WARNING: This is going to be a long post, as it covers the majority of my time in China (2700words! :O)
After a long journey (with a short stop in Mongolia) I was ready to actually spend a considerable amount of time in one place. Working my way through the swarm of Chinese tourists, it being National Day Golden week, it was an interesting battle with my cumbersome backpack. That being said my hostel was very easy to reach and the Beijing Metro system is pretty self-explanatory (also it’s in English which helps). Leo hostel is very centrally located just off of Meishi Street which is incredibly close to Tiananmen Square and Qianmen Street, a fairly up-market pedestrianised street.
Walking through the streets for the first time your senses are assaulted by a variety of intriguing scents. Sweet, salty or pungent cheese all come at you at once. But I had no time to stop as I wanted to rest! Unloading my things at my hostel I went about thinking what to do with my first day. I ended up spending a few hours just relaxing before heading out to Houhai Lake.
As I arrived at Houhai the sun was setting and the local bars were lighting up, shimmering across the lake.
It creates a very pretty picture and I was able to get some nice shots, although my camera is a little on the budget side. I had read a little about the lake and how it transforms by night into a thriving club/bar scene for tourists and students, from it’s more serene elderly public gym in the mornings. The former was definitely accurate. Throngs of people amble through the semi-pedestrianised street, being accosted by workers for bars in the road and through speakers. Walking solo I don’t get as much attention as groups but the main gig seemed to be an open-mic element to all the bars (most of which were empty) some with live bands and some with a more karaoke feel. I was here just to explore and ingest the vibes, along with the customary Beijing fumes.
Still very tired and just getting to grips with the place I decided to head back to my hostel. I decided to walk the long way round to try and catch a nice picture of Qianmen (Zhengyangmen officially) the ‘front gate’. It was pretty well lit up so I was able to get a shot but a bus zoomed past leaving a trail of light through the photo. This somewhat sums up Beijing. Ancient buildings with impressive architecture, now an over-populated tourist city.
Refreshed and ready to tackle, or so I thought, the streets of Beijing and do some sightseeing I head out towards the Forbidden City. Upon reaching one of the side roads leading up to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square (just by the National Museum) there is an army of tourists sluggishly moving forwards towards security checks. Upon seeing this sight I decide to quickly turn and go up some stairs into a deserted side-street. The stark contrast between the two settings, merely 5 meters apart, was ridiculous. This was where I decided that my first favourite part of Beijing is the ‘hutongs’.
The hutongs are basically just side-streets that lead off of main streets and are home to a variety of shack like houses. Some converted into little noodle shops or street-side dumpling hawkers, some just very humble abodes. I was later told that these places would cost an incredible amount of money due to their location and couldn’t help but think how rich westerners buying a place in central London or Paris would scoff at the standard of housing.
Fearing the masses and hoping to avoid any crowd-induced conflict, I opted for a slightly less touristy sight of the Drum and Bell Tower, or Gulou and Zhonglou. In relative calm I abled up the bell tower first which offers a nice view of the drum tower, or so I was told. Upon reaching the top of the tower I gazed at the drum tower through the thick smog I was beginning to realise was part of the package when it comes to Beijing. That being said the buildings themselves are quite impressive and the package of both sites is pretty cheap and worth visiting. If you are in the drum tower at half past the hour you can enjoy a demonstration of drumming on replica drums. This is really just for tourists to give an example of what it might have been like in the past when they were used for time keeping.
The nicest thing about these two towers was actually what lay in-between. A variety of groups of 3-6 people, mostly above the age of 40 playing keepy-up with a strange shuttlecock like device. Again I have a video and may upload it at a later date if I choose to subscribe to WordPress Premium. I really enjoyed the game as it was incredibly simplistic and all based on teamwork. Only competing with their previous goal to try and keep the shuttlecock up for as long as possible. I have bought one and intend to practice playing with it all around the world, hopefully creating a compilation of my playing with various hosts and friends.
