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  • Day52


    April 19, 2016 in China ⋅ ☁️ 13 °C

    After an uncomfortable hard seat night train journey, punctuated only briefly by sleep, we arrived into Beijing railway station on a sunny Friday morning. Once we'd made it out of the hour
    horrendously crowded station (it was a national holiday weekend), we got the metro to our hostel, located in an area made up of historic hutongs - atmospheric alleyways from the turn of the 20th century, filled with little shops and cafes, with little traffic. We settled into our hostel, then went for a stroll around our local hutong, visiting the bustling shopping street of Nanluogoxiang, getting lost in the bucolic alleyways and admiring beautiful ivy covered courtyards, often historic artists homes. Eventually, we meandered our way to the Bell and Drum towers, ornate constructions which until the 1920s were the main way of telling the time in Beijing, with drums and bells marking each of the 6 periods of the traditional Chinese day. We decided to scale the Bell tower as it had views of the more impressive Drum tower, and after a short climb up some steps, were rewarded with sweeping views of Beijing's hutongs and across to the Forbidden city. Tired from our train journey, we descended the tower and made our way to the Beihai Lake, which we chilled by in the afternoon sunshine for an hour beside locals fishing, before returning to the hostel for a siesta. Rested, we headed out for dinner, ending up in a local favourite, where we enjoyed amazing fried dumplings, made of a pastry more wheaty than the more rice based cuisine of south China, as well as crunchy fried aubergine and juicy deep fried pork balls. Re energised by our delicious meal, we decided to make a night of it, heading to a bar area near the University, which turned out to be disappointing as it was super overcrowded, probably due to the national holiday. On the taxi ride home from the club, David unfortunately lost his phone, with the search for it somewhat limiting his time in Beijing.

    The next morning we overslept, and so weren't on our way to the Forbidden City until around lunchtime. After standing in a queue for a security check to get into Tiannammen Square for half an hour and passing through the iconic Heavenly Gate with the giant
    portrait of Mao we were annoyed to discover that the Forbidden City had received its maximum 8000 visitors, so was closed for the day. Adding to the tedium, we were forced to walk a ridiculously long way round to leave the area due to the massive security around Tiannammen Square. Keen to make the most of our afternoon, we hopped on the metro to the Temple of Heaven, a park that was essentially a giant altar used by the Chinese emperors for religious ceremonies. On entering the park, we encountered a group of elderly people singing old communist songs accompanied by an accordion, which felt pretty special. We visited smaller beautifully decorated pavilions dedicated to animal sacrifice, before reaching the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, an iconic building featuring ornate imperial insignia supported only by wooden pillars (no nails or cement) and during the opium wars the British army headquarters in the city. Moving on, we visited the complementary vault of Heaven, containing tablets bequeathed by imperial ancestors, used in the solstice ceremonies that took place on the adjacent, huge round altar. We wandered the park as the afternoon drew to a close, before heading back to the hostel where we had a simple meal and then went out, to an alternative club filled with expats where an American DJ dressed as a woman was playing, making for a bizarre but fairly entertaining evening.

    On Sunday morning, we decided to escape the heat of the city to visit the Imperial Summer Palace, famous for its destruction by European troops during the opium wars. Following a long metro ride, we arrived at the Summer Palace, which was as expected very crowded (later we learned it had 500,000 visitors that day). First, we visited little Suzhou, a charming reconstruction of the canal town built to entertain the emperors. Then we made our way further into the palace grounds, climbing up a giant faux Tibetan Buddhist temple, reflecting the religious beliefs of the emperors. Coming down from the temple, we walked among blossoming trees towards the giant azure lake that marked the center of the summer palace. Strolling along the lakeside Long Corridor, we stopped off at various sites, including the breathtaking hilltop temple of wisdom that afforded great lake views, the three storey, intricately decorated stage from which actors entertained the Qing emperors and the glistening marble boat on which the palace's main patron in later years, Empress Dowager Cixi, relaxed. Overall, the palace felt majestic and decadent, and it is easy to see why Chinese revolutionaries weren't too impressed by Cixi's decision to spend the entire Navy budget reconstructing it in the late 19th century. We returned to town via the famous Sichuan restaurant Zhang Mama, where we shared an amazing meal of succulent chicken in peanut sauce, uber spicy Sichuan pepper pork and dry spicy beef noodles in a sesame sauce, as well as many other scrumptious dishes.

