I’m finally at the last installment of our Trans-Siberian / Trans-Mongolian trip, Beijing, where we spent a glorious, indulgent six days eating and sweating in smog. Monster post ahead.Suffice to say, six days is too short to remotely do Beijing justice. I spent a month there for an internship in 2011 and I barely scratched the city’s surface, although that might have something to do with the fact that I squandered at least three days trawling 动物园 (Dongwuyuan Wholesale Market) for cheap buys.
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Anyway, it’s always been my dream to return. Beijing has its gentrified hutongs, preserved palaces and seedy alleys (where cooks stir-fry mysterious meat in a giant wok and you pretend you’re going to be okay) that will keep tourists intrigued. But the city also has this “honey badger don’t give a damn” attitude that kinda makes you feel like the outcast desperate to be part of the cool kids’ club. I’m told Beijing isn’t everyone’s tea but you know what? Honey badger don’t give a damn.
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Tired of train-ing around, Alan and I decided to fly to Beijing. By the time we checked into our hotel, we were starving, so what better place to go than… 海底捞火锅 (Haidilao Hot Pot)!
This is the mecca of all steamboat restaurants, with its impeccable service (the staff give you aprons and spectacle cloths, dance while they serve you pulled noodles and even paint your nails if there’s a long queue) and stomach-disintegrating 麻辣烫 (hot and spicy soup). My friends and I went to Haidilao several times when I was last in Beijing, and I used to dream about the spread of sauces you could make, so naturally I had to bring Alan there. (And of course they would open in Singapore — which I have already been to, because I LOVE HAIDILAO.)
Despite the pictures Alan couldn’t decipher half the menu but we didn’t eat anything strange and Alan loved it.
I can’t believe I just spent the last few paragraphs talking about Haidilao. That’s how much of an impact it has made in my dining life, man.
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No trip to Beijing is complete without a trip to the Forbidden City.
This was my second time here, and other than the teeming crowds and a hundred tour guide flags whipping about in the air, it’s a place you could spend hours in.
I’m sure imperial China must have been hard to live in with all its rules, but while some girls grew up dreaming of becoming Cinderella-esque princesses, I’ve always wanted to be…
Huan Zhu Ge Ge aka Princess Return Pearl. Best show ever.
Built in the 1400s, the Forbidden City housed Ming and Qing emperors for almost 500 years. After the Manchus gained supremacy and took over the palace, they changed the various hall names to emphasize ‘harmony’ instead of ‘supremacy’, which explains the New Age-y English translations like “Hall of Supreme Harmony” and “Hall of Preserving Harmony.”
This is the Dragon Throne, or the emperor’s main magic seat, located in the Hall of Supreme Harmony (太和殿) — one tell-tale sign is the many dragons carved into the throne and pillars. The plaque above reads 建极绥猷, which means “to God, to the people”, reinforcing the emperor’s position as the Son of Heaven. Clearly I had to Google that since I can’t read half the Chinese characters in that plaque.
I recall an anecdote told by my constantly-malfunctioning audio guide about how the more mythical animals sat atop a roof, the more important the hall was.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony has 12 figurines, including the “evil-dispelling bull, courageous goat-bull, wind-and-storm-summoning fish, mythical lion, auspicious seahorse, heavenly horse, lion and chiwen.” They would supposedly pounce upon the man who strays from his duties, so in short, this Hall is important.
Headed to the Inner Court where the residential, not ceremonial, parts of the palace were located and pretended to be Princess Return Pearl. Unfortunately the Forbidden City is open only till mid-day on Mondays, and after we were ushered out we headed straight to Jingshan Park.
This is the view from the top, with the palace behind me — beautiful on non-smoggy days (the view, not me, though I’d like to think I’m beautiful on some days too).
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In the afternoon, I was reunited with my friend Jialing, whom I met during my internship in 2011. I was staying at this hotel for a while, and she was a shop assistant at the gift shop downstairs. We hit it off and we’ve remained in touch ever since, even though I take months to return emails in Mandarin. T-T
Here we are at the Wangfujing Snack Street which sells, besides our candied strawberries pictured here, skewered geckos and scorpions and starfish.
Proof we knew each other then:
She took us around Houhai (后海) and into the various hutongs including Nanluoguxiang (南锣鼓巷), and with that, the world of Beijing-kitsch-and-cool. Also, street snacks are our favourite thing ever.
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I wish I could say climbing the Great Wall of China was one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done in my life, but it’s too blisteringly hot for any sane human to function. I don’t regret it, but you’d have to pay me to do it again in summer.
