Monthly Archives: January 2012


Drummers in Beijing’s Drum Tower

Chinese New Year fireworks in Beijing

Fireworks as seen from the hotel roof.

Happy New Year

Xin nian kuai le (新年快乐). We are now in the year of the dragon.

Last night there was a party at the hotel. There were about 100 people here enjoying mulled wine and locally brewed beer. We were able to stand on the roof terrace and watch the fireworks exploding from ever direction. It was incredible, as midnight approached, the fireworks intensified until you didn’t know where they would explode from next.

Some time after midnight, we thought we would go for a walk to see what was happening outside. The

Gulou dong dajie

streets looked like the aftermath of a riot, with paper strewn everywhere and smoke still rising. Groups of people were setting off firecrackers on the streets and pavements, with no concern for the cars parked nearby or traffic trying to pass.

We saw one girl of about 10 year old happily lobbing bangers across the pavement. The old year has well and truly been chased away, but I think there are still more fireworks to come over the next few days.

Two dusty bicycles in Beijing

John on a bike

Today is Chinese New Year’s Eve. We woke up to another bright, sunny and cold day. After a hearty breakfast (the hotel has a breakfast menu with lots of unusual choices, all cooked fresh and served with coffee and juice), we decided to borrow some bicycles from the hotel and head for Tienanmen Square.

Due to the holidays, the roads are unusually quiet, so it was an easy ride to the square. On arrival, we discovered the Forbidden City had closed early for the day and National Museum and Mao’s mausoleum were both shut. It didn’t really matter as we were still able to stroll around, soak in the atmosphere and take some pictures in the sunshine.

Entrance to the Forbidden City

Tienanmen Square would normally be crowed with tourists, both foreign and Chinese, as well as all sorts of hawkers and scammers. We felt lucky to be able to enjoy it in the relative calm. Cycling around the square, we were a little worried one of the many guards or police might stop us, but nobody seemed interested in the two wobbly laowai on their dusty bicycles.

By now we were getting peckish. Luckily we found a small family restaurant which served up some tasty food and jasmine tea. Typically, the restaurant didn’t have its own loo. I took the plunge and visited the public convenience over the road. On the positive side it was very clean, on the negative it was all squat loos, with no separate cubicles. Ah well, when in Beijing…


Our next stop was the Lama Temple via the excellent foreign language bookshop on Wangfujing Dajie. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the temple it had also closed to visitors. It was a good ride, though.

We cycled back through the hutongs to our hotel. The journey was becoming more hazardous as many firecrackers were being let off in  the streets to chase out the old year. More than once, we had to stop and wait for a pile of fireworks to stop their volley before we could pass.

The volume and frequency of the fireworks will increase this evening and for the next seven days. We don’t expect to be able to get much sleep this evening. Luckily, the hotel is having a party so at least not being able to sleep should be fun.

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The Great Wall

The Great Wall

After a good night’s sleep and a tasty breakfast this morning, we were ready to conquer the Great Wall. Our hotel had arranged a car and driver to take us to the wall and he was ready, waiting for us at 9.30. The Great Wall is pretty big (duh!) so there are many different sections you can visit. We had decided to go to the part at Mutianyu at 90 minutes drive from the centre of Beijing.

We were really lucky with the weather. It is quite cold, about -11°, but the sky was incredibly clear and blue. We bought tickets for the cable car up to the wall and then walked along as far as we could. The wall was unusually quiet today; I understand that sometimes it is unbearably busy. This was due to the Spring Festival. Many Beijingers come from outside the city so have gone home to be with their families. Most of the other people we saw along the wall were other foreigners.

John and Mrs Mao

About half way along we met a woman selling drinks and snacks. On our way back we were glad of a cup of tea to warm us up. She was a funny character, insisting she take our photo wearing a Chairman Mao style cap. She told us she was from Mongolia and her husband had set off to walk home for the new year.

The walk along the wall was really enjoyable, but quite hard going. The steps are steep in places and so difficult for those of us with short legs. The view was well worth it, though. So was the feeling of standing on one of the wonders of the world.

In order to get down from the wall, we decided to take a toboggan run. I wasn’t sure about it, but John persuaded me and it was actually really exciting, or at least not as terrifying as I thought it would be.

We are now back at the hotel, with tired legs, but looking forward to visiting Tienanmen Square tomorrow. Tomorrow evening, is a New Years Eve party at the hotel and we should be able to watch the fireworks from the roof terrace. Can’t wait!

