Our Trans-Siberian/Mongolian train journey was over and we had arrived at our last stop – Beijing.
Our first impression of this city, apart from the pure craziness of it all, was how easy it was to get from place to place – all signs were in English as well as Chinese, which was a welcome relief, as we can’t speak Chinese let alone read it!
We had 5 nights in Beijing and were looking forward to taking things slow – this was going to be our longest stop in one city so far. We had 2 weeks in China before heading off to Hong Kong.
What we really hadn’t realised was just how bad the smog here really was, I was under a naive impression that this was purely a fog when we arrived strolled through the city in search of an ATM and ticket booth, and of course I was wrong. The smog didn’t affect us at first but after a few days we were really feeling the effects.
Our first stop was to get our train tickets to Xi’an as we had heard tickets sell out well in advance in China. We waited in the queue for what seemed like hours, before reaching the front of the queue, then to be told we would have to join another queue to speak to someone who could speak English. Even then it was still a lot of work to explain what we wanted.
Afterwards we headed towards the Metro, where we had to wait in yet another queue for a ticket, to then finally reach another queue for security (yes, to get to the metro trains..) And finally reach another.. Yup you got it, queue. This was something we would have to get used to in China.
When we finally arrived at our hostel we threw our bags down and threw ourselves onto the bed, before getting ready to head back out on a quick tour of our area. We were located very close to Ghost Street, a great place to find food this is where we had our first taste of authentic Peking duck, which was amazing but quite pricey – we thought it would be dirt cheap in Beijing!
Our hostel was located amongst the Hutongs, a type of alleyway unique to Beijing, which despite the change elsewhere, still have a very traditional way of life. They’re great to wander around and get some very cheap snacks – various pancakes seemed to be popular, they were delicious!
On our first full day we jumped on the metro and headed straight for Tiananmen East station, the gateway to both the Forbidden City and, unsurprisingly, Tiananmen Square. After yet more security checks, we made our way into the city, which was surprisingly quiet (though still busy by any country’s standards except China), perhaps because of the terrible smog. The smog did add a nice mystic touch to the place though.
We got an audio guide which we had read was voiced by Roger Moore but was actually just a Chinese lady. If you come here we wouldn’t recommend getting one – most of the information was dotted around anyway and the guides just became annoying!
As for the city itself, it was as amazing as we expected. It’s so enormous we weren’t able to see every part of it but we had a good go! It’s a hard place to describe as there is simply so many buildings and so much to see. We just enjoyed looking at all the beautiful detailing on the buildings.
Afterwards we did briefly head to Tiananmen Square, which of course is where the protests and massacre took place in 1989, although of course there is no mention of it and it’s probably best to keep quiet about it! In person it was very underwhelming, with lots of security checkpoints and nowhere to actually sit, so after getting our photo taken by some excited Chinese people (this happened quite often) we headed back home.
The next day we visited the Llama Temple, a Tibetan Buddhist temple. It was really lovely and peaceful as most places of worship are so was well worth a visit, though the mountains of incense burning coupled with the smog didn’t help our lungs! We also visited the Olympic park this day but it was a huge disappointment. There was so much smog you could barely even see the Bird’s Nest stadium and the whole area felt very sad and pathetic – they certainly don’t seem to have done a lot with it, at least London had a plan for their site!
Our next full day was taken up by visiting the Great Wall. There are many places to see the wall, Badaling being the most popular, but we had been advised to avoid it as it was over restored and over crowded. Greg had researched that Mutianyu was one of the less crowded ones. It also had a toboggan ride down from the wall, which did influence us a bit!
We boarded the 916 bus from Dongzhimen station quite easily, and the conductor was helpful and friendly. We soon found out why. The bus in the winter does not go all the way to the wall so we needed to get a taxi for the final 10km or so. The helpful ‘conductor’ jumped off the bus with us as it pulled away and led us to his car with which of course he could take us the rest of the way. We asked the price, and he wanted a fair bit more than what we had read was reasonable. Unfortunately Greg instantly said the upper price we would pay, he countered and I then retracted saying we would get another taxi…except there were no others around as we had been made to get off a few stops early. In the end we settled on a price, he seemed annoyed but I think he was secretly happy some tourists had paid him an inflated price.
We got there and although the entrance price (40Y) was reasonable, everything else such as taking the cable car up or the toboggan down was expensive. We decided to walk instead of getting the cable car up. It was a tough walk to say the least. We had to stop a lot as Greg had a cold and was struggling to breathe through his nose.
When we arrived at the top, it was all worth it – the view was spectacular. We could see the wall snake round into the distance, until eventually you could see the unrestored ruined sections. There were so many towers, you could walk for miles, but owing to Greg’s cold we only walked between 3 or 4 of them. Even so it was tough, with lots of steep steps. We stopped a lot of course for numerous photo opportunities, and took time to climb one of the watch towers.
We ended up by the toboggan, and although we hadn’t bought a ticket at the bottom we decided to give in and pay another 40Y each to take it down. It was great fun though so we’re glad we did it.
We finished off this day with one of the most amazing dinners we’ve had – a Sichuan hotpot. We hadn’t had one before, so weren’t sure what we were ordering as we randomly chose ingredients from the menu. When it came we were blown away, by the size, taste and the mountains of chillies! It was absolutely delicious and helped clear our blocked noses.
Unfortunately both of us caught a cold while in Beijing, we think it may have been due to a few factors, including moving quickly through Russia, poor diet, sleepless nights on trains, and the amount of smog we were subjected to when we arrived. The smog especially made us not want to go out as it made us feel even worse. So most of our last 2 days were spent in our room, although we did wonder around the hutongs and enjoy some more cheap food. Life in the hutongs is simple, food is really cheap and seems to be where the locals eat.
Where we stayed
We stayed at Lucky Family Hostel, which as mentioned is located in a hutong, away from the cars and pollution and very peaceful, but still very close to a Metro station which made the hostel a great base. The room was nice, apart from a badly designed shower room which happened to soak everything in the room after we had showered. Staff were very helpful and there were some nice common areas, not that we were feeling up to meeting anyone!