Hutong clans: exploring backstreet Beijing

Hutong clans: exploring backstreet Beijing

We’ve just finished our breakfast.

We’re sitting greasy fingered and sated, on low red plastic stools crammed into the corner of a tiny back alley shop. Dim light shrinks the room further, not reaching the edges, and the walls are busy with Chinese characters. Layered thick with decades of posters and signs. Everybody else in the room is Chinese, and they’re all looking at us expectantly, faces alight with bemused mirth.

As is common for us in China, we have no idea what we’ve just eaten. There were pancakes involved, and vegetables of some sort. Possibly other things. But it was delicious, and we smile at the room. Everybody beams back, and they all have a good old laugh. I’m sure they’re laughing with us, not at us. Possibly.

This is backstreet Beijing, and two foreigners eating pancakes are the funniest thing that’s happened all week. The camera phones come out. Everybody has to see this.

China is not for the camera shy

Five minutes later we’re leaving, with a bag of mystery pancakes to go, and contracted pupils from the repeated camera flashes. And we’re still grinning — all this mirth is infectious.

Being constantly photographed in China is something that I was at first bewildered by, quickly found endearing, and then slowly but insistently began to find irritating.

Really it’s all of those things: odd, charming, annoying.

That breakfast time I was firmly charmed by it, but by the afternoon cracks had appeared. Literally and metaphorically. But it would be hours until that happened. In the meantime, bellies full, we were off to delve deeper into Beijing’s hutongs.

Continue reading at our new home…

The Maosoleum: paying Mao a visit in Beijing

The Maosoleum: paying Mao a visit in Beijing

Want to see a waxy faced dead communist?  This is your place.

We had to check out Mao after visiting Lenin in Moscow, and it was a markedly different experience.  While the Lenin mausoleum is fairly small and understated, and most of the visitors when we were there were tourists, Mao’s final resting place is a Big Deal.

Lenin’s mausoleum: kinda small.

Actually, Mao is the only embalmed and displayed Asian leader not to have been preserved by the Russians. Fun fact.

We arrived bright and early at Tiananmen square, and after passing through three separate body scanner and pat down security checks, we were finally allowed to join the queue for the mausoleum.

I’m amazed we didn’t need our passports.

They’re big on security in China. You need to have yourself and your luggage scanned every time you enter a train or metro station. So it’s like going through airport security every time you want to hop on the tube. We quickly learnt not to bring a bag. Continue reading “The Maosoleum: paying Mao a visit in Beijing”

Imperial Beijing: the Forbidden City, and other World Heritage sights featuring extensive application of red paint (plus selfie sticks, soldiers, and bare bummed toddlers)

Imperial Beijing: the Forbidden City, and other World Heritage sights featuring extensive application of red paint (plus selfie sticks, soldiers, and bare bummed toddlers)

Our first morning in China I woke in our cosy bedroom to the sound of a man hawking the contents of his throat onto the street three floors below, the wet smack of his bounty on the pavement audible over the screech and rumble of nearby traffic.

Today was Arthur’s 30th birthday, and Beijing was kicking it off in style.

We spent five days in Beijing in total, and saw only a fraction of the sites.  It’s a big city, with a long and complicated history, and there’s a huge array of ways to spend your time here.  Beijing has six Unesco World Heritage sites (one less than the whole of Egypt, the Lonely Planet trills) and loads of modern corners to explore too.  With no hope (or desire) of seeing it all, we decided to start off on our first day with The Big One.

The Forbidden City

It really is very big.  And to be honest, that’s basically what you’re there to see.

It’s called the forbidden city because from 1420 to 1912, during its life as a working palace, you needed the emperor’s permission to enter.  You couldn’t just wander in.

