Well not quite! Bleary eyed we awoke for our final morning on the Trans Mongolian Railway and were greeted with quite possibly the most scenic day of the journey. The final two hours into Beijing were spent traversing stunning mountains and gorges and we even had our first sighting of the Great Wall. However nothing quite prepared us for our arrival into Beijing Railway Station.
It was manic! Having spent the best part of a week in the Mongolian steppe the mad crush of humanity that is Beijing Railway Station was a bit of a shock to the system. Somehow we managed to find an ATM and negotiate our first Beijing Metro ride all with our train cabin roommates in tow as their hostel was near ours and they didn’t know how to get there.
Our hostel was in a fantastic location. Situated on a lovely little ‘Hutong’ or alley way, close to some of the amazing shopping areas and only a stone’s throw away from Tian’anmen Square – it was the perfect spot for exploring around town.
Over the next few days we hit up all the major tourist attractions, first stop was Tian’anmen Square, the world’s largest public square. The first thing we noticed in Beijing was that there were Police and Military everywhere. The square is surrounded by roads but to access the square you have to take an underpass and go through security. The Soldiers doing the checks were only really interested in you if you were local, doing ID checks and scanning everyone’s bags. Amazingly after the Flag lowering ceremony at 16:45 pm the whole square is closed. It was bizarre, as soon as the ceremony finished Police vans came screaming and soldiers started forcibly moving people towards the exits!
The following day we started early with a line up to see the embalmed body of Chairman Mao, (our second wax figure after Lenin in Moscow). It was incredible to not only see how many people were lining up, but also buying flowers to lay as they walked in and it looked like we were the only non-locals doing so. It would be far to say Mao was in far better condition than Lenin. Mao was then followed by a visit to the Forbidden City, the symbol of Beijing. Temple after temple, palace after palace it really felt like a city within a city. The Temple of Heaven (both unique and beautiful), the Summer Palace Gardens and several of the famous market halls all were part of our itinerary over the next few days.
We also headed out to the 2008 Olympic Stadium, the stunning Bird’s Nest. The Olympic complex was great break from temples and palaces. However, there was something quite sad about the stadium. It looked far older than only five years, and as Natalie put it, it was almost as if you picked the stadium up there would be a ‘Made in China’ sticker on the bottom. Made to look good for the games, but not made to last. Regardless of its slightly run down appearance the engineering of the stadium is still breath taking.
Beijing took us by surprise, we were expecting a bit of a run-down city, busy, smoggy and a bit dirty. What we found was quite the opposite. We had fantastic weather, blue skies and little smog. The most surprising thing thought was how clean the city was. You were hard pressed to find a cigarette butt on the ground, amazing considering how much everyone smokes!
The other thing that took us a little by surprise was just how much of a novelty we were. At least once every day we were stopped and asked to have a photo taken with someone. Either at a tourist attraction, in a park or even with a mouth full of food at dinner, it felt like we were more interesting than some of China’s most famous sites.
We discovered, and fell in love with the people’s fondness of their parks. For us, this was the highlight of Beijing. The public parks bustled with life. Groups of people doing tai chi, playing badminton or table tennis, others performing a type of tai chi with racquets and balls, you name it people were doing it in parks. We stumbled upon rows of people playing cards, or knitting to entire choirs being led by highly energetic, microphone equipped singers. For Natalie, the highlight was all the people ballroom dancing in the parks. Bands would play, or radios were turned up and the parks were turned into massive al fresco dance halls. I was more impressed with all the locals armed with cameras. Gaggles of photographers all sporting the top of the range Canon or Nikon camera, tripod slung over the shoulder, were all stalking out the best photo spots around town. The parks were the life blood of Beijing, and probably the thing we missed most about the city.
Of course any visit to Beijing is not complete without a visit to the Great Wall. As Mao once said, “A man is not a man until he has climbed the Great Wall”. So we decided to take a day trip out to a section of the wall called Mutianyu. It was not the most touristy section of the wall but was easily accessible and had come highly recommended, (thanks Jan and Alan). Our visit also highlighted one of the great things about travelling to China in the winter, there was no one there. We got out there relatively early and for the best part of our first two hours it felt like we had the wall to ourselves. We saw perhaps another 10-15 people and that was it. It certainly lived up to the hype, we loved it, winding like a dragon over the hills and into the valleys we just wished we had more time to visit many of the other sections of the Great Wall.
So after nearly a week in Beijing it was time to head off and further explore China. Beijing has set the bar high, and we reached a new level of excitement for our journey. The Trans – Siberian was a fantastic experience, one we would dearly love to do again, but more of China awaits. Stay tuned to see what sites, tastes and experiences it has for us along the way.