How It All Began
Ah, China. Home of tea, good food, communists, and a really big wall. I had originally only planned on two big trips during my stay in Korea--one during summer break and one during winter break. But when it came to my attention that the Chuseok holidays would give us a long 5-day weekend, I figured it would be a nice opportunity to go somewhere close and interesting. And how many times in your life are you this close to the Great Wall of China that you could literally hop on a plane for 90 minutes and be like within a short bus ride's distance away? (Well, assuming you're not from any of the Asian countries around China…)
So my next discovery was that you need a tourist visa in order to enter China. And to do that, I had to go through a travel agent. This particular travel agency--Soho--came pretty highly recommended from other foreigners, as they seemed to work almost primarily with foreigners through a Seoul office. For their China package, they also offered the option of signing up for a 2-day tour hitting basically all the major Beijing hotspots (including the Great Wall). I figured that, especially since I was wanting to go to the Great Wall (which is a good distance outside of the main city), it would be best to go with a program rather than try to wing it alone. I remember how well that went in Tokyo (…not too bad, but stressful). So, long story short (too late), I filled out the paperwork, paid the agency, and got my tourist visa, plane tickets, hotel, and tour all taken care of.
But then came the first worry--apparently, the main hotel this agency works with is some tiny little place hidden in some alley and is difficult to find. And we all know how good I am at getting lost. But I just crossed my fingers and hopped for the best.
Day One - Thursday (September 19)
For a day when trains are supposedly on a limited schedule, I caught trains so much easier and faster on Chuseok Day than the usual schedule! Simply put, I made it to the airport easy, had just as much trouble trying to find the check-in area as I did going to Tokyo, and then eventually made it through security easily. After a 90-minute wait, and a bit of Dunkin Donuts for breakfast, I hopped on the plane.
And that's when the annoyances began. First, they didn't really call you into line by any section number as usually happens, so it was very unclear who they were letting on the plane or if it was just line up and get on (turns out it was the latter). Then as you get on, you quickly discover how face-meltingly hot it was in that cabin. As the captain informed us shortly after, one of the small back engines/turbines (whichever one they usually use to circulate air while on the ground) was broken. Yeah, Mr. Captain, the first thing I want to hear before we take off is that something isn't working because an engine is broken. But they eventually got some air circulating before telling us we had to wait for clearance for our turn to take off. He said like 15 minutes. But our flight was originally supposed to take off at 1:05 PM, and we didn't get into the air until 1:50 PM. On top of that, it was really nerve-wrecking when you could--for some reason--hear every little mechanical movement of the plane.
So we eventually touch down in Beijing and end up in this super long line at Immigration. I'd say I waited in that line for at least 30 minutes or more, but was passed through in like 10 seconds. I got my luggage and found my way outside. Now my directions for the hotel said I needed to hop on a shuttle bus from the hotel to the Beijing Railway Station. I paid 16 yuan for that, and the lady was mildly dismissive about the whole thing. I waited for about 15 minutes or so for the bus to show up. And as I go to put my bag in the containment area underneath, the bus driver starts angrily yelling at me in Chinese. I have no idea what he's saying, but I'm clearly doing something wrong. He then takes me over to a sign of his route and I figure out he's asking where I'm getting off. I point to the last stop. He nods and lets me put my bag in the bus. The whole trip, after picking up 2 more sets of people from different terminals, took about 40-45 minutes.
Now, the directions I had said to get off the bus and go straight in the direction the bus is facing toward the first set of stoplights. Sadly, my bus decided not to go where the other buses were, but pull into a back parking lot. So I had no idea if I had to turn left or right. I assumed right because that's where the other buses were facing and there was a stoplight not too far. So I take maybe 10 steps in that direction before a herd of taxi drivers surround me. I can't really get around them, so I show one my hotel's address--printed in Chinese… and he has no idea where it's at or how to get there. He starts drawing a box with his fingers, and I figure he wants a map. So I show him a printed out voucher for the hotel which has a map and more hotel information on it. He ends up calling the hotel to find directions on how to get there, then gets me in the taxi.
