First Impressions Of Beijing

By Jane Mountain | October 11, 2013

In an effort to combat early-onset jet lag, we spent the entire day walking. And walking. And walking. We were gone from our hostel for about 11 hours. Whew. My legs are tired.

Also, as I write this, the jet lag is hammering my brain. All I want to do is crawl back in bed and sleep for days. So excuse the incoherence that will almost definitely follow.

Adventures In Food

Let me just get this out of the way up front, since I predict we’ll be talking about food a lot in the coming months. You can skip to the next section if you don’t care what we’ve been eating.

For breakfast, which is included at our hostel, I went with the safe bet of toast. Stephen had a bowl of noodles, which was basically pot noodles with a lot of extra oil. Pretty tasty, if an odd way to start the day for us.

We had lunch at a little restaurant that you’d probably not recognise as a restaurant if you walked by. One of the first things we noticed as we sat down was the Grade C health rating proudly displayed on the wall. Lonely Planet had recommended it, so we decided to take a chance. Plus, we were starving.

The meal started with a complimentary bowl full of millet stew, a runny porridge with almost no flavour that we drank straight from the bowl.

Stephen knew he wasn’t going to like it before he tried it, and the face he made upon first taste was quite expressive. It was served from the biggest silver kettle I’ve ever seen, and the women eating beside us kept getting up to refill their bowls. I liked it, but not enough to accept when one of the women offered me more. The fact that I declined the offer was a point of great hilarity to another diner in the restaurant. Glad I could entertain.

The meal we ordered was: a plate of shredded tofu, which had a delicious rich flavour; a dish of large flat rice noodles, with a very gummy texture, mixed with shredded cucumber and topped with sesame sauce similar to tahini; a plate of long rectangular dumplings stuffed with greens and tofu.

Cold shredded tofu. Quite delicious!

Cold shredded tofu. Quite delicious!

All was hugely flavourful and vegan or close to it.

Dinner came from a fairly high-end organic restaurant we found in the backstreets near Qianhai Lake, one of Beijing’s main tourist areas. It was: tofu baked in a banana leaf and topped with a billion red chillis and garlic; shredded deep fried mushrooms with another billion red chillis; mashed potatoes (yep, they have potatoes in China) with some more red chillis and garlic.

Despite the recurring theme of chilli and garlic, each dish tasted very different and all were delicious.

Dagoba Detour

We set out from our hostel determined to get to the Forbidden City today. I figured since we were bound to be jet-lagged, we should head somewhere huge and dramatic that we wouldn’t be likely to forget.

Our route took us to the edge of a massive restricted military areas which we had to detour around, taking us several huge city blocks out of our way.

We finally found our way to Beihai Park which we planned on passing through. There was an entrance fee, and with the entrance fee, we could opt to view the White Dagoba. We decided that since we were here, we might as well stop by.

Beihai Park is a lovely quiet green space, right in the middle of the city, centred around a picturesque lake. Willows wept by the lakeshore as families enjoyed the tiny boats that were available for rent.

Willows weep at Qianhai Lake.

Willows weep at Qianhai Lake.

The park has a series of rules posted at the front gate, both in English and Chinese. Some of the rules are: no spitting; no lying down on benches; no pulling branches off the trees; follow general rules of politeness; and no breaking into the park after it closed. Not sure we really needed these things stated on a brass plaque, but thanks.

Another sign explained the park with such colourful language I had to laugh.

Inside the park, trees and grasses thrive in exuberance everywhere; flowers are displaying to the visitors their most enticing beauty; halls and palaces stand in august magnificence and pavilions and arbors are scattered in an artistic design…

Crossing a bridge onto the island in the middle of the lake, we found ourselves in a relatively wild spot. Rough stairs are hewn into the rocky hillside, and only an ornate gate indicated that something of importance lay ahead.

Gate leading to the White Dagoba.

Gate leading to the White Dagoba.

We climbed up, enjoying the view of the park and city as we climbed. We were happy that yesterday had been so windy, since we expect it blew away a good deal of the smog that had been plaguing Beijing after Chinese National Day.

View from the White Dagoba.

View from the White Dagoba.

The dagoba and surrounding temple date back to the Yuan dynasty, so they are fairly new, having been built in 1279. Sadly the original burned down and the buildings of today only date from 1457.

white dagoba beijing china

Under the White Dagoba, Beihai Park.

As is usual, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the temples themselves, since they are filled with statues of Buddha.

Lots of people were lining up in front of the main Buddha to kneel, bow, and pray. We added a few Yuan to the piles of offerings on display.

