First Impressions of Beijing

大家好!I have safely arrived in Beijing and having spent my first two days here so I thought it would be a good idea to take you through them by talking about my first impressions of the city. I would like to preface what is to come by saying that these are only observations and some deductions of mine, I’ve not really had the chance to talk to anyone that knows the city yet so what I say might be completely wrong. Saying that, here’s what I think of Beijing so far…

Public transport is very easy to navigate.

Having arrived into Beijing airport at 5am on Sunday, with my massive suitcase in tow (I’m here for a year alright, forgive me if I didn’t pack light) a taxi proved to be too expensive to justify the ease so I turned to the Airport Express train instead. Seeing as it was still very early I had to wait until the first train at 6.35am but then it was very simple to buy the right ticket (it helped that there was an English option). Once I arrived in Dongzhimen station (东直门站) I changed to Line 2 of the metro and headed for Qianmen station (前门站). To be fair, I didn’t have to use much Chinese but I was still impressed with how easy it was to get myself where I needed to go in a city I had never been to before with a very heavy bag! And all that only cost me about 30 yuan, more or less £4!

Views from the Airport Express

The time difference is already and will probably continue to be difficult.

The whole of China operates under one time zone which is currently 7 hours ahead of the UK and once clocks go back will become 8 hours ahead. After travelling all through Saturday and with the time difference I was understandably disoriented for a lot of yesterday. While it will take some getting used to I think it will be manageable. Basically if you want to talk to me, the morning or early afternoon in the UK is the best time time to get in touch as it will be late afternoon or evening here.

There’s more English than I thought.

So far I haven’t actually spoken that much Chinese. It’s kind of understandable as I have so far been confined to very touristy spaces like the airport and my hostel. I have tried to speak Chinese a couple of times, at dinner yesterday and in Tiananmen Square this morning but either somebody speaks English or they don’t understand my Chinese! I have found myself trying to at least figure out how to say things in Chinese in my head which has been good practice. I’m also trying to take in as much as possible. It’s still hard to tune in and understand what people are saying but I try and read as many of the signs and posters that are everywhere as I can.

It can get very hot and also very humid.

I didn’t really know what to expect when it came to weather in Beijing other than knowing that it suffers from high levels of pollution and is nowhere near as humid as it is further south, like in Shanghai. That’s not to say there is no humidity at all though as it was sitting at about 70% today! It was overcast today but yesterday was bright, clear and very hot! I didn’t venture out much yesterday because I was so tired but when I went for a short walk it didn’t take long before I was sweating and regretting not bringing my sunglasses.

I’ve felt very safe wherever I’ve gone so far.

I mean, I’ve not gone far but I’ve never felt uncomfortable or the need to be hyper aware. There is obviously a certain level of vigilance needed when in an unknown city but being here by myself as a woman, I have not felt any extra scrutiny or attention. It’s busy but the crowds are not crushing, traffic is mad but not insane, I get looked at but only with curiosity rather then lewdness. Overall I’ve felt very comfortable, whether that’s while exploring the hutongs (胡同, alleys) or in the middle of Tiananmen Square.

Everything is both totally overwhelming and not as busy as I thought it would be.

I’m sure you can imagine that I was preparing myself for Beijing to be crazy busy and the whole experience of being in China a bit much to deal with. With a population of 21.5 million how could it not be? I will admit that it feels weird to actually be here after years of anticipation but the city itself, or what I’ve seen of it so far, has been a lot calmer than I’d expected.

The streets of Beijing

I’m going to get very frustrated about not being able to drink tap water.

GOD BLESS SCOTTISH TAP WATER. Always a privilege that I take for granted, having clean tap water to drink is not something that you can get everywhere. Here it is definitely not safe to drink so in an effort to save plastic and save me having to go out and buy a new bottle every few hours, I’ve been decanting a 5L bottle into the reusable one I brought with me. Who knows if it actually makes a difference plastic wise but at least it is more economical.

I have underappreciated green tea (绿茶) my whole life.

I’m not much of a tea drinker in general but when I drink it I would never betray my British roots and have anything other than breakfast tea. Last night however I had green tea with my dinner and today had a bottled, cold version and it’s so calming and refreshing at the same time.