So… he goes straight to that stoplight (which was maybe a 15 second walk) and turns right, which is what my directions said. He drives for about 10 seconds and finds himself at the entrance of an alley--and my hotel is in an alley. He talks to the guys standing there for a minute before heading down it. And then we hit the construction area. They're digging some big ol' hole in the middle of the road and there's no way to drive around it. So we get out of the taxi. He actually takes my bag and walks me the rest of the way to the hotel. And then makes me pay him 100 yuan (which is like 16 bucks or something). It was an insane rip-off. I could have paid 100 yuan for a taxi from the airport to the hotel, but to literally just turn a corner? Still, he did go through a lot of effort to get me there and was always pleasant, so he worked for that money regardless.
So I enter the hotel and go to check in. At the same time, there's a young African American woman checking in, as well, and she seems to have very similar papers to me. We chat for a minute and turns out she used Soho, as well, and got the exact same deal I did. So we both check in and have to give a 200 yuan deposit for the room key… another strike for the hotel. Because…
I decided to only bring roughly 200 bucks with me on this trip. I'd only be here like 3 and a half days and almost every single thing had already been paid for. I figured I wouldn't need much more than 200 bucks. So if you're keeping track, I had paid 16 yuan for the bus, 100 yuan for the taxi, and 200 yuan for the deposit. This basically brings me down to about 115 or thereabouts. And this is before I even do anything on the trip.
So I finally find my room and… I have no idea how to use the freakin' key card. There's no slot or anything. So I'm standing around like an idiot trying to figure out how to use this plastic card on a lock system with no discernible place to put it. I find some vague directions on the back of the card and eventually figure out you have to hold the card slightly away from a particular spot on the door, which will turn a light green and you can open it.
The first thing I notice upon entering the room is the bathroom… being right out in the open with the rest of the room. It's actually a pretty decent room all things considered. I took some pictures:
The next thing I realized? Well, first, that the hotel internet is painfully bad. It barely works, and when it does connect you, it's slow and not on for long. Second, China has a country-wide block on Facebook, Youtube… basically any kind of major social media. So I knew I was basically gonna be totally cut off for the entirety of the trip.
At this point I decide I need some food, so I go down to check out the hotel restaurant and bump into my new friend again. They seat us together at a table, and the waiter literally stood there and watched us try to figure out what we wanted to eat. I figured mine out pretty fast, but she took a while. But it was really uncomfortable with him just standing and waiting there. We eventually picked our food, and he wandered off to go get it started. And me and my new friend, whose name turned out to be Monique, started talking.
We chatted for about 45-60 minutes before they brought out our food. I got this sweet and spicy chicken thing. It was basically popcorn chicken with these red and green roasted bell peppers inside this cornucopia thing. The chicken was just mildly spicy, but it also had a kind of lemony zest to it. It was actually very good. Sadly I did not take a picture.
I returned to my room to relax a bit before bed… and got a phone call. Turns out it was Justin, our tour guide for the next day (I'm assuming Justin is his English name, as he was from Beijing). He wanted us to meet him at some other hotel or something since ours was basically impossible to get to (no kidding). But I had no idea where that was, so he just said he'd meet us in our hotel lobby at 7:20 AM. Right-o.
Day Two - Friday (September 20)
So I set my alarm on my phone for 6:30 AM. I woke up exhausted, got ready, and went and sat in the lobby by like 7. Except by the time 7:20, and eventually 7:30, came around… Justin didn't. Nor did Monique, for that matter. That's when I peeked up at the world time clocks above the front desk and noticed Beijing said "6:30." I looked at my watch, which agreed with that assessment. And then it hit me… my phone didn't automatically change its time when I got here. China is an hour behind Korea, so I had actually gotten up at 5:30 AM instead. Ugh.
Luckily, breakfast began service at 6:30, so I just went over next door and had a few little things. Then I just kinda hung around the hotel until Justin eventually showed up and took Monique and I a good distance away to the tour bus. And then we also stopped by a couple other hotels to pick up some other people. In all, including the two of us, there were 13 of us (15 if you included Justin and the bus driver). We all became somewhat close throughout the day, so let me introduce you to them…
-Turkish family. A married couple and a 7-year-old boy from Turkey. They were nice, though the boy really straddled that line between cute and painfully annoying… usually tipping into the latter. And you could tell any adult who made contact with this kid was struggling to stay nice.
