I find this to be a most interesting word : fernweh – it’s a German word and there is no direct English translation. It is basically a wanderlust, a far sickness (as opposed to home sickness), a need, or a wan,t to leave your familiar surroundings, to discover new places. It is the need for distance, the wish to experience something for away from home, the urge to travel – I think I was born with a great fernweh in my soul.
Planning: In the Spring of 2012 we made 2 plans: we would walk the first segment of the Camino, over the Pyrenees and we would travel to China. I started to do a bit of research and discovered that May/June & Sep/Oct were the best times to do both. So we decided on the Camino in May & to travel to China in October. Shortly after this plan was made, a new plan was announced to us : there was to be a visit from the stork, and our first grandchild was expected in October – immediate change of plans! The Camino was dropped (we still haven’t done it, but I swear we’re going next year), and China moved forward to May. Trouble was a trip had to be planned and put together, and I had a lot less time for research than I had thought. 6 weeks is enough time right?
So, what to do next? Talk to a few friends who had been to China – Professor Google is your friend – but TripAdvisor is really your best friend and ally for this job. So first things first – get a blank page and write a list of where you want to go, and what you want to see. Mark the ones that are non- negotiable and the ones that you’d just “like” to include. Next download a map and mark where all these places are on the map, particularly in relation to each other.
At this stage I started to look at tour companies and trips that were available. There are some great ones, everyone said you can’t do that trip by yourselves! You have to go with a tour company! So I looked at that – and there are some great tours if that’s what you want. But they weren’t hitting all the spots we wanted to see, we’re not really the group types either, and also I reckoned for the same money we could go for 3.5 weeks (as opposed to the 10 days -2 weeks the tours were offering), we could go where we wanted, see what we wanted and do so much more than on the tours! For the same money! No brainer! Now to organise it! So that’s what I did!
China – here we come!
Destinations were discussed and settled on: Beijing & The Great Wall – X’ian & Terracotta Warriors – Guilin , taking in the Minority villages & a hike on the rice terraces – Yangshuo & the River Li – Hong Kong – Shanghai. Visa’s were procured. And flights were booked. We flew with Ethihad into Beijing, with a short stopover in Abu Dhabi. They’re a great airline to travel with and we got a super deal. All internal flights, guides and hotels were booked before leaving home. We booked inward to Beijing and home out of Shanghai – we were on our way!
As to accommodation, well we decided to vary our accommodation (and modes of transport) as much as possible to get as wide an experience as we could: from a hutong, to 5 star hotels, to one night in a flat pack hotel, to our gorgeous little hotel on the River Li, etc etc – but all that will be revealed later…
When in Beijing …
Hutongs are a type of narrow streets or alleys, the alleys are formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences. They are most prominent in Beijing. Since the Ming Dynasty (15th century) the centre of Beijing was the Forbidden City, and this was surrounded in concentric circles by the hutongs. Each residence has around 6/8 rooms arranged around an inner courtyard. And we chose to stay in one of these: The Courtyard View Hotel – highly rated on TripAdvisor.
We had organised that the hotel send a car to collect us at the airport, but the alleys are so narrow in the hutong the cars can’t get right in, so he dropped us off and pointed in the direction we were to go. Thankfully we found it ok, and arrived at our hotel in Beijing 23 hours after leaving Dublin.
Entrance to our hotel in the hutong : The Courtyard View
Our Room The inner courtyard
The experience of staying in the hutong was amazing. The sights, the sounds and the smells were all so alien – but you really felt you were getting a flavour of the real Beijing. Most of the little courtyard residences had no toilets, so every now and then there were toilet blocks. If there were any building regulations etc, they weren’t evident, some of the electricity lines were very scary looking (and often used as washing lines!) and you had a feeling that there were layers of centuries old dust on just about everything you could see. People selling everything and anything imaginable on the side of the street, cooking on the pathways, and the people!! Man there’s a lot of people. Fabulous to see them dancing, singing and exercising in squares and parks everywhere you looked.
What does the song say? – there are nine million bicycles in Beijing? – well we saw them all! It was REAL!!!
And I loved it all.
