Ok, it’s a corny title but it was true. I was fully prepared to dislike Beijing with its notoriously bad air pollution and traffic jams. Originally thinking we would come for just a couple of days to see the history and leave, it was decided to give Beijing a chance and stay for a week. We had such a great time making new friends, meeting old friends and of course seeing the sights.
The worst thing about Beijing for us was actually the heat. We’re not hot weather people, I feel much more comfortable wearing comfy warm jumpers so I felt much more at home in the snow of Russia than the nearly 40 something degree heat here. I am slowly getting used to it though, yesterday in the wind and rain in Qingdao it was still 20 degrees but I was cold. That would be blasphemy back home in the UK.
The Great Wall at Mutianyu
After visiting the wall in Qinhuangdao we wondered whether we should go again to the more classic, yet more popular, parts near Beijing. And should we do our own hike or go with a tour? Choosing the easy option, our hostel did tours to four different parts and we picked Mutianyu (mainly because it has a toboggan you can ride down) which came with breakfast and lunch.
After breakfast we took a short walk and a short minibus before we got on the main bus full of tourists from other hostels, and drove for nearly 2 hours. It was great to relax and just go with the flow of the tour, until you get there and realise how difficult it is to walk on the wall and how much limited time 3 hours actually is. If you want to spend your own time there definitely go on the public buses yourself, otherwise if you don’t mind, a tour is perfect. Especially with food included. However, this lunch tasted just like UK Chinese food compete with sweet and sour chicken, clearly tailored for western tourists.
There were two choices: get the cable car or walk up to tower 14 and walk west and up beyond tower 20 over a brick wall to the old wall; or go east and walk down to tower 6 and get the toboggan down. With our new British friend Hannah (bonded over politics!) we ummed and ahhed, having chosen Mutianyu for the toboggan, but decided walking up to the old wall would be more impressive. We also gave in and paid the extra for the cable car (yes we cheated), to give us more time to enjoy the wall.
The refurbished wall is how it is pictured in classic photos. Wide, steep and very new. However, the view was still staggering, especially seeing the other beacon towers and watch towers on hills in the distance. It was really hard going though – very sweaty but making friends on the way. With a beer swigging Egyptian who had been working in China we climbed over the blocked off path and carried on towards the old towers, with trees growing inside them, broken stone staircases to the roofs and the wall crumbling off to one side. There are still sellers up here, a woman looking older than 50 or even 60, and it takes them two hours to bring their stuff up.
We walked for an hour and a half, half of our alloted time. Climbing higher and higher, but not to the top. There was always a higher part round the corner. The hills in the distance looked like something only found on a perfect desktop background complete with the village in the valley below. Our Egyptian friend wasn’t on a strict tour so we watched him head off into the distance.
Except for a man from Carlisle having a celebratory beer, we three had got much further than many others in our group and were feeling proud of ourselves. Then came the walking back down! It was quicker of course, but the steepness was a little hard for me at times. Not as bad as one poor Scottish fellow who was trembling and panicking going down the metal staircase from one tower. He made it down, but he wasn’t happy.
I think we were lucky, despite picking the second most popular part of the Great Wall, there weren’t the hoards of tourists. It was mostly westerners too but unsurprising as it was a working weekday.
Later that evening we joined Hannah and her friends living in Beijing for a British expat dinner. Learning how they cope with living in China with all its red tape and how despite living in China for almost a year, the language can still be a massive barrier. We left them feeling a little homesick for Sheffield, two were born and raised there with, of course, only positive things to say about our previous home.
If my friend is your friend, then we’re friends
A great thanks goes to another Sheffield friend Ning for introducing us to his friend from his home town who now lives in the north capital. Guo and his daughter Ivy (they both admit her English is better!) gave us a proper grand day out adventure. Eating dumplings and tripe soup for breakfast at the President’s favourite chain, Beijing style noodles for lunch and Beijing style mutton hotpot for tea. (Yes we’re being slack as veggy to try new things).