-YapYap Man and/or Bridge Master and his little friend. OK, so there was this guy sitting in front of me and Monique on the bus. Asian--originally born in Taiwan, i believe. Older gentlemen with stark white hair. He's lived 40-something years in London, so he had a bit of a mixed accent and spoke perfect English. He has two nicknames for a reason. First, he never. shut. up. The dude was seriously getting on everybody's nerves, but he was really nice, so nobody wanted to really say anything. He's also a world champion Bridge player (you know, the card game). He does it for his profession and actually holds world records and whatnot. He's apparently one of the best in the entire world. He's in town for a tournament that he was late for because of plane trouble or something, and one of his teammates was in the hospital and another stuck at the airport and… I really have no idea. I tried to tune him out all 5 million times he told the same 3 stories. But he was also one of those guys who, when Justin didn't give every little detail on something, he'd step in and be "that guy" to try and give tour information himself. Yeah. Oh, and his little friend was a older Asian fellow dressed in some German-looking outfit. It was really bizarre. But he was quiet and mainly kept to himself and Bridge Master.
-Then there was IT Assistant from Singapore. This dude was really nice and cool. I want to say his name was Eric or something, but I didn't catch it. He also spoke perfect English, but also perfect Mandarin, so people would think he was actually Chinese. At the wall, we ended up walking most of it with him. (But I'm getting ahead of myself.)
-Australian Girl and her Japanese(?) friend. The Australian girl works for Goodyear and has to come to different countries for the company. She's currently been living in China for about 5 months and has to be here until the end of the year. Her Asian friend with her was, I believe, Japanese, but I'm not 100%. They were pretty nice.
-The Canadians. A group of 3--2 guys and 1 girl (who appeared to be of middle eastern descent of some sort). They basically kept almost entirely to themselves. Though one of the guys kinda looked like a grungier James Franco.
Anywho, we hit traffic on the way out of town and it takes a while to make progress. But we eventually make it to the Ming Tombs--Changeling. I'll be honest… this was the least exciting this we did the whole day. Of all the stuff I'll think about during my visit to Beijing, this will probably end up at the far end of the list. It wasn't bad, but it just wasn't all that special. But here are a few pictures anyway:
From there we hit up the Jade Carving Factory, which I admit was pretty cool. We had a lady take us through and give us different presentations on all things Jade. Then we were free to walk around and buy stuff. It was all a bit too expensive for my taste (especially since I didn't have too much to spare). I *almost* went with a small painting done with Jade powder, though, because those were really cool and pretty.
We also ate lunch at this place. The food was decent. It was a mix of really basic things--rice, some kind of chinese chicken, salad, dumpling, etc. And, strangely, french fries… just like chinese places in the States. Anywho, here are some pictures I took here:
Of course the next stop was the Great Wall. Once we got there, we paid an extra 80 yuan for a gondola up the mountain to the actual start of the wall rather than climbing the mountain first (well, 80 for there and back). We waited in a huge line for about half an hour and finally made our way up the terrifyingly high gondola ride. But the scenery was gorgeous. And eventually made it to the wall itself.
This was simply stunning. Yeah, it was packed with people, but it's the Great Wall of China. For most people, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity. Everything about this was amazing. Even if we had to walk some crazy steep slopes and steps, it was worth it. We only had an hour or so before we had to be back to meet Justin. So Monique and I first headed for one direction which took us to the end of the road (as far as you could go on this part of the wall). We bumped into our Singapore friend during this as well. We eventually turned back and went the other way and started up the other end and eventually caught back up with our Singapore friend again (who had gone ahead of us at one point). And people kept wanting to take pictures with Monique, I guess because they'd never seen a black person before (I'm not joking). But I got tons and tons of pictures and video here. I won't put all the pictures here, but I'll choose a select few and also put up the video footage. The rest will go up on Facebook, as usual (along with other pictures of the other stuff we did today). Oh, and I got swindled by an old lady. As we're waiting in line for the gondola down, an old lady is trying to sell shirts to us in line. She's very aggressive about it. At first she tries to sell it to me for 120 yuan, but I say no. Then she tells our Singapore friend in Chinese that she'd sell to him for 80, but to us foreigners for 120 (not realizing he wasn't Chinese… because even to Asians, all Asians look the same). He tried to tip me off to that, but it was too late. She dropped the pice to 100 and almost literally shoved the shirt into my arms. Feeling obligated, I just gave her the 100 and proceeded to get made fun of for the remainder of the trip for being a terrible haggler. But anyway, here are some pictures and whatnot:
We thought we were done for the day, and we were all pretty exhausted despite it only being like 3 PM. But on the drive back, we did a moving tour where he pointed out different olympic stadiums and even the famous Bird's Nest, which I got a picture of:
Then we stopped by at Dr. Tea's tea house where we were treated to a free tea tasting. Two were really good, and two I didn't care much for. But the whole thing itself was entertaining… except for the little Turkish boy who was basically being an excitable kid, but was getting incredibly annoying to most of the rest of us.
