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‘Your county never is hot hahaha’ came the mechanical voice of the driver’s translation app. Even in China, with a language barrier, clearly, jokes could undoubtedly still be thrown at us Brits. I punched a response into my phone, Google Translate echoed it back in Mandarin, and we both laughed out loud as the taxi thundered on through the roads of Beijing, unsure if our apps were actually getting the conversation across as intended.
I’d stumbled into Beijing airport a few hours earlier and realising I had missed my transfer was adamant I wasn’t going to pay the highly inflated prices the transfer desk was quoting me. A few drivers ignoring me later and this legend of a guy up front kept the chat, or rather the phone apps did, flowing for the whole hour journey to my hotel.
While I was grateful for having an internet connection and the app to hand, my trusty guide Yoyo and her translating (read: saving me from eating weird things) were appreciated throughout my two-week tour in China.
Beijing didn’t seem as confronting on first glance as Shanghai had on my first visit to China. Perhaps, having visited before I was more prepared, or perhaps, even though Beijing is the capital, the pace of the city just felt more relaxed.
My time in Beijing was short but sweet, especially once I discovered how cheap, smooth and easy the public buses were, the English announcements were also appreciated.
With jet-lag kicking in the only order of the night was a hefty feast of Peking Duck, Peking being the old name of the capital city, served up with unlimited dishes that kept crowding the table. Food was a big theme of my journey through China, and I had never appreciated travelling with a group more than when meal time would come and we would order what felt like the whole menu and sample each other’s dishes to tasty moans and the occasional disgusted groan.
Without a doubt, the most famous attraction in Beijing is the Forbidden City, the old Imperial Palace of Beijing that over its near 700-years as the home to 24 emperors was closed off the public.
Now open as the Imperial Palace Museum, extensive restorations are ongoing to open the 8000+ rooms to the public, one of the reasons it featured on Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel list for 2018.
It would take hours to explore this vast complex that can see up to 80,000 visitors per day, and with limited time in Beijing, we rocketed through it exploring the rooms of ancient ornaments, the intricate details outside and the crowded gardens with temples sticking out of rocks. Yoyo on hand the whole time introducing us to her country and culture.
The Hutongs of Beijing are a criss-cross of small alleys and courtyards that make up the traditional local homes within the city centre. While many of the larger houses with courtyards are worth a small fortune in land, tiny houses with whole families are also typical.
Our rickshaw tour was uneventful and unnecessary, and in hindsight, I would have instead explored by foot, but our home-cooked lunch in a local house was a delicious treat served up with a side of insight.
Behind a curtain in the ‘dining room’ was the families main bed, the other dining room would become the living room after both the local and tourist visitors were fed, and in the small family kitchen, those that called it home dished up tasty treats and scurried to local shops to bring us beer and soda. The hospitality was so warm, yet some of the stories shared chilled us. One weary man explained in depth the current issue facing people who don’t have a Beijing citizen permit, essential controlling rights to those who have migrated from within their own countries.
Nearby, we visited the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, two symbols that you’ll find in most historic Chinese cities that would have rung out to symbol the start and end of the day. As our group split to head for jet-lag recovering naps or to explore more temples, I headed solo in search of a coffee pick me up.
Around the small Bell Tower Square, little boutique coffee spots serve up cups of Joe on tiny terraces and in dimly lit rooms, the terraces providing views of local kids playing Jianzi, similar to shuttlecock.
Warmed and re-energised from what in reality was a pretty poor coffee I set off to see the other side of China’s capital and wandered through modern shopping blocks, towering high-rises and buzzing streets of hip bars. It was a stark contrast to the morning activities but easy to access thanks to the bus system.
As my sleepiness caught up with me, I headed to Sanlitun, home of Beijing’s ‘coolest bar street’ depending on who you ask and expensive fashion stores where photographers with ridiculously long lenses waited to try and capture the next crazy ensemble that would hopefully land them on the cover of a glossy fashion magazine. Exhausted and somewhat confused, I retired to out comfy digs ready for an early rise to visit The Great Wall of China.
