Travelling in Beijing
Jenny Bainbridge studies French and Chinese at Newcastle University and is currently in Xiamen, China for her year abroad. This is her account of travelling in Beijing (along with a video of her adventures!).
One of the pros of living in 中国 China is that simply nipping to Beijing for a long weekend is a possibility. I didn't think 上海 Shanghai for my 21st birthday could be rivalled but, to put into perspective my love for the capital city of China, I'm going to go all out and say I might give up a tiny portion of my Western chocolate supply to spend a few more days there.
Beijing is nothing like Shanghai; Shanghai is built dramatically upwards but Beijing is so wide and sprawled due to its age and because so much of it is made up of flat 胡同 'Hutongs' -maze after maze of alleyways exactly like the stereotypical image in your brain of tiny Chinese streets, a vast muddle of homes, courtyards, restaurants, shops, bars and rooftops. It's as though someone has grabbed a giant rolling pin and just squashed Beijing to spread it out over a huge surface area (scattering bikes everywhere in the process). Our hostel just so happened to be right at the centre of one of the main hutongs, 'Nanluoguxiang'. (Magic star to me for booking this accommodation- kind of made up for the fact that I gave my friend my surname when I excitedly booked our flights and therefore had to buy a completely new return ticket).
After the teeny weeny flight calamity, we arrived in Beijing well before 午餐 lunchtime (even though my tummy was telling me otherwise).
1. Pollution, The Bird's Nest and Cocktails
In the news recently (when I can access it past all of China's firewalls), China's pollution levels seem to be popping up more and more accompanied by horrifying photos and statistics- but it wasn't until emerging up the escalators from Beijing's 地铁 ‘ditie’ metro system that I experienced it via my own senses. The only way I can think of to describe it is similar to England on Bonfire Night- but it wasn't the 5th of November and I wasn’t keeping toasty around a bonfire in a Northern England village scoffing baked potatoes. The thick and smoky air meant that it was time to whip out our pollution protectors- or face masks as is the correct term, but I prefer my own almost superhero-sounding version. They were absolutely essential, for my friend Georgina who suffers from asthma and myself who likes to think of herself as a cultural goddess so wanted to blend in as much as possible.
After exploring our new turf and purchasing a tacky item or two, we headed out to see The Bird's Nest, the symbolic stadium of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Unfortunately, seeing it was made difficult due to the haze of smog that prevented you from seeing more than 30 feet in front of you. Imagine my dismay to miss out on such a 游客 tourist phenomenon and the opportunity of a photo striking my best olympic pose. I also was shocked at how much of a ghost town the Olympic Park was - I've read articles about how Beijing has abandoned the stadiums which once brought so much economy and transformed the city (the underground metro system is twice as clean and maybe even more modern than London), but I didn't realise how much so until we were some of the very few people even bothering to take the metro North of the city to have a look.
The day ended by meeting up with a fellow Newcastle University student who is studying in Beijing for cocktails and beers along various roof top terrace bars. We caught up on epic, eventful and kind of weird 中国的生活 ‘China Life’ whilst looking out over the blurry lights of Beijing, down on to the maze of hutongs and across lakes surrounded by those lovely drooping trees you always see in Chinese paintings (I should really find out what they’re called).
2. Temple of Heaven Park, Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City
Following recommendations in my Lonely Planet Travel Guide, we decided to rise early in order to begin the day in 天坛公园 Temple of Heaven Park, avoiding the tourists and to catch glimpses of true Beijing citizens practising early morning 太极 Tai Chi amidst the morning fog. Unfortunately by the time we had finished demolishing a 英式早餐 full English breakfast it was way too late to witness this cultural practise (bacon over Tai Chi any day). But the park was still beautiful and nevertheless full of a whole variety of citizens practising their own kind of arts, from Chinese couples two-stepping one minute then gracefully waving their arms the next to innocent looking ladies showing off their inner Mulan by sword fighting in the middle of public paths.
