After a few weeks on our own it was nice to see a familiar face – we met up with Anna’s friend Florence and her mum for dinner on our last night in Shanghai. We almost missed out on dinner though – we were standing by the sign at the end of the Nanjing Road pedestrian mall as agreed for about an hour with no one in sight. After Anna ducked back to the hotel for WiFi it turns out that they were at the same sign but at the other end of the street. The funny thing was that once we met up we then walked together to a classic Shanghai restaurant that just happened to be right next door to our hotel. The restaurant was over 100 years old and I don’t think the food or service has changed in that time. Fortunately for us Florence’s mum was all over it, ordering the dishes and then explaining what regions they come from and how to eat it. After some noodles, soup and dumplings we left and headed down the mall to another restaurant for more noodles, soup and dumplings. Of course we needed to finish it off with something sweet so we grabbed a cheese tart and took one last stroll along The Bund.
The confusion wasn’t all bad though as Anna did learn an important lesson that night… don’t leave me alone in the middle of China. While I was waiting for Anna to return from the hotel and I was approached by a nice Chinese girl who asked if I was waiting for a friend. Not knowing if it was someone Florence knew, I replied that I was indeed waiting for a friend. She then suggested that perhaps we could go for a stroll together along the mall while we wait. I declined and said I had to stay at the sign but she was undeterred… she said that we should go for a walk together because she thought we could be “best friends” with a raised eyebrow. I pointed out that I was waiting for my girlfriend to return and she disappeared without a word. It’s the shortest friendship I’ve ever had, but perhaps she meant that she wanted to be best friends with my Australian passport. Although it turns out it’s not only Chinese girls that Anna should be worried about. When we were taking some night photos at The Bund I was approached by a man who looked to be from a country region of China. At first I thought he wanted me to take a photo of him and his friend, but after some broken English and hand gestures it turned out that he wanted some photos with me. He had obviously never seen a 6’4″ Caucasian before because he seemed starstruck. But it turned out that he didn’t just want any old photo, he wanted me to do a series of poses like back-to-back with arms crossed and my arm around his shoulders. He was delighted when I got into the swing of it and pulled my hood up on my head for some Rocky style shots. Unfortunately Anna didn’t get any photos of it because she was in shock. Not really, she had the camera set up for night shots and couldn’t change the settings quick enough.
The main reason we wanted to visit Beijing was the chance to climb the Great Wall of China, so it was quite exciting to fly in from a northern approach which offered a fantastic bird’s eye view of several sections of the wall. By the time we obtained baggage and navigated the 3 trains to our district it was night time. Since Google maps doesn’t work in China we didn’t really have a good idea of where to head from the station. After some wrong turns and retracing of steps we worked out that the hostel must’ve been down the unlit no-name alley. After cautiously venturing down about 300m we stumbled across the Happy Dragon hostel. It turns out that with nearby construction the sign had been covered and the public lighting wasn’t working. Luckily first impressions don’t last. From what we’ve seen cities in China can be like that though – infrastructure like a western city with motorways and well connected subway systems then in between it all are tight alleyways where people sell knock-off shoes and not-so-safe hotdog sausages.
One thing that has really impressed us with both Shanghai and Beijing is how easy it is to navigate the subway systems and how they can take you anywhere you want to go. Another feature I like is the way they’ve set them up to play TV commercials when you’re between stations. They have the walls of the tunnel lined with screens at window height that have the commercials scrolling across the screens as the same speed as the train. Looking out the window it just looked like a TV screen sitting outside the window, regardless if the train sped up or slowed down… impressive. The only place we found that the subway couldn’t take us was the Great Wall. To get there via public transport involved a complex equation of trains and buses so we decided to go with the easier option of a tour organised by the hostel. At AU$56pp including breakfast, lunch and entry it seemed like the no fuss way to do it. There are 3 sections of the wall that are most common to visit. We didn’t want to go to the most popular section because we had heard it would be packed, so we opted for the Mutianyu section. One thing we didn’t realise is that this section was less popular because it was steep, and I mean real steep. At the sharpest incline we were on our hands and feet walking up the staircase. It was too much for some people and some others made it but sounded like they were on death’s door. The climb to the top was very rewarding and we’re pleased we did it, because it feels like the sort of thing that wouldn’t be allowed in a western country because there weren’t adequate safety measures in place. Fortunately we had worked up an appetite because the included lunch was far more substantial than we thought it would be. We had a banquet at the Chinese restaurant at the foot of the mountain and it was huge. Dish after dish came out while I was trying to fend off conversation from a boring kiwi guy next to me.
Before we left Australia we visited a travel doctor to ensure we had the appropriate immunisations for the regions we were visiting. Upon going through our itinerary the doctor asked if either of us have sensitive respiratory systems because Beijing can be an issue. I’ve never had an issue in my life, but it turns out I’m sensitive… or as Anna likes to say, Sensitive Sally. The pollution and spring time pollen was so thick it was giving me flu like symptoms. All the Codrals in the world wouldn’t help so I finally caved and bought a face mask. I know I wasn’t the only person wearing one, but I still felt like an outcast ready to be shipped off to quarantine. The improvement was near instantaneous so lesson learned. You’ll note in some of the photos below you can’t even see 2 blocks down the road. Needless to say, I couldn’t live in Beijing.
