We’d heard all manner of horror stories about the manic, chaotic nature of the largest train station in Asia, so set out very early to try and collect the Beijing tickets ordered for us by Anny’s husband, Frank. Sure enough, we arrived at Shanghai’s Hongqiao Railway Station to find thousands of people milling about, huge queues and limited English signage. So we asked the nice lady at the ‘Enquiries’ desk where we should go – ‘2nd floor, ticket counter 9’ she told us. We ignored the huge queues at most of the staffed windows of ticket counter 9 and instead walked straight up the window marked ‘Passport holder ticket collection’ where we presented our passports and collected our tickets. All done in under 10 minutes. What hassle!?
We’re convinced Shanghai’s efficient, reliable and cheap subway system acts as a training ground for travellers to traverse any underground railway across Asia (as we found out in Tokyo). Beijing’s subway system proved equally as reliable, taking us from Beijing South station to Nanluoguxiang (near our hotel) for the pricely sum of 20p each.
Call it irony, satire or a deliberate joke; we checked into the ‘Beijing Traditional View Hotel’ and were surprised to be allocated our particular room. Never mind not having a view, our room didn’t even have a window. After a little complaining, the friendly hotel staff moved us to one that did.
We hadn’t realised quite how close our hotel was to one of Beijing’s most popular famous “hutongs” (alleys): Nanluoguxiang: a narrow street filled with tiny shops, bars and restaurants. After dark the street sellers appear, tempting the passing visitor with temporary tattoos, clothes, bags, plush mallets, Union Jack piggy banks, etc.
Bron and I have a preference to explore on foot, taking taxis only as a last resort. Google Maps told us the Forbidden City wasn’t too far to the south from our hotel, so we headed out on our walking expedition. What Google Maps failed to show us was that the only entrance was at the attraction’s south (something we had to discover for ourselves after walking around it for a particularly long time). At the risk of insulting our hosts, the Forbidden City is a very strange attraction, consisting of many elaborately architected buildings, most of which visitors are not permitted to enter. Not willing to join in with the scrum (nigh on literally in places) to peer through windows nor the fight to establish a line of sight for photography, our visit consisted of simply looking at buildings then walking to another building. All very impressive, but very underwhelming for Bron and I, normally used to exploring both the inside and the outside of exhibits. Completing our disappointment, we discovered we’d unknowingly been following a one-way path, leading to the exit at the Forbidden City’s north. Our next chosen destination: Tiananmen Square, directly to the south of the Forbidden City.
Tiananmen Square has incredible historical and cultural significance (I’ll let you research it, dear reader*, should you not be familiar). It’s an impressive sight to see in person, even if it does offer little to directly observe for the exhausted tourist whose feet are demanding respite from both the heat (32 degrees) and all the bloody walking.
According to the Fitbit, we walked a total of 29 miles during our three days in Beijing. Fortunately, most of the thick, acrid smog we’d read so much about had dissipated, leaving the sky not too dissimilar to Shanghai on a sunny day. Perhaps we were fortunate, but walking without fear of coating our lungs with a putrid veneer improved our visit immeasurably.
On our final Beijing day, we took the subway out to the confusingly named Summer Palace (since it’s more of a park, and definitely isn’t a palace). Without a doubt, the most impressive attraction we saw during our brief visit to Beijing, again on a fairly sunny, warm day. A massive park, spread over nearly 3 square kilometres, featuring a huge lake (which we explored on a battery powered, super speedy boat), ancient buildings (some of which we were actually allowed to enter) and beautiful scenery. Our half day there wasn’t nearly enough to explore it all – in fact it’s difficult to do it justice in words; the photos below do a much better job.
Having been used to prices in Shanghai for a year, we were surprised to discover the majority of prices in Beijing were nearly half that of its coastal rival. In the UK, the opposite is true, with the capital city displaying an air of arrogance that demands additional charges for just about everything, as if the visitor is paying extra for the privilege of simply being allowed to visit London.
On Thursday we eventually managed to convince a taxi driver to take us to our next stop – a hotel near the Badaling section of the Great Wall. The hotel claimed to offer a private trail to an unrestored section of the wall, but failed to mention what this meant in reality: a very steep climb up a mountain path and three confused construction workers reluctant to let us explore the wall, pointing out the sheer drops on either side. We ignored them, slid down bits of the wall, climbed other bits but eventually agreed with the construction workers that the fear of death was greater than the joy of exploring the wall without any other tourists present.
We persuaded the hotel staff to take us to the Badaling section of the wall on Friday morning, with our attempt to beat the tourist rush partially successful. We chose to walk up to the wall rather than take a cable car or a ‘sliding car’: an excellent decision since it meant we could wander along a section of the wall in relative isolation. Reaching the end and heading back in the opposite direction is where we found most of the other tourists. From orange capped bus tour visitors (most groups seem to have orange hats of varying shape so I’m not completely clear how this helps identify them) to random family groups and a few Westerners, we found them all, seemingly at once. Stamina is the winner here though – persevering down and up the steep slopes, climbing steps higher as high as tables and sliding down slopes thanks only to the all-important handrail, the visitors thinned out dramatically as we reached the opposite end of the accessible Badaling section. We walked along the wall for over 8 miles – a fairly long walk even by our standards, but a walk involving climbing nearly 2,500 steps upwards (again, according to the Fitbit).
The wall, of course, is incredible. We were tired enough after walking it – building it (and restoring it) represents an astounding feat of human engineering, ingenuity and strength.
I’m writing this on the train back to Shanghai from Beijing, currently speeding along at 301 km/h. If only trains in the UK were this efficient…We’ll get back with 4 nights remaining of our short-lived but utterly fantastic Chinese adventure.
*Sorry, very Christopher Hitchens-esque.