After successfully meeting back up with my friend at the Dragon King Hostel we wasted no time in heading off to explore Beijing, we had a lot to cram into our final 3 days of the trip.
It was a short walk to the underground, where we took line 1 to get off at Tian’anmenxi Station. It was almost New Year and the cold wind was brutal so it was a brisk walk to our destination – Tian’anmen Square. This giant square, one of the largest in the world, was built in the 1600’s and has considerably grown over the years. Chairman Mao designed plans for the square to be extended to fit 500,000 people, which expanded yet again after his death to hold 600,000. Of course outside of China its most famous for the 1989 protests and massacre, but of course you can’t mention that whilst you are there, and the security cameras mounted on posts all around you, remind you of that fact constantly.
We found the Meridian Gate which lead to the main entrance of the Forbidden City, but as we were in the middle of a public holiday, the crowds, security and winter cold proved too much, and we decided to return later. We also had planned to visit Chairman Mao’s mausoleum but it was closed due to being a Public Holiday, so after doing a full lap of the square, we admitted defeat and decided to get some food.
Our first meal in Beijing had to be the famous local dish, now known all over the world as Peking Duck. This roasted bird, with a sweet bean sauce, steamed pancakes and thinly sliced vegetables has been around in some form since the 1300’s, and like anywhere with a national dish on offer, we were spoilt for choice on places where we could sample it. We were cold and hungry so we entered a place just a short walk from Tian’anmen Sq, up N.Dongdan Street, a wide, busy street, full of designer shops and modern shopping malls. We found a place that was open and suited our budget and placed our order. Back then I was still eating a little meat on holiday (if it was a traditional dish) nowadays though, I’d have given it a miss. But even back then I preferred the sauce and pancakes over the duck, washing it down with copious amounts of green tea that accompanied it.
We spent the rest of the evening exploring the streets, cafes and just trying to take in and absorb the crazy, chaotic city that is Beijing. We window shopped in the designer stores, perused the local markets, sipped more delicious salty cheese tea and then found ourselves in the now defunct Donghuamen Night Market. Not for the faint hearted, this market was famous for selling silk worms, scorpions, star fish, crickets and a whole array of what you could call ‘interesting’ delicacies to eat. My friend was ready and willing to sample some of the treats on offer, so I somewhat reluctantly joined in, buying a couple of deep fried scorpions on a stick, to the amusement of a local family who seemed less keen to try them than we did. I can’t say it was tasty, but it was definitely crunchy, and an experience I wasn’t going to repeat.
Feeling a little queasy we managed to locate our hostel in the dark and collapsed on our beds for some rest, the next day was Chinese New Years Eve and we had an early morning pick up, to visit probably the most famous site in the whole of China.
Booked via our hostel, we had a 40+ mile journey to see one of the best preserved portions of the Great Wall, Mutianyu. Arriving mid morning, we almost had the place to ourselves, as it was New Years Eve and most local were probably preparing for the evening celebrations. Having seen lots of photos of the Wall rammed jammed with tourists, we were incredibly lucky that it was just us and a couple of other tour groups.
There are 2 options to get up and down, climb the steps or ride up in a gondola and a 3rd option to descend back down, via a wheeled toboggan. Having walked a fair bit across Beijing the previous day, we decided to head up via gondola, having second thoughts as we started the ascent, it was a quite old and creaky, but it was too late to change our minds, and despite the odd noise and rattle, we made it up to the wall in one piece.
Once on the wall we had about an hour to wander, take multiple photos, drink in the amazing scenery and woodland that surrounded us, never mind the immense history this manmade wonder represents. The fact that we had portions of the wall to ourselves was mind-blowing, we were so incredibly lucky, what a way to spend New Years Eve.
The Mutianyu section of the wall is said to be the best preserved of all the sections you can visit, as well as being one of the oldest parts, as the building started in the mid 6th century, becoming the northern barrier to protect the capital from invasion. As we had about an hour, we walked one way for almost 30 minutes and then retraced our steps for the other 30. As I glanced across the countryside, from high up in one of the watchtowers, I couldn’t help but wonder just what these walls have seen over the years. It really was a pinch yourself moment that I was actually there and I wanted to remember every second.
Of course what goes up, must come down, and although the hundreds of steps back down seemed inviting, we opted for the wheeled toboggan with a gentle push from the most smiley man who’s sole job was to push people back down the hill & he gladly too photos of us too.
