Beijing was the second stop on my adventure that took me by train from China to Helsinki. An enormous city, it was pretty impressive from the offset. Even though I arrived at night, the atmosphere was bizarre. I’d flown in from Shanghai, so I already had an idea about how the population crisis affected everyday Chinese life, but I wasn’t prepared for Beijing. Walking from the metro station to my hostel, there were people everywhere. Even at almost midnight, there were bicycles cutting dangerous corners; people literally stopping in front of me on a fast-flowing pavement to check their phones and, topping the list: tourists from other areas of China who would speed up to overtake, and then slow down to a crawl just as they got in front of me. And don’t even get me started on the negotiations required to cross roads…
AccommodationAs a backpacker, I didn’t even consider staying anywhere other than a hostel, and Leo Hostel near Tiananmen Square was perfect for me. The hostel was beautiful, with an enormous bar on the ground floor, full of traditional Chinese decorations. My room left a lot to be desired – 14 beds, and most of them full of already snoring people, with no space to leave my luggage. It was only £6 a night though. Alternatives to hostels are Air B&Bs which start at around £10 or Couchsurfing, which I think looks like a travel version of Tinder, but it is free…
FoodThe biggest godsend after so much greasy food in Shanghai was that Leo Hostel served toast. The bread was a strange Chinese variety, but there was real jam, and real butter. Coupled with a cup of tea or an Americano and that was incredible! I made the mistake of picking a restaurant at random my first night, and spotted a cockroach on the floor, but I soon got the hint. Street food is the only way to go. After a night out, (or a night in at Leo’s drinking, which was probably a better shout) you can buy freshly cooked dumplings on the street from lovely ladies who are preparing them for the commuters in the morning. The general rule of thumb was to go somewhere where you can see them making the food. The best meal that I had in China was the Peking Duck pancakes. We went with a local, and watched them chop the head off the roasted duck we were going to eat… a strange, but delicious experience. I also didn’t know how to use chopsticks before I went. I really really really recommend that you learn from my mistake.
MoneyThe Chinese use Yuan (¥) and everything is cheap. Depending on the political situation, you can usually get 10¥ for your pound, or 5¥ for your Australian dollar. You can pick up a dumpling dinner for around 5¥; a small bottle of disgusting Chinese spirit for 10¥ and a banana for 2¥.
TransportAs my friend’s brother did, if you can afford it, hire a chauffeur. Otherwise, do what we did and cram yourself onto the packed Chinese metro. If you see a free seat, run for it, there are no rules. If you’re used to the intense London tube situation, you’ll understand that there’s a hierarchy: who gets on first, who gets to push the button to open the train door, and who gets to sit down. Forget that in Beijing, it’s elbows out. All I can suggest is that you use your backpack as a buffer to defend yourself from the tiny, but very fierce Chinese locals who know exactly how to speed the whole process up.
NightlifeI was only there for three days, so I didn’t get a chance to go out-out, as the risk of a hangover was too high. However, I met some Brits that had gone out clubbing and they said that it was insane. Firstly, as people with white skin, they got in free. They also got free drinks all night, and a table to themselves. Racist as this may sound, many tourists from other areas of China will gawk, and take photos, so I guess dues are paid in time and photographs rather than currency. Also, strip shows are common: in one nightclub, strippers came out every hour on the hour and hung out with the locals and tourists. The creepiest thing about them, as I understand, was that no one danced. Everyone just stood around their own tables. Weird.
What to DoIf you only have three days, here’s a rundown of the must-see places to visit. Just be aware that they are really far away from one another, and whoever designed the metro did not intend to make the lives of tourists easy.
The Great Wall
Tiananmen Square & The Forbidden City
The Summer Palace
The Temple of Heaven
The Olympic Stadium (Bird’s Nest)