And did I mention that the food is amazing?

Chinese menus are notoriously hard to read and are often only navigable through the photos so my strategy so far has been to ask for a recommendation! It’s been a good way to practice even a little bit of Chinese and so far it has not done me wrong! I went for a safe option of sweet and sour chicken last night and had various types of noodles and broth for breakfast and lunch today.

Don’t ask me what it was but it was delicious!

Everyone is up and about very early.

Of course jet lag hit this morning but even after sleeping for 5 hours yesterday afternoon and barely making it to 10pm before calling it a night, I managed to make it to 5am before getting up this morning. I went down to the common room (for wifi, what else) and started talking to an American guy who was also up. I ended up going out for a walk and breakfast with him and his friend and we were not alone. We got to Tiananmen Square, very near to our hostel, at about 6.30am and there were already people everywhere.

This was the Forbidden City at 7am..

People like to have naps outside Tian’anmen (天安门).

On said trip to Tiananmen square, there seemed to be a lot of people lying around right in front of Tiananmen itself (also known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace.) I don’t really have anything else to say on the matter, just something I noticed. If anyone can explain, please do.

Pollution makes it hard to take nice photographs.

An unfortunate side effect of the sky high pollution that made more of an appearance today than yesterday was that it really washed out any attempt to take photographs of what I was seeing. Not a big deal but my Instagram will suffer. Or maybe it was just a cloudy day.

I, much like the sun, tried my best here

Police are everywhere.

There are several subsections of the police in China, as far as I know, so that might explain it but I can’t tell the difference so to me it just looks like there’s a policeman (and it is all men) every 50m or so. It’s not actually as intimidating as you might think, they are mostly just observing.

There’s no litter!!! Anywhere!!!

Maybe Chinese people are just house proud, maybe it’s a part of the national conscience, maybe the street cleaners that are wandering around have something to do with it. Either way it was something that I didn’t notice until I noticed it but then I could not notice it!

They keep inexplicably closing the underpasses that are the only way to cross the very busy 8-lane roads.

This is what turned my stroll with the Americans this morning into a full blown treasure hunt for the hostel. All we needed to do was cross one (albeit very busy) road, walk down the side of Tiananmen Square again and we’d be back on the road that would take us to our hostel. Instead, all the underpasses you could use had been shut for our direction of traffic since we had come through them 10 minutes before. It did mean a lovely detour via the National Centre for Preforming Arts which is an insane building but also meant that by the time we got back to where we needed to be it was almost 8.30 and we were starving, having left the hostel two hours earlier in search of breakfast.

The National Centre for Performing Arts (国家大剧院)

Everything is shut on a Monday.

I was having a think about what to do with the rest of my day and I thought about going to the National Museum of China, on one side of Tiananmen. Closed on Mondays. Ok, what about an afternoon in the Forbidden City. Open Tuesday-Sunday. A temple? Closed, closed, closed. Note to future self.

Peking roast duck (北京烤鸭) is worth the hype.

After an accidental 4 hour nap, I woke up at 8.30pm in need of some dinner so decided to seek out some quick and easy street food – I didn’t feel like tackling a whole restaurant experience. As I walked along a street I hadn’t been down before I noticed lots of windows selling the roast duck that the city is known for. I had been wanting to try some while here but I had found it hard to find a cheapish restaurant that sells it in one person portions so this was perfect. Having attempted to order in Chinese again, I got what I wanted but not quite how I wanted it… Instead of getting prewrapped ones I was given little bags with all the bits and pieces I would need, the duck, the hoisin sauce, some sliced cucumber and spring onion and the tortilla things (that is clearly what they are officially known as). It might have been easier to get it the other way but this was definitely more fun.

Two days is just not enough.

Especially when you have been up for 26 hours on one of those days and suffering from jet lag on the other! Honestly, I’m not mad that I actually haven’t gotten up to much while here. I knew I would be tired and I already have plans to come back. To be honest I don’t think there would ever be enough time to see all of Beijing – have you seen the size of it?!

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