Friday 15 May 2015
My train rolled into Beijing West Railway Station at 6:50am. After a decent sleep on my firm bed on the overnight train from Xian, I was feeling fairly awake. I took the metro over to Dengshikou for 4 RMB (48p) and checked into the Beijing Red Wall Garden Hotel. I decided on this occasion to take up their buffet breakfast as it appeared to be a quality hotel which meant hygiene was probably quite high too. I had everything from steam pork, shrimp and sweetcorn dumplings to fried rice and peppered beef. Delicious!
After breakfast and with no time to waste, I headed over to the Forbidden City which was about a 3km walk from my hotel. After clearing the airport security style checkpoint, I was amazed as the sheer number of visitors (mainly Chinese) was unimaginable. A conservative estimate would be that there was at least 500,000 today, so getting a picture with no one else in it was going to take something special. Somehow with patience and luck, I got one at the Ming Dynasty Gate at Tian’an Men where Mao’s portrait hung.
Walking through the gate, I entered the Forbidden City grounds. The entrance fee was 60 RMB (£7.20) for the whole site. Passing through the Meridian Gate, I approached the Golden Water where five marble bridges crossed over it to the Gate of Supreme Harmony.
After passing through the Gate of Supreme Harmony, I walked up to the Hall of Supreme Harmony (you can see the theme running here) where a sandalwood throne was placed. Trying to get a picture of it was interesting as the majority of Chinese visitors were pushing and shoving to get to the front to simply take their cameras, point, click and leave.
From the Hall of Supreme Harmony, I made my way to the Hall of Preserving Harmony and so on. One of the most interesting sights here was the 200 ton sculpted ramp made from one single piece of marble. In order for the marble to be brought to the Forbidden City, the roads were iced in winter so it could be dragged along.
Spending a solid 3 to 4 hours here, I moved on to Bei Hai Park to visit The White Dagoba. This was a white stupor built for the fifth Dalai Lama in 1651. The entrance fee into the park was 10 RMB (£1.20). Thinking that was cheap, I ventured to the Jade Island where I would access the Dagoba. However, upon reaching the entrance to the walk to the stupor, I was told it was another 10 RMB (£1.20). Rather inconvenient, I would have preferred if they simply had one fee to access everything. Anyway, fee paid, I walked up the steep stairs to the White Dagoba which had been rebuilt twice due to earthquakes.
My hayfever was kicking in by this point. Sneezing my way out of the East Gate of Bei Hei Park, I wandered up to find a few places to have a brew after walking about 12 miles today. First place was the Contempio Bar set in a lovely peaceful alley. As I sat with my first TsingTao, the fountain in the background providing the calm sound effects, I contemplated on where my next beer venue would be.
Being all about the ‘Hutongs’ (alleyways), I found the Orchid Bar which had 2 roof terrace levels. Climbing to the top, I soaked in the atmosphere as the sun shone behind me.
I then found a lovely roof top bar on Yandai Xie Jie where the day became night. Just around the corner, like a snake charmer, the neon lights by Qian Hai lake enticed me near where locals where drinking past midnight, listening to live bands playing anything from Chinese Rock to Reggae and indulging in a bit of live karaoke. At 2am, I felt Beijing had offered me plenty on my first day here so I decided to call it a night….
Saturday 16 May 2015
A lazy morning today as the first activity of the day was to attend a Tea Ceremony booked at my hotel for 11am. My host was very demure and interesting as she began the process of serving tea. Starting with the washing of a Ming Dynasty cup for me to drink out of, she held aloft a jar of Asian Tea which was 50 years old. I was told that we could get 20 rounds of tea from a single serving simply by topping up the water. Being an old tea, it was expensive too. It had a real earthy taste to it with a solid brown colour. After washing the cups, she pours hot water over the tea leaves and then transferred the brew over to a small jug to serve.
As the tea process was continuing, a whole array of snacks arrived which was very welcome as I hadn’t eaten breakfast at that point.
