I always pictured Beijing as this dirty, cramped, polluted, and crowded ??jumble of a city. Basically, I thought we were going to hate it. As it turns out, I actually enjoyed the place. The tourist attractions were crowded, but the rest of the city wasn’t. It’s big in the sense that it covers a large area, but the individual neighborhoods didn’t feel imposing or intimidating. And we were there right after a big rainstorm, so it wasn’t even smoggy! (In a way, that kind of disappointed me, since all I’ve ever heard about Beijing is how terrible the pollution is. Not seeing it was like going to Seattle and not having any rain. You know you should feel lucky, but it seems like you missed out on the main experience.)
First we visited the Great Wall, which was an amazing experience and one of the highlights of our entire trip. After a lot of??hand-wringing and worrying, we decided to just go on our hostel’s tour to the Jinshanling area of the Wall. I’m so glad we did because the area was incredible, there were hardly any tourists or touts, and it would have been very stressful to try and figure out our own way there and back. The “tour” wasn’t even a tour, either, they just took us there and told us when to come back for lunch. The weather was perfect and we could see the wall winding along the mountains way off into the distance. Parts of Jinshanling have been restored and other parts are very ancient, so we got to see what it would have looked like back then, but also walk along the actual wall. If you’re thinking, “It’s just a wall, big deal,” you really have to go there and see it for yourself. It’s unbelievable.
In Beijing we saw??Tiananmen Square, the largest square in the world and the site of infamous protests of 1989. Today the square is under intense security and monitoring. There are police and video cameras everywhere. Then we moved on to the Forbidden City, which was home to many emperors over the years. I couldn’t believe how big it was. I guess the name “city” should have tipped me off, but I was expecting just one large building. Instead it’s an entire complex with hundreds of buildings. We rushed through it, because it was hot and crowded, but if you wanted, you could spend all day walking around. Several days, if you were really interested.
Another day we got up very early to see the Summer Palace. There are actually two Summer Palaces in Beijing; the “old” one was destroyed by the British and the French in 1860. This is the newer one and it’s very beautiful. Most of the grounds are along the man-made Kunming Lake. You have to pay extra money to go inside some of the buildings, so we just paid the minimum and stayed in the garden areas. I liked it a lot more than the Forbidden City. After that we went to visit the Lama Temple, which we had read was one of the most beautiful Tibetan Buddhism??monasteries??in the entire country. Maybe I’m just sick of temples, but I wasn’t very impressed with this one. (There weren’t even any llamas!) They did have a 26 meter tall, rather menacing Buddha statue carved from a single piece of sandalwood. There was also an interesting collection of small Buddha statues from all over the place, so the Lama Temple did end up being a good stop.
In addition to all that, we also spent time with some very fun people. One night we met up with Sofie, a French artist that Yoshiko in Tokyo introduced us to. Sofie and her Chinese boyfriend, Leo, took us out to try donkey burgers. I was skeptical, but the donkey was actually delicious! After dinner, we ended up at a bar that was celebrating a major Russian holiday. The owner of the bar was a Frenchman who had lived in Russia for over ten years, so he was very excited when we told him that we were going there. He gave us the ins and outs of drinking in Russia (there always has to be a toast!) and, at some point, a gigantic bottle of vodka appeared. It was so big, it had one of those pumps that are like shampoo dispensers. It was hilarious.
On two other nights we met up with Julie, the girl from Florida that we went bike riding with in Dali. She is teaching in Beijing now and showed us some fun areas in town, including where the crazy street food is. We saw fried scorpions, spiders, sea horses, centipedes, and more! (And no, we did not try anything!) On our last night in China, we walked around Houhai Lake and ate hot pot for the very first time. Hot pot is pretty famous in China, so it’s kind of hard to believe we didn’t try it until the very end. The process is kind of similar to fondue; you put raw ingredients into a boiling hot water pot, then take them out when they’re done and eat them. It was really yummy and we had a lot of fun. Then on our way back to the subway station, we saw a beautiful sunset over the lake. It was a great way to end our time in China.