Lauren and Ricky, our cabinmates from the train, were staying at the same hostel as us, so the 4 of us travelled there together. We were only booked into the Happy Dragon hostel for 1 night as we'd booked it back in July as part of our visa application. We'd all booked to stay in a 5 bed dorm but got put into a 4 bed dorm instead, which was cool. Although they initially tried to put me and Jamie in separate rooms (as they'd misread our booking), which wasn't so cool. It was a nice enough hostel - the bar/restaurant area was small but had a nice feel to it. We had dinner there on that first night, plus breakfast the next morning - both were fairly cheap and decent, though nothing amazing.
That evening we went out to visit one of the night markets. We met up with Alan, Anne and Erie from the trans-mongolian, plus an Australian guy called Karl who we'd just met in the hostel bar. We marvelled at all the strange things you could buy to eat - mostly stuff on sticks; spiders, scorpions, frogs, testicles (which the vendors enjoyed selling far too much), plus various other creepy crawlies and things I wouldn't personally classify as food. After that we all went back to our hostel bar for drinks, which was a good laugh.
Some of the 'treats' at the night market:
I just realised I've not talked about Beijing in general. The thing you notice first is the smog. Even though I knew it was going to be bad, it was still quite surprising. We arrived at the end of a national holiday week though, so that might have added to the pollution levels. There were a couple of days at the start of the following week which weren't too bad. But yes, the smog is the first thing you notice. The second thing you notice is how much people spit on the street. I find that horrible in general, but in China they manage to do it in as noisy and disgusting a manner as possible. I know it's a different culture an' all, but why do they constantly seem to need to hack up huge amounts of phlegm and share it with the general populous? Why are they so phlegmy in the first place? Are they all constantly ill from breathing in each others' spit germs? Is it some kind of vicious cycle? Do they compete with each other to see who can make the most noise when hacking it up? I've no idea, but it's pretty gross. Although you will also get some people urinating or defecating in the street - mostly kids, but not always- so maybe the spitting isn't so bad really.
On our second day in Beijing we checked out of the Happy Dragon and checked in to 365 Inn. We took the subway between the 2 hostels. The subway's incredibly cheap, though high on security - you have to put any bags you have through x-ray scanners. This led to us having a can of insect repellant confiscated as you can't take anything flammable on board (well, nothing with the flammable chemicals symbol on it - I don't mean anything that could potentially be set on fire, as that would be rather excessive). Thankfully the can was nearly empty anyway so it wasn't too much of a loss (though still annoying). 365 Inn was a nice hostel - we had our own room at this one. The bar/restaurant area was much bigger than the one at Happy Dragon and the drinks were slightly cheaper, but I didn't think the food was quite so good. Plus the music wasn't great and seemed to be on a loop, so we heard the same few songs every morning at breakfast.
Feel free to skip over this next paragraph unless you really want to hear me rant about my inability to get Suede tickets...
After checking in to the hostel, we headed out in search of gig tickets. When we were in St. Petersburg we'd found out that Suede were going to be playing Beijing the day after we were due to arrive there. Now, for anyone who doesn't know me that well, Suede are one of my favourite bands, so I was pretty excited. They re-formed back in 2010, but as that was the year we went out to New Zealand, I only got to see them once before leaving the UK. Annoyingly they didn't gig during our 6 months of living in London, inbetween our years in New Zealand and Canada, so I've had 3 years of being frustratingly far away from all the amazing-sounding gigs they've been doing. It therefore seemed like a perfect pay-off to get to see them as part of this trip. Of course I went to buy tickets as quickly as possible, but the price put me off. The cheapest seats, right at the back of a huge venue, were about £40. The most expensive, up at the front, were about £100. Yikes! I'm used to paying about £20 to see them in much smaller and more intimate venues. But how could I not see them? And how could I not be near the front? My natural instinct was to go straight ahead and book the £100 tickets, but my sensible side (and Jamie) knew we couldn't afford that. I couldn't bring myself to book the cheaper ones at that point though, so I left it for a few days. When we were in Moscow I checked up on the ticket sales. The cheapest seats had gone, so the next cheapest were about £55. Still a lot of money, but just low enough for me to feel ok about buying them. I held out on booking them until our last day in Moscow, just so that they'd go onto the following month's credit card statement. However, when I did go to book them I found that I couldn't - I needed a Chinese mobile phone number! So annoying. I e-mailed the company to see if there was a way around this, but I didn't get a reply before getting on the trans-mongolian and being without internet for 4 days. Although when I did get the reply it wasn't much help anyway - I was too late for doing any kind of bank transfer so I could only buy tickets in person from their Beijing office. So that's what we attempted to do on the day of the gig. Of course it was too late though - they'd sold out. Not wanting to give up we then went to the venue to see if they had any there. Some touts were outside and tried to sell us tickets, albeit with some difficulty due to the language barrier. If I'd been on my own I'd totally have bought them - I held some tickets in my hand! Jamie had to be the voice of reason and hold me back. We had no way of knowing if the tickets were genuine and the guy seemed too keen to get rid of them. We'd quite likely have still not gotten into the gig and parted with a lot of our precious travel money. It was so incredibly frustrating though. We then walked around the gig venue, which seemed to be being used for some kind of military training - it was a bit scary and intimidating, but nobody told us to leave. We could see posters and banners for the gig, but the main entrance was closed and we couldn't see any kind of box office, so we had to give up on that. I tried messaging people on Twitter, including some of the band members, in the vain hope that I could maybe somehow still got tickets, but no, no response. It probably doesn't help that Twitter's blocked in China. I'd downloaded a VPN to get around it but you can't assume that everyone will do that. So yeah, no Suede gig for us. Saved us some money though. Plus we're still on this amazing world trip, so you're not going to feel too sorry for me, I'm sure.
