The celebrations on New Year's Eve in the West may now be a memory, but in China they're just beginning…
Most of us have to see a real war zone, but if you have ever wondered what it is like, the safest way to find out is to visit China during the lunar New Year’s celebrations (I have been chastised in Korea for calling it Chinese New Year).
I have to admit to being scared out of my wits several times during my weekend stay in the Chinese capital as fireworks of all shapes and sizes are constantly exploded into the air, no matter what time of the day or night it is.
The deafening noise from morning till night and through till morning again is almost unbearable sometimes and you really do have to watch where you’re walking and be aware of Beijingers running in the opposite direction to you as this is a sure-fire sign that they have just lit a firework or a box of firecrackers.
The spectacle is something to behold, with giant plumes of smoke billowing from every street, alley and hutong and the constant stream of the firecrackers provides what sounds like covering fire.
Occasionally there will be a mortar fired up and every foreigner around ducks for cover while the locals, after years of experience with these celebrations waltz around and dance amongst the potentially eye and eardrum destroying projectiles.
I arrived in China at Beijing international airport, which is about 27km from the centre of the city and had planned to get a bus. It's very simple when you know how, you just go out of the airport at exit 11 and tell the guy at the ticket desk there where you want to go and he decides for you which bus is best, you buy a ticket for 16 Yuan.
You get off the bus but still have no real idea where you are, all the signs are written on some pictograph language and you scramble with your guide book to try and make some sense of it all.
I think it’s safest to get a taxi when you are relatively close to your accommodation, at least then you can orientate yourself from a known point. With a sense of nervousness at being ripped off within hours of arriving in the Chinese capital I managed to get into a taxi and had the driver moving, in what was hopefully the direction of my hostel.
With a few turns and momentary stops for the driver to look at my bad computer printed map we made it.
The Red Lantern hostel is located in one of Beijing’s famous hutongs and is within walking distance from Tiananmen Square. The hostel has two buildings; the main reception and an annex, located a few minutes walk away, which is where I stayed.
The place is fantastic, located behind a big wooden door in a small alley way, it opens up into a compound with a main reception area with a few sofas, a computer with internet access (1 Yuan per 10 minutes) and a large table that people congregate around to have a very cheap Chinese beer (3 Yuan) or to write the obligatory postcards.
Lit up all over the place with red lanterns, it was a fantastic introduction to Beijing proper.
The hostel was basic, as basic as hostels are designed to be but was perfectly nice and any shortcomings, like not being able to flush paper down the toilet were more than made up for by the fantastic hospitality of the staff who for the most part spoke excellent English and were very knowledgeable and helpful when it came to asking for directions, bus times and other enquiries.
The hostel seems to be run by a family with several daughters, uncles and grandparents all pitching in.
When we arrived at the reception of the annex we were told straight away that there would be a dumpling-making session that night for the residents and this is where the family feeling of the place came into its own.
At sunset we all gathered around the table and were instructed how to crimp and fold and a pile of dumpling wrappers and filing turned slowly and awkwardly into neat little Chinese dumplings.
It felt like a real traveller’s experience, I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with locals in Beijing, making Chinese dumplings on the eve of Chinese New Year.
The dumplings were cooked (even the deformed ‘foreign’ dumplings) along with several other dishes and we all feasted before heading out into the war zone-like night.
I spent the first day mostly at the zoo, looking at the pandas. Unfortunately, they weren’t being kept in the best conditions and they themselves didn’t look in the best condition but it was still a sight to see these almost mythical creatures in the flesh.
The Chinese have a few breeding facilities across China, I don’t know of any in Beijing but there is one in Chengdu I intend to visit on my next trip. There were other attractions at the zoo but none compared to the pandas, I hope to see them in better condition in the summer when I visit again.
The attractions are vast in Beijing as is the city itself, and as China is so cheap taxis are quick way to travel from place to place.
Because of the language and its intricacies (4 tones with each indicating something different) Mandarin is an extremely difficult language to imitate and so even a simple taxi journey can be a Herculean task and of course taxis are the best way to not interact with any city as you bypass the real people and places if you just flit from attraction to attraction.
Another and somewhat easier way is to use the subway, it’s a good way to get around as the price (3 Yuan per trip) is cheap and the need for conversing is minimal, you may need to learn to count though, at least to one (‘e’ is the number 1 in Mandarin).
The cheapest and best way to see the city however is to use your legs. From our hostel we could walk to Tiananmen Square, passing through the vast Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City was off limits for 500 years to all commoners but has since become a haven for tourists from all over the world who come to see this city within a city. I got lost once and had to ask for directions to get out, it’s that big.
With so many alleyways and side streets I didn’t get to explore the city in its entirety as you can spend a day or more on this mammoth attraction alone.
Beijing is a true mega city and is built on a grid system with a north-south axis running through the city and directly through Tiananmen Square in accordance with Feng Shui rules.
This sprawling city is navigable by foot because of its linear layout but beware that some of the longer streets will change name several times along their lengths and this can lead to some confusion.
The highlight was Tiananmen Square. This huge open concrete space is as vast as it is awesome. Standing underneath the image of Mao, the iconic image that symbolises a nation and an ethos is a strange experience, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, especially when we crossed the road into the square proper.
This is the site of the ‘tank man’ incident. The image of this single protester shook and shocked a generation when he stood in front of the tanks in the very square I now stood in, an interesting sensation to be sure.
The fact that the world's largest public square is now a site for peddlers of cheap tourist souvenirs with Mao pasted on everything from commemorative stamps to watches seemed to lighten the mood and makes you realise modern China isn’t the place it once was.
Around the corner from Tiananmen Square is Donghuamen night market, designed for foreigners and selling all the fantastically diverse food people have come to expect from the Far East.
The prices here are more than you would expect to pay from hutong vendors but the list of exotic food quickly makes you forget this. Included were deep-fried star fish, large black and small brown scorpions, animal testicles as well as small shark type fish, all on sticks. There were also lots of ‘normal’ meats and various fruits and veg kebabs for the less adventurous.
There are other markets like this that aren’t necessarily geared around tourists, notably Wangfujing snack street, which is another place I didn’t make it to but is located closer to Tiananmen Square, just east of the Forbidden City and is recognisable for its archway entrance.
The food in Beijing's restaurants wasn’t very different from any Chinese food I’ve had back home, apart from the fact they waste less here.
My chicken dish came with free feet, head and even the flappy bit on the head, and the Peking duck (where better to eat it?) was mediocre at best. It is hard to tell the tourist places from the real deal and so I will reserve judgment on the entire cuisine of the nation!
There are many things I didn’t do on this trip, the great wall at Badaling isn’t far away (70km North-west of the city) and the Lama temple (one of the most renowned Buddhist temples outside Tibet) will be high on the list of priorities for my next visit.
You need to spend time in Beijing to appreciate all it has to offer, whether you plan to see everything in one go or as the first of many visits, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that come here at least once.