We land in Beijing very early in the morning. Our pre-booked driver is nowhere to be seen. After a few phone calls and a 30 minute wait, he finally arrives somewhat apologetic.
The sun is starting to rise as we begin our journey into the centre of Beijing.
It looks like a clear day and there is no evidence of the polluted haze this city has a reputation for. The traffic is light, but given the early hour, it isn’t surprising.
By 7:00am we are at the Peking Youth Hostel. Our room won’t be ready for a few hours, so we store our luggage and go for a wander through the quiet streets.
The hostel is located in the middle of one of Beijing’s most colorful Hutong districts, in a charming quaint lane, only a few blocks north of the Forbidden City.
Hutongs are a collection of narrow streets and alleys, commonly associated with northern Chinese cities, most prominently found in Beijing. At this time of the morning it’s a peaceful oasis in a hectic city. Little do we know how different the scene would look in a few hours.
Tired and jet lagged, we nap on couches in the guest lounge until our room is ready.
Our first taste of china is from a street stall selling freshly made dumplings. They’re so good, we go back for seconds!
Beijing was once considered the ‘kingdom of bicycles’, with over 9 million people commuting on two wheels. With the rise of the middle class, the two wheels are quickly being replaced by a more prestigious fuel-injected four.
Opting for two wheels, we join the organised chaos on the streets. Wide bike lanes accommodate everything from scooters, wheel barrows and tuk-tuks.
It’s a game of concentration; weaving in and out of other riders, avoiding parked cars and other hazards. However, it all seems to work and with a good map it’s surprisingly easy to navigate our way around.
We rented our Bikes from the very friendly and helpful team at Bike Beijing. They also gave us some great tips on local places to eat. And we were not disappointing with their Peking Duck recommendation – Siji Minfu.
A popular restaurant with locals, expats and tourists, there are no bookings; you just turn-up and get in the queue. We plonk ourselves on little stools out the front to wait our turn. The meal was worth the hour wait; the crispy Peking Duck expertly carved at our table is mouth-watering delicious!
The Hostel staff provided us with lots of recommendations and advice as well (bit of a theme going on) and helped us organise a two night stay near Mutianyu – one of the more scenic Great Wall locations.
It’s a 2 hour bus ride from Beijing, followed by a 1 hour taxi ride. We have a long-winded negotiation with a woman who approaches us in her not-so-official taxi, eventually agreeing on US$20 to drive us to our destination.
He Yi Little Yard is a quaint Bed & Breakfast nestled between mountains in the village of Sanduhe, 8 km from Mutianyu.
The rooms are decorated with natural materials and cultural artifacts. The courtyard is a peaceful oasis; filled with bamboo, date trees, vegetable plants, and a stream swimming with goldfish.
Meals are included and are made with ingredients grown or purchased from local farmers. The food was wholesome and delicious.
Borrowing bikes (a tad too small), we embark on the 16km loop which takes us through local villages, rice paddies and across streams.
We stop mid-way in Mutianyu, where there is a cable car that takes you up to the wall.
This ancient wonder is an impressive feat in engineering, snaking haphazardly over rugged mountains and desert, constructed over centuries. Oficially, it covers over 21,000 kilometers.
Indirectly, construction of the wall began around 500 BC; with independent kingdoms building their own defences.
During the Qin dynasty hundreds of thousands of men, mainly political prisoners, provided the labour for an estimated 10 years to link walls with unifying kingdoms.
In the Ming dynasty, engineers took on a century-long project to revamp the wall. Ultimately it failed when Mongol armies arrived in 1279.
In later centuries, the invention of the aeroplane would also render the wall somewhat pointless. Without the tourist industry, the wall would probably have been left to crumble away.
The Forbidden City is the largest palace complex in the world. This former palace was shrouded in mystery for over 5 centuries until the Republic overthrew the last emperor in 1912.
If you plan a visit, it can take a good part of the day to wander through the ancient buildings, courtyards and gardens. The self-guided audio is worthwhile, it provides plenty insights and allows you to set your own pace.
Our tips; there is a daily limit on the number of people allowed to enter, so arrive early and get ahead of the queues. Don’t forget your passport, as ticket purchases are subject to the ‘real-name’ policy.
Tiananmen Square is apparently the largest downtown square in the world. Framed by the Gate of Heavenly Peace with its Mao portrait, the square is heavily controlled by a strong police presence. Our visit was a brief stop whilst cycling past.
In the northwest quarter of Beijing is the area known as Shichahai. Locally refered to as the Hòuhǎi Lakes, it’s a popular recreational spot during the day, transforming into a lively nightspot with rooftop bars and restaurant. The surrounding neighbourhood also consists of an extensive Hutong network.
Continuing on with historical sites, we visited The Lama Temple. Built in 1694, it is the largest and best-preserved Tibetan style monastery in Beijing.
Bargaining is an art form in China, one that Don relishes in! We visited a few markets where we purchased designer brands ridiculously cheap; $20 for a North Face jacket, $30 for Merrill shoes (should have bargained harder). Don also picked up a pair of traditional slip-ons from a street peddler for $11 (surprisingly these didn’t last all that long, as they fell apart soon after)!
Were these items the real deal? We’re not naive enough to believe they are genuine, but at those prices, who cares!
As the capital of the most populous country on earth, Beijing surprised us both. Its emerging contemporary culture seems obsessed with western style luxuries and modernity, yet amongst the soaring skyscrapers and modern shopping malls, this city still possesses an ancient charm and beauty.