Beijing for Beginners

Mar 11th, 2009, 04:23 PM
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Beijing for Beginners

My wife and I have just returned from 6 days in Beijing and in appreciation of the help I received from the people on this forum in planning the trip, I thought I’d post my first ever trip report.

Firstly about us: we’re Australian, both 45, and have done a moderate amount of independent travelling. Not seasoned veterans but not novices either. We like to walk around foreign cities as much as possible and like to take our time, not schedule things too closely. Partly because of this we decided to spend all our time in one city. We did give some thought to a side trip to Xian but in the end we found plenty to do in Beijing and so didn’t pursue the side trip. It was the first time to China for both of us. We’re also not gourmands so if you’re looking for detailed meal descriptions, sorry but you’ll be disappointed.

We chose this time of year to go to Beijing because it was the first time ever that our 2 kids had been scheduled to go on school camp at the same time. The bushfires we’ve had recently in Victoria threw those plans into chaos (camps were cancelled) but my wife’s brother came to the rescue and we managed to still take the trip.

We flew from Melbourne to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific, then HK to Beijing on Cathay’s affiliate Dragonair. Same airlines for the return trip. All the flights were good, planes were modern and service was friendly and efficient. I’d have no hesitation in using these airlines again.

This was a special trip for us so we splurged a bit on the accommodation, which was the Grand Hyatt. We had a grand deluxe room and included breakfast in our package. The hotel was excellent in every way, as you’d expect from a 5-star hotel. While it was expensive, I didn’t mind paying the money on this occasion.

Apart from everything else, the Hyatt is in a terrific location for exploring Beijing. It’s positioned above the massive Oriental Plaza shopping centre, which includes the Wanfujing subway station, is on the corner of Wanfujing St and is only about a 10-minute walk to the Forbidden City. It also has THE best indoor hotel swimming pool I’ve ever seen.

Our plane arrived around midday on Friday 27/2. I’d arranged for the hotel to pick us up at the airport. Again, expensive but worth it. I always prefer to be met at the airport when I’m going somewhere for the first time, I think it saves a lot of potential hassle. In this instance, the charming young lady who met us actually collected us from the gate. She helped us through customs, took us down to the little train that runs to the domestic terminal and collected our bags for us. Obviously we could have done all this ourselves but it’s nice not to have to think too much when you’ve been travelling all night.

Once we had our bags, she led us down what felt like a secret corridor (letting my imagination run away a bit) to an underground car park where the hotel car was waiting. A quick half hour trip into the city and we were in Beijing.

We didn’t do much on our first afternoon. We wandered along Wanfujing and looked in a few shops, then gradually drifted towards the Forbidden City. We finished up at a side gate that led into the forecourt so we stuck our heads in for a while. Immediately set upon by art students and almost immediately by people who wanted to have their photo taken with my wife, who is blonde(ish). Ange wasn’t quite ready for that and shoo’d them away but a couple of days later she had relaxed a bit and consented to a couple of requests (it wasn’t as though people were stopping her in the street and begging to have their photo taken with her but she got 1 or 2 requests every day).

By the time they started closing the Forbidden City we were getting pretty tired and just cruised back to the hotel via some of the hutong in the Old Beijing area east of the FC. We grabbed an assortment of snacky foods – dumplings, spring rolls etc – at the Megabite below the hotel and were in bed nice and early.
Pumblechook2 is offline  
Mar 11th, 2009, 04:25 PM
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Saturday 28/2

We were up early as we were still pretty much on Melbourne time (only 3 hours’ difference but it still took us a day or two to adjust). Had our first swim in the Hyatt’s outrageous pool, followed by a nice long spa and then we were off to brekky, where we both wussed it and only ate Western food. We promised ourselves we’d get braver as the week went on.

After breakfast we walked down to the Forbidden City. Of course, after we’d gone a few metres, a Chinese gent stepped into stride with us and struck up a conversation. “Here we go”, I thought, “another bloody art student”. But this guy was genuinely just on for a chat. He worked at the FC and when we reached there we parted ways with a wave and a smile. It highlighted to us that not everybody in China who wants to start a conversation with you is an art student, so we took the view that we were always willing to have a chat and play along and that we’d just politely say “no thanks” when the often delivered line “would you like to see an art exhibition” was rolled out. This worked pretty well for us. I’d say that about 80% of the people who struck up a conversation with us were art students or wanted to sell us something but the other 20% made it worthwhile because they did just want to practice their English or tell us about their cousin’s neighbour’s dentist’s uncle who once went to Australia.

We spent about 4 hours at the FC and thoroughly enjoyed it. My one criticism of this and some of the other sites we visited, especially the Temple of Heaven, is that you can’t actually go inside the main buildings. Seems quite ridiculous to me but maybe there’s a good reason for it. Imagine going to Notre Dame or St Peter’s and being told you could only look through an open doorway but not go inside!

There were very few Western tourists about but their absence was more than made up for by the large groups of presumably Chinese (and I think Koreans) that were everywhere. We quickly recalled that personal space is not as valued in Asian cities as it is in the West, but like most things in Beijing once you understood the system it wasn’t too hard to fit in with it.