After picking up a tasty but messy second breakfast of giant vegetable dumplings at a hole in the wall stall, we set off from our hostel to walk to Tiananmen square.  At one end of the square a looming portrait of Mao marks the entrance to the forbidden city. Continue reading “Imperial Beijing: the Forbidden City, and other World Heritage sights featuring extensive application of red paint (plus selfie sticks, soldiers, and bare bummed toddlers)”

Hello (ni hau) to China: a lesson in expectation management

Hello (ni hau) to China: a lesson in expectation management

Arriving by boat from Korea, our first real impression of China was to walk out of the port in Qingdao and find ourselves on a dual carriageway.  Above our heads was another road on a flyover.  The only traffic on the vast expanse of tarmac was a single tiny motorbike powered truck, which despite the abundance of road space did its level best to run us down.

The minimal traffic turned out to be an anomaly, as Beijing’s streets would show us later that day, but the unashamedly homicidal driving was not.  Owning a car is a relatively recent opportunity in China, but Chinese drivers already show an impressive mastery of their lethal potential.

This is not typical Beijing traffic, there are usually many many cars trying their best to squash those who are in tiny tin can vehicles or riding bicycles with no helmet.

Across the road, we were in Qingdao proper, and here there were all sorts of wonderful things to see.  And all the more wonderful after a nice refreshing brush with certain death.

China wasn’t all hulking utilitarian modernity and trample-others-at-will hurry!

This China was something like the China of my imagination.  Bustling streets were full of people shopping, or sat eating on little plastic stools.  At every corner a truck piled high with produce was parked, fruit and vegetables spilling out onto dusty streets, and a brisk trade was done at the tailgate.  At one intersection a crowd clamoured for huge leafy cabbages, at another leeks and apples, at the next oranges.

The impression I got walking through old Qingdao was that this was the real China.  Ancient and bustling, winding streets, simply dressed people slurping noodles on low stools.

The next six weeks would dismantle this conceit entirely.  Not just in its particulars, but in the idea that there’s any such thing as the real China at all.  I still can’t make sense of what China is, and isn’t.  I’m not sure the Chinese know either. Continue reading “Hello (ni hau) to China: a lesson in expectation management”

For all the tea in China (how not to get a Chinese visa in Hanoi)

For all the tea in China (how not to get a Chinese visa in Hanoi)

We arrived at the Chinese embassy in Hanoi bright and early on Monday morning, freshly scrubbed and with our best tourist smiles firmly fixed on our tired faces.  With a six week love-hate affair with China only a recent memory, we were unexpectedly going back for more.  Our cargo ship was leaving from Hong Kong in three weeks, and to get to it without flying we’d need to cross China.  We were even hoping to see some sights along the way.  So we needed another visa.

Armed with online assurances that getting a Chinese visa in Hanoi was pretty straightforward, we were feeling optimistic.  Confident that we could jump though the hoops, if a little nervous that they might move them.

I don’t know what we were thinking.  China.  Straightforward.  Ha.

They didn’t so much move the hoops as set fire to them, replace them with different hoops, then hide them, refuse to let us anywhere near them for several days, convince us that we’d successfully jumped through them, then tell us that actually there weren’t any hoops right now, and even if there were we weren’t going to jump through them in time so we might as well just leave.

But lets not get ahead of ourselves. Continue reading “For all the tea in China (how not to get a Chinese visa in Hanoi)”

Tomorrow’s the day!

Tomorrow’s the day!

Exciting news! We are boarding our cargo ship first thing tomorrow morning, so we’re off to Australia! Aaaaaaah!

I’m writing sat out on the terrace at our hostel for tonight, the YHA Jockey Club Mount Davis, which has a spectacular view of the harbour, outlying islands, and the Hong Kong skyline. We’re having one of those moments that travel is all about. Everything seems well with the world, we have a spectacular view, each other, and impending adventure. And beer. Continue reading “Tomorrow’s the day!”

How to get from Seoul to Beijing without flying

How to get from Seoul to Beijing without flying

There are a few sensible options for getting from Seoul to Beijing without flying — several overnight ferries take you from Incheon, on the Seoul metro, to Chinese ports which connect to Beijing by high speed rail.  Seat 61 has information on a couple of routes, but there are tons of ferries you could conceivably use. Continue reading “How to get from Seoul to Beijing without flying”