My epic summer adventure – travelling from China to the UK by train across Asia and Europe – began with two days in Beijing.
Myself and my friend Emily arrived quite late on Sunday night and were met at the airport by the guide arranged through RealRussia, with whom we had booked the first part of our adventure – Beijing to Moscow via Ulaan-Baatar, Irkutsk and Yekaterinburg. Emily decided that she wanted to see the flag raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square at dawn, which meant she had to leave at 4am to get there in time. I decided to stay in bed! And when she returned a few hours later I was quite glad I had as her description of the event was “underwhelming”. Her advice – don’t bother getting up for it. Most of the square is cordoned off, which means you end up standing a fair distance away behind the huge crowds of people that have also made the trip, the soldiers are in their standard uniform and the music is canned.
After Emily’s return around 6am we both went back to sleep for a while before starting our day properly about 9.30am. We found out we were too late for the hotel breakfast, which finished at 9am, so we found a little noodle bar down the road for brunch instead.
Having replenished ourselves we set off for the Summer Palace. Emily had intended to visit the Forbidden City after watching the flag raising ceremony, however, contrary to the information on the website, it is closed every Monday.
We had a lovely day at the Summer Palace, which is huge. Even though I’d been there before, because we entered through a different gate I saw a great deal of the grounds, lakes and buildings I hadn’t seen before. We took a boat ride across the lake from the market street to the bridge with seventeen arches, which wasn’t particularly cheap but was a really nice a relaxing way to get around and see the palace and its grounds.
With a pit-stop for coffee (Emily) and ice cream (both of us) halfway through our visit, we finally left at around 4pm (once we’d figured out how to get out! You’d think there would be signs…) to head back towards the hutong we were staying in. We were due to meet a friend of Emily’s but as he was late we had a wander around the hutongs and along the main street of the area. Lined with shops, stalls, cafes and various other food and souvenir products, it was a lively bustle of music, smells, people and fascinating things to see; everything from the shop selling handmade porcelain ocarinas shaped like different animals, to ice creams shaped like roses, delicate fans of every colour and design you could imagine, to someone dressed as a hot dog to attract people to the American-style diner.
MaoMaoChong was our next port of call – a great little cocktail bar in the hutong with an excellent range of cocktails, an owner who speaks English and is happy to cater to your tastes, and delicious pizzas. It was there we met Emily’s friend Z and his girlfriend J and tried some of the tasty cocktails for ourselves. This was followed by dinner at a local place that served a whole leg of lamb over a hot grill in the middle of the table, accompanied by homemade bread and various side dishes such as black fungi, radishes with black bean sauce and a white, thinly sliced vegetable with some kind of gloopy sauce. The lamb was absolutely delicious; so much so that we ordered a second!
We ended the evening having a couple of drinks at a different local bar that has several homebrews as well as a Shenzhen special (which I found quite surprising!). Luckily for me, the owner told me I could order a non-beer drink via him from the restaurant next door and they would even bring it through for me. It was a great end to the first day of our trip.
The following day Emily had booked a hike along a lesser known part of the Great Wall with an organisation called Great Wall Fresh. It’s a family runs business that grows all their own produce and escorts visitors on hikes of various routes and challenges, whilst also providing them with a healthy home grown meal before and after their journey. I had already decided that wasn’t for me, so after having breakfast together and wishing Emily well, I went back to bed for a bit. I was still on sleep catch-up after a really long semester.
In the afternoon I went for a wander around the huntongs by our hotel. It was lovely just wandering around the little back streets, passing odd shops here and there and admiring the traditional architecture wherever I came across it. After a while I came to the back of the nearby temple the hotel staff had told me about before I set off. I followed the wall around to the entrance and discovered it was a huge and well-known temple called Yonghe Temple. I spent well over an hour exploring the grounds which were pervaded by the scent of incense. Looking at the different styles of architecture that had been used for the different temples within the complex during different periods of time or because of variations in the local religion gave an interesting insight into the history of the place. You’re not allowed to take photos inside any of the buildings as they are all still used as active places of worship and prayer; this gives each temple a sense of peace and dignity that all visitors respect, regardless of their own beliefs.
After a bite to eat for dinner at a random place I found in the same area we’d been the night before, I headed back to the hotel to meet Emily after her Great Wall adventure. We decided that we’d enjoyed the cocktails so much the night before we had to go back and try some different ones. We were not disappointed. We also tried the pumpkin, pine nut, rocket and feta pizza, which was delicious and the perfect accompaniment to the cocktails.
We ended the evening with a walk through the huntongs and along the canals to a lake, all beautifully lit among the trees, and had a final drink at the East Shore Jazz Café overlooking the lake. Unfortunately there was no live music and so we were the only people in there, but it was nice and relaxing.
When we got back to our hotel, our other friend Louise had arrived (she was supposed to be on the same flight with us to Beijing but had been delayed), so we said hi to her before going to bed.
The following day began our Trans-Mongolian Railway journey with 28 hours on a train from Beijing to Ulaan-Baator, Mongolia.