beijing - Where's Byrne?


19.02.2012 – 22.02.2012 Cloudy/Rainy 5 °C

We’d already found the hostel we wanted to stay at courtesy of but finding it was another matter. Written instructions B had collected from the website were straight forward enough and getting out of Beijing West Railway Station, jumping on the tube at the Military Museum Station and off at Dongsi Shitiao was childs play (although Beijing’s tube was by far the worst in terms of service in China, and covered in gob spots on the floor), finding the hostel proved impossible. We bought a map from a magazine stall but still couldn’t find the road where the hostel was. We headed down a main road in the general direction of where I thought it was (stopping at trusty McDonald’s for coffee to warm up) but didn’t find anything in the way of hostels of guesthouses, just hotels in places we didn’t want to stay. Three hours walking around in total with our bags we finally managed to stumble across a walking street. Down the walking street were a handful of hostels, and one, Beijing Downtown Backpackers looked perfect. At Y75 for a dorm bed each it wasn’t the cheapest place we could stay at but we were happy to pay it. Free breakfast, free Wi-Fi, free pool table, book exchange, trips organised for you and a great atmosphere made it a nice stay.

After a shower and sorting ourselves out we met Tom, a guy from Northamptonshire who was quite clearly a Rah. Those of you who don’t know what a Rah is (I didn’t until I met B) a Rah can be either male or female and are easily spotted as the guys tend to wear flip-flops in winter, brightly coloured Ralph Lauren Polo Shirts with the collars up, joggers that are too big for them, usually Jack Wills, have floppy hair, speak like Prince Charles and have more money than sense. The girls are usually orange in colour, have back-combed hair, and speak of Daddy’s money paying for their next exploit. Both are spotted around various universities. Despite this, they’re not bad people, just different. Tom was adamant he wouldn’t be seen as a backpacker and remained true to his Rah roots wearing a tweed jacket, chino type trousers and had his collar up. With his despise of backpackers and us not tending to mix with Rah’s you’d think we wouldn’t have got on but it was the opposite and we had a great few days hanging out. I learnt from Tom about hunting and the hunt dogs, Polo, more Rah information, what happens to lab rats after scientists (or students completing their dissertation) have tested drugs on them and much, much more.

Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City. As it was now midday we asked Tom what we could use the rest of the day for sightseeing wise. Tiananmen Square was his answer. A twenty-minute walk was all it was and we’d arrived at the north gate. The moat type body of water surrounding the Forbidden City was frozen solid and people were lobbing things on it just to see if it would break. It didn’t. We followed hoards of Chinese people through the ‘exit’ signs to get in thinking we were probably going the wrong way, but followed nonetheless. At the gate, not one Chinaman was stopped, but we were by some fat greasy Chinese bloke who proceeded to tell us that we had to go round to the South gate. I pointed out the locals all walking through but he just repeated it. Tosser. This gave me the hump and made me question whether I even wanted to see the Forbidden City anyway after what Tom had told me about it, a vast collection of gates, paintings and temple type things, I believe was his description. We walked to the front past a huge painting of some Chinese guy and through Tiananmen Square – which was a big concrete courtyard with the walls painted light red, some of which the plaster was falling off, and to the entrance of the Forbidden City. I was surprised we had just walked through one of the world’s supposed greatest landmarks – as I wouldn’t have realised if the signposts weren’t there. Very disappointing. The Forbidden City too, was Y50 entrance each (£5). This made my mind up to veto it and B agreed. Instead we took a stroll through a park next door, Zhongshan (Y3 each entrance) which was, well, a park and across the road for the Monument to the People’s Heroes, which is basically another huge paved area with a monument in the middle flanked by the The Great Hall of the People and The National Museum of China. We didn’t go into the National Museum simply because we were shattered and it was getting late. Verdict: I suppose you have to do Tiananmen Square if you’re in Beijing but don’t get your hopes up. I’ve since read that they raise a flag at sunrise and lower it again at sunset which is accompanied by a soldier march, many reviews say it’s pretty impressive so if you’re interested head on down there at one of these times to arguably see Tiananmen Square at it’s best.

CCTV Building. After hanging about the Monument to the People’s Heroes for a bit we jumped on Beijing’s seemingly ancient tube (compared to Shanghai’s and especially the excellent Hong Kong’s) and got off at Jintaixizhao Station to see the CCTV Building. CCTV is China’s National TV station with fifteen channels or so and they had their new headquarters built a few years ago by a Dutch architect. The result is a very impressive all glass Tetris shaped building. Verdict: Worth seeing this, it won’t cost you anything.

Round the corner from the CCTV Building (or so we thought but it turned our map was of a large-scale) is Hooters. It actually took us an hour to walk it and wasn’t worth it. The Chinese girls are attractive but were wearing normal baggy T-Shirts and had tights on. The beer was expensive and warm too. Thumbs down, Hooters.

Really round the corner from Hooters though was San Li Tun Street, a party haven by all accounts with the road lined both sides with bars. Round the corner from that (really), was a small night market with loads of grub for sale. I spotted a young Chinaman and his wife selling beef noodles from a bike with a stall on the back. We pulled up a plastic stool and waited for our dinner. It was freezing, B and I had already been able to see our breath for about two hours and it was only getting colder. Despite this and being surrounded by frozen gob spots on the floor, at Y8 a bowl, a pair of old chop sticks and some chilli, our steaming broth with noodles went down a treat. We sat at the side of the road and ate. Brilliant. That is what China is all about.