Police station in the houtong
On our first evening we went walking to find somewhere to eat – we found a restaurant on what looked like a busy street, decorated with lanterns. No-one in the restaurant had a word of English. I ended up ordering a chili beef dish – I could barely eat any of it and lost the feeling in my tongue and mouth from the hot chilies! This could be the first holiday that I might actually lose weight! We were in danger of starving over the next 3.5 weeks!!! Thankfully this wasn’t the case, and we had some marvelous meals, especially with the guides who helped us to order fabulous food, in places they brought us to, which we would never have found ourselves. I was glad I could use chop sticks though!
My lovely chili beef – hunt the beef ! Decorated street scene
On that first night however, left to our own devices I thanked the waiter and he brought us a big pot of tea. Seems the word for “thanks” and the word for “tea” are similar – or at least the way I pronounced it! Hilarious.
Square dancing, exercise, Tai chi etc are very popular, and a common sight in parks and squares all over the city. People exercise & dance, singly or in groups. After our first meal in China that night we passed a big square where a large group of people were dancing to “I’ll tell me Ma”. It was surreal.
Further on the road home we stopped on impulse and I had a great massage to ease my weary feet, swollen from all the travels, and then had a couple of beers in our lovely courtyard to round up the night. Welcome to China!
The Great Wall
We had our guide Lily for several days. Lily organised a car and a driver to bring us to The Great Wall. This had all been pre-booked by email before leaving home. My understanding was that China does not permit non-residents to hire cars, so that wasn’t an option for us, and we were quite happy to be driven around, especially when we saw all the bicycles and what looked, to us, like complete chaos on the roads and at junctions!
We picked the Mutianyu section of the Wall to visit. From the plaque at the wall: “In 2002 Mutianyu was acknowledged as an AAAA tourist resort for it showed the best part of The Great Wall.” That was good enough for me! It was an hour or two further to drive to this section, but neither tour buses nor public transport could go there so it would be less crowded etc. We took a cable car up to Tower 14 and walked the wall to Tower 6, and took a toboggan down. Experiences and great craic in themselves! The Wall is very impressive: it did not disappoint. It was an amazing feeling and experience to be walking along a place with so many centuries of history.
Mutianyu section of The Great Wall
While the Wall was built in sections from as early as 700 BC, the majority of the existing wall is from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). It runs East to West across China with 6,259 km (3,889 mi) of actual wall, with many more miles of trenches etc. The towers are built the width or span of the arc of two arrows, so no matter where the enemy tried to scale the Wall, they could be hit with arrows from one of the towers. The towers were also used for sleeping and eating quarters for the soldiers, as a munitions base and as watch towers. Fires were lit in the towers as warning signals of attack and the warning passed from tower to tower. There were amazing views of the Wall and the mountains and Lily told us were very lucky there was no smog that day, as there usually was, to interrupt our views.
Lily & Tom pick some fish for lunch The 2008 Olympic Cube
When we got back to Beijing, we did a short tour of The Summer Palace & we had time to drive by the Olympic Village and at least see The Cube (with it’s 2008 bubbles) & the famous Bird’s Nest. We also had a fabulous meal with Lily in her local restaurant. Another full and memorable day.
Dragon Boat – Summer Palace – Chinese dragons traditionally symbolise power, particularly control over water.
The Long Gallery: Tom & Lily walk along the Long Gallery at the Summer Palace. At 728 Mts long, and with over 14,000 paintings, it too has it’s place in the Guinness Book of Records
The Marble Boat at the Summer Palace
We had one funny experience with Lily, when at the Summer Palace we came upon The Marble Boat. Lily proceeded to give us the history of the boat, build in 1755 etc. I remembered having read about it, and that this one was a replica, made after the original was destroyed in 1893, made of wood and painted to look like marble, Lily insisted I was wrong that it was actually marble, definitely not wood! I guess it’s one of the many things not told to the Chinese as she was adamant and still everything you can read here in the West says it’s made of wood!
Tiananmen Square is absolutely huge. We also had Lily guide us around the Square & the Forbidden City. Being over 100 acres, Tiananmen is one of the largest public squares in the world. Although with various buildings etc on it you didn’t get the full impression of it’s size while standing there. Each flagstone is numbered for ease at public parades. Of course we associated it with the famous scenes of tanks & students in 1989. We spoke to Lily about it and most people in China are ignorant of the events, all mention of it is banned, a Google search in China results in no hits!!! Even social media such as Facebook is banned there! The tour of the Square & the Forbidden Palace were fascinating and a must for visitors.
