It has been just over a month since me and my fiancee Becky quit our jobs to pursue our dreams of travelling. As I write this I am currently sat in my dorm bed in Ayutthaya, Thailand trying to catch up on some writing. It is 23:00 here and currently around 30°C night time temperature, a far cry from the -30°C temperatures we were experiencing in Haerbin and even Beijing was painfully cold at around -12°C on some days.
Our first destination was Amsterdam where we spent a few days winding down before catching a cheap flight from Amsterdam to Beijing via Kiev, Ukraine. For Becky it would be her first time in Beijing, for me it would be my third. I was actually quite stressed due to the pollution issue as I had been to Beijing once when it was crystal clear skies and on another occasion it looked post-apocalyptic; for Becky’s sake I wanted her to see it in a good light. Fortunately when we got off the plane in the early hours of the morning it all seemed clear, the lights of the skyscrapers could be seen in the distance without even a hint of smog and that was how the whole trip stayed, it was surprising really, considering the week before I had been reading about Beijing’s ‘Airpocalypse’ when the AQI reading had been over 600 for almost two weeks.
Despite visiting Beijing twice in the past I had never experienced it in the full grip of its icy winter, it was cold but nothing like what we would experience in Haerbin. When we arrived in Beijing we quickly found our hostel but it was closed with no sign of life around, we had to sit in a corner huddled together trying to stay as warm as possible, it took a couple of hours before a kind passer by noticed us and had the phone number of the caretaker of the hostel who came and let us in much earlier than check-in time, she put the heater on and we quickly wrapped ourselves up and got warm, it was one of the best feelings ever.
In total we spent around 8 days in Beijing with a short break of 4 nights in Haerbin, so I am just going to go through a few things to do in Beijing if you find you have a few days to spare.
- Tiananmen Square/Palace Museum (Forbidden City)
Tiananmen square has been the site of many notable events in Chinese history, although the one that sticks out most to the outside world was the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators.
Since 1989 the Communist Party has taken steps to ensure any sign of pro-democracy gatherings in Tiananmen square are suffocated before they even begin. To this day I have never witnessed a higher concentration of CCTV cameras in one place, every light pole has over ten cameras providing a 360 degree view of the square.
The presence of armed police and military here is expectedly high, security at metro stops is more stringent. To the south of Tiananmen you have Qianmen which if you head towards that was will lead you to one of the main shopping streets and also a few cool hutongs where you can find some good food.
Towards Qianmen you will find the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, the controversial leader of the Communist Party until his death in 1976, despite many of his ‘questionable’ policies it is certain China would not be the country it is today, take that how you will. North of Tiananmen Square you will find the entrance to the Forbidden City which was formerly the imperial palace to two of the longest lasting dynasties in the history of China, the Ming and Qing dynasties between the years of 1420 to 1912 before the dynastic rule of China came to an end following the first revolutions led by Dr Sun Yat Sen; I am realising now that I have massively digressed into the history lesson…Anyway, the grounds of the Forbidden City are amazing, it was my second time here and it was equally as awe inspiring, Becky loved it too.
As for the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, I have never actually been in due to a number of reasons: it opens for a very short period of time in the morning so beware of this if you fancy making the trip, you’re also not permitted to take in any bags (Purses, Backpacks, etc), nor are you permitted to take in a camera, for these reasons it was not practicable for me to make the trip as I always have my camera out with me and always have a few essentials in a backpack, as do most people travelling…maybe there are lockers somewhere, I’m not too sure. Some people are also not convinced that what you see is actually the preserved body of Mao, but that all you’re seeing is a wax overlay and the real body is underneath, this may be due to the fact that during the time of Mao’s death the pioneers of body preservations were the Soviets (See Lenin’s preserved body) and due to politics getting the Soviets to take on the task wasn’t possible so they turned to the second best, the Vietnamese…maybe their method wasn’t so great.
2. The Summer Palace
I won’t bore you too much with the history of the Summer Palace, mostly because I am not too clued up on it myself. Basically in 1749 some emperor decided he wanted to build a palace in commemoration to his mother, as you do…
Anyway, it is best to see the Summer Palace as the name suggests, in the summer when all of the trees are green and full, however, when I visited in the summer a couple of years ago it was horrifically smoggy. On my second visit a few weeks ago, despite the cold it was still very beautiful, the ice actually added a nice touch to the place. Whatever season you visit, it’s pretty fuckin’ sweet.
3. Great wall at Mutianyu
Although we didn’t do this on this go, I did it a few years ago. You can reach Mutianyu by taking the metro and then a short taxi. The hike along the wall is pretty enjoyable and beautiful if you catch it on a good day. We hopped though a gap and pursued the trail along the old part of the wall, although it was my favourite part of the hike it was also potentially dangerous in the sense that there are parts where you would cause serious damage to yourself or potentially death so I would advise against it unless you really know what you’re doing.
4. Street food and Beijing food.
in my opinion one of the best ways to explore is with your mouth and I have a few dishes that you should try and get your teeth into if you’re in Beijing for a few days.
- Jianbing – One of China’s favourite breakfast foods. This is something that is found all over China with each vendor or city offering something slightly different. On either a stationary or spinning hotplate a vendor will make a very thin savoury pancake from mung bean paste or flour and water. After the pancake has cooked a bit through an egg is cracked and spread around the pancake, followed by some hoisin sauce, lajiao (chilli paste), a handful of leafy greens, mustard pickles and a crunchy, deep fried wonton skin. The whole thing is rolled up tightly and chopped in half, it is one of my favourite breakfast foods in Beijing.
- Peking Duck (Beijing Kao Ya) – Everyone knows Peking Duck, it is possibly the most famous dish to come out of China and possibly one of the most similar dishes to what you will find in foreign countries, but in Beijing they do it a bit better, the duck is much crispier and the preparation at the table is meticulous.
- Chinese Hamburger (Rou Jian Mo) – This is a food that has it’s origins in Shaanxi, it consists of a soft bread roll which is usually already quite warm and doughy, it is cut open a little bit before being stuffed with lean shredded pork, well seasoned with corriander, pepper, cumin and anise. Beats any hamburger in my opinion.
Hutongs are areas of small brick homes tightly packed together separated by tight alleyways and narrow roads, hutongs are most commonly associated with big cities in northern China. There are many hutongs spread around Beijing, some are a little rough around the edges, some of them are too touristic and some of them are pretty grim due to the smells of the gutters.
One of the most popular hutongs is the one off Nanluogu Xiang, it is pretty central and you will find some good photo opportunities and some great food. You can find the Chinese Hamburger around here, in fact there is a small restaurant where it is their specialty.
So that’s my short little glimpse into our time in Beijing with a few ideas if you ever find yourself there. Its a pretty cool city and there are endless numbers of bars and hostels for you to locate and chill out if you just give it a quick Google. Whatever food or drink you desire in Beijing, you won’t have too much trouble finding it.