Decadence! – I’d have said twenty years ago when I was interrailing. On the train from Xi’an to Beijing, we had a whole bedroom for just the two of us! Our own private bathroom! Wardrobe, table, armchair… opulent luxury. We’ll be damned for sure. But even though it cost more than train plus hotel at about £100 per person, really wanted to try this – the equivalent in Europe would be ridiculous more.
But it turns out there’s a difference between overnight trains when you’re twentyish versus fortyish. I slept like the dead throughout interrailing, whether I was lying on the floor, bolt upright on a wooden bench or dangling like a bat from the luggage racks – whatever was cheapest. Whereas now, despite the comfort, we both kept waking through the night. Guess we won’t do the Trans Siberian express in a hurry.
So it was a groggy early start to Beijing, with a painful subway schlep across the city to our hotel – backpacks and rush hour in China don’t mix. But when we got to our really nice hotel (thank you, Orchid!), the lovely reception staff rushed our room preparation, and sent us off for a free breakfast meanwhile, then took impeccable pains explaining everything we’d need to know, tourist options, etc. So by 11am we were fed, showered, and ready to face the world.
I’d had in mind that Beijing would be at best like Bangkok: dirty modern chaos, polluted as hell, mixing nasty modern buildings and skanky alleys. But we found a ton of lovely stuff – canal sides lined with springtime cherry blossom and willow; folks in parks playing a version of hackysack with a badminton-style-shuttlecock (‘jianzi’). Even the hutongs, the alleyway area – which we were staying in the middle of – was surprisingly lovely: plain grey terraces of single storey buildings interspersed with public toilets every few hundred metres: more Coronation Street than Bladerunner.
We just wandered – found a giant antiques market (Panjiayuan) where we decided our backpacks weren’t quite heavy enough, so we needed a 3 kilo piece of bronze to add to it. It’s a small bronze random statue – the lady kept saying ‘hundred years’ and ‘China’ when we asked when and where, but neither of us believe it. But she eventually sold it at the price we were willing to pay – a tenth of her original asking price, and still probably more than it’s worth. Still, we’re nicely weighed down now.
The Great Wall at Mutianyu
The following day was one of those really brilliant days. We got up horribly early, 5.30 am, so we could get to the Great Wall around opening time with our car and driver, hoping to avoid the worst of the crowds. And it worked! We had the place to ourselves – there were a few people in the bus with us for the last approach to the wall, but they all disappeared magically by the time we were at the top.
So up we went in the ski-lift, soaring over chasms and cherry blossom. Walked for miles along the wall, seeing no-one at all for about the first hour, and just gasping at how beautiful it was in the crisp spring morning, stretching for miles over the most distant mountains – you really start to appreciate the scale and effort of the endeavour when you’re striving to just walk a small portion of it. (Side note: though turns out it’s not actually visible from space – I was inspired to fact check that old saw) Finally, around 9am, when the world started to arrive, we paused at one of the turrets and just blissed out in the sun, relishing second breakfast – always the best breakfast.
Then – capping it all off – the way back down was by toboggan. I might have mentioned hating toboggans: I now love them. Yes, this one had working brakes. It was a metal half tube, stretching for 1.5km and zigzagging its way down glorious mountainside. If anything, I could have done with fewer staff warning to Slow Down at every curve. But it made a glorious end to the trip to the Wall.
Next stop was the Summer Palace. If I’d ever heard of it before, I’d forgotten all about it – again, one of those few rare Chinese dull and literal names. But it was UNESCO listed, and sounded kinda nice, and made an easy detour while in the car, so off we trotted. And it was fabulous! I’d happily go back there and spend a day just picnicking and slowly wandering the grounds, instead of the couple of hours which we’d expected would be plenty. It’s huge – about 3 sq km – and most of it is lakeside, interspersed with beautiful islands, bridges, temples, towers… just fabulous. It was built in the 1700s, and the 2 sq km lake was entirely manmade, with the earth from it used to create the huge hill where the main palace complex lies. The beautiful design, with every tree placed to cause pleasure, and every bridge, temple and pagoda in the precisely right place, makes you wonder how it is that modern Chinese buildings (along with rest of world), are so damn ugly. Did everyone lose their aesthetic eye in the Cultural Revolution? Why don’t any of us build such beautiful things any more?
798 Art District
For our final stop, we asked the driver to leave us at 798 art district. I’d read a couple of snippets that sounded intriguing; the reality easily beat that. It’s an old industrial area – back in the 50s, when the Great Leap Forward still seemed like a good idea, Mao wanted electronics and Russia suggested trying East Germany for them instead. So a bunch of Bauhaus engineers and architects came and spent several years arguing with the Russians and Chinese to get form to follow function, rather than the more elaborate Russian style; and get to German quality levels (or overengineering, as the Russians called it). And mission accomplished: despite having entirely forgotten the above context, we both felt like we were in Berlin as soon as we stepped out, and couldn’t quite place why. Anyway – it was a massively successful set of factories at the time, providing excellent worker care and quality products, as you’d expect. After the turnaround in the 80s, they became derelict and artists moved in for cheapness, and now the area has tons of galleries, artist studios, workshops – and cafes and pubs. Not so cheap any more, but local brewpub The Ram made for a perfect end to a perfect day.
The last few days in Beijing were decent. The Forbidden City was a bit disappointing, to be honest – I think the name FORBIDDEN is a huge part of its attraction (its actual listing name is ‘Palace museum’ – the marketing teams have really missed a trick. The interior names are delightful, though: palaces of Accumulated Purity, Gathering Elegance, Great Benevolence and the like). But while its scale is impressive, covering about 1km x 0.7km with some thousand buildings and near ten thousand rooms – but you can’t actually enter most of the interesting bits, and spend most of your time looking at more-or-less identical buildings from ouside, and crossing enormous courtyards.
