I arrived in Beijing from Hanoi ready to begin the final leg of my Asian adventure in China. I was looking forward to the Jinhua Homestay Project (and being in the same place for more than a couple of nights!). While I was planning this trip I realized that I should really take advantage of this opportunity to see a little more of China, and to me that meant one thing: The Great Wall. So I decided to travel to Beijing a few days early to settle in and explore China before heading out to the village.
Upon landing I immediately recognized that China was different than any place I’d ever been. As in, totally and completely different. At the airport, I tried to connect to the WiFi to figure out how to get to my hostel, and even after getting a code from a staff member, I couldn’t use Google Maps to find directions. I realized that due to China’s strict censorship, any Google product was off-limits. I eventually got the address and some directions and decided to tackle the subway system. The subway in Beijing is similar to other cities and was greatly expanded for the 2008 Olympics. After making two transfers, I realized that I still had two more to make before I made it to my hostel, and I decided to quit and find a taxi – after all, it didn’t look that far (famous last words). I found a tuk-tuk and a short argument about the price, I finally arrived at my hostel. Exhausted from the trip, I headed to bed early.
The next morning, I slept in and then set to figuring out how to get connected to the outside world. Going into this trip, I had heard some about the Internet censorship in China (“The Great Firewall”) but I did not fully realized the extent of the censorship until I tried to use the Internet and couldn’t do 90% of the things I wanted to do. No Facebook, no Gmail, no Twitter, no Instagram, no Google Docs, and no Google Maps. Since I was traveling with my Chromebook, without access to Google I was basically out of luck. However, I was able to eventually find a website and get a VPN installed on both my phone and my Chromebook. I used ExpressVPN ($12.95 for one month) and it worked well for the entire time I was there on both my phone and my laptop. The VPN (Virtual Private Network) allows you to appear to be accessing the Internet from a different location – thus my computer thought I was in Hong Kong or L.A., places where Google, Facebook, and social media are legal.
After letting the world know I was alive and in Beijing, I decided to venture out into the city. My first stop was breakfast. As I wandered the street near my hostel, I realized again just how out of my element I was. I had no idea what most of the signs said, and eventually ended up at a restaurant that looked promising – the name was in English. So I had a piece of durian cheesecake for breakfast because this restaurant specialized in cheesecakes. The next order of business was to exchange money. Eventually, I found a bank and luckily the bank manager spoke English. I grabbed a number and waited in line. Soon, the bank manager called me over and asked if I would accept 600 Yuan for my $100 (I would). Someone else had come into the bank looking to change money, so we just worked it out between the three of us. While I may have lost a little on the exchange rate (less than $4), I gained a lot of time not waiting in line and by bypassing the paperwork that accompanies changing money.
I decided to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. I successfully navigated the subway. Once I got there I wandered around trying to figure out where exactly I needed to be and eventually, I ended up at the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1420-1912). The Forbidden City was the home to 24 emperors during this time, and was the political and ceremonial center of the Chinese empire. Many of the buildings were used for ceremonial purposes, including the Hall of Supreme Harmony. This hall is the largest surviving wooden structure in China and was the ceremonial center for the emperors for weddings, coronations, and other important ceremonies. I wandered around here for a little bit before deciding it was time for lunch.
For lunch, I went to a restaurant that had a sign proclaiming they had English menus. And yes, this is the only reason I stopped here. For as touristy as the area was, this was the only restaurant I saw with such a sign. I had a big bowl of hot and sour soup and talked for a bit with another traveler from England, who was also drawn in by the sign. While I had only been traveling by myself for just over 24 hours, it was nice to have someone else to talk to for a little bit.