Arriving in China felt very strange. It was the first time I’d left Japan and hadn’t been to another country in Asia until then. For some reason I expected China and Japan to be quite similar, mainly because a lot of Japanese culture has its origins in China, but apart from that I was very wrong! I got into a taxi from the airport and showed the driver my hostel’s address. He took one look at it, then turned to me with a bewildered look on his face and let out a loud “HUH?!” in my direction. He chewed his gum loudly while I pointed at the hostel’s address at the top of the page. I was a bit taken aback and suddenly missed the Japanese taxi drivers with their white gloves and smart caps, who smile politely and apologise gently when they’re not entirely sure where it is I want them to take me. But on the other hand I found the people in Beijing refreshing as I spent more time there. They aren’t afraid to speak their minds, and everywhere I went people were having lively conversations in the streets or playing checkers outside their front door, flying kites or riding bikes with speakers that blared out Chinese music as they sailed past me in the road.
One major cultural difference I did not get on with was the amount of gobbing on the streets. I heard that unappealing sound of phlegm being hawked up and its abrupt encounter with the pavement too many times during my week there. But at least some people had the decency to do it into a bin. What struck me most was how interesting Beijing smells; I could not put my finger on it the whole time I was there, but there was always this warm, sweet, spicy aroma floating throughout the streets and hutongs. Occasionally it was met by the not so pleasant stench of sewage, but apart from that, if you walked through China Town in London I think it would be a similar experience; it would just lack the dusty paths, yoghurt stands and ramshackle houses that characterised Beijing’s alleyways. My hostel was located down a narrow hutong in the city, with an inviting lounge and a pretty outside courtyard where the dorms were. The girl in the bunk opposite to me was also on JET and spending the same amount of time in Beijing as me, and we ended up hanging out a few times during our stay which was fun. I met some other friendly travellers too, a group of English teachers based in Seoul and Hong Kong, and we all went on the same tour to the Great Wall together.
I spent every day walking and sightseeing. A lot of major tourist spots consisted of temples, so by the end of my trip I was a bit templed-out. They were very beautiful though, and usually the sights had other things to offer and a fascinating history to boot. On my first day I went on a bike tour led by a guy called Jerry. His English was tinged with a British accent, he was very enthusiastic about the UK and generally a really nice guide so we got along well! I was the only one on the tour so it was great to have a personal tour of Beijing. We cycled through all the backstreets and hutongs, had steamed dumplings and noodles at his favourite childhood restaurant, and he gave me a very detailed explanation of the history of China, which was interesting but I found myself struggling after about 15 minutes. I realised afterwards I hardly took any photos of the hutongs because cycling made it a bit difficult but oh well. Later I went to an acrobatics show, then walked around Tiananmen Square at dusk. The sheer vastness of it all, with the slightly kitsch-looking portraits of Chairman Mao and Sun Yat-sen at either end was weird. One lady came up to me with her camera and said something in Chinese so I assumed she wanted me to take a picture, but then she stood next to me and put her arm round my waist so her boyfriend could take a photo of her with me. So I got one with her on my camera! Then four or five other people saw and also asked to have their picture taken with me… I felt special. There were loads of people gathering in front of the Forbidden City (the bit with Mao’s portrait on it) but I didn’t know why so I wandered off to the night market. I later realised they were waiting for some sort of military parade/changing of the guards type thing that happens every day at dawn and dusk.
The next day I went to Lama Temple and the Temple of Confucius. I loved the earthy reds, greens and yellows of the Lama Temple and seeing so many people and a few monks come to pray. The way they prayed was different to how they do in Japan, as they held a bunch of burning incense between their palms lifted above their heads, and turned to bow in each direction. I actually find watching people pray more interesting than going in the temples! Confucius’ temple was cool as well. There were rows and rows of stone blocks with the engravings of his succesful pupils’ names. Afterwards I tried to find the hutongs again but got lost and went to the next restaurant I came across in desparation. I ordered “marinated pork” and was presented with a huge plate of fat and bones, no exaggeration. There was maybe one tiny strand of meat. The waitress saw me scrounging for meat with my chopsticks and gave me a pair of disposable gloves, but it was all in vain. Luckily I’d ordered a tofu dish as well so that kept me going.
