I arrived into Beijing airport two hours late thanks to delayed flights. It was already dark and I had a train then two different lines on the subway to navigate before I could try find my hostel. The subway here though is as efficient and easy to use as any in the world with English accompanying the Chinese so I was swiftly standing outside exit B of Dongsi station trying to figure out how the screenshot of the map the hostel provided translated into the real world. Not very well it turns out, but after a few wrong turns down back alleyways I had arrived. The hostel was next to a huge ominous looking burnt out building, something that would have made finding it much easier if they’d popped that on their map!
Compared to the high standard of Japanese hostels this left a lot to be desired. The bathroom wasn’t the cleanest, no living room styled area, mattresses so thin you had to sleep on your back to spread out your body weight and not the most helpful of staff. On top of that the WiFi wasn’t working, a definite first world problem. I was certainly questioning how it was so highly ranked on hostelworld.
Not to be deterred, I went and bought a city map and figured out what to go see the next day. I didn’t want to jump in with the massive sights straight away so instead planned a route around some of the other temples, towers and Hutongs of Beijing.
The bell and drum tower were both good as Confucius temple, but the highlight of the day was the incense filled Lama temple. Quite a sprawling complex, where you burn three incense sticks at each shrine. I’m not usually a big incense fan, but the atmosphere it gave this place was brilliant.
The Hutongs that I took to get in between the sites were fascinating. Hundreds of small backstreets, interlinking and criss-crossing, densely populated residential areas crammed right next to world heritage locations. A few of them have transformed into hyper tourist shopping strips, but many are still homes.
Heading out into Beijing was like stepping back into the type of Asian cities I’ve come to expect. It’s noisy, dirty, pushy, smelly and you wouldn’t survive ten minutes trying to drive here. It’s hard enough trying to cross the roads; green crossing lights mean very little and cars legally have the right of way over pedestrians, something heavily enforced by drivers.
My first real evening in Beijing was a bit lonely, no one was in in my dorm, the bar was empty and I did feel a bit lost, especially as I’d found out that the WiFi wasn’t down it was that China blocks access to Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram – basically all social media. Nevertheless I went out to find a place for dinner and demolished a big spicy bowl of noodles.
Day two started early with a tube down to Tiannemen square – probably the most intensely surveillaned public space I’ve been too, before entering the madness of the Forbidden City. The complex as a whole is fascinating, and the fact was still in use under a 100 years ago adds to is spectacle, but the crowds are crazy, even arriving early on a weekday. My favourite sections were the bits away from the main sights, where you could wander through the twisting passages and smaller buildings. Afterwards the climb up to the summit of the neighbouring park gave impressive views over the entire city.
Upon returning just after lunch to my hostel I met Michael a Canadian Chinese guy who’d just moved into my dorm. Handily he worked for Microsoft so quickly rerouted my internet so I could get to my email and Facebook! We decided to go check out the Temple of Heaven park that afternoon and on our way out we bumped into Julia who was also in our dorm and she wanted to check it out also. Thus my Beijing friendship group was born.