Gosh, China’s big, isn’t it?
That’s pretty much the feeling I had almost every second in Beijing.
But back to the start. We arrived early morning in Beijing and faced a horrendous queue at the train station for a taxi to our hostel. The Chinese, unlike the English, are not gifted at queuing, and it was a complete schmozzle. After getting kneecapped a few times (and reciprocating in turn) we finally made it out of the train station and to the youth hostel. We had a great time at the Peking International Youth Hostel and can recommend it. It’s located right next to the Forbidden City, in an old area filled with local food and only a couple of streets away from the insanity of Wanfujing, one of the main shopping streets in Beijing. On our first morning we set out for food, and ate like kings at a local eatery – 7 yuan (about a dollar) will get you a bowl of congee, a bowl of dumpling soup, three small and wonderfully juicy steamed buns and two you tiao, fresh deepfried doughsticks. Unsurprisingly, we ended up back there twice more for hearty and cheap breakfasts, this time getting stuck into the warm, sweetened soymilk.
The awesome food expectations dissipated a bit when we went to investigate Wanfujing’s “Snack Street”, a dire tourist-fest of tacky shock-value foods on a stick. If you want some unhygienic-looking barbecued meat, some (still-wriggling) scorpions, centipedes or lizards, this is the place for you. This was not the place for us; we continued on and ate a late lunch at a restaurant on Donghuamen where the food was great (they served fried slow-roasted meat, similar to the cumin pork ribs at Dainty Sichuan) and the service ridiculously surly. I’ve not seen such sulky and grumpy behaviour since year 9.
That wasn’t the end of the great food, though. We had a delicious meal at an old family-run restaurant in the hutongs (apparently owned by the same family for more than 100 years) and – of course – hunted down some good old Peking Duck. We had this delicacy twice, about a week apart, and each time it was fantastic. Our first attempt was at a very local, middle-class restaurant in the burbs. We waited the requisite 50 minutes for our duck (given that we hadn’t ordered in advance) and the wait was definitely worth it. The skin was lacquered and the fat highly rendered – it reminded me of pork crackling. All the condiments were perfect and it left us feeling appropriately rotund. A great meal.
The following week, we tried the upper end of the scale and ordered the duck at Duck de Chine, a high end restaurant in the expat-heavy part of Beijing. This duck was similarly attractive to look at, and (embarrasingly) the waitress banged a small gong to announce its arrival at our table. This time, the duck sauce was heightened with garlic and sesame paste and the duck itself was surprisingly light. We left the restaurant well-fed but lacking the feeling of being suffused by duck fat that we’re so used to after a meal at Old Kingdom. Verdict: Peking Duck in Peking/Beijing is as good as you’d hope.
Anyway, getting back on track. The rest of our first day was consumed by mundane chores – queuing to submit paperwork for Mongolian visas, picking up train tickets, queuing to collect visas (man, I hate getting visas. The opportunity for a petty-minded bureaucrat to completely stuff up your plans is just too great for my liking). But with all that in order, it was time to hit the sights.
Wandering around Tianan’men Square was great fun (Alex wanted to change this to “it was a blast”, but I vetoed it). Given the massacre, is that inappropriate? That event did come to mind, but given that it is (unsurprisingly) completely ignored and unmarked by any kind of plaque or memorial, it was pretty easy to forget that this was the site of that event. We were in Beijing for the week leading up to May Day, the big public holiday celebrating the workers of the country, and the city was packed. Huge LED screens were being set up in the Square, plus a soft-focus portrait of this guy. Who is he?
People, including plenty of kids, carried Chinese flags around with them, and posed for photographs in front of the big Mao portrait, or in front of the huge Monument to the People’s Heroes, or Mao’s mausoleum.
Of course, this meant that we’re both now in plenty of candid family snaps too.
That guy on the end thought he was just so cool. And do you notice me sneakily hiding the can of beer I was drinking as I wandered around?
We also visited the immense Forbidden City. Given the impending national holiday, there were loads of domestic tourists and we were a bit worried that our experience of the place would be hampered. But in reality, the place is so bloody huge that it could swallow the thousands of tourists swarming around it and end up feeling relatively empty.
It’s really an astonishing place, but the word ‘cosy’ most definitely did not come to mind. We were feeling the effect of the Siberian winds that sweep Mongolia (often picking up sand and dust) and buffet Beijing regularly – it was icy out there. I wondered how the Imperial Chinese kept warm in amongst all that stone.
While in Beijing we thought we’d check out the old Olympic site. Given China’s ability to do things on a grand scale, we weren’t disappointed. The Bird’s Nest Stadium is pretty cool – the structure of the covering ‘Nest’ in intricate and interesting to see.
But even better stuff was hidden away from the track. We found a huge gift shop, still selling Bird’s Nest keyrings, tea mugs, posters, ornamental pen holders, “authentic” “genuine” Chinese vases, toys, statues… the selection was endless. And people were buying them! The Chinese tourists we came across really are into their souvenirs.
Next to the giftshop was a bizarre little display – wax figures of all the IOC presidents. Now I know where to go when I need a plastic-looking, creepy version of Jacques Rogge or Pierre de Coubertin. It was wonderfully odd.
Here is a photo of a photo of Juan Antonio Samaranch looking decidedly startled upon meeting Wax Juan Antonio Samaranch.
We also enjoyed the ‘Do not walk on the grass’ signs outside. How wonderfully twee.
No trip to Beijing is complete without a visit to the Great Wall. Many cities have ‘must-see’ destinations, but this would have to be one of the most ‘must-see’ places I’ve been.
The wall, segmented as it is, can be accessed from a few different places on day-trips from Beijing, and the most common is the Disneyland of Badaling. We opted instead to head further out of the city and spent a day hiking the ruined and partially-restored wall at Simatai, its most lofty point. The wall curled around the mountains to the west “like a dragon’s tail” (as per the sign) and gave constantly entrancing views. We climbed and climbed, passing about 12 watchtowers and feeling the strain in muscles we hadn’t used for a while. The steps were uneven and often very narrow, necessitating a weird sideways approach.
We planned to reach the highest accessible point and then catch the chairlift part of the way down the mountain, thrilled that we didn’t have to negotiate the stairs back down (with gravity ever eager to make the descent more rapid). But – bugger it, due to the high winds the chairlift was closed. We carefully crept back down the wall and made it, safe and sound. All along the trip, we stopped constantly to marvel at the sights. After the heavy smog of Beijing we were thrilled by the endless views.
Finally, when I said at the start that everything is bigger in China, I meant everything. Check out this magnificent mullet.