After three fantastic weeks in Mongolia, we had a rough start in China.
Arriving with food poisoning was not the kind of arrival in Beijing we imagined. All the airports in China have a health check and if your body temperature is too high, you will be placed in quarantine. Scary times for me, since I had spend the last half hour on the toilet and clearly had a fever. Luckily the system let me through and we could queue up for the visa control. Stepping out of the terminal we noticed the huge difference in temperature and humidity compared to UB. Beijing is hot!
The public transport in Beijing is very efficient, so after about an hour we arrived in our hostel, finally time for bed. I spend the first full day in Beijing in our dorm. Koen walked around in the area a bit. Our hostel was located around Dongsi Road, a perfect spot to explore Beijing’s Hutongs. Hutongs are narrow alleyways and they form the old center of the city. A typical Hutong contains several one-storey houses and courtyards. The more important courtyards are closed of by huge red doors covered with golden locks. The Hutongs are a melting pot of activity, filled with small shops, restaurants and hotels, but they are also still home to many people in Beijing who play cards of Mahjong on the streets. After some advice of Germans we met in UB, we knew that on Sunday the Temple of Heaven park was the place to visit. Apparently this is the day that a lot of people practice Tai Chi in the morning. Since we are not famous for being early birds, we missed this part. But we did go to the Temple of Heaven. This round temple is characteristic for Beijing and it is indeed very pretty. It was also our first experience with the huge Chinese crowds. August is the month when a lot of Chinese enjoy their holiday. And of course they are also visiting the famous places in this huge country. They act similar to when you come across them anywhere else in the world. They take pictures of every stone and selfies are a must. The thing we liked most was watching the older people play cards and Mahjong under the corridors. Most of the time 2 people are playing, but there is a crowd around them to support them and give them advice. Chinese are fanatics when it comes to games.
Monday we decided to sleep in a bit, have breakfast and explore the Forbidden City. Or at least: that was the plan…The entrance to the Forbidden City is limited to maximum 80.000 visitors a day. 70.000 of these tickets are already pre-booked. This leaves only 10K tickets for fortune seekers that have not booked in advance. Arriving around 11 am, proved to be too late to obtain tickets, as they were sold out. So after looking for the ticket office, finding out it was sold out and tons of pictures of Chinese people with Giant Koen, we searched for the exit. There is only one exit on the East side, if you have no luck to get a ticket and it will take you at least 1 hour to get out. I have to say, not a fun experience. The Forbidden city entrance area is huge, but soooo crowded, it almost caused an anxiety attack. After this failed attempt we decided to go for plan B: the 798 Art District.
The 798 Art District is more our cup of tea. It is an area filled with old factories that are now home to many art galleries, bars, restaurants and shops. It felt so good to escape the crowds a bit and just stroll around admiring the street art and visit some of the galleries. Unfortunately we were here on a Monday, which resulted in the majority of the galleries being closed. We did have a great time however. If you go here definitely take some time to enjoy a good cup of coffee at Voyage Coffee. This barista bar/bike shop has a great modern atmosphere, fantastic coffee and for Koen some amazing bikes to drool over.
On the website TimeOut Beijing we found the article ‘Cheap Places to eat recommended by Chefs’. This article was right up our alley, good food for affordable prices, that is what we like! First stop was Ping Wa, a street food style restaurant in Sanlitun. First lesson: always write down the Chinese name in Chinese letters. We arrived in the street and of course no English written names, only Chinese signs. This made it bloody hard to find the right restaurant. After moving up and down the street and asking around we just decided to pick a place that looked nice. Surprise: it ended up being the restaurant we were looking for! The food was super tasty. We especially loved the meat filled buns: they are called “Rou Jia Mo” or Chinese hamburgers. We had a few lamb skewers, some spicy eggplant and some garlicky shrimps. Overall a super tasty meal and very affordable, around 20 Euro.
