Having left all our luggage with friends in Hong Kong, we arrived in Beijing with day packs, cameras and an iphone loaded with a map of the Beijing subway system (probably the handiest thing we had over the next couple of days). The airport express took us as far as Donzhimen where we changed to the blue line for our destination station of Chongwenmen. Each time we had to buy tickets for the subway we simply showed the iphone map to the ticket seller and were given the appropriate ticket. Funnily enough, no matter what distance we were going, the tickets were all 2 yuan. We found out later that the subway is heavily subsidized by the government. Directions to our hotel said that we should walk 10 minutes west along Qianmen East Street and I have to admit that the Capital Hotel was not at all what we expected. The lobby was huge and sumptuous and when we got to our room, we were very pleasantly surprised to discover it was a luxurious suite!!!! Kelly was rather concerned that we had been given the wrong room and that it was going to cost a fortune – but no, it was
We almost look like we know what we are doing!!
$80.00 a night (already prepaid).
To celebrate spring, free tai chi lessons were given the next morning in the hotel grounds. It was an hour of entertainment as the group was led by an elderly Chinese lady who didn’t speak a word of English – and no one in the group had ever done Tai Chi before. Then it was time to go exploring.
As we approached the intersection of Quianmen East and Guangchang East, all we saw was an incredible line up of people – they were waiting patiently (up to 3 hours) to get in to the Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall. Walking though Tian’anmen Square, an underpass took us to Tian’anmen Gate and into the Forbidden City, which was the Chinese Imperial Palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. Suffice to say that the place is huge!!! covering 72 ha in a rectangle that is 961 m by 753 m. While from a distance, the buildings look quite austere, up close they are beautiful in their colours and detailed roof designs. It didn’t take too long before we had decided that we had seen enough and completed the nearly 1
km walk straight through to the north gate and then walked up Jingshan Hill for a view that truly showed the extent of the Forbidden City.
Somehow we were convinced to go on a pedicab tour of an area of hutongs, the older dwellings of Beijing. Many of these hutongs were demolished in preparation for the Olympic Games in 2008. Our guide navigated his bike down some very narrow alleyways and stopped at many doorways, explaining how the design of the doorway, number of steps etc gave an indication to the rank of the official who used to live in the house. We had absolutely no idea where we were and were quite relieved to get dropped off at the Tourist Information Center near Qianhai Lake.
A promenade around the west side of the lake took us past all sorts of restaurants and we settled for a hotpot lunch – the easiest way to explain it is that is a type of fondue. 20 yuan got the hotpot and a number of condiments (tofu, onions, beans as well as few items we had no idea of) and then we ordered mushrooms and shrimps to go along with it.
The staff must have been pretty used to tourists as they gave great instructions on how to use the hot pot – the food was cooked in a stock that was kept to temperature by the brazier underneath. The most entertaining food was the shrimps as they came all mushed up in an icing bag. All we had to do was squeeze out “shrimp worms” into the stock – we must have been making a mess of it though cos someone same along to help us. Beer and cucumber juice rounded off the meal.
Walking along Gulou E Street we then turned south onto Nanluogu Xiang, a funky pedestrian street with cafes and shops (all very tourist oriented) and with hutongs branching off on either side. We didn’t really have a plan and after we decided that we should visit the Beijing Olympic site, it seemed pretty straight forward to walk to the nearest subway stop which was Andingmen to the north. It was only a couple of blocks, but we hadn’t taken into account the fact that Beijing blocks are about 1km in length!!! Add this to the # of kms we had already walked and Kelly was
somewhat justified in whining that his feet were tired.
We had to change subway lines 3 times before arriving at the Olympic Sports Center where we took a shuttle to see the Birds Nest and the Cube. The Birds Nest was inplressive looking on TV during the games and even more so, close up. It was a long crowded subway ride back to Chongwenmen and then back to the hotel and a well earned rest (after stopping at a local store for some water and beer). The price of rooms at the hotel may have been reasonable but beer sure wasn’t.
