Ha! Great Firewall, my arse.
Okay, that may be tempting fate, so let's qualify it a little. We've just spent a total of four nights in Beijing, spread across two separate locations. In all that time, I've been able to get free wi-fi access - once at the hotel, once at a nearby bar - and the vast majority of the websites I've attempted to visit have posed no problems at all. There are obvious major blockages to be found, notably any of the Western video hosting sites such as YouTube or Google Video. And as I'd been warned before coming out here, Blogger is impossible to access without going in round the back via dodgy proxy servers and the like. Typepad, however, appears to have evaded the censors for now. Which means that if we assume there aren't any local variations in web censorship - and I couldn't tell you either way right now - I should be able to update this blog as we go. Although I'm not sure at the moment why I can't see any of my pictures.
Anyway. Where were we?
Last time, I posted from the transfer lounge at Helsinki Airport, waiting for a flight to Hong Kong via Finnair. They were fine: my usual benchmark for a good long-haul flight is the quality of the entertainment, and although the list of movies lacked any real must-sees there was a wide selection of TV shows on offer. (The episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations dealing with Shanghai restaurants was particularly informative.) However, this flight will mainly be remembered for when I tried to plug my new netbook into the seat power socket, and watched in horror as the earth pin on the power adaptor snapped off. It's only a dummy pin, and I've subsequently found that the netbook seems to operate quite happily without it, but that may explain why I got very little sleep on the journey to Hong Kong.
From Hong Kong it was a transfer to a separate plane to Beijing. The transfer got a little hairy due to some initial confusion over who was operating the plane: when we booked nearly a year ago it was a Cathay Pacific flight, but in the interim ownership's been transferred to Air China, and the plane itself was leased from Air Macau. Nevertheless, the journey itself was fairly painless, though to be honest we both slept through most of it. The most notable part was at the end, when we began to encounter just how paranoid China is about swine flu at present. Between landing and customs we were all personally scanned for signs of high temperature three times: two walks through infra-red scanners at the airport, and a more creepy hand-held scan of our foreheads before we were even off the plane.
Still, at the end of that we seem to have been pretty much given a clean bill of health. The next stage was getting from the airport to our first hotel. And here's one of the problems with travelling around China in the summer of 2009: all of the guidebooks were given a major revision in time for the influx of tourists who came for the Olympics last year, and they haven't been updated since. This is particularly a problem when it comes to Beijing's public transport infrastructure, which is still growing incredibly quickly. All our guidebooks suggested there may be a light rail link from the airport to the city, which might be ready in time for the Games, but at the time of writing they weren't sure. Well, I can tell you here and now that the Airport Express works just fine, getting you from the airport to the Beijing subway for 25 yuan in a measly 15 minutes. And it's a much better view out of the window than the Heathrow Express equivalent of Southall and Hayes.
I guess we need to talk a little about the structure of the holiday now. China's still a bugger to get around without help, so for a large part of the fortnight we'll be joining a tour group. But at either end of the tour, we've got a few days on our own: and quite frankly, that seemed like a daunting prospect. For our first two days in Beijing, we'd have to fend for ourselves, with only a tentative grasp of the language and my experiences from visiting 16 years ago to fall back on.
In the end, it was fine. Part of that was down to our rapid embracing of the Beijing subway system. It's cheap (a flat 2 yuan fare wherever you want to go), easy to use (all the station signage and ticket machines are in Chinese and English), and relatively quick (apart from some epic changes between lines inside stations). The layout of the subway is changing fast: up to a couple of years ago, there were only two lines, and now there are ten or so with more on the way. The guidebooks can't hope to keep up - frequently the directions to a place are 'travel to station X then take a taxi', but in practice there's probably already a station even closer. The other annoyance is the enhanced security, which may be a throwback to the Olympics or just one of those regular China annoyances, as every station entrance involves having your bags x-rayed.
