And here we have it, the last #TakingOverAsia post … for now! I spent the end of my sabbatical vacation in China because it’s so much effort to fly around the world and much easier flying from Singapore. My parents took care of the Visa paperwork for me because China makes me do this every time I want to visit. That’s probably why I hadn’t seen my grandparents in almost four years. The best part was that I could make it to Beijing in time to celebrate Chinese New Year with them! I’ve only visited in the summer before, so I was hoping for some winter wonderland.
I flew to Beijing on January 19th, and must say it was one of the most tiring 6-hour flights I’ve experienced. It was right in the middle of the day, so I felt like I lost an entire day. Also, Air China is so funny because they landed in Beijing right on time, but waited an hour before pulling up to the gate. If I didn’t have to fly from Singapore then back to the USA after, I would never ever have taken that airline.
I spent two weeks in Beijing mostly with family, so I wasn’t touring all the time. The weather was way too cold for going out anyway! (The transition from Singapore was very bad, but finally I had hot water so maybe it’s worth it.) It was maybe 20°F/-6°C on the average day, except at peak hours in the sun and even cold in the night. The air was so dry that about 3 days in the bottom of my nose skin became flaky, TMI. There was no snow at all, but all the lakes were frozen solid. Usually it’s the opposite in New York.
Also, that infamous toxic Beijing air? I really lucked out this time! In the two weeks I spent there almost every day had blue skies and fresh air quality, which people tell me is rare. My relatives said it’s because factories were on holiday during the New Year celebrations, so less waste was produced. It was also very windy, which made it colder but the air fresher. There were definitely times a facemask was necessary and I carried one around at all times to put on. One time I forgot it and my lungs hurt from breathing. NEVER AGAIN! I’m rooting for my relatives to get out of Beijing especially since they aren’t actually from there, but I keep being told that they want to stay for the more advanced life quality, and it’s pretty impossible to move in China anyways. Right …
I basically took every blue sky as an opportunity to go out. The funny thing is that I didn’t bring any winter clothes with me on this trip (because of 20 days in Hong Kong and Singapore and you can only pack so many things) except my furry hat and winter boots. My aunt is a fashionista and actually dressed me daily with scarfs, sweaters, dresses, and jackets!
Unlike a lot of Asian families, my family is short on members. I only have my grandparents, aunt, and uncle-in-law living in Beijing. I also have one cousin and his parents who live a few hours away. Otherwise, I just have some relatives on my dad’s side I don’t know because they live in the deep south kinda out of touch.
So, it actually wasn’t surprising that on my first day in China I had to tour solo again! I was only allowed to go to the nearby Old Summer Palace, a former resort for the emperor until it was bombed by European countries and burned down. Only the Western architecture still remain because they are made of stone. Ruins are only found in video games for me so it was fascinating to see a real piece of history.
The hardest part about solo travel is getting a good photo of yourself. I already had a lot of practice with that in Singapore, but I could speak English there. I ran into a dude who was also touring solo and asked me to take a photo for him. I could understand that much, but when he tried to explain how he wanted the photo he lost me. He took this photo though.
I couldn’t do much alone though, because Beijing is probably one of the largest cities in the world in terms of area and places-being-spread-out. It takes an hour to get anywhere, even by driving in no traffic – it’s just simply too big. My aunt drove me to the Temple of Heaven so I had someone to take my photos, but there were so many tourists that a selfie was more practical. Beijing’s temples are a lot more genuine looking than temples or cultural sights in Hong Kong and Singapore, because you can actually see how history has worn right into the structures.
The language barrier was a daily struggle. My relatives don’t speak English at all – they don’t even know my name Olivia because it’s too hard for them. I grew up speaking a little Mandarin though so I’m good at picking up and imitating sounds to communicate with my relatives who cut me slack, but putting it to use practically is a different story. Unlike in Hong Kong, where I didn’t speak a word of Cantonese and just conversed in English, nobody in Beijing seemed to understand why I can’t understand them when I obviously speak Mandarin – to tell them that I don’t understand.
What they don’t realize is that I have the vocabulary of a 6-year-old can only imitate sounds I had already heard and added to my short-term memory. And also, Beijingers have a rolling accent that slurs all their words together. As I mentioned before, nobody in my family is from Beijing so they don’t speak like that, and it’s completely unfamiliar to me.
Every day my family took me to a different restaurant. Their taste palette is a little different from mine, but I found my love for certain treats. One of my favorite go-tos is the “bingtanghulu”, a skewer of candied hawthorn fruits made by sugar dipping. It’s definitely a treat to be shared with a special someone because who can eat that many hawthorns in one go?!