Re-energised, it was time for food. The Donghuamen night market was about a 20 minute walk away and took us into a totally new world – a wide pedestrian street lined with high end shops and malls. It was easy to identify the night market which ran off towards the Forbidden City as it had a beautiful gate and lights strung over the narrow street. Food choices ran from skewered scorpions (still wiggling) to snakes on sticks and other disgusting things to beef skewers, pancakes and other more normal food. A few narrow streets off to the
side sold all sorts of tourist stuff. Definitely a fun place for dinner.
The easiest way for us to see the Great Wall was to join a tour which was organized by the hotel. We normally stay away from tours, but this one was really worth it – the guide spoke excellent English and we learnt all sorts of information about Beijing. The trip out to the Great Wall at Badaling took a couple of hours and as we were making our way through Beijing and passed some familiar landmarks, we realised just how far we had walked the previous day.
We passed a number of entrances to the Great Wall on the drive - the wall seems to meander willy nilly over all the ridges. The benefit of going all the way to the section at Badaling is that it affords one of the best views of the wall snaking off into the distance.
Once at Badaling we caught a cable car up to the wall. There is also an option to walk the whole way, but the majority of our group wanted the cable car – so that is what we had to do. I had
heard that the wall is steep in places, but I was not prepared for the steepness here in Badaling. Not only are the steps various heights, but many sections have no steps at all – the surface is smooth and steep – which isn’t too bad if you are going up but it makes the downward journey a little tense. Once we reached the watchtower, the crowds thinned and we walked a short distance further (downhill which necessitated another uphill struggle on the return trip). We passed a number of elderly Chinese who were heading up to the watchtower and they all gave us “thumbs up” and toothy smiles. Keeping an eye on the time, it wasn’t long before we had to head back to the cable car and our bus for the next section of the tour. Great Wall of China – been there, done that.
Next stop was a Jade factory where we learnt the difference between soft jade (for sculpting) and hard jade (for jewellery). They also showed us how to tell fake from real – this was very interesting but not really of any value as real jade is so expensive, we would never be
Great Wall, Badaling
Unfortunately I had to walk all the way back up again! The crowds had thinned out substantially
buying any. Lunch was an excellent multicourse meal that was included in the tour price.
The Ming Tombs seem to be an obligatory stop on any tour and when I was first researching activities for this trip, the tombs were definitely NOT on my list. It was the dreariest hour of the day walking around having someone explain everything to you that you could read from placards. Most of the people on our tour couldn’t speak English either so it must have been even more boring for them.
In contrast, the visit to the Beijing Traditional Chinese Medical Health Preservation Research Center was fascinating. While a doctor gave a very entertaining talk on the differences between Western and Chinese medicine, we were all given an optional foot massage (for a very nominal fee) and then (optional) were given an assessment by one of the doctors. They seemed to be pretty spot on with minor body aches and pains and we both walked away with a months supply of Chinese medicine.
By now we were caught up in Beijing rush hour and we still had a visit to a silk factory. Our route took us close by our
hotel and everyone else elected to get off the bus as they had a prior commitment (so they said) so it was Kelly, me and the tour guide who went on. Again this was fascinating as we learnt about single (used for thread and textiles) and double cocoons (used for the stuffing in pillows and quilts) and watched a quilt being made. The ball of thread from a double cocoon forms a sheet of tangled fibres which is stretched on a rack of 3’x5’. Other sheets are added to this to make a thick cottony bundle. Each bundle is then stretched to form one layer of the quilt. Each quilt can use as many as 400 bundles so thousands of double cocoons are used in just one quilt.
All in all – it was day well spent. Dinner once again was at the Donghuamen night market and as we were eating barbequed meat skewers, once again an elderly Chinese gave us a thumbs up. Not too sure what that is all about. Then it was time for a short nights rest before being up bright and early for our flight back to Hong Kong.
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