I have many a post to be posting, but first things first! In April I went to visit Beijing for the first time, despite having lived in China for three and half years all in all. The capital city of China is built to impress!
Having lived in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and travelled to Nanjing, Suzhou, and Chongqing, naturally I couldn’t help but compare Beijing to the other Chinese cities I had already visited. My general impression was that the people of Beijing seemed to exude a sort of confidence, almost satisfaction, probably born of living in the country’s political centre. This confidence bred a calmness that is absent in Shanghai, where people never cease their scrambling, bargaining, and striving, every action for the sake of money or “face”. The relaxed, open atmosphere of Beijing was refreshing. It seemed cleaner than other Chinese cities I’d visited, but perhaps that was because I only visited well-kept tourist spots. That said, the hutongs around Houhai were also particularly cleanly as well.
My hostel was located near Houhai, near the old Drum and Bell Towers. This area was fantastic, and I would strongly recommend the hostel I stayed at, for many reasons: it was located near to many forms of public transportation, the restaurants nearby were delicious, and there was a plethora of small boutiques and cafes that a bohemian coffee-addict like me simply could not resist. Not to mention—and I only discovered this on my last day—Houhai is home to many a preserved “former residence”, including those of the Qing Dynasty’s Prince Gong, one of the Soong sisters, and poet Guo Moruo. I visited Prince Gong’s estate, one of the most complete compounds left of that caste of society. The famous novel “Dream of Red Mansions” was set in a place similar to it, as stated in a well put together exhibition on the grounds.
I would not be boasting to say that I saw nearly every facet of Beijing. My experience ranged from the traditional hutongs around Houhai, to the posh, Westernised Sanlitun; from artsy, indie 798 Art District to the sweeping scenery of the Summer Palace; from being herded like sheep through the Forbidden City to being cut loose and allowed to hike as far and high along the Great Wall as I could; from the peaceful, timeless Temple of Heaven to the bustling campus of Beijing Normal University.
Day 1: Met with Charlotte (my Manchester classmate studying at BNU), breakfast of Beijing-style steamed buns, which were meatier and chunkier, the bread a bit heavier than the ones I’m used to. Got the train and then a bus to 798 District, wandered around. Next to Sanlitun to have a look around. Had a crepe at a little kiosk and chatted with some local expats. Lastly to Houhai, which was difficult to find as we approached it from the side opposite of what Charlotte was used to. We had a drink and some food at a gaudy little bar, one of many surrounding the lake.
Day 2: Got up early and took a tour bus to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. That section of the wall had been refurbished (I personally was glad for stable steps to be hiking on), and was only about 600 years old, younger than older bits of the Wall. Back in the evening to meet Charlotte for dinner near the Drum Tower hostel.
Day 3: Super packed day! In the morning saw the Temple of Heaven by myself. Simply lovely, restored paint on the impressive main temple, and many an interesting building/site to explore. Met with Charlotte at Qianmen to see Tian’anmen Square. Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum was already closed to the public for the day. Next we entered the Forbidden City, walked through it to Beihai Park, where we wandered a bit and discovered a man-made cave (entrance fee 5RMB).
Quite hungry by now, we made our way to Wangfujin shopping district and the “Food Market”, where we ended up spending much money trying all of the dishes, including Bao Duzi, which would literally translate to “Exploded Stomach”. Eating stomach was a little more than we ourselves could stomach… but the other dishes were super tasty.
Day 4: My favourite day. I went to the Summer Palace, beautiful (nearly) beyond words. The lake, the buildings…to see Empress Cixi’s Marble Boat with my own eyes…all of it priceless. I could have spent a whole other day just lazing about here. In the evening I met with Charlotte at BNU, caught up with a couple other Manchester classmates and devoured two bowls of rice porridge plus other dishes as I was ravenous from the day’s walking.
Day 5: In the morning before my train I wandered around Houhai, and discovered Prince Gong’s Mansion. Missed my train because I spent too long savouring an iced coffee, but was able to hop on the next, no fee.
Farewell Beijing, I shall return!