Big Trouble in Little Beijing

The first thing I have to say about Beijing in, where did the 9 million bicycles go? Mind you, I’m told that Beijing is roughly the size of Belgium and therefore cannot claim to have seen it all, but bicycles were pretty sparse.

From Shanghai it’s 5 hours by bullet train to Beijing at 300km/h. The trains ticket sets us back only 500CNY for a journey of about 1500km, which I think it quite reasonable. The train is clean and the ride is pleasant. We move to a seat with a better view outside but we have to move again as passangers board at one of the stops at a city along the way. It’s when we pack up to exit in Beijing that we realize my camera is not present and it must have been left where we were previously sitting.Frustrating!

The train staff and -police are not of any help in trying to find out about lost property office or something of the sort, and we exit the platform into the main station (once again a colossal building like an airport terminal). There we manage to contact the on site police office (we at least want to report it and get a police report or something for a travel insurance claim) – who dont give a shit and bring in two young ladies who are security guards to deal with us. English is an anomaly over here so we were fortunate to be able to give Tong, a friend of Ebru’s brother in Shanghai, a call to translate for us. (Thanks again Tong!)

It’s a long waste of time what happens at the station that day, but the gist of it is that this is not the police’s domain, we have to talk to the train police, but we cannot deal with the train police here in Beijing because our journey originated in Shanghai, so we need to call them (try that in China) or contact them when we return to Shanghai a week later. Forget about it – I’ve already accepted the fact that it’s GONE! I must mention though, that crime is not prevalent in China and overall it is safe and great to travel.

By sundown we’re booked into the Downtown Backpackers hostel, an absolute LEGEND! (Sometimes you are indeed thankful for the recommendations in the Lonely Planet).

Well folks, Beijing is a MUST visit in China! We had so much fun in this place and recommend it to EVERYONE. It’s huge and the air is polluted, but with the metro and a map it’s easy to get around and there is plenty to do and see.

THE FOOD variety is unbelievable! Everything you order from the menu looks like the picture on the menu and the menus have 100s pictures of dishes. Food is cheap as well. And for chilli lovers this is paradise! Seafood with chilli, locusts with chilli, soup with chilli, tofu with chilli, salad with chilli, chilli with chilli… once we order a lovely looking dish from the menu: prawns in a sauce on a bed of crisp red, green and yellow vegetables. When we receive it we notice that all the vegetables were actually different colour chillies!

The best place to eat (we found) is “Ghost Street”, just South of BeijingQiao metro station if I recall correctly. After sundown this place is buzzing with people of all ages coming out to eat (and the Chinese know how to EAT). The wide pavement is scattered with little stools where people sit under strings of red paper lanterns, nibbling roasted sunflower seeds (provided) until their number gets called out and they move to their table in the restaurant. (Worth taking this time for learning to count in Chinese).

The restaurant experience here is raw compared to anything you may be used to from the West. It’s loud, everybody smokes, cigarette buts and ash go on the floor, next to each table is a bin with all the food waste not consumed. But the eating experience is second to none! The culture seems to be that people order common dishes to share.

For example, imagine two or three people sitting at the table: The chopsticks and crockery are set on the table, clean and cling-wrapped in a plastic foil – for freshness. Unwrap! First comes a large baking tray full of baby lobsters in a potent base of fried chilli, garlic, ginger; the plastic gloves (like those you’d see at a petrol station) go on and crack – crunch – slurp – sweat poruing from foreheads, laughter and coversation and fires extinguished with large bottles of YanJing or TsingTao beer. Surely that must have been enough?

Not so! On comes the next course, a huge pan of perhaps fried locusts or prawns in – you guessed it – chilli and whatnot, and the feast continues. Now it’s back to the beer and cigrettes. Surely they that’ll be it!

Guess again! A HUGE bowl of soup arrives, it’s the entire saucepan! Chillies and fresh bits floating inside. The spoons come out to demonstrate their power, and it’s slurp – gulp – mmmmmmmh! And if you thought that was enough, don’t be surprised to see another course or two appearing after that.

