Thursday September 6, 2012 – Arriving in Beijing
|The next pre-tour option was a couple of nights in Beijing, with most of the group arriving on Thursday, although some chose to arrive earlier and spend more time in Beijing.
Those of us who had already taken the pre-tour option in South Korea flew to Beijing today, with most of us choosing one of two flights that both conveniently left Seoul around 1pm and arrived into Beijing at 2pm (actually a two hour flight due to the one hour time zone change).
Our flights from Seoul arrived into the enormous new Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International Airport, opened in 2008 as part of Beijing’s growth spurt in time for hosting the Olympic Games in August of that year. For a few months, it was the largest airport terminal in the world, but was eclipsed by Dubai’s Terminal 3 in October of 2008. It is the fifth largest building in the world (in terms of area – 13 million square feet) and the airport as a whole is currently the world’s second busiest in terms of passenger movements (Atlanta being the reigning champion, although probably not for much longer).
Normally airport terminals mean nothing to me. I’m focused on traveling through them as quickly as possible – either on the way to the flight or on the way to baggage claim and out of the airport. They are, pretty much everywhere in the world, semi-generic in nature. But Terminal 3 is an extraordinarily impressive structure, and an impressive introduction to the ever-larger, and ever-more prosperous huge city that Beijing has become and continues to be.
Beijing isn’t bashful at showing its success and prosperity. Everywhere we turned we saw dazzling new buildings showing off extravagant architectural features, as opposed to the drab, small and strictly functional buildings that represented Beijing’s past.
Just like Seoul (and so many other cities that are rapidly growing), traffic in Beijing was also dreadful, and our guide advised us that the city now has a ‘carless day’ system whereby all cars have to spend one day a week not being driven – the day they must be unused being dependent on the last number of their registration plate.
Our hotel in Beijing was an impressive new hotel – the Best Western Premier Royal Phoenix. Although a new hotel, it was in an old (but very central) part of the city, down a narrow hutong (or lane).
Local shops and dwellings and communal toilets lined the lane, providing a mix of very different but all strong smells, and we got to see ‘real’ life in abundance all around us, in contrast to some of the other hotel locations that were surrounded merely by other bland big buildings and no sign of actual residential life or activity at all.
There was a vibrant feeling to the semi-chaotic life that was all around us, with ample evidence of new building and other growth everywhere, and this was palpably a contrast to the much more passive and sedentary feeling we were to experience upon arriving in Pyongyang. It also seemed more purposeful than our time in Seoul for that matter too, and based on my limited experiences of Seoul and Beijing, I’d say that overall Beijing seems the better laid out and more progressive city.
I commented a bit about transfers from the airport when writing about my arrival into Seoul. I’ll amplify those comments a bit more here. Several readers reported nightmarish type experiences in taking taxis in from the airport to the hotel, and exhorbitant fares going as high as $100 due to the taxi getting lost and going to the wrong hotel and all sorts of other issues. A taxi fare ideally should be no more than $30 and often-times less, but that assumes good traffic and a good driver. I was offering transfers from the airport in a taxi together with an English speaking guide present for the entire journey for $55 – appreciably more than a ‘best case’ taxi ride, but appreciably less than a ‘worst case’ journey.
The small upcharge over the ‘best case’ scenario is, for most people, probably money well spent, and in return for the possibly extra cost, they have ‘insurance’ against a ‘worst case’ scenario, being assured of a reliable quality experience augmented with the presence of an English speaking guide for the journey in.
On the other hand, there’s seldom much need for a formal transfer out to the airport. Just about any taxi driver in any city knows how to get to the airport, and assuming the taxi driver is reasonably fair about his route and fee, that is usually a much more straightforward transaction.
At the end of our tour, I wryly noted our dishonest Chinese guide tricking several in our group to secretly buy transfers from the hotel back to the airport direct from her. She told these sadly gullible people that the hotel would charge them 400 RMB for a transfer, whereas she could arrange one for the ‘bargain price’ of ‘only’ 300 RMB. In actual fact, the hotel would simply call a cab and the people who chose to do this reported paying in the order of 100 RMB for the ride out to the airport. The guide’s 300 RMB fee probably involved her pocketing at least 200 of the 300 RMB and only passing on a small amount to the actual driver – I noted that the people who agreed to her offer had to pay the sum to her rather than to the driver.
