I spent almost a week in Beijing, it was a nice city and there was plenty to see and do. I stayed in the Dongcheng district at 9 Dragons Youth Hostel which had a great atmosphere and a great crew of travellers. The guesthouse was fairly central, next to the subway, an easy walk to the North Gate of the Forbidden City, close to shopping, food and markets and not too far from the Sanlitun night club area which ended up being a little dangerous with a couple of huge nights out.
I was there for Chinese New Year which in vast contrast to new years in the west, is a quiet (figuratively speaking) family holiday. The guesthouse put on a party for all of us there; we made dumplings and joined the locals in letting off fireworks in the streets. The fireworks are on sale on every corner and for the two weeks following Chinese New Year, called Spring Festival, the place sounds like a war zone as the fireworks and fire crackers don’t stop, night and day, it is constant.
Over the next week I explored some the tourist sites with a few of the people I met at the guesthouse.
I walked around Tiananmen Square which is huge, it is after all the largest public square in the world. There is a memorial to Mao and among other things an array of TV’s near the centre – The TV’s were playing different clips from around the world with the first thing I saw on them being an Aboriginal dance to the Zorba the Greek song, it was defiantly unexpected.
I checked out the Forbidden City with a couple of friends from the hostel, it was after a big night out so we didn’t get there till late and a few of the attractions were already closing up. From what we saw it seemed the Emperor had a lot of different places where he sat in a lot of different thrones for a lot of different reasons. It would have been pretty interesting to visit when all the action was taking place back in the day but now it is just packed with Chinese tourists and the majority of the buildings you can only see from the outside.
A few of us ventured out to the Badaling section of the Great Wall. Although I had read that this was the most touristy place to visit and even though our guesthouse had a great tour to a secluded section of the wall, we still decided to go here. Given it was Spring Festival and all the locals are on holidays it was especially packed. The lines of people heading up the wall didn’t stop and this area was defiantly made for tourists. There were two cable cars, a hotel, KFC, Pizza Hut and a number of other restaurants. Despite all the people it was still really impressive to see the Wall snake along the mountainside far into the distance in both directions. We did it all fairly cheap using public transport and also claiming student price (half price) entry for the Wall using our driver licenses.
One night the four of us also checked out an acrobatic show which was amazing! It was bird themed and began with a crazy bird man and a couple of huge parrots that flew in over the crowd. We then witnessed a range of acts that included; Acrobats being launched into the air with a seesaw type device, girls stacking on top of each other in back breaking positions, guys doing some extraordinary strength based balances and a number of other awesome acts that I can’t begin to describe. I defiantly recommend it, it was well worth the money. Somehow we also ended up with the best seats in the house, second or third row from the front, in the middle, with no one in front of us and we only purchased our tickets when we arrived.
Another night we hit up the night markets and tasted the Topoo (disgusting, black, toilet smelling Tofu). The oil from the Tofu ran down my hand and arm and then reeked of sewerage until I could scrub my arm with hot water and soap. The other delicacies that they had on offer included scorpions (often still squirming), bugs, lizards, seahorses, starfish and tiny birds (plucked, looking like teeny weeny whole chickens) all on skewers.
The final place I went to visit was Longquan Temple located about 2hrs from central Beijing by public transport in the West Mountains. The setting here was beautiful with the monastery set against rugged rocky mountains and a clear deep blue sky. I really wish that I had of had another day to explore the area as I didn’t really get a chance to look around. The main complex was impressive and has only recently been reconstructed. A large number of monks and volunteers rebuilt the temple according to its original design. It is filled with classrooms, plasma screens and projectors. It is now a state of the art Buddhist Learning centre completely run by lay volunteers and monks. They had a special program on the day I visited and I was shown a couple of videos on the temple and then joined a Q&A session with one of the masters (monks). Unfortunately I didn’t get to see the surrounding area that has trails and other sites to visit in the mountains.
I saw a few other things around the city and on the whole had an awesome time largely as a result of the crew from the guesthouse. I could have spent at least another week in Beijing but it was time to move on, next stop, Harbin, for the snow and ice festival.