My time in Beijing really began with my departure from Melbourne. No shit Sherlock, hey? But seriously, what a hectic experience.
My flight was supposed to leave Melbourne at 9.40pm on Saturday. On Thursday night I received an email saying my flight had been cancelled and I would most likely have to be on the one leaving 24 hours later. Fine. After a few emails I went to bed, confident it would all be sorted out for me. The next day I didn’t have confirmation yet, and I spent a very long time making phone calls and harassing people to organise things for me. When I wasn’t on the phone I was packing my suitcase, partly because I just like being organised, and I think partly because a piece of me knew there was a possibility the day would turn out the way it eventually did.
At 5.30pm on Friday, after waiting all day to find out what was happening, I finally got the call. “There are no more flights available for six days, unless you want to take the one that leaves in 4 hours.” O…K… Good thing I packed already! Had a quick shower, grabbed my bags and within 15 minutes Mum and Michael had dropped everything to drive me to the airport.
When I arrived at the airport in Melbourne at 7.30pm I still hadn’t been emailed an updated ticket yet, so I just lined up and hoped for the best. It was fine, but the lead up was stressful. My Air China debacles don’t end there, but more of that later. Here I want to flashback to two previous posts I wrote about solo travel and mountain goats where I talk about flexibility. Freedom and flexibility are the main themes I want for my travels, which is why I don’t have a very set plan for what I’m doing. To me, arriving at the departure gate in Melbourne just minutes before boarding began, the previous four hours seemed like the ultimate test in flexibility. It may not have been the most enjoyable way to start my trip but I think it was good preparation and practise.
My Saturday morning was going to be spent figuring out the logistics of getting to the Great Wall of China during my ridiculously long stopover. Instead I was already in Beijing by that time. The line for the 72-hour visa-free pass was SO long and moved SO slowly, it took more than three hours before I could get outside. In this huge line, however, I met two Americans, Brandon on his way to Japan and Indira on her way home. I abandoned my plans for the Great Wall because I found out it was going to take forever in traffic and be super expensive. Indira had a little itinerary written out for her by a colleague and Brandon and I decided to tag along. My plan was to see some things with them and then go to see the Summer Palace, my second option after the Great Wall.
Well I didn’t go to the Summer Palace either, and honestly I have no regrets. I ended up spending the whole day with Indira who was great company, and with Brandon until he went back to the airport after lunch.
We took a taxi to the Confucius Temple, which was a cool beginning to my Beijing experience. The temple complex includes the old Examination Hall and a courtyard of stelae recording the names of the master scholars who managed to pass these ridiculously difficult exams hundreds of years ago.
After the temple we continued down the road following Indira’s guide which she had saved to her laptop. Every few hundred metres or so she would walk up to someone and point to the explanation in Chinese on her screen of where we wanted to go and they would point us down the road. By this stage we were headed to a dumpling place for lunch which was “just down the street”… The longest street in Beijing I think. Every time we thought we were close we’d ask for directions and always they just kept pointing further down the same street.
Fortunately it was a really nice street to walk down as it passed through the hutong area. The hutongs are narrow streets of very old traditional houses. Many of these have been demolished in Beijing to make way for new infrastructure but certain areas are under protection in the aim to preserve this aspect of Chinese culture.
Eventually we made it to Mr Shi’s Dumpling House and seriously these were the best dumplings I’ve ever had. I had fried pork and coriander dumplings and a fresh orange, carrot and ginger juice which sounds weird but was very delicious. And you can actually see the women in the kitchen making the dumplings, it was a great place.
After lunch we bundled Brandon into a taxi to send him back to the airport to get his flight, I hope he made it with no stress, it was cutting it a bit fine time-wise. This was also when I made the decision to completely give up on seeing the Summer Palace and just stick to Indira’s itinerary instead. I would still get to see Tiananmen Square which was the last stop.
We headed then to the Drum and Bell Towers which were so close to Mr Shi’s. Again these are incredibly old buildings facing each other, one dedicated to drums and one to bells. It was a small fee to enter both but the views from the top of each were incredible. The stairs to climb the towers though, they were treacherously steep but somehow these very ancient-looking locals seemed to be able to handle them fine.
From here we were headed to Jingshan Park which was supposed to offer amazing views of the Forbidden City. The first couple of people we asked for directions actually laughed and told us it was very far. Then we figured out it was straight down the road from the towers and it was only about 2km away. It took hardly any time to walk there. And the views from the park really were incredible. I’d been told by several people not to bother paying to get into the Forbidden City because it was enormous and once you’ve seen a small part you’ve basically seen it all. The view from Jingshan Park costs the equivalent of about 40 cents and it’s probably more impressive than anything you could see from ground level.
From the park we decided to walk to Tiananmen Square, because it’s just on the other side of the Forbidden City, right? We walked and walked and walked and we were still walking along the side of the Forbidden City. Eventually we got to the end and for a start we couldn’t even work out how to get across the massive street. Then the map was confusing and there was the most humongous crowd of people blocking the entire very wide footpath and we had no idea how to get to the square and then it started raining and I was hungry and Indira’s shoes were hurting her feet… So I didn’t see that either. We just got a taxi back to the airport where I tried and failed to use the internet because literally everything is blocked. It even blocked my VPN. So the airport was super boring and I went to sleep across 3 seats instead.
But despite the internet situation and the weird throngs of people on the street and the fact that it’s actually impossible to communicate to anyone unless you speak or read Chinese, I really liked Beijing. I was mostly outside the main tourist areas, and most of the tourists are Chinese anyway, and it was so much cleaner and more organised and hospitable than I thought it would be. I didn’t see any of the things I’d had in mind to see but I have no regrets, and I must have been lucky because there was no noticeable smog whatsoever. I would definitely go back to China and spend slightly more time there to see a few more things.
Air China – The Debacle Continues…
I arrived in Spain finally, after soooo many hours, yay! But unfortunately my luggage did not. Fortunately I was staying with my dad in Tarragona for a week before going to Portugal. So I arrived on Sunday morning looking like the daggiest backpacker ever in my comfy plane clothes but without my backpack. Just in time for lunch at my grandmother’s… My bag didn’t arrive until Saturday!!!!!! Until then I was wearing borrowed clothes from my sister and grandmother. I hardly left the apartment because I felt a bit weird and every day my dad was calling the office in Barcelona trying to get information, and I didn’t even find out until Thursday that my bag had actually been found and was definitely coming to me. Very stressful week, but Saturday night was definitely celebration night after basically everything I own for the next two years was returned to me. Just in time to go to Portugal on Tuesday!