Submitted on Tue 19 Jun 2012
Our hotel was as quaint and delicately decorated as we'd hoped. Andrea and I decided on booking into the Imperial Courtyard Hotel in one of Beijings 'hutongs' (alleyways) in the Dongcheng district as we loved the idea of being on a street surrounded by local homes. We arrived at this typically Chinese hotel at noon on Friday, dumped our bags and fell out the door to see what we could discover. The hutongs are described as being 'the very soul of the capital' and are the best places to discover day to day Beijing life as it unfolds. Beijing holds a maze of these alleyways which are packed with little houses that millions of people call home. There's so much to see in the hutongs! I couldn't walk 10 metres without taking a photo of a man selling a turtle on the street or a bucket full of scorpions.
The first thing that struck me is how interactive the locals are. People eat, drink, do their washing, chase their kids, play cards / chess and even do Taichi with their friends, family and neighbours on these streets. There's a sense that everyone looks out for each other. I'll bet it's a tough place to keep a secret!
Day 2 Discovering the Hidden City
We had a big day ahead. We were up and out the door early following an early night to shake the jet lag. First stop was the Forbidden City which was once home to China's Emperors. Judging by our map, Andrea and I expected a relatively short stroll from our hotel until we got there. We soon realised that we'd vastly underestimated the sheer size of Beijing. Its city centre is immense, you can easily drive for an hour and still feel like you're in the centre.
The entrance to the Forbidden City faces on to Tiananmen Square and a huge portrait of Chairman Mao looks down on you as you walk through the gate. The complex has 800 buildings, each as stunning as the next. The buildings are carefully decorated in golds, turquoise, reds and royal blues which we were told are Imperial colours used to reflect the status of their once occupants. The city is surrounded on the outside by a moat and some beautiful gardens. It seems this is a popular area for wedding photos!
In need of some retail therapy, we took a rickshaw to the Silk Markets at Yonganli (a very hairy experience, these rickshaw rides are not for the faint hearted!) before meeting up with some local Beijing residents Wendy, Leo and Shi Shi for dinner. Leo is a friend ofour colleague Nicole and was kind enough to offer himself as our tour guide and answer all of our questions (and we had a lot!).
Leo insisted that we must try an authentic Sichuan barbecue meal and took us to an amazing restaurant where we tasted lots of weird and wonderful food that is unique to China.
Day 3 The Many Perils of Wine
Andrea and I kicked off the day with a visit to the Lama Temple at Yonghegong, one of Beijing's most popular places of worship. This Tibetan Buddhist temple is home to a group of friendly monks and a wonderful 18 metre high statue of the Maitreya Buddha that left me totally in awe. I loved the experience of watching worshippers hold burning incense above their heads while bowing in front of the hundreds of different statues. The spicy smell from the incense mixed with the stunning colours of the temple felt uniquely Chinese. This was a highlight.
Time for a spot of window shopping amongst the many elegant tea shops in the Qian Men shopping district before going to the Temple of Heaven. This is another beautiful grounds full of thousands of old cypress trees which are all laid out perfectly in lines. We read that this is a common representation of Feng Shui. An imperative consideration in China, architects of modern and ancient times carefully plan their parks and building according to Feng Shui principles so that they face in the right direction, have the correct balance of rocks with water and have a successful flow of energy throughout.
Of course the trip couldn't pass by without sampling some of the local rice wine. Leo watched with amusement as I sipped and almost choked on the 46% proof clear alcohol. He had asked me if I'd like a glass of wine with lunch. 'Sure, I love wine. I'll have a glass of white please'. Little did I know what was in store! It's not for me I'm afraid! I assured Leo that it's an acquired taste and I''m sure it's delicious once you get used to it. For those planning a trip, it's worth noting that the Chinese often refer to all alcohol as 'wine'. Let the buyer beware!
Andrea, Leo and I ended the night in the Huohai lake district. Leo was keen for us to see the walkways surrounding the lake which are teaming with teens, 20 somethings and young parents all out to get a taste of the nightlife. The area is a mix of candy floss sellers, karaoke bars, stalls packed with toys for the passing children and restaurants. It all glows with red lanterns and neon signs. There was even a group of Chinese youths giving some Kung Fu lessons to a Western tourist (this was quite fitting as Jet Lee graduated from the martial arts school just next to the lake). I happily finished the night sipping some cocktails by the lake and listening to a talented Chinese singer perform some Chinese pop songs.
Day 4 Conquering The Great Wall
This is what we'd been waiting for; the Great Wall! After considerable confusion we finally managed to find the right pick up point and got ourselves on the bus to Badaling. You can't help but get excited when you first see the wall. It winds through over 69062e8d-14e8-4058-b07a-bc20302802c6km of countryside and towers over the surrounding landscape. Andrea and I walked along a few kilometres of the wall but were quickly exhausted! It's extremely steep but the views from the wall are magnificent. Getting to a tall tower and looking back at the wall winding along the hills behind feels a little surreal. I have a new found respect for those who have competed in the Great Wall Marathon!
Had Andrea and I known some Mandarin we may have had time to make it to the Summer Palace but unfortunately, it wasn't to be this time around. Getting around Beijing can be really challenging when you don't speak the language but it definitely made the experience more interesting for us.
We finished our last night in Hua's restaurant enjoying a beer, spicy peanuts, chop suey and for dessert, grapes on skewers covered in sugar syrup. Delicious!
Day 5 Last Stop – The Silk Markets
A quick dash back to the silk markets to pick up some teapots and a few more scarves that we couldn't go without and before we knew it, we were in a taxi on our way to the airport leaving behind a slightly less mysterious Beijing. We will be back. Thank you TRC!