A mix of grandeur from Imperial days, communist style architecture, modern sky scrapers, commercial centers and a maze of narrow alleys, Hutongs, with some delightful courtyard architecture, that is what you will find in today's Beijing. The 15.2 million inhabitants of Chinas capital (maybe not all of them) are frank, uncomplicated, helpful, friendly and every where to find.
We arrived early in the afternoon on the 5th of October. Apparently the Chinese had a week long holiday because of their National Day, 1 October, (in 1949 Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of China on this day) and according to our Lonely Planet "it is not a great idea to arrive in China or go traveling during these holidays as things tend to grind to a halt". Well, we hadn't much of a choice and just stuck to our original plan.
Our hostel "Red Lantern Hostel" turned out to be a pleasant place right in the Zhengjue Hutong, northwest of the city center. The hostel had a delightful inner courtyard, good service and a friendly welcoming atmosphere. We had really cozy beds (much better than the train bunk beds) and a nicely decorated room.
We made ourselves at home and freshened up a bit, before we went off in search of food. Very quickly, we didn't have to have to walk long, we found a restaurant that appeared good to us and we walked inside. Fortunately, the menu had many photos and even some translation in English. We ordered a salad, vegetables, rice and squid. In the center of our table there was a hole with a grate or grill covering it where they put glowing coal and we could prepare our squid. Yummy!!! Apart from the food we ordered, we got tea, an appetizer, melon and ice cream. The food was delicious and of really good quality, and the prices were ridiculously low. We paid 30 Yuan (almost 4US$ or 2.90 Euros or 26 SKr) per person.
After our delightful dinner experience, we walked around in the close by hutongs, the typical traditional Beijing neighborhoods with narrow alleys. There are lots of shops, like the hole in wall types, stalls, people passing by on bicycle, walking, chatting, buying and selling. In particular at nightfall the hutongs seemed to come to real life with a big huddle of people with noises and odors coming from all directions. It is exciting to walk through the hutongs, there is always something new to explore.
The next day we had planed to get up early to see the Forbidden City but since it was pouring with rain we decided to take it easy. A bit later in the morning when the rain stopped we went off to visit the Temple of Heaven. A paragon of Ming Design, the Temple of Heaven, set in a 267 hectare park, originally served as a vast stage of solemn rites performed by the Son of Heaven, who prayed here for good harvest, and sought divine clearance and atonement for the sins of the people. We walked around the park and with us thousands of Chinese. We saw the Round Altar, Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, the standout complex with a triple-eaved umbrella roof mounted on a three-tiered marble terrace. A neat place!!
Afterwards we walked around a bit.................
.....and we then headed for Tiananmen Square where there seemed to be even more Chinese. It's national holiday week, you remember? The world's largest public square, Tiananmen Square is a vast desert of paving stone at the heart of Beijing. In the square, you stand in the symbolic centre of the Chinese universe. The square employs a conventional plan that pays obeisance to traditional Chinese culture, while its ornaments and buildings are largely Soviet inspired. Mao’s Mausoleum (the Chinese Chairman died in 1976) can be seen here as well.
At night we met with Emily, the Australian girl we did a climb excursion with in Peru and who now lives and works in Beijing. We also got to meet her flatmate who is of Chinese origin but grew up in Singapore and got her higher education in Australia. Thanks to her Mandarin knowledge, we could order the drinks and food we wanted to without using the otherwise so typical sign language. We paid 16 Yuan (US$2.10 or 1.50 Euros or almost 14 SKr) each. Can it get any cheaper?
The next day looked great, blue sky, few clouds and refreshing winds. The Forbidden City was on our agenda and we got up early to be there before the crowds. That was what we thought at least. We took a bus, got off at Front Gate, walked pass the Tiananmen Square and passed through the Gate of Heavenly Peace to eventually get to the Forbidden City. It is Beijing's top tourist site which for 500 years was off limits, thus the name. It was home to two dynasties of emperors, the Ming and the Qing, who didn't stray from this pleasure dome unless they absolutely had to. When we got there the site was full of Chinese and Western tourists alike. We strolled through the different gates, courtyards and buildings and saw the Three Great Halls, the heart of the Forbidden City, build in the 15 century and restored in the 17th century, and the Imperial Gardens, a classical Chinese garden of fine landscaping, with rockeries, walkways and pavilions. The whole complex is a true exhibit of the grandeur of Chinas Imperial days.
After Beijing’s top tourist site visit, we walked through Beihai Park, which lies northwest of the Forbidden City. It is a beautiful Chinese garden type of park with a huge lake in the centre and a perfect place to stroll around, enjoy the peaceful atmosphere and to watch calligraphers practicing characters on the pacing slabs with brush and water. The site is associated with Kublai Khan's palace, the navel of Beijing before the creation of the Forbidden City. Kublai Khan, who reigned over China as emperor of the Yuan dynasty, was grandson of Genghis Khan, the Mongol conqueror.
There as in all the other tourist places, Chinese tourists/visitors are really busy taking photos of all the different tourist attractions with them posing before it. At one place some Chinese ladies even wanted to take a photo of me next to them. So I did some posing together with them. Funny thing!!! I guess they think we Westerners look quite exotic and it's a cool thing to have a photo side by side.
After the park, we carried on to walk through the hutongs until we got back to our hostel. On our way back we had probably the best tasting dumplings ever at a tiny local restaurant. I guess I don't have to tell you how cheap it was.
The day after we had organized to go on a trip to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. Hugo and Beatrice, who we shared the compartment with on the train to Beijing, and a couple from Peru joined us. We left early at 6.00 am and got to Mutianyu before 8.00 am. We were lucky there were hardly any people that early and we climbed up our way along the wall to the different watch towers. The weather was perfect, the surrounding beautiful and the atmosphere breathtaking (not just because of the endless seeming number of stairs we walked up and down). We had four hours to walk around and were totally exhausted at 12.30 pm when we headed back to Beijing.
At night we went to Liyuan Theatre to see a Beijing Opera performance. We had been trying to get tickets through our hostel for several days and were lucky to get some on our last night in Beijing. The place turned out to be really touristy but the performance was ok. We saw some nice acrobatics, beautiful costumes, fascinating face paintings and listened to the vigorous song.
The last day in Beijing, we were busy with packing, surfing the internet, emailing, updating our travel page etc.
Then we left for Shanghai our next and maybe last destination on The Big Trip 2007.
Lots of hugs,
Sabrina and Fredrik
PS: We have been really slow with updting our travel blog. Sorry!!! We will try to catch up.