We exited the FC to the north and walked through Jingshan Park, climbed up Coal Hill and had our photo taken in one of those cheesy “dress up as the emperor and empress” arrangements. Had lots of fun with the girls running the photo stall. I’m quite tall and they weren’t. In the end, one of them sat on another one’s shoulders to put the emperor’s hat on my head. The photo of them doing that is probably better than the one they took of us!

We continued on out of Jingshan and strolled around the back lakes, which was a lovely walk. Stopped and watched a couple of water artists and some senior cits having a dance – all very relaxed. It was getting to late afternoon / early evening so we decided to have dinner in the back lakes area.

I have to say at this point that both Ange and I recognise that our greatest weakness as travellers is an inability to choose places to eat – we always seem to have different things in mind and that usually leads to a lot of wandering around, which can in turn lead to some grumpiness and a willingness to settle on “the next place with an English menu”. That’s pretty much what happened to us on this occasion. We both felt that the restaurants right on the lake were a little too tourist-trappy and seemed overpriced, so we kept walking. We eventually reached the Yinding Bridge, where we crossed over and stopped at what we thought was a restaurant (it was called the No Name Restaurant, so it wasn’t a totally illogical assumption) but which turned out to be a bar. It was cold outside and there were two seats near the fire, so we stayed and had a couple of beers before venturing back out into the restaurant wilderness. We eventually found ourselves in a fairly commercial hutong and did, indeed, settle for the next place that had an English menu. Although we were the only patrons there for our entire visit, the food was pretty good and filled the hole quite adequately. We chose a couple of noodle-based dishes and had a few spring rolls and it was all good, and reasonably priced. Sorry, I can’t remember the name of the restaurant but it was in the same hutong as Plastered T-Shirts, down the hill a little, on the other side, with a Thai restaurant next door.

We’d been walking all day so hopped in a taxi for the ride back to the hotel and another early night. A word on Beijing taxis and traffic in general: it wasn’t too bad. Once you get a feel for how the traffic works it’s not too hair-raising – certainly not in the white knuckle league of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City – mind you, we weren’t actually driving. Taxis are easy to use and cheap. As long as you’ve got your destination written in Mandarin you won’t have a problem.
Pumblechook2 is offline  
Mar 11th, 2009, 04:27 PM
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Sunday 1/3

Another early start. After a swim, brekky and ringing our daughter for “a pinch and a punch for the first of the month” we set off for the Panjiayuan (“Dirt”) Market. On the way, we auditioned our first taxi driver for the role of Great Wall Driver in the production of “Ange and Pumblechook Conquer the Great Wall” that we had planned for the next day. The concierge at the hotel had written out what we wanted to do, which was as simple as “collect from Grand Hyatt at 7:00 am on Monday 2/3, drive to Great Wall at Mutianyu, wait and return to hotel. 350 yuan for a half day”. (Thanks Peter N-H for the suggestion). Taxi Driver Number 1 failed the audition. I’m not sure whether he wanted more money or just didn’t want to do it but anyway, we all moved on.

Panjiayuan Market was fantastic, we loved it. It was our first market in Beijing and in hindsight the best one we visited. The array of goods is amazing and the prices seemed pretty fair. Ange loaded up on jewellery and we bought a couple of prints for her office, as well as a few knick knacks and presents. The morning disappeared. The only problem was that it was fairly cold and after a few hours we needed a change of scenery.

Back to the hotel to unload our treasures. On the way we intended to audition Taxi Driver Number 2 but he was a bit surly and his cab was a little tatty, so he didn’t even get to read the script.

We walked from the hotel down to Tiananmen Square, swatting art students like flies as we went. We had intended visiting Mao’s mausoleum but we were one day too late, as the old gent was in for a stuff and polish from March 1st to 20th. Disappointing but not devastating. We’ve seen Ho Chi Minh lying in state and without wishing to be too disrespectful, I suspect that if you’ve seen one dead dictator you’ve seen ‘em all. Mind you, I’d pay money to see John Howard stuffed.

We kept walking, with the Temple of Heaven our target. As usual, we meandered around a bit, including a trip up some really miserable hutong. They looked semi-demolished but there were still people living in them, a far cry from the spotless sidewalks of Dongchang’an and Wanfujing. We reached the ToH late in the afternoon. On the one hand, the trip was worth it because of all the activity in the park surrounding the temple. Singers were singing, dancers were shuffling, as were the card players, and tai chi’ers were tai chi’ing. All great to watch. But I have to say, the temple experience was a little disappointing. Yes, it’s a spectacular building – from the outside. I think you know where I’m heading with this. I don’t see why they couldn’t let people go inside, ‘nuff said.

The Pearl Market is straight across the road from the east gate of the ToH and that was our next destination. What an experience! I’ve been to plenty of places where people are pretty keen to make a sale but nowhere have I been so consistently manhandled by stallholders as at the Pearl Market. It was all good natured and the manhandling was generally done by Chinese girls who would have been lucky to be half my weight, so it wasn’t really a problem but it certainly took us by surprise.