Our enjoyment probably wasn’t much enhanced by the audio guide, who sounded like the Most Boring History Teacher ever – while there must have been a millenium’s worth of great stories and gossip all around us, the droning voice muttered about dates and dynasties in a way just that fell through the ears. Cool clock room, though, with ridiculously ornate clocks in every style from 1700s on – lots of French Versailles-style bling, plus more modern late 1800s rather steampunk efforts, of steamships and hot air balloons. Huge bronze urns around every courtyard, ready for firefighting. Giant guardian lions at most doors – the one on the right side has an orb, and on the left side has a cub, to symbolise power and fertility. The yellow glazed tiles were the sole purview of the emperor. But, yeah, bit samey, and hideously crowded with (mostly Chinese, as usual) tourists, even at 9am.
Temple of Heaven
Similarly, the Temple of Heaven was a bit underwhelming, though maybe we were just entirely templed-out – and admittedly, we didn’t pay extra to go into the actual temples themselves; what we could see from the outside was enough. The name was promising to be far more enticing than the actual experience. The park around it was pleasant, with impressively fit elderly people doing energetic things.
The food in China has been far, far better than we’d hoped. We both rather dislike Chinese food at home – sauces too gloopey, too much MSG, same menu everywhere, and all have a samey flavour that we’re just not into. Plus, a large part of ‘authentic’ Chinese food is variety in texture, using unnervingly gristly and fatty bits that I really, really hate. But while we were right about the latter (I wound up giving up on most meats that I ordered), we were delightfully wrong about the former: there’s so much more variety and flavour than you’ll ever see in a UK Chinese restaurant. We ate far better there than we did in Indonesia, where we basically wound up living on infinite variations on nasi goreng (fried rice). In China:
- Hotpots were the closest thing to a staple, being ubiquitously good – but massively varied, from the Hong Kong tripe and sea cucumber, to the Lijiang mushroom fest, to a perfectly spicy one to warm us up on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
- Peking duck in Peking itself was a slight disappointment. We went to a specialised place, for one of our most expensive meals (well, £50: more than most). But, tbh, duck is duck is duck: it tasted much the same as any Chinatown variant.
- Mushrooms were excellent. Did I mention this before? But we had several more mushroom focused dishes in many places, and all were consistently wonderful…
- … as were pretty much all vegetable dishes, tbh. Even something as simple as broccoli-noodle stir fry was startlingly good. The only disappointment was potatoes: whether added to hotpot, or cut into fine toothpicks and steamed – all disappointingly bland.
- I’d always thought dumplings were a bit meh: doughy and pointless. But a cheap joint recommended by our Beijing hotel – Mr Chi’s Dumplings – did delicious ones, perfect with beer…
- … which is generally shite. Beer in China tends to be watery and tasteless, best drunk very cold. The Germans (of course!) introduced beer brewing to China – they had a brief enclave in Quingdao, and created Tsingtao beer as a primary output of colonisation. It’s still the most popular Chinese beer in China and in the world (unlike Fosters, which is unheard of in its ‘home’). There were almost no craft breweries around, though a few are starting – in Shangri La, there’s a local ‘Tibetan Pale Ale’ which was pleasantly citrusy; and the Ram Brewpub Beijing’s 798 Art District had some interestingly fruity options.
- Tea, however, was excellent; so much variety! Word of non tea drinkers. No coffee around, and beer was shite as per above – so we wound up drinking tea instead, most of the time. And it was wonderful. Chrysanthemum, corn, barley, jasmine, pu’er.. plus a whole load we don’t know; just random stuff that was served at the start of meals. Fruit teas were particularly excellent: lemon and ginger tea to combat the cold of Shangri La, or a pot of mixed fruit tea for dessert made a perfect ending. We’re gonna drink a lot more tea when we’re back.
Prices were more than we’d expected overall. Food’s generally not too cheap – better than London, but more than we thought it’d be, though you can have a decent main for £10ish. Tea is surprisingly expensive – usually £5-8 a pot. Hotels were generally great – we’d expected grim, identikit hotel rooms, as we’d had in Myanmar, but there were lots of beautiful little boutique hotels around £40-£80 area, and even the cheap, crappy options – like the one we got stuck in near Kunming airport – had good points: the reception desk were really sweet, constantly checking if V was ok, needed medicine, food, anything they could help with. Travel on the fast trains, and overnight in particular, tends to be expensive – but far better than planes, which get delayed a lot and ain’t cheap. Ticket prices are mid range – a few quid for most, with stuff like the Terracotta Warriors maxing it at £15.
Anyway, that was last stop China. We had low expectations coming here – I had two Chinas in mind: one dream version from childhood, of misty mountains, lakes, cormorants, cherry blossom. And one from modern news: crammed, polluted, military, full of ugly buildings and angry people. I expected the modern to dominate, but found much more of the dream than I’d hoped for. Pollution and hideous constructions are counterbalanced by the spectacular natural beauty – in most cases, though I hope the government improves its conservation approach a lot. The people are friendly once you initiate (other than the babies, who looked at me in uniform horror) – though this is counterbalanced by Warning Signs Everywhere. No spitting! No striding! No tossing! Even – “NO high toss act!!!”. Often accompanied by incongruously friendly cartoons to bring to cheerful life that the smiling policeman doesn’t want you to electrocute the fish in this river (yes, really).
China has been beautiful and surprising – and feckin’ complicated. But we’d come back. But for now, we are both ready to move on to South Korea – which in our minds is cleaner and less complicated. And fewer people hacking and spitting, please god. Let’s see what it brings.