China 6: Beijing

We arrived in Beijing at half 6 in the morning and headed to our hostel, Leo Hostel, to drop off our bags before going straight to the Temple of Heaven; the largest complex dedicated to heaven worship and the site of ancient sacrifices. The temple and the gates were surrounded by gardens and even a park that had been made into an outdoor gym, which was filled with pensioners working out when we visited (they get free access, as entry is usually around 5 quid, and they were ridiculously fit they put us all to shame). My favourite part was passing by a group of Chinese people “free dancing” to live local music and spontaneously joining in with them – I had the pleasure of dancing with a 70 year old man who taught me a few new moves! One of the great things about China – they are so thrilled by our involvement in, and enthusiasm of, their culture.

We all ventured out that evening to see a Chinese Acrobatics show – something I was unsure about as such performances can be disappointing or lacklustre, but this was really impressive. It’s hard to put into words how skilled and dexterous all performers were, and how mind-blowing some of the acts were; the most outstanding for me, where I was literally on the edge of my sat, had a metal sphere in which a motorcyclist would enter and do loops inside, with additional motorcyclists gradually being added until 5 were inside the sphere completing loops and crossing paths all together. My words do not do it justice. Afterwards we headed to a local restaurant to sample China’s most famous dish; Peking duck. Rather than shredded duck, we were presented with chunks of duck breast (one with skin, one without, and one of just skin) to put inside our pancakes. Delicious.

The following day we went to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, one of the most famous structures in China and the official seat of power for the Ming and Qing dynasties. I found the history fascinating and our tour guide, Luna, was brilliant at telling stories and providing relevant yet interesting background information, however I found the Forbidden City itself quite disappointing. Maybe it is because we have seen so many temples by now, maybe it’s because it was hard to picture the history once inside, or maybe the price of 60RMB making it one of the most expensive activities for such little return; either way if it wasn’t for the visit to Jingshan Park for views over the Forbidden City and beyond, it wouldn’t have been worth it for me.

In the evening a group of us took the metro to Wangfujing Night Food Market – in the more economic district of Beijing, here you can try a range of exotic delicacies including scorpion, snake and beetles. I managed to sample flame-grilled worms (quite a strong flavour with a crunchy outside but pate-type inside), breaded cat (hard to detect the flavour of the meat amongst the spices and bread) and lamb testicle (quite a tasty meaty flavour followed by a mushy and slightly off-meat texture).

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Grilled worms

The following day was my absolute favourite in China thus far. Early afternoon we took a 2 hour bus to one of China’s great wonders, the Great Wall. First we stopped at a typical tourist spot for views of a restored part of the wall, we then headed for lunch in a farm near the wall before hiking 30 minutes up to an unrestored section of the wall – the lunch at the farm was a pre-agreed arrangement in order for us to be able to camp on this unrestored section.

I’m not entirely sure what I expected from the Great Wall of China, but it exceeded everything possible; the wall itself is incredible, the views completely breathtaking, and the whole experience (taking in the history and the understanding of where we were) incredibly overwhelming; I was so moved that tears formed in my eyes. We hiked 30 minutes along part of the unrestored wall to a look-out point where we sat in the edge and watched the sun go down before heading back to where we would camp to pitch our tents and make a fire. We spent the evening around the campfire eating marshmallows, drinking whisky (a Chinese favourite) and listening to stories about the Wall (which took over 2,000 years to build).

We went to bed before waking up at 4:30am to watch the sunrise. I don’t have the words to describe this experience; it just took my breath away. There are moments in life where you feel your whole body is taken over – where you feel part of something greater than yourself and you can physically feel it coming alive inside of you, changing your shape. This was one of those moments. I will never forget it. Thank you, Beijing.

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LS.

[See next post: Moganshan]

[See previous post: Shaolin]

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