I arrived in China at around 4 in the morning. After exiting the airport, I was greeted by a young guy who wondered if I was looking for a taxi. I wasn’t completely lucid at that hour, and before I knew it, he was walking away with my luggage in hand. It was an underground taxi, the kind which locals pay slightly less for but tourists pay dearly for. He drove me straight to the hostel for the princely sum of 400 yuan. Granted, I would have paid a similar price to take a taxi that distance in Sweden, but it was about four times as much as I would have paid for an official Chinese cab. Luckily, the hostel was only $8/night.
After checking in at the hostel, which I was able to do at 7 in the morning, I set off to explore Beijing. I first went to Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world. It may also be the least exciting: a vast grey expanse of Communist concrete.
I proceeded onwards, past Mao’s portrait and into the Forbidden City.
This was extremely impressive, but I was perhaps too exhausted to fully appreciate it.
I had some lunch, and continued on to Beihei park. Beihei was nice, with a series of temples leading up to a white pagoda at the top of the hill.
Later that evening, the hostel was serving free dumplings. I met a guy there who was planning on living in China for several months. He mentioned that he was going to an electronic music festival at the Great Wall of China the next day, which I thought sounded like a great idea. Two girls who were with us also thought it sounded like fun, so we decided to go out in search of tickets the next morning.
Still not fully adjusted to the 12 hour time difference, I woke up quite early the next morning and set out in search of breakfast. I ended up with Jian bing, which is one of the most common street foods in Beijing. It’s kind of like a crunchy, salty crepe. I was slightly nervous about eating it because after making the pancake they slathered it in what appeared to be three different kinds of blood before wrapping it up and handing it over for 3 yuan. Nevertheless, it was quite tasty.
At 10:00, I set off in search of tickets with the Canadian and Australian I had met the previous night. The Canadian said she had a friend in Beijing who could tell us where to get tickets. So, we hopped on the subway, wandered through several winding narrow streets, and ended up at a really nice little hotel hidden in the heart of the hutongs. We met the owners of the hotel, who served us some fried rice and told us where we could buy tickets for the concert. After chatting for a while, we walked to the bar where we could buy tickets. Sadly, it was closed when we got there. So, we asked at the nearby hostel if they knew anything about the festival, and they didn’t. Exasperated, we decided to head back to our hostel and come up with a new plan.
When we got back, the Canadian informed us that she was feeling quite ill and was going to rest instead of going to the concert. The Australian and I were not giving up, however - at that point we were too involved with the idea of going to this music festival to give up on it. We had already missed the 2:00 buses, so our only hope was to get a ride on the 5:00 buses which departed from the east gate of Chaoyang park.
When we left the hostel, it was about 4:00. We took the subway to the “Agricultural Exhibition Center”, which seemed to be at the west gate of Chaoyang park. Based on the map, we figured that it was essentially a straight shot to the east gate from there, and we still had time. We walked east for a while until suddenly a large wall materialized in front of us. By the time we figured out how to get past the wall, it was 5:00. We decided to press on in hopes that the buses left on western time as opposed to Chinese time (everything occurs according to schedule in China). We finally made it to what appeared to be the east gate, but we were too late - and possibly not even in the right place.
Despite having missed the bus, we were not giving up. We consulted the guidebook for alternative transportation to the Badaling section of the Great Wall, and saw that there was a bus that ran until 7 pm. So, we took a taxi to the place where the buses left. When we got there, it was around 6:30. We tried asking if the buses went to Badaling, and the guy pointed to his watch and acted like he was sleeping. He then repeated this charade about 5 times as if we were completely out of our minds for even thinking about taking this bus to Badaling.
We weren’t really sure what to do at this point, so we took a cab back tot the hostel. On the way, we read in the guidebook that you could arrange a round-trip taxi to Badlaing for 400-800RMB (this is an 80km taxi ride we’re talking about). We were only interested in one-way, but it was 8:00 PM on Saturday night. The person at the hostel didn’t think anyone would be willing to drive out to Badaling at that hour. However, she reluctantly agreed to talk to the shopkeeper next door, who called up a friend of his after a bit of friendly arguing. By the time he was finished talking, we had a taxi willing to take us all the way out to the Great Wall at 8PM on Saturday night. After purchasing some well-deserved beers, we hopped in the cab and set off for the Great Wall. When we got in the cab, we realized that the festival was not taking place at Badaling proper, but rather at a “secret” section of the wall which was close to Badaling. Lucklily, we had directions for getting to this section of the Great Wall. Curiously, the English version of the instructions said to take a left at the gas station whereas the Chinese version said to take a right at the gas station. Maybe that explains why there were so few Chinese people there… Anyway, we ended up taking a 30 minute detour before finally arriving at the festival. It was quite an adventure getting there.
