As part of our work with Enactus DCU and social entrepreneurship, fellow DCU student Katie Mannion and I were awarded a bursary by KPMG to travel to the Enactus World Cup in Beijing. We met with students and business leaders from across the world and afterwards had the opportunity to absorb all Beijing had to offer.
I’d heard how different China would be in comparison to Ireland but nothing had prepared me for the culture shock or the beauty I was about to experience.
Western people are a rare sight in Beijing, I can’t describe the unusual feeling of people queuing to take photos with you or people photographing you and wandering off. Spitting is also completely acceptable and it occurs everywhere, you just have to get used to it.
If you focus on the unusual you’ll miss out on the exquisite, so I accepted the staring (but not so much the spitting) as I immersed myself in the nightlife, markets and travelling.
With an increase of university students coming to study in Beijing, there’s plenty of bars and nightclubs to choose from. When you’re the only western people in the nightclub, you become a novelty. Our Asian admirers bought us fruit platters and shots on fire. At one stage we even had groups of people copying our dance moves. It’s bizarre but extremely fun. Be smart though, not all people are so welcoming to internationals, pickpocketing, racism and sometimes even violence can occur.
Nothing can prepare you for the Chinese markets and the constant shouting of “MICHAEL KORS PURSE? I’LL GIVE YOU GOOD PRICE PRETTY LADY!” It’s a haven of counterfeit goods; Nike Free Runs, Ray Bans, Michael Kors. One of the women in the Silk Market assured me “China does the best copies in the world” and it’s certainly true. The Silk Market is where tourists mainly go but the Yashow Market is much cheaper and you’ll pick up a greater range of souvenirs.
When you are ready to ditch the markets and nightclubs, prepare to be culturally enriched at three spots to knock off your travel bucket list; Summer Palace, the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.
The Summer Palace is a beautiful gem, nestled in the mountains overlooking a spectacular lake. It was built as an imperial garden for royal families to relax in and escape the heat of the Forbidden City during the warm summers. Panoramic views, temples and gardens await you. It is well worth the trek to the Buddhist Temple, situated at the very top, to get a view of the entire area.
The Forbidden City looks even better in real life than in Mulan. The carved archways, buildings, sculptures and overall allure of the Forbidden City is beyond comparison. Inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony you’ll see the Emperor’s golden dragon throne, it’s as impressive as it sounds! Peer into the different halls to see the extravagance of the Ming and Qing dynasties that ruled here for almost five centuries.
The Great Wall is one of the many historic sites in China that will humble you. Many of the workers who died building the wall are buried within it. Although Badaling is the most visited part of the Great Wall, request your taxi driver or tour guide to go to Mutianyu part of the Great Wall. It’s significantly quieter and you can take in the spectacular views with a cable car on the way up and whizz down in a toboggan.
Not everything is rose-tinted though. You’ll feel extremely annoyed as taxis drive past you because you’re western. There’s severe pollution and a clear sense of the power the Government have. However every country has disadvantages and these differ depending on the place.
It’s both refreshing and intimidating to visit somewhere like Beijing. Travel should be about experiencing a culture so different that it gives you a new perspective and broadens your mind.
Beijing you stole my heart and various belongings but I’ll forgive you.
Do: Visit as much sights as possible. Haggle viciously at the markets. Visit Club Mix. Watch for pickpockets. Download a VPN to access Facebook/Google/emails. Write where you are staying and all destinations in Chinese as virtually no taxi drivers speak or read English.
Don’t: Drink ‘vodka’ from a 5litre plastic drum. Expect taxis to have seat belts. Go to public toilets. Expect cars to obey the traffic lights. Get scammed by taxis.
By Róisín Nestor