The first stop on our Trans Siberian Railway adventure
(WRITTEN ON THE PLANE FROM BEIJING TO ULAANBAATAR)
As I opened the plane window shutter landing into Beijing, I was taken by the huge change in landscape from the green English countryside that I had left behind the previous evening. Vast dune-coloured mountains spread below us into the distance and there was a cloudless sky. Much higher mountains loomed on the horizon but the infamous Beijing pollution created a hazy fog in the distance that prevented a clear sighting. Over 2,000 years ago, Beijing was built on a dry and empty desert, and has since progressed into a city with a population of over 20 million people. The flight attendant announced that it was 33 degrees outside and I looked down regretfully at the thick fleece, jeans and rain jacket that I was wrapped up in, ready for the Mongolian desert nights but were too big to squeeze into my rucksack.
After an entertaining drive from the airport with an undercover taxi driver named Charlie, I met the two boys, Patrick and Peter, at the Red Lantern Hostel in the Zhenggjiue Hutong. Located in the centre of the Xicheng district of Beijing, the hostel had a great position – especially considering the £9 a night price tag. After dropping off my rucksack, we immediately headed out to explore the surrounding hutongs. On our way through the dusty streets, I was engulfed by the hot air, the varying smells of the small food stalls and the fast-paced chatter of of the market sellers. Patrick – who has visited Beijing before – was quick to point out some fine Chinese street food delicacies, including steaming bubble tea and half fermented chicken eggs, while I was nearly knocked down by about 15 bicycles as we walked. Beijingers very much like the sound of their own horns and bells, so expect to be beeped at with every other step taken, especially in the more narrow streets where there may be cars, bicycles, pedestrians, market stalls and sleeping dogs all trying to take ownership of the road. You’ll also need to learn to step out between moving cars if you wish to cross the road – but for all the beeping and near-misses, nobody moves very quickly in the city and we didn’t see any accidents.
There are 60,000 restaurants in Beijing and many overflow into the hutongs. Every other stall sells chuan’er (meat kebabs, usually lamb), jiǎozi (dumplings), bāozi (steamed buns with meat or veggie filling), or mántóu (steamed bread rolls). After purchasing some hot vegetable bāozi from a nearby street stall, we caught the subway to Tian’anmen Square – the largest city square in the world, measuring 440,000 m2 in total. The square is the gateway to the Forbidden City, and to pass through Tian’anmen subway station, a passport must be shown to security. (Security on the underground is extremely strict in Beijing and bags must be scanned and checked each time you get the train). We sat in the square, waiting for the guards to march out and lower the flags. We had been told this happened at ‘sundown’ but no more of a specific time than this, so we took a couple of hours to soak up the atmosphere. By the time the guards came out, there were queues of Chinese people lining up to watch and we stood in the crowds as the lines of military marched out to retrieve the flag for the evening.
After the sun had gone down, we headed over to the night street-food markets. By this time, all the streets are lit up with a red glow from the hanging Chinese lanterns, and stalls sell every kind of obscure dish possible. We first walked to the famous Wangfujing market, where we offered donkey, starfish and seahorses amongst other tempting dishes. Insects and scorpions squirm, still alive, on kebab sticks and from one stall to the next, the smells would range from a terrible stench of pickled meats to intoxicating wafts of hot vegetables and sweet pastries. I stayed safe, buying a huge crispy spring roll and some toffied grapes on a kebab stick (which were absolutely delicious – sweet and crunchy on the outside and then tangy and juicy in the middle!). We then crossed the road over to the Donghuamen night market which, again, was full of delightful Chinese cuisine suited to the most adventurous of eaters. That night, we stayed up late in the hostel learning new card games and drinking shots of baijou – China’s national drink which is 53% alcohol content and can be bought per bottle for the equivalent of £1.50 in the hutong stalls.
The next morning, we woke early and went to the Temple of Heaven gardens. The Temple of Heaven is a complex of religious buildings previously visited by the Emperors for annual ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for good harvest. Today, the Temple grounds cover 2.73 km² of parkland for the public to enjoy. I would recommend the park to any visitor as in every open space – and also every hidden corner – there is something wonderful to watch, whether it be a tai chi class, a group singing Chinese opera or an single person dancing alone amongst the trees. We also heard possibly the worst music class of all time, playing an instrument which sounded like an untuned violin. We met a lovely old man who was playing a game alone but, when he saw us, pulled Peter over to join in. It turns out that this gentleman was previously an Olympic winner in his sport, called Happy Hoops, and he showed us his certificates and the newspaper coverage. After walking around for a few happy hours, we finally decided we should visit somewhere else, so bought some freshly squeezed lemon juice before heading over to the Forbidden City – this time to explore properly.
As Patrick had been before, Peter and I paid to go in and explore alone. We had to failed to account for the fact that Patrick is the stoic map reader amongst us, and that the Forbidden City is – as the guide book describes – ‘unspeakably large’. The layout of the city is spread over 178 acres, with 980 separate buildings – originally built as resting palaces for the emperor. Off to each side are walled gardens and buildings now used for a variety of exhibitions. We were on the hunt for the Hall of Clocks exhibition, which Patrick had recommended to us but found ourselves lost in the Palace of Earthly Tranquility and Palace of Heavenly Purity. Being lost in the city is a great way to explore, as Peter and I kept telling ourselves, before finally locating the clock exhibition – indeed, we did feel as though we’d got a good sense of the place’s history. We finished up with the honey cakes, sesame bread and red bean sponge snacks that we’d bought at the supermarket, before meeting Patrick outside the gates and walking back to our hostel.
