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Beijing Stopover

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Contributor:
Rebekah Joy
Rebekah Joy

A few years back I had the chance to go to Beijing for three days. After getting my visa in Seoul, I booked the flights - a thousand years of history awaited and as it turned out, Beijing turned out to be one of the easiest cities in the world to navigate.

First stop, beneath the gigantic portrait of Chairman Mao was Tiananmen Square. Two placards to the left and right of Chairman Mao state "Long Live the People's Republic of China" and "Long live the Great Unity of the World's Peoples". I wondered if people still did Qigong here, but was relived to notice that everything appeared peaceful.

Tiananmen Gate also connects to the Forbidden City precinct. Listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world, don’t underestimate it. The city takes hours and hours of footwork to discover (and find yourself again).

Along with throngs of other tourists we paid the small fee too enter the enormous brass studded gates. Finely crafted red roofed pavilions, elaborately decorated eaves, huge stone carvings and
Imperial gardens diverted our attention for hours.

As we were there in summer, humidity dogged our every step. Although I hate Starbucks with a passion, I can understand why some idiot built one there (although apparently it has now been closed and replaced with a traditional Chinese tea shop). Word of advice take a drink with you.

Dinner was at the recommendation of the Lonely Planet, and for once they got it right. Pre-book the day before it said, so we ordered two ducks and waited. Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant (11 Beixiangfeng Hutong, Chongwen) turned out to be tricky to find. Tucked in the back streets of 'real Beijing' in one of the meandering hutongs, or back alleys, the effort to get there is well worth it. We threaded our way around in darkly light streets positive we had taken a wrong turn. An old man sat in a dark corner, he smiled and pointed onwards. Despite the derelict nature this was obviously a well trodden pilgrimage for hungry foreigners. A young girl sat on a plastic bucket reading in lamp light to her brother, a woman cooked dumplings on coals. Old men sat around yakking and smoking long pipes, they all paused and pointed onwards. We eventually arrived, exhilarated from our pre-dinner adventure. 

Liqun turned out to be a ramshackle courtyard garden, bathed in lantern light and echoing with laughter. The place was heaving with foreigners, from diplomats to English teachers. Two ducks, pancakes, steaming tofu, dumplings, numerous vegetables and even a few bottles of the local "Great Wall of China' wine hardly dented our wallets at all. I have since heard several people complain that it was dirty, but for me it was a delicious adventure  for a fraction of the price of larger restaurants. 

I’m assuming that most people who visit Beijing want to see the Great Wall, and it was certainly on our itinerary. My brother who was traveling overland from the UK to New Zealand wanted to do a tour for as cheaply as possible. A word to the wise, you pay for what you get as we were to discover the next morning.

We had booked a tour for 100RMB ($25NZD) which at quarter of the price of all the others was the cheapest one we could find (actually it discovered us via a rather enthusiastic tout).

“Is it in English?” we asked.

“Oh yes muchy Engrish,” was the swift reply.

We asked for a wake up call.

“No problem”.

The company called us in Chinese on the hour from 4am to 7am.

When we boarded the bus, we noticed we were the only foreigners. The tour conductor smiled patiently and sat us down. It didn’t take long to notice, she didn’t speak English. I don’t know where we went or what we saw, I have a faint suspicion we went to the Jade Palace or perhaps it was the Ming Tombs. As beautiful or fascinating as it was, I can’t tell you anything about it. We were escorted to a Chinese medicinal clinic where we were told we all had bad reflux and cajoled into buying some ancient pills. A jade carving factory was next and even an amusement park. Time was ticking it was two o’clock and I still couldn’t see any sign of the wall. The other passengers were looking disgruntled, an argument ensued between a stocky Chinese man and the bus driver. The bus swerved off the road, changing directions, the passengers clapped and somebody explained in broken English that we were now “Going Wall”.

The Great Wall of China. Amazing once you get past the barrage of street sellers and vendors, monkeys dressed in clothes, camels and even the odd elephant or two. We were apparently at Mutianyu, the easiest and closest access to Beijing itself. For some strange reason, you are taken to the top in a sled/cable car. It sounds bizarre but as it was summer and the humidity was at an all time high, the bizarre contraption was a blessing.

As Mutianyu is the closest access point to Beijing, it can be quite crowded. We wound our way in between the school groups and soldiers, throngs of tourist groups and sightseers. It is amazing to be allowed to clamber all over one of the world’s greatest monuments, even though occasionally the turrets smelled like urine.

Unfortunately as our group had spent so long doing ticky tours we only had an hour and a half there.

On the ride back a few members of the tour bus had an argument with the tour guide (I can only assume as it was all in Chinese). She stopped the bus and in a middle of a traffic jam stormed off leaving us with a livid bus driver, he eventually pulled over and made us all get off. How we found our way back to our hotel, I will never know.

I have since found out that it possible to get to the Great Wall of China yourself. Take No.916 or No.936 bus at Dongzhimen Gate, get off at Huairou Longshan Hotel (Huairou International Conference Center) and take a mini-bus to the wall. During National Holidays, you can take a train at Xizhimen Gate Train Station and get off at Beizhai Train Station, and take a Tourist Mini-Bus to the wall or ride the No. 6 Tourist Bus at the Xuanwumen Gate or the Dong Si Shi Tiao stop on public holidays.

That evening we went to ‘eat street’ for dinner. Wangfujing Dajie is a bustling pedestrian mall and one of the oldest shopping streets in Beijing. On the north side of Donghuamen Dajie, east of Wangfujing Dajie is a whole new world of cuisine that you probably haven’t seen before. I sampled skewered scorpions for starters, dumplings of various descriptions and my all time favourite silk worms. Of course there is a whole variety of ‘normal’ food also, but it is worth sampling some of the more unusual delicacies as who knows when you’re ever going to see them again.  Wangfujing also features many world-renown shopping brands, fantastic shops and restaurants and bookstores. I bought up large on Chinese antiques, (a Tibetan Prayer Box at only $12USD) only to find out later that they were all replicas. Wangfujing is located on subway line one, or bus: 1,2,4,5,10,20,37 or 728.

The next morning we squeezed in a visit to the Old Summer Palace, known in China as the Gardens of Perfect Brightness. I know I shouldn’t say it but I much preferred this sprawling complex of palaces and gardens to the Forbidden City.  Pavilions, bridges, ponds and gardens are a haven from the humidity of the Chinese summer. People come here to wander the paths and canals and relax. Although destroyed over and over again, the Old Summer Palace is still the largest and best-preserved imperial garden in China.

Although exhausted, Donghuamen nightmarket  located to the east of the city centre still called. Unusual food stalls and vast arrays of Chinese food delicacies beneath a sprawl of oriental lights was the perfect way to end our weekend.

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