I’m obviously pretty dazed when I get lost trying to leave the Beijing airport. It’s 5am, which means it’s 10am the day before, my time, or something like that, but really I’m just frazzled and over-thinking things… It’s not that I can’t find the exit, that’s easy enough, it’s that I want to find an ATM to get yuan, and a locker to stash my heavy laptop bag, and I’m not sure if I want to take a taxi or the bus… and I’m thirsty. And I have to pee.
Finally, I wrangle myself into a taxi headed, I hope, to Tiananmen Square. With no other Chinese than “Ni hao,” I’m struggling to figure out the best way to communicate. Should I speak slowly in English with a little pantomime? Or just silent charades? It appears I can not even pronounce Tiananmen correctly. And my bastard brain has helpfully conjured up every Spanish word I know—here, here’s your foreign language—which is totally throwing me. When I hear what sounds like Tiananmen, I nod vigorously and say, “¡Si!”
The traffic is slow, but the city is surprisingly beautiful, green and huge. I’d expected the infamous Chinese urbanization to have come at expense of green space, but in fact, the trees seem to be very much a part of the plan. It is also very hot.
The taxi drops me at a corner of Tiananmen opposite of the Forbidden City, and I stumble out into throngs of Chinese tourists in orderly clumps of matching hats, trailing across the vast square after flag-wielding leaders shouting into chest-mounted P.A.s. It is not hard to imagine the military maneuvers of years past in place of all the funny hats. I also immediately miss my hat, which I cleverly left on the chair next to the door back in Los Angeles.
Having seen so many photos and films of the Forbidden City, standing in front of Mao’s giant portrait at the front gate feels like gazing at a giant postcard, and wandering through the gate and across the immense cobbled courtyard, surrounded by bright tiled roofs, feels utterly unreal. Kind of like one of those amusement park rides where your seat jerks and turns about while the screen displays a journey, but you never actually go anywhere. Except this ride is as hot as a Bikram Yoga studio.
It’s all so surreal, I keep repeating to myself, “I’m in China! I’m in CHI-NA. Chhhhhiiiii-na!” Okay, there may be a dose of sunstroke in there.
The complex is so vast, I’d be masochistic to do the entirety in one day, but I’m determined to see as much as feasible, including the dusty Treasure Gallery, which contains some pretty exquisite crowns, jewels, and jade pieces—and a thousand Chinese tourists to squeeze through. At some point, quite lost between one Palace of Purity and and another Palace of Pleasant Contemplations, or some such, I am very obviously going the wrong way against the sea of people. But I shoulder on, and in some quiet corners, it’s like I have the place, or palace, to myself.
Emerging from the complex I hail a taxi and thrust my cell at the driver—”Ni hao!”—my friend Kelvin on the other end to tell him where to go. I meet Kelvin and his wife at a swank lunch spot in a new high rise mall, with beautiful views of the city around us from the breezy patio. I order a cold Tsingtao, professing that it’s totally nighttime where I’m from, so it’s okay. Kelvin joins me, because, well, it is after noon.
After a Western-Asian fusion meal, Kelvin sends me off by taxi again to check out the arts district, a hip warren of studios, galleries, and cafes in and around an old factory. There’s some neat stuff to see—”No Photo!”—before grabbing one last taxi to the airport… whereupon we sit motionless in traffic for a good twenty minutes. The driver turns off the engine and gets out for a smoke, and to chat with the other drivers, while I sit, without AC or the ability to roll down the power windows, melting into the backseat. Just before I pass out or perish, the cars start rolling again, as if nothing happened, and the rest of the ride to the airport is smooth.
After an easy walk back through immigration and back to my far-flung gate (seriously, there’s a shuttle waiting to take us to, not a secondary terminal, but the middle of the runaway once the plane arrives), I grab a beer or two from an awesome vending machine and roam the pristine and mostly empty terminals. Built for the Beijing Olympics, I don’t think the airport has seen much action since. But there is a place to get a quick and cheap chair massage, which I do.
As long as you have enough time and a forward flight out of the country, you qualify for a free 72hr Transit Visa into Beijing. Just follow the “72hr Transit Visa” signs as you exit.
Taxi from airport to Tiananmen, about $40 USD, ask for the meter. You will have to pay for the road tolls as well.
Forbidden City, also known as the Palace Museum, entrance fee is 40-60 yuan, and the Treasures Gallery is another 10 yuan. Opens at 8:30am.
Airport beer, 6 yuan.