Katie: On our first full day in Beijing, we were keen to make the most of our time in this bustling city. We had planned to see Tiananmen Square, pay a visit to the Mao Zedong Mausoleum and of course walk the Great Wall of China. Unfortunately we didn’t get to do any of that but what we did get was flu.
For some reason that we could not fathom, Tiananmen Square was closed and Mao was getting his annual servicing. So we began walking around Beijing in the damp and cold weather, and ended up covering a whole 10 miles before we returned exhausted to our hostel.
We saw countless mini tuk-tuk taxis which seem dangerously nippy and apparently cost around 5000 RMB (£500) to buy brand new. Also we saw many Chinese people walking their miniature dogs dressed up in little costumes, the one below made us chuckle.
We had heard about Wangfujing snack street; a notorious tourist trap which aims to shock visitors with their offerings.
We had to go and have a look! After dodging strings of tourist coaches, we found the street and it was filthy! We navigated the hundreds of food stalls presenting fried scorpions, starfishes, and seahorses!
Actually there were some decent looking stalls selling buns but judging from the hygiene of the place we thought it would be best to give it a miss.
We decided to treat ourselves to the famous Peking roast duck at Bianyifang Kaoyadian. It was quite a swish looking restaurant where the chef carves the duck into super thin slices at your table. Traditionally you wrap these slices of duck, along with cucumber or spring onions in thin pancakes with Hoi sin sauce (a tad like Aromatic crispy duck).
We only ordered the sauce along with a whole duck (approx. £15) as we were on a tight budget. It was delicious but we both felt that the duck in Pearl Liang in London was better?!
The next day was our last day in Beijing and we woke up super early to take the public bus to see the Great Wall of China. When we arrived at the bus stop, we found that the bus did not run on Sundays! I was so disappointed! Having missed the chance 6 years ago whilst I was holidaying with Ngozi, I really wanted to ensure we got to it this time round.
We felt that the taxi quotes were not worth it (£40), so we ended up walking slowly back to the guesthouse to kill 10 hours before boarding the train from Beijing to our next stop in Xi’an. Phil was not feeling well and I was starting to feel achy and fluey which didn’t help our spirits. Oh and did I mention that the 100km/hr train from Beijing to Xi’an only had squatting toilets…
Phil: We arrived into Beijing Central Train Station mid-afternoon and planned our route on the subway to get to the Sweet Garden Hostel. The subway in Beijing is functional, clean, and very secure – they have airport x-ray machines at every station. Punctual, well sign posted, spacious and respected by users. For example; in each carriage there are tv screens. Had this been in London the screens would have been smashed or adorned with graffiti. Like Hong Kong there is a map with little lights for each stop and the red lights change to green for the stop you are arriving at. Not really Mastermind territory but it’s the little things that make life easier.
The instructions provided by the guest house were wrong. We got off at the stop we were told to and started asking people where the address was. There’s one thing I’ve noticed thus far on our trip and that’s people are helpful, even in a bustling city like Beijing where everyone is in a hurry and the rat race beckons they still have time to help you on your way. We walked, with our heavy rucksacks, for a fair while but eventually, with the help of a few ‘Aunties’, found the place in one of the many Hutongs (traditional villages within the city) The guest house itself was nice enough; a communal area that was made to look like it was outside but inside, complete with projector screen for movie nights and mad, scatty little dog.
We headed out on Saturday morning to buy tickets on the sleeper to Xi’an and stopped off for breakfast; meat soup, rice with meat stew and a salad. Mmm! We located the English counter and queued with the rest of the Chinese people. Wait, hadn’t they seen the sign? So we got to the assistant and found she couldn’t speak English but, as usual, Katie’s Mandarin was enough. There was a local man behind us who shouted ‘are those bloody foreigners at the front holding us up?’ Katie didn’t tell me until after but I managed to work out that I could have told him, in broken Chinese that we were in the English speaking queue and he could gladly bugger off to one of the other 19 Chinese queues.
