After landing we took the metro to Dengshikou station (2 yuan per ticket) and watched the adverts projected onto the tunnel walls from the moving tube carriages with awe. Upon exiting the station we walked down the narrow hutong to Saga International Youth Hostel (230 yuan/$39 per night). There was a large common room and café downstairs and our room was spacious but cold when the building’s radiators weren’t on. That evening we went to a local pharmacy to buy face masks as the air was thick with smog. We heard that they had closed the factories the week before as Obama was there for an APEC conference. We then took a taxi back and slept soundly.
We woke the next morning and headed out on the metro to visit the Brazilian and UK embassies to try and get them to help us with my power of attorney documents regarding a property I had inherited. On the way to the station we passed the famous CCTV Skyscraper (imagine a glass picture frame folded in half) and posed for photos with our face masks on in the smog. As luck would have it we then passed the award-winning Zara Habib designed, Galaxy Soho Shopping Centre. This resembled three bulbous towers connected with sweeping bridges all wrapped in white horizontal lines. Once we had alighted at Dengshikou station on our way back we decided to look around the shops for warm clothes for Beijing and Mongolia. We didn’t find much save a pair of pyjamas for me, from a dedicated pyjamas store. So we walked back to the hostel and stayed in for the rest of the evening.
Next day we packed our things, checked out and left our bags behind reception before heading out by metro to the famous Silk Market. It used to be a collection of street market stalls but in an attempt to tidy up the city it was moved to a purpose-built building of many floors. We found a bag shop on the top floor that appeared empty. However the staff escorted us through a door into a secret room behind full of fake brands and bargain hunters. I got a Prada bag for £30 and Dior brown croc skin bag for £25. In a smaller shop downstairs I also picked up a Prada leather purse for £15, a black fur, sleeveless jacket for £30 and some faux leather trousers for £40. Mark got some Nike trainers £15 each and a soft-skinned trolley case for £8.
We then headed back to collect our bags before meeting Thomas from couchsurfing.com at Agricultural Exhibition Center station. He was a lovely fifty-something German IT worker, with a passion for travel and motorcycles. He showed us his minimally decorated one-bed, modern apartment, paid for by his company. Situated high up in a tall international building, it had great views of the city. He was kind enough to take the sofa in the lounge, leaving us to sleep in his king-size bed. We dropped off our cases and he took us to a lovely Chinese restaurant, just around the corner. We ordered a white fish dish for me, some tasty pork and delicious spring greens. They had a chopsticks dispenser like McDonald’s straw dispenser; something we had never seen before. We ate our fill and headed back to the flat for the night.
Next morning Thomas went to work and left us with a set of keys. We headed out in the afternoon to the 2008 Olympic Park, in the north of the city. On the way to the metro I spotted a stall selling fruit sticks covered in a clear, sweet glaze, and tucked into a strawberry one. It was an enormous paved area with several large towers, an underground shopping centre, and various stadiums. The area around the National (Bird’s Nest) Stadium was fenced off but we could still see the metallic, lattice-like exoskeleton dominating the skyline. We spotted the bright, blue, bubble-like walls of the Water Cube Aquatics Centre and headed there for more pictures before stopping in the underground mall for a bite to eat and heading back to the flat.
The following day we had a lie in and took the metro to Tianamen Square and queued up behind the masses to get through the security checkpoint. We went to Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum but unfortunately it closed at midday, so we were too late. Undeterred we walked north to the Forbidden City (40 rimimbi per person), home of the Emperor, his concubines and his eunochs. It was an expansive array of countless courtyards and traditional buildings, interspersed with statues of dragons and large copper cauldrons. What an amazing place! We even saw some locals in traditional, ancient costume, which helped give us a feel for what the palace was like in its heyday. At the rear there was a pretty, ornamental garden complete with koi karp and temples. We exited at the far north of the complex and took a bus made to look like an old wooden tram back round to Tianamen Square. We headed south across the square where I bought a nice toy for Witiny, my sweet young brother, from a streetseller.