Hutong Hiking

We had almost arrived at the Forbidden City when we realised it was definitely time for lunch. At lunch, we came to the conclusion that our detour had taken so long we wouldn’t have time to visit the city today. So we decided to wander and see some more street life in the hutongs.

A hutong is a narrow alleyway formed by rows of courtyard residences. These hutongs intertwine with each other to create a rich warren of human activity which surrounds the Forbidden City. On the outside, they look nondescript and a little decrepit, but the walls hide homes ranging from magnificent to dismal.

mahjong players beijing china

Street mahjong in full swing.

Some hutongs have been turned into touristy streets filled with modern food vendors and gift shops, while others still retain their original purpose as residences. Still others have been torn down to make way for new building projects and high-rises.

workers on a break in beijing

OK, take our picture.

Everywhere we went today, there was something interesting to look at. There were dozens of styles of bicycles and other pedal-powered vehicles, many piled high with an assortment of odd items, like office chairs, mattresses, or cardboard boxes.

office chairs on a motorbike beijing

Office on the move.

I stopped to take a picture of a man riding a bicycle piled high with balloons. As he rode by me, he veered towards me and I had to jump out of the way. He thought that was hilarious, and it didn’t seem to have been malicious, just a balloon man having a laugh at the stupid tourist. Sadly, I didn’t even get a good picture of him!

Balloon man in the bike lane.

Balloon man in the bike lane.

We climbed the Bell Tower and enjoyed the dramatic if hazy view.

bell tower beijing

View from the Bell Tower, with haze.

The bell inside the tower was forged during the Ming Dynasty, yet there still needed to be a sign saying “Do not throw coins at the bell to make it ring.” It said nothing of other items one might want to throw at the Ming Dynasty bell!

There was an excellent explanation of the number 108 in the tower, which will be interesting to all you yogis out there.

The significance of 108.

The significance of 108.

After the tower, we headed north a little way and found a local market.

chinese pepper for sale

We have eaten much Chinese pepper since arriving.

Street Squatting

Here, none of the cafes or small restaurants have their own restrooms, and after a cup of coffee, we realised we hadn’t used the facilities for the better part of 6 or 7 hours. It was time to pop into one of the dozens of public toilets we had been passing all day. We had heard horror stories about the lack of cleanliness here, so I wasn’t looking forward to my first experience.

As I ducked inside the toilet building, I really didn’t know what to expect. Turns out the toilets in the hutongs are free, and there is no attendant as we have become used to in Europe. The room was a long room with six squat toilets lining one wall. There were a couple of low (about 2 feet high) barriers between some of the toilets, but others were right next to each other. They were all relatively clean and there was no smell in the room at all.

Luckily I was the only person there, so I did my business quickly, thankful that I’ve had so much practice squatting in the forests of Europe over the last six months. I had my little stash of toilet paper in my pocket, so it all worked out well.

Evening Excursion

As evening fell, we headed to the hutong around Qianhai Lake which we’d ridden through yesterday. This is a renovated up-market area, catering to tourists, but also filled with plenty of affluent locals, as far as we could tell. LED or neon signs were the norm, and the colourful lights glittered off the lake.

lights on qianhai lake beijing

Night boating on Qianhai Lake.

Bars and restaurants lined every available inch of space, but people were still just walking up and down at this early hour, and most of the bars were empty.

One of the many rooftop bars at Qianhai Lake.

One of the many rooftop bars at Qianhai Lake.

We spent the evening people-watching as we strolled lazily along the lake.

We saw: a man walking a white fluffy alpaca, with dozens of people streaming behind him trying to get pictures; countless karaoke sessions, amplified by the worst sound systems and sung by some of the world’s worst singers; people playing ping-badminton, using ping pong paddles to shuttle a birdie back and forth; groups of kids playing cards out on the street; and we listened to the variety of live music coming from every bar on the promenade.

By the time we stumbled back to the hostel we were exhausted. Still, we stayed awake for hours, our brains spinning with the novelty of everything we had experienced today.  

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  1. Comment by Kimberly

    Kimberly October 14, 2013 at 7:53 am

    Wow wow wow! Thanks for this vivid first impression and especially the detail on the significance of the 108 rings of the bell – we yogis here in rural NYS get it! Thanks!

  2. Comment by Michael Moldofsky

    Michael Moldofsky October 13, 2013 at 8:40 am

    Run Jane Run.
    I love exploring Hutongs the most. Do it again!

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