As I mentioned in the previous post, Beijing was the first place on this journey that I’ve actually been to before. Nearly a decade ago, it took me a couple of days to get used to it – and it was the biggest culture shock I’d been through, but after that I really bought into it. This time the culture shock wasn’t there – lack of novelty combined with maturity, change in Beijing and the trains through Russia put an end to that.
Beijing has definitely changed, a far more comprehensive metro exists and we found it pretty easy to get around. Every metro journey costs 2 yuan (around 20p) which is fantastically good value and we could could get pretty much everywhere we wanted to go on it. There has also been quite a bit of development/gentrification around some of the hutong (alleyways running between the more main streets). As well as some of the major bar/boutique tourist areas, we found a superb little hutong near us with a couple of superb coffee shops and, gloriously for Amy, an excellent vegan restaurant. So far, Amy’s veganity hasn’t been *too* major an issue – she’s pretty practical and will eat fish/eggs if needs be – but it was definitely good to find a specific place.
Originally we had planned to just stay three days in Beijing and then head down to Guilin, but booked out trains prevented that from working out. The result is we stayed for six days and will take the super-fast (>300kmph) train to Guangzhou and on to Hong Kong. This was a blessing in disguise as it gave us much more time to relax into the city. We’ve quite rushed our way across Europe and Asia due to a deadline heading to Nepal, but this was a definite wake-up call in terms of enjoying ourselves. Two days here and there is quite knackering – and while necessary at time (6 months really isn’t that much time to see what we’re trying to see) it’s great to get a week occasionally to put down a few more roots and recover.
My top three memories of Beijing from before were The Forbidden City (a bit eh), the Summer Palace (lovely) and the Great Wall (well, pretty great). All these impressions were fully confirmed, the Forbidden City is rammed with tourists and not that interesting. Even if you start imagining that you’re in an RPG walking around an ancient city looking for a smithy. Which, errr, maybe I did? We eschewed the closer sections of the Great Wall (apparently full of people) to take a 3 hour trip out to the Jinshanling wall. We then got a lovely quiet 3 hour hike along ancient (and in certain cases slightly crumbling) sections of the Wall. We also had a hike around the lake at the Summer Palace – shady and breezy, pleasantly relieving the heat.
On top of these, we also went to a cool art district – Area 798 – a couple of museums and parks and finished up with a trip to the Peking Opera. The Opera was a fun, albeit screechy, display of dance, song and martial arts.
Our constant companion, however, was the haze. On a couple of days it appeared the Sun might burn through, but not even a major thunderstorm really cleared the air. Even as we hurtle across the Chinese countryside we’re still surrounded by mist and funk. It’s a very odd experience. While you don’t get a great view of the stars at night in London, there must be a generation of Beijingers (and beyond) with very little views of the celestial ceiling. Maybe the air clears more during other seasons, but it was definitely a surprise that it remained post an almighty storm.
Anyway, a week in Hong Kong beckons. We’re taking the fast train to Guangzhou, connecting to Shenzhen and then walking over the border. Should be interesting. It’ll be good to get full internet access back as well – WordPress and Facebook have both been blocked here, but more irritating is Feedly, which both Amy and I use heavily for our daily net consumption.