And you'd think my day was over… but you'd be wrong. So Australian Girl and her Japanese Friend talked about a famous Night Market near their hotel. You know, the kind that serves, among normal things, spiders and insects and other gross stuff. So of course we had to check that out. Monique decided she was gonna ask to get dropped off there (as Justin asked if we'd prefer to be dropped off in other places). I decided to tag along. The atmosphere was nice, though the people were a bit aggressive. When we did eventually reach the bug stuff, the guy was so adamant I try spider, he seemed angry and offended when I said no. I did eat three things, though. First were these friend banana balls… which were basically just dough. I didn't taste any kind of fruit in it whatsoever. Then I tried this peking duck/vegetable wrap that we'd been told was good. It wasn't. I couldn't even get through half of it. It was stuffed with this onion stalks that were basically raw, and the onion flavor was so overpowering you couldn't taste anything else. I decided to cleanse myself with fruit and got a fruit stick with a strawberry and alternating cantaloupe and kiwi. The cantaloupe was easily the most bitter fruit I've ever had in my life. The kiwi was just kind of hard. It wasn't bad, but it was way too crunchy. So I couldn't even finish that, either. At this point, we decide to head on out. But first, some pictures!
Now, I was particularly afraid of doing anything outside my tour since it's basically impossible to find your way back to the hotel. I mean, when even taxi drivers who are parked a 5-minute walk away have no idea how to get there, you know it's trouble. But I had to do this market thing. It was just a cultural thing I couldn't pass up.
So we're walking up and down the streets trying to find directions to the Beijing Railway Station (because if we could get there, it would be easier for us to find our hotel). We end up going into another hotel to ask for directions. We start by asking the lady behind the counter, but soon a hotel guest who speaks perfect English and also happens to be a Beijing native decides to help us out. He said to walk would take about an hour from where we were. Our best bet was a taxi. Our next best bet was a bus. So we get the lady to write the Chinese for "Beijing Railway Station" on a card for us to show a taxi driver…
…It was just unfortunate we couldn't get a taxi. Literally no cab would stop for us. We walked around for at least 15-20 minutes, and nothing. Oh, there were taxis. But we couldn't get one to save our lives. So we go back to the hotel and ask if the lady could call one for us. She gets a worker to do it, and he goes outside to find us one. After about 5-10 minutes, he comes back and says even he couldn't get us a taxi and our best bet was to take a bus. We had been told which bus numbers we could take, and he pointed us in the general direction of the bus stop and told us it would only cost 1 yuan.
We didn't have to wait long for our bus, and we were only on it for maybe 10 minutes before we hit end of line at the railway station. We walked to the station (which was all lit up and really pretty, and tons of people were just sitting about the lot as if some kind of show was about to happen).
I followed Monique as she had a better idea how to get to the hotel from the railway station itself than I did. But she took a wrong turn and we ended up having to backtrack quite a bit. Even after ending up on the right path, it took us a while, and we even did a big kind of circle before making it into the alleyway. But we reached the hotel once more, and we were both utterly exhausted. And we'd learned our lesson… that's what we get for wanting to be adventurous in Beijing.
Day Three - Saturday (September 21)
Boy was this a long day. It starts off with us being unsure where our new tour guide is going to meet us. Justin first told us the hotel lobby at 7:40. But then he somewhat changed on us and then said next to a bigger hotel down the road that's easier to get to. So we had no idea where to go. 7:40 comes around and the tour guide hasn't shown up yet. We walk toward the other hotel, but he's not around there, either. So I go back to our hotel while Monique stays at the bigger one. I stick around for a few minutes and keep peeking outside when I see a guy rushing up towards me. We confirm that he is the tour guide, but asks where "the lady" is. So I took him in her directions. In the meantime, he introduced himself with his English name being Bob. He's so not a Bob, but it was funny, so we went with it.
