We’d lost one girl yesterday, and tomorrow no less than 3 of our number would be heading off to parts unknown. So we all decided to spend one last day together and go see some of the larger sites of Beijing that were thankfully in walking distance.
The first stop was Tianamen Sqaure, although we did get a little turned around and would up going through the ticket area for the Forbidden City first. The night before, Ricky had told us it wasn’t as big as you thought, so it wouldn’t take that long to see.
Frankly, not entirely sure what he was talking about – this place is HUGE.
Tianamen Square is where the infamous photo of a man refusing to move against a tank was taken – and the site is pretty significant in China’s history, especially in the last hundred or so years. In the centre is the Monument to The People’s Heroes, and behind it is the mausoleum of Mao (which we didn’t go into).
Its quite a walk to get round the whole thing, and our blonde tour mate got papped a few times. Although this time around, our six-foot plus man-of-the-cabin was also getting in on the action. Apparently his height made him a bit of a landmark too (admittedly we’ve never had trouble locating him even when he’s miles ahead).
We retraced our steps after that and headed into the Imperial Palace, more commonly known as The Forbidden City, home of the Chinese Emperors for almost 500 years. Built in 1406 and only ceasing in use in the early 1900’s, its a giant labyrinth of buildings in the city centre that the guidebooks warn will take at least 2-5 hours to see properly.
To be honest, after the Great Wall, when I walked in here for the first time, my first impression was pretty much…meh.
Its not that it’s not impressive. The buildings are beautiful and the place is obviously huge, but it feels like a movie set – like there’s something missing that would actually make it ‘The Imperial Palace’. This seemed to be the general feeling among the group.
Someone had downloaded a map on their phone, and so we followed it along for the biggest attractions, including the golden throne of the Emperor. Unfortunately, this place is a huge tourist attraction – and trying to get anywhere near some of these places is a nightmare. There is a continuous glut of people in front of the windows, and you really have to force your way in to get a rather mediocre glimpse.
We ended up in the gardens, which are filled with these weird and wonderful rock formations – although most of the group were more interested in the cafe serving burgers, popcorn and hot drinks, before we decided to leave the city entirely – it was becoming very samey, and none of us felt the need to keep looking round.
We headed North and entered the final area of the 3, Jingshan Park – which I believe were once the Imperial Gardens attached to the Forbidden City, opened to the public in 1928. We were pretty walked out by this point, so we were mostly making a beeline for the hill with the pavillion to oversee the palace.
The view is well worth the steep climb (which admittedly wouldn’t have been so bad if we hadn’t been walking round for a good 4 hours). You can see most of nearby Beijing – especially since there aren’t that many skyscrapers in the city. There’s also a lot of dancing and performances going on in the gardens too – we ended up getting chased by a guy in a wolf mask at one point.
The next thing on the agenda were the Hutongs – which basically translates into alley – that were pretty well known around the Drum and Bell Towers. Outside the gardens were dozens of rickshaws, and we all agreed that we couldn’t come to China and not have at least one ride on a rickshaw (and nobody really wanted to walk). Took quite a bit of haggling to get a simple fair, but ended up costing just under 100 yan for 4 rickshaws to take us to the tower.
We did a little wandering, but hadn’t quite found the hutongs when we all decided to start looking for something to eat. Ended up choosing a little French-Vietnamese restaurant called ‘Little Saigon’ on the grounds that it had plenty of vegetarian options. Was a little bit pricier than I really liked, but that’s the downside to being with a group. And the food was really, really good – ended up sharing spring rolls/nems with 2 other people and then had some meat skewers which were unbelievably good. The only real problem came when it was time to pay the bill – and after 5 tries we still hadn’t gotten it right! The two veggies had been sharing plates, and there was a motley of starters and mains going round. The first time we were 50 yuan short, the second time we were 40 yuan over…the waitresses were giggling over the amount of calculators and arguments going on between us.
When we finally came to an agreement and paid the bill, the group seperated. Two people really wanted to see the Llama Temple before it closed so split off, while the rest of us followed a downloaded tour map someone had on their phone.
The Hutongs are very much what Beijing would have been like before it modernised. Small alleyways with walls decorated with traditional roof tile – and a gold plaque every now and then explaining who had once lived in this now-starting-to-crumble-but-still-rather-impressive house. The hutongs we went down had at least one Empress and a political leader. Finally, we hit the Hutongs we expected – the frantic market bustle and chaos.
I could have spent a fortune in this place – hell I could have spent the next week just exploring this place. Dozens of little shops with clothes, shoes, food, souvineers, postcards, anime products, jewellery – you name it, you could get it. Found the watch I loved in Mongolia again, but held back from buying it when I found it at no less than 3 shops – relatively certain I can buy it at any point in Asia if my finances allow it at this point.
By the time we got to the end of our downloaded tour, we decided to head back to the hotel. It was getting dark and we were all getting financially tapped out. Tried our luck with the underground again – so much easier to use than Russia, I love Asian subways – but did discover that our closest subway station really isn’t close at all. Its right next to Tianamen Square (so we did get to see that area lit up at night, which was awesome), which means its a good 20 minutes away. I was planning on taking the underground to get to the airport when it was time to go to Xian, but if I have to lug things that far I might reconsider the shuttle bus.
The other members of our group had also made their way back – they hadn’t gotten to the temple before it closed, so had ended up doing the Hutongs themselves. Found a part we hadn’t, and gotten some pretty spectacular postcards. Have to do the Hutongs again to get my hands on some.
After such a heavy meal in the afternoon, not all of us were that hungry. Some went to the hotel bar for dinner, while I just skipped it entirely. The hotel had frustrated us quite a bit as the Internet had gone down 2 days beforehand and showed no signs of being fixed (a big issue for me as I wanted to cancel my next hotel booking, and nobody was picking up at the phone number. Ended up having to take my tablet out with me looking for wifi). However any laptop with the right cable could still connect, and one of the group had a laptop – so we all headed to their room around 9 and had a goodbye-stroke-Internet party. Flights and hotels were booked – at which point I got a little bit irritated at what I was seeing.
For years I have been a loyal customer of STA Travel. They helped me book my first solo trip, got me through Europe and helped me get flights to Japan. But after what they did to me on this trip, I will never trust their word again.
When I went in to finally book travel parts of my trip, I was told quite bluntly by no less than 2 members of staff that there was no way I could travel to the areas of China I wanted by train without spending days on said transport. I had researched beforehand and this clashed with what I thought I knew, but I reasoned these were the experts, and got talked into buying flights for all my travel in China. This consisted of 3 flights that cost me just over 500 pounds.
Since having booked them, I learned that my gut instincts were right, and I COULD have done all that travel – and in fact saved myself time by doing the night train and not spending hours in the airport. I could have even used the bullet trains and gotten there in the day! I can only assume the girl speaking to me was desperate for the commission. But it got even worse this morning when people were researching how they were getting to similar places to myself, and were getting the flights for a A LOT less than I had paid. Although if I’m lucky, this will be the biggest travel mistake I make, and I can chalk it up to experience – STA will definitely not be getting any more business from me except specific flights from their website I desire.
Everyone was sympathetic to my rants, and I think everybody has a travel story similar to it – not that it stopped people looking up flights and showing me how cheap they were…
It was more a wind down after multiple crazy nights – and I’m definitely going to miss the company when everyone’s gone – I need a travel buddy…