09 January 2015


Beijing, China, was the first city in which I felt incredibly inept. Since living in Singapore I have often joked about being a stupid American for a variety of reasons – spouting uneducated phrases, not knowing paramount world history, embarrassed by my ability to fluently speak only American English – but standing in China, even for four days, made me abundantly aware of just how little I knew.

I thought of Beijing as an international city flooded with global businesses and people from every major market – like New York City. Beijing has old parts, new parts and beyond ancient parts – some buildings we encountered on a morning amble had plaques denoting historic sites from the 15- and 1600s. Like Singapore, the city seemed to abound with greenery and had a strong appreciation for parks, which were never sparsely populated.

We had to pay to get from place to place, though taxi rides were incredibly inexpensive, and we had to pay to enter each park, usually paying additional fees to see specific areas within each park. If you make plans to visit Beijing, be sure to have four things: a mask for any unbearable pollution, an ample supply of yuan (currency), an Uber app on your mobile phone and a Mandarin translation app. Do not leave home without some form of translation assistance!

Paul has done more traveling than I and even he was taken aback by our inability to effectively communicate with an average person within the city. Our “Nín hǎo” (hello) and “Xièxiè” (thank you) only got us so far.

Most people in the city did not speak English, and by that I mean they did not know a single English word. Consequently, we quickly learned that a common taxi would not always be our best option. Our hotel was in the heart of the city – a fantastic location – but the hotel had only opened three months prior, which made our taxi rides quite difficult. Because the building was so new, many drivers were unfamiliar with the address. The hotel did provide business cards with the address and a crafted map; however, the map was fallible. The JW’s griffin logo was displayed on the sketched map but no correlation between the clip art image and the hotel chain was present, leaving drivers highly confused. One irate driver was so overwhelmed that we had to call the hotel reception desk and have someone verbally provide directions so that we could get back. We could not help the man; we could not understand the man; he could not understand us; no one else in the taxi zone knew how to get where we needed to go. No one around us spoke or understood English so we felt completely helpless. And lost. And stupid.

Thank God for Uber, our international taxi and private car phone app, which allowed us to solicit registered vehicles and input our desired locations, providing the drivers with GPS directions throughout the route. With the help of a tourist destination location card and our Google Translate app, we were able to navigate around most of Beijing, but the Uber services truly made our transportation experiences much less stressful.

I would also like to mention that the staff at the JW Marriott Central were incredibly accommodating – they offered to have a young bilingual member of the concierge staff accompany us to a local shopping center where we could purchase sim cards for our mobile phones, allowing us to have cell phone service within China. The process took more than an hour but the young man guided our taxi driver, patiently stood with us, waited for our turn to speak with a representative and then acted as a translator to ensure that Paul acquired what he desired. I have never had that kind of service before.

Paul’s trip was cut short – arrive on day one, spend days two and three in the city and then leave on day four – so we really only had two days to experience one of the world’s greatest historic cities.

We woke the first day, looking out over the city, surprised that we could see out our windows. We had heard horrid, horrid reports of Beijing’s pollution levels, a constant issue for the city due to the nearby factories. Planning ahead, we secured four masks in Singapore, where we were just before we each landed in China.

Ah, but we are blessed and God knew we wanted a great experience.

We arrived in Beijing the week of APEC, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, attended by many of the world’s leaders. Because pollution and other pertinent environmental issues were paramount to the week’s agenda, the Chinese leaders three weeks prior to the convention closed the factories and enforced strict vehicle regulations, only allowing a certain number of vehicles on the roads each day; these restrictions lasted throughout the convention.

Not only was the air clear, but it was crisp and cool and even the major news outlets reported on people’s ability to see the clouds above embracing each other and swaying along in the autumn breeze. We had no use for our masks while in the city.

The weather was beautiful and the air quality levels were in the 50s, far, far better than more than 400 reported yesterday. I took in my surroundings watching a small group do tai chi.

We drove up to the Forbidden City’s north gate and were advised that the site was closed, so we walked around a bit before entering Jingshan Park across the road. The park, said to be one of the best preserved imperial gardens, is 1,000 years old and features tens of thousands of peonies.

Forbidden City North Gate

Jingshan Park

Excited for an actual cultural excursion, I started sprinting up steps, leaving Paul in my dust. I kept climbing winding ancient stone stairs, up a hillside until I came to a tower. When I saw more stairs leading to a higher point, I skipped along to the next interval. Again and again I climbed and my poor husband shrugged along behind me.

When we climbed the apex, we were able to see what was inside the Forbidden City’s walls.
View of the Forbidden City

The tallest point at Jingshan Park

We did not get to explore the Forbidden City like we wanted, but we did walk around the city’s walls, and the amber leaves reflecting against the moat, the gardens and vast structures surrounding the city were some of the most spectacular sites I have experienced. The two days we walked around the city were perfect autumn days. 

We later found ourselves in Tiantan Park where the 15th Century Temple of Heaven was located. Upon entering the park, we were greeted with sounds of instruments playing and voices singing; a group of women were learning a dance off in the distance.

Temple of Heaven in the background

Emperors came to the temple to pray for good harvest each year, but I did not know this until after Paul and I visited. We just entered the park and followed the crowds to the various points of interest highlighted on our map. We followed the people toward the buildings and made jokes about how we were going to photograph the things that every other Asian person was photographing so that we would know what was significant enough to later research.

When I reached the spot closest to the door for the Temple of Heaven, I tried my hardest to peer into the dark silo that appeared to have elegant furniture and a grand, painted interior. I heard a familiar American English accent to my left and saw a man standing next to me. “What exactly are we looking at?” I asked. To my relief, the man replied, “I have no idea. But he does,” and introduced his son, a young boy who started talking about offerings for harvest. “Good to know,” I said as I made my way back to my husband.

Paul and I attempted to find the tower’s smaller replica but after consulting our maps, often found ourselves somewhere other than where we thought we were. We made it to the Echo Wall just in time for the park’s closing and again followed the crowds out to the street.

Enjoy more photos! Please look but do not steal my photos.

I don't know whether it was because of APEC or because we were in China, but there were armed guards EVERYWHERE. I have never seen so many military police, civilian police and security guards in one city. We saw them walking, biking and driving along every part of the city.

One man suckered us into visiting his art studio; he then painted Paul's name

Part of an old neighborhood along the forbidden city

Marble platform leading up to the Temple of Heaven

Amazing art on the buildings

Giant door!

One of Tiantan Park's many footpaths

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