Beijing

NOTE: PHOTOS TO COME LATER! (My current internet connection is not good enough to upload photos without each one taking about 40 minutes and wanted to get this out there!)

I’m so behind! Oh well – will keep going, albeit with every post getting more and more belated :s

I’ve actually started another tour now (did a tour in China), and am in Cambodia. It’s very full on, and have had no time to sit and sort this…but hey, anyway, never mind!

So, we flew from Tokyo to Beijing, where we were due to commence the aforementioned tour. Enjoy 🙂

Day 15: Flight to Beijing

Our flight to Beijing was via Dalian (also in China), which seems a bit counterproductive, seeing as Dalian is South of Beijing, however it made sense back in October to book it, because it was much cheaper than a direct flight. Also, we weren’t exactly pushed for time!

We travelled with China Southern airlines and neither flight was particularly extraordinary, except for the lunch we were given on one of the flights – it was clearly identifiably Chinese cuisine, and immediately I realised my palate was far more suited to China than it ever was to Japan. However, I will say this – China Southern make you collect your luggage at the transfer point and then check in again, which is relatively rare these days, so be aware of this if booking with them, and ensure you leave a decent gap to give yourself enough time in between flights!

Dalian airport is quite a decent size, if not signposted very well (just ask somebody) and we ate at the Subway restaurant we found there, which was like every other Subway in the world.

We had planned in advance to take a taxi from Beijing airport to the hostel we were spending the next two nights in, and knew to follow the clearly marked signs to the taxi rank, ignoring any other people touting lifts along the way.

I think international airports, generally, world over, are fairly similar – there are some differences, especially in layout and style and how easy they are to navigate, but the true ‘whoa-I’m-in-another-country’ tends not to quite hit until you pass through the ‘nothing to declare’ area.

At the risk of boring you senseless (I know, I know, I write a lot, but it’s because I’m determined to remember and use these accounts in future years to reminisce), I think it’s important to briefly tell you where I’ve been in the world, so you understand the next paragraph in my personal context: I’ve visited the country of my birth India, much of Europe (save for Eastern Europe), including France, Italy, and Spain, and have also visited Egypt, the USA and Canada. So basically, I’ve never been further East than India.

When I stepped into the arrivals part of Beijing, one singular, clear thought struck me, and I told Dave immediately: ‘This is just like India’. I cannot stress this enough. There were so many people, bustling, conversing very loudly, and when we grabbed some chips in McDonald’s, a stranger struck up a conversation with us in extremely broken English, clearly fascinated, and others were staring too (everyone stares in India as well, even if they don’t necessarily start a conversation). When we joined the super long queue for the taxi rank, the only things preventing it from becoming a big surge of people were some official looking individuals and sturdy barriers. It was loud, smoky, bustling (yes, you can get shoved/overtaken-in-a-queue in China quite easily and I don’t actually think it’s considered rude) – the complete antithesis of Japan and so like India, I couldn’t help but grin to myself. Unfortunately I only had my rubbish phone camera so can’t show you!

Hey, they’re the two biggest populations in the world, right, and both countries are rapidly developing – stands to reason they’re similar to an outside eye!

MUCH LATER EDIT: A lot of the far East is like India, lol. I’ve gotten over the excitement somewhat now.

Obviously, though, I couldn’t understand the language here, not even a little bit. The hostel we were going to, called 365 Inn, centrally located near Tiananmen square, had very helpfully provided us with a map and directions, both in Chinese Mandarin and in English, understanding that many Chinese people cannot speak, understand, read or write English. So we gave these to the driver of our taxi, who shouted loudly at us in Mandarin for a while before one of the official looking people came over and read the instructions and explained something to him. Then, slightly scared, we were on our way. When we reached our street, about forty minutes later, he rang the number 365 Inn had also provided, to make sure we was dropping us off in the right place. We realised, especially after his smile goodbye, that he probably wasn’t shouting earlier in anger, a belief that has been strengthened throughout our time in China – people in China are just extremely loud!

The hostel itself has a cool vibe, with an attached restaurant/bar. Our private double room was very nice, with a nice sized ensuite, and the staff were proficient in English and helpful. We recommend 365 Inn whole heartedly to anybody wanting to stay in Beijing at a reasonable price in a central location!

A note besides – though spending the first two days in China at this hostel, after this we were planning to join a tour group at Chongwenmen Hotel, specifically to start the 21 days G Adventures tour ‘Essential China’.

Day 16

In the morning, we had a lie in, and then headed to the familiar McDonald’s, purely because we were completely new to China and knew we’d have plenty of opportunity to sample the local cuisine under the guidance of our chief experience officer during the tour commencing the next day.

The girl serving us knew basic English and we ate some very spicy (awesome!) chicken burgers whilst planning out next move. We decided to visit the Temple of Heaven, which was about a half an hour’s walk away.

