5 Days in Beijing: Definitely not Mongolia
August 15th to 20th, 2015
Written by Jenn
Photos by Jenn, Steve, and Rita
Editing and Photograph Comments by Steve
August 15, 2015: Saga Hostel, Beijing, China
Well, China is pretty crazy so far- definitely a stark change from Mongolia. I’m going to have to give it a couple of days to adjust and try my best to be open before making too much judgement. The Mongolia/China border crossing at Erenhot was probably the craziest and most insensible human invention I have ever had the pleasure of being involved in.
August 20, 2015: Cafe, Beijing, China
I must have got distracted or fallen asleep during the last entry. Fair enough considering we had just traveled 14 hours by train, 3 hours to make it the ~5km across the border, 7 hours of total layover, 6 hours by bus, another 12 hours (overnight) on cramped hard seat train, and lastly 1 hour taxi ride. Not to mention that organizing any part of this journey was extremely difficult… From bartering in Chinese/ Mongolian for Russian jeeps to take us across the border before it opened, to getting ‘special permission’ to take our camping knife on the train after the scanner detected it ( tip: hide it in your metal cooking pots), to trying to decode Beijing’s taxi code and finding a taxi who would take us to any hotel (successful after about 15 taxi drivers just shook their heads ‘no’ at us). It felt like the amazing race competition- complete one task, get to the next point, and face the next unknown challenge before moving on. Though this amazing race was much more boring involving long layovers, bus and train rides, and few exciting parts, such as hang gliding and whatever fun things they get to do on the real show.
But, we made it to our hotel, a bit grouchy, and more than a bit stinky, and very relieved to settle in one city for a couple of days. And now, 5 days later, we are up and leaving Beijing tonight. For such a giant mega-city, I am surprised at how much I have really enjoyed my time here, and if it weren’t for the gross pollution, I might even want to stay longer.
The first day, bright and early (to avoid the crowds, which we soon found out is impossible…), we went to the Forbidden City and Ti’annamen Square in the morning. They were both amazing to see for their historical significance, unfortunately the hoards of people/security/vendors definitely took away from the experience. I thought Ti’annamen Square would be a vast open space based on what I have read, but instead it was quite small on account of all the buildings/ monuments inside and it felt more like a jail than a gathering place because of the security gates all around the square and tightly controlled entry and exit places. But it was a neat place to visit nonetheless, two things you have to do if you find yourself in Beijing.
In the afternoon we went to the Beijing hashing group, a sort of ‘drinkers with a running problem’ cult of expats and locals from all around the world. Hashing, organized by groups around the world collectively known as Hash House Harriers, involves a running a route laid out in advance using chalk or flour marks as clues. The run can have dead ends, beer stops, false trails, etc. A well laid out trail will confuse the faster runners enough that they will finish in group with the slow runners.
The Beijing hash run was awesome- we got to run through a neighborhood three days before its scheduled demolition, and so got to see parts of the real Beijing, not meant for tourists. Running in Beijing is more of a smelling sensory experience than visual – from concentrated car exhaust to unknown foods frying and barbecuing to strong urine smells that take you by surprise – you never know what your next inhale will bring when running in Beijing. Overall, it was a great experience with many cheap 3% Yanjing beers consumed throughout and especially after the run (one poor girl had one of her new running shoes filled with beer and had to chug it in order to initiate the new running shoes, but that is another story…).
The second day in Beijing was spent at the Temple of Confucious Museum in the morning followed by the summer palace in the afternoon. Both were very interesting and beautiful, but most of what I remember from that day was being in a half-zombie state on account of the 35 degree heat and humidity and masses of people. I would highly recommend both of these places if you are in Beijing, just not during the summer tourist season.
Day three was our Great Wall Adventure day, which turned out to be a great success and break from the city. Our goal was to visit a less crazy/Disneyland-like section of the wall, so we decided to take public transportation (2 buses) to the “Great Wall on the Lake” section of the wall because tour groups do not generally go there. It turns out, taking the buses (with the proper research and Chinese characters ready – thanks to our lovely Ming hostel), was fairly manageable, plus we met a local, Michael, on the second bus that was going to hike a different, nearby section of the wall. He got us to get off the bus early, and took us up a small, meandering farmers path (no signage here), to a non-restored section of the wall. It was amazing! Here we found ourselves on the real Ming-Era (1368- 1644AD) Great Wall of China, and with it all to ourselves. No vendors, no polished walkways, no tourist-traps, just crumbly old overgrown wall with super steep climbs and falls and amazing towers, with various tunnels, windows, and stunning views of the valleys in all directions. The sheer size of the wall and human effort that must have gone into building it by hand hundreds of years ago really hits you as you walk from tower to tower.
And so, we hiked along the real ruin of the Great Wall, for 3-4 hours, taking in the views and relishing in the solitude we were able to experience on such a well visited world heritage site. After 5-10 km of climbs and descents we reached the “Great Wall on the Lake” section, where we originally planned to get off the bus. Though it wasn’t packed with tourists, it also wasn’t he real ruins of the wall, and instead was just a recently remade version, which was neat, but not the same as walking along the real thing. And so, it was definitely worth taking the time and extra effort to research quieter/ “closed” sections of the wall and how to take public transportation (super cheap!) to get there, rather than going on an organized tour. Next time I will definitely be bringing camping supplies so I can spend more time exploring the wall.
The next day and a half in Beijing were spent trying to figure out where to go next, trying to find a cooler and less populated area in China, South Korea, or Japan. However, we quickly found that trains from Beijing had been booked weeks in advance, to almost all other destinations we searched. After several hours of frustrating censored Internet/ asking around research we finally found three seats on a flight to Lanzhou, in Gansu Province, Central China at a reasonable price for the next day.
And so, our whirlwind tour of Beijing, and introduction of China, has come to an end. From the good: delicious food, abundance of music, Great Wall treks, authentic hutong neighborhoods; to the bad: murky polluted skies, insane pushy crowds, summer heat and humidity; and the ugly: public toilet smells, babies pooping and peeing basically anywhere (no diapers, just crotch-less pants), and internet censorship (no access to our dangerous WordPress blog from here). It has been a great experience overall, and Beijing is definitely worth visiting and experiencing. But, is has also been enough city life and people for all of us, and I think I can say that we are all looking forward to moving on to the rural areas of China : ).