Beijing, the people's city, or rather the city full of people. Despite our best efforts to wake up early, or visit sights late, or take alternative transport, everywhere we went, we met people, lots of them. Shanghai may have a higher population but it seems it will be hard to beat the sense of masses of people and crowds there is in this city, despite Beijing proper being approximately the size of Belgium. Obviously, most of the crowds we have come across have been crowds of tourists, and not crowds of locals, but there is still not quite a feeling like being elbowed in the stomach by a little old lady. Going back to the beginning, we arrived on our 2.5 day train smelly, tired and a little disoriented. Luckily, our hotel upon arrival was extra nice, to make up for the hardships of the train. Checking in was already a luxurious experience, as a concierge-type took all our documents and instructed us to take a seat and have a cup of jasmine tea. The hotel, as we were guided through by the concierge guy, extended far behind the opulent front lobby, and we went up to our room in the main tower, which also held the spa, swimming pool and bowling alley. Once relaxed, we set out to visit the nearby heart of the city: Tiananmen Square. Supposedly the biggest square in the world, Tiananmen isnt really a square, as two main streets are its north and southern borders, and the Mausoleum of Mao is so huge that it almost cuts the square in half, and so a large portion of the square sits hidden behind the behemoth built to house the corpse of the Chairman. Since this building could only be visited in the morning, and we were told to expect huge crowds(even for China) this was something we could live without. But speaking of the chairman, no visit would be complete without a picture of yourself with Mao's passport picture hanging in the background. Visiting the square also had a few unexpected results; first in honor of 80 years since the founding of the communist party, there was a whole set of unusual decorations, including a huge hammer and sickle in the middle of the square. Second, there were a pair of enormous LCD screens, of both a size and definition that make those in Times Square seem like cathode ray tube Tv's. Thirdly, while taking pictures of ourselves, at least 5 families asked to have their pictures taken with us. Seemingly first to mistake them for wanting us to take a picture of them, this gives one a quick glimpse into the life of celebrity. Cool the first few times, annoying after the fourth child is propped into your arms. Finally, we met our first scam of the trip, in its most innocent guise. While walking around the south end of the trip, two young women approached us speaking english and offered to walk around the square with us, to practice a bit more. Our intention had been to go back to the square to see a ceremony of the lowering of the Chinese Flag by a finely drilled military corps, and these two told us this would be at 8pm. Not having much of an idea what to do for a bit over an hour, we thought it an ok idea then to take them up on their offer on going off the square, and into the oldest part of the city and have something to drink. The area itself was really quite nice and impressive, having been rebuilt for the Olympics in 2008, and the transversing hutongs were the first taste of the 'real' small street market China we expected. After the surprisingly positive experience with tea we had in Russia and China, the idea of going to a tea house seemed more appealing than a coffee or beer, so the girls led us to an innocuous looking place off of the main drag. Asking them for a suggestion of what to try, a pot of tea was ordered, with some snacks, and the experience seemed quite fun and nice, spent talking about many sorts of subjects, including getting a good amount of tips and reccomendations of things to do in beijing, and where to eat. It was only when the bill came that we realized that we had indeed been scammed, and even asking for the menu yielded no improvement, as the ridiculous price for the tea pots were indeed printined on this menu. We left in a huff, but the sour taste left in our mouths was soon replaced by the most impressive buffet dinner I may have had in my life, that without a food credit at the hotel we would not have tried. Having been satisfying gourged, we ventured out to the small streets north of where we were, highlighted by what is known as the Snack Street. This alley was full of a ton of small stalls and food vendors of a ton of varieties of foods, we had never come across, and one particular guy even had lizards, tarantulas, and scorpions to fry, but having previously satisfied our hunger, simply returned to the hotel for the night.
Our second day, perhaps the most intense yet, began with a visit to the forbidden city, that despite going early in the morning, was at many times a wandering mass of people. The size of the place is the most striking aspect of it, as many of the courtyards could, in my opinion, challenge for the third largests squares in the world. Perhaps because of its size, upkeep must be quite difficult, but many areas are not in particularly nice condition. In particular, the most popular halls throne rooms, that the masses of tour groups try to get glimpses of, are cordoned off, and poorly lit, so jostling and elbowing up to the doorways usually didnt even let you see much of anything. The highlights of the city itself were perhaps a funky garden near the back, a series of smaller, less visited courtyards and halls off to the sides, and one particularly large and well preserved hall to the side that housed the most impressive collection of clocks probably in the world. After going back to the hotel, and then switching to another, cheaper yet more modern and stylish, hotel, we then tried to get to the great wall. Having missed a train, we attempted going to the bus station. At first being unable to find it, and finding ourselves hungry, we stopped at a fast-food noodle shop, which turned out to be cheap and remarkably good. We even got some help by the store manager to try to find the bus station. After another 15 minutes of wandering, we found the buses, yet were told repeatedly no, and when an enligh speaking woman offered to help us, she was also told, we couldnt board any of the buses, and had to return tomorrow. Dejected, we made our way to the Summer Palace. Having intended to leisurely visit the park the next day, I braced myself for a brief visit. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find it remained open almost 3 hours after we expected it to close. The Summer Palace was a place of escape for the emperors and royal court during the oppresive heat of summer, and as such created a beautiful park, with an immense artificial lake, and island, traversed by numerous white rock bridges. Although closed for the day when we went, the most recognizable structure of the park is a buddhist temple that sits atop a hill in the middle of the park, overlooking the rest of the grounds and the lake. Immense, it was impressive enough to glimpse from the lakeside below. Second, we strolled along the Long Corridor, a covered walkway that stretched nearly a km, along the northern edge of the lake, all of which decorated with all sorts of artistic scenes and 18th century patterns. Think of it as the decorated bridge in Basel, only three times the size. At the end of the corridor, we found one of the real curiosities of China, popularly known as the Marble Ship. The Summer Palace has a lot of its history intertwined with princess Cixi, who really made the gardens her own, and in one occasion took a huge sum of money that was supposed to build China with a modern navy and instead spent it all on rebeautifying the park, but at least managed to blow a bunch of it on a naval purpose, in building a giant, two story boat entirely out of marble, finely carved and decorated, and sitting at a western dock of the lake for all of eternity. Our third and final day, was engrossed by a visit to the Great Wall, to which we went by train, which being surprisingly cheap, was again packed but quick and efficient. The wall was immense and awe-inspiring, but the oppresive crowds made for a suffocating experience. Having climbed the wall for over an hour, and seeing the final section that led up to the highest point in the wall a real wall of people, we opted to return towards the entrance, when we came across a mini-roller coaster, that offered to take us back down and near the entrance in no time at all. After having paid and being in line, we realized that under normal circumstances we would have never gone on such a weathered metal contraption, and despite not going too fast, or having too windy bends, still held our nerves frayed until we reached the bottom. Which in fact wasnt really the bottom, or the entrance, and left us over a kilometer away from our train. However, we made it back to Beijing and hour hotel to let our final afternoon be a more relaxing one, before going out to so far the top culinary experience of the trip, a visit to Duck de Chine, a french take on Peking Duck. After an ordeal on finding the place, which is worthy of a post by itself, we had a magnificent meal, of a duck being carved before our eyes, in addition to an amazing fried soft-shell crab, and a musrhoom-prawn stuffed whole calamaro. After a stroll, we haggled a taxi ride back to the hotel and our final night's rest before our super high speed journey on to our next stop; Shanghai.