When we got there, Fatboy Slim was playing. He’s perhaps a bit past his prime these days, but it was an awesome set nevertheless.
However, things really got good when we walked further up the hill to the next stage, where a local DJ was playing some drum n’ bass. I saw the guy from the hostel who had first mentioned the show, and he said that he had gotten his apartment. After a while, we walked further up the hill to a third stage, where another Chinese DJ was playing something like disco. Later, another DJ came on the stage anad played some house/trance. I thought this guy was the best.
After a while, we snuck around the final stage and walked further up the hill until we got to a deteriorated section of the Wall. We climbed up the crumbling wall, and enjoyed the music for a while and reflected on the excellent day. We then slept under the stars on the Great Wall - a cool experience in his own right.
At around 5 AM, the festival started dying down, and we managed to get a bus back to Beijing. It had been quite a day, and my only thought at that point was to get straight to the hostel and sleep on a soft, warm bed.
Later that day, I went to Wangfujing Street, a large shopping area in Beijing. It was not as good as I had expected, but perhaps I’m just upset that I got ripped off by one of the more cunning merchants there. I was purchasing a lighter from him, haggling until eventually the price was reasonable. When I handed over the money, he swapped the lighter for an old scratched one, without me noticing. It still works, so I guess it wasn’t a total rip-off.
The next day, I went on a trip to a more remote section of the Great Wall - the Mutianyu section. It was really impressive, and quite an intense hike as well.
I didn’t have enough cash to purchase a ride on the cable car up the mountain, so I walked up it instead. It wouldn’t have been too bad if it had been in northern Sweden, for example, but in the heat and humidity of China it made you break a sweat. It seems a bit odd that the Great Wall is built on top of mountains - compared with that natural wall the Great Wall is rather insignificant. Anyway, this makes for some steep ascents and descents when climbing along the Wall. Luckily, there are stairs, but the Chinese built them irregularly to trip up enemy soldiers (and more recently, American tourists).
After hiking the Wall for a few hours, we had a great lunch that alone was worth the price of the tour.
Later that evening, I went with Aphra (the Australian girl) to Dong’huamen night market. Dong’huanmen night market is a place where street vendors sell such delicacies as roasted lizards, still-writhing scorpions, and candied fruits - all skewered on sticks.
The first thing we tried was a Beijing specialty: fermented tofu. As the guy handed it over to us, he made a great gesture with his hand over his nose indicating that it smelled bad. Let me tell you, I have never eaten anything that so perfectly simulated the smell of feces as this fermented tofu. Surprisingly, it didn’t taste like much at all. Lesson learned: don’t buy something if the guy selling it to you thinks it’s disgusting.
After that, I wasn’t too keen to try any skewered scorpions or lizards, so I opted for the candied fruit instead. It was pretty good, but overall the night market was the worst culinary experience I had in China.
We walked back to Wangfujing street, and had one of the yogurt drinks in claypots that you see all over Beijing. These are not bad, but really nothing special. At least they were refrigerated.
Later we came across a small record store. The guy working there played six different Chinese records for us - all of them were excellent, and not a single had been uploaded to the internet! I ended up buying an album by a Chinese indie rock band.
The next morning, we went for a bike tour of the hutongs. It started earlier than I would have liked, at 8 in the morning. On the other hand, it would have been quite miserable to bike in Beijing during the midday heat. It was pretty cool to expereience Beijing from the perspective of a bicyclist - definitely a less tame place to bike than Palo Alto! We were weaving through traffic, dodging pedestrians and trying to take photos at the same time. It was a lot of fun.
Later in the day, I went to the Lama Temple. This was not one temple but rather a massive compound of temples, culminating in a temple containing a massive 13m tall Buddha.
All over the place Chinese people were burning incense and worshipping. This is what I had in mind when I thought of Chinese religious practices. If I were to become religious, I would definitely prefer burning a bunch of incense at the Lama Temple to sitting still in a church for a couple hours.
Later that evening, the four of us who had been sharing a room for the past few days went out and shared a final meal together at a local Muslim restaurant. Well, it was Chinese food but the people who owned the place were Muslims, I think. Anyway, the food delicious and cheap - a great way to end a great trip to China.
The next morning, I took a cab to the train station and boarded the train to Moscow.