Beijing day 1: Thursday 10/1/09
Map of my Beijing stops, this day in green; here are the photos from today. Yellow highlights in the text correspond to flags on the map.
Got up at 5:30 and out the door at 6 for Hongquio ("hong-shao") airport (SHA), the smaller, older one that handles mostly domestic flights. No idea how long it would take to get to the airport due to National Day activities closing some roads, but it turned out there was no problem and it only took 15 minutes. Everything on the ride there was new to me. The city is so big that 3 days only scratches the surface, and I only did the stuff that the tourists do. Too bad there's so much construction, I hope the city looks great for next year's Expo. The cab ride was only 65 RMB – 11 for the first 3 km, and 1 for each 0.3 after that, which means that it was 19.2 km (11.9 miles) for just $10. Try that in a cab in the US! There were cameras taking pictures of every vehicle coming to the airport, but no traffic at all until the queue to drop people off. Once I got in the right line to check in, they told me that there was a problem and I had to go to the Hainan Airlines help desk, which sadly didn't open until 8am (it was only 6:45am). The fact that no flights at all show up on the departure board before 11am is not a good sign for me, and I got confirmation that my flight was cancelled. Unfortunately I chose a bad day to fly to Beijing, it's their National Day and the Beijing Airport is closed until noon, and there's all sorts of traffic issues from blocked roads to closed Metro stops.
While waiting, I talked to a couple of backpackers on their way around the world whose flight to Beijing (connecting to Tokyo) – two German girls just out of high school, taking a year off before starting college, staying at hostels in the various cities. Their future plans included some places I've been, so I was able to pass some info on Sydney, Cairns, and Santiago. The help desk finally rebooked me on the 11:55 flight, only 3 hrs late, which isn't bad in the grand scheme of things. Gave me a chance to borrow the snack bar's wifi to download email and upload some pictures.
Spent the time catching up on email and uploading pix. Special economy class vs ??? People watching the parade on tv. Watched a guy text in Chinese, no idea how that works - looks like a lot of multiple keystrokes and predictive text. Boarding at 11:25 means get on a bus and wait til 11:41. Surprisingly not full, I expected it to be packed to overflowing but 1st class is empty and there are even aisles and bulkheads open. Safety video in both written and spoken Chinese and English. Delay announcement at 12:01 for "traffic control" for approx 1 hr, but at least we have AC. Flt attendants wearing red Chinese dresses. An hour later, time for takeoff! Smartly, they serves lunch on the ground (beef w/ noodles or chicken w/ rice). Wheels up at 1:21. Why show a 2 hr movie like Shawshank if you're not going to be able to show the whole thing? No inflight magazine. Down at 3:05.
On the one hand, I was blessed with awesomely good weather, absolutely clear to the horizon with no haze. On the other, it was National Day holidays which led to some transportation issues. Before I left the airport, I bought a tour ticket for the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall. If you get it at the airport, it's cheaper than if you book it through the hotel (by about $15 or so). The state-sponsored tours are cheaper than the private tours, but you have to suffer through a trip to the state-run jade factory (with marked up prices) and a state-run Eastern medicine facility, and you're on their schedule.
Got luggage and went to info desk to arrange tours and airport transfer. But since this the single worst day of the year to visit Beijing, traffic is beyond fucked up. Can't take the shuttle to the hotel, the driver is stuck in traffic somewhere with no ETA (normally 1300). A taxi would be astronomical due to waits. Spent at least a half hour with them trying to work something out, best they could come up with was airport shuttle bus 16 to Dongzhimen, then transfer to subway line 2 for 2 stops, then maybe catch a cab inside the ring or walk the 2km. Bus trip was 1718 to 1745. Feel somewhat helpless because I don't speak or read the language, but like I said before I left it’s all part of the experience. Another part I'm not fond of – noticing eyesight issues with small print. Took the subway without incident, started walking 1820. Saw a butterfly.
I got a great hotel in a good location on Wangfujing St, just east of the northeast corner of the Forbidden City, called the Prime Hotel. It's inside the 2nd Ring, but because of the holidays they weren't letting traffic pass from one side of the Ring Road to the other, and so the shuttle bus couldn't pick me up from the airport. I had to take the airport express bus as far as it would go (Dongzhimen Station), then take the #2 metro (blue) to the #5 (purple) and go south to Dongcheng, then either get a cab or walk the half km to my hotel. I ended up disoriented inside the station and walked east instead of west, til I stopped some soldiers and asked for directions. They hailed a cab for me and pointed me in the right direction. Once I got to my hotel it was around 7pm so I could only walk a few blocks from my hotel before I hit more blocked off areas on Wangfujing.