We get to the bus/van thing, which is a different one from the day before, as well. Much smaller. After we picked up our last two of the group, there were 12 of us total (14 including Bob and the driver). There were…
-Indian family. I'm not quite sure what the dynamic was, but there was an older woman, a younger woman, a mid-to-late 40s-ish man, and a boy who was probably roughly 13 or so. Oh, and an older man who had some sort of skin condition. They kind of kept to themselves, though the younger woman talked to me once or twice and was nice. She was the one who broke out of the family circle most often.
-European couple. We never figured out where they were from. The husband had a fancy camera and was addicted to using it. He barely paid any attention to Bob during the tours. Most often, he'd walk off and do his own thing taking pictures and just return when we moved on to whatever next area.
-The Turkish Family. Yeah, they're back! And the kid was still as annoying as he was the day before.
So our first stop was Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City. Sadly, we didn't go into the actual main Square itself, because the queue was enormous and it was totally packed with people. But I snagged some pictures. And the actual square is more than just that one area, apparently, and extends even across the street to the area we were at, I believe. Next up was the Forbidden City, which is the massive palace complex. Inside were actually 6 different palaces plus a garden area. It was pretty cool, but took forever to get through. Though it reminded me of a bigger version of Gyeongbokgung in Seoul (which is saying a lot). I think we were all pretty exhausted after this alone, and it was only 10-ish when we finished here. Here are some pictures and a video of both of these things (well... parts of both):
After that we went to this Chinese Medicine center that was partly interesting but mostly dull. And you'll never guess where it was! Literally right behind the Night Market vendors from the night before. Yeah… can't escape this place. Anyway, inside, the lady was going on and on like it was a biology class (though for Chinese methods). But then these physicians came in to do their little trick where they can tell what's wrong with your body just by putting three fingers on each wrist and having you stick out your tongue for a few seconds. Most of the group was impressive (they figured the boy had asthma and the dad had high cholesterol, for instance, which were both true). But when it eventually came to me, they basically just said I'm fat and have a slow metabolism. Yeah, no kidding. You don't need to be a doctor to figure that one out.
Oh, and they talked Monique into buying some herbal meeds, but she didn't have the money with her at the time. So Bob paid for it, with her needing to pay him back at the end of the day. Remember this… it's coming back later.
It took forever for us to get out of there, but when we did, we all went to lunch at a more local place not catered to Westerners. This allowed us to taste actual Chinese food, and it's quite a bit different than what we have back in the States. But it was good. Oh, and guess who else was there with a different group? Yup… Bridge Master and his little buddy! Anyway, I got a picture of the food and stuff:
After lunch was the Temple of Heaven. It had some pretty interesting buildings and stuff. Here are some pictures:
After that was the Pearl Market, which was lame. The most exciting thing about it was some ice cream they were selling at the front. Unfortunately, we killed a lot of time here for some reason. This part of the day was so dull I couldn't even be bothered to take pictures.
So from there we moved on to the quite beautiful Summer Palace. If for some reason I ever came back to Beijing, I wouldn't mind checking out the Summer Palace again. There were some buildings we didn't get to go to… not to mention it's just a gorgeous place. Here's some pictures:
The tour was basically over at this point, so they started dropping everyone off one by one. It came down to us and Turkish Family, and Bob dropped us off at our hotel to put our things away before heading to the theater for the Acrobatics Show. During this time, the Turkish Family decided against going to a certain restaurant and just had them drop them off near their hotel instead.
This leaves me and Monique. But before we can go to the theater, Monique needed to get some money to pay back Bob. We stop at this bank/ATM/something-or-other. To give the very, very short version… she couldn't get the money, Bob got pretty frustrated, and they ended up settling on her returning the herbal meeds to the front desk of the hotel for him to pick up the next day so he could get a refund on them. But it took a lot of time to come to this conclusion.
By the time we get to the theatre, it's about 6:45 PM or so. Bob gets the tickets for us and we head on inside, find our seats, and say our goodbyes to Bob. We were so cramped in those seats. Let me put it this way--even the little Asians were too big the space they gave you, so just imagine how I was. Anyway, the show started about 7:20…
…and it was the perfect way to end this whole trip. It was pretty awesome. Think a kind of Cirque act with big feats, a story, and digital backgrounds. There was tightrope walking, a juggling tap dancer (which was even more epic than it sounds), two different contortionist acts, a pole climbing act, a Chinese fan/bicycling act, and probably something else I'm forgetting. It was all insanely impressive and a lot of fun. The basic story was a clown who gets caught up in some Indiana Jones type adventures, but even crazier than that. And he has to collect these treasures from different monsters and/or creatures and whatnot. Pictures were not allowed during the show, but I did get a couple of the outside of the building, at least?
