Here’s a statement of the obvious: Beijing is massive. And really, really busy.
Mongolia had been a laid back and tranquil trip, with a fairly relaxed train journey and border crossing en route to China. Wakening up to the sight of mountains a hundred miles or so outside of Beijing was a sharp contrast to the barren miles of the Gobi desert from the day before.
When the train pulled up in Beijing and I headed for the station exit, I was almost carried along by the crowd. People everywhere, some off their feet as the river of bodies made its way toward the exit. Outside the station, more people. The background noise was loud, relentless chatter. The familiar feeling of walking out into a new place after a long train journey, what would turn out to be the last long train journey of this trip, was made worse by the awful humidity that hit as soon as I stepped outside.
Naturally it was no surprise that Beijing was busy but I hadn’t expected it to be this busy. After working my way through the crowd of people in front of the station, heading in what I was reasonably sure was the right direction, I hit a couple of quiet streets and turned left towards the Forbidden City. The map said this was just a few blocks but we weren’t talking Glasgow blocks, even New York blocks. It felt like a trek. On the way, a couple of women pulled me aside. They smiled and said hello.
They had seen what was on its way towards us and I was glad they pulled me out of its way, undercover of a nearby building. The heavens opened.
I had been lucky with weather so far. There was some rain in Minsk, an hour of awful weather in Moscow and a short but heavy storm in Nizhny Novgorod but overall I had mostly sunny days for the past few weeks. This rain, the welcome to Beijing, was like a month of downpour in a few minutes. The wind picked up, the rain blew horizontal and anyone caught in it for even a few seconds was soaked through. I sat on the steps of a bank and watched for half an hour as the storm which seemed to have come out of nowhere slowly started to subside.
After a welcome shower at the hotel, I set off. Nearby was a busy market and a few shops, a bit further away, on the north side of the Forbidden City, were some restaurants, cafes, more shops. I’m not sure how long it took me to walk south around to the other side of the Forbidden City but it was certainly far longer than I had expected from the map. Tiananmen Square was closed for “official business”. I hadn’t expected to have to go through airport-style security, complete with x-ray machines, to get near it.
It was easy to lose hours exploring just a small part of Beijing. When I started looking at what I would like to see there, I had plans to walk everywhere, take in plenty of areas, but that just wasn’t possible. There wasn’t the time. And, before I knew it, I had spent most of the day in the same area.
An absolute must-see was the Great Wall of China and I set off early to see it, getting caught in awful traffic outside of Beijing. The set up at Mutianyu had far more than I had expected, including shops, restaurants, a choice of routes to the top and for the return (I chose the cable car for each). The early start was entirely worth it as numbers on that section of the wall were at a minimum.
Despite having seen the Great Wall on TV and in photos, I hadn’t appreciated just how spectacular the scenery around here is. In all directions, high, imposing mountains, with the Wall winding into the distance. It’s an incredibly impressive area; not even to necessarily walk the length of, just to enjoy being there, to enjoy the view.
Another fantastic, imposing sight was Longqing Gorge. There’s a boat to take a nicely paced trip through different sections of the gorge with a “hop on, hop off” style, which allowed for a trip to a temple in one of the most secluded and tranquil places I’ve ever visited.
Beijing can be food heaven or food hell. The markets had stalls selling scorpions, starfish and seahorses, perhaps just a tourist trap but one that had to be tried (I had scorpion). Passing any of the countless cafes and restaurants provided either an assault to the senses or the temptation to head in to try the food. Almost everywhere I saw serving food was busy, very busy.
Beijing has more to see than I could list here and my few days was nowhere near enough to see it all. It’s a place that feels like it could sweep you away and have you lose hours without seeing too much, purely because of the size of the place. And there is so much to see within just 50 miles of Beijing, providing a great mix of one of the world’s busiest cities with some incredible natural beauty.