Our trip to Beijing seems like a lifetime ago. How is it that 7 years have passed since we went on our first proper adventure?! We had spent a weekend in Marrakech, but that was it as far as different cultural experiences went (and that one didn’t go so well since we saw someone get stabbed, but that’s a story for another time). Beijing, and China as a whole, was certainly an assault on our senses. Everything was different! The smells, the sights, the noise, the air, the people, the food and the culture. Even crossing the road was challenging!
I look back at it now, having travelled much more extensively throughout Asia and I cannot help but laugh at our naïve selves. We were so scared and clueless! However, what an amazing holiday it was! We booked it through Rickshaw Travel who did all the hard work of planning for us yet enabled us to travel independently (i.e. not as part of a group tour). We now book our own trips however, if you are new to travelling, short of time, or don’t want the hassle of figuring out what to do, where to go and where to stay, then I highly recommend them.
The following blogpost is an excerpt from the emails I sent my parents whilst in Beijing which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed re-reading and reminding myself of just how great this trip was. I hope you enjoy it too!
Day 1 – We made it to Beijing!
We were expecting to step out into a different world when we exited the airport. Instead we stepped into a very westernised chaotic city with a certain Chinese charm to it. Our hotel was situated in a lovely Hutong neighbourhood which was full of life, food stalls and craft shops. A Hutong neighbourhood is a traditional neighbourhood made up of narrow alleyways and courtyard residences. Many have been destroyed in Beijing to make way for bigger roads and high-rise buildings, however, they have now started protecting areas such as the one we were staying in, to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history.
Despite being extremely jet lagged we braved a stroll through the streets. Everyone was eating meat on sticks, drinking iced tea and generally enjoying the sites as much as we were (we were surprised by just how many tourists there were, all oriental).
Our hotel was lovely (I wish I remembered the name). It was a traditional Hutong residence made up of several small courtyards. Despite being in such a busy neighbourhood as soon as you were inside the walls you couldn’t hear anything! Incredible! It always amazes me how quickly you can block out the sound of horns and traffic!
We ventured out of the Hutong and headed to the drum tower where we watched a drum display. It was good but peculiar. Rather as if they were doing Kung Fu with the drums rather than drumming. We then proceeded until we found a lovely lake where we rented a pedalo to try and get away from the stares of the Chinese and their not so subtle photos. It didn’t work. Occidentals in a pedalo are even more interesting than occidentals walking! (This is something we got accustomed to as the holiday went on).
We finished the day by venturing off the main road and seeing the “real” side of Beijing without tourists everywhere. Market stalls spilled out onto the road whilst the locals gathered in groups playing cards. Good and bad smells filled the air and horns tooted all around us. We finally settled for a restaurant that was full of Chinese people but that had a picture menu so we could at least make sure we didn’t order gristle!
We had pulled pork in a Peking sauce and aubergine chips (aubergine chips are the way forward, the dish was amazing!) and a dried fried beef dish with chillies, ginger and some other spices. The flavours were amazing but the beef inedible (so chewy!!).
Day 2 – The Great Wall
Jet lag survived we managed a great day visiting the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall. We were joined in our journey by a British couple (Vince and Ivonne) and a Dutch mum and son (Wanda and Job). It was good to have company and we crossed paths with both couples throughout the rest of our holiday and to this day remain good friends with Job and his partner Hannah!
Our first stop of the day were the Ming Tombs, where 16 emperors are buried with their wives and their treasures. We started off by walking up the Sacred Way, a walkway lined with statues of guardian animals and officials. We then drove to one of the tombs which in all honesty was rather disappointing. It is basically a big underground hole with 3 boxes in it and a lot of money that has been left there by tourists.
Once we got to the base of the Great Wall we stopped for lunch at a local farmer’s restaurant where our guide ordered our food. Not sure what we ate but it was delicious and because there were 6 of us it meant extra dishes to try food from!
The Great Wall of China
We chose to go to the Mutianyu section of the wall as it had a ski lift to take us up and more importantly a toboggan to bring us back down! The toboggan was great fun, although the officials were rather boring and kept asking us to slow down. Their method to get us to slow down involved brandishing a stick in our faces to force us to stop or else we’d lose an eye! – it worked!
The Great Wall was so impressive. I expected great things from it but it was even better than I thought… and a hell of a lot steeper. It is definitely not for the unfit, some of the steps are big and steep and are never ending, but worth every little bit of effort. I’d love to return and hike a section of the wall, leaving the tourist trail behind and exploring the territories that seldom get visited.
Feast, not famine
We finished off the day by going as a group to an upmarket Peking Duck restaurant. Again, our guide (whom we believe gets a nice commission from bringing tourists to this location) ordered all the food for us.
We had a table full of delicious dishes from Peking Duck (which the chef carved for us at the table), to sweet and sour pork, fish, curry and a load of other dishes which I wouldn’t be able to name (or even guess the ingredients!). It was absolutely delicious, probably our best meal in China… and the most expensive! We were rather worried as to how much it was going to cost (had we overdone it?!). Hard to believe when the bill came that all that food and the drinks in an upmarket restaurant (and I mean, one of the more expensive local restaurants in the city) came to only £20 a head!
A gentle waddle around the lake before an early night (we are not party animals that’s for sure!).
