police wandering around, some with zoom lens cameras. There are CCTV cameras just about everywhere keeping an eye on the square. The square itself is rather anti-climactic.
The real attraction is across the street: The Forbidden City. The iconic image of Chairman Mao hangs on the gate to Beijing's former royal palace - the largest palace complex in the world. Make no mistake, this complex is HUGE. You could easily spend two days wandering around here - depending on your patience putting up with the pushy Chinese tour groups.
Apart from those sights, we spent the bulk of our time eating our way through Beijing. Chinese food in China bears almost no resemblence to what passes for Chinese food in America. Real Chinese food is WONDERFUL, aromatic, flavorful -- not the greasy, fried, bland, slop that you'll find at any American mall food court. We had Peking Duck at Da Dong (which, ironically, was inside a Beijing shopping mall). This was one of the best meals I have EVER had, and we've been to a LOT of restaurants around the world!
We dined all over the place, from street food to dive restaurants. One of our favorite places was Snack Street, where the adventurous eater can try starfish, seahorse and scorpions.
More food porn:
Another fabulous pastime is just exploring the little neighborhoods around Beijing. The Hutong Village:
That's our quick trip to China. We were surprised at the cost. Beijing is cheaper than Seoul, but not by much. Every attraction like the Great Wall and Forbidden City costs at least $10-$20, unlike Seoul where most museums are free and palaces are only about $3. We enjoyed Beijing, especially the food.
The most unpleasant part about Beijing was, unfortunately, the pollution. Mrs. Crab and friend had to wear masks most of the time we were outdoors. I had a constant metallic taste in the back of my throat (probably for failing to wear a mask), and all of us were coughing and wheezing by the end of the trip. Kudos to my colleagues who are serving 3-5 year tours in Beijing who must have super human lungs or their bodies just get accustomed to the pollution. If you go, be prepared and bring a good face mask with you! That said, we're looking forward to exploring more of China.
Next trip: Hong Kong!