Once back on the street below, we had time to shop for souvenirs, all things Great Wall related of course and then it was time for a late lunch at Mr Yang’s, before boarding the bus back into Beijing and to get ready for the evenings celebrations.
That evening at the hostel we had a dumpling party, were we all got to make our own dumplings from scratch and then steam them for our last dinner of the year.
Once suitably stuffed, a bunch of us from the hostel jumped back on the metro and headed to a very cold and unfortunately deserted Tian’anmen Square. Turns out, all outdoor parties and firework displays were cancelled due to already disastrous of pollution, all we encountered were police advising us to leave the area. We wandered in the cold for a while, eventually getting separated and I found myself in a McDonalds as the clock stroke midnight with 2 strangers from the hostel, eating french fries and dancing in the mass of red paper let off from the many firecrackers being exploded (quite possibly illegally) outside. We all eventually found our way back to the hostel and continued the celebrations there, not exactly how I had imagined celebrating Chinese New Year in Beijing, but it was definitely one I won’t forget.
After a lie in, we decided to start New Years Day over at the Summer Palace, despite it being in the heart of Winter. We took the metro and then entered via the path up Longevity Hill, where we were met with spectacular views of palaces, gardens, temples and a frozen lake full of children enjoying the holidays tobogganing.
Trying to stick to a budget, we decided to follow the locals and eat what they were having, which involved buying a cup of noodles on sale in the palace grounds, then adding boiling water from an urn, then slurping our way though our tasty lunch. Absolutely delicious and costing about 50 pence.
The grounds were vast and once we had warmed up from our lunch, we explored more gardens, temples and marvelled at the frozen lakes glistening in the new years sunshine.
It was coming close to the end of our trip, so we headed to the old part of Beijing, exploring the ancient hutongs or alleyways, buying a few souvenirs along Nanluoguxiang Alley including a little red book.
There were some cheap delicious places to eat and drink in the hutongs, so after a rest back in our hostel, we returned once it had gone dark for a few beers and some great live music at 69 Cafe. It was such a friendly little dive bar, with young local musicians, cheap beer and excellent live music, we stayed till closing time
Our last full day together, before I returned to the UK and my friend returned to Wuhan, we aimed straight for the entrance of the Forbidden City, but it was overwhelmingly busy as everyone and their uncle was out on the public holiday, so we reluctantly turned around, putting it back on hold, for maybe China trip No 2 in the future.
So we decided on a chill out day instead, and went and got cupped. Although its origins don’t necessarily start in China, it is a popular part of Chinese Medicine, with it being used in hospitals since the 1950’s. The idea being, glass suction cups create a vacuum when placed on the skin to draw up fluids and toxins to aid health and circulation. There are different forms of cupping available, so we decided to go all out and book ourselves in for fire cupping, which involved cotton wool soaked in alcohol. The cotton is then lit via a match and in one motion, placed into the cup and quickly removed, while the cup is placed on the skin. The fire uses up all the oxygen in the cup which is then quickly placed onto the body and the negative pressure “sucks” the skin up. It tingled but wasn’t unpleasant and once I got over what exactly what happening to my back, I could relax and enjoy it, then with a cup of green tea I could sit back and watch my friend get hers done, then the fun part, we could compare bruises! Then to end our spa day, I got my final salted cheese tea from Coco’s, I knew it may be a while before I had another one.
That night, our last night, we convinced some of the others in the hostel to join us back for food and drinks in the hutong. Grabbing the most delicious dumplings at Mr Shi’s Dumplings they were so good, we still talk about them to this day, then it was back to the 69 Cafe, for a final few drinks and a bit of a dance.
The next morning it was an early trip to the airport, with a slight headache for the long flight home, but my goodness what a country, it completely surpassed all expectations and I so hope I can return one day to see more of it.
Top Tip – When I originally started planning this trip I figured I would fly in and out of the same city, but China is HUGE, and getting a train back from my final stop in Beijing to Shanghai where I started was over 4 hours, that’s not including getting too the station, and the extra hour that you are supposed to arrive prior to departure. Flights were 2.5 hours, but cost about the same as the extra cost of my main flight if I departed from a different city. So, basically play around with your options, get creative, the less time spent getting too and from places, the more time you will actually get to explore when you get there.