The Pearl Market sells knock-off everything, so if that’s what you’re after in Beijing it and Silk Street are the places to go. We shopped in bursts, as our enthusiasm waxed and waned very sharply. On the up side, there was stuff everywhere, good stuff, bad stuff and indeterminate stuff. And it was cheap. On the down side, we both found the negotiation process fairly exhausting (I guess that’s part of the cunning plan) and while we sometimes wanted to keep shopping, the thought of going through another round of “I give you special price”, “Oh, you’re joking”, “You want one more?”, “Little bit more”, “Good for me, good for you” etc etc was enough to (almost) keep our spending in check.

I found haggling to be a pretty tough game in Beijing. It seemed that the only way you could be sure that you were getting even close to a reasonable deal was if you could make the vendor truly unhappy. While I tried to always keep things friendly, it didn’t always turn out that way. We had an experience the next day when Ange basically refused to budge from her initial price for some scarves because she had a pretty good idea what the real sale price was going to be. While this is not in the true spirit of haggling, she did it because she was tired of playing the game. The poor stallholder was tearing her hair out and in the end submitted to Ange’s price but then followed us down the street for quite a while, loudly telling Ange she was horrible and that the other stallholders had better watch out for this one, she is a thief. After that episode we came to the conclusion that the best way to maintain good relations with the vendors without getting ripped off is to shop around a bit, get an idea of how low the sellers are prepared to go for an item, then go to a new vendor and haggle to that particular price.

The other thing I observed about haggling is that there is no uniformity to mark ups. While some people start in the stratosphere (one woman at the Great Wall gave me an opening bid of 150 RMB for a fridge magnet, in the end I bought 2 for 5) others are genuinely offended when you divide their opening price by 10. I think it’s a case of the more common a thing is, the more the vendor will try to mark it up. Unfortunately, it takes a while to figure out what’s common and what isn’t.

For us, the wildest of the wild in the Pearl Market was the shoe aisle. Neither of us had any intention of buying any footwear, having both descended from different branches of the Yeti family, but the shoe girls were ferocious. When you’re not actually wanting to buy anything you can take part in the banter a lot more easily, so we played the game with the shoe girls for a while, always insisting we weren’t interested but not actually prising their talons from our arms. In the end, I said to Ange “I’m going to film this” but as soon as I produced the camera all talons lost their grip and the game was over. In hindsight, maybe I offended them by wanting to film the maelstrom but that wasn’t my intention. Whatever the reason, the camera was a very effective way of ending the negotiations.

Stopped for a little drinkypoo and then back to the hotel with Taxi Driver Number 3. A successful audition. Not much of a talker, although he did try to up the price but the doorman at the Hyatt came to our rescue and concluded the negotiation for us at 350 RMB.

We decide to give Snack Street, off Wanfujing, a try for dinner. I had been gobbing off about how I was going to eat fried scorpion and I was going to eat fried seahorse and blah de blah de blah but when we got there and actually saw the critters on the skewers, I completely lost my nerve and went down the very conservative lamb path. I can say though, that the scorpions were fresh. Some of them were still wriggling on the sticks!

We tried a few different things, none of which succeeded in escaping the taste of its oily cooking. My favourite was something that I think were fish balls. Ange turned up her nose at most offerings and went home hungry.

Snack Street was the only time I felt I was blatantly ripped off while we were in Beijing. We bought a few odds and sods from a woman and I expected the total to be about 15 to 20 RMB. BUT I STUPIDLY DIDN’T CONFIRM THE PRICE WITH HER before handing over a hundred. She gave me 50 change and when I let her know I wasn’t happy she suddenly lost her ability to speak or understand English. At the end of the day it was only a few bucks but I think I was more cross with myself for letting my guard down. It’s a shame that you have to have your guard up the whole time but I guess that’s the reality of travelling.
Pumblechook2 is offline  
Mar 11th, 2009, 04:28 PM
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Monday 2/3

Our Great Wall day. No time for a swim this morning, as we were meeting the lugubrious Mr Gao, our taxi driver, at 7:00. A quick breakfast, pulled on the thermals and off we went.

It took about an hour and a half to get to Mutianyu. As we travelled, it gradually became clear that Mr Gao hadn’t been to Mutianyu before but he stopped and asked for directions a couple of times and we got there without too much drama.

I’m not sure that I’m a good enough wordsmith to describe the impact the visit to the Wall had on us.

When we arrived, all was quiet. There were a couple of other cars in the car park and only the keenest stallholders were in the process of opening up, the majority were still shuttered. The ground was dry but as we started up the track to the chairlift a light snow started falling.

This is probably a good time to mention that I’m totally, totally acrophobic and that with the possible exception of high-rise window cleaning and an assortment of circus acts, there is no activity I dread the thought of more than catching a little metal box or seat held up by a thin and ancient piece of wire that is almost certainly going to snap at any moment. The good news is that Ange is both a skier and a psychologist, so I was in the best possible hands for my impending journey to certain death.

