Beijing had me in two minds. On the one hand the incredible things we saw there were the highlight of the trip so far. On the downside, I suffered massive culture shock. I really struggled to get along with the city and some of the more unfavourable aspects of life there.
We had a long 8 hour train ride from Harbin and didn’t arrive at our hostel in Beijing until late afternoon. As we initially stepped in I was feeling positive. Despite a rundown exterior, the common room looked friendly. It was full of young people chatting and even someone playing a guitar.
Then the smell hit me.
Imagine sewage, mixed with gone-off cat food and a touch of mouldy laundry. You might get an idea of what it smelled like. Breathing through our mouths, we collected our rooms keys and bed sheets from reception and headed to our rooms. For some reason there were no mixed dorms available, so we had to sleep in separate rooms. Fail.
The rooms, situated right outside the doorless, rank smelling toilets (you could hear every thing), were nothing short of disgusting. They were dusty, dirty and cramped. I was already considering finding a hotel to escape it.
We decided to take a shower and head out for some food. I would rather starve than eat food in the place, regardless of the fact it was kitchen-less. We won’t go into too much detail about the showers but, as you would expect, they were equally rancid.
I now completely understand why everyone recommends you should bring ‘Shower Flip Flops’ on a backpacking tour.
Showered and outside, we felt a little better. Our vibrant little area was full of restaurants and cafes, so we had no problems finding somewhere decent to eat. After guessing at some dishes and pointing to some pictures on the wall; we had a lovely meal of fried rice and noodles to enjoy.
Common Room Grossness
We reluctantly settled back into the joyless, smelly common room. Mainly because we were forced to stay in separate rooms but also because the already terrible internet was non-existent immediately outside it.
Side note: People playing guitar and singing, even if done marginally well, gets fucking annoying after a while.
We had hoped to spend some time relaxing, planning our time in Beijing and enjoying each others company, catching up with friends & family online etc. This dream was shattered by a man seated across from us, who I will from now on refer to as: ‘Burp Boy’.
Burp Boy encapsulated, quite possibly every single habit I despise with every fibre of my being. He burped consistently the entire time we were there. I am talking loud, god awful, smelly belly burps every TWO MINUTES. Like damn clockwork. The burping was what made me notice him, but what made me remember him was this moment. A moment I will remember for the rest of my days. The moment he hocked a massive loogey and SPAT ON THE FLOOR INSIDE THE HOSTEL. I REPEAT, HE SPAT PHLEGM ONTO THE FLOOR. INSIDE!
Needless to say, I nearly vomited there and then.
Special mention also to the repugnantly loud slurping noises he made whilst eating a bowl of noodles. I am not quite sure how it is possible to be that obnoxiously loud whilst eating a simple bowl of noodles but, here we are.
This honestly ranks as one of the most revolting experiences of my entire life. Frankly, it really put me on a bad foot for my time in Beijing.
The Temple of Heaven
What better was to wash away the stress of the night before, than an early morning visit to the tranquil Temple of Heaven?
The impressive entrance gate immediately lifted my spirits and I couldn’t wait to get inside. Plus tickets were a mere 28 rmb which roughly equals £3 – bargain!
The Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests
First stop was the The Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests, the earliest building complex within the Temple of Heaven. It consists of two main buildings: The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and The Imperial Hall of Heaven.
The former stole my heart.
It is a truly stunning three tiered, circular building standing in a large courtyard. It was decorated in a gorgeous combination of deep red, glistening gold, deep blues and vibrant greens.
At this moment, we realised how valuable rising early had been! The morning sun made the temple dazzling to look at. Additionally, there were minimal tourists around so it was mega peaceful and calming to wander around. After so much hustle and bustle it was a welcome relief.
The Long Corridor
The Long Corridor is situated to the east of the Altar and was easily one of my favourite moments in Beijing. The entire park is a popular spot for the locals to socialise and this area was no exception. The corridor was teeming with elderly locals playing card games and gambling. It was fascinating to experience something so non-tourist centred. Just people living their daily lives with no interest in me whatsoever!
The Circular Mound Altar
So this sounds weird, but it is actually considered to be the heart of the Temple of Heaven. The Circular Mound Altar is a raised, three layered stone altar situated just south of the Imperial Vault of Heaven. It offers lovely views of the vault and surrounding park area.
You get here by walking from The Altar of Prayers for Good Harvest south, along the Imperial Walkway Bridge. The sun was beginning to get really warm as we wandered down through the park, listening to the sound of a choir in the distance. It was such a highlight, despite being slightly more crowded.
Enjoying the Park
Instead of just continuing South and exiting the park we decided to walk back up and exit to the west. If I could, I would spend a whole day enjoying this park. It’s a serene place to spend time and captivating to observe the local culture.