Anyway, back to things we actually did manage to do in Beijing:
- Tianamen Square. This was right near our 2nd hostel, which was handy. It's not that exciting or attractive a place, in and of itself, it's just good to visit because of its history and to be in such a famous place. It's mostly just open space, though surrounded by some nice buildings and right next to the Forbidden City.
- The Forbidden City. This covers a really large area and is really nice to walk around. We hired an audio guide between us, which gives you more information on the various structures and buildings, but mostly just got annoying and didn't really feel necessary. There's also a park opposite where you can walk up a hill and get a good view out over the forbidden city. Sadly the view was marred by the smog on the day we were there, but on a rare clear(ish) day it would be pretty cool.
- The Summer Palace. This was a nice area to walk around. Everywhere's incredibly busy in Beijing, but parts of The Summer Palace were fairly peaceful. Although this didn't include the parts down by the water. The giant rubber duck - designed by a Dutch guy - which has been travelling the world, was in Beijing, so that whole area was manic. It was great to get to see it though.
- The Great Wall. We went to the Jinshanling section of the wall as we'd read it's much quieter and less touristy. We booked a tour through our hostel as it was a decent price and made things much easier than trying to do it independently. We got picked up from our hostel in a minibus, so I thought it was going to be a really small group of us. We travelled around Beijing for about an hour, stopping at a couple of other hostels to pick people up. However we then parked up behind a big coach and were transferred on to that, so not such a small tour group after all. On leaving the minibus we were given our breakfast, which had been included in the tour price, along with lunch. It was a McMuffin and a coffee - all of which had been on the bus since before we were picked up, so were starting to go cold. Mmmmm, not the best. Although it was a pleasant surprise to find that Erie and Anne were already on the bus, so we had some ready-made friends for the day.
It was quite a long journey to that part of the wall, so we only had 3 hours to spend on it, though that was a decent amount. We got the cable car up, just to save some time. Part way up we started hearing some Chinese power ballads, which they play from the speakers on the towers. I'd imagine this is meant to add some element of drama and excitement, but we just found it really funny. When we got to the top there were a few people trying to tag along with us as guides - just after money of course. I had thought that we might be with a guide the whole time anyway, all walking together as a large group, but happily we weren't - we could go do our own thing, so long as we were back at the bus on time. However it wasn't that easy to shake the would-be-guide who started following us as soon as we got off the cable car. We said 'no' a lot but then basically had to shout at her to 'go away' and make a bit of a run for it. She seemed to find the whole thing hilarious. Still, that aside, it was a really great walk along the wall. The tour group had really spread out, so it was really quiet and we could get some great photos. The area we were in had parts of wall that hadn't been fully restored, so it felt more authentic and interesting than the perfect looking touristy areas.
We'd been told it would take about an hour and a quarter to walk back down to the entrance, so we gave ourselves plenty of time. But it didn't take us anywhere near that long - it took less than half an hour. It meant we could have spent longer on the wall, but we did get to chill out with a drink before the buffet lunch was served. The lunch was nothing special, but ok. On the long journey back to Beijing it seemed really surreal that we'd just been walking along the Great Wall of China. It's such a famous landmark that you can't fully take in the fact you've been there.
- The Olympic Village. Not a must-see but enjoyable. The Birds Nest looks much more impressive from a distance than it does close up though.
On our last day in Beijing we got the overnight train to Shanghai. At the train station I was fascinated/disgusted to see that people don't just spit outside on the street, they did it inside the station too. I also marvelled at women not bothering to shut toilet cubicle doors. They were squat toilets, not western toilets, though I'm not sure if that makes it better or worse... Not easily embarrassed anyway - I guess that's a good quality?
We were in a soft-sleeper carriage, which means 4 beds per berth. We were sharing with 2 Chinese guys who both seemed really quiet and unobtrusive until it came to going to bed. One of them was totally fine but the other guy was the loudest snorer I've ever heard. Maybe he'd not spent enough time spitting during the day and he was all full of phlegm, but god it was bad. He seemed to make a whole array of different animal sounds - sometimes a pig, sometimes a tiger, sometimes some kind of hell beast that only exists in your worst nightmares. It would have been funny if we hadn't had to try sleeping in the same room as him. Amazingly we did actually manage to get some sleep though - we must have been incredibly tired.