The next day it was time for one of Beijings highlights: The Summer Palace. It will take about one hour to reach the complex by metro, where you can enter the park through the North Palace Gate. The Summer Palace requires some hiking because the temples are located in the hills. To reach the palaces that surround the lake, you have to go over these hills. Walking in the tree covered hills was nice to escape some of the crowds and the heat of the day. If you walk down you are able to walk the Long Corridor, and with your entrance tickets you can visit the palaces, temples and some exhibitions. We decided to enjoy our lunch at the lakeside. Here you could clearly see the famous Smog of Beijing. It was difficult to see the opposite side of the lake. The Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom is totally worth the many stairs you have to climb. From the top you have a really nice few over the smoggy city.
In the evening we had a shared dinner experience on the planning. We decided to celebrate my birthday a bit early by going to the Black Sesame restaurant. The restaurant is located in a small Courtyard. On Tuesdays and Fridays they have a shared dinner table which seats 12 people. You get served 10 dishes, while chatting with the other guests and watching the chefs prepare the local home cooked dishes. The whole meal was fantastic and delicious. We especially loved the braised pork belly, the beef and the delicious black sesame ice cream with caramelized apple. It was so good that we actually forgot to take pictures: stupid us. We sat together with a few Americans and a lovely couple from Hong Kong, Janice and Chris, who shared our passion for traveling and could give us some tips for Hong Kong. We had a lovely evening.
The next day we decided to take our chances and headed to the Forbidden city in the early morning. We arrived around 9 and waited in the lines in front of the ticket office, constantly afraid that by the time it would be our time, they would close again. We were super happy to have tickets. We were prepared to experience some crowds again, but despite the size of the complex it has proven to be impossible to escape the crowds and truly enjoy the place. It did not help that we were here on the hottest day in Beijing. High humidity, 36 degrees, crowds and little shadow is not a great combination. We spend our time trying to go from shade to shade, while observing all those people. Watch out for all the umbrellas and selfie sticks: wear glasses for your own safety, otherwise it might be that you will lose your eyesight during the visit. Until now we still have been debating if all the fuss about visiting the Forbidden city was worth it. Yes, it is one of the big highlights of the city, but for us it was not worth the time and money invested in it. If you have only a few days in Beijing, spend your time differently is our advice.
In the evening it was time for another of Beijings must do’s: eating the famous Beijing Duck! We headed to another restaurant from the TimeOut list, called De Yuan Roast Duck. We had to wait for about 10 minutes before being seated. The place was packed with locals and a few tourists. We decided to order a complete duck. The duck comes with some lotus pancakes, hoisin sauce, some herbs and cucumber. At first a small plate was placed on the table and we were already wondering if this would be all. Soon three more plates were served together with all the bones. We ended up leaving the restaurant feeling like a stuffed ‘duck’. The duck was super jummy and if we compare our prices to those of fellow travelers, we had a bargain.
Thursday was check out day because it was time to visit the Great Wall!! We left super excited to the Dongzhimen Bus station, to catch the 980 Express bus to Miyun. You pay for your bus ticket inside the bus, and since the driver is not allowed to touch the money, you have to make sure you have the correct amount with you, no change. After using some sign language on the platform to change our 50RMB bill, we were ready to depart. The guesthouse send us a clear description of how to reach the small village of GuBeiKou. So we left the bus at the final stop and went searching for Minibus 25. The find the bus stop you have to walk out of the station, cross the main road and take the second bus stop on the right. Koen used his google translate tool to ask if we were on the right stop. When we entered the bus, it became clear that this bus is not often used by foreigners. A child in the bus started crying when she saw Koen, which of course caused a lot of laughter in the rest of the bus. Our description said ask the locals on the bus for the right bus stop. But of course if you present a full English email with only few Chinese characters to someone, they start panicking immediately. So with one eye on the maps.me app we decided to wait. With only 5km to go we enlarged the Chinese Characters and Koen starting asking around again. The whole bus ended up debating where our stop was and then we saw the tunnel as described in the email. The whole bus starting pointing and we quickly packed our backs and jumped out. After about 10 minutes we arrived at the Great Wall Box house, which turned out to be a little piece of heaven. A beautiful serene garden, spacious room, super friendly staff and some cold Tsingtao’s was exactly what we needed after Beijing’s craziness.