We saw all sorts of activities taking place! Dance classes, exercise classes, Tai Chi and even a form of keepy-uppy game using something that resembled a shuttlecock!
The Forbidden City
First of all, this place is HUGE! And also overrun with tourists, so not really as Forbidden as the name suggests… hehe I’m so hilarious. (Tragically that isn’t even my joke, I got it off James).
As we walked through security, the 8 metre tall outer wall loomed over us. A portrait of Chairman Mao stared down imposingly as we walked across the expansive moat.
We were faced with the Meridian Gate: the impressive main entrance to the Forbidden City.
One of the 5 archways leads you into a vast square over looked by the striking Gate of Supreme Harmony. To reach the gate, you must cross one of the 5 bridges that spans the small, artificial Inner Golden Water River.
Just when you think it cannot get any grander or remarkable, you climb the Gate and step into the Hall of Supreme Harmony Square. This Hall is the ceremonial centre of imperial power and therefore the largest, rising to a height of 30m. It was exquisitely designed in a magnificent combination of bright colour and intricate carvings, much like the rest of the Palace. However, the sheer size of the Hall was breathtaking.
I couldn’t take a picture or a video that would do this structure justice.
Moving through the Palace took hours. Everywhere you turned there was an exciting artefact to examine or stunning piece of architecture to explore. Even the sea of people flooding the place did little to dull its brilliance.
Eventually, the superb buildings begin to fade into each other. Both numerous and equally intricate and beautiful, they became a blur of colours, views and awe-inspiring silences.
The main gates were easily followed from South to North, however on either side were countless smaller halls containing exhibitions and collections of ceramics, paintings, bronze ware and more.
It would take days to really explore The Palace Museum to it’s full extent!
Weirdly, in the midst of all the history and wonder of the Palace we had someone ask if they could take a picture of us! All of this surrounds you and the thing that most compels you to take a photo are two strangers?! I will never get used to that!
Jinshang park can be found immediately North of the Forbidden City, clearly visible as you leave the complex. The heart of the park is the artificial Jinshang Hill, on the summit of which, the highest point in Beijing, sits a viewing platform. Aligned to the central point of the City’s North to South Axis it is perfectly positioned to view the Forbidden City and on a clear day the views are quite spectacular.
In order to enter you have to pay a small entrance fee but it is utterly worth it! A steep but altogether unchallenging climb is rewarded with sensational views, not just of the Palace, but of all Beijing. It may have been busy but was a welcome place for us to sit, relax and enjoy for a short while.
The view isn’t the only reason to visit the park. We wandered it aimlessly for an hour or two, savouring the sun and sounds of nature that surrounded us.
Like the Temple of Heaven it was packed with local people going about their daily business, exercising and pursuing hobbies. We witnessed a particularly mesmerizing fabric dancing activity. Women were dancing to music with brightly coloured fabrics twirling hypnotically through the air. It was enthralling to observe and left me wanting to join in!
On leaving the park it didn’t take long to stumble upon a much needed dinner destination: a restaurant literally called ‘Peking Duck’. Exactly the dish we had hoped to try in Beijing!
We were very hungry and couldn’t wait to eat. As is common with Peking Duck restaurants, the cooked duck is prepped for eating outside the kitchen. We were treated to a mouth watering display of carvery from our skilled waiter. From across the room we watched eagerly, excited when the duck was finally brought over.
However, the wait was not over! Our waiter then proceeded to show us how to make the pancakes! Part of my was very desperate to get started but he did show us some interesting flavour combinations that I would never have otherwise tried!
Of course, the making of the pancakes required chopsticks but I was far too hungry and unskilled to go for that so fingers were used!
Our last site of the day was a walk around Tiananmen Square! We had briefly seen it earlier on our way to the Forbidden City, but it is certainly worth a trip in it’s own right!
It is an expansive square and looked really stunning during the sunset! There was a huge crowd of people waiting around a selection of guards so we assumed there was some kind of ‘changing of the guard’ occurring. We hadn’t done any research though and had no idea what time it was happening, if it was due to happen at all, so we left!
The Summer Palace is the largest and most well preserved royal park in China. The vast Imperial Garden is an ensemble of lakes, gardens and palaces over an expansive 2.9 square kilometres. We spent a morning wandering this beautiful Palace, and can see why it was dubbed a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design by UNESCO.
School Children Attack
So we had hoped to get the the Palace earlier than we did to avoid crowds and big tours but as usual we stayed up too late and slept in. Therefore we were sharing the initial walk with several big groups, including a class of school children.