After an hour and a half, my host then pulls out a tin of Green Tea for me to try. Described as being “the top level” of green tea, it was very expensive and rare. Either way, it was delicious. I would say it had a oyster flavour to it but when drunk, it was extremely light and refreshing.
Refreshed and slightly high on caffeine, I took Line 5 on the metro from Dengshikou to Tian Tan Dong Men for 3 RMB (36p). Here, I paid a visit to the Temple of Heaven for 35 RMB (£4.20). This was where the emperor would pray to heaven and offer sacrifices to the gods. At the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, I was presented with a grand circular tower which was built in 1420 and without a single nail. Really impressive!
It appeared to be a popular venue for couples to have their “wedding pictures” taken. Girls in flowing long red dress with the backdrop of the tower even made me appreciate the beauty.
Dinner was on the cards by this point at 4pm, so I had a pork and rice meal in the cafe within the Temple of Heaven complex, which was delicious.
With a bit more energy, I wandered over to the Imperial Vault of Heaven to jostle with the locals a bit more, before walking over to the Round Altar. One stone in the centre of a circle, there were 9 concentric circles around it, with each circle split into multiples of 9 pieces. I’ve never seen so many people so enthusiastic about standing on one stone (the centre one). Allegedly, it was said to be “the centre of the earth”!
Enough craziness, I took the metro back to the hotel after exiting the South Gate of the complex. Enjoying a few quiet TsingTao’s in the lovely inward looking courtyard, I retired to my bed at midnight as I had an early start planned….
Sunday 17 May 2015
Woke up at 3am today so that I could walk the 2 miles to the Forbidden City to watch the sunrise over it. As I arrived at the security checkpoint at 4:30am, I soon began to realise that I wasn’t the only one heading in that direction and in fact, there was already a crowd forming. Locals were ingeniously renting out patio stools for people to stand on so that they could see over the person in front of them. At 30 RMB (£3.60), there was certainly a lot of takers. I couldn’t believe that all these people were either here to see the sunrise too or queue to get into the Forbidden City. What they were all really waiting for was the ceremony of the raising of the National Flag on Tian’an Men Square. Once the flag was raised, everyone went on their merry way whilst I hung around the Tian’an Men Gate to watch the sunrise over in the horizon.
Glowing red, it was an amazing sight and I can rest happily saying I had done it! Once the sun had risen, I walked over to the square to begin queuing at 6am for Mao’s Mausoleum. Again, I wasn’t the first person there which was surprising. I settled into my position in the queue and waited for 2 hours until 8am when the Mausoleum was open. To wile away the time queuing, I indulged in plenty of people watching, observing how Chinese tourists from other provinces act whilst in public. Not ashamed to hack up phelm and spit it out there and then, or queue jump, pushing and shoving despite not being able to get into the mausoleum until 8am. I acquired an opinion that it is due to a lack of education that many Chinese tourists are like this.
At 8am, the queue quickly moved as I snaked my way toward Mao, exiting the building by 8:40am. Witnessing Mao laid in his crystal casket with a red flag draped over him, he had a certain waxwork look to him. Laid so that his feet are pointing toward the Forbidden City, to his left the Great Hall of the People and to the right the National Museum of China, it was purposely done this way for Feng Shui. However, it was very interesting and I can say it was another thing ticked off the list.
Breakfast time as I walked back toward the hotel. En route, I dived into a local eat and ordered some chicken noodles with some dumplings. It was all fresh and delicious.
I walked back to the hotel to pack my rucksack and relocate further south in the city to Chongwenmen Hotel where I would be meeting a group of travellers joining me on an excursion on the Trans-Mongolian Express for 21 days.