Day 3 – Beijing City Tour
I get the impression that based on this comment in my diary that I didn’t particularly like Day 3: “I could definitely do with a foot massage after all the walking we have done today. We are completely templed out, I don’t think I need to see any more on this trip! Or if we do, with a different guide!”
It is true, the guide can make or break an experience. Our guide for the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam, as an example, truly brought the experience to life; the guide in Beijing did not! She unfortunately didn’t speak very good English so basically just told us the name of where we were without being able to provide us with any background information. Considering just how interesting China’s history and culture is I feel this was a real missed opportunity! So instead, I have done my own research for you!
We started off at Lama Temple, previously a prince’s home before being turned into a lamasery in the 18th century. I wasn’t sure what that meant so I thought I’d google it. Turns out it’s a temple of lamas. None the wiser!
Lama Temple is the most revered Tibetan Buddhist Temple outside Tibet, and comprises of 5 halls, each one bigger, taller and more beautiful than the previous one, denoting increased importance as you make your way through. The last hall is home to a rather impressive 18 metre Buddha.
We were there during prayer time which was actually the most interesting part of the morning. Buddhism practitioners light and burn incense sticks which they raise above their head before bowing to the Buddha statue. The stick is then placed vertically on burners so that the smoke can waft. The aim is for them to see Buddha in the smoke in the hope they can talk to him.
Temple of Heaven
We then moved on to the Temple of Heaven, where the emperor would have come to pray for a good harvest. He would visit with his entourage twice a year. A procession would take place from the Forbidden City in silence and all commoners were instructed to close their doors and windows. A pity really considering the parade would include elephant and horse chariots, lancers, nobles, officials and even musicians. Seems like it was a spectacle you wouldn’t want to miss!
The temple is no longer a placed of worship, but instead a park where locals come to practice Taiichi, Kung Fu, dance, gymnastics or even sing. A great spot for people watching!
Following a spot of lunch at a fast food noodle restaurant (50p each for a very yummy meal), we walked across the very imposing Tiananmen Square. A massive void of concrete surrounded by large communist buildings and watched over by the face of Chairman Mao, the Chinese communist revolutionary who became the founding father of the People’s Republic of China.
I didn’t like Tiananmen Square. I felt watched (and not just by Mao) and uncomfortable. It is in this spot that the massacre of 1989 happened. During the 1980’s an increasing number of students had been leaving China and seeing that it was possible to have a better quality of life with more political freedom and therefore peaceful demonstrations started.
These escalated until over a million people were gathered in Tiananmen Square. On the 3rd through to the 4th June 1989 however, military troops moved into the square and although they don’t believe any deaths happened in the square itself, it is believed that hundreds, if not thousands of people lost their lives over those two days within the nearby streets. Unfortunately China has never been forthcoming with accurate figures and due to their control over the media many youngsters are unaware of the massacre that took place not that long ago.
Formidable in stature and architecture, but I’m sorry to say, not for me, even though it is one of the must do things in Beijing! Maybe it was the guide, but saying that, as I research it looking for interesting facts to write I’m equally as bored. Noteworthy though is its sheer scale! This is a palace complex which housed two dynasties of royals. I’m not sure why they needed 900 buildings enclosed by 3.5 km fence, but that’s how big it is! Playing hide and seek must have been fun at least (if that was allowed)! If you want to learn more about it I recommend you check out the Lonely Planet website.
Completely wiped out, we settled for a meal in a local restaurant overlooking the lake by our neighbourhood. We ordered from the picture menu, however, when the food arrived we were missing one dish. Without a menu to point at I had no choice but to signal we were missing the chicken by flapping my arms and doing a chicken impression! It worked! The chicken arrived swiftly after and I also amused everyone else who enjoyed the spectacle.
Day 4 – Ready to haggle
Our last day in Beijing. We decided to brave the Pearl Market. Doug spent a couple of hours the night before reading up on pearls and the haggling etiquette. We had visions of walking into a dingy bazaar type place, not a well-lit, up market and polite environment. Everything we had read had prepared us for tough haggling and pushy sellers. Instead it was simply fun. We ended up buying two sets of pearls as well as a jade horse and some presents. We set out with the pretence of paying what we felt comfortable paying, and if it ended up not being a bargain then it wouldn’t matter. When we got home we got just one of the necklaces valued and considering we paid £60 for everything we were pretty pleased with our selection when the valuation came back at £600!
We finished off our stay in Beijing by going for a wander by the lake and having a shoulder and head massage whilst sitting watching the world go by. I can’t say it was very relaxing. They spent the majority of the time hitting us and laughing! I also now know why Chinese people have big ears. They kept trying to stretch ours! It also provided great entertainment to the Chinese tourists who stood and watched and took lots of photos of us.
I wonder after 7 years of travelling quite how many strangers’ holiday albums we are in? We certainly got pulled into plenty of family photos whilst in China, but we also caused quite a commotion in Vietnam too (with Chinese tourists!).
Take me back!
We’ve both loved Beijing. It is a wonderful city. If you just look at the surface it seems to be all hustle and bustle, but when you get involved it is actually laid back with very friendly people. I can only assume it has changed significantly in 7 years. It was already pretty westernised when we were there. I do hope they have managed to maintain some of its local charm and heritage. It is certainly somewhere I’d like to return to, as I feel that our extensive travels would enable us to enjoy the city so much more.