PS: Don’t forget to try the Peking Duck and of course the Hot and Sour Soup.

The food is a taste sensation! The eating experience is an adventure! It’s all so tasty and delightful; you can spend two – three hours easily – or I should say “AT LEAST” – and just eat, drink and enjoy! The shocker is when you’ve been through your three or four courses and a number of beers and you’ve run up a bill of only 3-400CNY! Amazing! Don’t expect staff to understand English and don’t expect the touchy-feely service you’re used to from home, but go with the flow and you won’t be sorry.

THE CITY is ancient with history dating back thousands of years. It is still laid out along the North-South-orientation of old, which is reslly interesting if you learn a bit about the old kingdom and its traditions, beliefs and religious processions. Most of the main streets are massive grid-iron blocks with small alleys “hutons” between. Particuarly in the older parts of the city ou walk the hutons and come by countless little shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, lakes and canals. In many bars there is live music at night. In various hutons it’s possible to see the traditional ancient housing architecture and to visit some of these houses and learn about the reasons behind it for a minimal fee.

For example: we learned that the size and depth of the doorways are significant in showing the status of the inhabitant and the stone carvings to the left and the right of the entrance are singify line of duty: for a military officer they might be drums and for a member of government it may be a lion and so on. The ornate screen-wall immediately behind the entrance gives privacy to the courtyard and wards off unwanted spirits from trespassing as they believe the entrance is blocked. Furthermore, the orientation of square courtyard is aligned with the heavenly directions N-S-E-W and the buildings around it are allocated to the inhabitants according to their status: North (with the longest light) for the elders, West for the sons, East for the daughters (sorry) and South for servants. Similarly, a higher number of steps before the building signifies status, and these always come in uneven numbers. It’s all very intricate and auspicious, but it’s very interesting and beautiful.

PLACES TO VISIT are countless. You could spend months here and not see everything. The Forbidden City is so huge you cannot see the whole of it in one day. The Summer Palace and the ancient man-made lakes are idyllic. The drum- and bell-towers are among my favourite sites and really give you a sense of what this place may have felt like centuries ago.

But if you want something more engaging, you can visit various markets – flea markets; fake markets where you can buy all the ripped off designer gear you can imagine; the 798 art district, a massive re-purposed industrial estate now filled with galleries and sculptures galore is like a day out in Disney Land; we entered a multi-story shopping mall on the SouthEast side as Ebru really needed the ladies’ room and after a few minutes of walking the floors there I realized that every shop in there was selling glasses! Sunglasses, prescription glasses – you name it – four or file floors of them! Qi Hai lake is surrounded by an arena of posh bars and restaurants, blinky lights and sweet stalls. And there’s guys there who will take a photo of you and, within 20 minutes, create the most accurate cartoon replica of you on a body of your choosing. The creativity here is astounding.

And then of course there’s a trip to the great wall, which you don’t want to forfeit. There are plenty of tours available from hotels etc for a 300+Yuan, but we did it independently for cheaper.

For those who want to do this on the Jinxianling – Shalingxzai route, the procedure is:
– Go to the DongXiMen bus terminal and get the public (big green) bus to WuYaLo. It leves from inside the terminal which is like a parking garage, so go in there and don’t be led astray by any touts outside trying to tell you something different.The bus costs around 15CNY each way, but might be cheaper if you use your metro card.
– Get off at WuYaLo (don’t worry, when you get to that stop the taxi drivers will be coming on to the bus looking for you)
– Negotiate a rate with the taxi driver to take you to the wall entry and exit points, and back to the evening bus at WuYaLo. Our driver (Kwo, in case you meet him) was happy to be paid on collection and I think we paid about 150CNY per person – another couple was also planning to do the same route so we shared but it *should* not cost more than that per person from what I understand. (The LP says 100CNY/pp but I’ve always found LP prices to be well deflated on the ground)
– Get off the taxi at Jinxianling, hop on the wall and walk until the exit point, where your driver will greet you and drive you back to the bus which returns to DongXiMen.