A Qing-era guardian lion One of the ornate ceilings
The Forbidden City is mesmerizing. Built between 1406 & 1420 it was built as a palace compound to protect and serve the Ming Dynasty. With 980 buildings and 9,999 rooms it’s fairly impressive. Well the Emperor did have 3,000 concubines so he needed lots of rooms! The concubines had swings from the beams, such as shown in the picture above and were expected to hang themselves from it on the Emperors death.
The Palace of Heavenly Peace in the inner court is among the most popular buildings and the The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the largest. Even the moat at 6 mts deep and 52 mts wide is impressive. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and Beijing’s most popular attraction. One was reminded of the old film The Last Emperor.
Moat of the Forbidden City
Temples: China is full of them – we made our way to several (mostly guided by geocaching) – they are wonderful places to see and experience. They are quite ornate and are frequented regularly & at all times of the day by locals: bowing, lighting candles or incense & praying. We had a wonderful experience in the Lama Temple – we arrived on what turned out to be a holy day when the monks chanted at length, and we were bang on time to experience it. One of those fabulous and moving experiences you remember forever.
Chanting monks in the Lama Temple, Beijing
Confucious outside his Temple Guinness certified largest Buddha He wasn’t talking that day ! carved from a single piece of wood 25mt high
Street Food, Hot Pot & Peking Duck.
Firstly – learn to use chopsticks before you go! China is famous for it’s street food – you are assaulted by the sights and smells everywhere. Apart from the stalls selling food in the tourist areas, the ordinary Chinese seem to eat a lot of street food too. A 2007 study said 2.5 billion people eat street food everyday – glad I wasn’t on the count that day! Food of every sort is all around you and is available at anytime of the day or night. Linked in history to the poorer classes, I think a lot of people still eat street food as living quarters are so small, many without ovens etc. We looked a lot more than we sampled.
Wangfujing Snack Street – seahorse & scorpians!
Hot Pot : Next up was Hot Pot – I had read about this and asked Lily to bring us to a Hot Pot restaurant. She brought us to one a bit out in the suburbs. It was another very different style dining experience. The one we went to was part of a chain. We were the only foreigners in there that day, and I’d put money we were the first! No way we could have done this on our own.
You sit at high benches buffet style that are arranged in a square around a central bench. The chefs are walking around inside the square and serve from the central table. In front of each person is a pot built into the bench which has hot water in it. It’s electric and you can adjust the temperature. So you pick you meats, veg and sauce and you then cook it your self in your pot. All with chopsticks. It was a very loud busy place. When anyone leave all the staff call out to them, “Goodbye, goodbye, thanks you so much for coming, call again” (all in Chinese obviously ! ) Great atmosphere and I liked the food too.
Hot Pot : Ready to cook – Xiabu our Hot Pot restaurant
Da Dong – No visit to Beijing (formerly Peking) is complete without a visit to Da Dong to try the famous Peking Duck. I had read this was the best place to have it and we were not disappointed. Very swish restaurant, the duck was fab, and quite reasonable (although the wine is super expensive, so they get you there). Altogether a lovely meal & experience.
Personal chef slicing our duck Yum Yum
White Man: One of the funniest experiences we had in Beijing was that we were repeatedly photographed. Sometimes we were asked to pose with people sometimes they just took our pictures, openly or surreptitiously, particularly around the most popular tourist sites. Being the capital of China, Bejing is very popular for Chinese visitors as well as overseas tourists. In fact there were far more Chinese tourists than “white” people every where we went. For a lot of these indigenous tourists this was their first time in a big city and the first time to see foreigners. Your colour – being “white” or “brown” denotes class. Women, in Beijing in particular, go to great lengths to protect themselves from the sun, to prevent tanning and looking like a “peasant”. Hats or visors are common, and gloves are worn to protect the hands. So, being so white, it seems we were quite the novelty. Chinese people don’t go grey until they are very old,practically ancient, and the men are always clean shaven. So Tom with his grey hair and grey/white beard was a real treat for them!
Boat ride in the Summer Palace – move over !
While on a boat trip in the Summer Palace, I noticed one young woman move seats and sit beside Tom, and pose while her friends took pictures. Much to their hilarity I offered to move and get out of the frame so she could have a photo just with Tom (Lily translated for us) – she was delighted and much giggling and photography followed.