We located Qiamen Street, a pedestrianized road flanked by traditional dark grey stone buildings. Behind the buildings to the right we found a series of cheap souvenir shops. I found some traditional sweets shops selling flavoured jellies and couldn’t resist, they were delicious! We returned the main street where we had heard about a famous chain of Beijing Duck restaurants called Quanjude. Upon entering they told us they were closed, as it was between lunch and dinner. However, we could still have the duck and soup which is all we were after anyway, so that was fine. It was yummy and we even got to watch the man carving the duck. Interestingly locals were queuing up outside for the duck carcasses as there still seemed a lot of meat left. It was good to see that nothing went to waste.
It was also interesting to see that some young couples wore matching clothes in China, something you wouldn’t see back home. We took a bus further south to the Temple of Heaven but before going in we found a cafe and had a snack. Sadly the temple had closed at 5pm as it was dark, so we went into the mall opposite and I bought some warm clothes upstairs and we both got some sweet pastries from the bakery on the ground floor. We then took the bus back to Qiamen metro station and headed back to Thomas’s. He mixed some sausages Mark had bought into some leftovers he had and served it. They had that which Mark said was delicious, and we retired for the night.
Next day we checked the weather and were glad we didn’t do Great Wall as visibility was poor due to pollution. Thomas wanted to go with us to see a Mexican painter, but we declined. As we walked to the metro we saw people burning photos in the streets (but we didn’t know why). We fought our way through the crowds outside the security check point at Tiananmen East station. Cunningly we were able to push through the queue by flashing a Forbidden City ticket from the day before. I did a great job and we even had time to check Mark’s bag into Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum (affectionately known as the ‘Maosoleum’) luggage storage tent (30 yuan for his rucksack with his Nexus and Camera inside, just 10 yuan if you have a bag with no valuables inside) before it shut at midday. The Communist leader was very waxy looking, embalmed in his uniform. The Chinese chap in front of us even bowed to the great man twice as we shuffled past. The place reminded us of Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow. It is a shame you aren’t allowed to take photos there (or even go in with your bag). Curiosity satisfied we headed back for a quiet night in.
The day after was our organised day trip to the Summer Palace and Great Wall (230 yuan each, including lunch, transfers and tickets but excluding Badaling Wall cable car, 100 yuan return). We met the guide, Patrick, at the Prime Hotel in the central lobby. I was even mistakenly ushered into the wrong vehicle by another guide while Mark was using the cashpoint! Our minibus then stopped a couple more times to pick up passengers including a couple of Polish lads, two Pakistani brothers in town for a medical conference and a group of 7 Filipinos and their Chinese host. They were being taken around China on their way to see the helmet factory that makes the helmets for their Suzuki motorbikes. Patrick, the guide, was a very friendly young lad who never stopped talking. He was complaining about the cost of living in Beijing, saying it is the 8th most expensive city in the world to live in, so he can only afford a room of 9 sqm in a shared house (as he earns only $1,600 a month as a guide and has to be up at 5:30 every morning to commute in). As we drove past the Forbidden City, Patrick explained that the Emperor lived there with hundreds of eunuchs, his wife and three thousand concubines. He would choose names presented to him by the eunuchs and the girls would hope to please the Emperor enough to be allowed to have the chance of having a child with him. Afterwards the eunuchs would ask him yes or no, and if he said no then the eunuch would give the girl an herbal drink so she couldn’t get pregnant. Normally the Emperors only ended up having ten to fifteen children.
