As I said goodbye to the USA, I prepared to say hello to a brand new country: China! I headed over to do the Great Wall of China Marathon and you can read my recap on the race here.
I left LA on the Sunday night, landing in Hong Kong 15 hours later, but on Tuesday morning. Monday didn’t exist for me as I spent about 13 hours flying in darkness before the sun rose just after 4am Hong Kong time on Tuesday morning. It was my first time flying Cathay Pacific and I was very pleased with the service and the plane.
I had a brief layover in Hong Kong, and after briefly getting lost in the airport I managed to find my way to the Cathay Pacific Lounge for some breakfast before boarding my Dragonair flight to Beijing. The flight was just over 3 hours so I settled back and killed time by watching some movies. As we got closer to Beijing I noticed the thick layer of grey smog that blanketed the city. I’d never seen pollution quite like it.
I finally made it to Beijing and after clearing immigration and getting my bags it was time to head to the hotel alongside a couple from Brisbane. They mentioned that there was no Facebook in China and that several other websites were blocked. I didn’t do any research before heading there and so after going online at the hotel I realised just how many things were blocked. After a day of using Yahoo and Bing China I was missing Google and wished that I’d done some research on China before heading there.
The first thing I noticed about Beijing is just how crazy their drivers are. I thought Hawaiian and Texan drivers were nuts, but the Chinese just make them look tame. Our driver’s favourite thing to do was honk the horn every few minutes, whilst weaving in and out of traffic. I don’t know if the Chinese have heard of an indicator, but I didn’t see anyone use one! Crossing the road was also an experience as drivers use traffic lights as a guideline, rather than a rule as to whether they can drive. I learnt that to cross a road in Beijing you just need to follow someone else and just go. I also noticed a lot of people wearing strange apron style things whilst riding scooters.
I visited some awesome places in Beijing including Temple of Heaven Park, Tiananmen Square, the Palace Museum (in the Forbidden City), Taoranting Park, and of course – the Great Wall. You can read a brief blog about the places here.
My lack of research into China meant that I was shocked when I first went to use a public toilet on the way to Jixian. I haven’t been to Asia for a number of years and I’d forgotten that some places use squat toilets instead of regular toilets. Thankfully I always carry tissues with me which were often used as toilet paper as these toilets didn’t have any.
I’m glad that my Mum taught me how to use chopsticks when I was a kid as none of the restaurants in Jixain have cutlery. The first night in Jixian was spent enjoying a great meal at a nearby hotel as we all prepared for the weekend’s event. The next morning the hotel served us the most random and basic breakfast. There was plain white bread with butter and peanut butter, cold fried eggs, Chinese spam, watermelon and oats with room temperature milk. With no cutlery available we were all forced to use fingers and ladles to spread out butter and PB on the almost stale bread.
Jixian is considered rural China and is often frequented by visitors who want to see the Great Wall. A group of us on the tour decided to spend the Friday before the marathon just wandering around the streets in search of cool shops and good food. We didn’t find good food and ended up having an expensive lunch at Pizza Hut, but we succeeded in finding some awesome shops along their main drag. I bought some Chinese Lego for my brother and others also bought gifts for home. There was some incredible architecture around and it was incredible to see the old temples and buildings surrounded by modern buildings and architecture.
It was great to be in a place where things were so cheap. A bottle of Sprite from a street vendor was under $1AUD, and most of my meals in China cost me between $3-$7. Even KFC was half the price that it is back home. I ended up at KFC for dinner on the Friday before the marathon as the food served at the hotel didn’t sit well with my tastebuds. A few bites of the food made me and another lady squirm in disgust, so we bailed and enjoyed some burgers and chips at KFC instead. I don’t normally eat takeaway but it was the only place selling western food other than Pizza Hut.
One night in Beijing I headed out with some ladies in my tour group and we enjoyed an amazing meal at a hole-in-the-wall style restaurant near the hotel. For 300 Yuan we enjoyed an incredible dinner that was cooked in front of our eyes, and were the envy of others who had gone to a western café and spent over 150yuan each just to have a pizza.
I was surprised to see a large number of security checkpoints in Beijing. I had to put my belongings through a scanner to enter Tiananmen Square, the Palace Museum and even the railway station. One of the queues at Tiananmen Square was so busy that it took us 30 minutes to get into the square.
The lack of English speakers and English on signs wasn’t an issue, as in most places I managed to get by via miming. I knew how to say “hello”, “thanks” and ‘good bye” in Mandarin which helped immensely! The locals would smile after they heard me saying thanks in Mandarin, instead of just speaking English.
On my last night in Beijing I ended up at a small ‘restaurant’ near my hotel as the menu was translated into English and they sold food that I would actually eat. One place’s menu had things like beef tongue, sheep’s balls and liver. I must admit that I wasn’t feeling that adventurous. I ordered noddles with beef and as I waited for my meal I briefly spoke a young girl sitting in the restaurant. She kept glancing at me and then hiding her face when I would look back at her, and eventually I got a smile and a wave out of her as I said goodbye. The noodles ended up being the cheapest and tastiest meal that I had during the whole time I was in China
On my last day I enjoyed one last western style breakfast at my hotel before tackling the Beijing railway system to get to the airport. Instead of spending $70 on a taxi, I decided to spend the 29 Yuan (about $6AUD) on the train. Luckily the subway station was about a 5-minute walk from my hotel, so I grabbed my luggage and ventured out. I had to change trains four times during the journey, but an hour later I was at the airport and ready to head back to Aus.
I learnt two valuable lessons that day.
- If you’re going to walk in the heat whilst wearing a backpack, be sure to pack a clean shirt to put on once you get to the airport. That way you won’t set off the security scanners with your sweaty back.
- When flying out of Beijing be sure to get to the airport extra early as there’s about four different security checkpoints to go through before you get to your gate.
When I got back to Hong Kong I was so excited to be back on social media as I’d been receiving notifications via email but couldn’t view anything.
After setting off the sensors at Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore, I finally arrived home early on the Wednesday morning, three months after leaving home.
One last thing that surprised me was how small the world is. One of the ladies on my tour bus mentioned that her friend had sent her a message through Facebook, but she couldn’t access it. She mentioned his name and I asked her if he lives in Sydney, as I knew someone with the same name. It turns out that her friend and running buddy is someone that used to work at my old work and I’d met him a few times when he visited Perth. Such a small world.
Visiting China was an eye-opening experience and I loved it (for the most part). I will definitely add it to the list of places I want to re-visit.
Week 12-13: 16-25 May