Actually if anything could convince me it would be the abundance of food at dirt cheap prices. Now if you’re wondering where we went in Beijing I’m getting to it… I’m just writing in order of our priorities and the cuisine was right up there. Well obviously you don’t go to Beijing (Peking) without some Peking Duck, so we researched around and found the most genuine restaurant which is aimed at locals, not tourists. Bianyifang dates back to the 1500’s and claims to have been the birthplace for the dish. Whether that’s right or complete bollocks we were impressed anyway. For AU$40 we had a whole roasted duck which was cut up for us at the table by the chef served with pancakes. They knew very little English and trying to find out what we wanted to do with the bones was a challenge, but when they presented us with the carcass in the bowl we just kept nibbling away until the duck was done. It was interesting to note the differences between the original Peking Duck and what they serve back home. We both decided that we preferred the one at Mr Wong in Sydney but I guess it’s been adjusted to suit the western palate.
Everyone told us about the street food scene in Beijing but we didn’t really appreciate how extensive it was. Every alleyway seemed to have some food being prepared on the sidewalk, but we also noted that there wasn’t a fridge or cooler in sight, so we went for the cautious approach and ate at heavily populated food markets. There is still an abundance of these around town, which serve the more mainstream items like dumplings, noodles, deep-fried proteins and meat skewers. Then they ventured off into some weird territory like grilled scorpions, snake, grasshoppers, cicadas and even starfish. Some of them were still wriggling on the skewer waiting to be cooked… no thanks. Most things were around AU$2-3 a serve so we found it ideal for a lunch snack on the run or a cheap dinner option. We did splash out and have a Mongolian hot pot on our last night which was an adventure. Not one person spoke english so there was some pointing and nodding at ingredients. We ended up with too much food but the bill being $20, no harm done.
Now for the Beijing sights… we spent a day in the Temple of Heaven Park area which houses the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest and other temples. The grounds were extensive and included various exhibits but the all inclusive ticket allowed us to wander through the lot. As has been a reoccurring theme on our trip, the gardens weren’t quite in bloom but they were nice to stroll around. The locals were also enjoying the sunny day with many kites out in flight. They would get them up to incredible heights and then sit in groups and talk. I don’t think they looked at them until it was time to bring it in. Whatever floats your boat I guess.
We spent another day at the Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square which was such a sight. Smack bang in the middle of the city there’s this giant area surrounded with a fortress designed to allow the emperor to hide away from the common folk, because let’s face it… why would you want to mix with the peasants. At least there was Tian’anmen so the emperor could address the people I guess. I say this in jest of course, as it was great to visit a place so iconic and with so much history. As you walk through the various gates and over the moat you really feel like you don’t belong in the city, it’s very daunting. We walked through most of the different halls and exhibits, but there is so much to see there. It probably didn’t help that I was struggling with the smog and running out of puff. I fell asleep as soon as we arrived at the room and Anna had to fetch McDonald’s take away for dinner. Sorry Anna.
Our last day in Beijing was spent at the Bell Tower which includes a 65 tonne bell which was the central timepiece for Beijing and then the neighbouring Drum Tower. Both towers were set about 5 storeys above the city and involved more steep staircases, however these had handrails so it was child’s play. We timed our visit up the Drum Tower with one of their performances which was great to see. We did some further strolling around Beijing and popped into the Lama Temple for a look. Whilst we have seen so many temples that all have their similarities, I think this was the first we had visited with a statue of Buddha standing. It’s also interesting to watch the different methods of paying respect and conducting prayers.
That leads us to today, Beijing to Shanghai and then onto London. With a 4:45am start and a journey time hotel to hotel in excess of 24 hours, we’ve just endured the not-so-great aspect of travelling. But the good far outweighs days like today so no complaints. Actually just one compliant, we never expected the food on China Eastern airline to be anything special but I don’t know what they were thinking with this morning’s breakfast. I think it was supposed to be rice porridge or something like that. The end result was cooked rice that had excess water in the container. No sweetness, no gluggy texture… just rice floating in water – I’ll pass thank you.
We haven’t quite decided what we’re going to do next week. We’re thinking we’ll leave London mid week because it’s too cool, but we don’t know where to go. We contemplated the Greek Islands but its too early for that. We’ll find something I’m sure. Until next week…
Fail of the Week
This week we encountered some tension between us that stems from the last 8 weeks being one continuous itinerary. Nothing too serious, just the general nitpicking that happens when you have been on the go for an extended period with flight after flight. It’s probably no coincidence that it just happened to be the week that I was sick. I’m sure my family will vouch that I’m not the best patient. Anyway we’re looking forward to a few quiet days in London before spending the next few weeks at a much more sedate pace.
Our tips for touring China:
- Always carry cash – our Mastercard didn’t work at all. Fortunately the ATMs are much more obliging than the ones in Japan so cash is readily obtainable
- If possible, download offline Google maps of areas that you’re going to visit (something we wish we did)
- Don’t be afraid of restaurants with no english speaking staff because chances are there’s an English menu hiding somewhere
- Don’t underestimate the power of Beijing pollution
- If you hunt around for accommodation you’ll find great deals, especially if they’re not on a main road.
- Oh and don’t forget that you have to organise the visa for China before you leave. No on-the-spot 90 day tourist visa unfortunately.
Average spend for China was AU$63.52pp per night for everything except flights.