Arriving in rainy Beijing bright and early after an overnight train from Mongolia, we were immediately overwhelmed with how busy the train station was. We arrived at on a Friday, which happened to be the last day of China’s national week-long holiday… that tourists are strongly advised to avoid at all costs! We knew we definitely didn’t want to travel during this period where possible, but we were also keen to get into China ASAP to make the most of our time before our pre-booked flight out of Hong Kong. To be honest, it wasn’t as bad as we were expecting. Beijing North train station is a major hub and I imagine it’s pretty busy most of the time! The streets of Beijing were no busier than I remember from my previous trip to China, so we were glad we made the decision to go a bit earlier.
After checking into our hostel, we chilled out in the downstairs bar/ restaurant before meeting up with our friend for dinner. Back in the UK, I attempted to learn a little Mandarin for this trip and I had a language buddy who helped me practice, whilst I helped him with his English. It turned out his wife lives in Beijing and after meeting her on a visit to the UK (where we were cooked a fabulous vegan Chinese dinner!) we arranged to meet up in China too. Renee treated us and two of her friends to a HUGE dinner, making sure she ordered lots of veggie dishes from a never-ending menu. It was our first taste of Chinese hospitality and we soon learnt to expect a ridiculous amount of food, lots of sharing and sneaky bill paying by the host!
On day two, we walked down to the Forbidden City, a Chinese imperial palace used in the Ming dynasty (1420) to the end of the Qing dynasty (1912). I visited Beijing on my trip to China eight years ago and all I remembered about the Forbidden City was that it was huge, and crawling with tourists. It seems nothing has changed in that time! It’s definitely something worth visiting if you are in Beijing, and the history is fascinating, but prepare for lots of walking, lots of samey buildings and LOTS of tourists!
A short walk north of the Forbidden City brings you to Jingshan Park which (after a bit of a hike to the top) provides fantastic views of the city and the whole imperial palace beneath. Slightly less fantastic on heavy smog days…
Also nearby is Beihai Park, one of the oldest and most authentically maintained imperial gardens in China. It’s actually a tiny island sitting upon an expanse of water and joined to the mainland with two bridges. Being so small, you can get around in under half an hour.
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped off at veggie restaurant ‘Cloud Kitchen’ for a late lunch. All that walking was hungry work! I ordered the avocado salad, ‘meat’ skewers, potato wedges and some fresh fruit tea. The ‘meat’ skewers were great and it was nice to have a fresh salad rather than more rice/ noodles and veg! After a long day on our feet, we headed back to the hostel to relax for the rest of the afternoon.
Our third day in Beijing was a bit of a write-off. We met up with our Chinese friend Renee at midday and had planned to go to a ticket office (so she could help us buy some train tickets), then to the Temple of Heaven park. We thought the process of buying our tickets would be around half an hour as we had so many to buy for the rest of our trip. However, it ended up taking FOUR HOURS!!! After meeting Renee, we walked to the nearest train ticket office, a tiny run-down office with just enough space for a couple of people to step inside at any time. The young guy behind the counter could not have been more disinterested and actually seemed angry with us at disturbing him! He was playing a video game behind the desk and was obviously very involved in whatever it was… We were a massive inconvenience to him and it showed! After getting quotes on routes, we started trying to book individual tickets. It was one thing after another – at one point he told us a particular route was sold out. Renee looked on her phone and saw she could buy them online, so we bought them knowing we could collect them in any ticket office (like the one we were stood in!). We OK’d this beforehand with the guy, but after we’d bought them he told us actually we couldn’t pick them up here and we’d need to go to a main station to show ID as we were foreigners… GAAAAH! So we had to then cancel the tickets and book in store. The system then took a while to register the cancellation so we bought another ticket whilst waiting and he managed to spell my name wrong… When he realised he was going to have to reprint the ticket, he lost the plot and started screaming at Renee. After two hours of messing around and only actually managing to buy 2 pairs of the 12 tickets we needed, I suggested we move on to another ticket office.
We stopped off for lunch in a restaurant on the way to the next ticket office. We tried to order a few things but kept being told that dishes were unavailable. We finally found a couple that we could have, ordered drinks and waited. After 30 minutes (we were very hungry by this point!!), the server came back and told us that the chef was cleaning the kitchen and it would be another 45 mins before food. It was just one of those days…. We paid for our drinks and headed next door to a local fast food style restaurant that dished us up a bowl of tofu, rice and cabbage for £1!
We finally managed to get our tickets sorted at the next office – with a lovely lady who was very helpful and found the whole thing quite hilarious for some reason. Tickets in hand, it was time to head to the Temple of Heaven Park… just in time for sunset!
In the evening, I discovered a rather posh hotel just five minutes walk from our budget backpacker hostel. Considering the posh surroundings, their menu was actually very reasonable, especially the veggie options. I had glass noodles with greens and red peppers with four steamed bread buns for £3.00. They also brought out a complimentary dish of peanuts and jug of water too. Bargain!