Obviously in China, we had no portable WiFi (there was some temperamental WiFi at 365 Inn though). However, Dave had downloaded an offline map app for China onto his phone, and obviously GPS works offline, so we were able to find our way. We stuck to the main roads in order to not get too lost. We had no paper map or guidebook in China because we knew most of it we’d be doing through the tour!

The walk to the Temple of Heaven was what can only be described as warm (good), dusty (not good) and arid. I had heard rumours about the smog that smothered Beijing most of the time due to heavy pollution, but didn’t quite believe it until that walk – I covered my mouth with a scarf to act as a sort of filter and when I looked up, I couldn’t clearly see the blue of the sky, despite there being no cloud cover. It was bizarre – I have never experienced anything like it in my life. India is pretty polluted in parts, but the bits I’ve been to do not match up to Beijing! The smog seemed to render us more exhausted than we usually would have been after a half hour walk.

Also during this walk the comparisons I had made at the airport to India were reaffirmed with the presence of many two-wheeled scooters and motorbikes and also the general crowds and loudness of the people, as well as the juxtapositions of basic, simple shack type houses and roadworks right next to big tower blocks and shopping malls. Cue more excitement on my part and eager pointing-outing of such things to a patient Dave!

Oh, and, basically nearly every man in China seems to smoke. ‘Non-smoking’ areas and ‘smoking areas’ are, save for very few exceptions, alien ideas. The smell of tobacco hangs constantly in the air. We observed all this and it was all confirmed by our tour guide the next day as well.

The Temple of Heaven, essentially a public park with a nominal entry fee and then some historical buildings dotted around that you a pay a little extra to enter, was a nice place to take a wander, though the air still remained arid and unpleasant to breathe in. We purchased a sort of multi-pass ticket at the gate, with three different strips that could be torn off, giving access to three buildings within the park. The main one to mention here (see the photograph too) is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, around which some sort of bridal magazine photoshoot seemed to be taking place – either than or about ten couples decided to get married on the same day in Beijing and all picked the Temple of Heaven for their photos!!

Some signs are in English, some are not. We didn’t feel that our experience was hindered in any way, apart from by the air we were breathing, but I’m not sure what the attraction could really have done about that! If in Beijing, I’d say it’s one of the top sights to see.

We grabbed snacks from a 7-11 shop for lunch (prices vary – some things are much cheaper the UK, others, like Dove chocolate – known as Galaxy in the UK – are quite expensive compared to the UK!) and chilled in the late afternoon. To be honest, I didn’t much feel like venturing out again. I have a feeling not every day in Beijing feels quite so smoggy, and that it was particularly bad on a day we already happened to be a bit tired from travelling!

Consequently, we also ate at the hostel restaurant. Food was incredibly cheap (think £2-£3 for a main), but all I can say is, if in China, at a youth hostel, maybe don’t order Italian, which is what I stupidly did. Meh, it filled a hole though, and can’t complain for two quid!!

Day 17: Beiijing / Day 1 of ACEC (G Adventures Essential China Tour code)

The next day we transferred via metro to Chongwenmen Hotel*, where our tour group was meeting in the evening and spending its first night. The metro in Beijing is very easy to navigate, with signs everywhere in English, in a similar fashion to the London Underground and metro stations in Europe, so you can always figure out where you’re going by reading the signs. Interestingly, you always have to pass through a security check – as in, place bags on a scanner – on entering the metro, though to be honest, nobody seemed to be paying very close attention, and you yourself didn’t have to go through any scanner, so could obviously conceal things on your person – but I digress.

After checking into the hotel and doing a bit of laundry, we met our tour group at 6pm. Before booking our tour through STA we’d read about it in detail online and usually group sizes ranged from around 12 to 16. Our group consisted of only five, with us being the youngest two members and Dave being the only guy in the group! The other three ladies consisted of two American friends who had come to China on holiday and a British lady who had already been travelling for a few months in New Zealand before arriving in Beijing.

Our chief experience officer – the g adventures’ posh name for a tour guide – is called Jiaqui, but for our foreign tongues’ sake told us in her first introductions to call her Jakkie (pronounced ‘Jacky’), the closest Western pronunciation of her Chinese name. She was extremely helpful from the start, and any vague apprehensions I harboured prior to meeting her and our group (as I had a few – these are people we’d be travelling with for 3 weeks!) dissipated quickly.

That evening, Jakkie took us to a local restaurant, Da Wan Ju, and ordered some dishes for us, both vegetarian (one of our group members is vegetarian, and as I have vegetarian relatives for whom China is on a vague bucket list of sorts, I’ve been paying close attention to all the veggie dishes on offer!) and meat. Dave and I absolutely loved every dish on the table, I especially the Kung Pao chicken and the sweet and sour pork balls.