That evening, we walked from our hostel to the north of Dongcheng, where we had a quick look at the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower in the square (dating from around 1260 under the rule of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty), before finding somewhere to eat. We found a delicious place called Yin Xiang and ordered lots of dishes off the menu. To give a taste of the flavours, some of our dishes included spicy cumin tofu, cumin cauliflower (with hidden pork), fried rice (with hidden beef), mushroom beef noodles, caramelised eggplant and chicken, duck and shrimp with green and red peppers. As a vegetarian, I can safely say that Beijing has been a great place to try new flavours – albeit unintentionally. As we walked home from the restaurant by the river, we found a side street karaoke on the corner and a dance class amongst the trees.
We woke up to thunderstorms the next morning so thought it would be best to explore the temples – despite the rain beating down, it was still sweltering hot and we thought we may be afforded some shelter. We first went to the Lama Temple which was truly beautiful and filled with Chinese Buddhists come to pray and pay their respects to the gods. We were handed incense upon entering, which many people had lit in the first courtyard and then continued to do so as they moved through the different temples to worship the huge gold Buddha statues. The smell of the incense and the smoke in the courtyard mixed with the drizzle and heat created an overwhelming sense of grandeur and peacefulness. The chants of the monks filtered out from one side of the courtyard and we watched as people knelt and rose in prayer, with many fully prostrating themselves on the floor.
We next went to the Confiscus Temple which, although located literally just across the road to the Lama Temple, was nearly completely empty and there was, sadly, definitely a sense of abandonment. While the Lama Temple is a worship to the Buddhist gods, the Confiscus Temple celebrates great thinking and leadership, so perhaps doesn’t have the same attraction to visitors – despite the work of Confiscus hugely influencing the Chinese culture and infiltrating the thinking in the rest of the world.
The afternoon continued to rain so, after stopping off for some cold noodles at the side of the road, we decided to go to National Museum of China in the hope of staying dry. Although we were expecting to pay an entrance fee, we were allowed in for free which was a bonus. There we explored some history of China, as well as looking at various statues of Buddha throughout time. After a little while though, Peter and I decided our time would be better spent exploring the Summer Palace despite the rain, as it was something we really didn’t want to miss out on. And with immaculate timing, as we left the sun came out and the mid-afternoon heat was back.
The Summer Palace acted as a retreat from the steamy Beijing summer heat for the emperors and their entourages. We arrived at 4pm, with only an hour to explore before it closed. Without Patrick, we again managed to find ourselves ‘exploring’ and found ourselves upon a lovely path heading up a high hill through the woods. The rain had left a mist and the air felt very damp, but this was refreshing after so long in the heat. After a little while, we came across a dilapidated stone temple of sorts, which we climbed into feeling very Indiana Jones-esque. Before long though, it was time to head back and find our way out before the park closed. The park is 75% lake and we followed the lake’s edge all the way out until our eventual escape.
That evening, we were on a quest to find Mr Shi’s Dumplings, which had been recommended to me, but unable to find it along the roaring traffic of Beijing’s East district, we walked over to nearby Ghost Street where we had a delicious dinner and I unintentionally ate yet more meat. Although we were only out until 10.30pm, by the time we headed home, the subway had closed and we had to catch a taxi – which was a little bit of a mission in its own right. Be sure to check the underground line that you need to avoid being abandoned at night!
For our final day in China, we had had planned our most exciting day trip – the Great Wall of China! We arranged to visit the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, so left at 7am as it was a two hour journey and we wanted to make the climb before it got too hot and busy. This part of the wall consists of 23 original style watchtowers. We decided to take the cable car up the mountain so that we would have more time on the Wall – I would definitely recommend doing so, since the climb along the top is pretty challenging in its own right, especially in the heat! (When I say ‘pretty challenging’, my internal monologue was something like: ‘Ah yes that gorgeous view to the left. Let me just engage my neck muscles to turn left because every ounce of my being is currently focused on taking another step forward in my gigantic walking boots. No no, I’m not gasping for breath – just stopping to take a quick photo! Is it possible for lungs to implode after an hour?’)
In total, I walked from stations 1-14 and the boys continued up to station 20. It really is amazing to think that manual labour alone built this 8,850km Wall up in the mountains, especially when you consider that the white walls were originally built from rice. We trekked a little off-path past station 1 and, from there, discovered brilliant panoramic views of the Great Wall behind and the sloping green mountains below. To top the experience off, we then tobogganed back down the side of the mountain which was a great way to cool off in the heat. As we drove away from the mountains, I felt overwhelmingly happy, knowing that I had spent the day at one of the Great Wonders of the World and put in the hard work to really see the best of it.
Our last night was spent drinking baijou, eating our supermarket snacks and playing Irish Slap. Reflecting back on the last few days, it was had been interesting to see with my own eyes the place that is described as a city of curious contrasts. This sprawling metropolis of 20 million people is one where you are still likely to share a communal outhouse for a toilet. And although it is the centre of technology and art, you still cannot access Facebook or get uncensored internet searches. We all loved it and I definitely will be going back again in the future – however, for now, we were ready for Mongolia!