I booked a tour with the hostel to the Great Wall for the next day. We went to the Jinshanling to Simatai section, which is one of the least climbed and less reconstructed parts of the wall. I really wanted to climb the more rugged and less touristy parts, so this 6km hike sounded perfect. Even driving the three hours (although it took us five due to traffic) out of the city had some incredible views of the wall’s remains twisting along the mountains. I totally underestimated the intensity of the wall; I knew it was long, but until I was standing on it I hadn’t realised the true extent of its scale. Over 2,000 years to build, 13,170 miles long and millions of lives lost to its construction… it was kinda creepy. I also forgot that it was built on the mountain tops, so it took us a good 25 minutes of climbing up steps before we could start the actual hike, and we were sweatin’ like.
It was worth it though; seeing the wall stretching out and fading into the distance was really surreal. It looked like someone had piped a neat line of white icing all along the highest points of the mountains, adding a decorative peak for each watch tower. I imagined the wall to be relatively flat, but I was wrong… the path swooped up and down with the mountains’ rise and fall, which made the climb quite challenging. The steps up and down to each watch tower (the section we climbed had 22) were so steep we might as well’ve been scaling a wall (ha ha). It was such an amazing experience though, and very rewarding towards the end of our hike when our surroundings were cast in the warm glow of the early evening sun.
A group of us were desperate to try the famous Peking duck at the restaurant ‘Dadong’, and seeing as the rest of them had to go home the next day we headed straight into town when we got off the bus at 9pm. Dusty, sweaty and tired, we walked into a fancy-looking place on the top floor of a building, still in our hiking gear but too hungry to care! The duck was super tender and served in slices, unlike the shredded kind I’ve had in the UK. Our waitress showed us the proper way to fill the pancake, and to dip the duck skin in sugar before eating it! It was quite nice but I’m all about the plum sauce and cucumber.
The next day I went to the Temple of Heaven, located in a pretty park which seemed a popular place for locals to come down with their mates and play board games, badminton, hackey sack or just sit on a bench and work on their embroidery together. I think I’ll move to Beijing when I’m old! The main building was where the emperor would personally pray to heaven for good harvests, and I got some creepy vibes when I read about the sacrificial ceremonies that they used to have.
I spent the last few days strolling around the hutongs, going to Beihai Park and having lunch at a nice courtyard restaurant with no menus, so the chef decided what to give you based what ingredients were available that day. I got some dried mushrooms in a spicy sauce, spicy chicken, a salad, more mushrooms and a huge piece of fish which I had to take in a doggy bag! I got a surprise when I wanted to use the toilet and they said it was broken so I should use the public toilet around the corner, only to be met with four squat holes in a row with no dividers… I knew Chinese toilets were horrible but this was just unnecessary.
I went out with the my new JET friend a couple of times, exploring the night market full of stalls selling delicious dumplings, gyoza and fruit skewers, and some not-so-appetising delicacies such as scorpions, ox tripe and whole baby birds. We went to Mao’s Mausoleum on our last day early in the morning as it was only open until noon, and joined the masses of Chinese people dressed in their Sunday best to pay their respects. I find it strange how many people still love him even after what he did. It was a very surreal experience; we had to store our belongings in a special locker and went through various security checks, before entering the mausoleum building. There was a huge white statue of Mao in front of which people were laying yellow flowers they’d just bought from the stall by the entrance. We walked to the room where he lay all waxy-looking in his big glass box, surrounded by a beautiful arrangement of flowers. We were shuffled past in silence by security, no stopping to gawk was allowed, and we walked out into the sunlight in a slight daze as to what we’d just seen. He looked so weird. Couldn’t really tell if it was real or not but with the amount of security I had to assume that it was actually him. Still not sure how I felt about it. You can see our reaction faces in the gallery below somewhere.
Finished up the day with a lovely meal at a vegetarian restaurant, which served many dishes stylised as meat but were actually made from tofu. The “cumin lamb” was my favourite, along with a dish of fried tofu, peanuts and mushrooms. I had a few hits and misses cuisine-wise in Beijing, but this was definitely the biggest hit.
Beijing was such an interesting, lively city to explore, and made a welcome break from my quiet Japanese town. I’m not sure I could live in Beijing though, mainly because I’ve been spoilt by Japan’s pristine public toilets and don’t think I can live in a world without soap and toilet paper. Leaving Japan for the first time gave me a new perspective on where I live now, and I actually felt glad to be “home” when I got in my car at the airport and began my drive through the mountains back to Fukaura.