After a 14-hour flight from D.C, I just started to notice the shimmering city below known as Beijing. I could see a thick blanket of smog rolling over the city.
The airport was massive! It looked like you could almost fit an entire Dulles in this one room alone. After getting a temporary visa, I was able to leave the airport by taking an “automatic people mover”. I like that word, may start using it.
I found out the only WiFi station in the whole airport was malfunctioning, so it would be a good 2 hours before I could tell my loved ones I had arrived safely. The language barrier started to become a factor and being a less sympathetic culture than I was used to, people seemed uninterested in helping me. The woman at the bus station was quite nice, she helped me find the right bus to get to my hostel and even wrote out my stop in Chinese characters on a slip of paper.
I got on the bus and began taking my first tour through this new country. I was amazed by how large all the buildings were and how sprawling the city was. The skyscrapers were not just tall but elaborate. Many had different colored lights and I saw about four that were actually connected by a series of bridges. Inside one of these glass bridges was a gym with elliptical machines lined up. They really take their cardio to a whole new level here!
The bus finally dropped me off at the bottom of Qianmen street. It was amazing how similar China is to what I had imagined. People on motorbikes with face masks on all around. Qianmen street is a pedestrian zone along a huge row of a shops. Perhaps a lot of it is manicured for tourists but amongst these narrow alleyways and pagodic architecture, you really feel like you are in the China you imagined.
I checked into my hostel, put my stuff down and then headed back out to the streets. I was anxious to explore the historical part of Beijing, even though it was almost midnight. After finding numerous police and military barricades, it was clear that getting to places like Tian’anmen square and the forbidden city would be challenging. I was up for the challenge and had plenty of time so I went for it!
A big travel tip for everyone is to take advantage of the underpasses. It can be a nightmare to get from the top of Qianmen to the front of the forbidden city, but nearly every intersection on the way has an underpass you can use. This is much safer and saves a lot of time. You may even see a soldier or two protecting the entrance to Chairman Maos Mausoleum.
After shyly slipping through a baggage check, I was able to get to the front of the forbidden city. This is one of the most famous tourist attractions in China and I got to see it on a layover! I was so happy I couldn’t believe it. There are 2 beautiful stone lions at the gate and right in the center is a giant portrait of Chairman Mao himself. I learned about this in my Art History class. The painting is actually real and because it is outside year round, an artist has to paint a new identical one every year.
Feeling as if I’d seen enough, I started to head back. I used my underpass trick but accidentally wondered into a subway station. I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep or the thick accent but one woman looked at me and said “Ghost!” I looked at her, startled and she said again, “closed”. That’s much better. I started to pick up the pace a bit as I wandered through the narrow streets around Qianmen. I got there just as the hostel was beginning to lock their doors. What a great night!