Beijing – highlights
Short stay – 6 nights
When: 28 January to 3 February
Accommodation: Hostel in the old quarter. Situated on the ground floor of an original historic Chinese courtyard, we were cosy in two double bed rooms with a small bathroom in between.
The Great Wall of China was the one and only thing on our agenda for this city and so we booked for 4 nights, however, after taking the train from the airport to Qianmen we knew we needed to see more of this sprawling city. While we prepared for the cold, we were not prepared for how cold. It was freezing, in fact -9 degrees when we landed and only ever reached a top of -1, and as the temperature failed to rise with the sun, each day seemed to pass by quickly. The night cold would crawl in before the sun left and so we made quick time of outdoor travel.
Travel throughout Beijing’s rail network was effortless, the system was highly sophisticated and navigating our way around never posed too much trouble. Our courtyard hostel was in the old quarter of Beijing, just south of Tianan’men Square, close to the backpacker area. It was almost impossible to find because it was up a very small lane way running off Qianmen St. Our closest eateries were on Liangshidian St, on the East end of our street and on Meishi St to the West. We ate most days and each night bar one on the former as the latter was overly Westernised to cater for the backpackers. The restaurants along Liangshidian St offered low cost traditional Chinese meals and catered for locals, mutton, duck and hot pot being most popular, and it made ordering difficult but a lot of fun. They were smiling as much as us when we hit a language black spot but with plenty of pointing and nodding we managed to eat quite well and cheap.
Being another hostel without breakfast and not enough room to spend time relaxing, we, as in Singapore, were forced to spend most of our time outdoors. With so much to see and the sheer enormity of this city, we certainly clocked up many kilometers of walking. This meant we packed in the site seeing and wore ourselves ragged each day.
- Great Wall of China – one of the 7 Wonders of the World. Our hostel arranged our tour and the bus was on time. Our driver drove in typical maniacal style for 2 hours toward Mutianyu, a relatively ‘new’ tourist section. You enter through a ticket booth, similar to those found at the entrance to many National Parks. You then get off your bus to join a larger transit bus with other groups and head toward the village at the base of the mountain. From here you have the choice of taking a cable car left to a peak at platform 14 or another cable car right to a lower section at platform 4. We chose to save our money and walk up the stairs in the middle toward platform 8 and from here we walked up to platform 14 and beyond to platform 16. This was an exhaustive choice but extremely rewarding, we were virtually alone until platform 12. A winter visit to the wall reveals the rugged mountainous landscape that the workers would have had to endure during the construction, add the snow and a feeling of empathy immediately runs over you. Our tour was capped off with a delicious Chinese banquet lunch and a sleepy ride back to town.
- Tianan’men Square, the Imperial Palace and The Forbidden City – Take an entire day and stroll at your pace as you join the throngs of mostly Chinese tourists all flocking to the entrance of the most grand and best preserved Chinese public cultural displays, right in the heart of Beijing. The moat, the fortress walls with awe-inspiring entrances and the soaring roof tops make for a photographers dream. Avoid the crowds by diverting off to the many and equally impressive but smaller buildings on each side of the main central passageway. If you leave this visit too late in the day you will be disappointed because every martial art film or Chinese animation movie you have ever seen looks like it was based on this collection of buildings and if you do nothing else you will spend your time imagining the scenes you remember in fiction while viewing them in reality.
- The Summer Palace – Just when you think you have had enough of wooden slopped roofs and frozen moats, you find yourself taking the train to the Palace that was built for the ladies (Queens and Princesses stopped here before making their way to the city) in the far North of the city. You can enter the grounds of this spectacular landmark from many places but as we had emerged from the underground station at Xiyuan we entered via the East gate, mind you, we needed help from a local and happened to find a university lecturer that was happy to share her knowledge and show off her English skills. After about four hours and lunch in an overwrought cafe, where fighting for the curry and rice seemed like a do or die task, we exited the grounds into unknown territory. Many tuk-tuk drivers were on hand to assist us, but we decided to follow some others that were heading to the train station and so like a bunch of maniacs we ran after a driver as he headed to the nearest train station. It paid off, we were warm and we saved money.
Shopping and eating:
- Wangfujing Snack Street sells scorpions, snakes and bugs on sticks and was a must do for the voyeur in all of us.
- Qianmen Snack Street and shopping street at the East end of our street even had old tram cars running up and down the centre during the day. A H&M store will be opening soon in this high-end shopping street.
- Silk Street Market, a high-rise shopping complex in the Chaoyang District. It has floors dedicated to one or two products and is not a sprawling market as you might expect. We purchased a new wheely suitcase here for only $70 AUD, lets see how long it lasts.
- Dashilan Commercial Street, another shopping street only 400 metres from Qianmen, full of cultural keepsakes and interesting Chinese architecture.
- Qian Hai was a surprise wrapped in good food and outdoor entertainment. For a family that loves partaking in free outdoor activities, such as the beach, park, etc, the multiple ice skating rinks on the frozen lake at Qian Hai was an ideal way to spend two afternoons. We liked it so much we went back there again and missed the Temple of Heaven doing so. It is mostly a local winter holiday playground but at no time did they knock back our money.
Our winter visit to this ancient city impressed us beyond measure. While the language barrier is evident, we always found someone ready to help us if we were stuck. We witnessed some extremely serious people focused with steely determination to get to their predetermined destination and so a bit of push and shove was par for the course. In a city with so many people, if you allow them they will push in at every turn, whether buying a ticket or food at a counter, they will ignore you and just step in front, but only if you let them. If you stand up to a person in a hurry they smile and nod and act as if nothing happened. It was unusual behaviour compared to what we normally encounter at home but once you understand it you can cope with it.
Top picks when eating out:
- Chinese fried rice – the best kind as far as we are concerned. All of us loved it and we were never let down when ordering it.
- Pork dumplings – steamed and shallow fried so the bottom was crispy, they were loaded with ginger which we all love. These were not fluffy white bbq pork dumplings but small bite sized pieces, you just need to be careful of the boiling juice inside.
- Stir-fry broccoli in garlic – determined to eat healthy, we ordered this for only $3.50 a serve most nights and didn’t disappoint.
Best experience as voted by the entire family:
- The Wall – no doubt about it, but coming close second was the ice skating.
Worst experience as voted by the entire family:
- The public spitting was tough to accept. It was blatant and it happened beside us in a restaurant in Liangshidian St.
Would we go back?
- Yes, we would definitively go back to experience the Wall in another season and also to visit the many places we missed.
- We extended our stay in a big city, when we thought we would never. We also ate McDonalds at the Guangzhou airport during our 2 hour stopover on the way to Hanoi.