After two entire days of travelling from Glasgow to London to Kiev to Beijing, we finally arrived at our first destination of our nine week trip through East Asia. The process at airports for us, as first time travellers, was extremely long winded and complex. After clearing immigration and collecting our bags we were faced with the task of finding a way into the city. After some severe haggling we managed to book a private car for £25 instead of the offered £50, not only until our return to the airport by meter taxi did we realise the trip should have only cost £8 or 80 Yuan. The hour drive from the airport to the city centre fell during sunrise, and we were able to catch glimpses of the city in relative peace. We drove through the under construction financial district and into the Sanlitun Residential District of Beijing. Never before in my life have I seen roads so wide and busy, and immediately the sense of the city’s dynamism was set by its streets at dawn. We arrived at our hotel, The Sanlitun Inn, at around 5am and were pleasantly surprised by the standard or the rooms and lobbies considering the £111 for 3 nights price tag. This was the first hotel we had ever booked via Booking.com and completely put me at ease with regard to hotels for the remainder of our trip – the photographs and reviews were accurate and helpful.
After a few hours of sleep we headed down to the hotel’s reception to situate ourselves and find out about day trips as our main reason for visiting Beijing was to visit the Great Wall of China. With the receptionist we agreed on a trip costing 260 Yuan – or £26 – each, comprising of a lunch, traditional Chinese tea ceremony and private English speaking tours of the a jade factory, the Ming Tombs, Great Wall of a China and Birds Nest Olympic Stadium.
With that booked and arranged for the following day, we headed out for lunch in a nearby shopping centre then walked to the Worker’s Stadium which was five minutes from our hotel. From there we manoeuvred the city’s complex subway system and visited the stunning Summer Palace – an eighteenth century Qing palace which to this day remains China’s largest royal park. Entry to the palace cost 30 Yuan (£3) each. Inside the vast grounds themselves we were greeted by a bridge with a river flowing under us, the banks of which were lined with craft stores and cafes, small boats cruising along the slim body of water in the sun. The grounds were stunningly decorated with greenery, but the palace itself was a sight to behold. As a Western student of art history, my experience and encounters with architecture had, before visiting Asia, been largely Eurocentric. To see such exsquisitely and colourfully decorated exteriors and interiors was a breath of fresh air for me; exceptionally ornate dragons used to protect the building and the bright reds, greens and blues so common throughout the interiors of the Summer Palace was unlike anything I had ever seen before. From the grounds across the bridge we started to climb up to the palace itself. The view from the top was the highlight for me, on one side of the palace rolling hills seemed to continue forever, and on the other the skyline of Beijing could be seen emerging out of the green. The bright blue sky were so lucky to have in Beijing offset the white and terracotta of the buildings’ exterior wonderfully, and only complimented the green of the distant hills and mountains even more. Meandering through the paths within the higher grounds, we found another part of the palace that overlooked a moat with even more tourist boats and, in the distance, the city.
From the Palace we revisited the subway station and headed towards the Xidan shopping district which offered a mixture of traditional Chinese markets and modern department stores. After some shopping in the market areas of the district and being asked by several strangers if we wanted to go for coffee, we felt sufficiently creeped out and decided to head back to our hotel.
Our second day started at 6.30am for breakfast and packing our bags for a day of touring Beijing’s most popular landmarks. At 8 o’clock we were collected by a minivan with a Chinese driver and an English speaking guide, along with five other European students already on board. As we began to head out of the busy city centre, our tour outlined the day ahead. For around an hour we drove across the vast highways, and I found myself astonished at how far we were driving and how much city we still seemed to have ahead of us. The scale of the city is incomprehensible until you actually visit it, and the drive really began to give me a better idea of the scale of the city itself.
Our first stop was at a traditional Chinese jade factory, where we were taken through the process of mining and creating different object scenes. Although beautiful and impressive in equal measures, seven students are not the best customers for purchasing such goods, and our tour didn’t hold back with telling us how unhappy she was that none of us had bought anything. With regard to this, in hindsight I would have definitely paid a little more to have a shorter tour, or a tour that completely voided any shopping excursions at all, but being as inexperienced with such day trips as we were at this early stage in our trip, we didn’t know to ask more questions (we do now). Having said this, all of the shopping parts of the trip were fascinating – I just wasn’t interested in buying anything.
From the jade factory we made our first sightseeing stop – the UNESCO World Heritage Site Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The tombs began being built in 1420 and are so at the base of Tianshou Mountain. Like the Summer Palace, their white walls and terracotta roofs contrasted wonderfully with the green around them and the blue of the sky, seemingly modest and mundane. Their interiors of hand carved wood, painted in green, red and blue and trimmed with gold leaf are the perfect home for vast gold Buddhist statues atop each tomb.
Afterwards we drove to the Great Wall at Badaling, where we were given an hour to climb the wall and see the sights surrounding it. Although there were thousands of people masking the majority of it, I was mesmerised by the sheer scale of the Wall; steep, steep steps climbing mountainsides with watchtowers periodically dotted across the hills. My first Wonder of the World – I still can’t believe I’ve walked on it!
After lunching nearby our guide took us to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony back in Beijing city centre, then to see the Bird’s Nest Stadium, and finally to a Chinese silk factory. With unbelievable value for money it was a truly incredible day, with countless sights we will hopefully never forget.
Our evening was spent in the city’s financial district, trying to soak up the energy and magnetism of it Before escaping to the dense Chinese forests the next day.
When I look back at how ill prepared we were and how very little we knew about the city before visiting, I’m pretty astounded. As our trip progressed, I began to focus so much less on the logistics of where we had to be on what day to make what flight and so much more on what we would do in every place, how we would get there and how much fun we could have. Travelling is definitely a constant learning process, and I’m glad in a way that I learned from my own mistakes and taught myself the best way of organising things – or not – to suit my needs.
Regardless, I had a wonderful time in Beijing and saw some of the most wonderful things I’ve seen in my life. It was the perfect place to ease us into the often chaotic and fast paced nature of large East Asian cities whilst offering picturesque, traditional sights at the same time. I really can’t wait to go back and see how it progresses and grows, and see so many more of the things it has to offer.