The other thing that made our introduction to China so painless was our choice of hotel. The Emperor's Guards Station is a courtyard hotel in the Dongcheng district - a small back-alley affair consisting of a small open courtyard with half a dozen or so rooms spaced around its perimiter. The courtyard is the only communal area - it's where you have breakfast and get to meet your neighbours. The rooms themselves are beautifully laid out, and manageress Bonnie has a strong enough command of English to be able to help you with everything you need. And there are a host of other minor touches that enhance the experience even further, from the employee who spotted us while we were two minutes away from the hotel and offered to carry our bags, to the free wi-fi in the rooms. We ended up wishing we could stay longer.
But while we were operating on our own time, we took the opportunity to explore the city a bit using the subway. One of the main reasons The Belated Birthday Girl wanted to visit Beijing in 2009 was to see all the new stuff that was put in place in 2008, without the hassle of trying to deal with Olympic-sized crowds. Although if you're looking to visit the Bird's Nest stadium, there are still plenty of crowds anyway, all keen to visit what may well be the most beautifully-designed sports arena on the planet right now. Approaching the stadium was a little disappointing, as it was our first encounter with Beijing's legendarily dense smog - but it gets better the closer you get to it, and once you're inside it's very impressive indeed. The same applies for the Water Cube over the road, the location for the aquatic Olympic events: you may just be wandering around a swimming pool, but it's a very well-designed one. Watch out for the school parties, though: if the crowd from Wuhan I encountered is anything to go by, they'll all want to have their photo taken with you.
There are some neat attractions within walking distance of the Emperor's Guards, mainly food-based. Wangfujing is one of Beijing's major shopping streets, and a key indication of just how much things have changed since I was last here in 1993: back then the government-run Friendship Store was your only retail outlet, now there are huge glitzy shops all over the place. At one end you've got Gourmet Street, and at the other you've got the Donghuamen Night Market, both of which are crammed with stalls selling freshly-grilled street food on sticks. Go for Gourmet Street if you want it cheap (skewers start at 1 yuan), but go to the Night Market if you're looking to put things in your mouth you wouldn't normally consider. Deep-fried ice cream on fried bread? Yummy. Sheep penis? You're on your own.
Wangfujing accounted for one of our two free nights: the other was spent in Sanlitun, one of the more notorious bar areas. There are two major stretches of the main street that are just bars and nothing else: they're all apparently interchangeable, with big windows in the front showing punters on the karaoke, and touts outside yelling any English phrase that they think will get you in the door. (One guy seemed to think that just shouting 'Michael Jackson!' was enough of an advert.) We were looking for a restaurant complex called 1949: The Hidden City, which turned out to live up to its name - it's another courtyard affair, whose entrance is hidden round the back of a shopping mall. Inside, it's a collection of different restaurants spread across multiple buildings: unfortunately, none of them have menus outside, so you can't just stroll around and pick what you fancy. The duck at 1949's Duck De Chine has a reputation for being the best in town, which is a pretty big boast for Beijing: but the rest of their menu isn't particularly veggie-friendly, so we visited their Noodle Bar instead. The noodles are served no-frills - I had a bowl with noodles, brisket and soup, and literally nothing else in it - and the vegetarian version is apparently pretty good too. You can walk them off afterwards at The Village, another major shopping mall.
After two days of this, it was time to join our tour group. Following some research and recommendations from a couple of the Pals, we went with Explore, whose tours seem to offer the right balance of guided activity and free time for your own adventures. Our group is a huge one: twenty tourists, a pair of special consultants (more on that when you need to know about it), and a tour manager who we'll just call D for the purposes of anonymity. At the time of writing, they all seem like a perfectly lovely bunch, but then again none of them know that I'm blogging all of this.
