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Published: September 8th 2019
Dear Blog Readers,
Back to toilet reading business! 3 weeks exploring the wonderful sights and sounds of China await. Untypical of us, we have squeezed in the tightest itinerary we could fathom and our first two stops are Beijing and Xi'an. But first...a bit of life admin to cover off first for those thinking of travelling to China!
Firstly, for us in the UK and most countries around the world you're going to need to get a visa before going to China. This can be done initially online (https://bio.visaforchina.org/LON2_EN/
) where you complete the extensive application form (it'll take a good hour). You'll also need to have booked everything in advance as you need to prove this at the face-to-face appointment. We managed to get flights for £450 with the luxury Ukrainian Airlines and did all our hotels on booking.com which never fails!
For the trains, we used a great service online called DIY China (https://www.china-diy-travel.com/en/
). You send them the trains that you want to book, what class and any specific instructions and they will book the trains for you in advance. This needs to be done not just for the visa but
also because you need a Chinese bank card to buy the tickets in advance. A lot of them sell out in advance and these guys will book them as soon as they go on sale about 8-12 weeks before your travel date. You then settle the invoice with them once the tickets have been purchased - it worked a charm for us and they went out of their way to get us the right trains, offered us advice on which ones to catch and tonnes of information on how to get to the stations. We were keen to get a few sleeper trains to avoid wasting days travelling between cities when we could be exploring!
Once you've got the application form finished you can book an appointment at a China Visa Centre. I was in Austria so needed to do mine in Vienna whilst Laura did hers in London. They check all of your documentation, passport, and make sure you take copies of your bookings (flights, hotels, trains, etc.) so they can check off each day is covered. It takes about 4 days to turn around the visa (you can pay extra for express service) and mine
cost £100 but was single-entry (as I was doing it from a different country to my passport) whereas Laura's was £150 but multiple entry over two years.
Visa in hand and backpack packed we went off for our early flight initially to Kiev Airport where we both met each other before boarding the 10 hour flight to Beijing. Considering the price (all other flights were £200 more expensive), it wasn't actually that bad. Sure, the food was terrible and you have to pay for anything more than water/coffee/tea but we slept a lot on the flight which helped a lot for our jet lag. We landed in Beijing at 2am and had a long nervy wait for the baggage which eventually arrived and we had booked an airport pick-up in advance which was very comfortable.
We were staying in the Red Lantern Backpackers Hostel which is situated in a lovely hutong near Pinganli - or as I liked to call it, Pong Alley, due to the smell as you came out of the subway. Hutongs are areas of small interconnecting alleys joining old houses which are fairly common in Beijing and have yet to
be modernised or redeveloped into properties or skyscrapers. The hostel was great - lovely interior including a koi carp pond in the middle of it and helpful Chinese phrases provided, including "Do you like broccoli?"
Setting the alarm helped us get up reasonably early considering we got in at 3am. We found our way around the metro - fairly easy to get tickets and the stations are in English, just make sure you have plenty of Y10 notes or Y1 coins to pay for the ticket (single trips are about 50p each). We got to Beijing West Train Station and joined the 'English' ticket queue with our passports and a wad of paper from DIY China which had our train ticket numbers on them. In hindsight, glad we collected all of our tickets in one go to avoid having to do the same thing in each of the other stations!
Now that the admin side of travelling was done...onto the exploring! First on the list was the amazing Drum & Bell Towers with a history over 700 years and great views of the city from the top. The bell is so big that the
difficulties forging it were only solved when the chief designer's daughter fell into the molten cast and it finally set. We were treated to a drum performance too - could have used more cowbell. We had lunch nearby in a locals restaurant before heading down to Wangfujing which is essentially just a shopping street link Ginza in Tokyo.
