My first 24 hours in Beijing seemed more like days. Without really having begun our Beijing experience, I felt as if I already knew the city intimately – and I was none too fond of it so far! Having applied for my visa, Jo called me from the hostel and we decided to meet at Tiananmen Square, neither of us wishing to exert ourselves on that first day; the heavy police presence there stood as a reminder of the terrible associations attached to this place. We weren’t able to see Mao’s embalmed corpse, which lies in a large, garish mausoleum slap bang in the middle of the square, because it only opens in the morning – we weren’t too bothered if truth be told. The rest of the day was mostly spent eating and getting used to the area around our hostel.

Our first (proper) full day in Beijing was mostly spent at the summer palace. Rather than an intriguing exploration of the Chinese emperors’ pastime pursuits, the palace was rather an extremely pleasant stroll around the exceedingly well-kept paths that circumnavigate the palace’s lakes, which were littered with pedalos. I have learnt from my time in Guangzhou that China does lake-based parks particularly well. There were largely uninspiring, but perfectly restored temples and palace buildings towards the end of our walk. But they were so overcrowded it was it wouldn’t have been practical to shed any light on their significance, thereby incurring horrendous congestion. We had got to the palace by boat through the zoo (we saw no animals) and various nice-looking parks. We were unfortunate to miss the return boat by a matter of minutes, but it probably saved us time having taken so long in the morning,

On our return to the hostel, taking advantage of the free Wifi, I wrote up my journey to Beijing and at the same time got in a good dose of Test Match Special. That evening we ate at the same street stall at which I had eaten, beleaguered after my hostel-hunt on my first night in Beijing. The woman recognised me instantly, addressing me as ‘teacher’ and a rigorous trial of my Chinese ability was resumed where it had left off that first night. I was glad to have witness this time! The fact I was able to enter into a real conversation in Mandarin showed to me what I had been missing out on from living in a Cantonese-speaking region. If I continue to work at my Chinese, a lot of credit will go to the owners of that food stall who convinced me that I had actually learnt something during my time in China.

The following day on which we visited the great wall was, to my mind, the highlight of our stay in Beijing. Even China’s insistent preference for immaculate restoration over painstaking preservation couldn’t inhibit one’s enjoyment of one of the world’s greatest wonders. We set off early from our hostel in a full mini-van so as to avoid the ever-increasing deluge of traffic. The 1 1/2 hour drive took us to the site, carefully arranged in order to allow maximum exposure to the state-owned souvenir shops – the unofficial drinks sellers dotted all the way along the wall told us that there must also have been an unofficial entrance. Already having paid our entrance to the hostel, we decided we might as well pay full whack for the cable car up and the toboggan ride down. This decision wasn’t really the thrill seekers in us coming to the fore, but a desire to get in as much time as possible on the wall.

The three hours we spent on the wall were shared between panting with exhaustion because of the relentless steps, gawping at the stupendous views, and pinching ourselves at the thought we were standing on the Great Wall of China. On returning to our starting point from trekking up in the shorter portion of the restored wall (having gone a little further beyond the sign saying ‘do not pass’, we saw from a distance a decrepit, but far more beautiful, section of the wall), we parted ways as I kicked on, setting myself the ambitious target of reaching the other end within the allotted time. Getting there within the time wasn’t a problem, getting there and back was another matter. Having reached my target at a brisk pace, I found myself having to run to stand a chance of making it back for lunch in time. I failed miserably, but I did see yet more staggering defiance of nature in the form of masonry.

With much of the day left we decided to hurry to Beijing’s Lama temple (Yonghegong) before closing time only to find that they weren’t admitting any more visitors so close to closing time. Disappointed to have only just missed out, we settled for second prize – the Confucian temple down the road. Like much of what we saw in Beijing there was little in the way of enlightening information for the casual tourist (the Buddhist place wouldn’t let us in!), only a few wives’ tales desperately eking out significance from trees and rocks within the complex. More interesting was the adjoining university. The whole place bore a strong resemblance to the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, most probably because they were both based on the original Confucian temple whose name and location escape me.

Famished after a long day, we stumbled upon one of Beijing’s more trendy areas on which we selected a restaurant named ‘Veggie Table’ – I think you know by now what a bug fan I am of good punnery! The food, ambience and service were exquisite, despite the lack of meat.

