My grandma made me go to China. On Easter, I Skyped with my mom and she put my grandma on the line. There was no “How are you?” or “Happy Easter” greeting. Instead, she got on the phone and asked, “Why aren’t you going to China?” Uh, I wasn’t aware I’d ruled it out! I told my grandma I was actually thinking about going to China, Tibet specifically. “Oh you HAAAAAAAAAAVE to go to Tibet! How wonderful!” I definitely have my grandmother’s travel gene. By the end of the conversation she had threatened to sell my belongings if I didn’t go to Tibet. My grandma was 92 at the time, going on 93. How could I NOT go? Even if she did use shady blackmail tactics.
After confirming my trip, I called my grandma and told her that not only was I going to Beijing and Tibet, but that I’d be in Tibet on her birthday. She was beside herself with excitement and I was too. The plan was to spend a few days in Beijing, then take a 44-hour train to Lhasa to see some of the Chinese countryside.
Honestly, China was never at the top of my travel list. I wasn’t opposed to going, but other Asian countries held more appeal. Tibet, on the other hand, was extremely intriguing, so I thought if I had to get a Chinese visa anyway, I’d start my journey in Beijing and then hit the rails for Lhasa. I stayed in a 300-year old courtyard style hotel on a small hutong. Hutongs are collections of alleyways made up mostly of residences and small businesses. The area where I stayed was very quaint; not at all what I expected of Beijing. Fruit vendors could be seen on the street alongside a group of card players with crumpled money on the table. I was definitely in the “yesterday” section of the city and that suited me just fine. With only three days to explore, I had to narrow down my activities. One day would be spent just wandering around the hutongs, another day I’d go to the Forbidden City and finally a visit to the Great Wall before bidding the city of more than 1.4 billion people goodbye.
The Forbidden City is HUGE, covering 180 acres and home to more than 900 buildings. Just crossing the road from the subway station was a journey. Everything is grand with lots of empty space to form squares and courtyards. The audio guide, which was quite good, allows you to choose your path. Going straight through takes about 90 minutes, while exploring grounds to either side tacks on additional time. I went for the direct path and that turned out to be sufficient. The guide tracks your position and starts explaining the buildings as you approach so you can wander at your own pace.
The structures were beautiful with their ornate roofs and carvings, but visitors were not allowed inside. Instead, the doors were open and roped off. Naturally there were hoards of visitors peering inside for a glimpse of a throne or sleeping quarters, but I wasn’t inclined to elbow my way in. I learned the Chinese aren’t really big on waiting in line, so if you want the full experience, you’ve gotta push your way in. That’s not my style, so I was content to crane my neck and see what I could from the back of the crowd before moving on.
Outside some of the buildings were huge vessels used to hold water in case of fire. At one time they were covered in gold leaf, but when the palace was looted by the Europeans, much of the gold was taken. They actually scraped the outside of the giant bowls, leaving them to look as if they’d been attacked by wolves.
I was excited to see the botanical gardens at the end of the guided tour, but they were so packed with people, I walked through pretty quickly and made my way to the exit. It’s one of those places that I’m glad I saw, but it wasn’t my favorite. Large crowds hold less and less appeal for me. Perhaps that means I’m getting old.
Leaving the Forbidden City was a whole separate exercise. Because you make a straight line from the entrance to the exit, going all the way back to the beginning and taking the subway wasn’t an appealing option, so I decided to find a cab. I saw one right outside, got in and the guy wanted 100 yuan as a flat rate (about $17). I asked him to use the meter and he said no so I got out. Repeat two more times. Frustrated and tired, I walked up a bit farther to get away from exiting tourists. I turned a corner and hailed another cab. He used his meter. It was 10 yuan ($3) back to my hotel. Victory.
