After our month at kung fu school, we were excited to arrive in Beijing and see a different part of China. Beijing was not as smoggy as we expected (although we expected it to be terrible, so it was a pleasant surprise when it turned out to be not too bad) so we spent the first day wandering around.
Our hostel was on a pedestrian street in Qianmen, which is a restored historical district turned tourist area due to its proximity to Tiananmen Square. There were tons of people wandering around, mostly Chinese tourists. Amid the many souvenir shops there were also some quite old and famous businesses, including the shoe shop that made shoes for government officials (Neiliansheng) and the silk shop that made the first Chinese flag (Ruifuxiang). In the less touristy areas there were lots of windy laneways, called “hutongs”, full of little homes and shops.
There was a little restaurant across the street from our hostel where we saw a lot of locals, so we decided to check it out. We picked a couple of random things on the menu and ended up with a delicious but also extremely spicy meal than included a plate of duck feet. Chris burned off all his tastebuds trying to eat them all.
The Temple of Heaven
The next day we headed over to the Temple of Heaven. We were planning on meeting up with James here, but due to various over- and underestimations about long it would take all of us to get there from our respective locations, we missed each other and ended up wandering around the grounds separately. Whoops! The temple grounds were nice though, despite the heat. We followed it up with a popsicle break; by this point I had moved up to about 2-3 popsicles a day.
The evening we took a wander down Ghost Street, a lively district with a lot of neon-lit clubs and restaurants offering spicy lobster. James had decided to be vegetarian during his time in China, so we went to a highly rated vegetarian restaurant nearby. Unfortunately it was only part way through the meal that we realized some of the dumplings had been cooked in peanut oil, which did not bode well for those of us with peanut allergies! After I had “cleared the system” so to speak, I was OK.
The next morning we went to check out Tiananmen Square and the mausoleum where Mao is entombed. It was 8am and already a billion degrees out so we stopped for our first frappuccinos in forever, ironically at a Starbucks that is just across the street from the mausoleum. Chris mentioned that in the war of communism vs. capitalism it seems clear which side won, based on the Starbucks’ proximity. It took us a whole lot longer than expected to get into the square due to the several levels of security we had to go through. Naively we had assumed that because it was a big public square you could just walk on in, but it turns out that this is not the case. After queuing for ages with a jillion other tourists we finally made it it. However, when we got to the mausoleum the line was huge. Not wanting to risk missing our meeting with James again, we decided to just head to the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City
Despite there being massive crowds of people everywhere, we managed to find him and headed into the Forbidden City together. The Forbidden City is pretty cool but also SO BUSY that you basically have to push through a crowd of selfie sticks to see into any of the buildings. Also it seems like half of the buildings have been converted to gift shops. It apparently has like a thousand rooms, but only part of the complex is open and the most famous major halls have way too many people looking at them. You really do have to step out of the flow of humanity to take a break once in a while.
The Silk Market
After a coffee break we decided to head to the Silk Market. Contrary to its name, it’s actually a big mall selling knockoff designer products. We took a wander but didn’t feel like putting in the energy to haggle for anything. James bought some shirts for friends back home and we all analyzed his haggling strategy afterwards. Leaving the market James also made the fatal mistake of buying some cheap wallets from a lady on the street, who then chased us down the road trying to sell us more wallets and scarves.
We went back to Qianmen for noodles (at our favourite noodle shop, which we call “Beer Noodles” because the only English sign on it says “BeerNoodles”) and to peruse the shops some more. Chris and James entertained the idea of buying traditional-style Chinese silk shirts, but both chickened out in the end. By late afternoon Tiananmen Square had cleared out quite a bit, so we headed back in for a final look before seeing James off, as he was headed back to Scotland the next morning.
Then, it was on to shiny Shanghai!