Beijing: End of Days

Posted on September 2, 2011

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The metro and train journey from Shanghai to Beijing was wonderfully smooth, and it was a joy to find that the express train between the two cities was possibly the nicest I have been on, Eurostar included. It travelled at over 300km/hour, and we made it to China’s capital within five hours. I checked into the nice, friendly Downtown Beijing Backpackers Hostel on Hutong Luago, the most famous of Beijing’s hutongs (alleyways). The city is littered with such busy little streets, and though this one was slightly more touristic than the rest it seemed I had found a good lively location to spend the last days of my trip. I took a brief look at the impressive Drum and Bell Towers on that first afternoon, but otherwise just relaxed on the hostel’s roof terrace with a cheap beer.

I was up the next morning for a decent free breakfast. I had to wait for the rain to clear before taking a taxi down to Tiananmen Square. The sheer size of the square is breathtaking, as is the amount of people ambling around and taking pictures of the various sites within it (which on occasion included me). I climbed the Front Gate for good views of the square itself, before walking the length of it past the Mao Memorial and the People’s Monument. At the end of the square, across the road, is the Gate of Heavenly Peace, adorned with the famous portrait of Chairman Mao and leading to the famous Forbidden City. I walked up to a local food street for a huge spring roll lunch, again having to deflect Chinese girls wishing to speak English, before having a quick walk around the impressive Legation District. Tired by the walking and the sheer amount of people, I headed back to my hutong for a street dinner of spicy tofu, as well as fried scorpion and silkworm on a stick, before spending the rest of the evening watching the English language propaganda spouted by state TV channel CCTV.

Next day I took an organised tour to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. It was a tough climb up in high temperatures, and our guide was amazed that most of us would rather walk up and down rather than take a gondola and a slide! We walked along a small part of the wall for great views over both sides, but as ever with China you were never alone, with both tourists and local vendors swarming over every piece of brick. After returning to the bottom we had a great Chinese lunch at a local restaurant before setting off for the Ming Tombs. Impressive architecturally, I imagine the tombs were at one point a very interesting attraction, but since their contents has now been gutted for display in various museums, they now consist of several shabbily reconstructed underground tombs that offer little of interest historically. I unwinded after the long journey back to the city with a night out in Beijing’s bar district with an Englishman and two Spanish siblings.

I had been warned that the Forbidden City would sap me of any remaining energy and required a whole day to see fully, so I set out early to join the masses in touring the ancient home of the Chinese emperors. It certainly was enormous, and overrun by visitors. Filled with many great halls, temples and living quarters, it certainly offered an authentic look at Chinese history that the Ming Tombs failed to. Various exhibitions litter the site, and once you are thoroughly sick of often-repeated architecture and the beautifully-adorned halls the north of the Forbidden City boasts picturesque gardens that would be relaxing if you did not have to pick your way through thousands of tourists brandishing cameras in order to make your way through it. Surrounded by a huge moat and accessible through intimidating gates, the Forbidden City certainly packs the imperial punch I was assurred it would.

The next day was my last in Beijing, and thus of the trip, and I started it by attempting to take a look at the preserved remains of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square. I was forced to give up, however, as the heat and sheer volume of crowds meant that visiting the communist leader would be a long and sweaty process. Returning to the hostel, I decided to tag along with my drinking friends from the other night and visit Beijing Zoo, a cheaper and more enjoyable experience than its London equivalent. The zoo hosts everything from hippos and rhinos to bears and tigers, though the site most people came to see was the zoo’s collection of pandas, who it must be said looked failry grotty, though at least their enclosures were larger and more hospitable than the conditions many of the other animals were kept in. From there we sped off to the Summer Palace, situated on an idyllic spot on a huge lake. We climbed to the highest temple for great views of the palace and the lake, before wandering around the peaceful grounds of the emperor’s summer retreat. It was an excellent way to finish the trip, in remote beauty away from the stress and heat of Beijing itself.

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Posted in: Experience, Travel