The surprising charm of Beijing
We arrive in Beijing from Xi’an by high-speed train. There had been a bit of a hiccup in arrangements over this which gradually became apparent from the moment that ‘Puma’, our guide in Xi’an, asked us innocently if we had our train tickets. We didn’t and neither did he. Someone had blundered and no booking had been made. After much running around by Puma, tickets were obtained the night before we left. We were very pleased as we had been looking forward to the day-time journey across a large swathe of central China. In the event, it was definitely worth doing and we were impressed by how green and rural much of the landscape was.
It was shirt-sleeves weather on the afternoon we arrived into Beijing’s massive Western Railway Station.
Surprisingly, we managed to meet up with our new guide, George, without much delay and headed straight off to the iconic Temple of Heaven, a circular pagoda dating from the Ming Dynasty (1420 AD). It is full of symbolic significance – and very beautiful. Locals are allowed into the grounds free of charge and many enjoy hanging out in the Long Corridor, playing cards and chess or dancing.
Beijing surprises us by how pleasant it is to wander round in its back streets (the hutongs) and how easy it is to get around in. The streets are in a grid pattern, so it’s straightforward to orient yourself and there’s an easy-to-use, cheap metro as well. Our hotel is in a hutong not far from the Forbidden City. We order a taxi to take us to a recommended restaurant, Dali Courtyard, but taxis don’t like navigating the narrow hutongs and ours doesn’t turn up. Nothing daunted, we set out on foot and find the nearest metro station. It’s a flat-rate fare, so buying a ticket is easy and there are plenty of signs in English to help us find our way. At the other end, we take care to orient ourselves when we emerge from the metro (easy to go wrong at this stage) and find the restaurant on Xiaojingchang Hutong without difficulty. We are pleased to do so because the restaurant – which is set in a delightful courtyard and has no menu – is excellent.
Next day we make the obligatory visits to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Our guide informs us that have to change our plans because the square has been shut off to the public in the morning (for a ceremonial wreath laying at the Monument to the People’s Heroes), so we go to the Summer Palace in the morning rather than the afternoon. The Summer Palace was an imperial playground, given to the emperor’s wife as a 60th birthday present, but mainly used by the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi, where she wasted vast sums of money on extravagances such as a marble boat.
There is a long queue just to get onto Tiananmen Square. Security is tight following a car bomb attack last year when five people died. Now everyone enters through a checkpoint where they are frisked and have bags scanned. It is the day before National Day and the streets are more crowded than usual. Once on the square, we see an enormous pot of flowers – surely, this wasn’t what was laid by the President this morning!
Unfortunately, the mausoleum where Mao’s embalmed body is on display is closed because of the national holiday. We make our way across the enormous space to the Forbidden City.
There are nine gates of increasing grandeur to reach the emperor’s living quarters. The quarters themselves are in a succession of pavilions – splendid from the outside but rather dark and dreary inside. That evening, we reward ourselves for touristic duty done by having a sumptuous meal of Peking Duck at the Dadong Restaurant. Great drama as well as good food.
Our final day in Beijing – and on our whole tour – is a visit to the Great Wall. It is National Day and we have been warned that the roads could be very congested, so we start early and thanks to some truly terrifying driving by Mr Wong, our driver, we arrive at the Mutianyu section in just one hour – it normally takes an hour and a half! The weather is closing in and as we get out of the car, it starts raining. The advantage of this is that, combined with the early hour, there are few other people on the wall and we have an atmospheric, if wet, walk with much of it almost to ourselves. To reach it, George recommends that we take the cable car, which we agree to. However, too late we discover that this is a misnomer and we are whisked off our feet onto a ski lift which is open to the elements.
This is the finale of our trip and a fitting one. The Great Wall marks China’s increasing geographical reach and was partly responsible for maintaining the peaceful flow of trade with the west. It is inextricably interwoven with the history of the Silk Road.