Next stop was 天安门 Tian'anmen Sqaure. Without going into detail most people reading this from the Western world are aware of what happened here almost 26 years ago but this event is actually censored from Chinese history, which is probably why we didn't even realise we were stood on the square until we had left it searching for it.
We came upon no sign posts marking the square, but I remember saying that there was an eery feel to where we were stood but assumed it was because of the pollution fog and Communist political buildings surrounding us. Obviously I said it because I must be psychic. (Looking back I feel pretty stupid I didn't realise it was THE square- it's blatantly a square and it's huge).
We wandered from this to the 故宫 Forbidden City, which is neither forbidden nor a city but more a mass of temples and squares which used to house many emperors of China.
Remember the end of Mulan where the Emperor is mid-parade, then all of a sudden - WHOOSH there's fireworks, chaos, sword fights and that creepy eagle swooping around kicking off? This is the real life setting- golden statues dotted amongst ancient crumbling steps and Buddhist temples with intricate detail to decoration and architecture, finishing up in winding gardens with mini mountains appearing out of nowhere and bridges crossing into another maze of tiny temples.
Being the 31st October, it was of course Hallowe'en! After being ultimate cultural clichés and sampling some unbelievable 北京烤鸭 ‘Peking Duck’ for dinner (they nearly had to roll me out of that restaurant), it was time to be as stunning as I always like to be for Hallowe'en and dress up as a Chinese 龙 dragon. Given that the Chinese don't celebrate Christmas, they certainly go all out for Halloween, so much so that the clubs became so exclusive that even us elite Western 外国人 ‘foreigners’ struggled to get in. Do we know Pierre? No? Seriously, we don't know Pierre? Well then no entry for us outcasts. (It all ended well - Georgina took one for the team and swallowed a shot of what turned out to be tomato liquor and our new friends were so impressed they walked us straight in to the enormous, smoky club with champagne towers and hundreds of lightsaber-holding humans.) But still, this was probably the first time (except maybe after a few too many tequilas) I'd been refused entry into a nightclub, and shuffling around on the pavement for a while and nearly getting ran over by a Lamborghini with those doors that open upwards instead of outwards was strange, especially in China when Westerners are usually ushered straight in and offered free drinks and a table with all the watermelon a tipsy and hungry girl can make her way through.
3. The Great Wall of China
Day 3 in Beijing. I hate it when people say 'best day of my life' because I just think hold on you're barely a fifth of the way through your life, but I can't imagine anything in my life being more amazingly spectacularly incredible than hiking the 长城 Great Wall of China for two days and camping in the middle of nowhere surrounded by an eternity of mountain silhouettes and sleeping in blackness miles from human civilisation.
We initially began on an unrestored section of the Great Wall - ‘The Wild Wall’- a two hour drive into nothingness from the hectic seven ring roads of Beijing, and on this day the North of China was still smothered in fog, which added to the authentic feel that I was literally walking on top of one of the wonders of the world.
Another perhaps naive realisation that hit me was the sheer amount of steps on the wall. And because it was unrestored, these 'steps' had crumbled into mounds of rocks and stone that made me wish I had one of those hiking sticks that climbing-enthusiasts have. As much as I like to think I'm Mulan, in reality I would be potentially the world's worst warrior because it would take me a good ten minutes of huffing and puffing to clamber up one set of stairs.
We eventually approached the military base on the wall on which trespassers are forbidden and punished (duh duh duuhh), so we veered off into the woods to avoid such a treacherous risk. I was trying to feel adventurous and cool but deep down I was terrified that a gigantic bear or wolf would suddenly jump out and gobble me up, which probably explains the echoing shout of panic when I got a leaf stuck in my hair. After being wined and dined (and by that I mean 绿茶和饺子 green tea and dumplings) at a lonely Chinese farm in the middle of a desolate valley, we were led back up a mountain to camp on the wall. Mountain is not an understatement- we literally crawled up a steep drop of mud and gravel through bushes and trees with backpacks and camping gear to then mount a ladder to get back on the wall, which was not so securely propped into the sliding soil tumbling away below. Considering we arranged this trip through an American company, I thought it would all be legit and legal, but somehow clambering over the Great Wall of China to then tumble into a bush seemed ever so slightly dodgy and maybe lacking the odd health and safety regulation, but hey ho welcome to Asia.