In much of Asia, it is sadly a certainty that any products promoted by the guides are massively overpriced and involve huge kickbacks to the guides promoting them. Indeed, the guide was also trying to tempt me into endorsing the over-priced massages and other services she was trying to sell to people on the tour the next day, telling me that there would be very generous payments to me too if anyone signed up for them.
Even though I directly told everyone on the tour not to buy anything from the guide, several people chose to ignore me and do exactly that. I’d refused to accept any kickbacks, so the guide got to pocket a double kickback from those people who chose to trust her rather than me.
The hotel was nice, although check-in was a bit muddly and drawn out. The rooms were pleasant, but service in the bar was slow (and the drinks expensive). All that could be forgiven however, but one thing could/can not be excused – appallingly slow internet in the rooms, making it somewhere between difficult and impossible to conduct normal internet activities. It is unacceptable for a new hotel to offer crippled internet that was more akin to old fashioned dialup speeds. While we liked the hotel and enjoyed its location and the immersion in local life that it offered us, the more connected of us (which in this case was most of the group) felt we could never return there due to the dysfunctional internet (non)service.
Some of our group had dinner at a noodle restaurant along the hutong, where they reported having a great meal and plenty of beer for something less than $5/person. I went to a more touristy location and paid about $15 for a lovely meal featuring Yunnan regional cuisine – still a great value for a meal and drink.
Friday September 7, 2012 – Beijing Touring and Briefing
|Some of the group who had chosen the South Korean option went off and did their own thing while we were in Beijing, but they were sort of replaced by others of our group who did not do the South Korean option but were doing the Beijing city tour.
We met after breakfast and the group introduced itself to the new members, then first went to the large Yonghe Lama Monastery/Temple, not far from the hotel, where we toured around, often through clouds of incense, and saw a number of Buddha’s of varying sizes including one huge one that was 86’ tall.
The monastery dates back to 1694 and was originally an official residence for court eunuchs before becoming a residence for large numbers of Tibetan Buddhist monks and evolving into the national center of China’s Lama Administration. After narrowly surviving the cultural revolution in China, it reopened to the public in 1981.
After that, we went to the nearby Bell Tower, which dates back to 1272. About half the group climbed up to the top. We were told it was ‘only’ 75 steps (if memory serves correctly) but what we didn’t appreciate was that the first 60 steps were all in a solid single flight with no break and were each much steeper than normal western flights of stairs. So the 75 steps were a fairly aggressive climb.
We enjoyed good views over the city and over to the nearby similar Drum tower, then after that, went back down and then climbed into ‘rickshaws’, two of us per each rickshaw. The reason for the quotes around the word ‘rickshaw’ is that these were propelled by a man pedaling a connected bicycle rather than by a man simply walking and pulling the rickshaw shafts directly.
The rickshaws were perhaps large enough for two Chinese people, but were more cramped for us larger western folk, however we managed, and enjoyed a fascinating tour through an area of hutongs. While some of the hutong exteriors appeared to be semi-squalid, we regularly saw signs suggesting that external appearances could be deceptive. High-end security systems and cameras and expensive late-model cars rather contradicted the external appearance of many of the buildings.
The hutongs in Beijing are steadily disappearing. They are generally in very central parts of the city, and it is overwhelmingly tempting for developers to buy them up, pull them down and replace them with higher density high-rise buildings. They are currently a curious mix of old and new, and due to the inevitability of their continued destruction, it must be a strange feeling for the residents and I’ll guess that few people wish to spend much money on capital improvements in the knowledge that sooner or later (and, most likely, more sooner than later, given the rate of growth and development everywhere we turned) they will be given an offer they can’t refuse and bought out.
We stopped and then walked through some narrow lanes and went into a lady’s personal apartment where she crowded all 26 of us into a room and served us a multi-course lunch. The lunch was okay, and it was amazing how we all managed to fit into the small room and around tables.
After lunch we returned by rickshaw to where the coach was waiting for us. I gave the rickshaw driver the recommended tip, and he reacted in a strangely negative way. I wonder why?
We then went to a local market – a multi-story building selling everything from clothing to electronics to sundry toys and souvenirs, and spent time there. Many of us bought items, with it usually being a struggle to beat the stall sellers down to prices close to what we’d pay in the US for the same things. All sellers would start off asking ridiculously high prices for things – it used to be, many years ago, that if you could talk a seller down to half their opening price, you’d done well, but now it seems that you need to talk them down to a quarter or less their opening price and even then, you might still be paying over the odds. But the bargaining process was sort of fun and part of the experience.