While the photo taking was amusing, being openly stared at was quite discomforting. On trains, in lifts, etc people would stand with their faces inches from yours, openly gawping into your face. It was a bit weird. One small child in a buggy kept staring up at Tom on a train and saying “white man – white man” – which was quite funny.
Typical Chinese acrobatic show – very enjoyable evening
Sights, sounds and smells : It really is an onslaught of the senses at times.
The toilets were another real treat !
Yes quite the experience! Something else that struck us while we’re discussing things of this nature was the fact that babies don’t wear nappies! Little ones had no seams in the back of their trousers and were basically just squatting & doing the business through the gap / slit when the need arose. Yep! I kid you not. Tried to get a photo one day, but felt a bit odd so thought better not!!!
Superstitious to the last about everything, but especially about numbers! The door above has 9 rows of 9 decorations, a common sight. This is for luck.
We noticed that sim cards were all priced differently, depending on the digits, with phone numbers containing “lucky” numbers being priced higher. Numbers: 0,6,8 & 9 being thought of as especially lucky, because their names sound similar to words that have auspicious meanings. It was common to see colourful kites being flown on parks. Lovely! And then you see the crazies!!! Like this guy on his motorbike!
Local peculiarities: Two other things worth mentioning: bargaining and spitting!!! Yes spitting, I better deal with that first. Chinese men have the most awful, awful habit of spitting on the street! And I’m not talking a small little spit, no I’m talking about dragging up every bit of gunk from the bottom of their lungs and very, very noisily forming great big golliers and projecting them onto the path! Everywhere! All the time! Like mini frisbies! Noisy mini frisbies coming from the back of the throat! It is pretty gross!!! I don’t think I would ever get used to it.
We wondered was it about the smog? Were they actually trying to clear out gunk? But the women don’t do it, so I think it’s a more a cultural thing! Just reading an article about a move to educate that says ideally, people would practice “socially responsible spitting,” That means into a gutter and not someone’s path, or eye. Well that would help alright. YUK!!!!!
Largest LED screen in the world: 250 x 32 mts & 25 mts up in the air
(Something nice to distract from the you know what above.)
Shopping: Beijing and China in general is great for shopping. Although we left our tailoring till our last stop in Shanghai, to save us lugging it all around, we still did some shopping in Beijing. Our most valuable lesson was on how they inflate the prices. Prices generally being quoted seemed VERY reasonable to us, so we felt if we then bargained them down by 30-35% we were well pleased. Lily told us to aim for a 90% reduction on the initial quoted price. 90%!!! We started off with this advice when I wanted to buy an umbrella for the sun at Tiananmen Square.
We had our instructions, but Lily would take no part in the actual bargaining, as she had to face these wily sellers every day with new clients. The umbrellas were quoted at the equivalent of €2 – an ok price. €1.50 seemed a reasonable reduction and we would have been happy at that. Lily told us to offer 20 cent and nothing more. Walk away, they will come after you if they are willing to sell at that price, if not there’s another seller just down the way, try again. After much haggling I bought the umbrella for 20 cent! Mental!!!
This plan worked for us all though the holiday. we didn’t always get it at 10% but you knew where to start and there was always someone else that you would then offer 20% to and probably get it at that price. In Beijing, we went to Glasses City, for glasses, funny enough. I’m still wearing them, and still have 2 more sets of frames. We also went to Pearl city where I got my lovely pearls.
Snippets of Beijing
So that pretty much covers the highlights of our visit to Beijing. I hope you have enjoyed this taster of a fabulous city as much as we did. I’d also recommend the Drum and the Bell Towers. The narrow,steep stairs are a killer, but the drums & the bells are fab – and you can really see the effect of the pollution over the city, from the top of the towers. Visiting the many parks, and just walking,sitting and people watching is fascinating too. Keep an eye out for men in the middle of the day, you will see them lounging and sleeping in the oddest of places and positions!
Take up caching before you go, it will bring you to loads of little hidden away spots.
Oh and don’t forget the chop sticks!
We left Beijing to travel overnight by train to X’ian to see the city with it’s ancient city walls and the famous Terracotta Warriors – but that’s for another blog…….