Food is such a big part of travelling, and as my taste buds rejoiced, I felt that in this respect, at least, China and I would get along very well!

*A note on WiFi – there was only wired internet in the rooms (!), for which you could borrow a cable. The lobby did, however, provide WiFi, thank goodness!

Day 18: Beijing / Day 2 of ACEC

Day 18 of our trip and Day 2 of our Essential China tour saw us rise early for a 2 hour private bus to the Mutianyu section of a massive highlight of this entire trip – The Great Wall of China! Tickets for us were included in the price of the tour.

Once we reached and disembarked, Jakkie showed us a big map of the area (mounted on a wall only, so we took photographs with our phones) and gave us about three and a half hours to explore before meeting us back near the map for lunch.

It will probably be the same for every visit-able part of the Wall, given they dot it along its length (or did once), but this section on the map is divided by watchtowers. They are numbered from 1 to 20, and though the whole section of the Wall gently undulates up and down with the ground it is built on, generally you ascend as you walk along it in the direction of 20.

There are two ways to reach the Wall itself – climb up a stepped path (which forks at some point, with each fork reaching a different watchtower), or take a cable car.

Dave, I and our British companion opted to climb the steps to watchtower 8 and then , especially given that it was a dry day and pleasantly cool, and I think it took us about half an hour. I was panting by the time we reached the Wall, though, as usual! We decided to walk all the way to  20 and then get the cable car down.

So, the Great Wall itself! My lack of fitness notwithstanding, it was a truly incredible experience to be atop such an ancient, awe inspiring defensive structure. Unfortunately it was a rather misty day and so views of the rolling landscape below were not great, but it was still exhilarating (especially as the hills were covered in blossom trees!), and you could see the Wall stretching out in front of you for miles. Walking along the wall, you have to watch your step, as it changes gradient and step shape frequently. The last stretch of our walk was incredibly steep but worth it. I was glad we took the cable car down (costs equivalent of about £8 per person at the time of writing, not included in the tour cost), not only in order to rest my legs but also because it offered a whole other view of the area. A sign proclaimed that our cable car (no. 26) had been ridden by Bill Clinton when he visited the Great Wall!

There were a few restaurants dotted around near the car park / map-of-the-wall, we ate at Subway as it was the best price (standardised, as opposed to independent chains making money off the convenient tourist location).

In the evening, after a rest at the hotel, we had free time. We set out via metro, on Jakkie’s suggestion, to explore an area of Beijing called Wangfujing which is a famed pedestrianised shopping street, off which an equally famed snack/street food street branches off, where you can buy such delicacies as fried scorpions! Note – the pre-cooked ones were still wriggling on their skewers, I kid you not! We had a good time ambling away, marvelling in morbid fascination at the weird snacks and actual fascination at the souvenir shops etc and ate in a very reasonably priced food court called ‘Gourmet Street Plaza’.

Just to conclude, the evening seemed a less smoggy than the previous one – I think the pollution level waxes and wanes and also is probably better in certain parts of the city.

Day 19 / Day 3 of ACEC

In the morning, we had an included exploration of Tiananmen square and the Forbidden City with Jakkie. It was unfortunately pouring with rain and even more unfortunately I wore my Toms, thinking it was just going to be on/off light rain showers. The rain did not seem to deter visitors to both these sights and there were many of them, and all our umbrellas were jostling against each other for space as we fought to see the sights we had come to see. Though, Jakkie informed us that in the summer it is apparently even worse, and that you basically move through the square and City at a snails pace through a packed crowd.

In any case, we stayed upbeat and learnt a bit and got our pictures. I think if you’re happy with just a wander then this is fine but if you actually want to learn some proper history, it’s best to book with a tour guide for these two sights, or to maybe download some in depth articles to read on your phone as you go round, sort of like a self guided tour. I say this because as far as I could tell, there weren’t a huge number of very informative signs – but then, there were so many people, maybe I just missed them…

A massive upside of the rain was that afterwards (it stopped by lunchtime), the air smelt much fresher than before which was nice!

We had free time in the afternoon but were again all happy to go with Jakkie’s suggestions and took a bus to the Hutong area, where slightly dilapidated housing complexes are a stone’s throw from the famed Bell and Drum Towers, to dine at a local family’s home. This was to be the first of a few such meals – the idea is you pay an extremely reasonable price to dine on excellent home made fare in someone’s house. It was delicious and awesome and I don’t think we’d have got to experience it outside of a tour group, given that you kind of need to know the people in the business to take advantage of it.

We climbed the Drum Tower afterwards to see the views and also watch the drummers do a little performance (they do them at set times in the day and the performance lasts about 10 mins), which was quite fun. They also have a bunch of old time keeping relics and old drums on display up there. Oh, and up here was the first (but certainly not the last) time that some random guy asked to have a photo taken with Dave (who is very chilled about everything and obliged).* We, at the time, weren’t sure why, but assumed it was because of his white skin and extreme good looks (ahem).

