Five Days in Beijing
Posted on 14 November 2014
This blog post should be titled ‘Five days in Beijing by The Accidental Tourist’, as my recent time spent there with my family was the result of good-luck & serendipity not good planning. Yet funnily enough, as is often the case in these circumstances, it led to a fabulous holiday that unfolded organically and added to the enjoyment. Initially it didn’t appear it would. Pre-Beijing we spent a week in Hong Kong, where we were universally told by a variety of friends and colleagues, “You have chosen the worst dates. The Chinese National day is October 1. Everything will be shut for 1-3 days, and the crowds will be terrible!"
So although we resolved to make the most of it and not heed all the tales of gloom, it was with some trepidation that we arrived in Beijing.
Our first pleasant surprise was that the limousine we had booked seemed to meet no traffic and got us to our hotel in what felt like under half an hour! Score one. No horrific Beijing traffic jams that we had heard so much about!
Once we had checked in our plan was, if possible we would get at least one of the major sights under our belt that afternoon, so we were pleasantly surprised to find our hotel “The Grand Hyatt Beijing” was on the same road as both Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City, and within walking distance. Score two!
“Hardly anyone speaks English, so don’t leave your hotel without the name and address of where you are staying written in Chinese”, was also oft repeated advise, so each of us armed with a handful of cards with the hotel name and address written in Chinese, we set off to walk to check out Tiananmen Square & see if we could pre-purchase tickets for the Forbidden City for the next morning. The fun started almost immediately. Firstly there are 6 of us so we are always a fairly obvious group anywhere, but in Beijing, add to that we are each tall, and each blonde or fair-haired, we definitely stood out! Heads turned, and hands pointed as we were carried along in the stream of people also heading in the same direction. As we stopped at the first security check-point on the side-walk, we noticed people taking photos of us. From then on anytime we stopped to get our bearings, groups of teen-age girls would surreptitiously be staring at my 3 sons and taking photos with their phones, and mothers with young children would come up to me and mime permission to take a photo of their child with my daughter Tallulah. It definitely added to the experience of being somewhere exotic and foreign!
Tallulah posing for the first of many photographs with shy little girls!
As we arrived at Tiananmen Square we were approached by a man speaking heavily accented English asking if we needed a guide while we were in Beijing. At first we ignored him, but he persisted with the age old - “where are you from?” to which my daughter answered “Australia”, and with that he came out with “Gidday mate” in a perfectly broad Australian accent! Very funny coming in an unexpected way from a small Chinese man! So the ice was broken and score three was finding a guide who was also a history professor for a third of the price we had been quoted by the hotel. He earned his fee twice over when his first piece of advice was to do the Forbidden City right now rather than tomorrow morning because “it is too busy, everyone does it in the morning, whereas in the afternoon there is no-one”. Within minutes of us agreeing we were running through the crowds following “Bill” so we could get in a side door before cut-off time!
The Forbidden City was amazing. In the afternoon light and with our story-teller guide there was a sense of other-worldliness that was magical. And Bill was right – there was hardly anyone there! The tales we had been told by everyone of walking through at a shuffle - shoulder to shoulder with crowds - couldn’t have been more opposite for us. It was like having the place opened just for us. Apart from the ancient Chinese architecture and the fascinating history, the marvel was the sheer size of it. It is both huge and tiny. Huge because as the worlds largest ancient palace it takes up 720,000 square meters (7,747,200 square feet/180 acres) – to put that in perspective the Vatican measures 440,000 square meters, and the Kremlin measures 275,000 square meters. Conversely it is also tiny when you consider that over a period of 500 years its inhabitants lived their entire lives within the walls!
As we exited through the imperial garden in the approaching twilight I felt like I was on the set of a movie. The only negative to doing it at the end of the day was that we did not have the time to linger and soak up just being there. So we took our time walking back to the hotel, along the moat that surrounds the Forbidden City, and then through the local streets and hutongs (which are basically narrow streets/alleys lined with traditional style structures both residential and shops). There seemed to be traditional lanterns and Chinese flags everywhere, leaving us in doubt as to where we were. It was the perfect way to end our first day.
The Great Wall has been on my bucket list for sometime and was the main reason for wanting to come to Beijing, so the next morning we were up early to be met by Bill and his ‘friend’ who drove us to Badaling the most visited section of the Great Wall approximately 50 miles north-west of the city. We were all dressed for hiking but I was still unprepared for how high it was and how much effort was required. It certainly is not for the unfit or anyone with a heart condition! Once again we were really lucky as the day we chose to do The Wall was a perfectly sunny and cool Autumn day – not too cold and not too hot – which made the climb so much more do-able and pleasant. No wonder it is on most 7 Wonders of the World lists. Built in 1504 during the Ming Dynasty, it is truly awe-inspiring. The sheer scale and age of it really give you pause for reflection as you do the climb.