That evening coincided with Andy Murray’s big moment at Wimbledon. I was delighted to find that Beijing Sport was showing the match. I had read a quote from Greg Rusetski claiming that the winner of the first set would go on to win the match, so I feared the worst when Murray made it through a close opening set. My lack of optimism and desire to sleep forced me to bed just as The Fed levelled things.

There was much to do on our final day in Beijing. Unfortunately, most of it involved tasks that were dull but necessary for the continuation of our journey back from Asia (i.e. picking up visa and tickets, changing money, finding chargers/plug adaptors, etc.). But first on the agenda was far from dull. We decided that early on a weekday was our best chance of seeing the Forbidden City unperturbed by heaving crowds – it turned out there was no such thing. Tour buses pouring out droves of Chinese tour groups had anticipated our arrival at the entrance opposite Tiananmen Square. We were surprised to find that there was practically no queue for buying tickets – an indication of the high proportion of visitors who were with a tour group. Also an indication was the number of people wanting to get a picture of the foreigners, because tour groups to Beijing are more likely to come from areas of China where foreigners are a novelty.

Jo, having been to the Forbidden City once before, remembered well that the English audio tour had been spoken by none other than Sir Roger Moore. So it was to our dismay to find that the audio guide had been replaced by a tacky piece of machinery specifically designed to hurry through tourists as quickly as possible. The audio guide over which we had no control excepting the volume had on it a simple map with LEDs to represent each point at which there was an explanation for us. Each sound bite was triggered merely by our vicinity to its corresponding location within the City. Most often our guide would jump the gun and describe things out of sight, and other times it wouldn’t play at all. The guide’s worst moment was when it starting telling me that I was standing in the Emperor’s personal theatre as I entered the toilet! The Forbidden City was on the while a bit disappointing. I suppose that’s mostly because the expectations were so high. The place was very crowded and the main buildings all had a throng of tourists outside madly waving their cameras and jostling for a view into the dimly lit and almost empty rooms.

For lunch we went to a rather touristy looking place in Beihai Park in the absence of anything else in Beijing’s main tourist area. The staff were only too eager to sit us down on a table overlooking the lake, slapping down an English menu in front of us. The whole thing reeked of ‘rip-off’ and I was almost ready to get up again, but I asked for a Chinese menu with the suspicion they would not be exactly the same. True enough, the menu new menu contained dishes more familiar to me in content and price. Even then one of the waitress did not give up her cause, insisting that the rice dishes we had ordered would not be sufficient. As it turned out they were delicious and just what we needed. If only we didn’t have to go through so many hoops to get what we wanted.

A fitting conclusion to our stay in Beijing and indeed my time in China was a good Peking duck, which we gobbled up greedily under the curious gaze of the restaurant staff who had already put their feet up after a hard day’s work. For those who are curious as to how an authentic Peking differs from a good old Chinese takeaway, it doesn’t. Only in that you have more of it and that your duck is sliced in front of you rather than shredded in a foil contain. The next day we packed our bags and headed to the station to catch our first Trans-Siberian train…


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Julie
    Jul 26, 2012 @ 17:39:14

    How appropriate to have Peking duck for your last meal, not just in Beijing but also China! Interesting about the different menus. I think this can also happen Chinese restaurants here as well. I have loved all your China blogs and look forward to the trans Siberia ones….

    Very impressed at your holding a conversation in Mandarin – Respect!!


  2. stephen
    Jul 27, 2012 @ 05:51:26

    How nice of you not to mention Jo’s decorating of the station. And knowing that I can have an authentic Peking Duck in Muswell Hill is very pleasing. One less thing to rue missing out on.

    Keep up the good work.


  3. Hannah
    Jul 29, 2012 @ 02:00:52

    Shame about Roger Moore’s commentary. Felt very deprived when we did the Forbidden City (dropping that in…) and through a Chinese-style misunderstanding we ended up with a live-person English speaking guide rather than the recorded voice English guide. I mourn the experience that might have been…
    Bums on edge of seats for next instalment of your adventures. Could you integrate the rest of the family into your blog once you meet up in St P? Xxx


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