(At the risk of digressing, fear of heights is one of the worst things you can have if you want to travel. Nearly every famous landmark you can think of involves some form of climbing, and ergo, certain death by falling).

So I faced my bete noire (or so I thought) and we took the chairlift to the top of the Wall. I guess it wasn’t so bad – I’m here writing this aren’t I? I didn’t mind it so much when it was tracking against the rise of the mountain but I didn’t enjoy it when we went over a valley.

The Wall is breathtaking, a truly unique creation in the world. Because it was overcast, smoggy and snowing we didn’t get the classic snaking dragon view until about the middle of the day but what we did get for the first hour or so was total serenity. It felt like we were alone on the top of the world, with not another soul in sight.

We turned right at the top of the chairlift and headed straight into a fairly steep section of wall, certainly the steepest we encountered that day. While the falling snow was beautiful, it did add slightly to the degree of difficulty and we progressed slowly until we reached the farthest watchtower. There we sat, and pretended we were the only people in the world.

The peace was eventually broken by the arrival of a few fellow tourists but the numbers never swelled much past a couple of people on each section. We took our time heading back and continued on past our starting point. By this time visibility had improved and we could see that we probably should have turned left at the top rather than right, as the Wall snaked off considerably further in that direction. But we were very happy with our Wall experience.

I just about had to drag Ange away, she could have stayed up there for days but the vendors on the wall were starting to get their circulation going and we’d already stayed longer than we’d told Mr Gao we were going to, so it was time to start making our way back down.

After laughing in the face of death on the way up I was looking forward to the toboggan ride back down the mountain, which looked much more my speed. It was pretty quiet up on the Wall but when we got to the top of the toboggan ride it seemed a little too quiet. Just one woman and a broom. “No toboggan”. Aaaaaaaaarrrrrrgggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhh, I thought to myself. Aaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrgggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhh hhhhhh.

But there was no getting around it. It was either a return trip on the Chair of Certain Death or a ridiculously long and slow walk down a snowy path. I enjoyed the Chair far less the second time around. As any card carrying acrophobic will attest, it’s much worse going down than up.

After fighting our way through the Mongol hordes wanting to have their photo taken with us (OK, we took one), I rewarded my extreme bravery with a bit of haggling (see fridge magnet episode mentioned earlier). Ange bought a t-shirt, we found Mr Gao asleep at the wheel and started the ride back to town.

Grumpy Pants Gao had one more go at extracting some more cash from us when we pulled up to the hotel. Again we had to rely on the doorman to act as our interpreter / negotiatior. I think Mr Gao’s main point was we’d been gone for more than half a day, which was strictly true, but I still think he’d made more out of the trip than he’d pull in an average week. We compromised and paid his tolls from the trip, an extra 40 RMB. I think I might have seen something resembling a smile flash across his stony dial but I could have imagined it.

Flushed with the elation of the Wall, there was only one thing to do –shop. We first got the concierge to book us into Da Dong for dinner, then set off on our familiar path to Tiananmen Square, heading for Dazhalan and Liulichang, south of the square. We collected the usual assortment of art students along the way, including one gent we’d met a couple of days earlier. We remembered him because his patter included mention of a cousin in Perth, which struck us at the time as fairly obscure. He couldn’t believe it when we recited part of his story back to him. Clearly he didn’t recognise us and seemed a little offended at us remembering him. Anyway, it got rid of him.

We enjoyed Dazhalan and Liulichang, although Ange made no friends with her new “that’s my best price and I’m not haggling” approach to shopping. We decided over Peking Duck that night that we probably needed to ditch the tactic in favour of something less likely to lead to us being the first tourists ever blackbanned from Beijing’s markets.

Speaking of which, Da Dong was a real treat, so thanks to those who recommended it on this forum. When we were seated I was worried that it was going to be a bit formulaic and we’d be out the door before we knew it but it wasn’t like that at all. Yes, they have a very efficient set routine, but we never felt we were being rushed. We had an entrée of prawns in a very mild mustard sauce, followed by half a duck. Dessert and fruit followed automatically and it was all good. The duck was delicious and while at first I thought half a duck wouldn’t be enough for the two of us, there was no way we would have got through a whole one.

Adjourned to the spa at the hotel to soothe our aching Wall legs. A great way to end a great day – the Wall was undoubtedly the highlight of our trip.
Pumblechook2 is offline  
Mar 11th, 2009, 04:29 PM
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Tuesday 3/3

After all the walking we’d done and the sights we’d seen over the previous three days, we decided that our last two full days would be at a more relaxed pace and that we’d start using the trains, since the sites we still wanted to see were further afield from our hotel.

So we had a bit of a sleep in, a luxurious slow swim and a late brekky before taking our first subway ride of the trip out to the Lama Temple, where we spent the morning. I’d recommend this as a site to visit, primarily because it is still a working temple and juxtaposes nicely with the FC, ToH etc, which were essentially built for the glory of man. Ange has an interest in Buddhism so she immersed herself in the temple and really got a lot out of it.