First stop was the Summer Palace, a huge park dominated by an enormous serene man-made lake. There was a beautiful, arched, stone bridge leading to a little island in the middle. It was restored and beautified by the Dragon Lady, a concubine who gave birth to a young Emperor and acted as a Queen Regent. She then adopted her very young nephew and put him off the throne once her son died, and all-in-all controlled the final three Emperors. She kept her power by paying off the important eunochs and it used it to divert funds from the navy budget to build the park. However, she ended up having to imprison the final emperor there and causing the decline and fall of China. Her other excesses included having fresh fruit for fragrance in giant pots which were replaced every two hours and having huge banquets of food laid out for every meal, one table for looking at, one table for smelling and one table for eating. We saw her fairly simple palace with antique furniture still in place and caught a view of the beautiful temple high up on the hill overlooking the lake. Our guide took us as far as the long corridor (longest in the world), a wooden pillared walkway leading around the lake painted in beautiful, vivid colours. We then left and Mark bought a large baked sweet potato from a lady from a cart which he burnt the roof of his mouth on. He only got to eat half before the Polish lads found us and we were on the move again (Patrick wouldn’t allow any potato eating on the bus, to keep it clean) After half an hour’s drive we stopped at a jade-carving factory and we were given a short talk about the precious stone, how there is no longer any more to mine, and how the Chinese rate it as being more valuable than gold and diamonds (apparently the elder generation know little of the value of diamonds, and have probably never seen any). The workshop claimed to be government-owned in order to be able to guarantee tourists the jade is genuine. True jade can be many colours, including red, yellow and black, as well as green, but has a good lustre and is partially translucent, and can scratch glass. They showed us people carving it, and gave us the opportunity to purchase it in a huge display hall. I considered a few pendants but they weren’t cheap so I managed to resist. Patrick was wearing a bracelet he paid $300 for, or so he told us. In the back there was a restaurant that resembled a room you might use for a wedding reception with the circular tables and large chandelier. Our group sat across two tables and each had a revolving, glass tray in the middle that you could turn to share the food. The food came in several courses and while we ate we got to know the lovely Filipinos, and picked up tips for our trip to Manila. What a great way to make friends!
We then drove to the Great Wall at Badaling and got a cable car to the summit. The views were unbelievable and we could see the wall continue as far as you can see, snaking over the hills to keep the Mongol hoards at bay. We climbed up to a fortified tower and local tourists insisted on posing for photos with us on the battlements, which was a nice surprise! At the bottom we saw a Bactrian (two-humped) Camel with a man charging for rides and a sweet shop hammering the sticky substance with an enormous mallet. There was also a toilet block with a sign that had been mistranslated say ‘Urinating into the pool, you are the best…’, which amused Mark.
Back in Beijing the tour bus dropped us off at Wanfujing Street, the main shopping area. There we explored the Dong Hua Men night market where we finally plucked up the courage to try some fried insects (after a good month of resisting them as we crossed southeast Asia). We tried locusts and even sea horses. They were crunchy and oily, and didn’t really taste of much. Other tourists were bravely tucking into scorpions too, and there were even tarantulas on offer if you wanted to be really hard-core! Mark had a luminous drink with dry ice fizzing away in it to take away the taste of the insects and we got a taxi back to Thomas’s for the night.
Next day we went to Beijing Capital Airport for our MIAT Mongolian airlines flight to Ulaanbaatar. We were treated nice to a view as it crossed a huge road near a road toll outside airport, and soon we were airborne.
What an fantastic time we had!
Our second time in Beijing saw us…
…landing in the Beijing Capital Airport and took the airport express metro back to Thomas’s place. He was there to meet us and took us for dinner in the same local place as before. Mark had some nice chicken on skewers and I had the same soft fish dish which was delicious. We told Thomas about Mongolia, where we were previously, and presented him with the postcards we got for him. He collects them. We headed back and slept soundly.
We woke early on our last day to go to Qiamen Street again to see the markets. I bought two thin and two wide Jade bracelets, I couldn’t resist them this time. I also bought another furry hat and Mark got some small commie metal badges to try to sell on eBay. It’s always nice to walk around the markets there. What a great shopping area!
In the afternoon we set off for our 4-hour flight before changing at Xiamen airport to then continue our so gorgeous trip to our next stop, Manila.