We looked at the map and figured that it wasn’t too far to Tiananmen Square so we walked. It was pretty miserable, cold, damp and wet and I was glad we wrapped up warm and had our flasks of hot tea at the ready. But when we got there Mao Zedong was gone and his gaff was closed up tighter than a tourists arse after they’d forgotten to pack the Immodium. So we wandered around the sodden square before heading over the road to see Tiananmen Square. The huge portrait of Mao, in a kind of Monalisa-esque – is she smiling or isn’t she hung over the doorway and we crossed the moat to enter; only to be told that it was shut. Shut, seriously? Do you know how far we came to see this and you’re telling me it’s closed.
Ok that’s that ticked off the list, what’s next… Wangfujing snack street which wasn’t very far so we walked. The main street is a huge upmarket shopping district and the snack street is a lane off it. It’s clearly for tourists as there wasn’t a local that wasn’t behind a counter and all the punters were westerners. The street was filthy and I wasn’t risking a ‘jippy tum’ just to tell the folks back home that I’d eaten a seahorse on a stick. We got to the end and gasped some lungfulls of fresh-ish air before diving into a bookshop for some research.
One book suggested the best restaurant to sample the holy grail of Chinese roasted fowl was Bianyifang Kaoyadian (Convenient to Everyone Roast Duck Restaurant); who, according to the story on their menu, roasted the first duck in 1416. And by the deceptive look of the map, was conveniently not too far. We eventually made it and waited for our order; Peking Roast Duck. There were a few choices to consider; dry heat or flame? Flavoured with vegetables, natural or flowers? We opted for the dry and natural flavour. The chef came to our table and carved the failed escapee expertly, each slice was identical and we were even offered the giblets, how kind but no thanks. The head was enough for me.
**I took a video of the chef carving the duck but we’re not allowed onto Youtube here in China so I’ll upload it later.**
I have to say that the duck was good, very good but for all the pomp and flashiness of the restaurant and its history the roast duck at Pearl Liang in London’s Paddington area was better (Yaay Pearl Liang!)
On Sunday we had decided to go and see Great Wall of China. So we headed to the bus stop. We got there and the bus wasn’t running. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? No bus to the wall? None? A happy looking taxi driver sidled up to us and offered a ride but it was far too expensive and he wouldn’t budge to a fair price, knowing that he was our only way to get there.
I was really disappointed, not because we didn’t see the wall. There are plenty of those at home but because Katie really wanted to see it and it was her second time in Beijing without seeing it. But I knew we couldn’t squander a chunk of our funds on a taxi ride. So we headed back to the guest house to rest before our train to Xi’an.
Here’s a little bonus for you. Our first meal in Beijing was in a highly recommended restaurant, so highly recommended in fact that our neighbouring diners had to tell us that this was US Vice-President Joe Biden’s favourite restaurant in Beijing. Well if it’s good enough for Joe…
Along towards the end of Gulou Dongdajie, right next to the Bell Tower, is an old, traditional and bustling restaurant called Yaoji Chaogan. There didn’t seem to be a method to the madness but a friendly couple pointed us into the melee that was a queue of sorts. Thankfully they helped us order the most popular dishes which included Chaogan, a soup-y stew made from pig intestines, liver and other offal flavoured with garlic, vinegar and soy sauce, and Baozi, steamed meat buns. The stew had a heavy meat flavour but wasn’t unpleasant and the spring onions cut through it nicely. The Baozi were awesome; thick and light and filled with really a flavourful bbq pork mixture. The other thing in the picture are fried dough cubes with peanuts and a sticky sauce of no discernible origin, they tasted like they’d been left out way too long.
I would heartily recommend a stop here if you’re after a true taste of local Beijing food. Also Gulou Dongdajie has a large number of other eateries which could easily fill a day out. Here’s what The Beijiner suggests.
English address: 311 Gulou Dong Dajie, Dongcheng district
Chinese address: 东城区鼓楼东大街311号