Just before midnight we touch down to BIA. It’s a pleasant temperature – now is a good time of year to visit Beijing – the summer is supposedly sweltering, and the winters bitterly cold. It’s actually a strange location for a capital city, being neither coastal nor on any significant river. Anyway, I’m surprised to find that there are airport shuttle buses still running – in general it’s the main complaint about Chinese airports – arrive after 10pm and you’ll generally have to take a taxi. The shuttle whizzes quickly into the centre, passing enormous grand buildings lit up at night, along wide avenues. When the bus terminates at Xidan, I take a taxi. This is the hard bit.
I am staying in Beijing ChangGong Youth Hostel, which is located in a hutong not far from here. Hutongs (Narrow Alleyways) are the old Beijing, warrens of alleyways running past one-story buildings and ancient courtyards. I don’t have an exact address, but I know it’s near another place in my book. We head that way.
My street the following day
We drive around the area where I’m staying for a while without any results, but after 15 minutes I decide it’s just wasting my money being in the cab, so I get out and walk around, stumbling upon my alleyway by accident! About time too, it’s 1am!
My building, a mere 15 mins walk to Tiananmen if you know which way to go (!), is a 200 years old traditional wooden structure, with an open yard inside, beautifully carved wood, and art lining the corridors. After waking up the night porter, checking in, and dumping my bags in my lovely room, I head back out and take a taxi to Leo’s hotel. He is staying in a decent business hotel opposite the main Beijing railway station. He has a dodgy bar in the hotel, but I have Mei’s Beijing TimeOut, which recommends a new British Pub in the Wanda Plaza complex not too far away. We cab it there, but even finding it with the full address is a chore, and the taxi driver lectures Leo on the onerous task of asking a taxi to take us to an address written in Chinese.
The pub is open till 4am, another hour. It’s completely empty when we arrive, I think the staff were probably glad of something to do. We enjoy beers and chips until we’re kicked out. We go back to Leo’s for a quick kip before we go to Tiananmen Square for the famous flag-raising ceremony at dawn. This is when the PLA army march at 108 steps per minute, 75cm per step. Of course, when it comes to it, we can’t get out of bed! We’re finally up at 11am, and head to my hostel so I can pay the bill!
In daylight I’m still very impressed with the ChangGong, and would stay there again. My room opens out on to a large, high-ceilinged central courtyard surrounded by green walls with traditional red pillars and banisters.
My room is beautifully decorated, with a metal four-poster bed, some nice art, my only complaint is that it’s not en-suite – I’ve never been much of a fan of shared bathrooms.
We head out, and straight out from the hostel find ourselves in Dazhalan Jie or Dashilar, a famous shopping street in this hutong, full of traditional medicine shops, clothes, tea, restaurants and other touristy things.
The street, with mostly Chinese tourists
Typical of the buildings along here
It's a shame I'm not after souvenirs, otherwise I'm sure I could fill up my bags here.
Traditional tea shop
One can sometimes see interesting mixes of old and new.
Not on speaking terms
Sales tactics include admiring my hair, saying everything is cheap, then saying everything is free. I enquire as to whether this applies to the sales girl, which is met by a rather frosty reception.
We look for a famous duck restaurant, Qianjude, but it would appear that the whole area around Qianmen Dajie has been flattened and is being redeveloped. This is happening with hutongs all over Beijing sadly. I hope they make an additional effort to preserve those that remain.
Billboards with rubble behind
Another pretty hutong
We eventually find a touristy restaurant which will have to do. Leo orders too much foor, and two large bottles of beer! For lunch! Leo, what are you playing at? He "claims" he didn't know they would be large bottles. Sure, sure.
Peking duck and other stuff
Beers for lunch? Leo, what are you playing at?!
Old Summer Palace
In the afternoon, we head to a place of Leo’s choice, which is probably not on people’s primary list of things to do – the Old Summer Palace. The new one is the more famous of course, but this too is a beautiful spot. It was laid out in the 12th century, but most of the ruins were built in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Qing, copying European style palaces in the Eternal Spring Garden, much was then destroyed by French and British forces during wars towards the end of the 19th. There’s plenty of information about in the parks about how outrageous this uncalled for humiliation was. A bit like China invading Tibet then?
It's boring being a statue
Interestingly, I’ve learnt by researching on the internet, as there was no mention in the gardens that this act of destruction was in retaliation for the imprisonment, torture, and execution of several British diplomatic envoys who had been promised safe conduct by the Qing government! Absolutely no mention of that!