One of the restaurants we went to served thick pear tea in the tiniest little cups. It’s Chinese culture to drink hot beverages with your meal so in many restaurants there isn’t even an option for cool drinks! The strangest drinks I found were hot fruit juices …
My favorite destination was of course the famous Summer Palace (completely different from Old Summer Palace – these English names don’t do them justice). And it sure looked like a palace in the winter because the lake was completely frozen solid and perfectly framed by the architecture!
The sky was brilliantly blue that day for my photography needs! The air pollution levels were actually moderate in the morning, but after my aunt and I ate lunch I noticed that the sky started to get bluer. You could actually feel the wind pushing the pollution away and it became beautiful by afternoon. You can see how windy it really was in this willow tree. And yes, it was absolutely freezing to walk around the Summer Palace.
On New Year’s Eve, my aunt and uncle woke me up at 6AM to visit the Ming Dynasty Tombs, because they anticipated that the pollution would rise in the evenings because people like shooting their own smokey fireworks. Each of the thirteen Ming Dynasty emperors had a little tower built in their tribute above their actual tomb, which was underground.
I found a cat with three legs and a bad face infection! Poor thing. There were several cats running wild at the Ming Tombs, because I don’t think there’s animal welfare in China. You often see stray dogs and cats on the streets, and I’m always told not to go near them in case they are rabid.
And as my aunt and uncle predicted, the pollution level at night was hazardous. My cousin and his mom had traveled over to Beijing to spend the New Year with us, and he took me lighting a few fireworks too. I didn’t get any photos because it was so dark, and hard to breathe. I think you’d actually need a smoke mask to go out there! For the most part we stayed indoors and I learned how to play Mahjong. My 85-year-old hearing impaired grandpa is a trickster and sore loser at this game.
My cousin and his mom took me touring the remainder of my time in Beijing. We visited the Forbidden City on what must have been the coldest day ever, because it was so cold I could not even enjoy it or take many photos. I also forgot to wear my second sweater that day – I usually wear one tight-fit sweater, a dress over that, and a giant loose sweater over it under my puffy jacket – because the indoor warmth paints a false picture of how cold it is.
To be honest, there’s not much to see in the Forbidden City except antique displays. The place is worth several hours of walking and there’s only one restaurant for maybe a thousand people. I waited half an hour just to get some hot dogs. You also need to reserve tickets online beforehand – and there’s still that many people. I would not recommend going.
However, I absolutely do recommend stopping by the north side of the Forbidden City! The place is surrounded by a wall like a castle (it technically is a Chinese castle) and the corners have turrets that look stunning on the frozen moat! I found the little gem when I was browsing through Beijing photography so I made sure to look for it when we exited – it’s the most underrated and forgotten photo location ever. My aunt and cousin had no idea what I was looking for.
Turret on frozen moat – visitors often miss this BUT it can be found on all four corners of the Forbidden City! You can only admire it from the outside. #china #beijing #travel #travelgram #culture #history #architecture #palace #castle #wall #ice #frozen #river #winter #cold #hiddengem #discover #wanderlust
The last item on my list was St. Joseph’s Church, a Romanesque cathedral built in the 1600s. Unfortunately it was closed for the holidays so we couldn’t go inside. Religion in China is still a sensitive topic due to communism, but China actually has the fastest growing church in the world! I hope more Chinese people get to know God so some cultural lies (e.g. women must marry before 30, gay people are “psychos”, being a good person on the outside means you can get away with abusing your loved ones) can be dispelled and replaced with the truth that everyone is whole, worthy, and deserves so much.
On my last day I was left with just my grandparents, so I convinced my overprotective grandma to let me go to the CCTV Tower and 2008 Olympics Park alone. Both locations were far and required a lot of public transportation because we kind of live off the grid. I had to take a bus to the light rail then transfer to the underground metro to reach both. She was worried since I can’t read the signs, but I was able to look up the characters on Google Maps and match them to find my way! I made it back before dark to have a homemade dinner with my grandparents before flying back to New York the next day!
Now that I don’t have school vacations anymore, it will be difficult to spend significant amounts of time in Beijing again. And I just made things harder by moving to San Francisco because I will have to devote some vacation days to visit my parents and friends in New York. But I’m going to travel smart and try to visit my grandparents if I’m traveling to Japan or other Asian countries in the future (but most likely Japan)!