On the way back to the City we visited a Jade Factory and a local Chinese Tea House. Bill was definitely getting kick-backs, as these places were aggressively hell-bent on selling their beautiful but highly over-priced wares! The Tea House though was a beautiful way to spend an hour of the afternoon. It quite a meditative experience, listening to soft traditional Chinese music as we were made various Chinese teas and instructed about the purpose and benefits of each.
The Pixiu Dragon is the 9th dragon and is associated with wealth. He's my favourite - and this one is carved from a spectacular piece of Jade at the factory we visited
At first glance - how is this tea pot staying up?? Ohhh got it now...
Of all the teas we sampled this fruit tea was truly amazing!
Day three for us was the eve of Chinese National Day. The hotel concierge had advised that many things would either be closed that day or scheduled to close early, so if sight-seeing was planned get out and about early. They also advised traffic congestion would be at a peak, so it was with this in mind that we decided to take the guest bicycles out and ride to the Temple of Heaven. With a family of six I was a little concerned being on bikes in a crowded foreign city that it would be difficult to stay together, but Beijing is one of the most bicycle friendly places I have ever been. There are wide bike lanes and a high level of awareness of bikes, so it turned out to be one of the most fun-filled parts of the entire visit. I highly recommend to anyone visiting Beijing to take a bike for a day or two because you truly get to experience the city.
The Temple of Heaven was another amazing ancient structure, surrounded by the most beautiful parkland/gardens. It is universally recognized as a feat of architecture and landscape design and is on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. On the day we went the gardens were filled with locals on holiday dancing to traditional music or playing mahjong or some sort local ‘hacky-sack’ with what looked like a shuttlecock. The only negative to enjoying the surrounding beauty and activity were the many vendors trying desperately to convince us to purchase whatever they were selling!
Day four was the Chinese National Day 1 October. We had been advised it would be better to stay at the hotel. Although at breakfast other guests told of going at dawn to Tiananmen Square to watch the flags being raised and being pleasantly surprised by how peaceful and calm it was, we were happy to stay in as the weather that day turned out to be cold, windy, and rainy. Our day was spent by the hotel pool – 2 levels underground, in a temperature controlled, environment that was like something out of Las Vegas! Huge fake trees and rocks set out to re-create a jungle lake/island (??) complete with croaking frogs and cicada noises piped through hidden speakers to create further ambiance. Not exactly my idea of decorating but for the younger kids it was a whole lot of fun, and certainly a great way to spend an otherwise cold, miserable weather day.
As many tourist sights were still closed, on day five we decided to check out the local shopping, both high end and China-fakes. We started at the Ya Shu Market in the Sun Li Tong area, which is a five storey building filled with small vendors each basically selling the same thing, so they aggressively compete on price. Shoes, clothing, handbags & luggage, electrical goods, toys, and jewelry were all there. Sun Li Tong also has lots of bars and restaurants, so if you have had enough shopping it’s a good place to head to anyway.
After lunch we returned to the hotel to wander the mall that adjoins it, and the streets directly adjacent where every global luxury brand seemed to have a store or stores! It was fun to wander and window shop, but in terms of shopping we found Beijing to be disappointing. It was expensive and uninspiring. Apart from the amazing, historically significant buildings and sites we came to see, the Beijing we found and appreciated was that which we found behind the façade of the modern metropolis as we walked through the local hutongs and rode our bikes about the city.
Where we stayed:
Grand Hyatt Beijing. A bit dated in décor but wonderful food and service with an almost perfect location to explore Beijing.
Where we ate:
At local restaurants where ever we went, and also within the hotel. Our favourite restaurant at the hotel was of all things the Italian - Da Giorgio! The pasta was amazing (I guess it was originally Chinese!!) as was the wine selection.
What we did:
The Great Wall – Badaling
The Forbidden City
The Temple of Heaven
A Local Tea House Ceremony
Rode bikes around the city
What I wore:
As you can see by the photos I lived in my Camilla Silk Cargo pants (both black and nude) and a variety of Luxury T-Shirts, with the Lucia Leather jacket to help cope with the changing temperatures in Beijing in Autumn