One of our group was first offered two t-shirts for US$105. These were ordinary basic t-shirts with a small amount of screen-printing on them – the sort of thing you’d pay perhaps $10 a piece for back home. A $105 opening price was insultingly beyond stupid, but presumably the stall sellers have developed a very exact art of how to bargain with us tourists. He eventually bought two for less than $10 in total from another vendor.
At 2.30 we walked a short distance from the market to attend a tour briefing by the North Korean tour organizers. This was to be the first time that all 35 of us (it was to have been 36 but one person had to cancel at the literally very last minute, alas) would be together, and to my consternation, the 2.30pm meeting started with one person still missing. He eventually appeared at about 2.45pm, looking rather battered and confused. The taxi he was taking to meet us for the briefing was apparently in a fairly severe car accident and disabled, but he managed to struggle on to the meeting himself. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief at his arrival.
The tour coordinator’s General Manager (an Englishman) gave an interesting, informative, and very witty presentation, and we collected our visas and sundry other paperwork before being taken back to the hotel.
After a short break at the hotel, we then headed off for a group pre-tour dinner at a nearby Peking Duck restaurant – the Quanjude.
It seems that the Quanjude and Da Dong restaurants vie for supremacy as the best large Peking Duck restaurant in the city, and having now eaten at both of them, there really isn’t much to separate one from the other. Both are expensive, both operate at multiple locations around the central city area, and both provide a panoply of appetizers followed by table-side carved roast duck. Most importantly, both provide good overall experiences.
The food was great and also provided in great quantities – a huge number of appetizers kept appearing, followed by duck and then still more ‘nibble’ type foods.
A slightly surprising challenge arose at the end of the meal, although it related only to me rather than others in the group. I’d negotiated a fixed price for a fixed menu meal – 330RMB per person (about $53) with drinks to be paid separately. So it seemed like it should have been an easy calculation to multiple 330RMB by the number of people present, and to pay a bill for that amount.
Instead I was given a long page of calculations, all in Chinese, and a strange number at the end that was considerably more than I was expecting. The restaurant staff all claimed not to speak English, and so a difficult negotiation took place through an interpreter. I showed them what I thought the cost should be, they showed me what they offered in turn, and after some back and forth negotiations, they provided a complicated new calculation that came to exactly 10,000 RMB. This was a suspiciously round number, although it was delightful how it was supported by a series of seemingly very exact calculations. Recognizing that I was way out of my league, I shut up and paid up.
After dinner, some of the group chose to walk back to the hotel, while others took the coach. The walk back was interesting, giving us some more up-close contact with locals and their life-styles, including at one point walking through a large group of middle aged women (and a few men) doing some sort of organized dancing on the sidewalk.
Saturday September 8, 2012 – to North Korea
|Our Air Koryo (ie the national airline of North Korea) flight time had changed and we were now to take an earlier flight to Pyongyang than originally anticipated.
This is apparently far from unusual. The airline also takes an interesting approach to flight scheduling and capacity management. It seems that it simply accepts all bookings up until a day or two before departure, and then schedules as many planes as are needed to transport everyone who has bought a ticket, and shuffles people between whatever planes and new flight numbers have been created.
Like many of the group who were returning back to our Beijing hotel for a night at the end of our North Korean tour, I split the stuff I was traveling into two bags – a ‘leave in Beijing’ bag and a ‘take to North Korea’ bag, and had the bell desk at the hotel hold the Beijing bag for my return on Thursday. This was a great convenience and helped to keep the weight of the bag to Pyongyang down to the 44lb weight limit which applied on that flight (or 66lbs for people flying business class).
A coach transfer out to the airport was handled with no fuss or bother, and upon arriving at the airport at 9am (Terminal 2 this time rather than Terminal 3) our pre-tour options ended and our formal tour to North Korea commenced.
The tour member who arrived late for yesterday afternoon’s briefing due to his taxi being disabled in a car accident was there to meet us – he told me that he was taking no chances for being late again, and had been at the airport since 6am!
With a mixture of anticipation and perhaps even some apprehension, we moved forward to the check-in counter, the other side of which was to be the start of our North Korean adventure.
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