When we arrived Beijing was in a thick fog, we couldn’t see the runway until the last minute, and it was a balmy 13 degrees. (Not exactly the Asian weather we were used to.) We took a taxi to Bruno’s apartment where we met up with Seunghee, his wife. After a bit of catching up, they took us to a popular expats bar where we had a couple of beers and played a game of darts. I discovered a bar sport that I’m actually good at. I won the game and since then I’ve been addicted to darts.
Our first full day was sunny and beautiful. Several days of heavy rain had washed the sky clean of the ever present smog and the temperature was perfect. First stop the bike repairman and the market where Fabien and Bruno bought a 4th bike. It’s cheaper to buy one than to rent one, and it’s unquestionably the best way to visit the city. (That is, when the air is clean.) Navigating your way through the other bikes, the pedestrians, the buses, cars and motorbikes is madness, but Saturday morning was manageable, not too much traffic and breathable air. Bruno took us to the Lama temple, one of the largest and most beautiful Buddhist temples in Beijing. The temple/monastery was built in 1732 for Tibetan lamas. Bruno and Seunghee wanted to know if it resembled the Tibetan monasteries we had visited in northern India. It was hard for us to say, we recognized numerous elements from other temples we had visited, but we couldn’t remember which ones. After 8 months of our self-guided tour of world religions, I’ve determined you need a phD to sort this stuff out. From the temple we biked around the Tartare town, a quarter in the center of Beijing of one-storey, square residences, known as siheyuan. As we navigated the narrow alleyways, glimpsing a bit of daily life, I had the feeling we had gone back in time. We climbed up the Tambour Tower (on the edge of the Tartare town) where we had views of the sprawling city, a real contrast of modern and ancient, from the traditional siheyuans below to the enormous skyscrapers that made up the outlying areas. Then we biked to the Beihai Lake where we took a break and had a drink at one of the many cafes along the lake. We finished the afternoon with a visit to the Beihai Park. Unfortunately, the majority of the park, including the impressive white pagoda was under renovation. In fact, many of the sites in Beijing are covered in scaffolding, as the city prepares for the 2008 Olympics. The evening…Korean BBQ and bowling. A fun, full day.
Sunday morning, we rolled out of bed a bit later, the legs a bit sore from the marathon biking the day before. We started the day with an all-you-can eat Japanese/sushi buffet (about 7 euros/person including beer-hard to find that in France!) Then we biked across town to Tiananmen Square, the site of Mao Zedong’s tomb and the unforgettable student protests of 1989. Fab and I posed for a photo in front of the gates of the Forbidden City with Mao’s portrait ever-present in the background. Next stop Parc Tiantan and the Temple of Heaven. A small green oasis in the middle of the capital (Beijing actually has a lot of pretty green spaces), the Temple of Heaven was the site of the celebration of the winter solstice. Arriving too late in the afternoon, we could only admire the temple from the outside, an imposing structure of 3 tiers. After another day of sightseeing, we made the last call for happy hour and played a few rounds of darts. (Women against men this time.) It was supposed to be an early evening so that we could wake up early to go the Great Wall, but fate was against us…
Monday morning, we were in no state to go the Great Wall, so instead we opted to visit the Forbidden City. The tour began with the grand entrance facing Tiananmen Square. The ancient city is surrounded on all sides by walls (7m/21ft high.) In total the walls are 960m /2880ft long and 750m/2250ft wide. The city was occupied by the emperor and his companions from 1420 (when original construction was finished) until 1924, when the last emperor, Puyi, was expelled. We spent 4 hours exploring the interior, which consists of numerous palaces and gardens. Particularly interesting were the palaces for the emperor’s concubines who were assigned to rungs of a hierarchy in accordance with the emperor’s preferences. After an intense day of sightseeing, we met up with Bruno, Seunghee and a friend of Bruno’s from work. We went to a Chinese restaurant known for its delicious dumplings. Another evening of recreation, we went bowling and I finally reached 100. Bowling is definitely not my forte.
Determined to visit the Great Wall of China, we woke up at 6:30 AM, and caught a packed local bus to the bus station. We were on our way out of Beijing by 8:15. Unfortunately, we did not have the direct bus to Simatai, the section of the wall we had chosen to visit. About 2 hours later, we were dropped in Miyun, a city about 30km away from the wall. We tried to find a local bus, but without luck, and our only option was a taxi. Finally, we agreed on a price and a 3rd passenger, a young British guy who had shared the first bus with us joined us. About 15 minutes into the ride, he realized that he had left his wallet (with all of his money and credit cards on the first bus.) The attempt to explain the problem to the taxi driver was quite funny, as he mimed losing the wallet and his money. The taxi driver tried to help by calling someone (we think the driver of the bus) but with no luck. We decided to loan him the money to visit the wall and to get back to Beijing. We finally arrived in Simatai around 12.
The Great Wall of China extends covers 6,700 kilometers (4,163 miles) from east to west of China. Construction began over 2,000 years ago. It was built as a protective fortress. We chose to visit Simatai because it is one of the least “touristy” sections and most rugged sections of the wall. We climbed a steep section, divided by towers with views on the reservoir and green hills below. It was quite foggy, so the visibility was quite bad, but at the same time it added a sense of isolation. Probably the same feeling, the watch tower guards had 1,000 years ago. The return to Beijing was a bit faster, and we finally got back to Bruno and Seunghee’s around 7. Our last evening in Beijing, we went for hamburgers, beer, and our favourite, sport, darts.
The day we left for Hong Kong, Bruno flew to France and Seunghee to Korea. We were exhausted as we got on the plane, but quite happy with our visit to the Chinese capital.