After the clean air and vast, open spaces of the Mongolian steppe, Beijing was a bit of a shock. The Trans-Sib train arrived through forest covered mountains under clear blue skies, but as we neared the city the smog descended. The city is choking on its own fumes but isn’t going down without a fight; cars honking, people shouting and shop megaphones blaring out into the street.
Whether it was the sudden influx of fumes to our lungs, the last 15 days of non-stop travel catching up with us or the local habit of coughing and spitting in the street, we both caught colds almost immediately and decided to slow things down a bit for our time in Beijing. After a visit to the pharmacy for multi-vitamins (narrowly avoiding some throat sweets containing dried human placenta!), we were ready to go.
Whilst we took it easy in terms of tours and sightseeing, we ended up walking around a lot (just over 20km each day!) In a place so strange and new, just walking around and taking it all in felt like an activity in itself. A favourite game being spotting bizarre English slogans on t-shirts. Our top 3: “Silent Listen Please!”, “Am I really?” and “About, You”. The British were probably providing the same amusement for Chinese tourists in the 90s with the trend for Chinese symbol tattoos…at least t-shirts aren’t permanent.
Our hostel was in the Zhengjue hutong North West of the Forbidden City and Beihai Park. The hutongs show the older, more traditional side of Beijing. Each one with its own character, they form a network of narrow alleyways flanked by one-story grey stone buildings, bustling with men and women of all ages day and night. At each corner is a tangle of electric scooters, bikes, tuktuks and trailers, but it all seems to work out and everyone finds a way through.
Getting to the hostel from the subway was the first challenge. Our hostel obviously felt we’d had it too easy so far (the subway signs and announcements are all translated to English making that part very smooth); their directions used ‘left’ and ‘right’ interchangeably and referred to non-existent shops. Finding a Dairy Queen branch in the middle of a hutong did seem unlikely…
Red Lantern Hostel lived up to its name with a central covered courtyard full of lanterns hung from the ceiling, and other nice decor quirks like a goldfish pond and wooden bridge leading to the bedrooms.
Whether it was Rebecca’s freckles or Timian’s pink shorts and flip flops, people were certainly interested in us and not afraid to stare (we’d read in Lonely Planet, and noticed ourselves, that men tend to dress only in dark or neutral colours). We got stopped by a woman in the street who asked for a photo with us. Later that evening at ‘Wide Bench Old Kitchen Pot’, our waitress asked for a photo of us eating dinner too! In this case probably just because Rebecca’s chopstick skills are so ridiculous.
Our waitress was very patient and helpful, using a translation app to try and communicate with us in English which was actually pretty accurate. Someone else was clearly in charge of translating the menu, though. Well, it was either a menu or a name generator for thrash metal bands…
Once we’d deciphered the menu, the restaurant was a lot of fun and turned out to be a Chinese hotpot place. We chose our two flavours of boiling broth which were brought out in the sharing pot (the Old Kitchen Pot?) and placed on the gas fire in the middle of the table (the Wide Bench?). We selected things to dunk and cook in the hotpot and made up a dipping sauce concoction at the dipping sauce buffet. This is where some laser-precision menu pointing was called for to ensure we got the pork sausages and cayenne pepper beef, rather than the “brain fat” or “duck slaughter”. Not bad for just 140 Yuan.
Given our limited time and sore throats, we chose Tian’Anmen Square and The Great Wall for our two main sight seeing trips.
As with Red Square in Moscow, we were expecting to be able to walk across Tian’Anmen square and get the full sense of its huge scale. In fact, there was a temporary WW2 monument in the middle of the square, so once we’d been through the bag x-raying security gates we could only walk around the edges of the square and in front of the entrance to the Forbidden City. There were a lot of uniformed guards (all male and very skinny) around the main tourist sites but, unlike in Russia, we didn’t see anyone ‘off-duty’ in military clothing.
We sat in a small park at the edge of Tian’Anmen square while people gathered to watch the gun salute from the middle of the square. In a shady corner of the park we spotted a line of uniformed street sweepers all stood stiffly to attention in a neat row alongside their carts being given what looked like a pre-shift inspection and pep talk from their boss.
On our second day we visited the Great Wall at Mutiayanu. We’d been debating which section to visit, and picked Mutiayanu as the best trade-off between fewer tourist crowds and not too much modern reconstruction (as is apparently the case at Badaling) but still relatively close to Beijing and accessible for non-pro hikers (as opposed to the completely unrestored section at Zhouangdaokou which you reach by two public buses).
If we’d had longer in Beijing we would have liked to go to Zhouangdaokou as well but, if you don’t have the time to plan out multiple bus journeys, Mutaiyanu is a great option. We shared a car with a French couple from our hostel and got there in an hour and a half.
We arrived at the foot of the hill at 9am and after a 35 minute hike (more continuos stair climb than hike!), we were on top of the wall. Arriving early was the right thing to do, in several places we had sections of the wall completely to ourselves. This section of the wall is built on the 1000m high mountain ridge. It follows the contours of the ridge and gives the effect of looking like a flying dragon.
After a two hour explore along the wall we returned to the watch tower we’d started from and now, approaching midday, the hoards had arrived. Not the hoards of bow-and-arrow-wielding Mongolians the wall was originally built to keep at bay, but hoards of selfie stick wielding Chinese teenagers. Time to head back to base.
In the evening we ventured out for some street food. First we explored Donghuamen Night Market. After deciding against Starfish, Spider-On-A-Stick, Centipedes, Silk Worm or Snake-On-A-Stick, we took the plunge with a much tamer option from a hutong stall. We don’t know the name but it was a sort of warm flatbread filled with garlic and spinach. Haochi!
Boarding the high-speed train to Shanghai was more like boarding a flight. First we had our bags x-rayed and then found our platform. (Yet again a national rail network managed to commit to a platform ahead of time and print it onto the ticket days in advance. Come on Britain….) At the gate to go down to the platform we waited whilst the crew boarded first (each with a little wheely case), then the speedy boarding queue and then us. Waiting on our seats was some reading material for the journey…”China Logistics Times” or “China Railway Literature and Art”. Tough choice.
The high speed train was a big change of pace from the Trans-Siberian carriages that had slowly rolled us through Siberia and Mongolia. Now the scenery was whipping by the window at lightning speed and we’d be in Shanghai in just four hours.