You may be curious about the title, but, before you jump to conclusions, allow us to explain: EVERYTHING in Beijing is what Trump would call “YUGE”. The attractions, security, subway system, bus stations, train stations, malls, food, traffic, crowds and sounds are all extreme. Yet, this is what makes Beijing a city worth experiencing.
Coming from peaceful Gubeikou in the countryside to the city of Beijing was like stepping out of a float tank and into a scene from MadMax. At first, we were totally overwhelmed by the number of people squishing like sardines into a subway cart to get home from work, with us amongst the crowd, packs ‘n all. Personal space does not exist here. Luckily, we don’t suffer from claustrophobia. Most people are in such a rush that they seem to be on ‘speed’ when it comes to catching the next train, even though there is one almost every 2 minutes. Scanning your belongings at entry, becomes a game show of ‘Whose bag is this anyway?’ as you fumble to get your bag on the conveyor belt at the security checkpoint while the three people behind you try to get their bags on first. And this was only below the surface.
Conquering the underground we made it back to the top to find our accommodation, hidden somewhere in the hutongs. Using some simple directions from the hostel and our wits, we navigated the maze of narrow grey streets. Sidestepping cars, electric trikes, bikes, scooters, and people. Even the odd dog, cat and rat scurrying between; all winding through the hutong streets. It is the epitome of organised chaos! We were completely lost in it all, within minutes though, we were in stitches. Laughing in disbelief, all the way to the hostel, with every near miss or unbelievably tight fit. Finding our hostel, Chinese Box, we were pleasantly surprised by how different it was to what lay on the other side of its large rustic red doors.
The Hostel was large too, but quaint and cozy in all its different areas, the common rooms are very homey and have a great deal of space for everyone. One of the nights, we were living it up with the staff, drinking homemade baijiu from a 5 litre container, having a fab time. We even had a dumpling party where we were overwhelmed by the number of dumplings we were expected to eat, luckily they were tasty and went down with ease. However as wonderful as the hostel was, staying in would defeat the point of being in Beijing, right. So every opportunity we got we headed out those large red doors and through the narrow streets, to shock ourselves a little more by just how big Beijing was.
Our first stop out was of course to get dinner. We eventually ended up in this big family joint, serving traditional cuisine. Jack, our waiter was extremely helpful, he went through the entire menu with us, which was the thickness of a small novel. We ordered three dishes; lamb dumplings, kungpow chicken, and fried noodles. As you can guess these filled our table. Way too much for the two of us. Which seemed to be the norm, looking at the tables around us. As the first meal in Beijing, it was damn good, especially after the long days we spent hiking the Great Wall.
Next on the list of big things was the enormous Forbidden City. This city within a city is big enough to make a giant feel out of place. The walls reach into the sky, towering any of the buildings in the surrounding area. The doors are something out of a George R. R. Martin novel, huge, blood red and impenetrable. The sheer size of the entrance gates are enough to make you question its existence, never mind the fifty-meter wide moat encircling it. The ninety odd spacious palaces within the walls boast throne rooms covered in gold and littered with treasured valuables from the emperors who once ruled China. There is no wonder this is the most visited museum in China hosting an average of eighty thousand visitors every day, reaching 16 million for 2016.
Then there is the Summer Palace. Oh, my word! The Summer Palace, lying on the outskirts of Beijing, will tire you out. You can spend the entire day walking the best preserved royal gardens in China and still not see it all. The park surrounds the large Kunming Lake and its various causeways which are broken up by elegant arch bridges and long island walkways. We spent 4 hours exploring this park, sadly, our visit turned out to be a bit like the ‘running photography sport’ showcased in the movie ‘Yes Man’. We just didn’t have enough time to see it all and really enjoy it, because we squeezed it in on the day we had to leave, not realising how large this place really is. It’s MASSIVE! The Summer Palace is a magnificent place to spend a day, enjoying the scenic views around the lake, or even renting a boat to paddle/cruise around the lake on.
Talking about parks, and this isn’t just in Beijing, this was a sight to see and experience everywhere we went in China. Walking around the parks, or any green area really, was something else. The older generation in China use the parks in the mornings and the evenings to exercise and socialise. They make an event of it, and they go all out. From group dancing with loud subwoofers to gambling, there is something for everyone to be a part of. We saw a man who must have been about seventy odd years old, climbing trees and monkey bars where people were working out. We saw groups of woman and men playing games of hacky sack, and were so good, they seemed semi-pro at it. We saw people come out to play their different instruments together, making wonderful music to listen to. Spending time in a park in China to take in this vibrant old culture is a must when visiting, you get a real feel for the sense of community, and it is a chance to immerse yourself in something not created for tourists, but totally free to enjoy with locals. One of the parks we truly appreciated was the park surrounding the Temple of Earth, another place that will leave you feeling smaller.
Traveling around Beijing, you will quickly become aware of the immense amount of bicycles, trikes and bikes. Bicycles and electric scooters are the biggest modes of transportation in Beijing and it is a great way to get around the city, if you have the cohunes for it. Using bicycles is so big in Beijing that the city included it in planning its urban development, giving cyclists their own lane, separated by a curb or row of trees. Rental bikes are huge too, with easy access, people simply use an app on their phone to rent them and they are on their way. The best part is that the bike can be left at their end destination, for the next person to use. The “Mobike” can be seen scattered all over Beijing because almost everyone is using them. Remember when crossing the street in Beijing, you have more than just cars skimming the corners to watch out for, you also have weaving cyclists and scooters to avoid.
Beijing has very little that is small, perhaps the dumplings are dinky but other than that, everything is ‘enormous’. We absolutely loved our Beijing experience, I don’t believe you can find anything else like it. We have only skimmed the surface in this blog and will be writing more about the attractions of Beijing in another post.
If you have been to Beijing, and feel we have left something out that you noticed was larger than life, let us know in the comments below. We would love to hear about your personal experience in Beijing.