Lakes everywhere covered in lilies
One of the few remaining bridges
Apparently the Chinese government decided to keep the ruined site ruined as it will teach future Chinese generations the price of being dominated and humiliated by European foreign powers!
Must be pretty in flower
What's left of the European Palace
No playing pictionary
There's a fun if limited maze. It's quite easy to complete as there are so many people heading in and out that you just have to look at where most people are walking.
Apparently all the maids would run the maze, the one reaching the centre first getting a (and I quote here) "special prize from the emperor". Haha, the dirty old so-and-so!
Leo and myself
After the maze we visit the rest of the site, including the main set of ruins and columns.
It's getting cold now, so time to go. I am freezing to death yet again!
Sun going down
Festive theme to the route out
Leo takes a look at a famous University just round the corner, and as we look at our map and work out how to get back to the centre, a couple of girls offer to help us. We invite them out! We were thinking of taking public transport, but give up and hop in a cab. It takes forever in the even rush hour jams, but taxi prices don’t seem to go up much in price over time, only distance. Good for us. The taxi supposedly chips a bus as he goes past. The bus driver stops, gets out, and a good Chinese argument ensues. There’s a mark on the large advert on the side of the bus. Not even a scratch. Our driver apologies, which he later regrets, though without it I suspect fists may have come out!
Hou Hai Lake
The Hou Hai area is one of the trendier spots to go out in Beijing. West of the Chaoyang District, it comprises a series of bars, restaurants and clubs surrounding a lake. It starts well, with a Starbucks!
We go to eat somewhere Leo has had recommended, the Lotus Blue, its decor obviously a TinTin rip off! The decor is swanky, and the food Thai, with prices to match the interior.
We order some curries and shrimp sashimi. I hope they haven't come from the lake next to us!
Dinner over, we walk on along the lake.
The view out of the window by our table
It's damn cold. Leo is kitted out with two fleeces, but I'm just in my base layer t-shirt!
The far side of the lake, we find a jazz Bar which I suggested heading into, a great decision when I realise how warm it is inide.
Jazz on the East Shore
It's a cool place and I think they're setting up for live music, but Leo wants to continue, and well would he given his two fleeces, so we leave and finish the loop.
At the end of the loop by the road we encounter dozens of people of all ages doing synchronised dancing to pop music. Somehow they all know the moves, and all do them together! How does it work?! It's like the North Korean Mass Games!
Across near Sanlitun in a big hotel I pinch a free map of the city, then ask for help in finding Browns or The Loft. They send us the wrong way, but eventually we find a little enclave of clubs past the Book Worm. By asking around I find Browns. It's closed. Disaster - this was where I was planning to watch the match this evening. We try another place Nanjie, but it's heaving, so we leave.
Leo's call next - we go to Hooters! For those of you who don't know what this place is - it's a chain of American bar restaurants where the young waitresses all dress up in rather skimpy hot pants and low cut tops. In general it doesn’t really appeal to me, seems anachronistic. Next we head round to the Worker's Stadium, which is now surrounded by ultra-modern clubs, including Mix and Vics.
The packed sweaty clubs are both playing standard unexciting club tunes, but are full of beautiful girls and glamorous décor. However, I’m not in the mood, only a couple of hours till kickoff!
We leave and go to Den’s, a British bar I'd spotted earlier. It's 30Y entry each, which includes a free drink (later I see on the back of the voucher I see it's only for weekdays but they honour it anyway). It looks awful from the outside, but okay inside, and is packed downstairs with a happy crowd. We find more room upstairs, standing at the bar. After our first beer, Leo cops out and goes home.
The game starts, and I watch with another English chap and two good-natured French guys. The French, as favourites, are singing and celebrating before the game starts. Of course, when England score in the opening seconds they quiet down for a bit, but are soon at it again. I wondered where the England supporters were until we went ahead in the final minutes, when the English start to sing, hadn’t realised there were so many of us! We wiiiiiin!!!
I'm so happy, I consider more beer, but it's gone 5am now, and it might be time to go home. I walk along the street, asking a girl about buses, but it sounds a bit complicated so take a taxi to my hostel. On the way I realise it's 5:15am, I could go to Tiananmen to see the dawn flag raising! I tell the taxi driver quite simply "no (original place), i want go tiananmen". (bu nar, wor yau chi qianmen). The driver nods, then proceeds to completely ignore me.
Seeing as I'm back, I'll just go to room, dump stuff, freshen up then go out again. Of course, this doesn't happen. Zzzzzzz!