From there, we headed to the subway where we traveled back to the Beijing Railway Station and walked back to our hotel. And that was that!
Day Four - Sunday (September 22)
The previous night, I had started to feel a bit sick. Sinus stuff and minor sore throat. This seems to be common when I travel for some reason. Anyway, this led to an uncomfortable sleep through the night. I'd set my alarm for 9 AM but got up in the 7 o'clock hour. Keep in mind that through the rest of this day, I'm not feeling all that great. Anyway, I decided to take this free time to upload pictures and edit some footage and whatnot. After a while, I started to debate whether or not I wanted to just head for the airport early or just do nothing for an hour. So I decided to just check out and head to the airport. Better to be safe than sorry and all that.
So I headed for the airport shuttle bus, which was near the Beijing Railway Station. I'd seen tons of the shuttles around there, and I saw signs pointing to where to go. But then I saw this enormous line. And all the signs pointed to that spot. Turns out it was the taxi line, despite the fact there was a sign that said "Airport Shuttle Bus" with an arrow pointing into this line. Oh well. I waited in the line for about 45 minutes, during which I was bombarded by taxi drivers trying to get me (and only me) out of line and rip me off. I declined every time. The first guy tried to get me for 350 yuan. The second guy said 150. I still knew that was too high. The last guy said meter, but I didn't trust him. The taxi I did get had a pretty nice guy who actually used his meter. He didn't speak much English, but we got the point across, and it only ended up costing 107 yuan (plus an extra 10 for an airport toll). That's roughly what I figured it would be. It only took about 35 minutes or so.
So I tried to find my way through the airport and check in, which was an annoying process, especially since they don't have Self Check-In here, apparently. Then began the massive trek to the gate. First I had to walk down to a train which took you to the right concourse area. Then I had to walk a distance before waiting in a huge line for Immigration and Security (which were kind of lumped together in that order). After that, I had to basically walk for 10 minutes--stopping at a Starbucks to get an overpriced and not that good sandwich--before heading down an escalator to sit and wait in a tiny gate room for a shuttle bus that would eventually take us to the plane. Yeah.
This Air China flight had some issues, too. Instead of taking off at 1:50 as we were supposed to, we don't take off until about 2:30 because they had to find the luggage of someone who didn't make the flight… or something. The flight itself was fine. We landed right around 5 PM Korean time (remember, there's a time shift). But then after we get to the airport, I get stuck in the immigration line that takes FOREVER.The kind of line that takes 15 minutes to check 10 people through for what should be a 45-second job. So by the time I get through the line and grab my luggage, it's already 6 PM. I'm sick and exhausted and just want to go home. I didn't feel like dealing with the whole bus thing, so I just decided to catch the train. It's only 30 minutes longer than the bus, right?
Ha. To skip forward a bit, let's just say I got on the train at about 6:20. I didn't get home until 9 PM. Why, you ask? Well, it was going fine (albeit a bit crowded) until I hit Sindorim Station and had to transfer. I somehow got turned around, so a nice Korean guy decided to help me out. Unfortunately, the direction he pointed me in… OK, let me side-note for a minute and explain a couple things about the Seoul Subway system.
1) A Rapid Line is a line in which you don't have to worry about hitting all the stops. It just hits bigger ones and speeds by all the others. It generally saves time.
2) Sindorim is right before Guro. Now, Guro is a station which goes in a fork despite staying on the same numbered line. So you have to be sure you get on the right train or else you end up going in the complete opposite direction you intended.
I think you can see where this is going.
After waiting 15 minutes for the train to even show up, I get on… and end up on a Rapid Line going in the complete opposite direction I need to go. This means I bypassed about 5 stations in between Guro and where we ended up stopping. This means I had to get on a regular train and spend the next 10-15 minutes backtracking to Guro so I could switch to yet another train and take the next 20 minutes standing in a cramped position to get back home. In other words, I was not having a fun day.
The tour stuff was awesome, and the Great Wall was amazing (as was the acrobatics show). If I had to compare Beijing to, say, Seoul and Tokyo, though? Well, let's look at some important categories:
Seoul: Generally friendly, but in an average kind of way. When they're workers, they're nice. When it's just average people… just normal. Some are very friendly and helpful, and others ignore you completely (and some will just stare).