Whilst waiting for the arranged 6pm meeting organised by GAdventures, I nipped over the road for a quick TsingTao beer. After my refreshment, I met up with the rest of the group in the hotel lobby. The group was diverse ranging from the young who were doing a few years of work and travel to a couple of retirees. My initial impression of them all was that they seemed nice people so it’ll be interesting what my final verdict is on them after 21 days. Pleasantries out the way, we all went up to a meeting room to listen to our guide, Svetlana from Siberia, who would be with us for the whole journey, explain the itinerary and to complete a little bit of paperwork. 12 people in the group including her, we all agreed to go for dinner over the road to a recommended restaurant where they serve great Crispy Duck. We’d agreed to order what we wanted and split the bill 12 ways equally to save any arguments.
The delicious food duly arrived and everyone tucked in. Some more than others like it was their last meal. I sat back slightly to observe and knew that there would be plenty of food not to treat it as a free for all. After the meal, we said our goodnight’s and went our separate ways as some went to the supermarket, others had a short walk and others went straight back to their rooms…
Monday 18 May 2015
I was told we would meet at 6am in the hotel lobby as it was an hour and a half bus ride to the Great Wall of China. This was something that made me very excited. The minibus eventually arrived about 10 minutes late. This wasn’t a good start as I hate lateness and try to be as punctual wherever I can. Bundling into the vehicle, we set off as I got more acquainted with my fellow travellers. We soon arrived at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China where the entrance fee of 25 RMB (£3) and shuttle bus of 15 RMB (£1.80) was included in the whole Trans-Mongolian Express trip. Walking past a Burger King (I shook my head at this point) within the site complex, we were told we would all meet back at Subway (yes, the sandwich shop) at 11:30am.
I couldn’t believe we only had about three and a half hours to explore. Without wasting any more time, I started my climb up to watchtower number 10. This was already a steep incline and a gentle nudge to let me know that this is the terrain I would be doing that morning. I eventually reached the wall with a slight sweat on my brow but I was soon distracted as I gazed out into the distance to admire one of the Wonders of the World.
I spent the morning walking up to watchtower number 11 then down (or should I say down, then up, then down, then up), soaking up the breathtaking views and simply admiring how the Chinese people built this huge section of the wall in 1368. Once I had reach watchtower number 1, I then climbed back to watchtower 6 where there were three options to getting down the hill. First option was to walk down, second was to catch the cable car and the third was the toboggan, so it’s no surprise which one I obviously chose.
Reaching the bottom after a fantastic ride down the shoot, we all duly met up at Subway where some of the group tucked into a sandwich. Shameful as we’re in China with such gorgeous food but some were too hungry to care I guess!
We all got back to the minibus where it had parked up at midday with no sign of the driver. I knew this guy was going to be trouble! 30 minutes later, he eventually showed up to drive us 2 hours back to the hotel in Beijing. Arriving back at the hotel, I quickly nipped over to the mall next door where there was a Hong Kong Style restaurant.
I then played tour guide to a couple in my group showing them the Bell and Drum tower in the north of the city which once marked the northern city limits.
Afterwards, we sat in the Hou Hai area on a roof terrace to enjoy a few sundowners before exploring the Hutongs (alleyways and bars).
Tuesday 19 May 2015
I don’t know whose idea it was to stay out drinking in the Hutongs until 2am because getting up for an 8am guided tour around Tian’an Men Square was definitely a struggle. Our local Chinese guide called Lee met us all at the hotel and led us to the square with his “Furby creature” on a stick. It was only 8:30am and already it was heaving with Chinese tourists.
Quickly pointing out Mao’s Mausoleum, the People’s Monument and the National Museum of China, I was then allowed 10 minutes to wander around the square. I had a walk up to the People’s Monument where six school girls stood on parade at the base of it. I’m not sure why they were there but in the ever increasing heat, I can’t imagine they would be sticking it out for long.
Moving across the road via the subway, we had a brief summary about the Forbidden City. What was interesting to find out from Lee was that the portrait of Mao at the Tian’ an Men Gate weighed about 2 tonnes and was touched up every year since being exposed to the elements all the time. It was also interesting being guided around the Forbidden City by a local so that I could ask questions about the history of the place, rather than rely on reading my guide book whilst sightseeing on my own. With the sun getting hotter and hotter, and the crowds getting bigger, I began to play “take a picture of the Furby Creature in front of ancient buildings”.