We went for a wander, did a bit of a loop and found ourselves heading towards the Confucius Temple. Moderately interesting but I felt it suffered from the same problem as a lot of “tourist attractions” in Beijing in that there wasn’t much effort put into presenting or explaining what was there. But we spent a pleasant hour or so wandering the grounds, which feature some amazing old trees.

I should mention that in our wandering we stopped at one of the shopfront bakeries that you see throughout Beijing. We bought a selection of little pastries and ate them as we walked and they were delicious.

By the time we’d finished at the Confucius Temple it was early afternoon. Ange had to go to the little girls’ room and her previous experience had been at one of the lower-starred hutong toilets, so she treated herself to a nearby well-known Scottish restaurant. We had to buy something to get access to the loos, so I’m ashamed to say we had our one and only Western take away meal of the trip. We’d been holding out but in the end Ange’s bladder won the day and spoiled our record.

Next we strolled over to the Bell Tower, climbed the steps and enjoyed the view. The smog always limited our ability to enjoy views like those offered by the Bell Tower but on a clear day (if there is such a thing) they would be pretty spectacular. Beijing is a good city to walk around because it’s so flat and you certainly appreciate that from the top of the Bell Tower. The Drum Tower was closed, so we couldn’t go in there. In the true Chinese tradition (of “no toboggan”) there was no explanation as to why. We backtracked a fair way to a subway station, with the intention of resuming our shopping activities at the Friendship Store and Silk Street.

An aside: We were very impressed with the subway system. I take it that it was totally overhauled pre-Olympics but what they have now is excellent. Probably the easiest subway system for tourists to navigate that I’ve ever seen. Trains are all modern, run every few minutes and the tickets are dirt cheap. Definitely the best way of getting around Beijing, although they don’t cover all areas.

Our next stop was the Friendship Store, which reminded us of a store museum. There were literally no customers on the couple of floors we went to and the staff were bored to a catatonic state. Clearly there’s no way a store like this can compete with the Silk Market and the like. While I presume they do have some better quality goods, they also sell the same junk the markets sell but for 5 to 10 times the price. We lasted about 10 minutes, then took off for Silk Street.

Silk Street’s a lot like the Pearl Market. It’s full bore, high intensity haggling. We finished up visiting Silk Street a couple of times, primarily because it was on our subway line, but we did buy quite a lot of stuff there, mainly clothes. We also visited the pharmacy on the top floor and bought a few local remedies. The pharmacy ladies were not terribly interested in haggling but they were always willing to throw in an extra bottle of something for free to make the sale. Haggling with someone selling drugs was kind of weird anyway.

For dinner, we cruised the restaurant strip in the basement of Oriental Plaza and finished up settling on a Sichuan restaurant, which turned out to be a good choice. We ordered what we thought would be a couple of entrees, a couple of mains, some rice and a couple of small side dishes, e.g. dumplings. Of course, they weren’t served that way and we were on the receiving end of a random delivery of dishes. Obviously whatever was quickest to serve was brought out first, with no thought to whether it was a starter or a main. So we just ate it as it was delivered and it was all good. Everything had a spicy edge to it but we avoided the real heavy duty (3 chillis on the menu) stuff. After Da Dong, this was the second best meal we had in Beijing.
Pumblechook2 is offline  
Mar 11th, 2009, 04:30 PM
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Wednesday 4/3

Our last full day in Beijing. We were feeling pretty relaxed and the only thing on our “must do” list that we hadn’t ticked off was the Summer Palace, so that was where we headed.

Side note: I found the maps of Beijing that we used, especially those in the guide books, to be rough approximations at best. There are so many streets in Beijing that not all of them are represented on these maps and there are lots of streets that appear without names. Consequently, the standard approach of “head down here for two blocks and turn left” just doesn’t work. There were several times when we were out walking that we felt the maps just didn’t match what we were seeing. I wouldn’t say we ever got totally lost but it was often hard to judge distances, as we discovered on our trip to the Summer Palace.

As enamoured as we now were with the subway system, we decided to train it to the SP. Looking at the guide book, we could see that the nearest train station was about 2 km or so from the SP. We alighted at that station (Wudaokou) at around 11:00 a.m. We reached the Summer Palace at about 1:00 pm. Even allowing for some sightseeing along the way – we stuck our heads in at Beijing University and made the briefest of visits to the Old Summer Palace – it was a bloody long walk and nothing like the 2 km’s we’d estimated.

The SP was brilliant, we both loved it. While it doesn’t necessarily have the same history as something like the FC or the Lama Temple it’s physical beauty makes it worth seeing. On a nice sunny day you could easily spend a whole day there, soaking up the environment. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a nice sunny day. We got a drizzly, smoggy one instead. For those who have been: we couldn’t even see the island on the lake from some parts of the Long Corridor. But we really enjoyed strolling through the gardens and covered most of the grounds in the few hours we spent there.

Rather than burn another couple of hours walking back to the station, we hailed a taxi and were treated to our only crazy cab driver for the entire trip. We had commented often about how calm the Chinese appeared to be. We rarely heard raised voices, let alone saw any altercations. But this guy must have been a foreigner, because he was aggro from the second we got in his car. He seemed to confuse the horn for the accelerator, or perhaps he thought it had some magical qualities because he leant on it the whole time, which he thought gave him the right to drive wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted.

