Visiting a city like Beijing in all of three days is a tall order. There are constant crowds and pushy tour groups to battle, along with a lengthy list of not-to-miss highlights. The city is extremely spread out, and getting from place to place can eat up your precious hours.
However, in first three days I had there last month, I managed to fit in the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, the Olympic Sports Complex, the Lama Temple, and even a five-hour hike along the Great Wall near the Inner Mongolian border. I successfully bargained at the Silk Market, and indulged in the famous Beijing Roast Duck. I biked from place to place, reveling in immense bike lanes, most of which are kindly shaded by gorgeous green trees. I was running around so much, I barely got enough time to appreciate undoubtedly the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed in – the Peking Downtown Backpacker’s Accommodations, located on the chic street of Nanluogu Xiang, in the middle of one of Old Beijing’s charming hutongs.
So, when it came time for me to leave on Monday night, I felt like I had covered most of the highlights, except for the Summer Palace, one of the most visited sites in the city. Still, I congratulated myself on my first solo trip within China. No hitches, no mistakes.
Until my bus back to Dalian was canceled. Without warning. There I stood, alone at the bus station at 10 p.m., attempting in my horrendous Mandarin to ask what the hell was going on. All I could understand was, the regularly scheduled overnight bus wasn’t going to be budging from its parking space a few meters away. I had classes to teach the next morning. I felt confused and lost, for the first time that weekend.
I made my way, bags in tow, back to my hostel, hopeful that they had an opening for me that night. Fortunately, they did. The slight annoyance I initially felt about the situation soon lifted, as I realized I had been given an extra day in a city I had only begun to get to know.
I woke up early the next morning, eager to plan my day. I had enough time to make it to the Summer Palace, as the sleeper train I had booked didn’t leave until 8 that night. (I decided buses were entirely too unreliable). After indulging in the hostel’s free Western breakfast (Western breakfast! OJ, fruit, toast, jam, scrambled eggs, and a chicken sausage something-or-other), I got directions from the front desk to the Summer Palace, which is quite far outside the city center. I was almost out the door when a little voice in my head told me to slow down. It dawned on me that this extra day could be spent in any old way I wanted, not just what was on the prescribed itinerary that almost every guide book provides you with.
I turned around, asked for a rental bike for the day from my hostel, flipped through my Lonely Planet to a random page, and decided to head to the entry I had chosen – Pyongyang Art Studio. I found its location on my city map and took off.
Located near the well-known Yashow Clothing Market, Pyongyang Arts Studio is a bit difficult to find, as you have to go through an alleyway that at first glance looks fenced off. Don’t be fooled. There’s a small doorway you can walk through. I walked down the alley until I saw a big yellow poster for Koryo tours, “The PRK tour experts.” This had to be it. I opened the gate, parked my bike, and cautiously entered.
A sweet Chinese woman with a distinct British English accent greeted me. She was running out the door, she said, to pick up some balloons and decorations for a film showing later that night. She directed me to the gallery and store, run by an intern from Berlin.
I perused through random objects such as North Korean tea, cigarettes, vitamins, translations of books by Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, propaganda paintings, postcards, and specialty honey liquor. Maps of Pyongyang, books with titles like, “A Look at Pyongyang” lined stuffed shelves.
“There’s an exhibit through that door,” the German intern told me. I checked it out. The exhibit, which runs through the end of June, features old and new movie posters of North Korean movies, nearly all of which are written by (or at the very least, approved by) the Dear Leader or the Great Leader, and used as a form of propaganda. Alongside the posters are plot descriptions and the cultural or political value of the film.
I bought a movie called Our Fragrance, about older generations fending off Western influences that the youth of the country have accepted. (English subtitles, about 6 USD). I chatted with a British woman who was working at the adjacent Koryo Tours named Hannah about her 35 trips to North Korea, and about the stipulations for Americans entering the Hermit Kingdom as tourists. They’re allowed a total of four days, and only during the country’s elaborate Mass Games, which take place in September and October annually.
Satisfied with my discovery and my purchases, I turned to my city map for ideas for the next destination. I decided to head to the 14th-century Confucius Temple after a quick lunch of mapou tofu at a small café.
The Confucius temple sits across the street from a more famous Beijing attraction, the Lama Temple, which holds the title as the most important Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet***.
**Sidenote**China’s big on qualifiers and titles like that. Dalian is known as the friendliest city (because it’s by the sea, which makes people happy, and also because it is more difficult for thieves to escape with an ocean trapping them in — I’m serious, this is one of the reasons I’ve gotten), the cleanest city (even though the other cities I’ve visited seem just as clean), etc…
After battling crowds all weekend as well as questionable English on signs and plaques accompanying the exhibits, the Confucius temple was a welcome respite. It was cozy and green, with significantly fewer visitors. It’s amazing how much more enjoyable an experience can be without having to snake your way through pushy Chinese tour groups clad in matching hats and shirts and depending heavily on mega-phones and shouting.
The exhibits covered the life history of Confucius himself, the religion/philosophy of Confucius, the spread of Confucius thought throughout the world, and the teaching methods at the adjacent Imperial College, which you can also visit. There’s a corridor lined with massive rocks carved with recordings of 13 Confucius classics, containing more than 600,000 Chinese characters. And, of course, the architecture and vibrancy of the colors when the sun and shade toy with light is also worth admiring.
Nearly three hours passed before I knew it. It was reaching 4:00. Two hours left before I had to think about heading to the mad house of a train station. About a ten-minute bike ride north lies the Ditan Park, which is where the eponymous Ditan Temple is. Ditan means Earth. This temple is where emperors would go worship the Earth gods, praying for good harvest, weather, and the likes. The temple is square in shape, in contrast with the Temple of Heaven, which is circular. It is square to represent what was considered the shape of the Earth at the time of construction.
Entrance to the park is a mere two yuan, a steal in a city that charges for entrance fees for nearly every touristy pocket of the city. To enter the temple, however, costs another five yuan. (Gasp).
***Reminder – One US dollar = 7 yuan.***
The temple was interesting enough. It was my fourth temple in three days, and definitely the least English-friendly one of the bunch. I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to without knowing what the captions were explaining. That’s why I’m now a huge supporter of native-tongue audio guides in foreign countries.
What’s best about Ditan Park is its local flavor. I saw but one other Western face in there. I would guess he was Russian, based on his accent when he said, “Looks like we’re the only tourists in here,” to me as we passed each other. It was nice to find a place like that within central Beijing. There’s also a sports complex, where mostly elderly people were enjoying some variant of croquet in a huge dirt field.
I meandered around the park for about an hour, downed a couple red-bean ice cream bars, found a modern art gallery, and enjoyed this end to my stay in Beijing, a city that I had incorrectly categorized as a tourist-infested, polluted capital that had likely lost its charm. Tourist-infested, at times, yes. Polluted, yes, but the Olympics helped put the city back on track. But lost its charm? No way.
To keep with China’s love for titles, I’d say Beijing is the most fascinating city I’ve ever visited. I almost didn’t want to like Beijing that much, because I sort of pride myself in enjoying destinations somewhat off the traveler radar. But it won me over, and I’ll certainly go back if I ever get a chance. Besides, I still haven’t been to the Summer Palace.