Now mentioning hosts it’s probably time I got on to describing how I spent 2 weeks of my time in Beijing working with this cheeky monkey, the photo says it all.
Meet Dennis. He’s a 2 year old turning 3 who lives in the outer parts of Beijing with his lovely mother and father.
They kindly welcomed me into their home to play with their son and just talk to him in English as well as try to improve his vocabulary. At first he was very shy but after his lunch and a nap he ran into my room giggling and introduced himself. He’s a very sweet boy and incredibly energetic, can be a little snatchy at times but then will demonstrate such kindness and consideration for you that you completely forget (he is only a toddler after all!). So we spent the first few days mostly playing with building blocks, talking about what we’re building and reading some books. An extensive collection of English reading books was available (along with my childhood instructors, Biff and Chip from the Oxford Reading Tree) so we had plenty to work with. His knowledge of the English language really impressed me for someone of his age, let alone someone whose first language isn’t English. He cannot read yet but is able to articulate himself very well when describing the pictures and can easily identify characters and objects if you ask him to point them out. I’m terribly jealous of the fact that by the time he is 10 (or even earlier) he will be on the way to becoming bi-lingual in Chinese and English, an incredibly useful set of languages. The grandmother of the family even taught me to cook!
At the weekend Elena, Dennis’ aunt, took me to the centre of Beijing to check out the Temple of Heaven Park and the Forbidden City. We set off incredibly early to try and avoid the rush hour but it still felt pretty cramped!
Starting at the Temple of Heaven Park we walked through to check out the various temples and landmarks on offer.
We made our way through the park, amongst many elderly patrons who were playing checkers and chess, or practicing tai-chi or dancing. It was really funny seeing such a peaceful and meditative practice such as tai-chi going on next to people practicing latin dancing. Funny but really nice to see them all keeping active and enjoying their time now they can relax. Our first stop was the ‘Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests’ where, as you guessed it, the emperor went to pray for a good harvest that year. Alongside it was records of the various emperors, how many years they reigned, and how many times they came to pray. I wonder if the people held the emperors accountable for their harvests?
We continued to walk around towards the ‘Imperial Vault of Heaven’ which is surrounded by the ‘Echo Wall’. Upon hearing this I thought it might be similar to the whispering gallery of St Paul’s cathedral were you can hear someone around very far away by turning your head to the curve and speaking. Whilst advertised as such unfortunately the wall is separated from guests by 1 meter and a metal fence. This is in order to protect it from people that would scratch their names in it and otherwise deface what could be quite a bit of fun! The park was nice all in all and a relaxing retreat from the hustle and bustle of the more commercial parts of Beijing, that being said it lacked that grandeur and atmosphere of the great wall.
So for our next stop we set of towards the Forbidden City. Upon arriving, and trying to figure out how to get in, we were told that we needed to buy tickets for the next day. I said no let’s just walk in and see what happens. Once inside the complex we heard that only 20,000 (of the daily allotted 80,000) tickets had been sold so proceeded to enter the, not so Forbidden City. Walking through the Forbidden City it seemed to lack the essence and indescribable quality that the Great Wall offered. Whilst the buildings were pretty
the mass of tourists and gift-shop atmosphere degrades what could be a really enjoyable walk through some history. It made me wonder whether tourists in London feel the same walking around the Tower of London or any of the other sites.
There was an impressive collection of clocks (a lot of which were made in England might I add) that catered to a variety of tastes. Mechanical marvels of all shapes and sizes were grouped together in this exhibit, which you had to pay extra to enter, and I snapped up lots of photos for my brother’s clock collection. We decided to head out to grab some lunch, as this friendly fellow bid us farewell.
A new HelpXer was coming to stay at the house that day, Filipe from Curitiba, Brazil. He has been travelling for over two years, occasionally working in places, using Couchsurfer and HelpX for places to stay, and hitchhiking to travel on land. I know I couldn’t do that, yet anyway! So we spent time talking about places to go, sharing where we had been and where we would like to go and also decided to catch some sights in Beijing while we were here.
