Tourism in Beijing

31st August 2008

Beijing is a city that has been under massive reconstruction ever since it won the competition to host the Olympic Games at the turn of the millennium. Slums have been demolished in favour of high rise apartment buildings, and massive new motorways have been built to deal with the rising number of cars. London may have the M25 and Dublin may have the M50, but Beijing has topped both with a total of five ring roads around the city that have been built without any regard for what was once in their path. Even with these, the sheer number of cars has meant that odd and even numbered license plates are banned from the city on alternate days to ease congestion.

Great Wall

Our local guide for this leg of the trip was Frank, and as an employee of the official government tour company he was apparently obliged to bring us both to the sights we wanted to see and the official government show factories. Jade, Silk, and Pearls are three of the major exports in this part of the world, and while the factory tours were interesting they were clearly only for show; the real production lines would likely have been somewhat less to international standard. Be that as it may, one cannot deny the quality of Chinese craftsmanship in these areas.

We were brought to the Badaling area of the Great Wall at least in part due to it having an alpine coaster running from the car park to the wall itself. I'd never actually seen a picture of the wall itself, relying instead on a combination of the overhead from Google Earth and the rendered version found within Crash Bandicoot 3. The latter was actually relatively true to life, which surprised me a lot. As might be expected it was crawling with tourists, but I did at least manage the obligatory photo shot. Frank told us that there was almost four thousand miles of wall total, which proves that even in the past there was no shortage of labour in China!

A drive past the Olympic Village gave us at least a distant look at the Bird's Nest and Water Cube, though a large fence still prevents tourists from getting too close to either location. In common with a lot of elaborate architecture the photographs of both locations do not do them justice; one has to see them in real life to get the full impression. I was reminded for some reason of the Sydney Opera House, which pushed the boat out (no pun intended) in modern building design.

Frank asked us how many people we thought Tiananmen Square could hold. A whole series of impolitic remarks jumped into my brain, but I decided to swallow them in the interests of not being expelled from the country for seditious thoughts. Many countries have incidents in their history that are perhaps best left there, and Chinese people enjoy a lot more freedom now then they did at that time. The square itself was absolutely huge in real life, covering an area that looked like much of central Dublin. It was necessary to pass through a security check to get in there, though apparently this was just for the duration of the Olympic Games, and given their history this is hardly surprising.

It's practically sacrilege for me to say something like this, but the Forbidden City simply didn't interest me. After passing underneath a portrait of Chairman Mao we gradually walked past several examples of the same basic building design, repeated over and over again albeit with increasing grandeur each time. I'd have been as happy to head straight to the last two or three, which certainly were spectacular.