People had mixed reactions when I told them my boyfriend and I were going to China. They ranged from congratulatory and enthusiastic, to puzzlement and even cautionary. My sister, who’d live in China for a year, was predictably the most excited for us along with a colleague who’d also visited some years ago. But more commonly, people either perplexingly asked why we wanted to visit China or worse still, told us how much they disliked the country. The descriptions ranged from “dirty” to “it’s like India, but without the warmth of the people.” Ouch.
I wasn’t deterred by the negativity, in fact, I got even more excited as the trip got closer. While my boyfriend and I had been to Europe just five months earlier, it was more holidaying than travelling. This time, neither of us had been to the country before and we had no idea what to expect. Our first stop was Beijing, which I’d been told represented old China. Just weeks before we departed, television screens were filled with a city glowing orange with pollution. Media portrayal included mass population, poverty and a dismal human rights record.
Our flight from Perth, Australia to Beijing via Singapore landed around 3pm and by 5pm, we were exiting a subway station and walking along a footpath to our hotel in the Wanfujing district. The atmosphere was peaceful, with only a few cars and people around as the sun began to fade. The street names were in English, and we easily reached our hotel after 10 minutes. It was nothing like India.
The four days that proceeded were incredible. I didn’t fall in love with Beijing immediately, but I quickly absorbed and enjoyed all that was around me. History, culture, food, excellent transport, bikesharing, art, the absence of Western media (a true holiday when you’re a journalist), the open spaces and public places. It didn’t resemble anything I’d imagined from television or people’s stories. Many of these themes continued throughout our three week China trip, and I loved the country even more than I’d anticipated.
Here’s what struck me most in Beijing, to the point where I began this blog post on our journey because I wanted to counter the narratives I’d heard before we left. I’ll concede we stayed in the central tourist areas, did a lot of research and preparation before we left (such as downloading city and subway maps), and also love being out of our comfort zone. But even without these things, it’s hard not to be impressed by China’s capital.
Things I Didn’t Expect in Beijing
1. It Wasn’t Crowded
Were there a lot of people in Beijing? Yes. Train stations were busy, and roads were filled with vehicles often coming to a standstill. But I never truly sensed I was in a city of 21.5 million people (almost the entire population of my home country Australia). I didn’t see any exceptionally large crowds and never felt boxed in. Beijing was far less busier than New York for example, and train stations were no different to London’s Kings Cross. The most common question when I returned from China was “It was really crowded, right?.” No, it wasn’t. This is probably linked to my next point.
2. Sprawling but Not Dense
While my boyfriend and I flew into Beijing, our journey into the city centre was by train. Departing the airport, there were masses of tall apartment buildings but sprawling areas of greenery between them. This became less so as we got closer to the city, but it was immediately evident Beijing is a city of highways that has developed outwards rather than upwards, much like Los Angeles or Paris. Even in the central tourist area we were staying in, our hotel only had 12 floors and was one of the taller buildings in the area. The city was also very flat, making it the perfect concrete jungle to explore on foot.
Beijing had a level of organisation that rivals Ikea or The Container Store. Many places had a clear entrance and exit, even in a small area like bag check or cloak rooms. This may partly be because of security checks at the entrance (see my next point), so wanting to control the flow of people. But the subway system was excellent. Exits are clearly marked A,B, C and so on (identical to Hong Kong) and often divided further into B1, B2 and so forth so you have an exact reference point to meet somewhere or reach a location. If only more cities would adopt this system! Traffic is mostly cars with a few buses, tuk tuks and scooters. The scenes got a little hairy at some intersections, but drivers largely followed the rules.
I’d expected the military presence we saw around tourist locations like Tianamen Square, but I didn’t anticipate the level of other checks. Our hotel had a passport scanner and staff checked our visas, we had to show our passports when entering the train station, staff scanned my body with a hand-held metal detector at most checks, and sometimes my handbag would go through an x-ray machine only to be scanned again five minutes later. There were security cameras across the city, and I later saw a news story about how China is introducing live facial scanning technology.
5. Lack of Pollution
There’s no denying pollution is a huge problem in China and Beijing is no exception. However, I was surprised (and somewhat concerned) that at no time could I sense it. I could clearly see the dull, hazy grey band of smog across the horizon, but I could never smell it and my breathing felt the same as it did in Australia. After a day of sightseeing in Beijing, I didn’t feel any dirtier than after a day walking around New York City. When my boyfriend and I tried to raise the topic of air quality with our Great Wall tour guide, who’d quit journalism over having to write pro-government stories, he told us Beijing simply had ‘fog.’
6. English Prevalence
One of the biggest shocks in Beijing was seeing numbers in English! Everything from platform numbers to bus numbers, times and prices. I felt ignorant but then recalled my experiences catching local buses in Thailand. As mentioned, we did largely stay in the tourist areas of Beijing, but the prevalence of English continued throughout our trip. It gave me confidence we could catch buses across China. Many street names had English and Chinese characters too. Spoken English was a different story, ranging from fluent to none at all. A few times we asked for help with directions, and young people would apologise for their ‘bad’ English before clearly explaining where we needed to be. My Mandarin comprised hello, thank you, water and cheers.
As well as the clear organisation of train stations, roads and attractions, much of Beijing operated like clockwork. Trains departed to the minute, our hotel breakfast closed exactly 10.30am, lights went off in market areas at precisely 10pm and our tour guide for the Great Wall of China met us at exactly 7am. For the rest of our trip, it became a game to see whether boarding for a train opened exactly 20 minutes before departure (in almost every case, it did). A friend of my sister’s, living in Beijing, warned us that planes in China were often heavily delayed but of our four internal flights, we only were late once departing 15 minutes after the scheduled time.
I didn’t expect Beijing to be like walking in a trash can, but the absence of litter was noticeable. Roads, footpaths and public spaces were clean and tidy although – as with most capital cities – I suspect this wanes further away from central areas. The notable exceptions were public toilets (see below) and The Great Wall of China, which in some areas was littered with plastic drink bottles and empty food wrappers.
9. Public Toilets
I relax my obsession with staying hydrated when travelling but it wasn’t a problem in Beijing or the rest of the five cities we visited in China. Public toilets were everywhere and well sign-posted. As a local resident told us, you simply need to follow your nose. And bring toilet paper if you want some. Like the extensive labelling of exits at train stations, I wish other cities in the world had as many public toilets as Beijing did!
Beijing deserves a solid congratulations for having accessibility that, in parts, is better than my home city. I know this, because I’d debated whether to take a backpack or suitcase to China and I was glad I chose the latter. It was effortless to walk along footpaths, get around train stations, and enter accomodation. The prevalence of ramps and lifts was impressive and I recall hauling my suitcase up a lot less stairs than I did in Europe just five months prior.
When we left Beijing after four nights for Xi’an, I felt like I’d just begun to discover a city. I wasn’t ready to leave and was glad we’d return for a final night at the end of our trip before flying home. My expectations certainly weren’t low, but I was surprised by just how much I liked Beijing. It set the tone for the rest of our trip, which my boyfriend and I consider is one of the best we’ve done to date. Are you considering a trip to China’s capital? Check out My Must-See Attractions in Beijing.
QUESTION: Which place has surprised you most in your travels?