Our choices were Tiananmen Square and the Lama Temple (Yonghegong). Tiananmen Square was a first stop, quite literally as still there were massive queues (I use this term VERY loosely) to get through security gates. There was no structure, no order, just lots of people pushing to get closer to the front and ignoring people with crutches, babies or any other thing that a decent person would make allowances for in their conduct when moving through a crowd. It was a shame as it put a really nasty spin on my perception of people from China. Just selfish without regard for other people’s needs and believing their desires to see something or get somewhere more important than anyone else’s. That being said I would assume most of these people were Chinese tourists and not actually from Beijing but I have no way of knowing this. So in response to this, shape up China, you do yourself a disservice and insult your country by leaving a bad impression of how you carry yourself on a day to day basis! Again, despite the historical significance of the place you couldn’t feel any of that atmosphere and I feel you’d appreciate it more from a book.
Moving on to the Lama Temple we jumped on the metro towards the Yonghe Temple or ‘Palace of Peace and Harmony’.
Straight away, just by it being more peaceful and green, I was enjoying the environment more than Tiananmen Square. Upon entering you are given some incense to burn in offering as you pray. The smell, whilst not overpowering, spread throughout the temple complex, complimenting the image of people praying for fertility, health, good fortune, and many other things. I am not religious in any strict sense but I do believe religion to be incredibly important in human life and can appreciate its use as a crutch for living (read my post on the afterlife). I too offered 3 sticks of incense as instructed. If my prayers are answered I am to return to the temple or else endure bad fortune as penance. I am a little confused as I was under the impression that Buddhism did not contain gods or deities yet these temples contain a plethora of statues that embody certain aspects of life. I am not slighting these statues as without proper research I do not fully understand their purpose. Upon a cursory glance it seems to be that these statues (various Buddhas) represent the attainment of various individual’s in aspects of one’s life, and they are not praying to these people (who are human) but merely appreciating their accomplishments and hoping to be able to reach the same heights of enlightenment. But this being said there are various branches of Buddhism, it’s a pretty old religion, and I’m by no means an expert. I will definitely be doing some research though!
After soaking up the serene surroundings of the lamasery we decided to head to the more chaotic side street Da Shi Lar. It’s a great place for people watching along grabbing a (slightly more expensive) street snack. We decided to check out some of the little malls and one reminded me of a place called the ‘Street of a Thousand Delights’. This is a street on an Island called Tinos I visit with my family that we have given this name due to the amount of tat you can find on the street leading up to the island’s iconic church.
Our last excursion was to Longquan Temple which resides within Fenghuangling National Park. Thinking we were just visiting a temple in a nice location, Felipe and I had not prepared for the trek we were about to go on.
We started up the walk through the ‘Love Woods’ so named due to the trees that had grown in twos, at which point we separated from the troupe and continued upwards. Every bend, every turn, every climb, we assumed that we would be nearing the end. This went on for about 30 minutes before we realised this was a much larger trail than we thought! It turns out you could easily spend a day here and as we cleared the woodier parts of the hike we saw a structure (I believe it was the Dragon and Phoenix Pavilion, if my bearing are correct) and decided to make that our goal. We got slightly lost on our way back down and I would really recommend visiting the place. You need a whole day, and it’s a little far out (probably requires a taxi) but it’s a really nice place and you’ll get some good views on a clear day!
Right, I’ve gone on for far too long (2600 words so far, wouldn’t write this much for an assignment!) so I’ll just say that I had a wonderful time staying with my host family in Beijing. They took really good care of me. Fed me to the point of bursting (with delicious food) and did everything they could to make me feel welcome and make sure I enjoy my time in Beijing. I have no doubt that if I had just been a tourist here for this amount of time I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much as I have. I wouldn’t have seen Longquan Temple and the park, I wouldn’t have seen the Da Vinci exhibit we went to (yeah forgot to mention that). I wouldn’t have eaten such a great variety of food. I wouldn’t have learnt as much Chinese. I could go on…but I won’t. A big thank you Beijing, it’s been fun.