We had planned to head to the Great Wall on day four but Gary wasn’t feeling too good the night before, so we moved it back to the following day, with the hope he’d feel better by then. Instead, we decided to go to the Summer Palace which is a little out of the centre – around one hour on the subway. A UNESCO site, the park is the largest and most well preserved in China and some believe it to be the best preserved imperial garden in the world. It began as a park for royal families and was opened to the public in 1924.
We spent around four hours walking around the whole park. There’s loads to see inside – from different pagodas, to short climbs to various view points. There’s also the lake, scenic bridges, a marbled boat, plus lots of green walkways.
There are only a few entry/ exit points in the park and after following a marked exit on our map app, we realised the gate we were heading for was padlocked shut! After a jumbled conversation in Chinglish with a few locals who were swimming laps in the river, we established the nearest exit was a 30 minute walk away… Exhausted, and now feeling a little defeated, we started the walk. Our hopes soon rose when we saw a boat of people leaving the riverside near us for the next docking station along – next to the exit we needed. We tried to buy a ticket but the lady was shaking her head and waving her arms to the left, indicating we would need to walk. A frustrating conversation later we worked out the boat we had seen was the last one of the day and our only option was to walk. Huuumph.
After our walk to the exit, it was another 20 minutes to reach the nearest metro station where we decided to go home via Wulingyuan street, Beijing’s famous shopping street. We spent a couple of hours walking up and down the busy street, lined with well-known brands and Chinese boutiques, garishly decorated with flashing lights, neon signs and plenty of restaurants. We also went on a hunt for food in the China Town food market which is situated at the end of Wulinguyan Street. Alongside the usual snacks, the stalls were lined with insects, starfish and scorpions on sticks – many still alive 🙁 Gary managed to find a stall selling potato smiley faces and was very pleased with his overpriced purchase!
We managed to find a less offensive dinner of veggie fried rice in one of the shopping malls, before jumping on the metro back to our hostel.
The big day! Gary was feeling better today, so we booked on a tour to the Great Wall leaving early in the morning. Looking back, we realise we could have easily taken a local bus and made the journey ourselves for a lot less – we paid around £30 for bus there and back, lunch and entry. We had to pay extra for the cable car up and down which which I think was around £7 return. Normally we would always organise things ourselves but I think we got a bit excited about the idea and booked the trip before we’d really thought about it!
A minibus drove us to the Mutianyu section of the wall which took an hour and half. We had a choice of three sections to hike, but opted for this one after reading that it was a great place to see both old and new parts of the wall. It was also the same section I’d visited eight years previously as part of an organised tour through China.
Arriving at the wall, we walked up the steep slope leading to the ticket office where we were handed our tickets and were able to buy the cable car tickets. You can walk from the ticket office to the top of the wall but we only had a total of 3 hours on the wall and walking would have eaten into most of that time!
After a short cable car to the top, we set off to see how far along we could walk. As I’d been before, I wasn’t so fussed about seeing any specific part so I took the walk at a slower pace. Gary was keen to get as far as possible, so he pushed on ahead. He made it a fair bit further than I did – climbing over old parts of the wall, jumping over crumbling sections and basically tight-rope walking across narrow paths!
In the evening, we ventured out to Sanlitun, a popular street lined with bars, restaurants and clubs. We tried out a veggie fast food place for dinner and tucked into a pretty decent frankfurter style hot-dog topped with guacamole, tomato and nacho chips (eaten before I could take the pic..), with fries and ‘chicken’ nuggets!
I’m not really sure what I was expecting of Sanlitun, but it was so seedy! Think Chinese Kavos. Lots of semi naked girls dancing in windows, cheap shots, ear-piercing karaoke attempts and lots of drunk foreigners and locals spilling out into the street. Gary noticed we were being followed by another foreigner at one point, so we changed direction and backtracked but the guy continued to follow us. We made our way into an open space where someone was performing in the street to a crowd and watched as he hovered nearby, before eventually giving up. Weird. Safe to say, we didn’t stick around for very long… We ended up accidentally getting the very last metro home, which was lucky!
We’d heard good things about Panjiayuan market, so made it our first stop of day six in Beijing. Located a short walk from a metro stop with the same name, we grabbed a hot sweet potato from a vendor outside to munch on whilst we walked around the market. Unfortunately it wasn’t worth the trip at all! It was pretty big but it was rows and rows of the same stuff – wooden beads, buddha statues, metal goods and other antiques. A lot of the stalls were empty too, so I think we must have visited on an off day – I think weekends are busier. We must have also got confused between this market and another because we didn’t think it was only antiques that were for sale!
We hopped on the metro again and headed across town to have lunch at Vege Tiger, a veggie restaurant with a great reputation. We were served free green tea, grapes and pickled ginger on arrival and after seeing the menu and getting a bit too excited with all the choices, we ordered the tray bake ‘fish’, crispy ‘chicken’ kebab and Kung Pao ‘chicken’. The prices were more than we had been paying elsewhere – especially compared to the street food we’d been eating – but the portions were way bigger than we were expecting! I ended up taking all of the two chicken dishes away as well as a box of the fish.. Ooops. The fish was totally on point – shaped like a whole fish, flakey like fish and with a fishy taste from the Nori (seaweed) wrapped around it. Amazing.
After lunch, we went to Nanluogu Xiang (also known as ‘South Gong and Drum Lane’), a popular pedestrianised road with traditional Chinese architecture, both new and old. The area is most popular for its Hutongs; multiple alleyways lined with little shops, stalls, restaurants and cafes. Nanluogu Xiang has 16 alleyways all interlinked in a giant square – it turned out to be one of our favourite places in Beijing!
We stopped off at the Bell and Drum towers on the way but opted not to pay to go inside. The Bell Tower houses a 7m tall bell which weighs a hefty 63 tonnes making it the biggest and heaviest in China, and is therefore referred to as the ‘King of Bells’!
We accidentally stumbled across another cool area after the Hutongs – the Houhai lake. The lake is totally surrounded with bars and restaurants and each place decorated with a selection of lights which looks really cool at night, with all the lights reflecting off the water. There are also plenty of rooftop bars – we ended up on the rooftop of a reggae bar, on a sofa overlooking the river!
I headed straight back to the hostel after our drink, but Gary detoured to Tiananmen Square. I didn’t bother as I have already been before but thought it was something Gary should visit whilst he was here. Unfortunately we didn’t realise the square closed in the evenings, so it was a wasted trip for him. We had to get up early the next day for a train, so we spent the right of the night relaxing in the hostel bar!
Next stop, Xi’an!