Pictures can't show and words can't describe watching the sky suddenly get dark as the sun disappeared into a fiery glaze behind the blackness of mountains miles into the distant fog, but witnessing this happening on one side and the moon rise on another made me realise how small and insignificant I felt in the whole wide world. I am literally a tiny lady on a massive planet. 在这个星球上,我非常小!
I've camped at Leeds Festival before in August, but despite having a few beers under the stars this experience was vastly different. After a night wrapped in all the layers I was able to carry yet still inhumanly cold and waking up once or twice to rustling (still convinced there was a wolf), we woke up to catch the most spectacular scene I think I will ever see.
As though just for us the fog had vanished overnight and at 6:15am the sky began to light up and the shadows became defined mountains as the sun rose in the East casting warm colour over all of the Great Wall, until eventually the sun shine peeked over the hills and began to make us feel like humans again, whilst we star jumped and squatted to warm up (not one of the beautiful and edgy photos I bothered to share on Facebook). Since coming here I feel a lot stronger and braver but I suddenly felt so emotional and proud; this time last year I didn't even want to go to China or know what I wanted to do in general, and now here I was watching the sun rise 6,000 miles from the comfort zone of home over 'one of man kind's greatest accomplishments’; any kind of struggle or fear seemed insignificant and was completely worth it. 'You can never cross the ocean until you have courage to lose sight of the shore' is a quote I have stuck next to my bed out here to remind me to be a strong independent lady if ever I start to have a 'Jenny moment' as my best friend calls them, and at this point in my existence in life I felt like high-fiving myself as though I had realised this.
4. The Lama Temple and Summer Palace
An hour or two into the second day hike on the restored section of the wall we stumbled upon the occasional tourist and it dawned on me that we hadn't actually experienced human contact with others for about 24 hours (except the farmer). The scenery was incredible and particularly photogenic, due to the disappearing of the fog (and my prize-possession GoPro camera).
After a delightful nap en route back to Beijing and an even more delightful shower back at our hostel, we lost ourselves in the Hutongs at night sampling cocktails with funny names, stocking up on more tacky souvenirs and trying a ridiculously bitter fruit that we thought was apple but is apparently some famous Beijing fruit (seriously need to start asking the names of the food we try!).
We scoffed down our last free breakfast provided by the hostel and headed out to explore the Lama Temple and Summer Palace with our new Swedish friend from the hostel (who’s surname we never found out but he did show us many photos of the fish he had caught back home).
寺庙 Temples quickly lose their novelty once you've had a few photos under a Chinese sign and another one copying a Buddha statue, but Lama Temple was surprisingly enjoyable; every inch of the colourful residence wafted with in-scents and the final temple showed an impressive 28 metre golden statue of a Buddha which was surrounded by dedicated Buddhists worshipping. (No photos no photos).
Way to the west of Beijing was Summer Palace, where the emperors of China used to reside during summer. A vast lake and a few acres of land protect this beautiful temple and garden paradise from the city, of who's skyline was impressibly visible after a climb up the 'Longevity Hill'. Our legs still in dangerous pain from the Great Wall, we sat with our new friend atop this hill looking over the glistening lake and the concrete jungle behind it, chatting about our different cultures and lives at home, and appreciating the calmness despite the fact the smog, buildings and civilisation of Beijing were visible a few miles away from us.
No experience will be the same as my first concept of this city. First impressions are always the most important and can never be recreated and I think that's why I always miss a new place when I leave, because I never know what to expect and generally, as with Beijing, it ends out being better than I could have imagined. So, until next time…