Nothing can prepare you for the vastness of Beijing, the sheer size of the city and the number of people is staggering, but it is also a city of huge varieties. In the middle of some of the main shopping areas with all the designer names such as Chanel and Prada and more high end watch shops than you can count there are still small lanes of grey brick houses called hutongs where families live and little eating places and local shops thrive.
We were lucky enough to be staying at the Red Wall Garden Hotel in a central hutong area, fifteen minutes from the designer shops and five minutes from the nearest subway. This is an oasis of calm built round a lovely courtyard where you can enjoy a meal or a drink after a hard day’s sightseeing. For the adventurous you can pop into one of the nearby eating places, we frequented one we called the donkey place. There is an obvious reason for our nickname in that all the meat dishes use donkey meat, the speciality being a warm flaky pastry sandwich filled with the tasty meat for 60p, excellent with a 600ml bottle of local beer for 50p.
Getting around the city to see the sites is best done on foot, but beware of the distances involved, or by taking the subway which is easy to use, clean, frequent and incredibly cheap. It can be busy during the peak times of morning and evening rush hours but at these times the frequency of trains is one a minute. One thing to note is that the interchanges between lines can be a very long walk. Get a travel card which has a £2 refundable deposit and then add some cash, each journey is the equivalent of 20p and it can also be used for trains to Badaling to see the Great Wall, more below, and on the buses where it gives a discounted fare of 4p – yes that is correct.
The major sites in the city are on a grand scale and the distances you walk inside these attractions can be considerable. There is so much to see in Beijing, in five days we managed the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Lamma Temple, Tian’nemen Square, The Lakes and of course a day trip to the Great Wall. This still gave us plenty of time to enjoy the eating delights of the city from a fine dining experience at Temple restaurant to street food lamb skewers, a speciality.
Temple, which we booked in advance, offers a three course lunch for the equivalent of around £13, this may sound reasonable but when you also get a small glass of champagne and five different dishes of appetisers, an additional fish course, and extra desserts, all complimentary, it becomes incredibly reasonable. When you have experienced the top notch service and excellent cooking it quickly becomes a bargain. The prices on the wine list reach the stratospheric but there are some reasonably priced choices but one tip is avoid the bottled water as it is way too expensive and ask for the regular purified water.
You are never far from an eating place in the city but most small basic places will have no English menu, they may have a picture menu and with the help of a phrase book to point at the words for beef, chicken etc. you can always manage as we discovered even on our first night after a long flight. Lunch and dinner are eaten earlier than in Europe but there are loads of basic places which open 24 hours a day.
One essential dish is of course Peking Duck, and there is great debate about the best place to go, you can read debates about how the duck is prepared, the service, the cost etc. on numerous web sites but we chose Bianyifang, reckoned to be the original, with a number of locations and a locals place. It was excellent and the theatre of your own personal duck chef carving for you was great – as was the duck.
Visiting the Great Wall can be done as an organised trip but on many you have to endure visits to shops and minor attractions which you may not want to see and then have a very limited time at the wall itself. The closest place to Beijing is Badaling, which is decried for being the most touristy and also because the wall has been largely rebuilt. On the plus side it has a cable car and it can be reached by train in 75mins from Beijing North railway station. There are a few vital things that you need to know, get a travel card because you may arrive 2 hours before the train to be greeted with a notice saying all tickets for your train have been sold and the next one is in 2 hours. If you have a travel card this does not matter, it will be swiped and you will be free to enter and wait for your train to depart.
That may sound simple but an hour before the train is due to leave the queue will start, people will push in front and general chaos will ensue until they open the doors and then they will all run and sprint the 300 metres to where the train is sitting. Why they cannot bring the train to end of the platform is a mystery. Those not lucky enough to have got a seat can buy small stools from the platform vendors. The trains are comfortable and the journey currently costs the equivalent of 60p one way. There is now a shuttle bus to meet the train and take you up to the ticket and cable car office and the same going back just make sure to get off at the rail station as some buses go on past there. You will have to endure the same queue mayhem on return but given the cost, the freedom to choose your time to go and return, and the facilities when you get there it is not such a bad choice. Also the way the wall snakes about and down gives picture postcard views, I don’t think anyone will realise it has been rebuilt.
There is lots of information on the Beijing city page on places to eat and drink but as usual in my blogs here are a couple of tips on local drinking habits. Beer is the most common drink and there are a number of bar and nightlife areas. Nanluogoxiang is one of the nicest, this is an old hutong area that has largely been taken over by small shops, bars and eating places. It has a lovely feel, even when busy at the weekends, and there is a huge variety of places to sample beer, wine and cocktails. Prices are reasonable by European standards. The area bordering the upper lakes is also full of bars and restaurants but prices by the lakeside seemed higher. There were a couple of bars with wine lists where the top end prices were in the hundreds of pounds, obviously catering for the Beijing high rollers. Further back from the lakes in the hutong streets were more attractive and more reasonably priced options.
One vital tip is about crossing the road, even when you have a green light traffic still comes round corners and from all angles, they may not stop so be careful but you will get used to this after the first few times.
Another tip is always carry a roll of toilet paper and for European style toilets you have to visit places like Starbucks and McDonalds and the more up market bars. All tourist attraction will have these sort of toilets, look for the signs on the doors !
Also worth mentioning is that all the guide books talk about being pestered by people pretending to want to talk English and this leading to various scams. We did not find that we were bothered very much at all, a couple of people wanted photographs with us but there really was far less than expected.
Another thing that we found was that contrary to what the guide books said, taxis were not easy to find and our hotel told us that for short distances taxis are just not interested. Taking a taxi to the west railway station we had to agree a price in advance rather than using the meter, not something we found in other cities. Be aware of this if you are out for the evening as the metro only runs till approximately 11pm.
The crowds, the noise, the lack of personal space and the queue jumping and pushing locals can at times all seem too much but being able to see the most incredible sites that Beijing has to offer makes all these minor irritations worthwhile.