Beijing is a city that moves so fast that literally, you blink and something changed. Entire neighborhoods have sprung into being in less than 10 years. It is astounding. And then there are other things that never change – Tian en men is as incredibly massive as before teaming with hoards of eager tourists – both Chinese and others – gawking at the beautiful red entrance to the Forbidden City, Mao’s Tomb, etc. However, on the other hand walking back towards the Metro, I didn’t recall there being Lambourghini, Ferrari, and Maserati showrooms the last time.
One night this week, we headed out to see the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. As luck would have it, the stadium lights were shut in commemoration of the anniversary of the Japanese invasion of China, but that did not take away from the breathtaking awesomeness of the stadium design as well as the beauty of the water cube (which was lit up) just opposite the stadium. Confession: I didn’t see any of the ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics being absorbed by my new life as a dad and being systematically on vacation each time the Summer Games are on (this year, we again missed London 2012 because there was no television or internet in Sicily while the games were on). Since it was my company’s software that was used to design the Bird’s Nest, I suppose there was a little pride there but apart from that, the structure just seems to float there despite its massive weight. The fact that it seems to be woven together and that we see through this exoskeleton into the stadium proper as well as the sloping design of the top and edges gives the impression of a much smaller structure. It is only as here when you see people next to it (but still about 200m in front of it), that you really get an impression of the scale (capacity 91000, dimensions: 313 x 260 x 70) of the whole building. Well, maybe next time I’ll get to see it lit up, just gotta avoid the 18th of September!
The Water Cube was beautiful too although due to the shutter speed of the iPhone 4s, it was harder to get a nice photo of it. The structure is actually steel bars with a sort of ETFE membrane between them making the whole structure look rather organic. A little wikipedia revealed that the pattern was in fact from soap bubbles – over 4000 of them it seems. I imagine that the air pressure inside the cube must be slightly higher than outside so that we get the puffy impression of the various cells. It is a strikingly beautiful building. Perhaps the fact that due to the Bird’s Nest not being lit, we appreciated the Water Cube even more. A tip for travellers to Beijing wanting to see these two sights at night: there are NO TAXIS and the Metro is both complicated and hopelessly far away. You’d be best served by trying to get the driver to wait while you do the tourist thing (shouldn’t take you more than 15-20 minutes to ogle, shoot a few tourist photos, and head back to the taxi) because otherwise you risk to spend almost an hour circumnavigating the stadium desperately (and hopelessly) searching for a taxi.
Speaking of taxis, our problems that particular evening weren’t even over once we finally found one almost 1km away from the stadium. We decided to cross Tian an men Square and found out that in fact, the army keeps the Square locked down at night on both sides of the massive road in front of the Mao portrait. We spent another 30 minutes trying desperately to get a taxi and finally gave up and did the metro. All this to say that – unlike other Asian cities I have known (Seoul, Taipei, Tokyo, Shanghai…) getting a taxi in Beijing is just as hard as it is here in Paris.
I mentioned the pace of change in my opening paragraph. It is startling really. My last trip 10 years ago, I barely saw any American businesses (other than the shocking Starbucks inside the Forbidden City long since removed and replaced with a Chinese copy!) and barely any mobile phones. Modern Beijing is chock-full of Starbucks, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and McDonalds and both in the streets and in the Metro, everyone seemed to have either an iPhone 4 or 4s or a Samsung tablety thing – bigger than an iPhone but smaller than an iPad – they seem to be very popular. I found that I felt relatively safe almost everywhere – probably owing to the massive police presence (see the security cameras on the adjacent photo).
The only other Chinese city that I know better is Shanghai and I feel that the comparisons are rather difficult. In Shanghai, there has been change and upheaval but primarily on the east side of the Huang Pu River (Pu dong where “dong” means “east”) as opposed to the west side (Pu xi where “xi” means “west”). In Pudong, particularly close to the river, is the massive business district featuring the huge buildings I wrote about last year but for the most part, Puxi remains largely the same. In Beijing on the other hand, EVERYTHING has changed. All the neighborhoods have been modified and altered in order to create shopping malls, business districts, the Olympic Park, etc. It was rather disorienting because I honestly couldn’t recognize a thing. And yet, the old Beijing is still hiding there like beneath a freeway at an ad-hoc barbershop on the sidewalk.
I had a wonderful time and ate loads of spicy food. I can heartily recommend Hai Di Lao Hot Pot that despite being a Shanghai-based chain, offers super customer service (shoe polish, massage, free appetizers while you wait) and super yummy hot pot. At one point, the waitress came over to apologize – ostensibly to me – because they had played “Welcome to Beijing” in my honor but since it was so loud inside the restaurant, I may not have heard it (they were right.) A must in Beijing.
If for nothing else, you have to go to Hai Di Lao Hot Pot for the noodle guy. Basically, the meal consists of the meat and veggies that you dip into the hot side or not-so-hot side of the hot pot of boiling water to cook them. Late in the meal, a guy comes over and starts doing some kind of Noodle Numchucks with the noodle dough before tossing it into the broth. It is pretty cool and at the same time kind of funny. I called him the Noodle Ninja but my Taiwanese colleagues didn’t quite get the joke. I guess they don’t have Ninjago there yet 🙂 It was loads of fun actually. Be warned that there is nearly always a line for this place so you WILL be waiting for a while, but I can assure you that it is more than worth it!
I ate in this food court/cafeteria at lunchtime that was in the Shin Kong Center shopping mall. It was your traditional mall food court, but just all yummy Chinese food. The place was super-mega crowded so you had to fight to get a place to sit. It was also adjacent to a BWG (or was it BHG?) grocery store, so out of curiosity, I wandered around a bit. The selection of food stuffs was impressive. Here I show the soy sauce selection but they were just as deep in olive oils, cookies, breakfast cereals…just like a Publix or HBC or Carrefour Market. They had a tank with live sea cucumbers in it, but my photo was way too blurry. I even found Langues du Chat, one of my favorite Belgian chocolats with drawings of The Cat from Geluck on the can. Incredible that I’d find them here, so far from Belgium.
I had an excellent time in Beijing despite no sleep and the jetlag. If I may, please avoid the Mercure Downtown Beijing as it was very disappointing as I noted here on TripAdvisor. On the other hand, if you are stuck at Beijing Capital Airport for an evening, don’t hesitate to stay at the Langham Place Beijing hotel because it was excellent as I reviewed here, again on TripAdvisor. Overall, for business, it is an interesting destination, but I think that owing to the language barrier and the loneliness of traveling, it is a city best visited with a friend or a family rather than alone if here strictly for tourism.