OUR ACCOMMODATION at Downtown Backpackers (DTB) was a marvellous stroke of luck. It’s a hostel so likely you’ll be staying in a dorm bed unless you manage to get one of the private doubles. However it’s meticulously cleaned and liquid soap and shampoo are even provided in the bathrooms. The location is great (Nan Luogu Huton near Mao Er Huton), the staff are well organized, they are helpful and they speak English. They also have electronic safety lockers which work with a barcode scanner system for your valuables. The cherry on top is the common room and the guests. The atmosphere there is very pleasant so plenty of people tend to gather there and before you know if conversations are going on late into the night, fuelled by cheap beer available in the fridge in the front room.

We met some fabulos people there, notably: Barak, a long haired Israeli programmer turned architeologist and fellow traveller and lover of India, full of thoughtful discourse lasting into the wee hours of the morning and a wise outlook on the world. John, an American ex-soldier, full of energy and on a rally to complete as much sight seeing in the time he’s here as possible, which he does very well. We several nights in the common room, drinking, laughing and chatting away and occasionally hook up in the day to visit some place or another, or go out for a meal.

Guys, we’ve really been missing your company all the way since Beijing; it was great hanging out with you and we look forward to meet you again when the time comes!

Our return date to Shanghai comes way too early, but John has departed already and Barak will go tomorrow so I guess it’s ok. We’ve got to catch the bullet train from the South station again and I estimate that an hour is plenty to get there, but I’m wrong and we miss our train by 15 minutes. Ebru expresses her undying love for me and buys me red roses – aaaw… sheee’s a keeper! Well as you can imagine, it’s a bit of a mission to find the correct counter for ticket amendments, but it doesn’t take us too long as we know the entire station premises by now after our camera ordeal. (See honey, everything happens for a good reason!)
Now digest this: due to the high volume of travellers during Golden week, all seats on the train are booked up for the next four days, however we are able to amend our ticket to that date without any additional charge whatsoever!!! I like China more and more!

No money lost, we spend another at DTB talking with Barak over beers and visiting several more places, and (as DTB is fully booked) we stay in the Sleepy Inn hostel the last few days, which is not as nice but it puts a roof over our heads. All in all our stay in Beijing is epic – an absolute highlight of our trip! It never leaves our memories and wherever we go, we reminisc about the great food and the wonderful times spent at DTB.

– When arriving in Beijing get your magnetic travel card which will allow you to travel the metro and public transport fuss-free and at about half the price! The card costs 30CNY which you get refunded on return of the card.
– Learn greetings, thank yous and counting as soon as possible. It’ll make your life easier and you’ll enjoy it more, Also useful to learn the symbols, pinyin and sounds for North, South, East and West as it puts a lot of street names and places into context and you might even be able to figure out a timetable at a bus stop (but probably not).
– Take a picture dictionary along with you or print out a few things in Chinese script or Pinyin to show at restaurants and places (e.g. Pork? Beef? Seafood? Spicy? Vegetarian etc)
– Beware the Golden Week, first week of October, when all of China goes on holiday (well, a lot, some go the following week so be warned!). If you’re in a good place, sit tight, ensure your accommodation is booked and enjoy yourself. Travel on any transport during this time can be mayhem and you may experience unavailability of tickets for days as they’re all sold out. Just picture: when we were there, the local news reported currently 300 MILLION Chinese travelling on holiday using the country’s transport infrastructure. That’s equivalent to the whole USA on the move!
– Go the great wall on your own for the extra adventure and take a packed lunch and a couple of beers for the way.
– Est on Ghost Street!

SEE “The Great Wall of China!” PHOTOS…

SEE “The Summer Palace Bejing” PHOTOS…

SEE “All About Bejing, parks, markets, temples, night life, hutongs, food…BEJING HAS IT ALL, GO THERE!” PHOTOS…