Having sorted out the admin pretrip, we were ready for our 3.5 day sojourn in Beijing. First thing to get used to pretty much every flight to China from Incheon gets delayed. It’s boring but it is part of the experience. Also, a lot of passengers will have an INSANE amount of hand-baggage, so you kind want to get on the plane quickly to make sure you get some of that precious overhead storage space (this is where you want loyalty points for some essential pre- boarding.)
We landed in PEK and jostled our way through immigration. The airport is HUGE! You have to get a fairly lengthy train shuttle from just outside immigration to luggage collection and from getting off the plane to getting into a taxi, it took about an hour.
People talk about the traffic in Beijing, and the drivers there, and it sounds horrendous. Knowing our propensity to hire cars and do things ourselves, several friends warned us off driving in Beijing and said we’d be scared enough in taxis. I don’t get it personally. The traffic, although plentiful, wasn’t the worst and because there was plenty of traffic, it really felt like everything was happening in slow motion. Yes, there were plenty of cars that zipped in and out of traffic, super close to a car we were in but because of the speed every one is travelling at, it isn’t an insurmountable feat. Anyway, I digress.
We arrived in Dongzhimen around 7 and spent the evening wandering around the local area – ostensibly to find the subway station, but really just to orient ourselves as we knew we would be taxi people this trip. During the wandering, we came across the Raffles City Mall, across the road from Dongzhimen station and lo and behold, dinner was solved – Pizza Express in China (although it’s called Pizza Marzano there!)
Day 1 in Beijing was a very rainy Friday morning not conducive to sightseeing, so we spent the day roaming (in taxis) around different areas, stopping for food as needed. I was particularly excited to find a place to get my eyebrows threaded in the CBD. Browhaus has two locations pretty close to each other, and the staff spoke enough English to make me feel comfortable. It was 98RMB for eyebrows and 50RMB for upper lip which is a bit pricey but I wasn’t so sure that I’d walk away with my face intact from some of the definitely cheaper in-mall threading places.
I went to the location in the Kerry Centre, and while I was doing my thing, Raj was busy finding a lunch stop in the same building: Din Tai Fung for world-renowned dumplings – including a veggie selection for him!
After lunch, we headed over to the Bodhi Spa, as recommended to us, for some blissful massages which helped to while away the afternoon. http://www.bodhi.com.cn We paid 348RMB for a 1hr aromatherapy massage and you’ll find the spa just North of the workers stadium, across the road.
We spent the evening strolling through Sanlitun – known for its bars and restaurants. The food prices are pretty amazing when compared to Korea and the choice available is huge! Apparently Sanlitun used to be the soft red light district of Beijing and to this end, you still see women dancing on poles in an establishment which is right next door to a more family friendly environment. We had a nice drink at the Hacienda Rooftop bar, followed by a stroll home. One strange thing we found everywhere is that as soon as your food / order has been brought to your table, the servers expect payment immediately. If you hand over a card, they often ask for the password (pin) but we’d say no and mime signing instead. It’s almost like they expect you to do a runner so they avoid that by getting paid upfront, which is weird in the police-state that is China but you get used to it.
Day 2 dawned with slightly more friendly weather, so we set off to the Summer Palace, up in the North of the city. The summer palace was exactly the kind of crowded mayhem that you would imagine China to be. Last summer’s desire to be a video-blogger came back for a few moments while I tried to capture the insanity – but it was a futile attempt. We bought the artists map to try to navigate around the palace, but whilst it is a very pretty representation it isn’t the most useful to get around, so that’s where Lonely Planet comes in. This is also the place that I came round to the idea of using umbrellas as sun protection. It was hot and humid and climbing to the top for some albeit very pretty views was sticky work. I think I’d almost prefer to return to Beijing in the cold months (cold weather doesn’t scare me anymore – I live in Korea after all!) to do the rest of the sightseeing. If you have time, it’s a nice little ferry ride from the main bit of the palace to South Island too. The sun disappeared while we were on the boat but the view were still nice. Leaving the palace to get a taxi was hard. This seems to be a recurring theme in China, so if you have members of your party who would object to walking around in search of one, make sure you get the DiDi app and have data on your phone! Even with the app, lack of language skills means that it still isn’t the easiest thing, but every little bit helps.
From the Palace, we went to a Duck restaurant – its Beijing, Roast Duck in pancakes is an absolute must – that was recommended and across the road from the hotel. It was a late lunch, so the restaurant had run out of vegetarian food but Raj patiently watched me stuff myself and then went and found some noodles around the corner.
After a little rest (I really must invest in a hat) we headed to Houhai for dinner and a drink. The name ‘Houhai’ refers to a lake and its surrounding neighbourhood in the Xicheng District of Central Beijing and is a lovely place for a pre-dinner stroll. We ventured away from the lake down some decidedly quiet, and in any other country, dodgy, side streets which are apparently filled with market traders during the day to a quiet and quaint little Italian restaurant, Mercante, which we’ve since learnt is a gem amongst the Beijing Foodie Set. With an Italian owner, the food is impeccable and I was only sorry that I’d eaten so much duck that I didn’t have space for the rack of New Zealand Lamb that was the night’s special. (Yes, I realise most of my holiday posts revolve around food. I can’t help it, I get hungry. I’ve started planning my trip to London in September already – Nandos, Teryiaki Salmon Fishcakes from M&S, Ribs and Greggs make the top food stops). After dinner we went back to the lake for a drink at the ‘No Name Bar.’ For such a gorgeous venue, it was empty, so please do make an effort to find it and offer it your custom when in town!
Day 3, and our last full day in Beijing. We jumped in a taxi to Tiananmen Square: interestingly, if you Google-search Tiananmen Square without a VPN in China, nothing of note comes up. There is a big ploy to make sure that people know that nothing happened there, but when you get there, security is super tight and there are supposedly plain clothed policemen at every turn. Why would you need all this if nothing happened? We planned to go to the Square first, but somehow found ourselves caught up in the queue for The Forbidden City so we went along with it. That was our first big fail of the trip. There are only 80,000 tickets sold each day for the Forbidden City and most of these are booked by tour operators or online before people arrive at the venue. The crowds to get into FC are HUGE and pushy and shove-y and gross in the heat, but there is no sign on the outside to say there are no tickets left. Once we shoved our way in only to find all the tickets were sold out, we made our way back to the front to get out, only to be turned around with no indication where the exit was. At some point I was wandering through crowds just saying ‘exit’ over and over again in the hope that someone would take pity on me and point me in the right direction! Turns out you need to walk the length of the FC on the outside in order to get out.
Fast-forward from here to Silk Street. Ah yes, the infamous art of bargaining in a Chinese market. I am SO bad at haggling that I just went down the ‘speak to my husband I don’t have any money route’ and left him to it after I picked out things. There is a nice food court (veggie and non-veggie noodles pleaseandthankyou) for pre-shopping, and lots of great foot massage places for post shopping. All in all, I was happy with my spoils, which included a new pair of glasses for me, prescription sunglasses for him both for less than £100. I think I’ll get prescription sunglasses next time…
Raj likes to check out the Indian food offering everywhere we go, so that’s what we did for dinner. The menu at Ganges in Sanlitun was HUGE and it definitely gets a thumbs up from us – sadly I ate my food too quickly before I thought of taking pictures, but it’s just an excuse to go back I reckon!! 🙂
All in all, a Beijing Mini Break is thoroughly recommended. I want to go back to see the Great Wall of China (a 70km hike in that weather was not on my list of things to do) and actually enter the Forbidden City so I’ll be applying for a multi-entry visa when I’m in London to make it possible…