And we are back in Beijing, where it all started.
We took the high-speed train from Shenyang to Beijing and arrived at the very crowded Beijing Station. It’s busier than it was a month ago because of the seven-day national holiday. We had to queue to get into the subway station (mostly because of the security check, even though the police doesn’t actually check anything) and the ride to Sanlitun was packed.
We are staying in the embassy district—Feng scored a nice hotel online. It makes a huge difference in a chaotic city like Beijing, plus we actually have a mattress, unlike in Shenyang where the beds were hard as a rock.
We’ve been everywhere in Beijing and considering the crowd, we had decided to skip the main sights that we have visited before anyway—the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, etc.
The first night, we headed to the infamous Silk Market where you don’t shop for silk but for foreign-sized fake brand clothes. The “market” (it was an actual market a long time ago, it’s now a five-storey building hosting many vendors) was revamped—it’s not as chaotic and cheap as it was before, and there is little selection. Despite the “no bargaining” signs (and the promise all items are genuine), Feng bought a North Face jacket for 120 yuan (less than $30). Then we went to the night market, close to Beihai, but it turned out to be a tourist trap and everything was packed (and when I say “packed”, I mean it, this is China where the streets are never quiet!)
I’m shocked to see how many tourists there are in Beijing. Maybe this is because all the cities we visited (except Shanghai) and out of the beaten path. Nonetheless, most tourists are Chinese, I rarely see Westerners (maybe five a day, at most!).
Beijing brands itself as a historical city. Everything is prefaced by老 (“old”): the sour yogourts, the clothes, the accessories, the buildings… “old” is the new gimmick.
The following day, we started by the only place not yet tagged “old”: the 2008 Olympic Park. Surprisingly, it’s free to wander where the great events took place. There were a giant mechanical dragon and a spider by the Watercube and I think they are from the same French art company that designed Nantes’ Elephant—funny!
Then we headed to Qianmen and its many hutong (back alleys). Beijing is famous for its narrow historical streets and many Westerners were outraged when, before the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government started to modernize the city and destroy some of them. I’m still split on the issue. Sure, I enjoy historical streets more than soulless avenues, but the living conditions in the hutong aren’t great. There is a reason why there are public bathrooms every few meters in these areas—that’s because the residents don’t have their own. The apartments are tiny (often one room) and lack modern amenities. Should we save Beijing’s history but compromise on the quality of living?
We wandered around Qianmen—there are still hundreds of hutong left!)—from the antique shops to the Beijing duck restaurants. Eventually, we made our way to Tiananmen.
The famous square isn’t easy to access. First, it’s always packed, so the police and the army regulate foot traffic. Second, you have to cross many wide avenues in order to step onto the square, and the underpasses are endless and packed. Tiananmen isn’t really the place where you can chill out and relax, there is nowhere to sit, it’s monitored by hundreds of cameras and plainclothes officers and well… again, it’s very crowded.
Yet we made it. I bought a red-star hat in Qianmen and it turned out to be a great prop for the pictures. Mark adopted and paraded around the square with it.
When we finally came back to the hotel, we were so tired we barely had enough energy left to take a shower—and God knows we needed one!