Olympic Park. Next day we were a bit lost for things to do. Sounds a bit silly in a capital city of one of the biggest countries on earth but in reality I’d lost enthusiasm for Beijing. It was dirty, the spitting and gobbing had got worse the further north we travelled and many places stunk of piss. The rubbish man must come round once a fortnight and the Chinese still just chuck the bags out on the street for him any day of the week. Dogs and cats had ripped them open looking for food which contributed further to the pungent scent wafting about the city. We decided to visit the Olympic Park though, simply for something to do and asked Tom if wanted to come along, which he did. Our nearest tube station was Beixinqiao about fifteen-minutes walk. Bearing in mind we were in the centre of Beijing (we couldn’t be more central) we had seven stops and two changes to get to Olympic Sports Centre Station. How they successfully staged the 2008 Olympics with a tube system like that I’ll never know. Tickets were cheap at Y2 each for anywhere you want to go (a ten stop journey is the same price as a one stop journey – how does that make sense?) but it was a huge hassle and took us 45 minutes. We toured the Olympic site with The National Stadium, The National Aquatics Centre, The National Indoor Stadium and The Olympic Exhibition Hall all in sight but really, we were just looking at big empty buildings. I don’t know if they’re still in use but there seemed to be more tourists there (including ones who wanted photos with 6’5″ Tom) than athletes. Being a true Brit, we hunted down a Maccy D’s but we discovered something you couldn’t possibly even comprehend – they had run out of Big Macs. We got coffee and left. Verdict: Don’t bother.

That evening we took Tom out for a Chinese as he’d been single-handedly keeping China’s fast food joints going since he arrived. Beijing is the place for Roast Duck so we had some of that, eventually. One place turfed us out even though they were serving Chinese people and had spare tables. Guess they just didn’t like foreigners. Racists. In the place we found that would seat us, the duck was nice, but, dare I say it, not as good as crispy duck in the UK. This duck was literally roasted so it was like a chicken and didn’t have a lot of taste. The plum sauce was a bit bland too. B had a good Kung Pao Chicken and we all had a few beers. Walking back we spotted a cosy bar to have another beer in. One turned into two, two turned into three and so on. As a consequence of drinking so much I needed a piss so I asked where the toilets were, the barman replied there were public ones in the alley next door and that few bars had their own toilets in this area. I braved the cold once more to relieve my bladder. I found it after pacing up and down a dark alleyway for a few minutes and picked a urinal. As I was de-liquidating, I turned and looked behind me and in full view of the outside was a Chinaman squatting over a hole in the tiled floor, with no doors or screens separating him, apart from a knee-high plank of wood between him and the next squat. I turned back slowly and faced the wall but couldn’t believe what I was seeing, so had another look. There he was squatting and going like a good ‘un, various sounds coming from his rear end and grunts from his gob whilst holding his hands in a Jonny Wilkinson pose before he attempts a try. Lovely. He wasn’t the least bit bothered I was there. On my return to the bar, a girl walked out of the Ladies and in a strong London accent said ‘that’s the only thing about China, fucking dirty squat toilets’. She was right.

The Great Wall of China at Badaling. Up at 7am and out the door by half past, today was the day we were visiting The Great Wall of China. We decided to do it ourselves purely for cost really. I find it’s usually better too as you’re not rushed to do anything. A long walk to the Deshengmen bus stop in the freezing weather did make me think otherwise though. Bus 919 goes straight there for Y12 each but we were stopped from getting on that and ushered on an 808. I still have no idea why and when I asked the question it was ignored. It was still Y12 each though and we were in Badaling just after 10am. Ideally I wanted to be there even earlier than 10:00 because of the supposed crowds. Everyone we spoke to said ‘if you’re going to Badaling, get there early to avoid the tourists’, but it didn’t matter, it was dead, all day. I think these stories are sometimes made up to frighten you into booking a trip to a different part of the wall, but in all honesty I don’t think you’re going to get better than what we saw.

A ten minute walk up a hill and you arrive at the entrance for the cable car. You can walk up but figuring we’d be walking around, up and down it all day anyway, we bought return tickets at Y80 each. (Really, this was a mistake. I’d recommend buying a single for the cable car and walking down or taking the push train or, even ignoring the cable car completely as you can’t see the wall on the way up until you’re at the top, and walking up too). When we got to the top the view was amazing. Hard to do it justice writing about it but you’re standing on such a huge man-made structure, built so long ago, that you’re quite literally lost for words (it’s a myth it can be seen by the naked eye from space – Wiki it!). You come out one section away from the very top to your right or to your left it snakes down and then back up again to a point that’s nearly as high as the one on your right. We decided just to walk down and go as far as we could. To begin with there were a few tourists about, getting in our photos and over doing the panting from the walk back up but they fizzled out and soon we had a whole section to ourselves. We walked down to the exit, past it, then back up and past the original cable car, which looked donkeys years old. It was cold up there but the combination of the physical exertion and wrapping up warm kept us toasty. We probably spent about three hours climbing up and down some near vertical climbs and called it a day. We were so far away from the cable car that we walked back down and sacrificed the return leg of our ticket. The bus came after half an hour or so (waiting there was really cold!) and we were back in Beijing by 3 o’clock having had a fantastic day and saved a packet doing it ourselves. Verdict: Do it. It’s one of the best things I’ve done travelling.

We dragged Tom out for another ‘local’ meal and a few beers in a bar that evening which was good fun and wasted the next day playing pool and eating until our overnight train at 9pm bound for Harbin. Again, we only managed to get a soft sleeper from Beijing Central Station on the day we arrived, but it was slightly cheaper at Y858 (£86) for both of us this time. The most expensive part of China is getting around, it costs you a fortune.

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