The tour came to an end at around 11:30am when half of the Forbidden City began to close to control the crowds. Not sure what it achieved by funnelling people into one direction rather than ceasing to sell tickets to enter the site, but if this was my first visit to the Forbidden City, I would have been bitterly disappointed. It was a good decision to visit the Forbidden City prior at my own leisure and explore the whole site with a lot less crowd.
Feeling rather famished, I returned back to where I ate yesterday for some more BBQ Pork buns, a Roast Duck, Char Siu and Rice dish and for dessert, Chinese Egg Tarts.
After my one meal of the day, I popped down to the basement of the mall to the supermarket to pick up a few supplies for my upcoming 30 hour train journey out of China to Mongolia. It was fascinating to look at random Chinese products including a box of “not so friendly looking” biscuits. They even had fish tanks selling shrimps, oysters and sadly, turtles! (Sorry, no pictures of those)
I then ventured out to the market stalls just off Wangfujing Street where they were selling all sorts of touristy tat from chopsticks to Buddha statues. You name it, they probably sold it. As I took a left up one market street, I appeared to have stumbled upon the street food section. Here, they sold noodles, dumplings and insects on skewers consisting of Scorpions, Grubs, Seahorses, Snakes and Starfishes!!!!! Why would anyone want to eat a Starfish?!
Having reached the end of the market, it was refreshment time, so I rested at a local restaurant and had some beers at 15 RMB (£1.80) each.
The market area I was drinking in was beginning to close up at around 10:30pm, so I drank up and returned back to my hotel for the evening. The anticipation and excitement was beginning to build for the next part of my journey…
Wednesday 20 May 2015
Today was the beginning of my journey to Mongolia. I packed my rucksack and belongings before popping down to the supermarket for some last minute supplies. Meeting the rest of the travel group at 10am, we all hiked toward Beijing Railway Station on foot. It was already way past 25C and cloudless as we all fought our way through traffic and crowds with all our luggage. It was certainly hot work.
We boarded the train at 11am and got into our assigned cabins. By 11:22am sharp, my K3 train to Ulaanbaatar departed gently out of the station. The view out of the window was absolutely beautiful. With the picturesque view in the background, Svetlana explained the timetable to me and my cabin mates who I would be sharing with for the next 30 hours.
Unexpected meal vouchers were handed to our group at 12:30pm. Before I knew it, Svetlana was herding us toward the restaurant car for rice, vegetables and chicken and green peppers. To be honest, it wasn’t bad. I was certainly expecting worse or nothing at all.
After lunch, I settled back in my carriage to admire the view out of the window in the 27C heat. The landscape was filled with rocky hills covered in green, this was certainly the journey I was expecting. It was very relaxing and peaceful.
As I headed toward Inner Mongolia and the Chinese border, I got involved in some card games with my fellow travellers. Learning some new games, the name of them were quite expletive for example, S***head and A***hole.
‘I know, let’s invent a card game
What shall we call it?
I don’t know, let’s call it…..’
Whoever comes up with these things??? Anyway, it was certainly entertaining and a good way to socialise. I took a break from the card games as the sun began to set in the west behind wind farms and hill tops.
We eventually arrived at the Chinese border where an official passed through our carriage to collect our passports. He was very thorough as he satisfied himself that each passenger actually looked like their mugshot in the passport. I didn’t see my passport again for about 2 hours when he disappeared up the carriage with it as the train then made its way into a train shed. It was here that each carriage would have to change its bogies (wheels on the train). This was necessary because the tracks in Mongolia and Russia are a different width to the standard train track in China. Why are they a different width? To stop an invasion on the countries by rail.
By midnight, we set off on our way into Mongolia…