It became clear that we were more of an attraction to these kids than the actual Palace was. Unfortunately, rather than just the stares and whispering we had grown accustomed to we noticed they were slyly taking photographs of us. I told one girl off for doing so, but it didn’t seem to make her or any of the others stop!
We spent the next half an hour being literally chased by multiple packs of children until we hiked up a hill and hid behind some trees. It was actually quite frustrating and unpleasant to be honest!
Buddhist Temple of Incense
On of my favourite parts of the Summer Palace was the Buddhist Temple of Incense, located on the southern edge of Longevity Hill. The architecture is beautiful and its height and facing give panoramic views of the Summer Palace grounds, especially Kunming Lake.
You need an extra ticket to access this attraction but it is well worth it. On the walk up to the tower you will also see an ensemble of other halls and temples magnificently decorated.
West Causeway Walk
After the Tower we made our way around the Lake via the West Causeway: a long walk connected by six unique and stunning bridges. Finally we walked past the South Gate and continued around the edge of the lake until we reached the East Gate; the gate we had entered from!
It was a rather long route and as the day was colder than anticipated we were a little too cold for comfort. Yet, I thoroughly enjoyed the stroll through the charming scenery and can only imagine how exquisite it would look in the summer time, with flowers in bloom.
We could have spent far longer here if we had the time as there is a lot more to explore and you could certainly take a closer look at everything and not get bored! Alas, we had other plans for the afternoon!
Skyscrapers & Dance Class
I have been making an effort to attend dance and circus classes along our travels however, Beijing has been the first opportunity to actually do so!
Beijing has a large number of dance studios to choose from but as I had limited time I chose to take class at just one! I chose to attend Zaha Club.
Zaha Club had many different branches, but the one I attended was situated in the Guomoa. This is near the Central Business District so I was able to take a look at the impressive skyscrapers on the way.
After a challenging class what better way to recuperate than a trip to the famous Wangfujing Snack Street: a pedestrianised street not far from the Forbidden City packed to the brim with all manner of tasty (and not so tasty) treats.
Turns out it’s not a great way to recuperate as it is monstrously busy and hectic!
However, it did serve as a very appetising meal! The foods on offer were delectable, the smells wafting through the air truly mouth-watering. If you could fight your way through the crowd to inspect the store fronts, you would be left carefully deciding from a huge range of treats.
Wraps of all kinds, vegetarian to duck meat, fish balls, Chinese Beef jerky and most astonishingly of all: an entire, of what I can only assume was pig, leg. Not only that, there were countless desserts! Traditional fruit on sticks smothered in syrup to huge ice cream and waffle concoctions that were bigger than the faces of some of the children I saw eating them.
However, I think the most memorable moment was discovering a stall with scores of scorpions skewered on sticks up for grabs. So fresh the scorpions still moved whilst on display – gross! We were also treated to starfish, seahorses and even tarantulas, none of which we were brave enough to eat.
The Great Wall
The Great Wall of China is such a must see, especially for the Beijing area. There are several different stretches of wall you can visit as a day trip, the closest and most popular being Badaling.
We decided to visit Jinshanling. This section is a little further away, therefore much quieter!
However, it did make for a bit of a journey..!
It turns out going in low season, all though meant we had the wall virtually to ourselves, also resulted in a pretty tricky adventure to get there! I wrote a short blog post about how we got ourselves to this more remote part of the Great Wall of China here.
The Great Wall of China was bloody amazing. You almost can’t quite believe that you’re there! It was every bit as magnificent as we hoped it would be, despite the long and rather arduous journey to get there.
The Jinshanling section of the wall is well restored and not difficult to climb in general. There are a few areas with questionable safety thanks to sheer drops and no walls to prevent falling, but nothing serious if you have a little bit of common sense.
James decided he would stand right on the edge for a perfect picture and whilst I get the sentiment, I didn’t appreciate the greatly heightened risk of death. But, each to their own.
There are a few crumbly areas and bits that required climbing but that just added to the charm of the place. It is quite exhilarating to climb a decaying, thousand year old watch tower and look out onto stunning landscapes and mountains.
Plus, we had picked a truly glorious day to visit with cold air, but warm, bright sunshine. That and the fact their were no other tourists around made for uninterrupted views and wonderful photos.
However, due to a few hiccups on the road to the Wall we had far less time than originally planned. As such, we couldn’t hike as far along as we wanted and worried we would not make it back in time for the last bus back to Beijing!
Fortunately for us, there is a cable car that transports visitors from the entrance gate right up to the tallest section of the Wall: right where we were!
It’s a bit rickety and terrifying if you hate cable cars but the perfect way to get down the mountain! Plus it gives you a new perspective.
And so, our last day in Beijing came to an end with another visit to Wangfujing Snack Street for a delicious dinner!
What did you think?
Let me know in the comments section.
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