Great tales from China

A frantic first stop in the Chinese capital

A scenic overnight train journey from Ulaan Baatar to Beijing finally brought to an end my Trans-Mongolian journey. China was yet another country I was visiting for the first time, and after a fortnight in some of the most remote parts of the world I was more than ready to step into this buzzing metropolis.

I had the pleasure of staying at Leo Hostel. It’s only a 10 minute walk from Tiananamen square on what seemed the liveliest street in Beijing, with market stalls and all manner of goods on sale. The hostel forms the rear end of a cozy bar, which gave a great chance to unwind in the evenings and meet new travellers over a drink while catching up on the Olympic Games. Coincidently I also happened to be sharing a room with a great group of guys who were in my train compartment.

The dry heat notched up another level from Mongolia which made for some sticky days out. The ambience wasn’t helped by the thick smog that engulfs the city. It felt as bad as the media makes it out, and it left me with a persistent cough despite the smog being relatively mild compared to other seasons. I didn’t expect to see so few western faces offset by an abundance of Chinese tourists. I had wrongly assumed that the well-off Chinese prioritised travel to far-away western countries, and at times it felt as though the whole 1.3 billion Chinese population had come out to enjoy Beijing along with me. I won’t forget the 8AM walk to the Forbidden City through Tiananamen square past what must have been a one mile queue to enter Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum.

More umbrellas then a rainy day in London..

More umbrellas than a rainy day in London..

Speaking of the Forbidden City, I couldn’t have thought of a worse name for the place. It’s anything but forbidden, and it’s a not a city but an ancient palace-turned-museum used during the Ming and Qing dynasties. ‘Only’ 80 000 tickets are available daily but it felt like ten times that number. The fun was actually playing Chinese limbo to avoid all the long pointy things that they like to carry, namely selfie sticks, umbrellas (for the sun of course) and tour guide flag poles. There’s honestly nothing else I can recall about the Forbidden city; instead a wander around the nearby Temple of Heaven felt much more peaceful and fulfilling.

Climbing the Great Wall was the most memorable experience of my stop in Beijing. It was organised by the hostel to a ‘secret’ but original part of the wall about two hours away from the city centre. The overcast weather along the three hour hike made the scenery rather eerie as I made my way through the clouds. Pictures don’t do justice to the steep gradient of the wall as it snakes through the terrain. As I became short on breath I couldn’t help but wonder why the wall couldn’t have been built around some of these huge hills. I’m sure the Chinese emperors had their reasons, but that was no consolation to my leg muscles or those of the thousands of labourers would haul up masses of heavy materials too.


An unexpected highlight was my wander around the 798 art complex. Tucked up away in the North East suburbs of the city, it consists of streets of former factories converted into art galleries. Now I’m not one to get all giddy about art, but it was great to get away from the chaos and meander down quirky streets, admiring some unique food outlets and handywork shops. The whole place feels a bit like a combination of Shoreditch and an industrial estate in the London docklands.

798 Art district

798 Art district

Getting around

Every capital city I’ve stopped at so far has upped the threshold for traffic chaos, and Beijing took it to a whole new level. Despite the monstrous carriageways, the roads were more often than not completely gridlocked.The metro works well, though – it’s modern, cheap and well signed in English. But given the size of the size of the city there are large areas between stations, in many cases I resorted to rickshaws (or aluminium tin cans on wheels) which zig zag along the roads much faster than any other vehicle.

Getting around was complicated by the incredibly tight security everywhere. Be it museum, public square, train station, I was patted down more times in China than all other places in my life put together. Lugging my backpack through the X-ray conveyer belts seemingly everywhere became a little frustrating after a while. Even booking internal trains require passport identification, and relatively meagre payments using 100 yuan notes were subject to thorough inspection at payment booths (foreign credit cards seldom worked anywhere).

Intriguing observations

Beijing, and China in general, proved to be the most fascinating place to observe and socialise with people in all the countries I’ve ever visited. Prior to my arrival, the only interactions I’ve had with native Chinese people have been university students and work colleagues. This only covered one small portion of the demographic spectrum, as I soon found out.

Right from my initial journey on the metro,looking around I was surprised by the range of facial features and physical appearances that I had never seen before. The dress style seems indistinguishable from western countries, and just as diverse too. Contrary to my impression of the Chinese generally being quiet and shy, my experience was the complete opposite. Men and women’s voice boom across the street and there was no mistaking the ubiquitous electric atmosphere. It felt devoid of foreigners though, I hardly came across a western face outside of the the hostel.

The phrase ‘better out than in’ appears to be well and truly ingrained in Chinese culture. Something lodged in the throat? Cough it up hard and spit it out beside your fellow passenger on the bus. Blocked nose? Pinch a nostril and blow hard and dispose of those colourful fluids beside the pedestrian crossing. Afternoon meal didn’t go down well? Regurgitate the contents on the pavement beside the market stalls for everyone to enjoy a taste. Initially this behaviour made me shudder but I ended up just laughing it off.

Three days of intense Beijing heat had made me desperate to cool off somehow, so taking a swim in the National Aquatics Centre on the Olympic site seemed the perfect way to freshen up. The exterior of the building and the Birds Nest was breathtaking, but the interior was less so: the pool was like any regular 50m one. Instead, my memory is of the first experience of incredible Chinese hospitality. English is hardly spoken across the city, so actually getting into the aquatics centre was proving to be a challenge. A young lady ended up giving a hand with translation to the ticket officers, then subsidising my ticket with her membership card and showing me around the facilities. Later I jumped into the pool without a shower cap, and instead of throwing me out (as is customary) the lifeguards smiled and gave me one for free. And even when leaving the building, a young man asked me how my day was and offered to help me get home. This friendliness of the Chinese was only the beginning of incredible warmth I received for the remainder of my stay in the country.

The Bird's Nest

The Bird’s Nest

Changing course

My trip from St. Pancras through to Beijing had all been planned before leaving home. Now it was a case of following my instinct. Rather than take an overnight express train through to Vietnam, my overwhelmingly positive experience in Beijing convinced me to slow down and see more of this great country. After much deliberation, Shanghai was the next port of call on my journey south.


Next: Sprawling Shanghai

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