Later that day I discovered the SIM card for my mobile phone I bought from a local shop ran out of credit very quickly. I asked the woman at my hotel to check the balance, and after being on the phone with customer service for a few minutes, she hung up the phone and looked at me. “He overcharged me for the card, didn’t he?” I asked. “Yes,” the sweet front desk lady responded. “He sold you a 30 Yuan card for 60 Yuan.” Of course he did. Add that to the extortionist cab driver at the airport and I felt like Beijing was trying to rob me blind. I’m certainly no stranger to the “foreigner tax” levied by taxi drivers and shop owners all over Asia, but this felt more in my face than other places for some reason. Perhaps it’s because I was ripped off (or had to fight NOT to be ripped off) multiple times in just three short days. Understanding local costs is one of the hardest things to learn when getting to a new country, and being unsuccessful is exhausting. Once I’ve been somewhere for a while and have an idea of how much transportation costs from point A to point B, I can laugh off the driver’s initial rate and negotiate closer to market value. That takes some time, though, and I never made it over the hump in Beijing.
For my final outing, I booked a tour to the Great Wall through my hotel. I was looking for no muss, no fuss. Just get me to the Wall so I can snap some photos and be done. The day-trip was about three hours in a van (90 min. each way) with three hours spent at the Great Wall itself. I thought we’d be following a guide around, but happily we were left to our own wandering and asked to return to a nearby restaurant for lunch. This part of the Wall, Mutianyu, is a newer section, but the closest to Beijing. We took a gondola ride up partway and were let loose. The view was spectacular with green hills all around and the Wall snaking up, down and around for as far as the eye could see.
There were a lot of stairs and slopes and towers, so I walked… and sat… and climbed… and took in the panoramic view. I definitely had a few of those “OMG, I’m on the Great Wall of China!” moments. It felt special in a way I didn’t expect. Not like a “tick it off the list” kind of experience, which was a pleasant surprise. Towards the end of my visit I returned to the starting point as rain fell and I watched colorful umbrellas dot the path from where I had just come. It was peaceful and beautiful and a nice change from the elbowing crowds of the Forbidden City.
The next day I boarded my train to Lhasa. While I made it to the station in plenty of time to pick up my tickets and find my platform, it wasn’t an intuitive process and the unwillingness of train station staff to help (coupled with the lack of English) made it a bit frustrating. Once I found my compartment and we pulled away from Beijing Xi station, I can’t say I was terribly sad to leave. I am, however, glad I went. The Great Wall was definitely worth the trip and I really enjoyed my guesthouse and surrounding neighborhood.
Train to Lhasa
I have been on overnight trains throughout Europe, Vietnam and India, so I’m no stranger to long rides, but two full days and nights was definitely new territory. My only expectation was that the toilets would be virtually unusable by the end… and that proved 100% true. They started out tolerable and ended up abysmal. Other than that, the ride was actually quite pleasant. I watched movies on my computer, read and gazed out the window at vast expanses.
The first day didn’t provide spectacular views- mostly dirt and industrial-looking towns, but as we moved closer to Tibet, the tall buildings were replaced with tents, sheep and yaks. Mountains emerged with peaks dusted white. Brown dirt turned to green grass.
There was a dining car on the train, but the food was kind of greasy. Good thing I brought lots of snacks and ramen with me. The elevation of Lhasa is nearly 12,000 feet and my bags of chips bloated to the point of near explosion. Altitude sickness is common and I was waiting for symptoms to manifest. During the last few hours of the train ride, I definitely had a headache, which is the most common symptom, so I just tried to breathe slow and deep.
When we finally arrived in Lhasa, the air was cool and the wind blew. Police and military were everywhere, either standing with rifles or marching around. I stood at the train station exit and looked for a sign with my name. All travelers to Tibet must have a tour guide and driver- the Chinese don’t want us roaming free- so I was looking for my Explore Tibet representative. Unfortunately no one was there. A nice woman from another tour office offered to call mine to see if they were on their way, which I appreciated. I was told my ride was five minutes away. About 20 minutes later someone showed up and escorted me to my hotel room, which I would be sharing with an Indian man named Vivek. There were only four people on my tour, and sharing a room was a significant cost savings, so I agreed, if somewhat reluctantly. And so my Tibetan adventure began…