Tokyo: Super friendly. Probably one of the friendliest places I've ever been. The workers go out of their way to be kind to you and even try to speak English even if it embarrasses them. I'm not sure I met a single rude or unfriendly person in Tokyo.
Beijing: Uh… not very friendly. Well, let me expand on that. The common person is generally friendly. During the tours, the other touring Chinese people (usually females, though) were really nice and friendly. However, the customer service here is really bad. The hotel staff was nice, but that's about where it ended. Most workers were super aggressive and would try to rip off foreigners. But even when they did that, they weren't nice about it. They would basically yell at you, follow you around, and even if you told them no, wouldn't stop. The worst was if you were stuck in a line and couldn't get away. I also generally found younger women and kids to be the most pleasant. The majority of the men and older women I came across were not very pleasant at all. This was one of the biggest detriments to this city, in my opinion.
Seoul: The entire Seoul metro system is pretty dang perfect. And even outside Seoul, it's easy to get a taxi and the bus systems, though sometimes confusing if you don't speak the language, is solid.
Tokyo: Tokyo comes close, though. I was able to pick up the metro system on my own after like a day. The bus system was easy enough when I needed it.
Beijing: Uh… not very good. I don't want to judge the Beijing Railway system much, because I only used it once. That one time was relatively easy. Where I will judge it, though, is that finding an entrance area is not easy, unlike the other two cities, where entrances are everywhere. I've had two experiences with taxis. And unless they're out to rip you off, it's incredibly, incredibly difficult for a foreigner to catch a cab here. As for the buses… similar to Korea, if you know the language and bus schedules, it could be easier. Otherwise, it's not too friendly to travelers.
Winner: Seoul, but with Tokyo in a close second.
Seoul: I'm not a huge fan of the Seoul aesthetic, or really Korean aesthetic in general. It's not ugly, per se, but it's not all that pleasant or appealing. Granted, there are some really nice areas, but as for the city itself… eh, it's OK.
Tokyo: It's really cool and every major area offers an entirely unique look. You can go to Harajuku, Akihabara, and Shibuya and have 3 completely different feels.
Beijing: However, I absolutely loved the look of Beijing. It's hard to describe the look and feel of the city, but it's a really cool place on this front.
Winner: Beijing, with Tokyo in a close second.
Seoul: Temples and a shrine… and that's about it. Otherwise, it's basically your average huge city.
Tokyo: Similar to Seoul, it has a temple/shrine or two, but this is a city much more focused on the future rather than the past. I think that's why Kyoto is much more popular for those looking for cultural stuff.
Beijing: Everywhere you look is a cultural experience. Even in the modernization of the buildings are cultural touches. It's a city rooted in its past but building for the future.
Stuff to Do
Seoul: This place is so massive you could do something in Seoul every day for an entire year and probably still not do everything possible.
Tokyo: Like Seoul, there's just so much you could see and do. That being said, I think the stuff in Tokyo is much grander and a little more fun than Seoul. So while it might have an equal amount of things, it really comes down to quality or what you're looking for.
Beijing: Yet again, you'd be hard pressed to find nothing to do. Best attraction, though? Uh… the Great Wall of China. Yeah, it's really hard to beat that.
Winner: I think this is a three-way tie. It's really tough and mostly depends on what you're looking for. You want culture and history? Beijing. You want fun, games, and fashion? Tokyo. You want a big city adventure mixed with a bit of culture? Seoul.
As for my hotel in Beijing… I can't recommend it to anyone. The rooms themselves aren't bad, and the staff is actually pleasant and helpful. But it is not worth the headache to get to. And it's definitely not worth not being able to tell the address to a taxi and still not being able to get where you need to go. Get a better hotel. Hands down. Zhangan Hotel in and of itself isn't bad, but its location is terrible, terrible, terrible.
Overall, though, I think my favorite city so far is Tokyo, with Seoul in second, and Beijing in third. I enjoyed practically everything I did in Beijing, but the friendliness and transportation factors were a big turn-off. However, that being said, it's all worth it just to see the Great Wall. I also think part of my outlook on Beijing is due to exhaustion and over-stimulation. I did a lot in just two days, and they were two very long days at that.
And I think that's about it for this trip!