asia · travel

The Beijing Express

China — the land of It-Can-Be-Done. Think Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors, the capital’s makeover for the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

Time is of the essence!

We tried our own great feat as well: a city-wide scramble to pack temple-hopping, panda-spotting, bargain-hunting, palace-promenading and kung-fu fighting — ALL IN ONE DAY. We couldn’t afford to waste any time, and we were mad to comb through the ever-spry Beijing. One thing that we had going for us though was that it only took 2 RMB (0.3 USD!) to go to anywhere by subway in the capital. Yup, the Beijing IC transit smart card (or ‘Yikatong’, as they call it) will be your new BFF when in the city. If you’re keen with navigating through subway stops and interchanges, then the Beijing MRT should be a breeze, as the stations are well-labeled in both Chinese and English characters.

Now, onto the blitz!

06:30 am – Hopped on the Airport Express (25 RMB one-way) to get to downtown Beijing; a ride from the airport to the Dongzhimen station should take ~20 minutes.

08:30 am – After settling down and freshening up, we found our way to the Tiantandongmen station, which is right next to the Temple of Heaven.

The clouds make it look like smoke is rising out of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.

Of course, the star of the show here is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, which won my vote for the Best Liberal Use of Reds and Blues — hues that are made even livelier when compared to the three tiers of pale marble where it’s perched upon. The temple used to be the site of the ancient Winter Solstice sacrifices, where the emperor, or the ‘Son of Heaven’ would meticulously follow the rites down to each Chinese character for a bountiful year.

Time for some action-packed shots!
Perfect backdrop for a Buddha jump-shot

The park surrounding the temple is nothing to be ignored. Actually, I don’t think you can, even if you tried. There’s just so much going on — from couples picking up new ballroom moves in the courtyard, to old-timers getting fit together with their morning tai chi or whatever choice of sport, to poker-faced hustlers deeply immersed in a game of cards or Chinese chess. If people-watching’s your thing, then the park is sure to make your head spin.

Burrowed eyebrows abound at the Temple of Heaven's long corridor.

11:30 am – Whisked ourselves off to Beijing Zoo (right next to the subway station of the same name) — all to get to say, ‘Hello Panda!’.

Apologies to the rest of the Animal Kingdom, but all we flocked to see today was this giant furball of supreme huggeable-ness. I found panda bears to be somewhat similar to koalas — ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ all you want, but they won’t really pay any attention to you, unless you’re a long stick of yummy leaves.

Across, beside and beneath the Beijing Zoo, there’s a network of serious shopping overload for wholesale clothes, shoes and bags — anything that will keep an overeager bargain-hunter busy for at least half a day. We decided to test our haggling chops on another time, as there were still a lot of the city left to see.

2:00 pm – Trooped all the way northwest to alight at the Beigongmen subway station for our next stop — the regal but romantic Summer Palace.

Three words:

And WOW.

Words like ‘Palace’ and ‘Temple’ get thrown a lot for names of places in China, so I honestly did not expect the Summer Palace to be that grand. It’s wonderful to be humbled in such a way, don’t you think? We spent around 2 hours scrambling across the palace grounds, and that still wasn’t enough. Having a lot of ground to cover makes for a lot of (mis)adventures; I’ll tell of those in another post.

6:00 pm – Sprinted back to the subway, were squished by the Beijing rush hour crowd, caught our breath as we alighted at the Olympic Sports Centre station, all for that photo op at Beijing’s Olympic icons — the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube.

Yeah, the Bird's Nest behind there... somewhere.

We needed to make this stop quick, as we had tickets for a 7:30 pm show all the way downtown. But we couldn’t resist staying a while for that Olympic high of getting jump-shots (what else?) in front of the National Stadium (a.k.a. the Bird’s Nest). If you actually want that killer shot, opt to go later in the evening, when both the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube are lit up — it’s nothing short of magical.

Pretty kites say 'Ni hao!' as you ascend from the subway steps.

07:30 pm – Did a full 360 and found our way back to Tiantangdongmen station, only to rush again to the Red Theatre to get versed on The Legend of Kung-Fu.

This was the priciest admission ticket we had to pay all day, and to be honest, I found it a bit underwhelming (except for when the kids do those bad-ass somersaults on their heads!). Still, I felt that urge to somehow pay my respects for such an influential age-old art. Perhaps someday, if fate permits, I’ll get to meet a real Shaolin master and have a deeper, more personal sense of this art (he’ll probably whip my ass for not appreciating the performers’ hard work enough, though!).

I wish I could say that was the end of our day, and we finally got to rest our worn-out feet. However, it was far from it — my friend Phoebe and I met a few misadventures after we left the show. It’s a long story, but I’ll say that it involves a rickshaw, a whole lot of charades, and a few minutes of me shouting “Call police!” to a guy who can’t understand English.

But if the sheer length of this post isn’t proof enough, I’m giddy about the fact that in one day, we all got heaps wiser from all the new things we’ve seen and experienced. That’s exactly what I hoped for — thanks for an eventful Day 1, Beijing!

Picture Overload!

Casualty Assessment:

  • Airport Express one-way ticket – RMB 25
  • IC Transit smartcard – RMB 20 deposit (refundable at Airport Terminal 3), RMB 2 for any destination within the MTR
  • Temple of Heaven admission – RMB 35/15 on peak season (Apr-Oct), RMB 30/10 on off-peak (Nov-Mar)
  • Beijing Zoo admission – RMB 20
  • Summer Palace admission – RMB 30 on peak season, RMB 20 on off-peak. Restricted areas can be accessed for an extra fee — the extra RMB 10 for strolling around the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha was oh-so-worth it. An all-access pass costs RMB 60/50.
  • The Legend of Kung-Fu show – RMB 110 (discounted price)

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