Beijing, Beijing, Beijing – what an unexpected surprise! Before we arrived, I had images of a smog ridden, modern city full of traffic. Our experience could not have been more opposite. We spent four non-stop days exploring one of the world’s most populated capital cities with blue skies for a backdrop and endless experiences of historic China.
On the first day, we were quite tired after our overnight flight so we spent a relaxing afternoon wandering around the hutong (narrow alleyways), which are communities within the city. They are not very well kept but are charming residential lanes representing traditional Beijing. The area we walked around had a very busy central channel running through it filled with shops and food outlets, where we picked up our first taste of dumplings for lunch. However, we mostly stuck to the much quieter alleys either side, although we were never quite sure if we were walking into someone’s house!
Our two hour walk ended at the Drum and Bell Towers. We came out at a square just behind the Bell Tower, which was filled with people relaxing and playing games, from young families playing jianzi (involves kicking what looks like a shuttlecock to each other) to older men and women playing what looked like very intense games of chess. The Bell Tower was used along with the drums in the Drum Tower as Beijing’s official timekeepers throughout a number of dynasties and was originally built in the 11th century. The building standing today was built in the 16th century and although quite a plain building, is very charming. We then walked around to the Drum and Bell square proper, where we also saw the brightly painted, red Drum Tower, which was again originally built in the 11th century at the heart of the Mongol capital. You can climb both towers but we got there just before they were closing, so instead we went to a cafe with a rooftop overlooking the square to have a drink and do some people-watching.
That evening we tried to find a highly recommended Peking duck restaurant that was supposedly near our hotel. We didn’t have much luck so because we were tired we ended up having some duck at our hotel and catching an early night.
The next day, as early as our jet-lagged bodies would allow, we ventured to the Summer Palace. After the quiet and unbusy hutong walk, this was our first taste of the crazy busy China we were expecting! There were just so many people, most of whom seemed to experience the whole palace through their phone or camera. The palace was built for emperors of old to flee the suffocating heat of summer and is absolutely huge. We spent about half a day wandering around the palace complex, exploring the various buildings, gardens, and Kunming Lake, which makes up about three-quarters of the area and is filled with paddle and motorised boats.There were great views over the lake and after a couple of hours we managed to make it to a less crowded part of the park, which was much more enjoyable and relaxing.
In the afternoon, we found a vegetarian restaurant called Baihe, which was a Lonely Planet recommendation. It was quite hard to find (as are most restaurants in China) and although it was a peaceful environment, the food wasn’t anything to shout about. We then went to the Lama Temple, which is the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. It was my favourite template we saw in Beijing with its ornate buildings and elaborate statues. There was also lots of incense, people worshipping, and a monks going about their business so it felt authentic.
In the evening we went to watch the Beijing acrobats (which we booked in advance). The costumes, music and general feel was a bit second-rate but the ability of the acrobats was absolutely incredible. There were genuinely some points that I watched through my hands – I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! There were contortionists, motorbike riders, stacked chairs, gymnastics, hoops and a whole array of visual treats. It was a great show and I’d highly recommend it for an evening in Beijing.
Afterwards, we went to find a street food market that we’d read about in Lonely Planet, only to find that it no longer exists (the book is only from 2015) – things seem to be constantly moving and changing in China so always check blogs or websites for the most up to date information on attractions. Instead, we found ‘snack street’ near Oriental Plaza, which is the fancy shopping area in Beijing. It was absolutely packed with people, but we managed to try scorpion on a stick, smoking drinks, fried and steamed dumplings as a well as a massive corn on the cob! It was quite an experience but really enjoyable.
On our third day, we were up super early to meet James in the reception at 6am. He had flown in from Heifei the night before (midnight!) to meet us and make our way to the Great Wall. I’d spent ages before researching which part of the wall to go to as there are so many sections you can visit (some easier than others). We decided on Mutianyu as it was relatively easy to get to by public transport, relatively easy to walk along, not quite as crowded as Badaling (which is where most of the Chinese tourist groups go) and had some interesting additions, which we thought sounded fun.
It was great to see James and catch up on all his news during the two hour trip there, which included a tube, bus, and taxi. We decided to get the cable car up to the top, which was more of a ski lift but was a really great experience. We got to the wall about 9am and it was a really beautiful, sunny morning so it was gorgeous going up to the top, taking in the views and getting our first peak of the Great Wall. The original wall was begun over 2000 years ago and the purpose was to bring together the separate walls that had been built by independent kingdoms to keep out invaders (although there are theories that it was actually built to keep Chinese people in). In reality, the Great Wall isn’t so great as it was unable to prevent invasions from Mongol armies and Manchu armies… as well as European and Japanese invaders who simply arrived by sea and plane. Today it is maintained as a tourist site, but as with the rest of ‘tourist’ sites in China, the tourist reference largely refers to visitors from across China rather than people outside of China.
Once we got to the top, we spent an hour and a half walking along the wall. Some points were particularly steep, and we were always glad to reach the watchtowers to escape the heat and have a rest for a few minutes. I was so glad our plan to arrive early and miss the crowds worked as we hardly saw anyone else on the wall and this helped to make it a fantastic experience. The wall is genuinely impressive and has amazing views across the desolate Chinese landscape. Seeing the wall winding into the horizon is quite a sight. We made our way down from the wall by toboggan, which was so much fun. The three of us were pretty speedy (until the slow group in front held us up and led to Simon crashing into me!) and had great fun on the 5 minute trip to the bottom.