The Great Wall of China
Sadly, The Great Wall of China wasn’t looking that great, or indeed looking like anything on the cloudy, hazy morning we took the cable car to it.
The G Adventures tour of China I was on included a visit to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, a part I had heard from numerous people wasn’t only stunning but also slightly quieter than other entrance points.
With the weather not on side, I can’t really report on either, but I can confirm it’s an incredible feeling to walk along the wall, even with no visibility. To set foot on something that has thousands of years of history attached to it, although much of what you see today was built in the Ming Dynasty from the 14th-century, and many modern bricks slotted in for repairs, no trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit here. The downside of being on a tour? We had to continue to our next stop, dashing any dreams of returning the following morning when a quick glance at Instagram Stories told me it was back to its postcard-perfect self.
Our next stop was Xi’an, and as we glided into the train station in the dark hours of the night courtesy of a bullet-train, food was the only thing on our minds. Given the late hour and limited options, we settled on the Chinese equivalent of KFC and weren’t impressed by what we had seen on our late-night stroll. Driving through the imposing city walls lit up was a grand entrance, but tacky lights and even a miniature Eiffel tower had us confused before snoozing off in what felt like a run-down, yellow-tinged motel, a different experience from all the other fantastic accommodation our tour boasted.
Wanting to maximise the short time in Xi’an I woke up at 6 am and headed out to see the sights attractions. By the golden glow of the sun-rising, and for the rest of the day, my opinion on Xi’an changed drastically.
The history of this city is fascinating as it was the end point of the eastern Old Silk Road, and as such, there is a sizeable Muslim population in the city that has called it home for centuries.
The Great Mosque of Xi’an could almost be missed if you didn’t know to look for it, but behind more walls lay this beautiful mosque, mainly crafted of wood and consisting of some twenty buildings. A peaceful morning walk here with just the gardener for company allowed me to marvel at one of the oldest and largest Mosques in China, a type of Mosque I had never seen before and a far cry from the likes of the Abu Dhabi Mosque.
When I exited the mosque the streets around the Muslim Quarter were coming to life, and tasty treats were being brought in batch from the many stalls lining the alleyways. Chowing down on some delicious bread I ventured onto the cities other significant attractions.
The Bell and Drum Towers, as mentioned above in Beijing, are pretty famous in Xi’an and two of the symbols of the city. The Drum Tower sits alongside the Muslim Quarter while the Bell Tower dominates a central roundabout, accessible by underpass.
A short walk from here down charming streets of quaint yet trendy bars will take you back to the ancient city walls which you can cycle all the way around and, had I of been time-rich, would be a neat way to get a higher elevated view of the city.
One of the quirks I loved about Xi’an in the early hours, and Yoyo would later tell me happens in many cities, is the shop staff come out before opening, pop on some tunes and one of the team leads a full-on dance. Apparently, it starts the day with positive energy and I got a real kick out of watching these staff smiling and laughing with their colleagues before I’d even sunk my first coffee.
The laughter and smiles throughout China were infectious and unexpected and looking back on the trip a month on; it’s the smiling, friendly faces who would try and offer directions even though there was limited understanding that stays with me.
The famed Terracotta Army is around an hours drive from Xi’an, and we dipped into a local house for another hearty lunch before tackling one of the most fascinating and bewildering UNESCO attractions I have ever visited.
These vast works are still under excavation and contain an eerily large collection of ‘soldiers’ that were only discovered in 1974.
Built to protect the tomb of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, they stand around his tomb, and all of the workers who constructed them were then locked inside to keep the secrets. Myths and guesses surround the discovery, but one thing for sure is that the sheer scale of what has so far been discovered is incredible. This is something that has always been high on my Mum’s bucket-list, and as I face-timed her from within the vast hall, I swear I caught tears on her face, such is the sheer awe of what you will see here.
After a few hours walking around the excavation sights and watching those still at uncovering, diligently doing their work, we returned to Xi’an all set for our first 14-hour night train to Suzhou.
The magical canals of Suzhou, our next stop
A 14-hour night train in China, it can’t be that bad right? Check out what I thought of Suzhou and Shanghai on the next part of my China tour to find out.