    We woke up early on Monday, excited for our big daytrip out of Beijing to the Great Wall. We had chosen to go to Jiankou, an unrestored section of wall that connected to the reconstructed section at Mutianyu, so we would get a flavour of both the ruined wall and the slightly inauthentic reconstruction. We got the bus to the outer suburb of Huariou, where we extremely fortuitously managed to catch the 11am bus to Jiankou, the only bus of the day, just as it was leaving. After getting off at the entrance to the Jiankou Scenic Area, by a big sign saying this section of the wall is closed to the public, armed with the very vague instructions in our guidebook, we went in search of the trail to the wall. 45 minutes of frustrating searching followed, before some locals pointed us in the right direction, up a steep trail marked by red ribbons winding through a pretty pine forest. Eventually the Great Wall rose up in front of us. We clambered over the ramparts, feeling like mongol invaders, and started our walk along the crumbling wild wall. The views from the top were stunning, with the wall stretching as far as the eye could see, while pine forested hills and verdant plains competed for attention on either side. The wild wall featured some incredibly steep sections, so we enjoyed a quick stop for a late picnic lunch at the highest watchtower before making our way down the steepest section of wall towards the restored section. The restored section, while still steep, was much easier to walk on and therefore was a bit more touristy, but as it was late in the day the numbers were not too intrusive. After more incredibly atmospheric strolling along the wall, which made it clear to us why it is considered by some to be a wonder of the world, we descended from the wall as the sun began its slow retreat behind the hills and caught the bus back to Beijing. To complete our stereotypical day of Beijing tourism, we splashed out on dinner at the Jinzun Peking Duck restaurant, where we enjoyed delicious duck that was fattier and less crispy, but far more succulent and delicious than Peking Duck I've had in the UK.

    All too quickly our last day in Beijing arrived. We booked our sleeper train to Pingyao and then retreaded our steps towards the Forbidden City, hopeful that on this occasion we would be early enough to get in. We were in luck, so made the journey through the main gate to the complex, traditionally only walked through by the emperor himself. Arriving in the first of 3 main squares, we were taken aback by the scale of the complex. We wandered through the main halls of the palace, decorated with imperial splendor and with a real feel of historical significance. We moved on to the 3 smaller halls, where the emperor's wife would generally reside, which were equally as sumptuously decorated, before branching off to some side courtyards filled with lesser halls displaying the ornaments of the Qing Dynasty, including fine furniture and a random assortment of gifts from Western ambassadors. Once we'd explored these courtyards, we continued to the end of the complex, with the magnificent North gate defended by two golden lion's surrounded by the tranquil imperial gardens. Wandering back through the complex, taking in the Imperial ambience, we snapped back to the 21st century going through the 2 seperate checkpoints to get into Tiannammen Square. The square is the largest in the world, but feels very sterile due to the security and total absence of anywhere to sit. We strolled the square for a few minutes, admiring Mao's mausoleum, closed in the afternoon, from afar, and then walked to Dashilar, Beijing's traditional shopping area, in search of souvenirs. We didn't have much luck, as the market turned out to mainly sell overpriced tat, but it made for a pleasant pre dinner walk. Following the extravagance of the previous night, we went to Yaoji Chaogan, a very authentic traditional Beijing canteen, visited by Joe Biden last year, where we feasted on the house speciality Pig Liver Soup, as well as traditional Beijing soybean paste noodles, garlic topped deep fried crackers, horseradish-y tofu paste and crispy sweet potato pancakes. Very satisfied, we caught our sleeper train to Pingyao...
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