China: Beiwatch

The bullet train to Beijing didn’t disappoint. Getting onto it required a lot of guesswork and vague recollections of Chinese characters as nothing in the station was in English. But, despite the station feeling more like an airport, I managed to find my train. I thought I’d walked into First Class rather than Economy as it was all very fancy, with plenty of legroom and those pointless little napkins on the back of the chairs.

Tianjin to Beijing South took just 30 minutes (for around ¥55) and though it didn’t quite feel like a bullet, it was certainly fast. An electronic sign also tells you just how fast you’re going throughout the journey. The fastest I clocked was around 280km/h. Needless to say, I arrived in the capital in no time at all.

A few subway rides and a walk later (surprisingly I found the Beijing hostel with no problem at all), I was settled into the city. My hostel (Beijing Home Hostel) is in a brilliant location, situated near to Andingmen subway station right in the centre of Beijing. It’s uber-close to the main sights and is nestled in between a range of eateries and shops. It’s a nice enough hostel too, apart from my French roommate who has been Skyping his friend for longer than I ever held a conversation in my life. Ever. Lord only knows what they’re talking about.

Houhai Lake
Houhai Lake

For my first evening here, I decided to venture over to Houhai Lake which is a massive lake surrounded by restaurants and bars. The lake is fantastic and the reflecting lights on the water made for some brilliant pictures. The bars around it were a bit tacky, with more neon lights than you can shake a fist at. I found somewhere to eat and drink (though ended up ordering twice since my first order ended up being a dish made up almost entirely of mushrooms) and enjoyed my first Beijing meal before circling the lake and heading back. I already had a really good vibe about this city. There was definitely nothing European about this place.

The next day was when I got my real tourist hat on. I headed to Qianmen subway station to take a look at the (in)famous Tiananmen Square. It was much bigger than I expected. I think I was picturing a dainty French square with little cafes and accordions playing. Instead I got this vast space with hordes of people, big buildings and plenty of touts and stalls. It was worlds apart from what I had imagined.

Crossing over the surrounding road, I took a diversion through Zhongshsn Park (¥5 with a student card, ¥10 without) which was a lovely stroll before arriving at the Forbidden City. I’m not a huge fan of Mainland China’s policy of charging for parks but all of the ones I’ve walked through have been really nice so far and this one was no exception.

Slipping out of the park, I found myself at the big daddy – the Forbidden City. There were tonnes of people here. I couldn’t believe it; there had been less people at the Taj Mahal! After taking far too long to work out that the Palace Museum and the Forbidden City were one and the same (in attraction terms anyway), I joined the horrendously long queue to wait for my ticket, which was ¥60. All set, I headed inside.

Forbidden City
Forbidden City

Like Tiananmen, I was amazed at just how big the complex was. It was absolutely massive. I learnt that there are over 900 buildings in this complex, all of them looking terrific – my camera was loving life. After hounding strangers to take my picture (the burden which comes with solo travel), I wandered through the complex, constantly being surprised when there was more to go. The scale of the place was incredible.

After you walk all the way through to the back, just in front of the city is a park – Jingshan Park. At ¥2 entry, it’s well worth a look, mainly for the pavilion situated on the top of a hill in the park. It not only gives you brilliant views over Beijing but also looks straight out onto the Forbidden City and gave me an even starker idea of just how huge it was. The orange rooftops stood out amongst the Beijing skyline and looked truly stunning. My camera hasn’t had this much fun since the Taj Mahal.

After grabbing lunch, I headed over to my final landmark, the Temple of Heaven Park (Tiantandongmen subway station). It’s a huge park with very thorny grass (as my poor hand found out) and some brilliant buildings. You can either pay ¥15 to just walk round the park or ¥35 to walk right the way through it and I’d certainly recommend the latter, particularly as it lets you see the Hall of Prayer which is an architectural wonder – it’s a really fantastic building. If you opt for the cheaper ticket but change your mind when you’re in there, you can upgrade inside the park.

Temple of Heaven park
The Hall of Prayer in Temple of Heaven park

It was amazing to think I’d seen so much in Beijing already and had only remained in one area. I was still struggling with the language barrier (more so than anywhere I’d been to yet) and was being constantly judged for wearing shorts in October (one man actually disgustedly pointed at me in the street) but in terms of ticking an intrepid traveller’s boxes, China’s capital city was certainly delivering

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