Beijing was the second stop on my adventure that took me by train from China to Helsinki. An enormous city, it was pretty impressive from the offset. Even though I arrived at night, the atmosphere was bizarre. I’d flown in from Shanghai, so I already had an idea about how the population crisis affected everyday Chinese life, but I wasn’t prepared for Beijing.
Walking from the metro station to my hostel, there were people everywhere. Even at almost midnight, there were bicycles cutting dangerous corners; people literally stopping in front of me on a fast-flowing pavement to check their phones and, topping the list: tourists from other areas of China who would speed up to overtake, and then slow down to a crawl just as they got in front of me. And don’t even get me started on the negotiations required to cross roads…
As a backpacker, I didn’t even consider staying anywhere other than a hostel, and Leo Hostel near Tiananmen Square was perfect for me. The hostel was beautiful, with an enormous bar on the ground floor, full of traditional Chinese decorations. My room left a lot to be desired – 14 beds, and most of them full of already snoring people, with no space to leave my luggage. It was only £6 a night though. Alternatives to hostels are Air B&Bs which start at around £10 or Couchsurfing, which I think looks like a travel version of Tinder, but it is free…
The biggest godsend after so much greasy food in Shanghai was that Leo Hostel served toast. The bread was a strange Chinese variety, but there was real jam, and real butter. Coupled with a cup of tea or an Americano and that was incredible! I made the mistake of picking a restaurant at random my first night, and spotted a cockroach on the floor, but I soon got the hint. Street food is the only way to go. After a night out, (or a night in at Leo’s drinking, which was probably a better shout) you can buy freshly cooked dumplings on the street from lovely ladies who are preparing them for the commuters in the morning. The general rule of thumb was to go somewhere where you can see them making the food. The best meal that I had in China was the Peking Duck pancakes. We went with a local, and watched them chop the head off the roasted duck we were going to eat… a strange, but delicious experience.
I also didn’t know how to use chopsticks before I went. I really really really recommend that you learn from my mistake.
The Chinese use Yuan (¥) and everything is cheap. Depending on the political situation, you can usually get 10¥ for your pound, or 5¥ for your Australian dollar. You can pick up a dumpling dinner for around 5¥; a small bottle of disgusting Chinese spirit for 10¥ and a banana for 2¥.
As my friend’s brother did, if you can afford it, hire a chauffeur. Otherwise, do what we did and cram yourself onto the packed Chinese metro. If you see a free seat, run for it, there are no rules. If you’re used to the intense London tube situation, you’ll understand that there’s a hierarchy: who gets on first, who gets to push the button to open the train door, and who gets to sit down. Forget that in Beijing, it’s elbows out. All I can suggest is that you use your backpack as a buffer to defend yourself from the tiny, but very fierce Chinese locals who know exactly how to speed the whole process up.
I was only there for three days, so I didn’t get a chance to go out-out, as the risk of a hangover was too high. However, I met some Brits that had gone out clubbing and they said that it was insane. Firstly, as people with white skin, they got in free. They also got free drinks all night, and a table to themselves. Racist as this may sound, many tourists from other areas of China will gawk, and take photos, so I guess dues are paid in time and photographs rather than currency. Also, strip shows are common: in one nightclub, strippers came out every hour on the hour and hung out with the locals and tourists. The creepiest thing about them, as I understand, was that no one danced. Everyone just stood around their own tables. Weird.
What to Do
If you only have three days, here’s a rundown of the must-see places to visit. Just be aware that they are really far away from one another, and whoever designed the metro did not intend to make the lives of tourists easy.
The Great Wall
Dedicate a day to it. Try and go with a group that goes to a less touristy area – I paid for the hostel to take us and it was completely worth it. Think miles of unspoiled views; valleys that you can call to each other across, and miles and miles of steep hill climbs that will leave you tired but happy.
Tiananmen Square & The Forbidden City
Both massively overrated, but still worth taking a look at. The Forbidden City is very pretty, but is hugely overcrowded (as with most of Beijing). You end up kind of frog-marching through it with thousands of other tourists and hoping that you get to the end soon. The best part was that at the end of the Forbidden City, there is a park, and you can climb a hill to a temple, for a wonderful view over all of China. It’s not that busy either, as it’s up a steep hill that many tourists aren’t willing to climb.
The Summer Palace
It’s a beautiful temple that overlooks an enormous lake. Take some extra Yuan so that you can rent a pedal boat. We didn’t have the spare cash for that, so we decided to walk all the way round, which was a stupid idea, as we ended up paying for enormous boats to take us most of the way back. The palaces are beautiful though, and on a summer’s day it was a lovely place to be.
The Temple of Heaven
A massive park with some temples. We were a bit temple-d out by this point, so we didn’t spend much time there. Pretty though.
The Olympic Stadium (Bird’s Nest)
I was there with an architect, so we had to go and see it. It’s very impressive, and you can take a tour around the stadium itself. When we were there, they had a music festival going on, so it was a pretty lively space, and worth a trip if you have a spare couple of hours.
Although overcrowded to the point of being annoying at times, Beijing is an amazing city, full of colour and vibrancy. The food is incredible; the locals are lovely and warm, and Leo’s Hostel was definitely one of my favourites on the whole trip.