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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…

Lanterns

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

Beijing duck – yum

Preparing the Beijing duck

On Wednesday evening, John and I went with Mark and Yi Ling to a Beijing (Peking) Duck restaurant in Wuxi’s Canal Park area. The restaurant was really busy, unsurprising really because the food was delicious.

As well as the whole roast duck we ordered some vegetables and sour soup which were pretty good, but the duck was the star. The whole roasted duck is brought to your table by a chef who carves it for you. And, yes, it is served with pancakes, spring onion and plum sauce. It was a bit pricey (£7 per head including drinks), but well worth it.

We are off to Beijing in January, so it will be interesting to see how authentic the Wuxi restaurant is.