As the sun was setting, we headed to the Temple of Heaven. We just missed out on going to the buildings but were treated to wandering around the gorgeous parks surrounding them. Just south of the Forbidden City / Tian'anmen Square, this area is where the emperor would come to perform harvest rituals and set the calendar / events for the year ahead. We walked back through the park knowing we'd be back here to see it properly and found ourselves down a street with an old tram still running up and down it (Qianmen St). It was quite eery with there being a power cut so a lot of the street lights were off. We found a side alley which had a peking duck which filled us up before heading back to near Tian'anmen Square which was great
The following day we set ourselves the mission of seeing the Great Wall! Rather than being shepherded and herded onto a tour bus, we decided to try and do it ourselves...challenge accepted. We got the subway to Dongzhimen station and then walked to the bus terminal there. First mistake was getting the 916 normal service rather than the express which meant plenty of stops. Once we got pretty close to where we thought our stop was, an official from the transport company came onto the bus and told us this was our stop. Relief didn't last long as he started asking us and the 4 Spaniards who also got off which taxi we wanted at a rip-off price. We'd been shafted by an official! UnBrexit-like, we cobbled together what information we had with the Spanish and got a bus which took us closer to where we needed to be and then clubbed together for a much cheaper taxi (for £2 each) which took us to the Mutianyu Great Wall entrance about 3 and a half hours since we'd left the hostel!
Mutianyu is supposed to be the second most visited section of
the wall after Badaling but by a considerable margin. Even so, judging by the volume of people there and the commercialisation already on show, this is big business for the Chinese! We tucked into a Burger King for lunch obviously and took the shuttle bus to the cable car entrance. We were soon at the Great Wall and what an amazing sight it was - the weather was hot but clear so we had some great views. It is only about 3km at this point so we had a leisurely walk along it and the watchtowers offered a chance to get a decent vantage point. After about an hour or two we joined the queue for the toboggan ride back down which was great fun - just a shame the queue was so long and it was so busy that there were lots of bottlenecks! Learning from our journey here, we were on the hunt for the buses we should have caught and eventually found the H23 bus followed by the 916 Express meaning we were back in Beijing in two hours! In the evening we headed to the cosmopolitan area of Sanlitun which had lots of bars, shops and
fancy cars. Felt like we'd crossed a spectrum of over 2,000 years in one day!
Final day in Beijing before moving on started with getting lost in the hutong which was no bad thing - you certainly get to see the life and soul of the city in these areas. Also, we were struck by how quiet everything was. The cars and motorbikes are all electric so you can be walking down the street when a moped suddenly flies past you without realising! The pollution that we were fearing didn't seem to be an issue to us and the whole city was not what we were expecting compared to what we were envisaging from Seoul and Tokyo with the noise, neon lights and sky-rise buildings.
We'd initially considered doing Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City but as soon as we exited the subway and saw the queue we were in disbelief. Admittedly, it was a Saturday in August but the queue must have been at least 4 hours long considering how far it was stretching. We couldn't think of anything worse, particularly in the heat, so bailed immediately. In hindsight, this was a huge
blessing in disguise as we later found out we would have needed our passports to get in!
We took a short walk around some of the side streets on the way to the Temple of Heaven. We were trying to find the entrance to the Underground City - a bomb shelter built during 1970s which stretches under the city centre but to no avail so we pushed on. This time we were able to visit the sights of the Temple of Heaven including the Circular Mound Altar and the Echo Wall, supposedly with an acoustic quality similar to the whispering gallery in Grand Central Station, although the hoards of tourists stops this from being tested! Finally, the amazing Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests completed our tour around this beautiful part of the city and well worth a couple of visits!
Next on the list was to visit the Llama Temple - one of the foremost Tibetan Buddhist temples and one with the most incense I've ever seen. The halls keep getting better and better as you work through the temple. The fifth and final one houses a 25m high sandalwood carving of Maitreya
Buddha complete with Guinness Book of Records plaque outside. The streets outside the temple are also lovely with some nice cafes and we popped our head in to see the Confucian Temple. On the way back to hostel, I decided to risk a hair cut (which is now becoming a customary event during our travels) for just £5. Since arriving in China I had steadily been getting sicker with a cough/chest infection and bizarrely my hair cut came to an abrupt end when I coughed just as he was cutting the top.
It was time to leave Beijing having done plenty but with more to come on our return and we headed to the train station for our first sleeper train to Xi'an!
Tink & Laura
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