After several near accidents, all caused by our driver, we got jammed in traffic within sight of the train station, so threw him a few yuan and jumped out happy to escape with our lives. The one benefit of catching that cab was that it enabled me to work out that it’s just under 7 kilometres from Wudaokuo train station to the Summer Palace. Bloody guide book!

We caught the train back to Silk Street, where we haggled very specifically for some clothes we wanted to pick up for our kids. While we didn’t get everything we wanted, we did get to a point where we felt we knew the true prices for these items and we determined to do a lightning raid the next morning to seal the deal.

Had our final dinner for the trip in a very uninspiring place across the road from Silk Street. Some of the dodgiest cuts of “chicken” imaginable. A disappointing final meal but as I said at the start, we’re not foodies so we weren’t all that bothered.

Back to the Hyatt for a loving farewell to our swimming pool, which we never had to share with a single soul the entire duration of our stay, and to pack up.
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Mar 11th, 2009, 04:31 PM
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Thursday 5/3

Departure day. Our plane to HK left at 1:40 pm, so our plan for the morning was simply to get back down to Silk Street and buy the few things we’d priced the night before, then maybe take a final stroll up Wanfujing. But over breakfast we decided to do a quick trip back to the Temple of Heaven park and watch the locals go through their exercise routines, reasoning that we could shop at the Pearl Market instead. So that’s what we did and while we finished up rushing things a bit, it was really nice to spend some more time in that park.

Hailed a cab at 11:30 for the 30 minute trip to the airport. By 12:15 we’d gone approximately 1 kilometre and were starting to get nervous. The problem was that we were on the main drag to Tiananmen Square and the People’s Hall and the annual meeting of the People’s Congress had commenced the previous day. Dongchang’an had half its lanes closed to allow for official traffic but it seems there was a motorcade in progress right at the time we were trying to get to the airport, and the police shut the entire road for about half an hour. It all worked out in the end. We didn’t have any spare time at the airport but we caught our plane comfortably.

And that’s it! I know I’ve waffled on a lot and this certainly finished up being longer than I’d originally anticipated but hopefully there are a few useful tidbits in here, especially for people considering Beijing for the first time.

Tune back in around October for “Pumblechook takes on Memphis and Nashville”. Gotta get over to the US forum now and start planning.
Pumblechook2 is offline  
Mar 11th, 2009, 04:54 PM
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Thank you so much for your very interesting and entertaining trip report.
sdtravels is offline  
Mar 11th, 2009, 07:17 PM
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Thanks for the detailed report! Sounds like you had a good time - when are you going back?
thursdaysd is offline  
Mar 12th, 2009, 09:43 AM
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I loved your report, particularly the humorous asides. We also remember Mutianyu as a highlight and we routinely struggle over restaurant selection.

As far as bargaining goes in the major markets, I have concluded that the "disappointment" is all strategy and theater so best not to expect any meaningful connection with a seller -- none, none at all, or you are just a candidate for rope-a-dope.

The routine of being sought out for look-at-the-freak-show-I-saw-in-Beijing-souvenir-photos is also familiar. On our first trip, I thought it was a member of our party's waist length blonde hair and round blue eyes that were attracting attention, but those were my untutored western perceptions; it turned out that it was the paleness of her skin that provoked intense interest and curiosity about whether she was born that way or used something to achieve the desired effect.

We also stumbled upon extreme cultural differences surrounding the use of maps. Plenty of local folks found us hilarious for putting stock in map-reading as a way of orienting ourselves! I wish that someone more knowledgeable about China would address this topic.

Good luck with your Nashville and Memphis planning.
marya_ is offline  
Mar 12th, 2009, 01:45 PM
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Thanks so much for your report. When you took the subway to the Summer Palace and exited at Wudaokou were there any taxis waiting there? I hope to get a taxi there and not walk the 7 km you did!
Images2 is offline  
Mar 12th, 2009, 03:24 PM
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Maybe I missed something in your enjoyable report as I read it, but I didn't note anything on how you finally settled on the gloomy Mr. Gao, and what figure you finally paid for him (before his last-minute supplementary tip--most of them try to pull something like that). What was the rate in the end, and just how hard was it to get, in your experience?

On bargaining at the Silk Market and 'Pearl' Market, the very best advice to give is not to go there at all. Each is aimed at foreigners in preference to locals, and each is full of first-timers with no clue as to prices helping to keep them ridiculously high. Much better to shop in markets used by local people. This perceptive remark...

> While some people start in the stratosphere (one woman at the Great Wall gave me an opening bid of 150 RMB for a fridge magnet, in the end I bought 2 for 5) others are genuinely offended when you divide their opening price by 10.

...should be permanently posted into all bargaining enquiries here in 50pt type and letters of flame, as well as physically branded on idiots like Pauline Frommer who think two, three, four, or five times the price is all that's asked and advise people to bargain accordingly down to paying sums several times what they should. For those who need help with arithmetic, the first asking price is SIXTY times more than what was eventually accepted. The Great Wall, the 'Pearl' Market, the 'Silk' Market, and anywhere else full of tourists and tour groups are by very definition where this kind of thing is more likely to happen and the places you shouldn't be shopping.

