Forbidden City, Beijing
18 days away
10 km / 6 miles since last post
14,367 km / 8,927 miles total
We took breakfast at 8:30am and met everyone in the lobby at 9am. Today's destination would be the Forbidden City, a thirty minute casual walk away.
On arrival the first thing you notice is the moat which goes all the way around the outside of the Forbidden City. It is a small charge of 40 Yuan (£4) each to get in. Ricky took us right through the middle of the Forbidden City to point out the main important buildings. Essentially the Forbidden City was where the Emperors of China would reside. Ricky told us that the public were not allowed inside the Forbidden City (hence the name), and the square inside has fifteen layers of bricks below to prevent people from tunnelling inside.
The buildings are amazing, the main building at the south entrance looks particularly bright and colourful as the paintwork had been updated recently for the Beijing Olympics. The original paintwork on the other buildings is still impressive, if a little faded now.
The Forbidden City itself is huge - a lot bigger than I had expected. It took us around an hour to walk from one end to the other, stopping along the way of course for Ricky to fill us in on some of the facts and points of interest. We were very fortunate to have another clear and sunny day which made for some great photo opportunities.
Once we arrived near the north entrance of the Forbidden City, Ricky left us for an hour to have a wander around by ourselves. We grabbed a coffee in the warm with the rest of our tour group first, then Stu and I took a walk through the many different alleys and rooms of the city - you could easily spend several hours here and still not see it all!
After an hour or so we met up with Ricky and the rest of our group, and took a walk to Tiananmen Square, just over the road from the south entrance of the Forbidden City.
To get onto Tiananmen Square you have to go through an underground passage, where you go through a security check and have to put your bags through an x-ray machine. Once put of the passageway on the other side you surface on Tiananmen Square. (Stu note: the square is more famous for the 'dangerous' things people held in their heads, than in their bags).
The first noticeable thing about the square is its size. Ricky advised us that this is the largest city square in the world. It is vast and of course full of people.
At one end of the square is the famous image of Chairman Mao looking out across the square. At this end of the square there are also many guards in certain positions around the main flag pole here.
We had about half an hour to wander around the square and take some pictures. Then Ricky advised us he was walking back to the hotel. We could either walk back with him, which would take about forty minutes from Tiananmen Square, or we could take the subway and go back via the silk markets. The rest of the group had already headed to the silk markets and we decided to do the same. Ricky told us we had to get line 1 in the subway - it was only four stops and cost just 2 yuan each (about 20p).
On going into the subway station you once again have to put your bags through an x-ray machine, then we could purchase our tickets and get on the train. It all seemed fairly straight forward as we knew the line we had to get on and which station to get off at.
The subway train was heaving with people all the way, but at least they don't have the heating on maximum like Japan!
Once we got out at our station, you walk straight into the markets. I think we were both expecting somewhere where you could have a casual walk past some market stalls. Instead, each of the stalls had people hassling you as you went past each one, some of them grabbing your arm, asking you to buy their bags, belts, purses etc. I'm sure that if you were really after buying some fake branded handbags and the like, you might find it ideal. But it wasn't suited to the casual window shopper. We didn't enjoy it and became a bit fed up with continually saying 'no thank you' and shrugging off peoples hands grabbing your arm. We made for the nearest exit to get some lunch - a welcome break from the hassle. But unfortunately, to get back to the subway again to go back to our hotel, we had to go back through it all again. More 'hello pretty lady, want some Gucci handbags', 'hi lady, you want price from my shop', 'hello, I know you last time, good price inside' nonsense, but we soon made it back to the subway. We didn't even make it as far as the silk stalls as we couldn't handle the constant harassment.
Back in the subway, Ricky told us it was three stops on line 1 to get back to our hotel. Once again the subway was totally packed. The Chinese have no concept of letting people pass or waiting their turn. Once those subway doors open it's every man for himself to barge into the subway, nobody will give way to you.
Whilst we knew which station to get out at, this station has three different exits and Ricky did not tell us which exit to use. We took a gamble and took exit A. This brought us out via a shopping mall, and once outside we didn't recognize the place at all.
The logical thing to do was to walk around the outside of the station, and hopefully we would come to the right exit this way and hopefully something a little more familiar. I guess we were finally realising the downside to having a tour guide - once they disappear you are all alone, in a big foreign city and unable to communicate properly. You realise how lazy you have been relying on someone else to point you in the right direction. In Japan, because we were on our own we made sure we were fully equipped when we left the hotel - we had a map, checked which way we were headed, kept a note of certain points along the way so they would be familiar. When someone else is taking you round and pointing the way to go, you don't really worry about doing this, and you beam a bit lazy and leave it all up to them. Not a problem - until you are on your own.
After walking for a couple of minutes we realised we did slightly recognize one main road. We walked past a Tourist Information centre, so double checked on a map they had and finally we were headed in the right direction. Only a few minutes of panic there!
We passed through a small hutong (sidestreet) along the way where they had shops and stalls serving more unusual snacks. The most notable were the scorpions, seahorses and starfish on sticks. The scorpions are still alive! I'm happy to try different foods in foreign countries, but I felt no compulsion to give these a go. They also had some other fat bugs on sticks which looked equally unappetising. It was worth walking down here just to see the things that you've heard about and finding that they do actually exist.
We were back at the hotel around 3:30pm. This gave us a few hours to relax, for Stu to sort out his pictures, and for us to get the blog written and uploaded for the last few days.
At 6:30pm we all met in the hotel lobby and walked a few minutes to our restaurant which Ricky had booked for us this evening - a Peking Duck restaurant.
When we got to restaurant we were allocated our own room. We were allowed to take some pictures of the roasted duck, before it was brought into our room neatly sliced on plates with the usual cucumber, spring onion, pancakes and sauce. It was also served with optional garlic paste, sugar and pickles. The waitress first gave a demonstration of how to make the pancakes - more or less how we are used to back home but she rolled it up with chopsticks. I can honestly say that it was a lot tastier than back home. In the UK the duck is usually fried and tastes very dry, but here it was succulent and tasty. It also had the skin separate but this was also tasty and crispy.
Ricky had also ordered some other dishes, and on top of that we also had the soup which they made from the duck bones, and then the deep fried duck bones too - all of which was very tasty, but there was so much food! This time the meal came to about £8 each. More expensive than last night, but still very cheap for all the food we had, especially the duck.
After the meal we returned to the hotel. Stu attempted to try and access Facebook by bypassing the Great Firewall of China, and succeeding, although it was very slow. Then the rest of the group were heading to Nick's room to play some cards and have a couple of beers, which we went along with too.
Tonight is our last night at this hotel in Beijing. Tomorrow we have a free day to explore on our own, but in the evening we will be catching the overnight train to Shanghai. Ricky told is that booking tickets for these trains is not easy and you cannot always get sleepers together. There are six bunk beds to a sleeper car on the train, and there are eight people in our group (Ricky the tour guide makes nine). However, each pair of us is in a separate sleeper carriage, and we all have the bottom bunks in those carriages. Ricky did tell us though that the bottom bunks are the best to have, so hopefully this will be ok. The train takes thirteen hours to get to Shanghai and leaves Beijing at 10:15pm. I wonder how much sleep we'll actually get...