Then it was time to explore a slightly tourist-y shopping area by the local lake, Shishatlai. Dave and I had it in our heads that we wanted to buy a tea set (a pot and cups) from China at some point, mass produced would do us fine, and we found a very reasonably priced one here – about £8 at the time of writing – we checked with our tour guide and she said that was a very good price, even for a ‘cheap’ set, so win for us. We bought it from a chain store, so no bartering was involved (we didn’t want to either).

In the evening we experienced Beijing duck at Hong Lian (Jakkie assured me this was the name, but I can’t find a link unfortunately! If you Google ‘Hong Lian Beijing Duck’ though and check images, the first one is the one I recognise as our restaurant), along with a few other dishes. It is essentially the pancake-and-duck combo we are used to in the UK, only with more thick cut duck meat with the crackling still attached…mega yum. I am addicted to hoisin sauce so had a great time. We took the public bus there with our guide, but back on our own – it’s much harder, I think, to get around for a non-Chinese-speaking tourist via public bus in Beijing than via Metro, given that bus stops don’t usually have any signs in English (Jakkie told us exactly which number bus to get on where for this reason). On the bus itself, though, stop names are displayed in English on a screen. So that bit was okay. But I’d say, if travelling on your own, probably best to stick with the metro unless you’re extremely confident and seasoned and/or speak Mandarin!

*I shall henceforth be keeping score.

Day 20: Beijing / Day 4 of ACEC

Today was check out day and our first sleeper train! Between checking out and getting on the sleeper train, we did a fair bit.

In the morning, we experienced the Chinese postal system, as we wanted to send our teapot back to my parents’ in England (didn’t want to carry it for four months). It’s actually quite a straightforward system, only due to our being unable to read any of the signs, we spent a lot of time in the wrong queues before finally getting things sorted! We had already packaged our teapot, but they checked the contents and repackaged (presumably policy, so remember, in China – just take your stuff unpackaged. We noted this is what the locals were doing. One group of boys literally had brought a plastic carrier bag full of clothes), using bubble wrap which was nice, and then we sent it off, by boat. They give you a receipt which you can use to track the parcel, but I think Dave has managed to unfortunately throw ours away – DON’T DO THIS.

Edit from Dave: ‘I have merely misplaced it.’

It cost us about £18 in total, the teapot was 2.3kg once packaged.

We then headed back to the hotel and met up with one of our group and decided we had the right amount of time to head to the Lama Temple by metro (easy). Entrance fees were cheap and we even got given some sort of little disc thing which I think is designed to be played on the computer. I really enjoyed this particular temple, which adheres to a Tibetan version of Buddhism.

It is relaxing to walk around, signs were all in Chinese and English, and we got given some free incense to burn as well. I love the smell of incense!

Also, this temple houses the biggest Buddha carved from a single piece of wood – sandalwood, to be precise!

We decided on an early dinner somewhere branded and familiar – pizza hut – in prep for our 15 hour sleeper train, me rooting for it in fear of the consequences of trying an unknown place, specifically being caught with a funny tummy in a sleeper carriage with one grungy squat toilet!

Interestingly, I think pizza hut, which is definitely more on the expensive side for China (not quite UK prices though), is considered ‘fine dining’.

The sleeper train was similar to sleeper trains I have been on in my younger days with family in India. Except in India, we usually booked first class sleepers with four beds per curtained compartment, the top bunks of which could be folded away during the day time. The train we were in as part of the tour was a ‘hard’ sleeper train and had six (unfoldable) beds per compartment and no compartment curtain.

The toilet was familiar to the Indian sleeper trains – a squat toilet that I am sure nobody bothered cleaning during the whole 15 hours as it stank in the morning!

In terms of the train experience, apart from the toilet (which I hated), it wasn’t too bad at all. We all sat on the lower beds during the daylight hours before retiring to sleep, and as our group was split across adjacent compartments, we had a couple of locals in ours and had quite a good chat to one of them, a student studying philosophy, no less! The ride was bumpy but I still managed to get some sleep. Bedding provided, but I used my sleeping bag liner.

The next morning, we arrived in Shanghai, which was waaay warmer than Beijing! Working on sorting that post, keep an eye out 🙂

Overall, my impression of Beijing is that it’s a busy, bustling, loud city with unfortunate levels of pollution, but also that the food is AMAZING, the metro is easy to navigate, there are very many interesting places to visit (we only touched a few!) and though people might appear a bit stern at first, the locals are in fact very friendly if you need a hand or simply a chat!

Thanks for stopping by, and as I said before with Japan – let me know if there’s any misrepresentation above – it is inadvertent and I will correct if needed 🙂

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