And indeed, Marya is quite correct that looking offended is all strategy; or indeed an expression of genuine offence that you, the walking wallet, are not prepared to be easily overcharged. After all, there are high rates to be paid for the stalls at these markets.

As for the map question, sharing maps with third parties in China is always a complete waste of time. For some reason they simply aren't used to thinking of the world in this way. As to why, one can only assume map reading isn't taught in schools, although on-line maps in Chinese and GPS systems are now commonplace. However, I've never seen a taxi driver actually use his GPS. Navigation is mainly by landmark and street name, and the maps available, both on-line and in paper form, are appalling.

Even supposing guide book companies were prepared to pay for fresh cartography it's illegal for foreign companies to do anything of the kind, and so maps are based on horribly incomplete and inaccurate (often English-language, which are the worst of a bad lot) local sources, scanned in and redrawn. Hand marked-up photocopies are supplied by authors to editors so that points of interest can be plotted. Few authors have any interest in checking the work produced by this 'Chinese whispers' method, and in fact few editors, under pressure to produce the book to budget and on deadline, want them to do so. That is why guide book maps are mostly so hopeless, and

On the question of taxis from Wu Dao Kou to the Summer Palace, note that you want to *avoid* any taxis that are waiting, and flat one down that is passing by. And yes, there'll be several along before you can say 'looting and burning'.

But thanks to Pumblechook2 for another detailed trip report showing that Beijing can easily be tackled independently.

Peter N-H
PeterN_H is offline  
Mar 13th, 2009, 08:57 AM
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ENJOYED the report. It brought back memories of our trip last year when our programme was pretty similar to your own. We too found the bargaining pretty hard going compared to other cities, such as Bangkok or KL. Incidentally, we went to the roast duck restaurant above the Silk Market and found it vaguely disappointing. Lots of ceremony, but I've had better duck and pancakes here in Scotland. Peter's right, though, with a bit of research and a ready smile, Beijing is not at all daunting for travellers who don't want to be tied to a guide... actually, it's made me think we want to go back!
GrahamC is offline  
Mar 15th, 2009, 02:30 PM
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Thanks for the taxi advice Peter, but I also just read on another site that Bus 481 goes to the Summer Palace also. This person took it from Fuxing and Yuquan Roads to YiHe Yuann, the last stop. The trip was 45 minutes.
Images2 is offline  
Mar 15th, 2009, 03:51 PM
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Ask about taxis you get told about taxis. Ask about buses...

There are 15 or 20 buses that go to the Summer Palace. The 481 would leave you an inconveniently long walk away from the main entrance, although if you get off two stops before the terminus you could go in at the south entrance and walk up the east side of the lake. The 332 from opposite the Zoo has the main entrance as its terminus, as does the 690 from Qian Men, the 732 from the Zoo, the 801 from the Lufthansa Centre/San Yuan Qiao area, the 808 from the west side of Qian Men, the 826 from Qian Men, and so on. There are always buses everywhere, but nobody ever asks about them.

You can also go all the way by boat from two Beijing docks, which would be my choice.

And don't forget that metro line 4 is due for completion this year, whose Bei Gong Men station is right outside the Summer Palace north gate.

Peter N-H
PeterN_H is offline  
Mar 15th, 2009, 05:04 PM
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Thanks for all the replies folks. Images, as Peter has pointed out there are plenty of buses running to the SP. We didn’t actually catch any buses while in Beijing but that was mainly because we were satisfied with other ways of getting around. The buses do generally seem to be crowded (like the trains) but I’m sure they’d be easy to use.

A final comment on haggling: I agree with much of what’s been posted and I’m not such a rube as to think that the vendors in Beijing had the slightest interest in us beyond how much of our cash they could extract. But I really have to emphasise – the scarf lady was going off her nut!

We bought almost nothing without first walking away and we expected every vendor to pull the sad/angry act at some point but the experience we had with the scarf woman was something else. She’d have to be in Meryl Streep’s league to put that act on every time.

And maybe I am a bit naïve after all but for the items that we really wanted and really haggled over, I’m fairly confident we didn’t pay too much over the odds. Our system was basically to establish what the vendors WOULDN’T sell for and then buy as close to that as possible. They will actually end the negotiation if you don’t reach their reserve. Peter’s comment of the starting price being 60 times above the sale price should be taken with a grain of salt - my Great Wall example was fairly extreme. At the Silk and Pearl Markets, a rough rule of thumb is to divide the opening bid by 10 but there are cases where you need to divide by up to 20, e.g. watches. A specific example: after a bit of research, I satisfied myself that the “right” price for business shirts was around 35 RMB (vendors wouldn’t accept 30 but would do 3 for 100). The opening bid for a single business shirt tended to be around the 400 to 500 mark but it came down pretty quickly.