We then made our way back to the city and went to a shopping mall for lunch. We went to a restaurant called Grandmas, which is a chain in China that James hadn’t been to before and wanted to try. The food was great! We ordered a real feast from amazing vegetables (garlic broccoli, cabbage, cucumber) to kung po chicken, chicken wings, prawn rice crisps, and pork dishes (obligatory at any Chinese meal, although obviously I passed on this one)! We were pretty tired from our early start so went back to the hotel for a couple of hours to rest.
In the early evening, we made our way to Houhai and Qianhai lakes. We had a leisurely stroll wandering around the lakes and stopped off for a couple of beers at a rooftop bar before making our way to the main neon-lit strip of bars at Houhai lake, which had a singer and a guitar in very single bar, each competing to be the loudest to attract the most customers! There were tons of people (we didn’t see any other Westerners), lights, and noise so it was a really lively atmosphere. One bar in particular had a very large, mostly male, crowd outside and when we got closer we realised there was a lady dancing on a pole (underwear only). We then had some more beers at another rooftop bar and went for dinner nearby for amazing dumplings and the best Peking duck we had all holiday.
On our fourth day, the three of us again got up relatively early to visit probably the most well known sites in Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We started at Tiananmen Square, which was the only place in China we visited where there was security in place to enter. Again, we were the only Westerners in the queue (this was a common theme in China) and all the Chinese people had their bags and IDs ready to be checked, but when we got to the front we were pretty much just waved through and didn’t have to show any ID at all.
We wanted to start at the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, which is located on the southern side of Tiananmen Square, but unfortunately it was closed on the day we went. Tiananmen Square itself is the world’s largest public square and apparently one million people packed into the square in 1976 to pay their respects to Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, which he led as the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party from its establishment in 1949 to his death in 1976. It’s also infamously known for the June Fourth Incident in 1989 when the army forcibly removed student-led pro-democracy demonstrators from the square after the government declared martial law. Hundreds (some estimates say thousands) of people were killed in the surrounding streets, although it is believed unlikely that anyone lost their lives in the actual square.
As well as the fascinating history of the square, and its status as the symbolic centre of the Chinese universe, it’s also interesting for the number of 1950s Soviet-style buildings (including the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall), which make it feel quite un-Chinese. As there is nowhere to sit in the square we simply made our way through to the entrance to the Forbidden City at the north of the square, which is a colourful reminder that you are definitely in China with its bright pink walls and large image of Chairman Mao.
The Forbidden City was by far the busiest place we went in the whole of China – it was absolutely packed with Chinese tour groups! It’s a huge complex (the largest palace complex in the world in fact) ringed by a moat and is China’s best-preserved collection of ancient buildings. It was home to two dynasties of imperial rule and is called the Forbidden City as it was off limits for 500 years. It took us around an hour and a half to make our way through all the buildings as there were so many (and it was also super busy so took us a while to get through some sections). The buildings were very impressive with wonderfully ornate decorations and beautiful roofs and each had a different use e.g. one for banquets, one for receiving foreign envoys and high officials, and one for ceremonial occasions. We were also lucky that we had incredible weather and bright blue skies (again, unexpected for Beijing!).
After we made it out the other side of the Forbidden City, we made our way up to the viewpoint in Jingshan Park. As we entered, there were a group of ladies practicing their dancing to what sounded like classical Chinese music and it had a lovely, relaxed atmosphere after the hustle in the Forbidden City. We made our way up to the high point in the park to overlook the Forbidden City (and the rest of Beijing as there are 360 views) – what a treat! From up high, we were able to understand just how large the complex is and that we’d only really explored about a quarter of it – the rest is closed to the public. Being at such a high vantage point, we were able to appreicate just how huge Beijing is. The viewpoint is the central point in Beijing and all we could see were 360 views of (mostly) low-rise buildings, parks, and the rest of the city.
Our final lunch together in Beijing was Mongolian hot pot, which was a random experience. You basically get some very thinly cut pieces of meat and some vegetables that you then cook yourself at the table. The people at the restaurant couldn’t believe us Westerners were using chopsticks! We then said goodbye to James who was catching his flight back to Heifei and Simon and I made our final stop at the Temple of Heaven Park. This is where emperors of the past prayed for good harvests and sought atonement. It’s very well landscaped and organised (not a natural, wild park!) but a lovely final stop in the sunshine to take in the old buildings and other visitors.
We then made our way to the train station to get our high speed train to Xi’an. I was a bit nervous about travelling in China as I’d read that there was no English anywhere – which is completely untrue! In Beijing, we used the subway extensively (it’s way too big to walk!) and it was extremely easy to travel around on (although it was, as you would probably expect, really busy and there is no such thing as waiting for people to get off before you get on!). Getting the high speed train was equally as easy, which I think was helped by the fact we’d booked our tickets in advance so just needed to collect them at the ticket counter.
If you’re going to China, you have to visit Beijing. It was a bit of a culture shock with people everywhere (99% of them on their phone!) and the spitting, smoking, lack of personal space and extremely limited English taking some getting used to. But it was older and more historic than I thought it would be with wonderful buildings and temples, we felt super safe making our way around, and most of the food we had was really tasty, fresh, and healthy – nothing like Chinese food in England. We were also lucky to have fantastic weather and were surprised that we had no problems breathing (compared to Jakarta where it was difficult to walk around without feeling like you had a 40-a-day habit). I also loved the social and community feel in the parks, with people meeting to dance, talk, and play games – something completely unexpected in such a large city.
Next stop: Xi’an.