Seasonal error aside, we did do some things right. We picked a relatively quiet section of the wall (Mutianyu 慕田峪), for instance, and avoided Badaling, which is pretty much the Great Wall of WTF during peak season:
Of course it takes some effort to get there. It’s a bus ride + a taxi away, or 1.5 to 2 hours one-way, but the time you spend getting there will be easily recouped by not getting stuck in a sweaty three-kilometer human jam.
Tranquility, in contrast:
As you can see, for every ascent there’s an equally steep descent, making this 2.2km walk a relatively tough one. Steps are narrow at times, so a sturdy pair of sports shoes is just as important as good stamina.
The Mutianyu section has over 22 watchtowers in all, some of which have featured in various movies but I don’t recall any. For the most part we sought respite from the sun, submitting to market forces — water is expensive here.
You are paying for labour, though: we found out from this young man that he hikes a few hours up and down the mountain every day, lugging bottles and cans and tidbits. Sadly I’ve forgotten his name but if you’re American, do give him a bigger tip since he loves you guys (“Americans are my favourite people because they always tip so generously,” he told me as I handed him the exact change for my water.)
We also found out that the nearby villages have all marked out their own watchtower — this man’s is #22 if I’m not wrong, much further from the main route, so he charges a higher price for his wares. You are, however, more likely to purchase water and food from him, since he’s the last port of civilization before you venture off to 野长城, or “Wild Great Wall,” the unrestored, not-tourist-safe parts of the wall.
I refused to go over the dark side, so Jialing and I camped out in a watchtower and talked about life and work while Alan did. Here you can see the wall overrun by trees — no clear path for the tourist to walk on.
To get up and down the market, you take a ski lift and a toboggan respectively. You could also walk up the entire height of the mountain, as we saw two adventurous angmoh couples do. Or you could, well, not.
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Far less strenuous was our visit (my second!) to the 798 Art District, home to many galleries, workshops and indie cafes. A mish-mash collection of abandoned military buildings and factories, the district seems to have evolved from bohemian enclave to a gentrified, slightly yuppie zone.
I could wander for hours here. Most of the art can be viewed for free, but my favourite artist on this trip was 王兴伟 (Wang Xingwei) at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. Entrance to his exhibition was ticketed, but well-worth the money.
Wang’s oil paintings are surrealist and take on a comic but dark overtone at times. I liked 曙光 (Dawn) best — it seems optimistic with the subjects gazing at a beautiful sunset, until your eye follows the guy in yellow’s finger towards the top…
Other artwork we saw:
One of the awesomest things we got to eat was 烤冷面 (literally fried cold noodle), supposedly a Harbin street snack. It is essentially a giant flat noodle filled with sausages and veg and chili and possibly crack and my mouth is watering thinking about it.
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Tiananmen Square hasn’t quite been the gate of heavenly peace, especially after a suicide attack that left 38 injured a few months after we visited. Its cultural significance and surrounding monuments, like Mao’s mausoleum, make it a high-profile and iconic landmark in the city.
We walked through Qianmen Street, took the train and got our nails done (Alan got a massage) at a spa in Wudaoying hutong, and then squeezed in a look-see at the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube, sites for the 2008 Olympics.
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Now that I’ve got Alan caught up with most of the touristy Beijing sites, I can’t wait till our next visit to dig deep into the city. I don’t know what sort of rose-tinted glasses I am seeing this city with, but whatever Beijing has me wearing, I’m in love.
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And this concludes our epic one-month Trans-Siberian trip! In hindsight it has taught me about patience (you’ll learn that inevitably, spending days on a train) and learning to appreciate downtime (whether in a small carriage compartment or having hours to spare in the vast green wilderness). I got to see for the first time a fraction of Russia — its vastness is something I still have trouble wrapping my mind around — and Mongolia, and I’m grateful to have eaten blini and drank airag. I went back to one of my top three favourite cities in the world, Beijing, for which I think I will always have a special fondness for, even if I have yet to realize why.
Above all, I spent a month interacting with Alan at close quarters and exploring half the world together — we both came out the better for it. I’m not sure if the Rachel and Alan of 2012 could have done it, but I’m grateful for another milestone, and every month we learn to love just a fraction more.
Restart the entire Trans-Mongolian trip here:
St Petersburg Part 1 & Part 2.
How to Get Your Russian Visa & Survive It.
Moscow Part 1 & Part 2.
Life on the train.