Peter, regarding our “choice” of Mr Gao as our driver: as my original post indicated, our process wasn’t terribly scientific. (It did occur to us as Mr Gao missed yet another sign to Mutianyu which even my cartographically challenged wife noticed, that perhaps our process wasn’t quite robust enough and that Mr Gao may actually be an axe murderer). We chose him on the basis that we had been in his taxi, which was clean, and that he was interested in doing the journey. Perhaps we were lucky that we were only rejected by one other driver? I can’t say.

When he dropped us at the hotel after our first ride in his taxi, he started talking in Mandarin (he spoke no English at all) to the hotel doorman, who then informed us that Mr Gao wanted to up the price to 400 RMB. We said “take 350 or leave it” and he took it – probably the least stressful bit of haggling we did in our whole time in Beijing.

On the Monday when he returned us to the hotel after Mutianyu, he again started talking to the doorman and was apparently asking for more money. In his defence, we had booked him for half a day and that turned into 7 hours. I’d actually suggested to Ange on the way back that we give him a little bit more (an extra 50) to cover the extra time, so it was fairly easy to negotiate our way to keeping the fee at 350 but paying the 40 RMB in tolls. We’d had a great day and didn’t want to spoil it and Mr Gao wasn’t really a hard-nosed negotiator, so we just did the deal and moved on.

Finally, I’d like to reinforce Peter and Graham’s comments that Beijing is a fairly easy city for the independent traveller to negotiate. If you’re tossing up between going independently or as part of a tour, I’d suggest taking the independent road.
Pumblechook2 is offline  
Mar 15th, 2009, 05:06 PM
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Thanks for your delightful trip report, Pumblechook - brought back such fond memories of our 6 Beijing-beginners days during steamy August of 07. Your writing style is so entertaining as well as informative for those thinking of independent touristing.

Had me a wee chuckle at blaming your wife's bladder capacity for your lapse into western fast food - as excuses go, it's a fowl

What I'd love to hear now is your wife's description of your bladder and demeanour during the cable car ride up – and later down - the ramparts at Mutianyu.

Glad to hear you had such a great time!
FurryTiles is offline  
Mar 15th, 2009, 08:02 PM
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> Peter’s comment of the starting price being 60 times above the sale price should be taken with a grain of salt - my Great Wall example was fairly extreme. At the Silk and Pearl Markets, a rough rule of thumb is to divide the opening bid by 10 but there are cases where you need to divide by up to 20, e.g. watches.

Was it extreme? Can you be sure? Setting that aside, the point is that figures of 20, 30, and more times are commonplace, and it's really excellent to have someone point that out to people whose guide books are bleating on about 'three times'. Where this goes wrong is the remark about 'a rough rule of thumb'--and indeed the examples that follow show that the thumb needs to be made of elastic.

If there is a rule it's a sort of meta-rule, which is that the price asked for will vary according to what vendors believe foreigners believe is a 'fair' price. If it becomes (I would like to say 'when it becomes') apparent to the vendors that foreigners know they should be paying no more than one tenth, or one twentieth of the first price then the first price will rise to be forty, sixty or more times so that, as happens now, foreigners knock that down to three or five times what they should pay, yet feel happy about it. The situation itself is entirely elastic, and varies over time.

It should be added that an assortment of variables also affect the price, including who else is around at the time. Negotiate something down to a price you find acceptable but decide to pass, then change your mind and go back the next day and you won't get the same price if there's a more gormless tour group with its wallets out somewhere near the stall, for instance.

On the taxi driver I was just wondering how hard you'd found it, because I couldn't find in the narrative where you'd fixed on someone. I'm glad it was as straightforward as predicted. Don't take it out on Gao for navigational failings, though, as these are completely commonplace. There's no equivalent of London's 'knowledge' for these people, who increasingly are from beyond even the suburbs, and don't have much of a clue about central Beijing, or are still picking it up. The point of the price agreed in advance is that the driver is definitely going to get you there as best he can, since every extra km is a loss to him. As you overran on time (and this is one the drivers often use to squeeze more money, although you clearly felt in this case it was justified) you seem to have come to an amicable and reasonable compromise.

I really hope all those who post here to ask about tour guides and booking drivers in advance will take heart from this account. If that's the *only* way you like to do things, fair enough. But it is possible to treat Beijing the same way you'd treat any other city, and you'll get your pocket thoroughly picked if you don't.

Most importantly, you did it by yourself, and had a good time.

Peter N-H
PeterN_H is offline  
Mar 15th, 2009, 08:40 PM
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>Most importantly, you did it by yourself, and had a good time.

That sums it up neatly

FurryTiles: fortunately I can report there was no bladder activity on the cable car, but this is quite possibly because my blood stopped circulating entirely ;-)
Pumblechook2 is offline  
Mar 16th, 2009, 04:18 AM
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This is one terrific report! I am glad I was not the only one who was terrified on the chairlift!

There is so much great information here; it really makes me want to return to Beijing! And next time I will have more confidence to explore a bit on my own.

PeterNH: Where exactly are the local markets offering merchandise similar to that found at the Pearl Market?
ekscrunchy is offline  

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