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Beijing hutong on ice

Me in Beijing

We landed in Beijing at about 2pm this afternoon. Our flight was a little delayed, but not so much that it mattered. When checking in at Wuxi airport we saw a sign apologising for a flight that was delayed due to ‘company plan’. We were pleased that our airline didn’t plan too much of a delay for us.

We were glad we had arranged an airport pick up, because our hotel is in the middle of Beijing’s hutongs and I am sure it would have been a struggle to find it by ourselves. However, it is well worth finding. We are staying at the Orchid Hotel, a boutique hotel, sympathetically converted from an old building. Our bedroom is off the central courtyard. It is small, but has everything we need, including heating and cats. The hotel is great, it has a really cool feel to it and the owners are really happy to help with restaurant recommendations and other advice.

The temperature in Beijing is about -2°C, but we were expecting this so we have stocked up on warm

Orchid hotel

clothes. This afternoon we kept warm by walking up the steep stairs to the top of the Drum Tower. From the top we had a great view across the hutongs and beyond. The hutongs are traditional style Chinese low-rise buildings. In the distance we could see the skyscrapers of newer parts of the city, but they seemed a world away. After a while, some people started beating the enormous drums in the tower. Historicaly, the drums would have been used to mark standard time for the city.

After tentatively heading back down the steep staircase, we went in  search of the lake we had seen in the distance. The lake was completely frozen and there are booths around it where you can hire ice skates or small ice bikes. It was fun to watch people sliding around and we have vowed to try it ourselves before we leave.

John wrapped up

For dinner we went to a nearby Yunan restaurant called Hanay (as recommended by our hotelier). Yunan is a province in South West China bordering Laos, Vietnam and Burma. The food was delicious; quite spicy, but just right to warm us up. Our waitress spoke excellent English. She told me the green pu’er teaI was drinking was known to aid weight loss and would make me need to ‘answer the call of nature’ about three times tomorrow. Tomorrow we are going to the Great Wall, so I am now concerned about whether the facilities will be sufficient.

Drummers in the tower

Off to Beijing

We are currently sitting in Wuxi Airport waiting for our flight to Beijing. Lots of interesting photos to follow…

John’s latest post includes kitten photos

Bicycle bu hao

John bought a second-hand bicycle shortly after arriving in Wuxi and he loves zooming about on it. It uses it everyday to get to and from work; on days he isn’t working he suffers bicycle withdrawal symptoms (restlessness, involuntary leg movements etc.)

John is now convinced that I need my own bicycle. Really, I am very happy travelling by bus. I have a transportation card so most journeys cost about 1.2 RMB (12p) and the buses are pretty reliable. However, for the sake of marital harmony the other day I agreed to get a bike.

I wanted a second hand bike, so it wouldn’t look too attractive to would-be thieves, but we can’t find the used bicycle market in Wuxi. We know there is one, but due to all the building work ongoing for the new Metro system, when we follow directions given to us by ‘people in the know’ we just end up at a hole in the ground.

In the end, we went to a market attached to a branch of Carrefour in the city centre. There was a range of bike and e-bikes on offer, so after careful consideration we decided on the cheapest one in the shop. The sales assistant told us this bike was “bu hao (not good)”. I cynically assumed she just wanted us to buy a  more expensive one, so I insisted we would take the cheap bike.

After a tentative start, my bike riding skills came back to me (it’s a bit like riding a bike..) and we set off in the direction of the park next to Lake Li. Travelling over the bridge I realised my pedal had fallen off. A piece of plastic that should hold it on had broken, so I had to pedal in a lop-sided way. I thought we could probably get it fixed at one of the many road-side bicycle repair places.

We travelled a bit further before I realised the front brake was broken. My new bike was falling apart! We were quite some way from home, so decided to cut our losses and abandon the bike by the side of the road. Someone would no doubt pick it up, patch it up and perhaps sell it on to another unsuspecting dupe.

As I boarded the bus for the journey home, I thought that my cheap bike was an expensive lesson in paying attention when the sales assistant says ‘bu hao’.

Wuxi Eyes

Wuxi Eyes

Monday and Tuesday were public holidays here, so John and I took the opportunity to do some more exploring around Wuxi. The weather is pretty cold, but the days are bright and you soon warm up when you get moving.

On Monday, we took the bus to Liyuan, a public park on the edge of Lake Li. The park is really popular with local people, so it was quite busy with people flying kites and having a go on the fairground rides.

We followed the English-language sign to the Wuxi Eyes which took us to Wuxi’s equivalent of the London Eye. The Ferris Wheel was right on the edge of the lake and moved quite slowly giving us a wonderful view of the city.

Boating lake in Liyuan