Beijing (1)

Sunday 03/09

The night was quite chaotic with the 2 customs controls, the change of boogies and the associated shocks.

We wake up around 9am. The landscape is so different! Beautiful gorges, different house architecture, and more industrial sites… Welcome to China!

The arrival is hectic at the busy Beijing Railway Station. It immediately reminds us that Beijing is a city of 23 million inhabitants!

We ideally would like to change some money and buy local sim cards but we are rapidly directed to the exit. We put the kids in the (packed) Mc Donald’s with the luggage (we can see 3 Mc Donald’s at a distance of less than 100m around the station) and we go and explore the place in front of the station. It is not really tourist-friendly… We can’t find shops from local phone operators to buy sim cards. We only find one cash machine (inside a small grocery shop…), where we could take a maximum of 2,000 (Yuan) Renminbi (1 Euro = 7.8 Yuan).

Kids are hungry. We eat at Mc Donald’s (quite similar to any Mc Donald’s in the world), where it was a challenge to find 5 seats…

We want to take a taxi to the Airbnb that Isabelle booked. There are plenty of taxis in front of the station but they are quite small and we can’t all fit into one. Second difficulty: they all try to ask a fixed price and refuse to follow the meter. Third difficulty: we didn’t receive a location point from the owner of the apartment, only a “description of the location / address” (in Chinese). Taxi drivers don’t seem to really know where it is… I go with Jules and Ludivine into a taxi who seems to accept to follow the meter and we leave Isabelle and Florence behind. Our Airbnb in located in a hutongs district, which is an old neighborhood composed of narrow streets (or alleys). Difficult for cars to access them. The taxi leaves us as far as it could reach. We have no clue how far we are from our destination… and, more worryingly, we doubt Isabelle and Florence will ever reach the exact same point… It’s never a good idea to split the family; we should always stay together. We have no way to contact each other (except our Belgian mobile phones). After waiting for 10’, we decide to go and try to find the apartment (showing the “description” to the locals); I send a text on Isabelle’s Belgian mobile to inform her (which was not a great idea since I later on learnt that it was out of battery…). Fortunately, when we start moving, we could see a taxi arriving with Florence waiving through the window. What a relief. I don’t really know how we would have met. As a general rule, in case one of us is lost, we always say to the kids to go back to the place where we last saw each other, so it means we would have had to go back to the taxi station of the train station… Isabelle tells us their adventure: as soon as our taxi left from the station, she couldn’t find a taxi willing to take them except at a fixed price, despite her efforts; she even crossed the street to find another taxi but one lady followed her to advise the other taxis not to accept to take them at the ‘meter’ fare… (what a mafia!). She had to accept to pay 4 times the rate that I paid to find a taxi willing to take them. Anyway, we are again all together, which is great. But we have not found our apartment yet… With all our luggage, we start walking in these small alleys, guided by the locals who we show the “description” to. We finally find the place but we are unable to open the lock. It takes us 5’ to eventually manage to open it. We enter the apartment, which is a bit in a messy state. The previous guests left the same morning (after a party apparently) and the place is not clean.

Fortunately, the Wi-Fi is working and we can contact the owner who tells us that he will send the cleaning lady.

The apartment is very nice, nicely renovated with a modern touch. There are basically 2 apartments (each with a double bed, a couch, a table, a kitchen and a bathroom), separated by a nice courtyard.

We go and visit some places not too far from our district. We start with the Tian’anmen Square, which is less than 1km from where we stay. We start with the visit of the Zhengyang Men, one of the 2 towers on the southern edge of Tian’anmen Square, to have a view of the square. Zhengyang Men was the most imposing of the nine gates of the inner city wall that divided Beijing’s imperial quarters in the Forbidden City from the “Chinese City”, where, during the (Tartar) Manchu Quing dynasty, the Chinese inhabitants lived. With the disappearance of the city walls, the gate sits out of context. Unfortunately we can’t go to the top of the tower and we have a view mainly on Mao Mausoleum (containing the embalmed body of Chairman Mao).

We then walk on Tian’anmen Square; there are surprisingly few people. It’s the largest square in the world (3 times the Red Square). It’s quite exciting (and moving) to walk on this gigantic square considering its history (the square has traditionally served as a stage for popular demonstrations and is most indelibly associated with the student protests of 1989 and their violent climax). But despite its scale the square is rather dull. It is bordered by 1950s Communist-style buildings and (on the South side) ancient gates.

We then walk to the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), an arts centre containing an opera house, nicknamed the (Giant) Egg. It’s superb and peaceful; for me it’s really one the most beautiful modern buildings I’ve seen recently. The Centre is an ellipsoid dome of titanium and glass surrounded by an artificial lake. It was designed by French architect Paul Andreu. Construction started in December 2001 and the inaugural concert was held in December 2007.

We walk to a local shopping area, not touristy at all, which gives us a feeling of the local vibe. Plenty of small shops, plenty of small food outlets. We go to a (modern) shopping mall nearby to find something to eat (food courts of shopping malls are always a safe bet for the first day…). Menus with pictures are of great help… We eat some dumplings with rice. It’s quite early (6pm) but the restaurants are already full. The restaurants are so noisy!

The kids take a frozen yogurt in a place nearby and we go back home, in metro. We are all tired.

The apartment has been cleaned. Much better. The beds and the showers are good (it’s the most important in an apartment, together with the Wi-Fi).

Note: China is the first country that is prepared by Isabelle. After deciding to do a world tour one of the most challenging tasks was to select the countries. We wanted to visit no more than 10 countries (in 13 months), in order to have a relatively good feeling of the countries we go to. The selection was relatively smooth; as far as I remember, there were only 2 small frustrations: Isabelle wanted to visit Mexico and I wanted to go to Cuba but for the rest we were on the same wavelength. Once the selection was done, we “distributed” the countries to each other: Isabelle was in charge of preparing China, Philippines, Australia, Chili and USA (but I volunteered to prepare the US cities), while I prepared Russia, Mongolia, Japan, New Zealand and Peru. The trip to Galapagos was to be prepared together.

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