As well as being treated to tasty food, together we explored the city parks and the hutongs. A park in the north east of the centre contains the old Yuan dynasty city walls which once surrounded the small capital. I think what we will remember the most is the impromptu visit to the Birds Nest, the 2008 Olympic stadium. Who knew that you could climb to the top (ok, half stairs half lift…) and walk on the roof. The view is immense. And of course, in true Chinese style, music is blasted out for your enjoyment as you walk around following the railed path. Yes you guessed it, it was Fur Elise. Thanks for an unforgettable day!
We like beer. There’s not much better than unwinding at the end of a stressful day with a good beer in a nice atmosphere. Among the hutongs is the first bar of the Great Leap Brewery. Late afternoon on a Sunday it was rammed, and mostly all westerners. With no seats outside we reluctantly did the American thing and sat at the bar. After realising there was strong air-con inside, it was the right decision. The beers were good with a large selection ranging from 25 RMB upwards for 500ml. Sheffield is cheaper. With nice staff (they gave us free chilli peanuts after we simply moved along the bar to give a large group more space) and interesting clientele (a German in the private airplane business) we stayed for much longer than intended.
Our second brewery was picture perfect – a rooftop terrace by a canal. I didn’t realise Beijing had canals. It was all the better having met up with a friend I hadn’t seen for a few years. The Arrow Factory Brewery is near a popular expat area in Beijing and like near the first brewery, the closer you got the higher the concentration of westerners grew. It was delicious beer ranging from 35 RMB upwards. Happy to pay UK prices for non-lager beer and the warm sun on the terrace made it difficult to leave.
If people from Beijing want to treat you for a meal, it’s Beijing duck. Or Peking duck, where Peking is the old name for Beijing coined by non-linguistically interested explorers and merchants in the past. Pengyuan was a visitor to Sheffield a couple of years ago and we had a meal with his family in Quanjude – the oldest Beijing duck restaurant in the city. He also gave us some raisins and dates brought back from his latest trip to Urumqi in the far west of China – a preview to our future trip there!
Another day we reunited with Nikolas, who we met in Pingyao, for the final authentic Chinese meal of his trip. Even though it had been less than a week since seeing him we had so much to catch up on and he felt like an old friend. He introduced us to a happy man selling watermelon juice – really tasty.
As well as all the chatting and social things we did do the classic touristy stuff too – Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Llama Temple and Temple of Heaven. They were all popular and busy but manageable. Unfortunately the serenity of the summer palace was greatly overshadowed by the fact we went on a public holiday. Never again. All the individual people we have met here are wonderful, nice and polite – but a mass of Chinese domestic tourists is hard to stand. The loudness, the throat and spitting noises you did not think it was possible to make, the megaphone tour guides, the lack of order and queuing to pass through doors, the pushing past just to walk slowly in front of you, the being pushed out the way so they can get their perfect photo, the blank staring at you, the occasional public defecation in bins or on cardboard (so far restricted to children), men weeing on the street, the openly standing in front of you and taking your photo (some people do ask but not many). Ok rant over, sorry. Because of this we left the summer palace quite quickly and dived into a well known American fast food chain (yes MacDonalds) for the first time in China for comfort food – we had to eat while being stared at of course though.
Despite all this (I haven’t even started on the numerous difficulties and frustrations of using toilets here) we love China. Yes there are BCDs (bad China days) but overall the people are so welcoming and friendly straight away, there is no British wariness which can hinder friendships. After a brief introduction people are your friend and want to show you everything and take you everywhere. It’s lovely and very endearing.
Our slow travel though the north meeting locals has let us get to know different places, work out how people live and get by, and try all sorts of different foods. The street food is delicious and pancakes stuffed with crispy things, lettucy salads and unknown spicy sauces are my favourite. I love spring rolls but have not eaten a single one here – the food is so much more varied than what we have back home, even in Sheffield with its numerous Chinese students. You can get everything and anything on a stick for Chinese BBQ – including tarantulas and live scorpions. I advise to also eat the spicy food (lade ) as when you say yes (shi) to the question, they suddenly have the biggest smile on their face and are very appreciative of you at least trying it.
Yesterday we left China from Qingdao by ferry to Icheon, South Korea. It was sad to leave but very happy with the knowledge that we are returning in a few months time. It’s very tempting to stay longer next time going west to Xi’an, Urumqi, Llhasa and then south to Chengdu and Yunnan province. We’ll decide nearer the time, being newly flexible people 🙂