Explore have put us in a rather more conventional tourist hotel, the Xiao Xiang. One of the advantages of using them as a tour group is that they've established relationships with a few of the local businesses: so we know we can get a friendly welcome at the Happy Bar (which, unlike the Xiao Xiang, has free wi-fi), the supermarket, and John's Restaurant (John himself loves chatting to English tourists, and his menu is all in English). All of these are just two minutes walk away from the hotel, so if you're just looking to acclimatise yourself during your first few days in a new country, they've set it all up rather nicely for you.
Inevitably, there are organised excursions on the menu: and with a huge city like Beijing and only two days to cover it, we ended up hitting all the usual tourist hotspots. It was nice to gauge the enthusiasm of our tour group on our first full morning, when D suggested a 6am meetup for a trip to the Temple Of Heaven - over half the group dragged themselves out of bed for that one. The main attraction at that time of the morning was the hordes of people out doing their exercises: the usual tai chi as you'd expect, but also baton twirling (D roped us all into participating for that one), that Chinese version of keepy-uppy with shuttlecocks, and more esoteric pastimes like walking backwards and forced laughing.
The two biggies, of course, are the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. The former was a manic crush of tourists as ever, with plenty of examples of the current Beijing men's fashion of rolling your t-shirt up over the top of your beer gut. Local guide Peter entertainingly explained the history of the various areas of the city, having to resort to euphemism when describing the antics of the Emperor and his concubines: "...then they went off to play a game..." As for the Wall, an early start meant that we were there for 9am while there were very few other people about. It's as much of a jaw-dropper as it was when I was here 16 years ago, and you still need to remind yourself every so often that people built this thing. I must have been in much better physical shape in 1993, though, because that climb to the final tower nearly killed me this time.
There were a couple of more unusual excursions too: the main one being a tour of one of the hutongs, the small communities built around courtyards that haven't as yet been converted into boutique hotels. We were transported to and from this particular hutong by rickshaw, which was a first for me. At some point when I get access back to YouTube, I'll post up the video I shot from the rickshaw, attempting to cover the entire journey in one take - but you won't get to see the bit with The Belated Birthday Girl shouting at me as I attempt to change battery while we're still moving. After a splendid lunch in one of the hutong houses, we had a short talk from a local guide (a student who's taken the English name of Eleven) on the history of the hutongs, and a tasting of some local teas. I didn't film the rickshaw ride back, so you won't get to see the bit where our rickshaw knocked the wing mirror off a passing car. More traditional tourist fun was had at the Tianqiao Acrobats Theater, with photos outside showing the young acrobats posing with visiting dignitaries like Prince Charles and Mr Bean. The gender roles are established early in life, obviously - the girls all do pretty stuff, the boys come perilously close to killing themselves - but it makes for an entertaining hour with plenty of things to gasp at.
There were a couple of sections of free time, and because we weren't near a subway we had to rely on the local buses. If we'd had the time I imagine BJ Bus (I know, I know) could have given us the route details, but we ended up pieceing it together from a variety of sources, mainly The BBG's Japanese-based recognition of key Chinese characters and a hotel list of bus routes to key destinations. It's a flat fare of 1 yuan, so if - like us - you end up taking your first bus in exactly the wrong direction, it's no great loss.
We mainly used the buses to look at the various exciting bits of new architecture that have sprung up in Beijing over the last few years. The crazily-shaped CCTV Building, currently surrounded by giant safety barriers after the fire in the hotel next door earlier this year: the Capital Museum, which has a huge range of temporary and permanent exhibitions, including a splendid show on the upcoming Expo 2010: and the National Centre For The Performing Arts, a huge moated venue that's irritatingly showing a Peking Opera version of Red Cliff - yes, that Red Cliff - a couple of days after we leave. Irritatingly, the one thing we haven't managed yet is a local movie: Chinese cinema appears to have been driven out of the movie houses in Beijing, as they're all showing Terminator: Salvation, Transformers 2 or the film that Babelfish charmingly renders as Harry Potter And The Hybrid Prince.
So now we're on our way to Xi'an, and I need to look through the X section of my dictionary for inspiration for a title.